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When she moved to Los Angeles in 2003, Kristen Bell used to stare at the celebrities she saw in the mall. On a recent weekday morning, the customers in a Starbucks a few blocks from her home scrutinized her with the same sort of puzzled look, trying to figure out where they might have seen that delicate, collectors' doll face with the jeans-and-T-shirt attitude.

"I'm still under the radar," said Bell, 24, known mostly as the star of the sleeper hit "Veronica Mars," UPN's spunky father-daughter detective show. " 'Are you a friend of my sister or are you an actress?' That's what I get."

She understands why fans feel they know her. Her character, a witty, jaded and vulnerable 17-year-old, has been through the 21st century high school social wringer, and she's done it on a show that offers more wit and style than the usual run of teen TV drama. In its first season, "Veronica Mars" has found an original path: somewhere between the glammed-up melodrama of "The O.C." and "Degrassi: The Next Generation," the earnest Canadian show that is wildly popular with teens but holds little appeal for grown-ups.

Like the best young adult literature, "Veronica Mars" explores the dark side of growing up and is willing to have a surprisingly jaded worldview -- and not simply to pander to adult interests. It's the world through the eyes of a brainy Nancy Drew who's been around the block. Teen sexuality, for example, is not exploited for its titillation value but rather woven into the show as a fact of high school life -- albeit an explosive one.

"Our show doesn't tell the high school tale of the most popular girl," Bell said. "The bottom line is, girls do get date-raped, you do get dumped by your boyfriend, your mom does leave you, and you are raised in a single-parent home, and you do experience loss at a young age," she added, referring to the murder of Veronica's best friend. Even a teacher falsely accused of sexual harassment can still be guilty of getting another student pregnant. "These things do happen," Bell said.

"The thing about Veronica Mars, as opposed to 'Buffy' or 'Alias,' " said the show's creator, Rob Thomas, "is that Veronica . . . doesn't fight or kill. She has to outwit people."

For the show to succeed on a small network like UPN, which is able to do only minimal publicity, its star has had to convey an out-of-the-ordinary intensity while being convincing as a normal girl. With an extensive background in theater, the Detroit-born Bell seems a throwback to an era when starlets had more going for them than willowy glamour. "She has pretty fantastic comedic timing," Thomas said. "And you buy that she's clever."

One reason she has gone further faster than most pretty blondes knocking at Hollywood's door is that she can grab roles with more than a single note. She was a murdered con artist in HBO's "Deadwood," the kidnapped daughter of the president in the David Mamet film "Spartan," a drug addict's daughter in Lifetime's "Gracie's Choice" and -- as a 5-foot-1 classically trained soprano -- a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles Opera's "A Little Night Music." In April, Bell will be seen again on Showtime's version of the musical cult favorite "Reefer Madness," reprising the role of Mary Lane, a "vomitously perky" teen turned leather-clad vixen, which she played off Broadway in 2001.

Bell, the only child of a nurse and a television news director who divorced when she was 1, said her own drive pushed her through a childhood of acting and singing lessons and community theater. When she was 16, she and her mother came to Los Angeles to meet with agents and go on auditions. "But when it came to the point where they were saying, 'You can be on a series, you can get on "Step by Step" or "Home Improvement" ' or whatever, I talked it over with my mom and said, 'I don't want to miss my high school career,' " she said. "It was one of the best decisions I ever made."

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