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Hey There, Jorja Girl

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Ask Jorja Fox about the small gap between her Front teeth, and she presses her lips together in mock sensitivity. Starting at 12, “I wore braces for three years,” says Fox, part of the crack forensics team on CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. “Then my wisdom teeth were supposed to come in and push them together. That didn’t work. By the time I was 20, I said forget it.” Good thing. “That’s her Alfred E. Neuman smile,” says costar George Eads, “and I’ve never seen anyone wear it better.”

She doesn’t get to wear it much as driven, discontented criminalist Sara Sidle on the top-rated show. Admits Fox: “Sara does not have terrific social skills.” Unlike the actress herself, who enjoys clubbing and jams on electric guitar in a loft she and four pals lease as a studio. “I prefer to stay on the lighter side of things,” Fox, 34, says. “She’s a hippie,” says costar Eric Szmanda. The vegetarian pleaded for a fake prop—”which they probably would have done anyway,” she admits—when a CSI script called for a decomposing pig. And on a trip to Yosemite, says her friend, commercial art director Andrea Campos, “she actually hugged a tree.”

Fox has embraced more roles than trees. Before CSI‘s debut in 2000, she was familiar to viewers from three seasons as intense Dr. Maggie Doyle on ER, followed by a year as Secret Service agent Gina Toscano on The West Wing. The success of CSI surprised her. “I didn’t think a show about death would do well.” Of course, some viewers may tune in for her unfussed, husky sexiness. “She’s got this Lauren Bacall thing going on,” says costar Gary Dourdan, “with that raspy voice.”

That comment would have made her blush as a tomboy growing up in Melbourne, Fla., with her dad, Mark, 79, a now-retired salesman, mom Marilyn, who died in ’96, and older brother Jeff, 46, now a financial sales manager in Atlanta. Living by the beach, “I wore flip-flops to school until I was 13,” says Jorja (pronounced Georgia—her mother liked the unusual spelling). She started acting in local theater at 5, then lucked into a modeling career at 15 when she won a contest at a mall while dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. “I was a terrible model, awkward and gawky,” she says. But work in New York and Europe paid for acting studies, and in 1993 Fox got her big break in ABC’s short-lived Missing Persons, shot in frigid Chicago. “I wore so much winter clothing, my neighbors thought I was a construction worker.”

By 1994 she was enjoying the warmth of L.A. But in 1996, the year she started on ER, she considered going home to Florida after her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer (she died that year at 69). “But my mom wanted me [to stay] and have that job. She was a fan of ER and knew much more about it than I did. When I got the part, I called to ask her, ‘Who’s Dr. Greene?’ This was what made her happy.”

She would have been thrilled by her daughter’s latest success. Thanks to CSI, Fox owns a three-bedroom Hollywood Hills home, where she lives with her boxer Ali and is, for now, single. She may have avoided the dating game by taking her brother to the Emmys last year, but there was no getting around the red carpet. “I’m always the one with hair falling out, or I trip in my shoes,” she says. “That’ll be with me my whole life.”

Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles