Okay, where’s the tissue?” says a joking Wilmer Valderrama as he prepares for a Barbara Walters moment: his memory of being a Spanish-speaking teenager, fresh in from the city of Acarigua-Araure, Venezuela, adjusting to public school in Southern California. “Just picture a kid,” says Valderrama, “going to the cafeteria, not even knowing how to ask for an orange juice. I would find the loneliest table. I sat there petrified of people who had blue eyes and blond hair.”
Less than seven years later Valderrama, now 21, has done much more than just master English. He’s a TV star who can claim all-American pop singer Mandy Moore, 17, as his girlfriend. The irony is that he has become a celebrity after being cast as…an immigrant high schooler. On That ’70s Show, FOX’s sitcom about five Wisconsin kids in the era of bell-bottoms and Farrah Fawcett hair, Valderrama plays the one oddity. Fez, a geeky but shrewd kid from an unnamed island, has an accent that might be Middle Eastern, but he can speak Dutch and sings in Spanish. “You don’t know a lot about him,” says Valderrama. “I don’t know a lot about him.”
Valderrama, currently making his big-screen debut as a sexually chaste baseball rookie in the Freddie Prinze Jr. comedy Summer Catch, has his own air of mystery, especially when tooling around in his new Mercedes CLK 430. “Girls freak out,” says costar Laura Prepon, who plays tomboy Donna Pinciotti. “He’s the suave, hot guy they’re in love with.” On a 1999 promotional trip to Brazil and Argentina, where the sitcom airs, he was mobbed by fans, says ’70s Show creator Mark Brazill. “He told me, ‘Now I know what the Beatles felt.’ ”
When Wilmermania gets too intense, Valderrama turns to his family. He still lives at home—with his father, Balvino, 47, who now runs his Venezuelan farm-equipment rental business from the States; homemaker mother, Sobeida, 46; and siblings Marilyn, 20, Stephanie, 13, and Christian, 1—in a four-bedroom house he bought for them outside Los Angeles in 1999. “If it weren’t for them,” Valderrama says, “I would never be where I am today.”
He is, in fact, an American citizen, having been born in Miami in 1980: His parents met on vacation there in 1977 and didn’t return to Venezuela until Wilmer was 3. But in 1994 his father, who had a brother in L.A., decided his children would have better opportunities up North. “The job situation was bad,” says Valderrama, who in those years took dance and acting lessons and watched a few dubbed American TV shows, including The Simpsons. None of that prepared him for L.A.’s William Howard Taft High. With slicked hair and tight pants, he says, “I gave the students material for days. They did stand-up routines.”
That changed swiftly when he himself got up onstage during his sophomore year, having decided that it was the best way to crash-learn English. Not long after his drama teacher told him he had talent, Valderrama found himself an agent. A few minor TV gigs led in 1998 to That ’70s Show.
Working on a sitcom didn’t keep him from finishing high school the next year. “But instead of going to Disneyland with his class,” says ’70s creator Brazill, “he celebrated at home with his family.”
In the last year Valderrama’s social circle has grown to include Mandy Moore, whom he met in the summer of 2000 at a photo shoot. She still won’t sing for him—”She gets embarrassed,” he says—but the relationship has progressed far enough that for Valentine’s Day she flew him to meet her parents in Orlando. “We talk three, four times a day,” he says. “Our phone bills are crazy.” Their schedules often conflict, however, which may be why he took a recent trip to Hawaii not with Moore but with costar Topher Grace.
As for Venezuela, he popped down last summer. But only for vacation. “Why,” Valderrama asks, “would you want to be anywhere else but here?”
Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles