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Spy Candy

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A Miss USA crown gave Ali Landry her first taste of fame—but it was a corn chip that launched her into stardom. In a 1998 Doritos ad campaign she performed splits and backflips around a laundromat, catching flying chips in her mouth and fueling the snack-food fantasies of teenage boys across the country. “I still have people coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, it’s the Doritos Girl,'” she says, “but now they say my name and I’m like, ‘Yes! I’ve arrived!'”

NBC’s summer hit Spy TV has helped get her there. As host of the Candid Camera clone, Landry, 29, has steered the family show into a Top 20 hit, introducing secretly taped pranks on unsuspecting victims. “She’s very wholesome and likable,” says Spy TV‘s executive producer Jeff Boggs—”and really, really hot.”

For Landry, the beauty is in the pranks, like the one where a temp receptionist tried to hide Fabio under her desk after he’d been caught in an apparent tryst with her boss. “I grew up around practical jokes,” says Landry, who hails from rural Breaux Bridge, La., where her extended family of 42 cousins—all of whom lived within a 10-mile radius—tricked each other with hidden snakes, Vaseline-slathered door handles and bathtubs filled with live fish. “So it’s nice to do a show I can totally relate to.”

Despite the fun, she was also focused. “It’s hard, coming from a small town, to see past the perimeters of that,” says Landry. “I didn’t know what my goal was, but I knew I had to get out and do something exciting.” The oldest child of Renella, 50, a hairdresser, and Gene, 56, a retired oil production operator (sister Gena, 24, a TV script coordinator, shares Landry’s L.A. town-house; brother Ty, 22, is a cable technician in Louisiana), Ali made her first stop on her tour of beauty at age 4, when she entered the Crawfish Festival’s Little Pincher contest, which led to Miss Teen Louisiana, then Miss Louisiana and, finally, Miss USA in 1996. Landry dropped out of the University of Southern Louisiana and, when her reign was over, headed to L.A., where she picked up work on the soaps Sunset Beach and The Bold and the Beautiful before her childhood gymnastics training won her the Doritos ad. “At the audition, I thought, I can do some pretty cool stunts and flips in a small space, so I’m just going to do that,'” she recalls. “I totally think that’s why I got that job.”

Romance came easily too. Though Landry says she can count on her fingers the men she has ever kissed (“Kissing for me is a very big deal”), she was never short of male admirers. “She’s probably been through them all,” says Gena. “She’s dated the bad boy, the rock star, the nice boy next door.”

These days, though, there is only actor Mario Lopez, her boyfriend of three years. The couple met when Lopez emceed the 1998 Miss Teen USA pageant and Landry was a commentator. He was instantly smitten. “She was very much a lady,” says Lopez, 28, who co-hosts the TV talk show The Other Half, “very classy and very sweet to everybody.” Landry wasn’t so sure. “I thought he was a playboy,” she says. “But he was very persistent.”

Busy work schedules mean the pair see each other only on weekends, usually to feast on Landry’s Cajun cuisine. “I cook,” she says, “we make a bed on the floor and stay up watching movies with our popcorn and M&Ms.” She also keeps in close contact with her family (“A perfect day for me is just being with my parents, cooking and visiting with my cousins”) and would like kids of her own “in the near future.” As for Mr. Right, “I’ve learned it’s not like it is in the movies,” she says. “You want Prince Charming to sweep you off your feet, but you have to work to get the relationship you want.”

Not that she’s afraid of hard work. She has shot two films this year—including Who’s Your Daddy?, due out in the fall—and plans to expand her role on Spy TV next season by taking part in some of the pranks. And then there’s all that looking over her shoulder. As Spy‘s host she knows she’s a prime target for an onscreen gag of her own-and she’s not taking any chances. “I am a little paranoid,” she admits. “I’ll be in the restroom, looking in the vents for cameras.”

Susan Horsburgh

Valerie O’Barr in Los Angeles