August 20, 2001 12:00 PM

As one of the youngest members of the Canadian junior national synchronized-swimming squad back in 1993, Estella Warren displayed a competitive streak a mile wide. “She’d compete over how fast we put on our bathing caps, who would hit the water first,” recalls teammate Claire Carver-Dias. “She loved doing solos. She’d say, ‘Everyone’s eyes are on me.’ ”

Eight years later, eyes are again on Warren, now 22. As the sultriest Homo sapiens in Planet of the Apes, the model turned actress flaunts the lush lips and tangled tresses that made her the face of Chanel No. 5 perfume and scored her a spread in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s swim-suit issue. She also displays a hitherto unknown talent for slammin’ simians. “To me, all that action was the fun part,” says Warren, who did many of her own stunts. “You have this big ape chasing you and you’re learning how to fall and you get a few scrapes. It’s so empowering to play an action hero.”

Warren brought years of athletic training to the job. Growing up near Toronto, she won national solo synchronized-swimming championships in Canada three times before quitting to pursue a modeling career. Acting seemed the logical next step. Although her first movie, last spring’s Driven, tanked, Apes is paying career dividends with King Kong-size box office takings of $124 million in two weeks. “Driven was such a perfect title for her debut because that’s Estella,” says her first swimming coach, Jennifer Black Ruth, 37. “No one who knows her is surprised about her success.”

Nor are they shocked that she seems to have kept a level head. “She bums around in regular clothing, not supermodel stuff,” says her sister Julia Warren, 25. “She loves Pilates, yoga and red wine with a passion. She loves to garden and decorate.” On the job too, Warren “is the complete antithesis of most stars, who are often self-absorbed,” says Jonathan Komack Martin, who produced her upcoming teen thriller Tangled, due in 2002. Last spring Martin was driving with her near L.A. when another driver slammed into a pedestrian and sped away. “Although it was pouring rain,” he says, “she insisted on helping the victim and going with him to his job when he refused to be taken to the hospital.”

The youngest of three daughters of Don Warren, a former used-car dealer in Peterborough, Ont., and his wife, Esther, a retired elementary school principal, Warren took up competitive swimming at age 7, paddling in the wake of Julia, now a swimming coach. “I had to do everything my older sister did,” says Estella. (Oldest sister Elaine, 33, is a mother of two in Pennsylvania.) So when Julia left at 14 to train at a school for top athletes in Toronto, 12-year-old Estella insisted on going too. Startlingly, the two sisters lived on their own in an apartment. “I’m sure a lot of people thought it was strange, but we were parented over the phone several times a day,” Julia explains.

Two years later Estella nabbed a spot on the junior national team. “She had poise at an age when most kids just don’t,” recalls team coach Sheilagh Croxon, 38. In 1994 Julia organized a school fashion show and invited modeling agents to give pointers. “I’ll never forget when Estella walked in,” she says. “She’d just left the pool. Her hair was dripping wet and she had goggle marks on her face. But one of the agents took one look and went nuts over her.” A few months later fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth shot the 16-year-old for the cover of Italian Vogue. Soon Warren had to choose between modeling gigs and pre-training camp for the 1996 Olympics. She picked modeling. “It was rather lucrative and pretty exciting,” she says.

At 17, Warren bought a house near Toronto and moved in with her boyfriend, a 23-year-old cell-phone salesman. But her career kept them apart, and they split three years later. After taping a Chanel TV ad in 1998 with The Fifth Element director Luc Besson, she decided to try Hollywood. Currently single, Warren has blamed her recent split from Lions Gate Films exec Michael Burns, 42, on the age gap between them.

When it comes to onscreen partners, producer Martin says he pities anyone cast opposite his young friend: “Who would pay attention to anyone but her?”

Samantha Miller

Mike Fleeman and N.F. Mendoza in Los Angeles, Constance Droganes in Toronto and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City

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