By People Staff
Updated May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

“Amazing,” said Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley when he spotted a tuxedoed Leonardo DiCaprio at the foot of that doomed ship’s grand staircase. “You could almost pass for a gentleman.” But who needs to? Even in his offscreen uniform of baggy jeans and T-shirts, this 23-year-old Titanic stunner is a first-class dreamboat. “Leo is absolutely awesome,” costar Kate Winslet says. Claire Danes, who starred with DiCaprio in 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, prefers an understatement: Leo, she told PEOPLE last year, is “very aesthetically pleasing.”

And yet it’s more than his soulful face that has sparked pubescent riots around the world, inspired four Leo-related bestsellers and more than 500 Web sites and made DiCaprio the most coveted man on the planet. Beneath the poet’s brow, cherub lips and ocean-blue eyes beats the heart of a puckish party boy, known for a raucous sense of humor, dead-on impersonations of his costars and an unsinkable joie de vivre. “You can name at least 10 actors who are just as cute,” says Amanda Mackey Johnson, casting director for DiCaprio’s recent swashbuckler, The Man in the Iron Mask. “But they don’t have the same animating spirit that comes through with Leo.”

The star himself squirms under such admiration and, in fact, goes out of his way to avoid compliments. When not working, the six-footer has been known to pull his hair back with a baseball cap or tiny wire head-band (“The most masculine one I could find,” he told Vanity Fair). And while most actors put in hours at the gym, DiCaprio prefers to go club-hopping with friends, where he dances to hip-hop, smokes Cohiba cigars and tosses back Absolut and cranberry juice cocktails into the wee hours. (“Leo comes to the clubs like you and I go to McDonald’s,” says Andre, the maitre d’ at Manhattan’s trendy hot spot Life.) Neither is he afraid to put those delicate features at risk, spending his free time in such pursuits as racing all-terrain vehicles, skydiving and bungee jumping. Says Titanic director James Cameron: “Leo doesn’t try to impress anybody. Leo knows who he is.”

Despite an appeal that transcends generations (“He has this vulnerable look that makes older women want to mother him,” says Titanic choreographer Lynne Hockney), the actor claims he hasn’t had a steady girlfriend since ending a 15-month romance with L.A. model Kristin Zang last year. (He denies reported romances with actress Natasha Henstridge and models Amber Valletta and Naomi Campbell.) And although he has already finished a small role as a rock star in Woody Allen’s forthcoming film, Celebrity, DiCaprio plans to take some time off before beginning another movie. He hopes to use the break to settle into both his new Los Angeles home (in November he moved out of the Los Feliz Calif., house he shared with his divorced mother, Irmelin) and his new superstar status. “You want to be remembered for your work rather than being sort of the hunk of the month,” he told Good Morning America‘s Joel Siegel in December. “There’s always a new pretty face.” Not like this one.