January 19, 2004 12:00 PM

In the upcoming season of American Idol don’t be surprised if host Ryan Seacrest seems a bit more sympathetic to the show’s contestants: Having just met his girlfriend Shana Wall’s parents for the first time, he knows jitters. “You’d think you’d have more confidence,” says Seacrest, who’s also now the star of his own live daytime talk show. “But you wonder what they’re thinking and you think about everything you say. I called Shana the next day to find out what my report card was.”

If Seacrest feared a snide Simon Cowell-type putdown, he needn’t have worried. The ‘rents “loved him,” says Wall, 30, an actress and sometime singer. She and Seacrest, 29, have been seriously involved for the past six months—dispelling, perhaps, the rumors, fueled by Cowells playful : on-air jabs, that the meticulously groomed and attired ;: Seacrest is gay. Seacrest, who has laughingly dismissed such talk, gladly embraces the label “metrosexual” to describe his penchant for manicures and eyebrow waxing. Which is fine with Wall. “What girl doesn’t want a guy who loves to go shopping and get massages?” she says. Besides, “he’s charming. He’s funny, he’s easy to be around. We’re constantly laughing.”

And dancing the night away at Ryan’s three-story, two-bedroom, Tuscan-villa-style, L.A. bachelor pad, which the couple jokingly call “Club Seacrest.” “I bartend, he deejays,” says Wall.

“One of my favorite things,” explains Seacrest, “is to crank music and play the cheesiest songs. There’s that part of me that just loves to cut up and hang.”

These days, however, Seacrest’s dance card is pretty full. “His schedule is insane,” complains Wall. That’s because, in addition to starting his third season on Idol Jan. 20, he’s taking over the helm of Casey Kasem’s radio-countdown institution, American Top 40, Jan. 10. Plus he launches his own live daily FOX series On Air with Ryan Seacrest Jan. 12. The show combines entertainment news, interviews with stars such as Sting and Bernie Mac and live concerts. Two days a week he shuttles to the Idol set, a few miles away. How does he do it all? “You don’t get sick, you don’t take a lunch. You just go,” says Seacrest.

He has been on the go since growing up in Atlanta, where “I used to be a fat kid,” he says, with braces and glasses. The older of two children of Gary, 57, an attorney, and Connie, 56, a home-maker, Ryan was 16 when he won an internship at an Atlanta radio station. While attending the University of Georgia, he hosted Radical Outdoor Challenge, an ESPN kids’ show. Two years later Seacrest, a journalism major, dropped out of school and headed for Los Angeles, where he worked as a radio deejay and TV entertainment reporter before landing the Idol gig.

Nine months ago Seacrest pitched FOX the idea of letting him host a daytime infotainment show. But the network already had its eye on him. “I walked through the airport with Ryan a few months ago,” says Elaine Bauer-Brooks, a senior programming V.P., “and there were 12-year-old girls and 70-year-old grandparents who wanted his autograph. It’s his boyish charm.” Actually, “he has the appeal of a rescued dog,” jokes Simon Cowell, a Seacrest pal. “If he had a tail, he’d wag it.”

For all his puppyish charm, Seacrest says love has eluded him since college. “I was really afraid to let someone in.” Though he avoids the L word in describing his relationship with Wall, whom he met in 2002, “we’re both passionate about food, wine and travel,” he says.

Grooming, too, is still a passion—he proudly shows off his Crème de la Mer moisturizer—but his work schedule these days is making for a more low-maintenance look. The fresh-faced guy who was once clean-shaven to a fault can now be seen wearing a gray T-shirt and a five o’clock shadow. The blond highlights? Gone. “The hair’s gonna be darker this year,” he says. “I’m going very denim this year.” Not that it would matter to his buddy Simon. “Whereas I’d score myself a 9,I would score him a 6.5,” Cowell deadpans. And yet “the best compliment I could say about Ryan is he does not take himself seriously.” Seacrest can’t help but agree. “I’m working hard,” he says, “but I’m not solving the world’s problems.”

Michael A. Lipton. Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles

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