By
March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

Charisma Carpenter’s parents couldn’t agree on what to name her. Mom hated Dad’s choice—Prissy. Then inspiration arrived on a gift bottle of “tacky Avon perfume,” says Carpenter. “My mother wasn’t into the smell, but she loved the name.” The odd moniker provoked a few schoolyard taunts. “Charisma? What is that? A disease?” one playmate asked. Later came the question of whether it would fit her character. As Carpenter puts it, “It was brave of my parents because what if I had no personality?”

Not to worry. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s charismatic—if catty—Cordelia Chase, one of several high schoolers who help Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) ehminate pesky bloodsuckers, Carpenter, 28, more than lives up to her billing. Her role has proved so popular with her predominantly teenage viewers that The WB will launch Angel, a spinoff series starring Carpenter and Buffy costar David Boreanaz, next fall. “My responsibilities are going to [increase] tenfold,” she says. Boreanaz, for one, believes she will easily slip into leading-lady pumps. “Charisma’s a very confident woman,” he says. “She exudes that in her acting.”

Indeed, Carpenter can’t resist trying out roles even when the cameras aren’t rolling. Last year, she recalls, “I got really snotty and said [to a cinematographer], ‘What do you take me for! I’m a professional. I can handle it!’ Everybody freaked out. The stage went quiet. Then I went, ‘Gotcha!’ ” Says Buffy creator Joss Whedon: “Charisma has a natural humor that makes us laugh all the time.”

There are episodes in her life, though, that are not so amusing. In 1991 a midnight dip at a San Diego beach turned into a nightmare for Carpenter and two male friends when a gunman confronted the group. In a struggle for the pistol, both friends were shot (they later recovered), and the attacker fled. Carpenter escaped shaken but unscathed. San Diego police officer Henry Hubbard Jr. ultimately pleaded no contest to the attack as well as guilty or no contest to 36 other felony charges and is now serving a 56-year sentence in prison. (Carpenter refuses to discuss the incident.)

Her childhood had its share of hard knocks as well. The youngest of three children born to Don, 55, a salesman, and Chris, 59, a bird-sanctuary worker, Charisma grew up in Las Vegas and got her first taste of show business at age 9 by competing in children’s beauty pageants. But such diversions were soon eclipsed by her parents’ 1983 divorce. When the couple reconciled three months later, the family moved to Rosarito, Mexico, 30 miles south of San Diego, where her father had found a new job. “It was devastating,” says Carpenter of leaving her Las Vegas friends behind. It hardly helped that her parents continued to fight. “I was a miserable witness to all of that,” she says of their arguments. The couple divorced again in 1996.

After graduating from a Chula Vista, Calif., high school in 1988, Carpenter worked in property management in San Diego. In 1991 she won a spot as a San Diego Chargers cheerleader. “It wasn’t girls being tossed in the air,” she says of her pom-pom experience. “It was more acrobatic. I was just having fun.”

But she quit the Chargers after one season and, following a boyfriend, moved to L.A. in 1992. She decided to pursue acting and, after heeding a director’s advice to “find the bitch within,” landed on NBC’s Malibu Shores in 1996. Carpenter auditioned for and won her Buffy role in the spring of ’97. Since then, she has settled into a steady relationship with actor Damian Hardy, 29. “I’m in love,” beams Carpenter, who lives alone in a two-bedroom L.A. apartment. “But we’re just taking it one day at a time.”

Not so one of her more ardent fans. “I got a letter asking me for photographs in various poses with a list of 35 types of cameras I could use to take pictures of myself and send to him. He wrote, ‘By the way, if you come out in Playboy, would you please let me know?’ ” says Carpenter, laughing. “Now, that was really far out!”

Erik Meers

Paula Yoo in Los Angeles

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