July 09, 2007 12:00 PM

Three weeks before filming began on her new romantic comedy License to Wed, Mandy Moore got the talk every actress dreads. “Someone pulled me aside and said, ‘They want you to lose 10 lbs.,'” Moore recalls. “I was mortified—my feelings were hurt.” But before long, Moore bounced back in the same way she’s handled bouts with the blues and splits from famous boyfriends: She found a smart way to cope with an awkward situation. Instead of trying a fad diet, she focused “on being healthy,” working out with a trainer and eating five small meals a day. Did she lose the weight? “I don’t know—I never weigh myself,” Moore says with a laugh between sips of iced tea at an L.A. cafe. “To be honest, I don’t think I looked all that different. But if everyone else was happy, that’s fine.”

At 23, Moore is striking a balance between pleasing others and being happy with who she is—even if that includes a fluctuating dress size. “It’s okay to be shy to accept a compliment,” says the self-deprecating former teen star, who has jokingly offered refunds to those who bought her early bubblegum records. “But what’s so wrong with standing up straight and saying, ‘Yeah, I am great’?”

It’s taken her a few years to achieve that confidence. Back in the ’90s, Moore was part of a crop of pop princesses that included Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera. Unlike her peers, she won acclaim as an actress in films such as A Walk to Remember (2002) and Saved (2004), as well as on HBO’s Entourage—all while dodging fame’s pitfalls. “She’s managed to grow up gracefully in public,” says Ken Kwapis, her director on License to Wed (out July 3). Adds pal DJ AM (a.k.a. Adam Goldstein), whom Moore briefly dated: “Mandy is pretty much the opposite of ‘diva.’ She’s the most laid-back person. So un-Hollywood.”

While partying hard has landed some young stars in rehab—and worse—Moore’s idea of a wild night involves taking in a musical that keeps her up past her 10:30 p.m. bedtime. “I can push myself to stay up,” she says, “but I always end up feeling like crap.” Nor is she one for the club scene. “If I want to go out, there are places where you know people aren’t waiting outside to take your picture,” she says. “Some people like that attention. It’s not my cup of tea.”

It never has been. “She’s an incredibly well-grounded kid—and was when I met her at 14 1/2,” says her longtime manager Jon Leshay. Raised in Orlando, Fla., by Stacy, an ex-newspaper reporter, and Don, an airline pilot, the self-professed “theater nerd” was 14 when a FedEx worker who knew a rep at Epic Records heard her sing and sent in her unfinished demo. Soon she was touring with the Backstreet Boys and her hit “Candy” was racing up the charts. She credits a “really solid support system” that includes brothers Scott, 27, and Kyle, 21 (with whom she shares an L.A. home), with keeping her centered. “There are so many decisions I could’ve made that would have ended me up God knows where,” she says.

One place Moore did wind up was the gossip columns. From 2000 to 2002, she dated That ’70s Show star Wilmer Valderrama, who later claimed to radio host Howard Stern that she had lost her virginity to him. “I was really upset for a while,” she says. “But I’ve known Wilmer since I was 16, and you have to give someone the benefit of the doubt.” Along with Valderrama and Goldstein, whom she calls “one of the most inspiring, wonderful people,” Moore also dated tennis ace Andy Roddick and actor Zach Braff. Although she says she’s on good terms with all her exes, the end of her nearly two-year relationship with the Scrubs star last summer left her bruised. “I was really blue,” she says of that period. Struggling with feelings of sadness, Moore found solace in the studio, making her new album Wild Hope, which contains songs about breaking up. Are the lyrics on the record (see box) about Braff? (For his part, the actor recently refuted tabloid rumors that he is a “cad” on his blog, writing, “Don’t believe the hype.”) “I am still friendly with Zach,” says Moore, who now dates musician Greg Laswell, 33. “Out of respect, there’s nothing bad for me to say about him. But the songs sort of speak for themselves.”

In order to make her seventh record on her own terms, Moore left Sire, the label that helped make her a Gen Y idol. “I told them, ‘Guys, I’m not going to make that kind of pop record for you.'” Instead, she hopes fans see Wild Hope as her grown-up debut: “I’m not expecting to sell a million records.”

Nor is the 5’10” Moore striving to fit into the stick-thin stereotype of a starlet. “This is who I am,” she says of her curvy frame. “I’m accepting of it—everybody else should follow suit.” That healthy self-image impresses director Kwapis. “We shouldn’t even be discussing how Mandy looks. We need to talk about how f—— up the standard of beauty is for Mandy,” says Kwapis. “I’ve never worked on a film where some studio executive didn’t ask an actress to lose weight.”

Moore understands that as an actress she’s under pressure to fit into a mold—and that it isn’t always easy. After wrapping License this year, she fractured her ankle during a photo shoot in March. “I wasn’t able to move around and I felt blech about myself,” she says. After her foot healed, Moore headed back to the gym and sticks to a diet of fish, veggies—and yes, the odd cookie. “I want to look like a woman,” says Moore, “as opposed to when I was 15 and had no boobs, no hips and was just a straight line.”

She’s also not going back to the frantic pace of her teen-pop days. Now that License is in theaters and Wild Hope is in stores—along with her clothing line, Mblem., which recently debuted its fall collection—Moore would like to take time out for cooking, guitar and French lessons, and a stint in Paris. “I want to live there for six months and just be anonymous,” she says. “I know that I’ll always have days of feeling a little blue. But I’m better equipped to handle them now than I ever have been. I’ve learned to cut myself more slack.”

That’s welcome news to pals like Goldstein. “She’s just a real, normal, regular girl,” he says. “She sets an incredibly good example of being comfortable in your own skin.”

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