January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

With his sculpted pecs, six-pack abs and come-hither croon, R&B pinup boy Usher is stirring up big trouble. Squealing girls regularly chase him through malls and stake out the closets and bathrooms of his hotel suites. A few have even tattooed his name on various body parts. “That’s one thing that makes you stop, like, ‘Whoa! You did what?’ ” says Usher. “It freaks me out. I’m like, ‘What’d you do that for?’ ”

Being a towering teen idol will do that. Usher’s second album, 1997’s My Way, which sold 5 million copies, earned him Billboard magazine’s Artist of the Year award last month. Now, following a national tour that ended last October, Usher, 20, is moving into movies, as an alien-possessed high school jock in the new thriller The Faculty, his debut film. “He has a natural style,” says director Robert Rodriguez. “He was already way above and beyond a lot of people I have worked with who were coming in for the first time. I was impressed.”

And last September, Usher wrapped a supporting role as a campus deejay in the upcoming comedy She’s All That, which will be followed by his star turn as a rebellious student in the drama Light It Up, due this summer. “I’ve found a new love,” says Usher, whose first acting gig was in 1997 as Brandy’s beau in several episodes of the sitcom Moesha. “My acting is making me want to leave my singing.”

Not that he’d ever ditch his first love. Growing up in Chattanooga, where at age 1 he moved with his mother, Jonnetta Patton, 41 (now his manager), after she split with his father, Usher Raymond III, Usher Raymond IV was weaned on R&B radio. “My mother, grandmothers, aunts—they all kept music going,” says Usher, whose contact with his dad has been minimal. At 9, he began making his own music in the local church choir. “There were all these people watching me,” he says. “I thought I might crack. And I felt, ‘Well, if I do crack, so what? At least I’m singing,’ and it felt good.”

Three years later the middle schooler won a high school talent show. His competitors, says Jonnetta, “were so mad, they accused him of lip-synching. That’s when I realized that this kid had something.” Following

her instincts, she moved Usher and his brother James, now 14, to Atlanta, the site of a fertile music scene. Shortly after becoming a competition regular there, Usher was crowned best teen male vocalist on television’s Star Search. In 1992 he signed with LaFace Records.

For a new image, the label sent him to New York City, where he spent a year living and partying with rap lord Sean “Puffy” Combs, who had a mean makeover in mind for his wide-eyed protégé. “It was the wrong direction,” says Usher. “That whole bad-boy thing, me frowning for the camera—that wasn’t me. Cool guys smile. Cool guys can be sexy.” Occasionally the two butted heads. “I beat him up a little,” jokes Combs, who produced Usher’s modest-selling 1994 debut album, Usher. Headlocks, punches in the arm, stuff like that. He fought back. I won, but he was way shorter and smaller than he is now.”

His apprenticeship ended in 1994, and Usher, with new good-guy sex appeal, hooked up with a new producer, R&B sensation Jermaine Dupri. The multiplatinum success of their effort, My Way, has allowed Usher to splurge on personal luxuries (a Lincoln Navigator and a Porsche Boxster) as well as gifts for his mom (a Mercedes 420 and a Cartier watch), his kid brother (a trampoline and a four-wheeler) and the occasional girlfriend. “He likes intelligent women,” says Jonnetta. “Women who have confidence in themselves.” But ensconced since Christmas in an eight-bedroom bachelor pad just out-side Atlanta, Usher is currently single and loving life. Sure, he has little privacy, but that’s okay. “Does [being a teen idol] get old?” he asks, repeating a reporter’s question. He pauses thoughtfully, before answering clearly: “Nah.”

Jeremy Helligar

Amy Laughinghouse in Atlanta

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