By Samantha Miller
Updated August 27, 2001 12:00 PM

Tara Reid was barely 3 when she first staked a claim to center stage. “She was in this recital at her dance school and came out with this group of little girls,” says her mother, Donna. “But then Tara decided to take one giant step in front of everybody and do her own dance.” When the music stopped, Reid kept twirling. As Donna recalls, “The owner of the school finally had to walk out and carry her off.”

Nowadays Reid, 25, has less fear of getting the hook. But the star of the 1999 teen comedy hit American Pie and its new sequel is learning life in the limelight has its not-so-bright side. The party-hopping New Jersey native has made headlines lately, but not for her movies (April’s Josie and the Pussycats was a box office flop): She has broken up with Carson Daly—her former fiancé and the heartthrob host of MTV’s Total Request Live—and is a friend of embattled celebrity publicist Lizzie Grubman, who was charged with assault last month for hitting 16 people with her SUV outside a Southampton, N.Y., nightclub.

“I’ve been through a lot lately,” says Reid, adding that she still feels “a little hurt and a little confused” about the end of her 17-month relationship with Daly, 28. In April the pair, who met on an MTV shoot in Cancún in February 2000, postponed their planned May 2001 wedding. In early July Reid moved out of the Manhattan apartment they shared.

One problem was that Daly was unhappy with her traveling all the time, Reid says. “If Carson was an actor, he’d understand why I have to be away on sets and that if I have to kiss another guy in a movie, I do it,” she says. Another was relentless gossip. “He’d read in the tabloids that I was with [That ’70s Show]’s Ashton Kutcher, but that was a bunch of bull,” she says. “Then I started reading he was with a stripper, and that wasn’t true. You start tripping on each other for no reason. It makes you crazy.”

Although Reid appeared on Total Request Live along with the rest of the Pie cast on Aug. 9, she and Daly don’t keep in touch. “We’re not at that place yet,” she says. In the weeks since their breakup, she has vacationed in the South of France—where she hit nightspots with pals including 20-year-old hotel heiress Paris Hilton—and visited the Hamptons with investment banker Jason Ader, 34, who, she insists, is just a friend: “I’m in no position now to be in any sort of relationship.”

She did, however, keep a date for an Aug. 13 interview with Southampton authorities concerning her friend Grubman. Reid wasn’t present on July 9, when the 30-year-old publicist backed her SUV into a crowd waiting to get into the Conscience Point Inn nightclub. (Grub-man maintains it was an accident.) But she had attended a private beach party with Grubman earlier. “She was barely with Lizzie that night,” says Reid’s lawyer Judd Burstein, “and did not see her drinking or taking drugs.” Reid defends Grubman’s character. “She’s one of my closest friends in the world,” she says. “She’s loyal; she’s kind. I’d go to bat for her any day.”

Still, it’s no wonder Reid plans to take off the rest of the summer “to chill and hang out with my family.” The second of four children of day-care-center operators Tom, 60, and Donna, 52, Reid began her showbiz career shortly before her ill-fated recital, when a talent agent spotted her dancing on a table at a mall near her hometown of Wyckoff, N.J. After appearing in TV ads for McDonald’s and Crayola, Reid landed her first movie role at age 11 in 1987’s A Return to Salem’s Lot. Three years later she won a scholarship to the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, where Sarah Michelle Gellar was a classmate. Even among that crew, “she was one of those people who you knew was destined for something big,” says actor Jerry O’Connell, a former schoolmate.

After her 1994 graduation, Reid nabbed a recurring role as a street-smart runaway on TV’s Days of Our Lives. Later a steamy turn as a trophy wife in ’98’s The Big Lebowski propelled her into such teen fare as 1999’s Cruel Intentions.

The next task for Reid is buying a house to replace an L.A. apartment. She wants more roaming room for her pooches: Labradors Summer and Tequila, golden retriever Molly, and Yorkshire terrier Stoli. Now that her love life is on hiatus, they’re a girl’s best friend. “I love dogs,” she says. “They’re always there for you.”

Samantha Miller

Fannie Weinstein in New York City