By Joyce Wadler David Marlow
May 22, 1989 12:00 PM

She’s one of those Hollywood girls who are photographed in inverse proportion to the amount of clothing they wear. Katie Wagner in a strapless gown with Julian Lennon (click, click). Katie Wagner in a mesh net top with former beau Dweezil Zappa (click, click, click). Only 25, she has already worked as a model (in London and Tokyo), as a publicist and, since last July, as a reporter on cable TV’s Movietime channel.

If you think Katie Wagner, eldest daughter of actor Robert Wagner and stepdaughter of the late Natalie Wood, sounds like a Hollywood brat—in the nonpejorative sense, of course—you’re right. “If you got my mom, my dad, my sisters, my brothers and Natalie—if she were alive—all together, we could run a studio, make a movie, do the wardrobe,” says Wagner. “My whole family is in show business.”

Make that her whole extended family. Her father, R.J., starred in the series Hart to Hurt and has appeared in more than 35 films. Her mother, Marion Wagner, an actress turned Beverly Hills boutique proprietor, was married to R.J. for seven years between his two marriages to Wood. At various points in the past, Katie has shared quarters with the following siblings: Universal Studios exec (and Cher ex) Josh Donen, 33, and special-effects wizard Peter Donen, 35, her mother’s children by an earlier marriage to director Stanley Donen; college student Natasha Gregson Wagner, 18, Natalie’s daughter by producer Richard Gregson; and half sister Courtney Wagner, 15, the only child Natalie and R.J. had together.

Katie has warm memories of Natalie, whom she met for the first time when she was 7, at a party Wood threw for R.J.’s birthday. “I always looked up to her,” Katie says. “As a kid, I used to love to get dressed up in her clothes. Everyone who met her adored her. You couldn’t help it. My poor father. Her death was certainly the worst thing that ever happened to him. I don’t think he ever got over it.”

Wood drowned at the age of 43, in 1981, after falling from the couple’s yacht off Santa Catalina Island during an excursion that included actor Christopher Walken and under circumstances that were never fully explained. Speculation about the death, says Katie, continues to plague her family. “I still have friends who ask me, ‘So, what really happened?’ ” says Wagner. “My answer is, ‘I wasn’t there.’ Only Natalie knows.” Gossipy theories that Wood’s death was anything other than an accident, she says, are “asinine. I mean, my father loved the woman more than anything.”

Natalie’s death forced Katie, then 17, to step into the parental role. “After the accident, when my dad would get depressed, I made him get out of bed and deal with life.” R.J. readily acknowledges his debt to his daughter. “She was a stabilizing force,” he says. “Katie was responsible for holding our family together.”

Meanwhile, she was floundering a bit herself. After graduation from Beverly Hills High School in 1982, Katie went to Santa Barbara City College for one semester (“I couldn’t stand it”) before briefly pursuing modeling. She also merged into the party circuit. “I’ve had my share of going out with musicians,” she says. “Julian Lennon is a great friend of mine. But contrary to what gossip columns suggested, we have never been romantically involved.”

Dweezil is different. “God knows, I was very much in love with Dweezil. But it wasn’t easy.” First off, she was 22 and he was 17—a discrepancy that even led to her being appointed his legal guardian on one occasion, so she could step in when he needed an adult to accompany him on a movie shoot. There also were personality variables: “I’m social, out all the time. Dweezil was a homebody.” Furthermore, “I like change. Dweezil and I had a great time, then it became time to move on.” Yet a year later, she says, “there’s no one in my life, absolutely no one—and I’m real bored about it.” A tabloid report linking her with ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones, she says, “is a lie, from beginning to end.”

There is, however, her work: Katie makes $600 a week—union scale—at Movietime, introducing movies and reporting show business stories. She got the job, in the best Hollywood tradition, with a little help from her friends: “I auditioned for MTV in Europe and didn’t get it. Then I auditioned for MTV in New York and didn’t get it. Then Dan Aykroyd and his wife, Donna Dixon, let me interview them for a show called M & Won ABC.” Movietime execs saw that segment, liked it and hired her.

Though she still has more than a passing familiarity with L.A.’s best dance clubs, she swears she has cut down her partying. “I guess one day I just realized the time had come to start growing up,” Katie says. “To get out there and begin making some contribution. Dweezil,” she adds, “always said I’d make a great Barbara Walters.”

—Joyce Wadler, David Marlow in Los Angeles