February 03, 1997 12:00 PM

PARENT-TEACHER NIGHT USED TO create confusion among Tamara Taylor’s classmates at Secord grade school in Toronto. “When the other kids would see my mom [who is white], they’d say, ‘Hey, are you adopted?’ ” recalls Taylor, 26. “They couldn’t figure out why I was brown.” But if interracial families are less puzzling to today’s kids, Tamara Taylor may be one small reason: She’s the newest addition to the Fox network’s Party of Five, and when she pairs up with Matthew Fox (who is white), the chemistry is unmistakable.

Taylor claims she had no clue that she and Fox would be “heart palpitation material,” but her audition convinced the producers otherwise. “The real issue when casting a love interest is if there’s a spark between the characters,” says Christopher Keyser, the show’s executive producer and cocreator. “From the first time Tamara read with Matthew, she had it.” Script writers hastened to fan the flames, and by last week Taylor’s character, charity worker Grace Wilcox, had already bedded one of young America’s favorite heartthrobs. While the show is open to hiring black actors (“We got a lot of mail asking, ‘Why don’t you have an African American on the show?’ ” says Keyser), it won’t do so just to match him with Taylor. Neither does the show plan to focus on the current couple’s interracial makeup. “I’m not saying that issues won’t come up,” adds Keyser. “But we won’t have a story line about how they shouldn’t be together because she’s black and he’s white.”

Which is fine with Taylor. “It’s great we’re helping to move TV out of the Dark Ages,” she says. “I’m the product of an interracial relationship, and I’ve been in a lot of them myself.”

Taylor’s background lets her bring, as she puts it, “an instinctive awareness to the character.” Born in Toronto, the only child of Vaughn Grouse, a black musician, and Deborah Reid, a property manager, Taylor was 2 when the marriage dissolved. She became self-conscious about her race while at Secord, where a lot of the students were white. Taylor longed to fit in, and the fact that her mother was white “made me feel I had something in common with other kids,” she recalls. “It was like, ‘Hey, my mom looks like you.’ ”

Ten years after splitting from Tamara’s father, her mother married Eddie Taylor, a white manager of exotic dancers, and Tamara took his name. But she didn’t take to high school. After failing French and math in her sophomore year, she dropped out, spending her days in the local library reading books. A stint at an alternative high school, where she cut her hair into a mohawk and wore “funky, heavy eyeliner” (“You’ve got to try on different jackets to find out who you are”), didn’t convert her into a student. After another year she dropped out for good.

The next stop was modeling. She set out with her mother’s blessing—”Go for it now, and go back to school later,” she told Taylor—but wasn’t cut out for that either. “I was horrible,” she acknowledges. “I wasn’t tall enough, exceptional-looking enough. I wasn’t enough of anything.”

Four years ago, Taylor finally made a winning move—to L.A. After visiting her friend, actress Cree Summer, who played Freddie Brooks on A Different World, Taylor took the plunge. Within six months she had landed her first commercials and from 1993 through 1996 shot 17 ads for AT&T.

The work gave Taylor time for the lighter things in life—”go to the beach, read, get a facial, whatever”—but it didn’t satisfy her ambitions, and she auditioned—without great success—for film and TV roles. When she got the call from Party of Five, her expectations were near zero. “The day I auditioned was the day I didn’t care,” she insists. So, of course, she got the part—and then she cared. “I laughed. I cried. I literally had hot flashes,” she says.

Now that she has regular work, Taylor, up at 6 a.m, in bed by 9 at night, gives the Hollywood party circuit a wide berth. Instead she prefers to kick back in her two-bedroom Studio City apartment and frolic with Big Poppa, her 2-pound teacup Chihuahua. As for romance, “Every actress vows, ‘I’m not going to date an actor,’ ” says Taylor. “But I have to be honest, I have dated a few. Mostly, though, musicians are my downfall.” Currently unattached, she has ruefully concluded that men are rough on her hair. “Whenever a relationship breaks up, I cut it. I don’t know what I’ll do if I have another breakup,” says the actress of her close-cropped ‘do. “I don’t want to shave it.”


ANNA DAVID in Los Angeles

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