By Tom Gliatto
May 11, 1992 12:00 PM

WHEN JENNIE GARTH ARRIVED IN LOS Angeles several years ago, she was 16 and already emitting gleams of star quality. Or, at any rate, that’s what her mother, Carolyn, remembers about their first shopping trip along Rodeo Drive. “People were stopping, turning around and looking at her,” Carolyn says. “It was like they were all wondering, ‘Who is she?’ ”

By now, of course, that question has been answered far beyond those upscale environs. Jennie Garth, now 20, is one of the stars of Fox’s posh pubescent drama, Beverly Hills, 90210, on which she plays head-turning, BMW-driving Kelly Taylor. This week (May 7), in the conclusion of a two-part season finale, Kelly develops a crush on a handsome, brooding dropout named Jake (Grant Show)—and so helps to launch this summer’s much anticipated 90210 spin-off, the twentysomething drama Melrose Place. She’ll even be on the show briefly—it’s going to take a full three episodes to resolve this particular pas de deux.

As the quintessential blond, sometimes bratty California girl, Garth has often stolen center stage from her nominally equal female cast mates Shannen Doherty (Brenda), Tori Spelling (Donna) and Gabrielle Carteris (Andrea). And not by looks alone. “She can sashay across the set with all the sophistication of an older woman,” says Ian Ziering, who plays Steve, the hunky jock and Kelly’s erstwhile boyfriend. “But when you sit down and talk with her, she’s got this youthful exuberance.”

Like costars Luke Perry (Dylan) and Jason Priestley (Brandon), Garth induces mass hysteria wherever she goes. At a promotional appearance at a mall in Indianapolis last fall, she attracted a mob of 10,000 fans. “All these people were screaming and fainting,” says Garth, who speaks softly, with none of the snooty curtness of her TV character. “Suddenly all these state troopers came up behind me and said, ‘Miss Garth, you’re going to have to leave the stage.’ I felt like Jim Morrison.” Even the most casual night on the town with her fiancé, Dan Clark, 22, drummer in a struggling rock hand called Tongues & Tails, can attract hordes, some of them hormonally revved. ” ‘Guys will come up and ask, ‘Are YOU her brother or her boyfriend?’ ” Clark says. “I’ll say I’m her boyfriend, and they’ll say, ‘God, you’re lucky.’ I guess I am.”

Even luckier—no Lizard Queen, she!—Garth seems to be good friends with reality. “Jennie takes everything with a grain of salt and doesn’t let it go to her head.” says Ziering. With a nod toward teen stars who fell far and fast, he adds, “I don’t think you’re going to read about Jennie holding up a McDonald’s or working in a dry cleaner’s in has Vegas.”

Or cleaning out a stable, as she did when she was a tomboy (“I never played with Barbies”) growing up on a 25-acre horse farm outside Urbana, Ill., the youngest of two brothers and five sisters. Her parents, school administrator John and teacher Carolyn Garth, were both divorcés with three children each; Jennie was the sole child of their marriage. “She was the adhesive that joined the two families together,” says Carolyn. “And she was always the little entertainer. She would stand in front of this sliding glass door where she could see her reflection and sing and dance to music on TV.”

When Jennie was 13, the family relocated to Phoenix. Her father had just had triple-bypass surgery, and his doctors recommended a warmer climate. Jennie’s subsequent Arizona adolescence included dance lessons, a little catalog modeling and dating (although she regrets that she never went out with the free spirit in her class, a barefoot boy who once gave her a flower necklace. “Peace, love, happiness, all that stuff,” she sighs). At any rate, hardly enough angst or glamour for your average 90210 episode. “I just thought I’d go to college and get a teaching degree for dance and have my own studio.” says Garth. “But my life took a turn.” As a state finalist in something called the Cinderella Scholarship Pageant (she finished fourth), Garth, then 15, caught the eye of a talent scout, who suggested acting classes. After the contest her mom said to her. “Do you think you may have gotten more than the girl who won the crown?”

Well, yes, but Jennie’s prize was a ways off. She took the scout’s advice and dropped out of school in her junior year (later getting her degree via equivalency exam) to pack up for Hollywood, chaperoned by her mom. “My friends thought I was crazy,” says Carolyn. “But I knew if anyone could do this, Jennie could. She has always been this magical person who could make anything she wanted happen.”

Carolyn took part-time jobs (apartment manager, office assistant) and drove Jennie to auditions, but the rewards were zip. Not as in zip code, either. “Jennie would go to her room and shut the door and sniffle a little bit,” says Carolyn. “But she wills herself to get through the things she has to get through.”

Two months after the move to Los Angeles, Jennie faced the worst emotional hurdle of her life: Her dad suffered a major heart attack and underwent four operations in 48 hours. Her mother flew home to help with his recuperation, and Jennie commuted on weekends. “I went back and stayed with him for a couple of weeks, taking care of him, helping him take showers and feeding him,” she says, not eager to go on with the subject. “I could probably relive it, but I don’t think I want to.”

As John’s health stabilized, Jennie started getting roles. After one episode of Growing Pains and two TV movies—including Teen Angel Returns, which costarred Jason Priestley—she was offered the part on Beverly Hills, 90210.

Carolyn returned to Arizona, and Jennie reported to the 90210 set, which, in those first semesters, was sooooo high school, Garth admits. “Shannen Doherty and I used to fight like cats and dogs,” she says. “Now it’s pretty unified, though, and we all get along fine.”

Garth wasn’t getting along as well as she thought, unfortunately: Last summer she kept reporting to work despite a high fever and finally collapsed on the set. She ended up hospitalized for four days with a kidney infection and chronic anemia. “Now I’m known as the trouper,” Garth says, “for coming to work when I’m sick.”

Her mom flew back to be at the trouper’s side during her illness. Carolyn continues to serve as Garth’s business manager—and, with John, lives in the four-bedroom Phoenix home for which Jennie provided the down payment. Garth’s parents, not surprisingly, are quite pleased with their daughter’s progress. “She’s growing up a lot faster than if she were off at college with her friends,” says Carolyn. “I mean, she’s not sleeping until noon and bringing her dirty laundry home to Mom.”

Which is not the same thing as saying that Garth always does the chores herself. “I usually relax by cleaning the bathroom or doing the laundry,” says Garth, who can also afford her own two-bedroom house in Sherman Oaks (she’s pulling in an estimated $15,000-$20,000 an episode). “But I just got a maid, so I came home last night and my house was totally clean.” In her free time, she says, “I just like hanging out and reading, or watching videos. I also take my dogs [two poodles, Zack and Sasha] to the park. There are so many things I would do, like ride horses, if I just got off my butt.”

Other than hanging out, she loves to hang around with Clark. They met after she saw Tongues & Tails perform at a coffeehouse last April. “I thought he was bitchin’,” she says. “And I went to a party later, and there he was, magically.” Says he: “Pretty soon it was completely obvious I really dug her, and she really dug me.” He proposed last Dec. 23, though a wedding date hasn’t been set. The ring is an antique diamond set in platinum. “I was down on my knees, man,” Clark says. “She accepted in like three seconds.”

Just one thing, though—she insisted that he come with her to Arizona for the holidays and ask for her father’s blessing. “She’s from the Midwest, so I understand why that was important to her,” says Clark, who hails from Iowa. “I felt like I was going to Phoenix with an anvil on my head, though. After Christmas dinner, I said, ‘John, me and Jennie have something to tell you.’ When he smiled, it was like a big cloud lifted.”

And if there are still a few gray wisps in the sky, so what? Garth may not be old enough to get into all of Clark’s gigs, but someday she will be. And as for handling the sudden crush of fame, she’s getting an education. For instance? “I know,” she says, “not to go by a high school at 3 in the afternoon.”