Winning the 1998 Miss America title was a coup for Kate Shindle, but the singer-actress has made it her mission not to become a “professional Miss America.” Since graduating from Northwestern University in 1999, the New Jersey native, 26, has ventured to Broadway (in Jekyll & Hyde and Cabaret) and will make her big-screen debut opposite Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler and Faith Hill in the comedic remake of The Stepford Wives (set for release next summer).
Along with acting and singing (she recorded a solo album last year), her other passion is AIDS activism. On Dec. 1, Shindle and some Broadway friends (including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Jai Rodriguez, a former Rent star) will perform a benefit version of the Biblical musical Children of Eden in New York City, an event she helped organize to commemorate World AIDS Day.
Recently over lunch at one of Manhattan’s swankest family restaurants – okay, The Olive Garden – Shindle told PEOPLE.com about her busy life.
Why did you become an AIDS activist?
The issue kind of leap-frogged to the front of my consciousness when I got to college. I had never come into contact with it before, and then a family friend was diagnosed about halfway through my freshman year with full-blown AIDS. It just became something that I felt an instinct to help with. So I started researching and volunteering and getting more involved.
And why did you decide to do a benefit performance of "Children of Eden," which you’re coproducing?
I did the musical the summer after I graduated from college and just fell in love with it. But honestly, I would like for it to raise a ton of money. That’s my biggest goal. Sponsors have come on board and said, “We’ll give you some of the money we would have otherwise given to an AIDS organization.”
Tell me about getting the "Stepford Wives" role. Did you have to jump through hoops to get it?
I’d say it was one of the more painless auditions I’ve been through. I’m used to going in for a lot of Broadway shows where you audition for a small role four or five times. With Stepford it wasn’t like that at all. I went in, I auditioned, I had a call back and then a month later they hired me.
Were you intimidated being on the set with superstars like Nicole Kidman and Faith Hill?
I was not terribly intimidated until the second or third day of filming (when) I looked around and went, “Wow, maybe I should be more intimidated by these people.”
What was it like working with Nicole?
We didn’t go shoe shopping together or anything, but I enjoyed being with her. I would say she was not the easiest person in the cast to get to know, but a lot of that was because she spent time getting her makeup done in her trailer and things like that
Did you and Faith talk music?
I sort of cornered her at lunch toward the beginning of the filming – I’m putting together a pop demo and I was trying to get an idea of how much money one needs to spend on something like that. She was very cool about chatting with me about that part of the business.
Is it true that no one on set knew you were a Miss America until Bette Midler …
Sort of outed me? I think I was getting my hair done and she walked up to me and was like, “Are you the one who is the Miss America?” She would go around to different cast members and tell them, which was sort of mortifying, frankly. Especially since I always came to the set dressed like a truck driver. Four o’clock in the morning in sweats and my hair’s wet. People would come up to me and be like, “Were you the one that was Miss America?” as if, out of everybody there, it was so unlikely that it would’ve been me (laughs).
You were quoted as saying the job of Miss America "is not very good for the ego." Explain.
People think that if you win something like Miss America, it validates you and proves to the world that you are someone important. I find that it doesn’t. People have a tendency to belittle things like Miss America. Winning it, that’s kind of cool. I look back and go, “Those girls were great, but they picked me. That’s pretty awesome.” But as far as doing the job every day, it was a grind at times.
So you won your title, graduated from college and then decided to try waitressing at a deli. Huh?
I just got bored. It’s funny because so many people have accused me of pulling a publicity stunt with the waitressing thing, but it really wasn’t like that. I’d had enough publicity to last any normal person a lifetime. I was looking for a break from it.
Are you single?
I am recently single. I was dating for about a year, a really wonderful guy and we’re still great friends. We talk all the time.
Talking about guys, PEOPLE just named Johnny Depp its Sexiest Man – what do you think of him?
He’s terribly sexy. It’s really great to see a really fine actor who looks like he’s lived. I was watching Mystic River and I noticed the same thing about Sean Penn, who I also think is just hotter than hell.
What celebrity guy is most datable to you?
It’s funny, I had dinner with an Irish actor and his wife at a benefit the other day and they said, “Who’s the hottest guy in America right now?” I was like, “It’s Colin Farrell.” He’s pretty hot but not datable for me. I’m not good with that kind of guy.
You’re not into the bad-boy type?
Not that I’m not into the bad-boy type, but I just don’t trust myself with guys like that.
Do you think they could take you astray?
I don’t know. No comment – my mom might see this (laughs).