April 30, 2004 01:10 AM

Claudia’s all grown up. Once a member of the Salinger clan on FOX’s earnest hit Party of Five, 21-year-old actress Lacey Chabert has returned to the spotlight – looking nothing like she did in her TV moppet days. She played a sexpot in 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie, and now Chabert costars with Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey in Mean Girls, playing the gossipy Gretchen, one of the titular teens who help make high school a living hell for Lohan’s character.

Chabert recently talked to PEOPLE about her break from acting, and whether she was ever a mean girl herself.

It seems like we haven’t seen you much in the past few years …
Part of that has been for a reason. I am trying to be so particular in the roles that I choose. But it is a hard transition, you know? People see you as a child, and then you are all grown up and some people don’t know how to handle that.

Do people still think that you are Claudia Salinger?
Yes. People still come up and hug me and say, “You made me cry every week. I was so sad for you.” As far as the industry goes, there is still this misconception that I am like 15 or just strictly a dramatic actress.

So maybe this is a way of breaking out of that mold?
Absolutely, doing Mean Girls was.

How else are you branching out? Anything outside of work?
I started taking classes at Moorpark (Calif.) Junior College. I take classes on nights and weekends. That’s been really nice because I stopped going to formal school in the sixth grade and I was tutored from then on.

So you didn’t have a chance to be tormented by the other kids?
I know. Isn’t that sad for me! (Laughs)

You must have gotten it from somewhere else.
People always say, “You missed out on high school,” but as far as I am concerned, I had the high school experience. Have you ever been to a set?

How is a movie set like high school?
I have been pretty lucky in that most of the people I have worked with have been really, really kind to me. But there are some divas and there are cliques. People you don’t get along with, people who cause trouble …

That Lindsay Lohan. What are we gonna do with her?
(Laughs) I did not say that! Lindsay was very nice. We got along really well.

"People still come up and hug me and say, 'You made me cry every week,'" Lacey Chabert says of her Party of Five legacy. "There is still this misconception that I am like 15."

What is the last mean thing you have done?
I have a mean thing that was done to me. It was on the school bus. I was in the first grade and a girl was like, “I bet you can’t hold up just your middle finger.” I had no idea what it meant. And so I did it and I was showing everyone and flipping everyone off. She was like, “Ha ha ha. You just cursed at God. You are going to die.” I was 6 or 7 and I believed her, so I was just waiting for my death to come for about a week and then I told my mom.

You are from Pervis, Miss. Besides you, what is Pervis famous for?
It is a very small town, very quaint. A couple of churches and a Sonic Burger. Everyone goes there on Friday nights. My parents went to Pervis High School and were sweethearts there.

So you are a small-town girl stuck in the big city?
Yeah. I like it, though. If I had to choose, I would probably stay with the big city.

What’s going on in your love life?
I am dating, kind of dating one guy. Nothing too serious yet. But I am looking forward to the day when I can get married and have a normal life.

Is that really possible in Hollywood?
I don’t think the normal dating part is really that possible. I think it is easier when you date people out of the business, or people who aren’t famous at least, because then you get less attention.

Have the men’s magazines approached you yet to be a cover girl?
Well I was on Stuff magazine when I was 17. But I don’t think that is something I would do again. When you are on the cover of a magazine, people suddenly think that is who you are.

It was a calculated move for you, though.
It was highly suggested that I do it to kind of break out of the mold a little bit. But that is not the type of role I am looking for. I am not looking to be a sex symbol.

Finally, any rumors you want to clear up?
Every part of my body is real. Someone asked me where I got my boobs the other day and I said, “Puberty.”

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