April 11, 2002 11:00 AM

She made it onto every best-dressed list after the Oscars last month and commands up to $5 million a movie. But for Reese Witherspoon, neither Oscar-night glory nor supersize paychecks can compare to the adulation of a certain small red Muppet. Shooting her next film, Sweet Home Alabama, in the same New York City studio as the Sesame Street gang last fall, the 26-year-old Legally Blonde star was introduced to an admiring Elmo. “It was just the thrill of my life,” says Witherspoon, who has a 2-year-old daughter, Ava, with her 27-year-old husband, Gosford Park actor Ryan Phillippe. “I thought, ‘You know what, this is pretty much making it!’ ”

It’s not exactly the swingin’ Hollywood high life. And while Witherspoon admits “sometimes I feel like the youngest mom in L.A.,” she certainly doesn’t regret having Ava and marrying Phillippe at the tender age of 23. “I really enjoy being a wife, and I really enjoy being a mom,” she says. “But it’s a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.”

Maybe she should tell that to Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell, who married actress Leighanne Wallace, 31, in 2000 at the age of 25, much to the devastation of 12-year-old girls around the globe. Says Littrell: “I wanted to get on with my life and I thought, ‘The sooner, the better.’ ”

For a slew of young celebs currently rushing to wed, sooner can’t come fast enough. Consider these youthful pairings: singer-actress Brandy, wed at 22 to 22-year-old music producer Robert Smith and expecting their first child in July; country singer LeAnn Rimes, a newlywed at 19, to 21-year-old dancer Dean Sheremet; actress Kate Hudson, married at 21 to rocker Chris Robinson, 34; and NBA hotshot Kobe Bryant, 22, who married a then-18-year-old Vanessa Laine in April 2001 — after proposing while she was still in high school.

It’s enough to make Liz Taylor wonder what’s in the water. Not only are many Gen-Y celebs bucking the national trend — the median marrying age in the U.S. is 25 for women, nearly 27 for men — they’re turning their backs on decades of Hollywood tradition. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, many celebrities opted for serial romance (more than a few of them with Warren Beatty) or cohabitation (a la Kate Hudson’s mom, Goldie Hawn, and Kurt Russell, or Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon). In short, they did anything to avoid the altar. Now “the pendulum has swung the other way,” says Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, a New York City-based family therapist and the author of the 2000 bestseller Make Up, Don’t Break Up. “Young kids want to get married. They are not afraid of divorce. They are more frightened of having no permanency in their lives.”

That’s a sentiment Rimes likely understands. Family friends say that the constancy of marriage is just what the singer craved most, given her early rise to stardom (she was 14 when she scored her first hit, Blue), her parents’ divorce in 1997 and her very public estrangement from her father, Wilbur, which only seemed to thaw at her February wedding. “LeAnn is the perfect example of someone who wasn’t prepared for fame,” says a longtime friend .”She is a very needy person with parents who weren’t prepared for the effects of fame either.” After meeting Sheremet at the 2001 Academy of Country Music Awards, Rimes seemed to take on a new confidence. “They’re just a darling couple — very unassuming, very gracious, very sweet,” says L.A. jeweler Neil Lane, who crafted the pair’s wedding bands. “They seemed like two people in love.”

If Rimes had a difficult time enduring the stresses of early fame, actress Liv Tyler, 24, had to cope with even more emotional confusion. Her mother, former model Bebe Buell, didn’t tell Liv that her father was Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler until she was 10. The pair had never married, and Buell, wanting her daughter to lead a simpler life, named a different boyfriend as her dad. By contrast, Tyler’s engagement last year to Spacehog lead singer Royston Langdon, 28, might have made Emily Post proud. Langdon “is such a gentleman he even called Liv’s father and asked for her hand in marriage,” says Buell. “When you find someone lovely, you can’t take that for granted. Good matches don’t grow on trees.”

But for stars, money does. Flush with the kind of cash that most ordinary folks wouldn’t earn in a lifetime, most celebs find the price of a wedding — and the prospect of supporting a family — no impediment. “Being financially stable at a young age definitely gave me more confidence to get into marriage,” says former teen star Kirk Cameron, 31, who married his Growing Pains costar Chelsea Noble, 37, 10 years ago. They are now the parents of five. “I knew I could support my wife and kids,” he says.

Alas, wealth — and good intentions — do not always a good marriage make. Macaulay Culkin discovered that the hard way when his two-year union with actress Rachel Miner dissolved in 2000. Both 17 when they wed, Culkin concluded they “needed to take a step back.” Why the rush in the first place? “He was getting married to do the right thing, unlike his father,” observes his mother, Patricia Brentrup, who split acrimoniously from Culkin’s dad, Kit, whom she had never wed, in 1995.

Still, Culkin is not the only star to incur a failed marriage at an age when many kids are still learning to manage their first credit card. But teen marriages like his are at the greatest risk, according to Rutgers University sociology professor David Popenoe, whose research shows that those who marry very young are up to three times more likely to split than those who wait even a few years longer. “Of course, in Hollywood,” adds Popenoe, “you can count on one hand the number of marriages that have lasted more than 25 years.”

Maybe that’s because showbiz marriages also face unusual risk factors: Nomadic work locations, steamy love scenes with hard-bodied costars, intrusive fans, clashing egos, free-floating insecurity and competing careers. If established actors like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (who wed when he was 28 and she 23), Bruce Willis and Demi Moore (he was 32, she 25) and Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid (28 for her, 36 for him) can’t make it, how does that bode for budding stars who are still adjusting to the Tilt-a-Whirl of fame? “No matter how good it is, a relationship takes a lot of work,” says California-based couples counselor Deborah McMahon. “Hollywood exposes couples to other options: They’re traveling to locations, working with attractive, charismatic people. Being on-set is very intense.”

No one knows that better than those who’ve been through the celebrity spin cycle a few dozen times. Pop singer and actor Pat Boone, 67, eloped at 19 with his high school sweetheart, Shirley Lee Foley, now 67. “All the pressures began to mount,” says Boone. “I was shooting movies on location. I had the girls swooning. One year I was gone for half the time. That’s no good for the marriage. I succumbed to temptations. I had affairs. “How did they manage to salvage their union? “I made a recommitment to our vows,” Boone says, adding that their Christian faith played an important part: “I do not know how any couple in show business stays together without the cement of mutual faith.”

Religious or not, these days most young celebs taking the plunge are at least aware of the challenges that lie ahead. The fact that her mother, Goldie Hawn, never married her boyfriend of 18 years, Kurt Russell, didn’t stop Hudson from getting hitched to Black Crowes singer Robinson in December 2000. Having grown up in a showbiz family — and witnessed a stable relationship — Hudson’s decision to wed was a reflection of a “very worldly” outlook, says her father, Bill Hudson, a musician who divorced Hawn in 1980. “Kate’s been around show business her whole life,” he says. “She is very mature.” Notes Bill’s brother Mark, an L.A. record producer: “Everyone thought she was young to be getting married, but I asked her, ‘Do you really love him?’ She said, ‘Yes, I do.’ I asked, ‘Does he really love you?’ And she said, ‘Oh, Uncle Mark, it’s so special.’ You could tell it was real and that she knows what that is.”

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