a home with hart

'Instyle' Mar 1999

Melissa Joan Hart is breathless. Standing in the entrance of her multilevel stucco home in the Hollywood Hills, the 22-year-old actress has just said goodbye to Joyce Maynard, whose 1998 memoir, At Home in the World, revealed the affair Maynard had as a teenager with literary legend J. D. Salinger. Maynard came to see if the clean-scrubbed star of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch would be right to portray her in a movie version of the book. "She said she wasn’t sure if someone with so much sunshine could play someone who was so depressed," says Hart excitedly. "But after she met me, she saw that I wasn’t all bubbly and sweet and young like I am on the show. Which is what I have to prove to people all the time."

If Hart, who first rose to fame at 13 in the Nickelodeon series Clarissa Explains It All, needed to prove her maturity, her house could provide the evidence. "I don’t have just one taste, so every room is different," explains Hart. Step up to her living room and you’ll see replicas of classic statues, like The Rape of the Sabine Woman and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, decorating a high-ceilinged room heavy with gargoyle-encrusted furniture. Hart developed a passion for Renaissance art during a summer-abroad course in Italy; now she buys another piece every time she signs for an acting job. And these do not reflect the sensibility of your everyday ingénue. "All my art has women’s stomach at the center," says Hart, who got her own belly button pierced in 1994. "I think a woman’s stomach is a sexy, powerful place."

Hart has always had a substantial sense of Girl Power. At home, she reserves her airy living room as a special "girls only" refuge where she likes to talk with friends. "I don’t want the boys in here, spilling thingsd or throwing Nerfs," she says referring to her on-again, off-again beau, actor James Fields, and his compadres. (Hart bought the hillside house in 1997 intending to live with Fields, but after a brief period together, they decided to take a break.") Since she’s the first of her friends to buy a place, it has become the clubhouse for her eight-girl gang. "We really are homebodies," she says, recounting frequent gatherings by the pool or in the skylit kitchen. "If anyone wants to go anywhere, it’s here." Indeed, Hart often practices kick-boxing with her pal Lindsay Sloane, who plays Sabrina’s best friend Valerie. "I went crazy when Melissa got this house," says Sloane. "This is such a grown up house, and Melissa has such a young spirit. It kind of represent this whole side to her that nobody knows about."

When Hart first saw the renovated 1930s-era house in 1997, three things sold her on it: the vast San Fernando Valley view, which reminded her of Italy; the sense of privacy; and—for those indulgent moments—the pool and hot tub, surrounded by a slate patio with a built-in bar and barbecue. If the top floor of the house represents Hart’s more sophisticated side, the outdoors and the downstairs cater to her playfulness. There’s a cozy den complete with bar and entertainment center, but it’s to the master bedroom suite (including a step-down slate bath and sundeck) that Hart beats her most frequent retreat. "When I’m by myself, I mostly hang out down here," she says. "I bring in the dogs [a Dalmatian, Pelé, and Pelé’s puppy], bolt the door, turn on the alarm, and watch TV or read." She can also admire her most recent art aquisition (and the ont she’s proudest of): three Picasso etchings she’s hung above her huge four-poster bed.

It’s not surprising that Hart relishes her privacy. The oldest of seven children, she shared a room with siblings until she went to Orlando as a teenager to shoot Clarissa. Her parents split up during that time, and her mother and the kids moved into a "windowless, depressing" Manhattan apartment. Eventually her mother remarried and moved the brood out to a home in New Jersey.

Now her mom, Paula Hart, one of Sabrina’s executive producers, lives nearby with four of Melissa’s siblings (the baby is only 2). "I do have a newfound freedom," says Hart of living alone. "I only have to deal with myself now." But she still loves to have family around. Though two sisters are now in college, the others are frequent visitors. And her father, who is also remarried and has added yet another baby sibling to Melissa’s life, was a recent houseguest.

Hart credits her family with keeping her feet on solid ground during her transition out of child stardom. She has three seasons of Sabrina under her belt, and just signed for five more ("the Teenage Witch" will be dropped from the title next season); she’s also starring in the film Next to You, a comedy that will be released this summer. While Hart doesn’t feel the need to prove she’s a grownup , she admits she’s still getting used to being one. "Every once in a while I wake up and go ‘This is my house,’ " she says. "It’s still sinking in".