from the British Vogue...

From ingenue to leading lady in Hollywood's priciest blockbuster, "Titanic"- in a few short years Kate Winslet has become a star. Emma Forrest meets the woman behind the roles.

It's nice to know that an English rose can have thorns but, frankly, Kate Winslet is scaring me. Having barely acknowledged my presence in the two hours I've been at the photoshoot , she suddenly fixes me with her ice-blue movie-star eyes and asks, "Do you write a lot for Vogue?" I watch as she twists a cluster of grapes around her beautifully manicured nails. "Actually this is my first article." She plucks a grape from its stems. "Well, do try to make it good. Maybe they'll use you again." She pops the grape into her heart-shaped mouth.

When we leave, she kisses the make-up artist, stylist and photographer in turn, thanking them all profusely for being so " fantastically gorgeous". I feel like the school outcast. Later I will ask straight out if I have done something to offend her and, horrified, she will squeal: "Oh no, no, no! I'm just terribly intimidated by intelligence." How smart does she think I am? All I did was shake her hand and say, " Hello, nice to meet you." I get the feeling that she is uncomfortable with me because we're the same age. Years seem to matter to her; when I mention that Alicia Silverstone is still a teenager, Winslet pointedly insists, " No, I think you'll find she's the same age as me." It turns out that Alicia is two years younger - but nevermind.

From her own account, Kate Winslet used to be a fat girl from Reading, the middle daughter in a family of "resting" actors. They were overjoyed when, aged 16, she won a role in the short-lived sitcom Get Back. Now she is the next Big Thing. Feistier than Winona Ryder, less goofy than Sandra Bullock; more highbrow than Alicia Silverstone, less twee than Liv Tyler; more diverse than Juliette Lewis, less trendy than Claire Danes. Just 21, she has already had an Oscar nomination for her role as Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. Her breakthrough came at 18 when she played a Sapphic teen murderess in Peter Jackson's wonderful Heavenly Creatures. She followed that with the tragic Sue Bridehead to Christopher Eccleston's Jude and Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. The toast of Tinseltown, she is now promoting Titanic, which - at over $200 million - is reportedly the most expensive movie in the history of cinema.

Filming with the notoriously intense James Cameron was a traumatic experience, with the stars chained to railings as 40 ft waves lashed over them. Her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio has said he will never do another studio film, while Winslet was forced to publish an open letter of apology in the LA Times after she gave an interview claiming that Cameron had nearly drowned her. The film went seriously over budget, over schedule and over length. Despite all this, advance word is good - especially on Winslet.

"Making Titanic was really very frightening. I don't think a lot of actresses would have endured what I went through. And I would think very carefully before doing anything of that size again. But it is going to be a historic piece of film-making. The love story that moved me to tears when I first read the script is still there. It was a brilliant film," says Winslet.

"I'm just so honoured to work for her," says Amanda, Winslet's personal assistant, who, like her employee, is blonde, pale and seriously curvy. If they were a set of Russian dolls, Amanda would be the biggest doll and Kate the third or fourth biggest. Amanda is very pleasant but I sense that Kate likes her partly because she reminds her of what she used to be: a chubby go-get' em gal, more Tiggy Legge - Bourke than Winona.

Our minicab driver manoeuvres his way out of the Islington evening traffic and Amanda congratulates him with, " Oh, well done! You are gorgeous." Kate slumped in the back, remains disinclined to have any kind of preliminary chat.

"Amanda mentioned that you're doing the film of Esther Freud's Hideous Kinky," I remark, twisting to face her. "Yes I bloody am." Silence. Racking my brains I recall something I saw in the music press. " You know Justine Frischman?" Winslet opens one eye. " From Elastica?" I add, hopefully. Kate almost sighs. "Yes." " Well, I don't know if you saw but she named you as one of her 10 favourite women of the year." Kate sits bolt upright. "Oh, how brilliant! How lovely!" Amanda is cooing. "Oh, that's marvellous! It's so brilliant to get feedback." Kate beams at me - " Brilliant!" - and touches my arm. Something has clicked and for the next hour Kate Winslet is quite delightful. Unrecognized in a corner of her local Dome café, she downs iced coffee and burbles cheerfully. " God, this shoot was such a joy because the clothes actually fitted. It's so humiliating when I turn up and all the sample sizes are cut for models." Like the young Elizabeth Taylor, Kathleen Turner, Drew Barrymore and Geri Spice, Winslet's body is so gorgeous precisely because it is on the cusp of chubbiness. Like Barrymore, who is one of the few film stars who actually look touchable. She has the kind of body that makes you happy to be a woman, but for many years cried herself to sleep because she hated it so much.

"When I was 15, I was 13 stone. I was told to lose weight for a part by an American casting agent and I went into overdrive, got completely fanatical. I got quite thin and ill, my family were very worried about me. And I frightened myself. So I started eating sensibly, did the Weight Watchers thing where you actually do get a lot of food, and lost it properly. Believe me, it is still a thrill to be able to sit in front of the telly without hugging my stomach; to be able to run up the stairs without thinking about it."

Hollywood is not exactly renowned for its sensitive treatment of female teen stars. Everyone's heard the tale of Judy Garland having her breasts strapped down for The Wizard Of Oz and being put on diet pills that left her addicted for the rest of her life, and read about the " Watch Out Batman, Here Comes Buttgirl!" headline in the The National Enquirer when Alicia Silverstone looked a little chunky in her PVC Batgirl catsuit. For an adolescent girl with a precarious body image, a career in the movies must have been trying. What kept her from losing it? "Emma Thompson. We were filming Sense and Sensibility and she could tell I was skipping lunch, pretending I'd had breakfast. She took me aside and said, " Losing weight is absolutely wrong for the part and absolutely wrong for you. Do you want to be a twig, or a heart and soul that is true?"

She is pretty happy about her weight nowadays (although she stills dreads premieres, thinking that she has to starve herself for a week to look thin enough on the night). "Leo DiCaprio said to me, ` Honey, you're always going to have that ` I'm a fat girl' thing. Forget it, you're gorgeous.'" She licks the coffee from her spoon. "That matters to me because Leo is so sought-after... so trendy... such a heart-throb." As with Claire Danes on the set of Romeo And Juliet, it is reported that Winslet's was one of the hearts left throbbing. " I read all that, but it's not true. I know this sounds like the biggest naffest cliché, but we were like brother and sister. We could literally read each other's mind. In my scariest shots, when I had to take my mask off underwater at the bottom of this tank, he wouldn't leave me. There's a close shot of my face that he didn't need to be there for but he was, stroking my legs in time with the breathing so I wouldn't get flustered." Leonardo DiCaprio stroking her legs didn't leave her flustered?

She has also been linked to the Byronic Rufus Sewell, on the subject of whom she is disarmingly honest. " Look, it was an affair. A very, very brief fling. A lot of fun but nothing more. It was not a relationship and we never kidded each other that it might be."

Nevertheless they were splashed across the New Of The World, when they were caught in a clinch outside The Ivy. "We were having a snog in a doorway when we heard someone shout ` Oi!' and Rufus shouted ` Leave it!' He thought the guy was yelling because he thought we shouldn't be snogging in public. The next morning a friend phoned me and told me to go and buy the paper. I went over to Rufus's and we cooked soup and said, ` What are we going to do?' and we were getting all distraught. Then we said ` fuck it' and decided we looked nice in the pictures. I think we both kept copies."

Despite the high-profile relationship and her friendship with Emma Thompson, she says it is mainly crew members, as opposed to film actors, who she has kept in touch with. She expresses surprise that someone as bright as Emma Thompson would want anything to do with her. "I'm insecure. Intellectually I'm very insecure. I'm always fighting for the right word. And I'm becoming increasingly aware of how I make people feel. I go home and we're having a big lunch with my family and distant relations and they don't treat me how they used to when I was a kid. They say, ` So tell us about your life.' I just want to say, ` You know about my life from everything you read!' But I can't say that because then they'll think I'm angry. I make people edgy. And it really distresses me." She is also troubled by the difference between her family's careers and her own success: "My older sister is a really brilliant actress and I'll often think, ` She should be doing this role, not me.' And my dad doesn't work this much but he's a really brilliant actor, too. It really does distress me that it's not working for them. I wish I could share my opportunities with them. I can help out financially. That's my only comfort."

Despite her new-found wealth, Winslet can't abide the Hollywood lifestyle, where everyone has a personal manicurist. "I wouldn't even join a private gym. I put on my flip-flops and go down the sports center to swim in toddlers' wee and old ladies' snot." Though she claims to hate being pampered, I notice that Amanda always defers to her. When Kate is out of the room, Amanda conspiratorially admits that she has sneaked one of the Polaroids from the photoshoot. She coos over the picture. "She looks so lovely. I'm so proud of her." Kate wanders over and says, " I think I look drunk." Giggling, Amanda concedes, "Yes, you do a bit." Kate snatches it from her hand, snapping, "Fine, I'll have it then."

And it's happened again. For our taped conversation, Winslet speaks movingly about her family, her friends, and, when she was out of earshot, Amanda herself. Yet here she goes again, like the queen of the world. The metamorphosis is sharp, and seems typical of the temperamental swings I'd already witnessed. This afternoon, her mood has been darkened by the presence of someone around her age(me), the mention of a successful star who's even younger(Alicia Silverstone) and a friend she believed was criticising her appearance(Amanda). One imagines that becoming thin - thin enough to get romantic leads in Hollywood epics - would boost the confidence. But it seems that Kate Winslet is just as insecure as she was when she had to hold her tummy in while watching television. Her skin is still thinner than her body.

It can't help that she knows all too well - from her family as much as anywhere else - the whims of the world she works in. Earlier I'd asked if she ever saw Melanie Lynskey, her co-star in Heavenly Creatures. Frizzy haired, dark and overweight (at least for that part), Lynskey hasn't done a major movie since, despite a performance just as good as Winslet's. "She rang the other day," recalls Winslet. "We hadn't spoken in two years. She went to LA and did the circuits but it wasn't really working out. She's been drifting, I guess. I really hope it starts happening for her."

Michael Sherman <>