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My hell as a boy monster; George Clooney talks about the illness that left him dribbling and disfigured, repulsive to girls and led bullies at his school to brand him Frankenstein.

Byline: EXCLUSIVE By JENNY JOHNSTON

IT WAS female attention all right but not the sort he would become famous for.

George Clooney was 11 years old and trying to drink a glass of milk. It was slopping everywhere, running in rivers down his face and dripping off his chin.

The girls were laughing, pointing and teasing him mercilessly. And the school bullies were rubbing their hands in glee, knowing they'd found a fresh victim in this vulnerable new boy with the paralysed face.

The young George Clooney had never heard of Bell's palsy before it struck him down just as he started high school. But it left him with indelible memories of what it is like to have women regard you with derision.

The debilitating medical condition has been likened to a stroke. Sufferers find themselves struggling to perform basic tasks.

Even today, Clooney - ironically voted Sexiest Man Alive in 1997 - winces as he remembers the most difficult year of his life, the one which earned him the nickname Frankenstein.

Just as he was becoming aware of the opposite sex, he found his face partly paralysed. His left eye closed and he couldn't eat or drink properly.

"I was devastated," he admits. "That was the worst time of my life. You know how cruel kids can be. I was mocked and taunted. I was a wreck, but the experience made me stronger."

Fortunately, Clooney's Bell's palsy wasn't permanent. Within a year he had regained full use of his muscles.

But that year taught him everything he would ever need to know about how to use his own charm to devastating effect.

By the time his face returned to normal, he was one of the most popular boys in school - thanks to his ability to raise a laugh.

Once he pretended to be a ventriloquist using a shark's head in a dissecting lesson. Another time he faked his own death to liven up a maths class.

It was this sort of behaviour that won over the bullies. And, more importantly, the girls.

Today, George Clooney's former classmates must be incredulous at what has happened to the boy with the funny face.

Film crews now refer to him as Swooney Clooney because of his popularity with women the world over.

Most recently, the 41-year-old star of ER, Ocean's Eleven, and Solaris has been having an on/off relationship with Renee Zellweger. He's also been closely linked with models Lisa Snowdon, Naomi Campbell and Nicole Kidman.

In the popularity stakes, he couldn't be more successful. Women love him. Men want to be him. Children adore him. Even animals follow him around.

As well as two British bulldogs, Bud and Lou, he shares his home with a pot-bellied pig called Max. Critics have tried to put Clooney's success with women down to his looks, but the truth is his sex appeal is as much due to his innate self-confidence.

Ask Clooney about his Lothario image and he will laugh it off.

"I was the kind of kid who'd be sitting at a bar and staring at some girl and she'd be staring back at me, and I'd never go over and talk to her," he insists. "Then I'd go home and think, 'why didn't I talk to her?' In my old age, I've finally gotten braver."

THE truth, however, is that ever since he convinced the girls to stop laughing at him, Clooney has known exactly how to get women to fall at his feet.

He lost his virginity at 15 to a girl two years older. And by the time he was 19, he knew exactly what women wanted.

His first serious girlfriend was Debra Fraysure-McCormick, a classmate at Augusta High School. Interestingly, it isn't Clooney's dark eyes or warm grin she remembers with affection, but his knack for making her feel like she was the centre of his world. "He liked to play Nat King Cole music and would sing Walking My Baby Back Home to me," she giggles. "We grew apart when we went to separate universities, but for a while he sent me the sweetest cards.

"One had these two little snails on the front and said something like, 'I sure do love you, my escargot'."

The Clooney seduction technique, however, was perfected through years of watching how not to do it.

"I used to DJ in a bar in Cincinnati," he recalls. "I'd watch the guys go up and hit on a girl and say, 'you want to go out to dinner?' I watched the girls take those guys' egos and just pummel them.

"I realised I was never going to give any girl that kind of power. I was never going to go up to a girl and say, 'Here's my ego, throw it on the ground and stamp all over it.'"

Since then George has played the seductiongame according to his rules, often leaving his friends stunned by his audacity. None of them will forget the time, back in 1982, when he was a a Hollywood nobody living in the only 'room' he could afford - a friend's broom cupboard.

After one memorable showbiz party, he sauntered off with a bottle of beer in one hand and a new girlfriend in the other.

Once home, he beckoned the way into the cupboard and she followed. "I could never understand it," laughs one friend. "What could he possibly say to get her in there?"

But while Clooney has never had any trouble getting a girl, he hasn't been quite so successful at keeping them.

His first live-in relationship was with Kelly Preston, the actress now married to John Travolta, but the relationship was over almost as soon as it began.

Six months later, aged 28, George married actress Talia Balsam in Las Vegas.

"Talia was the girl I chased and was in love with, the girl I always wanted to marry," he says. "We got married in the Chapel of White Lace and Promises. It was horrifying."

Within a year, the marriage was over. After a bitter court battle, the divorce came through in 1992, with George paying $80,000 in lawyers' fees alone.

So what went wrong?

Clooney's old friend, Spin City star Richard Kind says: "George is not the sort of person to play by other people's rules. And marriage is all about that. When he divorced Talia, he didn't divorce the woman, he divorced the 'wife'."

Ever since, Clooney has been at pains to insist the whole marriage-and-kids package is not for him, which, of course, just makes him more attractive.

But so far no other woman has got anywhere close to tempting him down the aisle.

His ex-girlfriend Celine Balitran, whom he dated for three years until 1999, made it clear from the start that she hoped to get married and have children.

The 23-year-old law student didn't recognise him when they first met in a bar in Paris. And for Clooney, that was part of the attraction. "We talked about her work and how she was paying her way by working part-time," he says. "In fact, we talked about everything but me. She admitted she was one of the few people in Paris who didn't go to the movies.

"She actually said, 'Actors always seem so big-headed' and I thought, 'Is she having me on?'"

George, ever the smoothie, suggested a moonlight walk around Versailles.

"As soon as I saw him, I cracked," Celine recalls. "He smiled at me and I smiled back. When we went for a walk he suddenly seized me in his arms and I realised he was the man of my life. Within a day I packed up and left. I gave my furniture to my best friend, paid off my bills and told everyone I was going to live in the US."

SOON Celine was redecorating Clooney's eight-bedroom mansion - called Casa de Clooney - and even allowing Max the pig to sleep on their bed.

But she made no secret of her hankering for a family.

"A love story means marriage and babies," she told friends.

Clooney, however, wasn't thinking along the same lines.

"I am committed to my work and that is a problem for my personal life," he admitted.

In April 1999, after three years, Celine left him.

"I blew it. Celine was a really nice girl and wanted nothing more than was normal. And I couldn't do it," he admits.

"It was frustrating because you think, 'Am I relegated to three-year relationships for the rest of my life?'"

Clooney remains adamant that he will never have children, again sacrificing family life to his career.

"Actors are indulgent and toy with the idea we're still kids ourselves. That is not great for children," he explains. "Children are a great responsibility and I am probably not the most responsible guy in the world. I don't want to be responsible for someone else I could hurt."

Cheekily, Clooney jokes that he has found the perfect way to finance a vasectomy. Co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman each bet him $10,000 that he would be a dad by the age of 40.

Clooney, who will be 42 in May, has collected a cool $20,000.

"It only costs $2,000 for a vasectomy so I figure I'm, $18,000 up," he laughs.

"It's just not going to happen. I'm barely good at keeping a pig."

j.johnston@mirror.co.uk

George Clooney: A Biography by Jeff Hudson is published by Virgin Books and is on sale from March 14, priced pounds 16.99. To order your copy call Mirror Direct on 0870 0703200.

CAPTION(S):

BULLIED: Ironically it was a disfiguring disease that taught George how to win women; HAPPY: Aged 8 before paralysis set in; HUNK: By 20 he was a hit with ladies; SPLIT: George's marriage to Talia Balsam was over within a year
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Words:1646
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