Chace is cheerfully reeling off the indictments against him. "Model turned actor, dime a dozen, eye candy, doesn't know what he's doing ... and Perez Hilton says I have 'gayface.' So on top of everything else, I have to overcome gayface."

At 23, Chace is the oldest of the Gossip boys, and the least professionally experienced, which initially made him "super-nervous." He does not seem super-nervous anymore. Why should he be? There is good-looking (e.g., everyone on Gossip Girl), and then there is the kind of good-looking that makes other men glumly realize that they are one rung lower on the evolutionary ladder than they'd thought. "It's like he was genetically bred to be a teen star," Penn says, with less sarcasm than awe.

The New York teen-girl hive mind, which is pretty much like that of the Borg on Star Trek if it wore a little plaid uniform, knows where Chace is at all times. "Once when we were on location on the Upper East Side," he says, "these girls came up, you know, with the Blair headbands and their skirts hiked up higher than they should be, and I said to them, 'So, are you looking at colleges?' and they said, 'No, we're in seventh grade.' I was like, 'What?! You shouldn't even be watching our show!'"

It's late July, and we're sitting in the Frying Pan, a burger joint on a Hudson River pier that's exactly the kind of low-rent-but-cool eatery that the Gossip guys like. Chace, who jokes that his character's fashion sense is "permanently stuck in sailor," is in off-duty clothes: Diesel jeans, white T-shirt, Pumas, surfer baseball cap. He seems relaxed. He's on home turf. Most of the cast members live in adjacent downtown neighborhoods, and Chace and Ed share an apartment in Chelsea. This has fueled Internet speculation that they are secret lovers, although that seems to be a figment of the collective gaymagination. If you were a closeted TV star, after all, you'd probably come up with a better cover than living with your boyfriend in Manhattan's Pinkberriest zip code. "No, sorry, I've got nothing to educate you about," says Chace, laughing. "What does bromance even mean?" (Ed has denied rumors too, saying they're just friends.) Chace's mom helped him find the apartment, and he recruited Ed as a roommate. "I thought, Let's pool our money and get something good," Chace says. "I didn't even know if the show was going to last."

Chace grew up in the wealthy Dallas suburb of Plano, where he went to a Christian private school that he says was "much more relaxed" than the fictional prep school he now attends. His own adolescence was nothing like Nate's: "I'm pretty sure I wasn't having sex with any cougars." He played sports; he still likes to hit the gym, watch football, maybe even make a bet or two. He has a nice family; his father is a doctor, his mother is a teacher, and his sister, Candice, who studies broadcast journalism, is the current Miss Missouri USA. And despite advertisements to the contrary, the most "mind-blowingly inappropriate" thing he did in high school, apparently, was "an idiotic glass-punching thing" that left him with a scar on one wrist.

Though he started out as a model (perhaps you've seen him shirtless and treasure-trailed for Abercrombie & Fitch), he didn't like the job; being handled and positioned and manipulated makes him feel "like an animal." He's still not crazy about "last looks" the moment before every take on Gossip Girl when a small battalion of makeup and hair technicians make sure the pretty people all look perfect. After the touch-up's done, "I literally go into the bathroom and wipe off one layer," he says. The show's hi-def, high-sheen look makes the occasional unanticipated zit "a big deal oh, they turn on the alarms for that. And they get mad if I get sunburned or if I get a haircut."

Chace, whose demeanor is friendly and relaxed, says he loves his job. Good thing, since he, like all the principals, is under contract for another six seasons. "It never really gets frustrating," he says. "Sure, sometimes you just want to have a scene where you're drunk or having fun. I'm hoping for a fall from grace for Nate. Five years from now, I better have murdered someone!"

One of Chace's steamy scenes with Mädchen Amick