It feels rude to stare, but it's not every day that i get a chance to sit eight inches away while Kate Beckinsale lifts up her shirt. So I look, yes, as her fingers dart to the hem of her white tank top and she yanks it upward, revealing not only the slim and delicate slopes of her waist and belly but also a wormy red line along the right side of her torso. "Yes," she says, "I did have a burst appendix."

The display is less for my benefit than for the edification of the international tabloid press, which seems, over the past year, to have transformed Kate Beckinsale into something that she and her husband, film director Len Wiseman, half-jokingly refer to as Frankenkate. A reader of gossip columns might presume that the 31-year-old actress had forsaken her English modesty and turned into some kind of a Botoxed, implanted, nipped-and-tucked Los Angeles ... contraption. "In the beginning I didn't believe that you could go to Oxford for Russian and French and ever still be called a bimbo—ever,"she says. "I just thought I was safe." And yet, she goes on, "it's really snowballed, to the point where I actually started to get quite panicked about it, because people were saying 'It's such a shame that she's sold out.' It's like, Oh, my God!"

So it needs to be said that here in Venice Beach, where she lunches on a cup of chamomile tea and a single grilled shrimp from my plate (she and 5-year-old daughter Lily having recently scarfed French toast at home in Santa Monica), nothing about her appearance or her conduct gives off the slightest clang of Bionic Barbie. That red scar on her stomach looks real, even though she thinks someone will probably snicker that it's phony. "Yes, it's basically a Twizzler that I've stuck on," she says, laughing. "They said that that's when I had the boob job. I had faked a burst appendix!"