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Joe Millionaire: Hunk or skunk?

Evan Marriott goes for broke

"Plenty of girls haven't wanted a relationship with me because I didn't make enough money," says Marriott (in his L.A.-area digs).

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(PEOPLE) -- A few weeks ago Evan Marriott kept to a strenuous schedule of jet-setting, fine dining and wooing women in the French countryside. Back home near L.A., all he wants to do is watch some hoops. "This is how I live," says Marriott, flipping on the TV while gesturing to an empty beer can, an unmade bed, strewn clothes and a pile of sports and men's magazines. "I'm the epitome of the single guy, huh?"

Not exactly. Few other single men have ever sought a soul mate by conning 20 women into thinking he's a chateau-dwelling aesthete worth $50 million, as Marriott does on the new FOX reality hit "Joe Millionaire." Ultimately Marriott, 28, will narrow the field to one woman and reveal his true identity: a $19,000-a-year construction worker. "He has a way with people," says mom Charlotte. "I always knew if the right thing came along, he would do well."

Just how well remains to be seen. Marriott is mum about the show's ending (which airs February 17), but he says that although he "started feeling guilty" about his deceit, "that died when I realized the innocence of it." He was tested more by his My Fair Laddie indoctrination in fencing, dancing and table etiquette. "Evan was pretty raw," says exec producer Jean-Michel Michenaud, "but he did great."

Forklifts over chilled forks

Marriott has always preferred forklifts to chilled forks. The son of Hank, 60, a Virginia Beach, Virginia, bank vice president, and Charlotte, 60, who manages a linen boutique, he graduated from high school in 1992 and modeled part-time while working as a hotel doorman in New York City.

At 22, when his money ran out, he returned to Virginia and began working at his godfather's construction firm. On the job "Evan grew long hair and wore flannel shirts with holes to blend in," says Charlotte. "He didn't want to be this pretty boy." After a stint acting in L.A. (he won a bit part in "Days of Our Lives" in 1999), he returned to construction and occasional modeling jobs.

At a 2001 Christmas party Marriott met a production staffer for "Joe" and landed the job within months. During the show's run he'll live in a FOX-funded home outside L.A. to escape the media onslaught. Marriott, who plans on returning to a hard-hat life, has no regrets about his stint in luxury's lap. But "at the end of the day," he says, "I'm just a bulldozer operator from Orange County."

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