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/ Source: The Associated Press

Bethany Joy Lenz’s singing ability wasn’t why she was cast as Haley James in “One Tree Hill.” Yet her vocal talent has become an integral part of the character — even affecting the plot of the teen drama.

While filming during the WB series’ first season, creator and executive producer Mark Schwahn happened to hear Lenz’s voice.

“She was standing in the corner of the set singing — in a parking garage with really good acoustics! She has an incredible voice, one of those voices that you hear and you think that person should be on Broadway. Why’s she wasting her time acting?” Schwahn recalls.

Discovering that Lenz indeed wanted to sing on the show (8 p.m. ET Wednesdays) Schwahn developed a story line in which Haley started performing in a local club and then went on tour.

Deciding to have real life mirror fiction, “One Tree Hill” producers scheduled Lenz on a 23-city concert tour, along with Tyler Hilton, who guest stars as Chris Keller, and Gavin DeGraw, whose “I Don’t Want to Be” is the show’s theme song.

This led to Lenz scoring a deal with Epic Records, with an album of mainly original songs scheduled for release early next year.

Singing is her passion
“I was probably singing before I could talk,” says the 24-year-old actress. “Musical theater is my passion. If I could afford it, I would just do dinner theater and live a simple life.”

Lenz was in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, musician Michael Galeotti, on a brief break from the Wilmington, N.C., location where “One Tree Hill” is produced.

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Galeotti held her hand as she walked across the Warner Bros. lot to the studio coffee shop. But he sat at another table — yet still in eye contact — while she was interviewed about her life and career.

She wouldn’t talk about Galeotti or their relationship, and was equally discreet when asked if the breakup of the brief, real-life marriage between her co-stars Chad Michael Murray and Sophia Bush was making filming difficult. She commented only that “everyone is very professional.”

Schwahn echoed that comment, noting that when Murray and Bush started dating, he had told them, “I hope you are happy for the rest of your lives together, but if you are not, I can’t cater the story line.”

Lenz acted and appeared in commercials as a child and later was on the daytime soap opera “Guiding Light” for a couple of years.

‘This is me in high school’When presented with the role of Haley, she identified with the character immediately.

“This is me in high school,” she says.

“We looked for a girl who could be a sort of an everywoman, but also be unique and talented,” says Schwahn. “Haley is someone who sees the world with a little skewed perspective at a time in high school when fitting in, adhering to the company line, gets you through. Joy has a point of view that isn’t necessarily career-based and I wanted those qualities for Haley.”

“I’ve kind of come to a place in my life where I don’t really care,” says Lenz. “I’m happy now and even if I wasn’t working, it would be fine.”

Now in its third season, “One Tree Hill” remains popular with its core female audience, but is struggling in other ratings demographics.

As is customary when appealing to teens, the show is very fussy about how the young stars look.

Clearly someone with individualized fashion taste — on this day a floral wrap dress with a faint hint of glitter — Lenz admits she chafes a bit under those restraints.

Hers was the last principal role cast in the show’s ensemble, and to clearly set her apart from blond, curly-haired co-star Hilarie Burton, Lenz had to dye her blond, curly hair darker and smooth it out.

“We get phone calls every week about hair, wardrobe,” Lenz says. “You have no idea. If I want to put a clip in my hair we have to take photos of it and send it to L.A.”