Mar 22 2011 03:26 PM ET
The surprising story behind Elizabeth Berkley’s new book, ‘Ask Elizabeth’
by Maggie Pehanick
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Elizabeth Berkley, former teenage star of Saved By the Bell and former adult star of cult favorite Showgirls has written a book. No, as she’ll clarify, not a tell-all. (Though we have seen our share of those from the SBTB crowd) Rather, it’s a book for teenage girls, written diary-style, that focuses on helping girls get through those challenging high school years. Raise your hand if you saw this coming.
Here’s the kicker: It’s good.
This may not be surprising to the school administrators who, over the past five years, have allowed Berkley into their libraries, cafeterias, and football fields for her girls-only “Ask Elizabeth” workshops. It may also not be surprising to the parents of the girls she’s helped or to the young women who have felt the positive influence of her workshops (30,000 participants and counting). However, it was surprising for this reporter, who had all but filed book-smart Jesse Spano away in the back of her mind.
The workshops (which gave way to the website, and now the book) were born several years ago when Saved By the Bell went into international syndication. A new generation of girls recognized her and approached her on the street. What began as a slow trickle quickly turned into a waterfall. “It just kept happening everywhere I’d go,” says Berkley. “I’d be talking to five girls and it would turn into ten, twenty and it would end up being this kind of organic, shared dialogue.” And they weren’t just asking about Zack and Kelly’s wedding, either. They would talk about their lives.“They would come up to me for an autograph or a picture but it led to more meaningful dialogue. I suppose because I was genuinely interested in what they had to say.”
“Everyone just talks about the problems our teenage girls are facing and what they’re dealing with,” says Berkley. “But there was, to me, a void in how they were being served or helped. I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to create something.’”
And create she did. Berkley had been working on a format for a two-hour, interactive workshop and rather than leading the acting workshop she’d been asked to run, she told the organizer to take a look at her idea.“It spread like wildfire. Schools and administrators and parents, completely word of mouth, totally grassroots, I didn’t do any press on it for two years. It was just organic.”
The workshops – eventually called Ask Elizabeth – strived to create a safe environment for adolescent women to discuss personal issues. Everything from family matters to matters of the heart to body image issues and bullying: Nothing was off the table. After a couple years of flying herself to different schools across the country, Berkley began to see trends take shape. “I noticed that no matter where I went in the country, there was this group of questions that got asked. I would track them and keep them in categories. Like body image, school, family, friendship, you name it, the emotional life of a teenage girl. It didn’t matter what region of the country, whether I was in Orlando, Kentucky, or New York’s Upper East Side. There was a universal emotional journey that we all go through even though we might have a different story surrounding it.”
That universal sentiment was the basis for Ask Elizabeth book, which came out today. Berkley says she simply wanted to share her experience, strength and hope with a generation that just seems to be craving to be heard. Though Ask Elizabeth isn’t really an advice book, that’s not to say Berkley doesn’t dole out some friendly suggestions. The book is sprinkled with what she refers to as “action steps” and “healing tools.” As she says, “It’s not enough to just talk about the issues.What do you do about them.”
Yes, yes, it talks about best friends and broken hearts but let’s get to the meat of it: Does it talk about Showgirls?
In so many words, sort of. In a section discussing bullies, Berkley does address the extreme criticism she received following the release of what was supposed to be her star-making movie. Though it is obvious what film she’s referring to, she never names it, leaving me to believe there is somewhat of a Lord Voldemort-type situation in the Berkley household. In any case, Ask Elizabeth seems like a book my mom may have given me when I was 15. Probably I would have acted like I didn’t want it and put it on my bookshelf, but secretly I’ would have read it at night, savoring all the little anecdotes from girls who I didn’t know felt just like me. It’s like PostSecret for the Teenage Girl’s Soul.
That’s why it works. Berkley hits a tone that’s neither condescending nor above the reader’s head. She shares personal stories without delving into TMI territory. Her empathy is refreshing and though her background gives her the experience and material necessary to write a book like this, it doesn’t become the forefront of why she’s writing. And Ask Elizabeth has an appealing scrapbooky feel to it. “I wanted it to feel like I wrote a book and passed it across the country and had girls tape in, glue in, staple in pieces. It was this community of, I call it different heartbeats on every page.”
The best advice Berkley herself ever received?
“Never give up on yourself.”