New York Magazine
Elizabeth Berkley, the former teen star, talks body image, mean girls, and her unlikely new calling as a professional teen advice-giver.
By Alyssa Giacobbe
Published Apr 24, 2011
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Aside from the stick-straight hair, the modern-day Elizabeth Berkley is Jessie Spano incarnate—her face as youthful, maybe more so, as when her best-known character arrived on Saturday-morning television back in the late eighties. Jessie has proved a hard act to follow. More than twenty years later, signs outside the independent bookstore where she is scheduled to speak in erudite Brookline, Massachusetts, promote Berkley’s visit thusly: COME MEET ELIZABETH BERKLEY OF SAVED BY THE BELL!!!
The plan had been to chat inside the store, squeezed into two chairs set up in the children’s section. But understandably wary of being interviewed while also being ogled, Berkley has moved the conversation to the back seat of her air-conditioned Town Car, which is idling in an alley behind the shop. “This is so surreal, doing it in the car,” she says. “I just thought we should have a little privacy.” She is wearing jeans, a blazer, bright-purple suede Louboutins, and, strung onto a few necklaces, a pile of gold pendants, including one delicately carved with the initials G and E—the G being for her husband, artist Greg Lauren, nephew of Ralph. Spying my jewelry, she leans over to ask for a better look. In her new job as adolescent-advice guru, Berkley plays accessible, every girl’s cooler best friend or much taller big sister. Her book Ask Elizabeth: Real Answers to Everything You Secretly Wanted to Ask About Love, Friends, Your Body … and Life in General, currently at No. 2 on the New York Times best-sellers list of children’s paperbacks, was born out of the self-empowerment workshops she’s led for teens since 2006 (and blurbed by friends like Jennifer Garner, Cameron Diaz, and Fergie).
Berkley’s anointment as the Dear Prudence for teens came about by happy accident. A few years back, Saved by the Bell reruns landed a weekday early-morning time slot, and she suddenly found herself being approached by girls in the mall. They wanted autographs and, in some cases, wanted to talk: about what boys liked, about where she got her earrings, about why they never felt like the prettiest girl in the room, though, somehow, not about whether it was true when Screech alleged in his memoir that Zack Morris took steroids. “My husband would come to find me, and I’d be standing there with mascara in one hand and twelve girls in a circle around me,” she says. At the suggestion of Lauren, whom she describes as “super-cute,” Berkley developed a two-hour interactive workshop aimed at facilitating conversations like the ones she was having in her local Sephora; the workshop blossomed into a website, ask-elizabeth.com, which in turn begat the book. “The whole thing spread completely through word-of-mouth,” she says. “Teachers started telling each other about me, and I started finding myself on planes. I just kept showing up.”
The 38-year-old has no children or background in adolescent psychology, aside from having been a famous adolescent herself, and as a counselor is very much self-taught. “Girls are so often pitted against each other as enemies or adversaries,” she says. “We even see it in Us magazine: Who wore it better?” Perhaps because of that, some of her ideas veer away from traditional teen-advice-giving dogma: For one thing, she has some empathy for mean girls. “We’re not excusing the ones who are mean, but I want girls to understand the psychology,” she says. “It’s not in everyone. But the bully needs to put this pain somewhere.” And eschewing the more popular “It’s inside what counts” platitudes, she maintains that looks do matter and included in her book advice from a celebrity dermatologist, a diet guru, and “Hollywood’s top body-transformation expert.” Writes Berkley: “I’m sorry, but even little things like the right lip gloss can brighten my day!”
Although Berkley largely shies away from talking about the personal experience she refers to as “a movie early in my career that let’s just say I’d hoped would turn out much better,” Showgirls seems to inform her new work. “Showgirls was a critical point in my life,” she says. “I had my head handed to me. At 21 years old, I had to find my self-esteem again. It was a very hard time. So I think it’s what helps me have the deepest compassion for what the girls are going through. And maybe I wouldn’t have been as driven to create this if I hadn’t had that experience.” She says she spends a lot of time begging kids not to apologize for who they are: “I tell girls, ‘If you’re tall and feel too tall, the answer is to be taller.’ ”
A publicist appears to tap at the car window: It’s time for Berkley to speak to the Sunday-afternoon crowd—which, judging from its average age, is there not for free coping tips but out of nostalgia. Inside, as she approaches the microphone, Berkley parades the length of the room in what is quite likely the first pair of five-inch purple pumps this indie-bookstore basement has ever seen.