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Interview: Elizabeth Berkley

 photo courtesy of DoSomething.org

By Danielle Cantor
March 2011

We have good news: You will never need to search for another bat mitzvah gift again. Actress Elizabeth Berkley has compiled a book of stories and advice, by and for teen girls, addressing the spectrum of girl-related issues. Love. Friendships. Joy. Pain. Parents. Some of it is light. Some of it is decidedly heavy. It’s all essential reading for any teenage girl.

A Michigan native, Berkley moved with her parents to Los Angeles in the late 1980s to work as a teen model and pursue acting. Soon after they arrived Berkley won a starring role in the hit teen comedy Saved by the Bell. (Fun fact for SBTB fans: Berkley auditioned for the role of Kelly Kapowski, but the producers of the show could not choose between her and actress Tiffani Thiessen, so they created the character Jessie Spano specifically for Berkley, which she played until the show ended in 1993.)

Berkley’s career took a difficult turn with the infamous 1995 film Showgirls: The NC-17-rated movie bombed at the box office, was widely panned by critics, and left Berkley – its 21-year-old star – vulnerable to media attacks on every front. It was the sort of disaster that would have driven many young actors to leave Hollywood or self-destruct. But Berkley picked up the pieces and got back to work. In the years since she has appeared in numerous films, including The First Wives Club, Any Given Sunday and Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. She also expanded her onstage work – both in London (opposite Eddie Izzard in the stage version of Lenny) and on Broadway, first with Richard Dreyfuss in Sly Fox and then in Hurlyburly, a performance that earned her critical praise – and absolution.

On television, Berkley’s star continues to rise: She has guest-starred on The L Word, NYPD Blue, Without a Trace, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and numerous other series. A multi-episode appearance on CSI: Miami was so highly rated, her character was brought back for the hit show's season six finale, and may return again in the future. Berkley also hosted Bravo’s short-lived but popular reality series, Step It Up and Dance.

In 2003, Berkley married artist Greg Lauren, whom she met in a dance class three years earlier. (Naturally, the bride and her party were dressed by the groom’s uncle, fashion designer Ralph Lauren.) And in 2006, when her husband joked that she should start her own advice column for the teens who frequently approached her on the street for autographs and advice, Berkley discovered her greatest passion: Empowering girls. 

While the acting gigs have rolled in the last few years, Berkley has spent her free time cultivating Ask Elizabeth, a nonprofit that grew organically out of her husband’s offhand observation and a desire to do good for girls. The project began as a series of school-based workshops and expanded into an online resource for teens, an Oprah column for parents, and now a book – published in March 2011 – that is a moving and beautifully-designed compilation of questions, answers and advice.

“When I speak about Ask Elizabeth, there’s a totally different energy because it’s my baby; I’m in love with it. And it’s not self-serving – it’s such a labor of love,” Berkley says. Indeed it’s hard not to get excited when discussing the project; her enthusiasm is infectious.

In five chapters Ask Elizabeth covers physical self-acceptance, romance, friendships, family issues, and private thoughts and worries. “I’m not judging you,” she writes, “I just want you to consciously be the boss of your own choices!” It’s an extraordinary work of art and soul.

Your new book is beautifully designed; how did you create that aesthetic?
Even though girls love a cute heart image, for me it was a collection of different heartbeats in this book – girls who wanted to share their stories because someone out there, who they’d never meet, could potentially be helped by the story they had to tell. If you give them the space to know they’re valued and be heard… That’s my big mission: To create connection.

I was so grateful to be working with Penguin because they knew, when I presented the proposal, that it was essential that the visual language of the book be tied in with the content, hand-in-hand. I know that, especially in this day and age, how it would be delivered would have to capture the audience and move them. I wanted it to feel like a book that was written by me but passed across the country – like a group diary. My husband Greg is an artist, and he and I designed it together, day and night, taping and rhinestoning and sewing, and then we’d FedEx it to our designers in Philadelphia – I hired a designer outside the publisher – and we’d go back and forth.

Those are not handwriting fonts in the book; it’s the handwriting of real girls. I grew up knowing my friends’ handwriting, which is very intimate if you think about it. If my girlfriend Brooke sent me a letter, she didn’t even need to sign it – I knew her bubbly little “i,” and her personality was in her writing. The girls in my book wrote their stories themselves. It felt so much more personal and intimate to me. I had to maintain the intimacy that’s alive in my workshops.

ask elizabethWhat planted the seed for Ask Elizabeth?
Basically Saved by the Bell started in syndication about seven years ago and I had a whole new generation of girls approaching me for autographs and pictures, but it didn’t feel right to just send them off with a signature. I wanted to be of service to that age group. If I look back to that time of my life, there were so many things shaped by that moment. I call it the threshold moment of a girl’s life; so much of your identity is shaped at that time. And so many of us are looking for someone else to help us figure out who we are. I wished I’d had someone like that when I was that age, even though I had some amazing mother figures. I just kept seeing that in schools they don’t have time to nurture the emotional life of a teen girl. It’s more about excelling at academics. But there’s been a void in something that can be meaningful, so I created this two-hour interactive workshop and offered it to an organization in New York that works with schools in the area.

We started with this one group of 20 girls; I didn’t know if they would like it, but they didn’t want me to leave. What happened from there was totally organic. It wasn’t a vanity project; I created it from my heart and soul, and it was amazing. This was five years ago now. Other administrators heard about it and invited me to share it. I was on Broadway at the time, so I would perform at night and do this during the day. This led to organizations like Girl Scouts, dance conventions, camps, other schools… Now I’ve worked with more than 30,000 girls in these workshops. I created the website so I could offer them more consistency. And then I started the Oprah column to give support to the moms – because the issues among girls today are more extreme.

Then the book came out of the fact that no matter where I went, there was a group of questions that kept coming up. I saved all these little pieces of paper over the years and put them into categories because I was tweaking my workshops based on what they were asking to focus on. When I realized there was a universal group of questions, that’s when the book idea started. It had to be in the same spirit that I engage with the girls – which is speaking with them, never at them – and using that group exchange to create the impact.

Once I identified the 15 most-asked questions for this book, I went back and worked with girls – in person, on Skype, conference calls, email… all around the world – to narrow it down. It was amazing to me how girls rallied to be a part of it. This was not about their own glory; it was 100% to show the goodness in the world. They wanted to help girls around the world that they would never meet.

ask elizabethDo you have a message for Jewish girls in particular?
Beyond religion, upbringing or anything, this is my gift to all girls as they make their way through their emotional journey to becoming women. This is the rite-of-passage book, no matter their background. I can’t save anyone from the highs and lows of life. But having this as a guide, giving them tools and showing them they’re not alone, is my deepest wish.

Showgirls, 1995: The fallout in the media after the movie was released was brutal. How did that experience change you?
In all honesty, that defining time in my life is probably, looking back, the reason that I’m so dedicated to Ask Elizabeth, because of the test of faith I went through in such an intense way. It was such a cruel time – the people involved with the film, and the industry itself… It was really brutal. I had worked so hard my whole life, and at age 21, coming out of your adolescence, to have that kind of negativity coming at you, I had to just go back to the work. My work has always been my salvation. Like in ballet we say, “Go back to the barre.” I just went back to the barre. I went back to acting class, back to my dance classes, back to the things I love. I wasn’t going to let the naysayers stop me.

And I hadn’t seen anyone else go through that; I didn’t have anyone I could call for advice. But what I’ve learned is that lessons are around us all the time and it’s our choice to look at it and be a better person because of it. I really took inventory of my life at that time and decided where I wanted to put my creativity and who I wanted to surround me. The lessons I got out of that experience are too numerous to list. But true self-worth and truly knowing myself… I had to pull myself out of it. And not let the comments knock me down.

These girls in my book are going through this stuff all the time. Being a victim was never an option. It felt like a failure, but what it made me do – what it woke me up to – feels like a gift. I came away armed with strength, courage and knowledge

saved by the bellSaved by the Bell was a breakout role for you at just 17 years old. How did you adapt to the fame and exposure?
My family and I had just moved to L.A. from Michigan in the fall, and that spring I got the job. I was really grounded; I have such amazing parents. This has always been my passion, and I was lucky to have parents who took my dream seriously. I could not have done it without them. It’s not like we had any Hollywood connections. I was doing 17 dance lessons a week, going to school, working… When Saved by the Bell happened I was going to regular school during the day and I had my own friends, and then I’d go to NBC studios after school and had a great balance. I was doing what I wanted to do and I was grounded in it because nobody handed anything to me. I’ve worked for everything I’ve gotten, always. I was always grateful; there’s never been entitlement for me. It’s important to have that kind of humility behind anything you pursue. When gratitude is behind it, you end up attracting better situations.

Was there a point in your career when you felt you were struggling to break away from Jessie Spano, your character from Saved by the Bell?
Because we really were the age we were playing in the show, we grew up, and the transition was much easier because I didn’t look at the end of the show like the girl I was when it started. Obviously people can identify you with a character, and I still appreciate that the show holds such a sweet memory for people. It was a really good time in my life. Because we were under 18 all our parents were there. It was more of an organic transition than some other child actors, just because of the nature of the show. Mark Paul [Gosselaar], Mario [Lopez] and I are still good friends.

Have you had a favorite role?
One of my favorites was Hurlyburly. It was kind of a wild experience – I wrote in the book [page 45 of Ask Elizabeth] about working with Parker Posey and how incredibly supportive she was. That’s a great example of a situation between women that could have been competitive, but she totally had my back.

That play was amazing because on a personal and a creative level, it was a test. I had to learn it in three days – I was brought in to replace someone – and I got to learn a lot about myself. It was one of those moments when you find out what you’re made of. It was a leap of faith where I had to trust my years of training and just jump in. And the role itself had a lot of depth and emotion. I love a character that goes through something; it’s transforming. Just like writing the book.

Do you have a favorite medium – film, TV, live theater?
I get such a thrill out of all of them. When I’m in the middle of a play and it’s a long one, I miss the intimacy of being on a show when you’re in your own bubble, but I get a rush out of working in a theater. It’s very romantic to work in a theater.

Eating disorders in fashion and Hollywood have been in the news a lot recently. Have you ever been pressured to lose weight for a role?
I’ve never had pressure to lose weight, but there’s certainly pressure to maintain. What I do is like an athlete – part of the roles I get cast in require me to look a certain way. It’s part of my job to stay in good shape. But it’s as much about my own pride in taking care of myself and feeling good in my skin. Being a dancer, then modeling, and acting – all of that requires me to take care of myself. Eating right, exercise, yoga… Anything about well-being allows you to give more.

Do Jewish values or practices play a role in your life now?
It comes back to my family; the traditions from growing up in my family. My grandma Ceil had Shabbat dinners on Friday night. That tradition and ritual – taking that time, carving it out – I do love and miss that. I would say the value systems from my family are a beautiful gift in my life.

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