As Jessie Spano, she played a lanky, sometimes awkward teenager who often touted her feminist know-it-all demeanor in front of her less-than-knowledgeable friends on “Saved by the Bell.”
But even Jessica Myrtle Spano had her flaws. I’m, of course, referring to the highly memorable scene in which the pressure of being the resident smarty pants pushed Miss “Legs” Spano to a short-lived addiction to over-the-counter caffeine pills.
It was a good lesson in the fact that, frankly, being a teenage girl can be tough — it has its pressures and even the seemingly self-assured has a weak spot.
Since her days on the teen sitcom, Elizabeth Berkley discovered an unspoken bond with her fans, one that would open the door for them to “Ask Elizabeth” for advice. Whether through being recognized as the Bayside do-gooder or through other avenues, Berkley noticed teenage girls felt a comfort level with her to share their stories of teen drama and even solicit her for advice.
While she admitted, she didn’t know all the answers the dialogue that was created gave Berkley an idea. More than five years and tens of thousands of teen girls later, Berkley has numerous “Ask Elizabeth” workshops under her belt — creating a public forum for young girls to talk about everything from self-esteem to friendship and bullying to love.
Taking one step further, Berkley has now created a new book called “Ask Elizabeth: Real Answers to Everything You Secretly Wanted to Ask about Love, Friends, Your Body … and Life in General.” The book, which looks like a well-love diary, discusses the 15 most-asked questions that Berkley has received through her workshops. Berkley will sign copies of her book at the Mall of America this week, but before she does, she took some time out of her busy schedule to talk about her road from Spano to support sister.
Elizabeth Berkley: So let’s just jump in like girls, like we’ve known each other forever.
Sounds like a plan.
So after taking a peek at the book, it seems you’ve really gone straight to the source. There are a lot of books like this that are out there but they perhaps are geared toward parents or just on the subject itself. You talk straight to the girls. What made you take that approach?
Berkley: Thank you for that. I really appreciate that that stayed with you. There are a lot of really great parenting books out there, you know, but for the girls themselves there really aren’t resources that can be like a bible for them. In terms of the book itself, five years ago when I started — this all came from workshops I started facilitating as a volunteer in middle schools and high schools — and I’ve worked with almost 40,000 girls now in those workshops, sharing meaningful dialogue, on their football fields, in their cafeterias, in their auditoriums. In having that privilege of sitting with them and talking with them and hearing what they needed and most wanted, that’s why I created this book. They were asking for this.
And I’ve been lucky enough to be like a big sister that they rely on, so anything they’ve asked for, I’ve created. Whether it was the website, or the book, taking the 15 most-asked questions from these workshops and then bringing them into it because truly I’m not professing to have all the answers, it’s about giving them that community, that platform to help each other, too.
Obviously a lot of these girls recognize you from your “Jessie Spano” days.
Berkley: Yeah, and it’s on in the mornings now!
That’s right, yeah, right before school. Do you think playing a character like Jessie Spano has given these girls an open door to approach you with their teen issues?
Berkley: You know, yeah, I think there is comfort in the fact, you know, they know I’m not 15 anymore of course but they’re seeing me when I was their age and obviously it’s an older show but I think there was that comfort. I just have a natural desire to be of service for girls this age, because I do feel there is this void, so I think it’s my way with them that makes them feel comfortable, it’s not just the celebrity factor — that can only go so far. That’s not what we talk about at all. Maybe if that’s what gets them excited at first to come to a workshop, that’s fine. I don’t care what gets them there. But they’re going to leave with their own transformation that they had a hand in.
So as someone whose lived through it and is now trying to help the next generation, do you think growing up as a teenage girl is harder than it was in the past?
Berkley: Much. Much harder from what I am hearing from them first hand. Just the web alone, while it’s the most beautiful, amazing tool and I use it every day, at the same time it’s the thing that just, you know, there was a certain innocence in the world, especially in the time of “Saved by the Bell,” that now there’s just so much exposure to so much, much faster. The world is much smaller. Additionally, a lot of the issues that I went through going to regular school, those things now have another platform to manifest — whether it’s bullying or mean girls, there’s another place for that behavior to be magnified. It’s invasive, it’s in their home, the place that used to hopefully hold a safe kind of place where you could retreat, there really is no way to disconnect now. I think that’s why these girls were really asking, sort of reaching out for this book because it’s the one thing left where they can unplug, so to speak.
You’ll be at the Mall of America this week to sign copies of that book. Have you been to Minnesota before?
Berkley: No, I’m so excited. I’m a Midwestern girl myself, from Michigan. I’ve heard so many phenomenal things about it there, and I can’t wait, I’m so excited to see Mall of America. I’ve heard, some friends have been there, and we have some friends that live in Minneapolis. So I’m really excited. And I can’t wait to meet everyone, to have them all come out, of all ages. Fans who know me, have grown up with me, or new ones.
Bullying has certainly been a big topic these days — in Minnesota, as well. In the last month, we’ve struggled to make sense of a few teen suicides that have happened. What kind of advice do you give on the topic?
Berkley: It’s a big section in the book and it’s something that I was really firm about because I mean, we have to arm our girls with tools in this area because girls are too isolated and instead of staying quiet and being alone with their feelings, we have to let girls know that they can find help and release and support. It’s not something that they have to suffer silently with. That’s No. 1. Each scenario and situation calls for a different action step. That’s why in the book we lay out the different action steps pertaining to different scenarios the girls might find themselves in. Some are bullying that might be affecting their self esteem, which is huge, and then there are other kind of physical, unsafe situations, too. It really runs the gamut and that’s why we explore all of it.
I’ve got two experts to weigh in on that area — Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote “Queen Bees and Wannabes” and Rachel Simmons, who wrote “Odd Girl Out” — one of the first books to really draw attention to this and shed some light on this. It’s one of the chapters in the book that I’m most proud of. Especially because it’s just such a relevant topic, as everything is in the book but instead of talking about the problem, it gives girls something to do about it.
You include a number of personal stories in the book of dealing with your own struggles growing up. Why was that important for you to include?
Berkley: That was important to me because just like when I share meaningful dialogue with these girls in person, you know, I don’t stand up there at a podium, professing to have all the answers. The way I weigh in on their most-asked questions is also by sharing my own experiences and the ways I’ve overcome challenges that I’ve had to meet and how I’ve walked to the other side.
If they’re willing to be that brave and courageous, then I have to stand in my authenticity as well. So that’s the whole intention behind me sharing my own things, so that if on any given day a girl turns to a chapter that she needs to learn about, she can either hear me or another girl that worked on the book from across the country or an expert, whoever resonates for her, I don’t care but she’s got her pick from whoever strikes her on that day. Whatever she needs to take away from it, it’s there for the taking. It’s an offering from a whole group of people who are sharing their love and experience.
Elizabeth Berkley will be signing copies of her book, “Ask Elizabeth: Real Answers to Everything You Secretly Wanted to Ask about Love, Friends, Your Body … and Life in General” from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Best Buy Rotunda at the Mall of America. She will also conduct a Q&A session with fans.