Erika Eleniak was born in Glendale, California in 1969, and despite having appeared in a number of films and TV shows over the years, most of us will remember her best for Baywatch. Now that she’s enjoying her 50s, it’s a great time to look back at her career and see what made Eleniak the woman she is today.

At its peak, in 1996, Baywatch had a staggering weekly audience of 1.1 billion viewers in 142 countries. But back when it was a simple show about improbably buff lifeguards in improbably skintight clothing, Erika Eleniak took a starring role as Shauni McClain, a rookie lifeguard who was often nervous under pressure. But that’s not the beginning of the story.

Erika Eleniak as lifeguard Shauni McClain in Baywatch

Erika Eleniak’s first starring role in ET: The Extra Terrestrial

Eleniak made her debut on Baywatch at the age of only 20, though in fact she’d been acting for years in some major Hollywood pictures (albeit in minor roles). It won’t surprise you to learn that Eleniak also had a successful career as a model prior to and during her acting career.

The future slow-motion runner’s first film role might surprise you. She actually starred in Steven Spielberg’s iconic family caper E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, at age 12, as the girl kissed by Elliott in the film’s iconic classroom scene.

Her character doesn’t have a name (she’s credited as ‘Pretty Girl), and co-star Henry Thomas was no big fan at the time. “When I had to kiss the girl, I had to do it two times!” he told People magazine. “I don’t like girls.”

Eleniak would then not have a significant film role until she was an adult, but her career began to snowball quickly. She had a minor role in the 1988 remake of The Blob as Vicki De Soto, a victim of the titular blob.

Yet it was in the following year that the young actor truly made a name for herself. She shot to fame in the modelling world after appearing in the July 1989 issue of Playboy, coincidentally with a nautical theme and in which she appeared topless.

Later that year, Eleniak landed her first recurring role in the TV show Charles in Charge – as Charles’ girlfriend Stephanie, no less. But this would all be overshadowed by the career-defining role she’d also begin just as she turned 20: Shauni McClain in Baywatch.

McClain initially served as the young upstart of the group, being taken under the wing of Shawn Weatherley’s Jill Riley, the most experienced lifeguard on the team.

Erika Eleniak as Stephanie in 80s sitcom Charles in Charge

Riley is killed after rescuing civilians from a shark attack, becoming the first lifeguard to be killed off in the show. This leaves Shauni grief-ridden but determined to live up to her mentor’s reputation as a protector in stormy waters.

Eleniak starred in 44 episodes of Baywatch’s first and second seasons, and just two episodes of the third, making her the show’s main female character from 1989 until 1992. But it wasn’t all plain surfing.

“I felt like I auditioned six times [for that role],” Eleniak told Fox in 2018. “There were a lot of hoops to jump in to get through.”

“When we shot that show… it was January,” she continues. “It was the coldest time of the year. We would use these huge lights to make it look hot and sunny. I remember running in the water on the coldest day of the year. Our lips were so blue that we couldn’t use the footage. It was ridiculous. It was so cold.”

She adored playing Shauni McClain

Despite the frosty January filming, Eleniak has no regrets about her time on the show, describing the cast and crew as “just like a big family.”

Unfortunately, however, she left the show in 1992, later revealing that she was unhappy with the show’s trend towards titillation. “It did take a different direction,” Eleniak concludes, “but it is what made the show a phenomenon. I felt like it was a different show and no, I was not comfortable. It definitely wasn’t my thing to be super risqué.”

Erika Eleniak performs a striptease in Steven Seagal's Under Siege, 1992

After leaving Baywatch, Eleniak starred in a number of films but found it difficult to escape the long shadow of her stint as a TV lifeguard. Her most successful attempt was probably Under Siege.

In the film, Eleniak stars as a Playboy playmate hired to perform a striptease for a Navy Seal captain, in the iconic scene where she bursts out of a majestic tiered cake. She’s described as ‘Jordan Tate, Miss July 1989’, a small nod to when Eleniak actually featured in Playboy magazine in a similar outfit.

17 years Eleniak’s senior, Steven Seagal played Under Siege’s lead male role, Chief Petty Officer Casey Ryback. He was reluctant to join the movie because of Eleniak’s cake introduction. Speaking to the LA Times in 1992, Seagal recalled that he didn’t want to star alongside a character “who is at first a bimbo jumping out of a cake and gets paired up with me.”

However, after some hasty script changes, Seagal agreed to work with Eleniak – and she ended up playing a character “who gradually reveals her intelligence.”

In 1994, Eleniak starred in the romantic comedy Chasers, alongside William McNamara. She again starred with McNamara in 1995’s Girl in the Cadillac.

Ever keen to stay on trend, Eleniak then starred in an interactive video game as identical twins. The game, Panic in the Park, sees the player attempt to recover the deed to Eleniak’s character’s failing theme park alongside a security guard (Michael Clarke Duncan). And her evil twin is trying to thwart her – very 90s.

Erika Eleniak as Toni Johnson in Chasers 1994 military uniform

In the years that followed, Eleniak featured in a number of independent films, including A Pyromaniac’s Love Story, Bordello of Blood, The Pandora Project, One Hot Summer Night, Final Voyage, The Opponent, Second to Die, Shakedown, Betrayal and Strike Force.

Over the years, Eleniak has been open about the weight issues that she has experienced throughout her life, including the time she was once hospitalised because of laxative abuse, though she has since overcome her drug abuse. In 2006, she appeared on Celebrity Fit Club, a show in which well-known figures compete to see who can lose the most weight. However, Eleniak has never had plastic surgery or any other kind of invasive procedure to ‘correct’ her figure.

The Beverly Hillbillies star has had a turbulent personal life

Eleniak and her Baywatch co-star, Billy Warlock, were once engaged. She’s also been engaged to Philip Goglia, and once to Roch Daigle, a key grip who she met while the two were working on 2001’s Snowbound.

The actor married Goglia in 1988, but their marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce after only six months. Eleniak has since married Daigle, and the two currently live in Calgary, Alberta.

Erika Eleniak at Baywatch Slo-Mo Marathon in 2017

During her relationship with Daigle, in 2005, Eleniak was faced with an ectopic pregnancy that required emergency surgery. Ectopic pregnancies have a significant chance of being fatal, but thankfully Eleniak survived; unfortunately, the pregnancy ended in miscarriage.

Happily, Eleniak later gave birth to a daughter, Indyanna Daigle, born 2007. Eleniak continues to act, if mostly in TV films and independent productions. Still, it’s not like she needs a great deal of money – her net worth is thought to be in the region of $4 million.