Elizabeth Berkley, one of the best-known TV teenagers of the 90s, is now 49 years old, and it’s fair to say her career didn’t pan out quite as anticipated.
After shooting to fame on teen sitcom Saved by the Bell, she looked set for Hollywood success with Showgirls – but things went very badly wrong.
Elizabeth Berkley was born in Farmington, Michigan on the 28th of July 1972, the youngest child of a Jewish family.
She was born with partial heterochromia, meaning she has different coloured irises: whilst her left eye is green, her right eye is partially brown.
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Berkley pursued dance from an early age, studying in New York and making her professional debut before she hit her teens.
She missed out on the title role in the Broadway musical Annie, but successfully landed roles in several musicals and ballets.
After working as a teen model, Berkley relocated with her family to Los Angeles to pursue TV acting. Eventually this led to an audition for Saved by the Bell, a teen sitcom set in the fictional California school of Bayside High.
Built from the ashes of a failed sitcom entitled Good Morning, Miss Bliss, Saved by the Bell brought back a number of actors from that show: Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zack), Lark Voorhies (Lisa), Dustin Diamond (Screech) and Dennis Haskins (Mr Belding).
However, the showrunners were also adding a number of new characters to the show, one of whom was a girl named Kelly Kapowski – and this was the role that Berkley was in the running for.
Ultimately, the producers cast Tiffani Amber-Thiessen as Kelly, but decided Berkley was too good to let go. To this end, the character of Jessie Spano was created specifically for her.
While Saved by the Bell is generally classed now as a hotbed of high school cliches, Jessie was in her own way a groundbreaking character.
Without falling into a nerdy bookworm stereotype, Berkley’s Jessie was a highly intelligent straight A-student, as well as an outspoken feminist.
Berkley told Vogue in 2020, “You had a 15-year-old girl using her voice… someone who advocates for others. That wasn’t something you’d see on television at that time.”
“She was fearless, and I think in our culture, many young women are taught to apologise for speaking up and using their voices… so I was always proud to have played a character like Jessie.”
The show proved a huge success, making celebrities out of Berkley and her co-stars. She played Jessie in 75 episodes, plus spin-off TV movie Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas.
The franchise continued, but Berkley – by now in her early 20s – decided it was time to move on and try her luck in the film industry.
Then along came a role which looked like it was certain to send the young actress straight to the A-list: Showgirls, a provocative new project from blockbuster director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas.
The actress recalls, “These were the filmmakers who made Basic Instinct and had just turned Sharon Stone into the biggest star on the planet. Suddenly they need an actress my exact age who can dance and act… it felt like a no-brainer.”
Intended as a satire on the entertainment industry, Showgirls cast Berkley as Nomi Malone, a troubled young woman out to make it as a dancer in Las Vegas.
Sadly, Showgirls misfired terribly. It bombed at the box office, with critics widely declaring it one of the worst films ever made – and the lion’s share of the scorn was aimed squarely at Berkley.
The Hollywood newcomer’s extremely over-the-top turn as the hyper-emotional Nomi made Berkley a laughing stock.
Naturally, the actress says “It wasn’t easy to be the person that was personally ridiculed,” and recalls her alarm that “some journalists, including women, critiqued my body.”
A few small movie roles followed, including supporting turns in The First Wives Club and Any Given Sunday, but the shadow of Showgirls followed Berkley everywhere she went. She soon found herself dropped by her agent, and her future in Hollywood looked bleak.
Eventually this prompted Berkley to step away from Hollywood and return to her first home, the stage. To the surprise of many, this proved to be a very successful move for the actress.
One particular Broadway production, 2005’s Hurlyburly, earned such praise that the New York Times issued an apology to Berkley for earlier criticism.
In the meantime, Showgirls has been rediscovered as a cult classic of the so-bad-it’s-good variety.
DVD re-releases of the film have highlighted its trashy elements, and the film has inspired such homages as an off-Broadway musical and an unofficial sequel.
Berkley seems to have long since made peace with the film, remarking, “it’s been amazing to see how something so controversial has now been embraced.”
Dance continues to be a big part of Berkley’s life. In 2008, she hosted the short-lived reality TV show Step It Up and Dance, and in 2013 she was a participant on the hit show Dancing with the Stars.
2008 also saw Berkley launch her own website, Ask Elizabeth, to offer advice to teenage girls on such sensitive issues as body image and self-esteem.
Berkley has been married to artist Greg Lauren since 2003, and the couple have one child, born in 2012. While she still uses Elizabeth Berkley as her professional name, she has legally changed her name to Elizabeth Berkley Lauren.
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In 2020, things came full circle for Berkley as she reunited with most of her old co-stars in a revival of Saved by the Bell, which saw the adult Jessie Spano become Bayside High’s school counsellor. (Screech actor Dustin Diamond, who sadly died in early 2021, did not return.)
It’s doubtful that she’ll ever shake off the label of “that girl from Saved by the Bell who was in Showgirls,” but Elizabeth Berkley stands as a powerful example of someone who has kept their head held high and maintained their dignity in the face of disparagement. For this, she earns our admiration and respect.