For Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, everything is coming full circle. In 1989 she burst onto the scene as the hyper-driven Jessie Spano in Saved by the Bell, NBC’s Saturday-morning series that turned into a pop culture phenomenon. Three decades later, and the actress is revisiting the role that launched her career thanks to a reboot that catches up with the beloved Bayside students and their high-school-age children.
The continued nostalgia for the ’90s has meant a renaissance for everything from the eerie Lynchian drama of Twin Peaks to the pure soap of Aaron Spelling creations like 90210 and Melrose Place. If a show was on air during the Clinton administration, there’s a chance it’s currently being revived, reimagined, or turned into a Zoom reunion, so it was only a matter of time before Saved by the Bell returned to the small screen. This time around, though, Berkley Lauren and her costars Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez, and Tiffani Thiessen serve as producers and are involved in every detail.
“You can’t plan for these full-circle moments, and I think that’s why they’re so meaningful,” shared Berkley Lauren on the phone from Los Angeles. “We were 15 or 16 when we first played these characters, and it was such a joyful experience when we first did it, but there was also this innocence. We were at the beginning of seeing our dreams come true and experiencing this together. So being back at Bayside now is surreal.”
Debuting after comedy’s teen explosion of the 1980s, which saw the rise of John Hughes films and series like Square Pegs, Saved by the Bell filled a void for kids who’d outgrown cartoons but weren’t quite ready for adult programming. While many of its characters represented familiar tropes—sweetheart cheerleaders, class clowns, and jocks among them—Berkley Lauren’s Jessie Spano was a fresh archetype. Depicted as intelligent, opinionated, and beautiful, she advocated for social justice causes and volunteered while prepping for a Stanford degree. We’re now used to seeing young women depicted as well-rounded and ambitious, but circa 1989, the options were limited. For the show’s audience and its star, Spano felt new. “You had a 15-year-old girl using her voice as an activist, feminist, and someone who advocates for others,” says Berkley Lauren. “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 apologize for speaking up and using their voices. My mother and the women who were around me growing up were forces; they instilled that confidence in me, so I was always proud to have played a character like Jessie.”
The lasting influence of the role can be seen in modern characters that feel cut from the same cloth. An influx of smart heroines in media (think Booksmart’s goal-oriented besties Molly and Annabelle, Sex Education’s brainy rebel Maeve Wiley, or even Normal People’s outspoken outcast Marianne) share personality traits with Jessie. The constant stream of DMs and messages Berkley Lauren receives from strangers illustrates the impact as well. “The show is personal to so many people; whether they were the latchkey kid who watched after school when they were in syndication, or the person who tuned in from day one, it meant something to them,” she says. “People have reached out in so many ways over the years, it’s been surprising, but that’s [also] why we’re so protective of the series’ legacy.” As a producer and actor in the reboot, Berkley Lauren sought to maintain elements of the character that felt integral. “It was important to me that we uphold what people loved about her,” she says.
Type A though she may be, Spano is ultimately endearing. Five minutes on the phone with Berkley Lauren, and it’s clear why she was the only choice to play the part. Like her alter ego, she’s engaging and passionate about the arts, particularly dance, which she’s been studying since childhood. “It’s my salvation,” she says. “Still part of my life force and my most sacred place. I need it like oxygen, and when I don’t have it, I don’t feel like myself.” Inspired to start an advice column in 2008 after a conversation with her husband, she began Ask Elizabeth, a site dedicated to honest discussion about body image, self-esteem, and other issues pertinent to teen girls. The column eventually expanded into a book and a lecture series that has seen her speak at middle schools across the nation. “The workshops are about creating a place where girls can ask questions and be heard,” she says. “I’m not standing on a podium telling them how to live their lives. For me, it’s about providing them with a safe space to deal with all they’re navigating and passing the mic to them.”
Berkley Lauren’s interests inform Jessie’s backstory. In 2020, Spano is now a New York Times best-selling author who returns to her alma mater as a guidance counselor and is helping the next generation achieve their goals. “A lot happens in your life from 17 to being in your 40s,” says Berkley Lauren. “We come back to her years later and see all she’s accomplished. [Jessie] has gotten her Ph.D., become a best-selling author of parenting books, she was even involved in politics. She’s also a bit of a helicopter parent and dealing with a messy situation with her husband. The humor comes from her trying to hold all these things together.”
The relatable nature of those issues should appeal to those who grew up watching the series, but working alongside the young cast gave Berkley Lauren a crash course in Gen Z. “I was invested in the casting,” she says. “I was at every session and watched every video because I knew that at the heart of the series is the group dynamic and the chemistry between those people.” Connecting with newcomer Belmont Cameli, who plays her son, Jamie Spano, a kindhearted quarterback in touch with his sensitive side, was also endearing. “Belmont is so wonderful, and it was sweet to have him spend time with my son, Sky,” she says. “He met my family, and I met his, so it was this wonderful experience that [also] allowed Sky to feel like he was a part of everything.”
Portraying all these new facets of the character required a fashion deep dive, with costume designer Mojdeh Daftary to get the details right. Jessie’s wardrobe’s hallmarks—headbands, blazers, and bows—were incorporated, but in ways that made sense for a modern mom. “We give a wink and a nod to those headbands,” says Berkley Lauren. “They’re great but would look silly to wear them now. Instead, we wanted to honor and celebrate the kid she was while making it feel chic. It’s wonderful when you get to collaborate with a costume designer; it endows me as an artist with the ability to transform and change how I feel.” To convey her “woman of the world” status, the team worked in runway pieces from Ralph Lauren, Stella McCartney, and Veronica Beard. “Jessie has achieved success, so she’s able to buy and wear these elevated brands,” she says. “Everything is easy and relaxed because she’s comfortable in her skin. We found her uniform, and throughout the show, you’ll see this mix of labels. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just Los Angeles [style]. Bayside is this fictional community in the Palisades, but she has influences from outside the bubble she grew up in.”
Berkley Lauren’s interest in costuming makes sense. Pre-fame, she was signed to Elite models. Her extended family is an American fashion institution that contains New York fashion paragon Ralph Lauren and Berkley Lauren’s husband, Greg, who is an acclaimed menswear designer. Naturally, she sought their input when plotting her character’s closet, even commissioning a few custom pieces. “Several of my shirts [on the show] were done by Greg. I’m constantly in awe of his talent,” says Berkley Lauren, who credits Lauren with elevating her tastes. “His line is so artisanal and focuses on the wearer. It’s not about putting on a mask; it is about wearing something that accentuates your beauty,” she says. “I think I’ve learned so much about style just by being a part of this amazing creative family. When I think about my style when I was first starting dating Greg, it’s changed a lot! I’m [still] very feminine, and I love things that make me feel that way, but now I feel sexier in a tux than I do when I’m in a gown.”
Fashion has also contributed to the reevaluation of Berkley Lauren’s other iconic ’90s role: Showgirls’ Nomi Malone. Once derided, the film has now achieved cult status, inspiring designers like LaQuan Smith, who cited the character as his spring/summer 2020 muse, and a generation of fans who can quote every line of dialogue. Many now appreciate Joe Eszterhas’s script for its camp value, but Nomi Malone connects to modern audiences on her own. In the age of reality television stars and Insta-famous micro-influencers, the idea of a ruthlessly ambitious, marginally talented upstart is relevant.
Witnessing the reappraisal has been heartening for Berkley Lauren, who shouldered much of the fallout after its 1995 release. “It was a different time, and it’s been amazing to see how something so controversial has now been embraced,” she says. “Academics have written about the film; people continue to talk about it and get together to watch it in that Rocky Horror Picture Show way. People have told me what it meant to them and how it inspired them to pursue their dreams [or how it] became their guilty pleasure. Whatever it means to other people, I’m all for it.”
Still, the Showgirls renaissance doesn’t lessen the impact of the criticisms Berkley Lauren faced post-release. Every performer gets bad reviews, but actresses are especially vulnerable to attacks that go beyond discussing their dramatic skills. The initial reactions to Showgirls often took a sexist slant, with critics directing their ire toward the film at her. “It wasn’t easy to be the person that was personally ridiculed. I still feel protective of that 21-year-old girl,” says Berkley Lauren, who remembers her initial excitement regarding the project. “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. On paper with the pedigree involved, it felt like a no-brainer.”
Looking back at some of the original reviews in advance of a 25th-anniversary event earlier this year, Berkley Lauren was struck by their overt sexism. “What was unacceptable was the way some journalists, including women, critiqued my body,” she says. “I gave a great deal of thought before deciding to do the film because I knew certain things [within the story] were vulnerable and sensitive. I felt safe on set with the team, but when it was released, I was shocked to see how journalists were allowed to humiliate a young woman and dissect my body parts instead of reviewing my work.” With few high-profile credits on her filmography, she found herself having to fight against a misguided perception. “I did my job and followed every direction, but the hardest part was I had no body of work that people could compare [my performance] to,” she says. “If no one thought I was right for other projects because they only saw me as Nomi, then clearly they bought me as a character far removed from me. When the film came out, I was still living at home with my parents!”
The fact Berkley Lauren can look back at the period with humor speaks to her current achievements. Having built up a filmography that includes work with Oliver Stone, stints on Broadway opposite Ethan Hawke, and a turn in the producer’s seat, she’s been able to accomplish her goals on her terms. Now she balances acting with being a mother, continuing her self-esteem talks for teens, and discovering new ways to challenge herself. “People ask me about my favorite role, and it’s a wife and mother, but creatively I’ve discovered that producing is something that lights me up inside,” she says. “I have a lot of stories that I want to tell and a lot that I want to say, so I’ll be developing new projects.”
Making the jump from actress to producer in the middle of an unprecedented year wasn’t easy, but for Berkley Lauren, the ups and downs are all part of the big picture. “I have been in this industry since I was nine years old, and I’ve never stopped,” she says. “We reach these markers in our lives where we can take inventory and approach what we do next with intention and clarity. I’m still doing what my childhood dream was, but I couldn’t have foreseen that. What I’ve learned being in this industry is that if you stay the course and stay true to yourself, it all starts to make sense.”