When we last saw ambitious straight-A student Jessica “Jessie” Spano, she just missed out on being valedictorian of her class and was on her way to college in New York City.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that on the much-anticipated "Saved by the Bell" reboot on Peacock (premiering November 25), Jessie — played by Elizabeth Berkley — is a successful doctorate and best-selling author turned Bayside High guidance counselor.
“Jessie was such a perfectionist and had such a vision for herself in the world so of course she’s accomplished what she set out to do,” Berkley, 48, who portrayed the character on the NBC Saturday morning sitcom from 1989 to 1993, told TODAY Parents. “She’s been really influential as an academic and now she’s at a point in life where she wants to connect to something from her past and continue to help others.”
Disclosure: Peacock and TODAY are both part of NBC Universal.
Berkley, also a co-producer on the show (along with fellow alums and costars Mario Lopez, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani Thiessen), helped update Jessie by sprinkling in her own personal experiences. For the past 15 years, the actor has served as a go-to mentor, advisor and de facto big sister for teen girls via her Ask Elizabeth program.
“When you’re an adolescent, you can feel so alone and disconnected and you have all these questions and you wish you could feel safe enough to ask everything in a communal setting,” she explains. “I had this calling in my heart to create that, and that’s what I did.”
Berkley first became aware of her wide influence after the final "Bell" rang. With the show’s reruns continuing to air in syndication every day around the world, girls started approaching her everywhere, from Sephora to restaurants. And they didn’t want autographs.
“The show and the character brought a lot of comfort to people,” she says. “They felt an ease in talking to me. And I wanted to bring an ease to them and guide them. It’s really about passing the mic and amplifying voices of girls.”
In 2006, she began to collaborate with organizations like the Girl Scouts of America. Her lectures gave way to two-hour interactive workshops in dozens of schools around the country. “I’d end up on a football field with 800 cheerleaders who wanted to ask me questions about the emotional life of a teen girl,” she says.
Berkley compiled her expertise in her 2011 book, "Ask Elizabeth: Real Answers to Everything You Wanted to Ask About Love, Friends, Your Body and Life in General."
“I took the most-asked questions and digitized them to make them part of the collective experience,” she says. “Now schools and classrooms can use it to open a dialogue. It’s something I wish I had growing up.”
Berkley was raised in Farmington Hills, Michigan, an insular suburb outside Detroit. “It was comforting, safe and not small-minded like some small towns can be,” she recalls. “But at the same time, if you had dreams that were really big, you had to keep it a little more to yourself.”
She says her “sacred place” to express herself was at Miss Barbara’s Dance Center, a neighborhood studio where she took lessons in jazz and tap and performed in recitals. “It’s where I knew all my dreams were welcome,” she recalls. “It held the space for the vision I had.”
Berkley moved to Hollywood at age 14 and snagged appearances on popular 80s sitcoms such as "Gimme a Break!" and "Silver Spoons." She landed the role of Type-A/budding feminist Jessie at age 17 — she originally set out to play perky cheerleader Kelly Kapowski — and finished her high-school studies with the rest of her onscreen classmates during off-hours on the set.
And now? While adult Jessie is a single mom to a Bayside jock (Belmont Cameli), Berkley has been wed to painter and designer Greg Lauren (his uncle is fashion icon Ralph Lauren) since 2003. Their son, Sky, is 8. “It’s the perfect time to start showing him some episodes,” she notes. (But she's not quite ready for him to see the infamous episode in which Jessie develops an addiction to caffeine pills.)
Berkley says she is excited to continue her most meaningful role. “There’s a big message in the culture now that if you become your brand, things will be handed to you,” she says. “I want girls to know that dreams can be years in the making. There is no magic carpet ride. What’s important is to never give up on yourself.”