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It’s one thing to be a star — it’s quite another to be a star with the ability to change the fashion landscape. That’s icon status.
And have no illusions: Perry was an icon. Along with costar Jason Priestley, he brought back sideburns, which, prior to this TV duo, had about as much cultural currency in the early '90s as Members Only jackets.
Rewind to Oct. 11, 1990: It was the second episode of a fledgling and obscure teen drama called "Beverly Hills, 90210." Perry makes his debut as the wealthy and aloof Dylan McKay, rocking sideburns and a whisper of a pompadour; a James Dean for the new decade arriving on the scene.
Who exactly was this guy reading Lord Byron, driving a Porsche and wearing a hairstyle that looked three decades past its expiration date? He was complicated, distant and moody, which, thrown into the cauldron with that throwback hair, proved to be the perfect cocktail for creating a mystique that endures to this very day.
Over the course of nearly 200 more episodes, we would see Perry on "90210," always sulking, always with the hair that seemed to be another character unto itself.
And those sideburns. To a generation of teenagers at the time — myself included — sideburns were nothing more than a laughable lapse in judgment their dads had on display in old photographs, something they vaguely recognized from Robert Reed on reruns of "The Brady Bunch" or part of Elvis Presley's own iconic fashion. It was a relic, plain and simple.
But here was Perry (and Priestley) wearing them proudly and unironically, raising sideburns from the ashes for an audience who never appreciated them.
It took some time, but "90210" caught fire, Perry's presence playing a vital role in the series' explosion into the zeitgeist. When you think of the 1990s, "Beverly Hills, 90210" is one of the go-to references for the time, and when you think of the show, you no doubt think of the fashion.
And there was Perry in the middle of it all, looking nothing like teenage boys at the time did (we'll skip the joke about how he was playing a character about eight years younger than he was in real life). He was a heartthrob that no teen boy could possibly emulate, creating a style so singular, yet so universally adored, if not envied.
I should know: I was the same year in high school as the famed West Beverly Class of '93. As the show's popularity surged, Perry's star ascended with it. Girls swooned, pasting their lockers with pictures of Perry with those omnipresent sideburns and perfect coif.
Yes, his style was influential. No, I didn't grow out my own sideburns. If my memory serves correctly, a handful of boys elected to grow their own, a decision that I now wonder if it's come full circle: Do they cringe, and do their kids laugh when looking at photos?
Perry reached that rarified air where girls wanted to be with him and boys wanted to be him, going so far as to mimic his trademark style. He made something old into something new and made it all his own.
Perry was as cool as cool gets. Those sideburns are a reminder that he had achieved a level of hipness that no one in my junior class — or any other school, for that matter — could ever top, no matter how much they tried.