That badly written, lowest-common-denominator show Tiffani-Amber Thiessen's on is a total affront to anyone with half a brain. It's like the poor man's 90210, with its ensemble cast of high school students, lame jokes and cardboard-looking sets. Although it's filmed in front of a live studio audience, even the laughter sounds canned.
But so many people watched the Saturday morning show Saved by the Bell that NBC moved it to prime time and renamed it Saved by the Bell: The College Years. Its fictional school, California University, even bears the same name as the imaginary college on 90210. The three male characters (Zack, Slater and Screech) from Saved by the Bell are back on the show, but the only female character to return is popular beauty queen Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani). I asked the producer why, and he said it was because girls aren't threatened by her and guys think she's a fox. How interesting.
I'm meeting Tiffani at the Source, a West Hollywood health-food restaurant, for breakfast. She bounces in alone, looking a lot like a junior version of Valerie Bertinelli, with her china-doll round face, pale complexion and dark, shoulder-length hair (which she cut just after the morning show went on hiatus). She's wearing a tight white tank top, a flannel jacket, jeans and clunky black shoes. In her top left-hand shirt pocket is a pack of Marlboro Lights. She smiles politely, surveys the three empty chairs at the table and sits down across from me.
"Would you like to order?" she asks, hostess-like. I wasn't expecting Tiffani to be on time, or friendly in a Midwest kind of way, but she's both. She starts talking about her beauty-queen past like she's dictating a resume. Tiffani grew up with her parents and two brothers in Long Beach, California, and started modeling when she was just nine. Her classmates weren't exactly impressed. "I had people throw trash at me in school, and I'd be on the phone with my mom going, 'I just want to go home.' They'd pin up the stuff I would do in catalogs and write stuff on it and then crumple it up and throw it at me," she remembers. "They didn't know it would hurt me in the way it did, but it's made me a stronger person."
Tiffani's had a lot of practice banging out beauty contestant responses like these. She was Miss Junior America in 1987 when she was 13, and then a year later won a Teen magazine model search. So when she auditioned for the role of Kelly against 500 other girls, it didn't matter that she had hardly any acting experience. The role wasn't exactly a stretch. When I ask her if it's hard to play a cheerleader type, she says, No, because I'm really like that. I'm really very outgoing." When I ask what she brings to the role of Kelly, she looks deep into my eyes and responds, "I think any actress puts something of herself into a role or it wouldn't be true. I mean, that's what acting is about," as though this were the revelation of the century.
So I have to ask the question again, and she gives me an equally rehearsed response: "One thing I've learned in this business, that my mom and dad have always taught me as well, is to never change and always be a very giving person. There are too many rotten things in this world, and if I can put a smile on one little girl's face, one little boy's face, then I've done my job." The envelope, please.
Just to add to the if-l-could-wish-for-anything-it- would-be-world-peace surrealism about her is the fact that Tiffani didn't attend an actual high school because she was too busy playing a high school student. She graduated from a high school for kids who are in the business" without ever setting foot in a conventional classroom, and like many a Miss Junior America before her, was valedictorian of her class—giving Tiffani the honor of saying she got better grades than classmates Alfonso Ribeiro from Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Wonder Years' Jason Hervey. I ask how many students were in her graduating class. "I had, like, 45, 50 kids," she mutters. No, she's smarter than all those people?
I ask if she wants to attend a real, actual college. "Yeah. I'd like to major in English literature," she says enthusiastically. I ask who her favorite English writer is. "Oh, Maya Angelou!" she bellows. "She is great," I say, nodding my head, "but she's from St. Louis." Tiffani is silent. "I know, but I'm just trying to think of someody," she sniffs. I press on. She says she likes a lot of Shakespeare's lesser-known works. Like what? "Like Hamlet," she proclaims excitedly. Oh, I hadn't heard of that one.
She was introduced to her boyfriend, 90210 hip-hop aesthete Brian Austin Green, in typical Hollywood fashion. "I met him on the set when I was 15 and did a guest spot on Married...With Children, just after I started Saved by the Bell. As the years went by, we started hanging out more and more, and about two years ago he became one of my very good friends. About seven months ago we started taking each other seriously." They kissed at a club and she freaked out. "When we talked about it later, it wasn't a great talk. It was like, 'I can't do this. I don't want to ruin our friendship.' I didn't really want to say it, but that's the way I felt. But then I just couldn't fight it. I would just look at him and go, 'I can't help it anymore.'" Eeeeeewwww.
She says that Brian's music is more important than his acting and she can see him going completely into it. He's even working on his own album. "He's really good. People are going to be shocked to see what comes out of him. It's very different from what he's doing on the show—it's a little more expressive, with a harder edge."
But although Tiffani has some illusions, just like a beauty contestant (don't they all deny that they're being exploited?), she's not totally dismissible. She shows up on time, reads her lines adequately, stays out of trouble, even stands up for herself occasionally, like when the producers sat her down and told her to lose weight. "Last year when we did the Saved by the Bell Hawaii special, I was 15 pounds heavier than I am now. You know what it was? I was changing from a little girl to a woman, and these men don't understand it. They think I can look like I did when I was 16 for the rest of my life. I've got hips, and there's nothing wrong with that.
"I had to tell them, 'Look, don't mess with my feelings, don't mess with that. I'll try as hard as I can to stay in shape.' A lot of it was that I wasn't eating the right stuff like I used to. Because at 161 could eat anything I wanted to, and I didn't realize that as I got older all of it was going to start to hit me. It's really, really hard. But I finally lost the weight for myself."
But isn't Tiffani fooling herself on the "I-did-it-for-myself" front? How can women ever lose weight totally for themselves when everyone else expects us to be rails? And Hollywood is the absolute worst offender. I feel like she's paying lip service to feminist ideas because that's what all beauty pageant contestants do these days.
Tiffani seems to believe The College Years will be an edgy and more intense show than the Saturday morning program. "We're dealing with a lot more mature decisions as we're becoming adults. We've all changed a lot and Mark-Paul is, like, a man now. My character has to work her way through college because she doesn't come from a wealthy family. She starts working in the health center in the college and changes her major to become a doctor. She's going to have to deal with that plus working plus having a social life," Tiffani beams. So the character is going to be just like everybody else in college—in other words, like a lot of people Tiffani has never met.
We finish drinking our coffee (me) and tea (Tiffani), and she gives me directions to Sunset-Gower Studios to watch the taping of the second episode of The College Years. When I arrive, I see tons of people on the sidewalk who are there to see Tiffani's show, Married...With Children and Herman's Head, among others. I walk in past a fluorescently lit makeup room with huge mirrors. A woman is leaning over a blond teenage girl, poofing her hair out manically. Another blond girl rushes offstage, whining, "I think my motivation was off." This evening's episode is about Zack's run-in with his anthropology professor. The first scene is set in a classroom, and Tiffani/Kelly is sitting in the front row, giggling and whispering vapidly with the other girls about how cute the new prof is. Zack, Slater and Screech sit in the back, getting all the laughs. Then suddenly she leans forward and dramatically points a finger in the air. "Professor, will that be on the quiz?" she inquires with just the right mixture of fake graciousness and urgency. A brilliant performance for someone who's never had to ask that question.