The surprising story behind Elizabeth Berkley's new book, 'Ask Elizabeth'

Image Credit: Josh Lehrer/Penguin Books

Elizabeth Berkley, former teenage star of Saved By the Bell and former adult star of cult favorite Showgirls has written a book. No, as she’ll clarify, not a tell-all. (Though we have seen our share of those from the SBTB crowd) Rather, it’s a book for teenage girls, written diary-style, that focuses on helping girls get through those challenging high school years. Raise your hand if you saw this coming.

Here’s the kicker: It’s good.

This may not be surprising to the school administrators who, over the past five years, have allowed Berkley into their libraries, cafeterias, and football fields for her girls-only “Ask Elizabeth” workshops. It may also not be surprising to the parents of the girls she’s helped or to the young women who have felt the positive influence of her workshops (30,000 participants and counting). However, it was surprising for this reporter, who had all but filed book-smart Jesse Spano away in the back of her mind.

The workshops (which gave way to the website, and now the book) were born several years ago when Saved By the Bell went into international syndication. A new generation of girls recognized her and approached her on the street. What began as a slow trickle quickly turned into a waterfall. “It just kept happening everywhere I’d go,” says Berkley. “I’d be talking to five girls and it would turn into ten, twenty and it would end up being this kind of organic, shared dialogue.” And they weren’t just asking about Zack and Kelly’s wedding, either. They would talk about their lives.“They would come up to me for an autograph or a picture but it led to more meaningful dialogue. I suppose because I was genuinely interested in what they had to say.”

“Everyone just talks about the problems our teenage girls are facing and what they’re dealing with,” says Berkley. “But there was, to me, a void in how they were being served or helped. I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to create something.’”

And create she did. Berkley had been working on a format for a two-hour, interactive workshop and rather than leading the acting workshop she’d been asked to run, she told the organizer to take a look at her idea.“It spread like wildfire. Schools and administrators and parents, completely word of mouth, totally grassroots, I didn’t do any press on it for two years. It was just organic.”

The workshops – eventually called Ask Elizabeth – strived to create a safe environment for adolescent women to discuss personal issues. Everything from family matters to matters of the heart to body image issues and bullying: Nothing was off the table. After a couple years of flying herself to different schools across the country, Berkley began to see trends take shape. “I noticed that no matter where I went in the country, there was this group of questions that got asked. I would track them and keep them in categories. Like body image, school, family, friendship, you name it, the emotional life of a teenage girl. It didn’t matter what region of the country, whether I was in Orlando, Kentucky, or New York’s Upper East Side. There was a universal emotional journey that we all go through even though we might have a different story surrounding it.”

That universal sentiment was the basis for Ask Elizabeth book, which came out today. Berkley says she simply wanted to share her experience, strength and hope with a generation that just seems to be craving to be heard. Though Ask Elizabeth isn’t really an advice book, that’s not to say Berkley doesn’t dole out some friendly suggestions. The book is sprinkled with what she refers to as “action steps” and “healing tools.” As she says, “It’s not enough to just talk about the issues.What do you do about them.”

Yes, yes, it talks about best friends and broken hearts but let’s get to the meat of it: Does it talk about Showgirls?

In so many words, sort of. In a section discussing bullies, Berkley does address the extreme criticism she received following the release of what was supposed to be her star-making movie. Though it is obvious what film she’s referring to, she never names it, leaving me to believe there is somewhat of a Lord Voldemort-type situation in the Berkley household. In any case,  Ask Elizabeth seems like a book my mom may have given me when I was 15. Probably I would have acted like I didn’t want it and put it on my bookshelf, but secretly I’ would have read it at night, savoring all the little anecdotes from girls who I didn’t know felt just like me. It’s like PostSecret for the Teenage Girl’s Soul.

That’s why it works. Berkley hits a tone that’s neither condescending nor above the reader’s head. She shares personal stories without delving into TMI territory. Her empathy is refreshing and though her background gives her the experience and material necessary to write a book like this, it doesn’t become the forefront of why she’s writing. And Ask Elizabeth has an appealing scrapbooky feel to it. “I wanted it to feel like I wrote a book and passed it across the country and had girls tape in, glue in, staple in pieces. It was this community of, I call it different heartbeats on every page.”

The best advice Berkley herself ever received?

“Never give up on yourself.”

Comments (49 total) Add your comment
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  • TQB

    Wow. Go Jesse Spano!

    • brandon

      “I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m….so….scared.”

    • Cem

      Laujra, I have a question. I love the yelolw color you have on your walls. Would you mind sharing the color and who makes it? I love your water filter as well but your yelolw walls caught my attention being that I am looking for a bright color for my kitchen and den which are all connected. Thanks!Karen

  • ST

    Good for her! I hope it does well.

  • Stacie

    What a nice thing to hear!

  • flutters

    Wow, this is nice to hear about. Especially that she didn’t do press on the workshops for 2 years. I’m usually cynical about this stuff but it’s nice to hear somebody trying to do a good thing and the idea reaching a good number of people.

    • Katja

      I agree. It really does sound like she genuinely cares, and I’m very happy to hear that she seems to be effective at helping these girls. As others have said below – good for her!

  • FilmAlicia

    Good for her! There’s life after a spectacular failure, after all.

  • imsoexcited

    Little does everyone know she wrote this while taking several caffine pills

    • julia

      she’s so excited! and so scared! sorry i had to lol

      • Chinmaya

        onecoolgreek on April 1, 2011 GRANDIZER CASH . google it get a fax ianhmce and a computer not linked to you such as a library and a safety deposit box and i will show you how i picked myself up off from the street’s and made money with no investments my ideas are Sneaky and tactfull and you will thank me when you get the info that is designed for two pages you will realize you dont need a book to make the money you need the PROTO -TYPE WAYS

  • ad

    thanks EW for focusing on a positive celebrity story. Instead of one where someone is getting arrested, having a temper tantrum on live tv or putting their foot in their mouth on twitter.

    • FL

      Totally. I had heard about her workshops and now this book, just amazing stuff.

  • Dr. Linus

    I think this is fantastic. I think young women may respond to this because of its sincerity which is evident in the book’s origins.

  • Carrie

    Good for her.

  • Roland

    Awesome!! Hope it does great!! :)

  • mawhi

    I hope every sentence begins with “As a former drug addict,”…

    • Jan

      I don’t.

    • ash 321

      Its funny how ignorant you are. It would be cool if you released some positive energy into the world… kind of like Elizabeth is doing. Think about it.

  • Lisa Turtle

    I’m guessing she doesn’t mention the title of Showgirls because it would be neither appropriate nor relevant to the discussion, given the teenage audience of this book.

  • BamaEd

    I remember seeing her on Chelsea Lately last year and she was discussing it. You can usually tell when a celeb is faking involvement in something like this just so they can get publicity. Berkley, however, showed a genuine interest in helping teenage girls improve their self-esteem. I’m proud of her for doing this for no other reason than to help. Very commendable.

  • Jesse

    EW: So you take a really positive story and blurb it on the front page with the headling “Elizabeth Berkley: ‘Showgirl'”? Isn’t that kind of defeating the whole purpose of the article and disrespecting the woman to boot? She clearly wants to put the film behind her and move on with her life. Can’t we find a more positive way to get people to click the link?

  • NormaJeanRiley

    Maybe now she’ll finally be able to get into Stansbury!

    • Jif

      LOL! Good one!

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