Catching Up With Elizabeth Berkley
May 04 2011 8:00 PM EST
February 05 2015 9:27 PM EST
An hour before Elizabeth Berkley showed up at Out a few weeks ago, most of the editors were in full-on freak out mode. I tried to explain our particularly frenzied brand of excitement to Out's straight female managing editor by saying, "She's the closest things we've got to royalty," and I'm pretty sure she thought I was kidding. But I wasn't kidding. Or being overly dramatic. For many gay men, Showgirls, the 1995 drama about one dancer's attempt to make it big in Las Vegas, is the best thing that ever happened to celluloid. Almost universally panned (that word might actually be too kind for the kind of evisceration it suffered), the film has become a campy cult classic with Rocky Horror Picture Show-type screenings across the country filled with fans -- most of them gay -- who know every line of the script.
While the film delighted us, it -- and the scalding reviews Berkley received -- sent the actress reeling. But 16 years after Showgirls threatened to ruin her career, Berkley has proven she's a survivor and she has continued to act in films, on Broadway, and on television. She's also found a new passion: reaching out to teenage girls to help them navigate the tumultuous waters of coming of age. With her website, Ask Elizabeth, workshops around the country, and now, a new book, also called Ask Elizabeth, Berkley is reaching out to share her experiences in hopes of offering girls some advice from an honorary big sister who's been through tough times before.
We sat down with Berkley -- an absolute sweetheart who spent her first 30 minutes at Out taking pictures, showing us her (adorable) husband's new clothing line, and reminiscing about that infamous Versace scene in Showgirls -- to chat about her new mission, her new book, the aftermath of Showgirls, the support she received from gay fans, and whether or not she'd ever consider filming Showgirls 2.
Out: How did Ask Elizabeth come about?
Elizabeth Berkely: The Ask Elizabeth book has been a heart and soul mission for me. It's amazing because everything that has to do with Ask Elizabeth really has come from what the girls have been asking me for. I started off with a two-hour interactive self-esteem-based workshop that I began providing in middle schools and high schools. It started out on a grassroots level in New York, and it was amazing to me because word of mouth spread so fast where teachers were telling other teachers, school administrators were telling other school administrators, parents, girls and I started getting incoming calls inviting me to their schools. I do this strictly as a volunteer ' it's an official 501C3, not-for-profit organization -- and I started flying myself. Suddenly I would find myself on a football field in Kentucky with 800 cheerleaders facilitating this workshop. I was in a rental car driving to this cheerleading camp and just thinking, Wow, this journey has lead me to places I've never seen before and I'm having the most magical interactions with extraordinary girls and schools. They've just opened their doors, opened their hearts, and my whole mission is to be of service to these girls, to give them a space to know they're not alone and to let them know that everything they're going through is something that can actually be offered up to help another. So there is value in every experience. That's one beautiful aspect of Ask Elizabeth -- that it's not about me. I don't stand at a podium telling girls how to run their lives. It's about opening up, giving them the platform and then I facilitate. I guide them like a big sister, and that's the beauty of it.
I've worked with almost 40,000 girls in the last five years sharing this meaningful dialogue on their football fields, in their cafeterias, in their libraries and sitting with the girls and just speaking the truth and sharing the truth. I get extremely real with them as well. if I'm expecting them to offer up their truth, I don't hide, and I'm my most authentic self with them as well. And that's the exchange, that's the interaction, that's how everyone gets to transform by the end of the workshop too and then there's that great takeaway. But they kept begging me for a book, and I was blown away by that. In the media, they're always talking about the problems with teenage girls today and the problems we're having, and I'm here to say there are remarkable girls out there. They just want to be heard. They just want the tools to be their best selves.
When they asked for book, I realized it was very clear that this is the book: Take the most asked questions and explore them and weave them into a dialogue across the pages, whether it's me offering up advice, stories from my own life, girls across the country -- and then I have a dream-team of female experts too.
There is a lot in the book that I could see gay teenage boys relating to. Have you heard from many?
Yes, I have and I've worked with such beautiful gay teenage boys who are so special and have participated in the workshop. I was just thinking of a performing arts school I recently went to and it was a privilege to be able to come in and provide a space that was all about acceptance. It was actually really interesting: There was a workshop I did where a girl bravely came out, and what it led to was one of most profound conversations I've ever heard. She was fearless and she stood in her power. People loved her. And I said to them, 'Do you guys feel this right now? That palpable thing we're feeling in the room right now -- acceptance, love. We can choose to that feeling at any time. So know this isn't about me. I'm just standing here. I'm holding the space for you guys, but what you're feeling in your hearts, you can choose to feel that every day no matter what someone is going though.' And so it was so beautiful -- the safety, the beauty and that love. It was basically like you can choose fear or you choose love at any given moment; it's always a choice. But it is a choice, and for some of us it's easier to choose love.
But how brave for this girl to offer that up, and what it did is I think it changed that group forever. I think no one will forget that moment because of her willingness, and I think she opened a lot of hearts that day. And I wish people could see that in terms of acceptance, tolerance of one another and just celebrating each other for our uniqueness and our choices and what we love, who we love.
Do you think it's harder to be a teen now than it was before?
It is so much harder to be a teen now. Look, I know I didn't have a conventional teen upbringing. First of all, I did grow in Michigan, which was about as beautiful and normal of a childhood as you can get, but I had big dreams to get out and be a performer. My vision for myself was always Broadway, film and television, and thank God I've had that blessing to be able to do all of those mediums. But working at the same time I was going to regular high school was its own balancing act because I had this dual life -- student by day, actress by night -- which it was exciting, and that's exactly what I wanted. So while I had this unconventional kind of teen life, I also a lot of normalcy, and my parents made sure I did. But I would say, in terms of what I'm observing of girls, technology plays a role nowadays that is something that the girls can't escape from. I think that's part of why they asked for a book. Maybe it's not something that's conscious but the need to unplug because they've only grown up plugged in, and it's invasive. We here all the stories of bullying and 'mean girls,' and online is yet another place where any behaviors that are not'. There are beautiful things online like my website that can help build them up and other amazing resources, but it's being abused by the bullies. And that part is just awful. And I know when I was made fun of growing up I could come home, cry, tell my mom and shut it off until the next day. [Because of technology] it's in their bedroom, it's in their face. And what's really hard is the exposure to everything. I think there was a lot more innocence when I was growing up as a teen, and now it's just like it's all for the viewing. It'll be interesting to see what real effect that has, but it's almost too much. They don't know yet because they don't have the tools yet to navigate that. It's a lot of responsibility.
On page 136, you say, 'It took a long time and lots of tears, love and support from the people closest to me to begin to heal from that time I felt like I was being attacked from every direction.' You're talking about Showgirls, right?
I am, I am. I don't shy away in the book, or even frankly with the girls, from speaking about the time when Showgirls came out because I think it's important for them to know about. When I speak to them I say I know what it feels like to be made fun of, to be humiliated, to be rejected. I mean there are other times in my life I have felt those feelings, but there was no bigger time in my life at 21 years old where I had to walk through basically having my head handed to me on a national level.
I think when it first came out it had this charge. I don't know if it would have the same charge now if had just come out. I don't know exactly what it was that made people attack it so much, but it was very personal, too, at the time. It wasn't just, 'Oh, she was directed that way,' or 'the movie didn't live up.' It was personal attacks. So I think that was really the hardest thing, and when you're just finding your way at 21 it's like Wow. It was an initiation period for me. When I speak to the girls, I can't help but to bring that up because, first of all, that was an initiation as I was becoming a woman and I could have given up on myself very easily because a lot of the world was telling me to, and it's the greatest proof that I could share with them of how to walk through something and come out gracefully and find your sense of self and strength again that maybe you didn't know you had. We can only know that walking through something difficult. Unfortunately, we're all going to go through highs and lows -- it's just life.
I'm very real with them, like life is not just in a pretty, little bow. I like feminine, girly things, trust me, but life is not always that neat. And so that was a very messy time, and I had to pick up the pieces. I did -- I had to pick them up. Mostly, I had to look deep within myself and find a fierce determination to not let this derail me from my dreams. And, of course, there were moment I thought, Oh my God, are they right, all those things? -- which is what happens. This story plays out in a section about how to deal with bullies or mean girls. I don't care how old you are. A lot of the themes in here continue, and that's why I specifically did not choose something from high school or middle school. I could have -- I have stories, trust me. But I wanted to pick something that was relevant to who've I become as a woman. I'm saying, 'This happened to me then, but it's important because this story ties into an action step of how to triumph over the torment.' You have to dust yourself off, and I think there are a lot of people that don't know how to do that.
One of the things I like most about the book is that a lot of it really does come from your experiences. It's not like 'Dear Abby' where it's just some random woman giving the advice that's not grounded in anything.
Right, like saying, 'I've got the answers darling.' [Laughs] That's why if you flip to any page on any given day -- it's like I don't care if someone wants to hear from me, a girl I've met or whoever, he or she can get what they need from it. It's also why, in terms of one thing we're talking about, in the love section, it was really important to me to distinguish this piece where I say, 'Before we jump in, I just want to let you know that throughout this chapter you'll see that I use the words 'he' or 'guy.' And I know some of you are in romantic relationships with other girls. Please know I fully honor, accept and love every single one of you, whomever you love. I just use the male reference simply for ease in reading so it won't get annoying to keep seeing 'he/she,' 'him/her.'' And I say, 'You get it. Now to the heart of the matter.' So that was important to me to just take that moment because I don't think enough people do, especially when speaking to gay teens.
Why do you think that Showgirls has become such a beloved film for gay men?
[Laughs] That's a good question. First of all, I'm so happy it has been. I feel so appreciated and understood' I could cry. [Begins crying] You got me to cry! I feel very appreciated by my gay fans, and I really appreciate it. So when they come up to me and say a line like, 'Let me do your nails sometime, darling,' or 'I don't know, she just went down,' I just love it. It makes me so happy because it was supposed to be fun. It's campy and fun, and I love that it's finally been embraced. It feels good. I mean it's funny how a lot of movies that have been bashed just die on a video shelf and you never hear about them again. Wow -- not this. This is now one of the top ten grossing films for MGM of all time. So, go figure. It's like, 'Really, it was that bad? Why'd you have to try to kill all of us involved?'
Anyway, so even though it would've been nice at the time if someone had stood up for me, the fact that the gay fans have embraced it in the way that they have makes up for that. I feel vindicated because of their love and support. So I'm happy to pose for a picture [makes 'Goddess Hands' pose]. And it's just so much fun. I love it. I'm so grateful. And I'll say the one beautiful thing that happened from being so attacked at such a young age is that maybe if it had been so embraced at the time, everything would be different. I would like to think that I would still have the level of depth that I have, but we all have those things that make us go deeper, and I say, 'Thank God.' Because we wouldn't want to be the same, would we?
That being said, if tomorrow someone presented you with a script for Showgirls 2, would you consider doing a sequel?
[Laughs] Showgirls 2? No. No, because to do Showgirls 2 would not make sense for a whole lot of reasons. You can't mess with what Showgirls is. Why would you even try? What I would love to do is a skit on like SNL or something, like 'Where's Nomi now?' That would be fun. I would love to do something comedic, if that makes sense. Because I don't take myself too seriously. I'm willing to be self-deprecating and send up my own image where I think a lot of people are really afraid to do that. I have a few roles in pop culture that would be fun to send up. Let's start a campaign. [Laughs]
For more on Elizabeth Berkley, and to ask her a question, visit Ask-Elizabeth.com and follow her on Twitter, where you can also tweet her questions. Ask Elizabeth is now in stores and available on Amazon.com.
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