Author Interview: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know: Ask Elizabeth
"Elizabeth Berkley is the sweetest woman I have ever met. My best friend dragged me to her book signing at Dylan's Candy Store, where I got the chance to read through the book. The design made me feel really comfortable and it was amazing that she put so much time into creating something that girls can use to better themselves. After the book signing—including her signing a book to my best friend and myself—we had a sleepover where we fully experienced her book. Constantly, we made connections to our own lives and saw that there are other girls going through the same things we are. And not only do the girls who contributed to the book understand, but so does Elizabeth Berkley."
Candace Lee Camacho; Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts
You might remember Elizabeth Berkley as Jessie Spano from the hit television series Saved by the Bell. But since those Saved by the Bell high school days with Zack and Screech, Elizabeth has made herself an admired favorite amongst teen girls. Elizabeth brings girls together through interactive workshops that focus on self-esteem. Her not-for-profit, Ask Elizabeth, is an organization that empowers thousands and thousands of teen girls. Her book, Ask Elizabeth, was number two on the New York Times Best Seller list. Much like her interactive workshops, it answers questions every teen girl has secretly wanted to ask about love, friends, her body, and life in general. Teen Voices' Michelle Golden got to speak to Elizabeth about her empowering and uplifting organization, as well as how teens can turn negative experiences into something positive!
Teen Voices (TV): What exactly is "Ask Elizabeth"? How did you come up with the organization?
First of all, I wish something like this had been around when I was a teen. Seven years ago, Saved by the Bell started in syndication, around the country. This whole new generation of girls started coming up to me, for an autograph or a picture. During these exchanges, I started sharing more meaningful dialogue with the girls. I didn't want to just casually say, "Here's your autograph," and then send them on their way. I could be standing in a store or walking down the sidewalk and it would start out with five girls, then 10 girls, then 20 girls. My husband started noticing that I was naturally holding a space for girls to connect with one another. He said, "Maybe you should start a column called 'Ask Elizabeth.' I thought that I would like to do it, but with my crazy schedule—between filming, Broadway, and TV, it's a pretty hectic life—I didn't know how something like this would fit in. So I started looking for other organizations where I could volunteer and I found lots of organizations with good intentions but no one doing a program in the spirit that I envisioned. So I said, "You know what? It's not there. It doesn't exist. I just need to create it myself."
Six years ago my aunt passed away from breast cancer; she was one of my confidants. When she passed I knew: "This the time. This is the way I can honor what she's given me—the love she's put into me." I have had incredible women in my life. My mom and I have a deep, special relationship. " My first workshop was in Manhattan, with an organization that had been asking me to volunteer and come teach a master acting class. I wasn't moved to share an acting workshop, but saw this as an opportunity to offer a self-esteem based workshop for girls. I created a two-hour interactive workshop and I said, "Can I share this with your girls and see if they like it?" And from there embarked the most organic movement. It's now up to 40,000 girls that I've sat with using this two-hour interactive forum that I provide in middle and high schools. Ask Elizabeth has now become a non-profit organization.
TV:" How can teen girls be more open and accepting of another?
One of the things that happens organically in my forums—there's nothing forced about it—is that girls become more open and accepting. The heart and soul of my way of helping girls is through interactive dialogues. In the forums I create, there's a part of the workshop where I read anonymous questions from girls in the group and then I open up the discussion to the whole group so everyone can weigh in. Girls get to share their experiences and to discuss things they've been through and things they've overcome. The girls see that whatever has gone on in their lives, there are no regrets. Whatever you've been through has value—for yourself and in service to another girl. In general, to open up, we have to be discerning about who we chose to share all the details of our lives with—it's not everyone's business. I think a lot of girls are afraid to be vulnerable with one other because they don't want what they say used against them, or they worry that they are the only one experiencing something. In the workshops, the girls are seeing and really hearing each other for who they are. I'm not saying they are all going to be best friends after the workshop, but at least, maybe for the first time, a lot of them will see how another girl can have your back. And when another girl has your back, there's power in that. This experience is the antidote to all the competition that goes on in our culture—who wore it better, who is better." I help girls see that you can both shine and share the spotlight. It's a beautiful thing. A lot of us are fearful that we live in a limited universe when actually, there's abundance for everybody. So I think if teens understand that and trust that, they can be more generous to each other, and then even be willing to open up. And hopefully, such a forum takes the fear away.
TV:" What part of a teen girl's life do you think is the most difficult?
I think the whole experience is hard! I think there are so many expectations for our teen girls to be perfect and to be good at everything—their academics, their bodies, their looks, their accomplishments. In our culture, there's so much demand and expectation and a lot of girls feel constant pressure to measure up. There's constant suffering in that. We're taught that we have to be good and shouldn't make any waves and that we should stuff our feelings and voices." That's just not so. There seems to be a people-pleasing mode that makes it easy for us to so often betray ourselves. There's not a lot of room to explore what we really are within all that noise. We get really good at making sure that we deliver what people want us to be. I want Ask Elizabeth to be there to help girls turn down the volume on all the noise around us, in addition to our own, sometimes loud, inner critic. I want to arm them with a little more awareness and tools to help them so that it's not so hard and they don't feel so isolated.
TV: What was one thing that you wished someone had told you during high school?
I got certain advice but maybe I wasn't ready to hear it until I made a few mistakes. So there's nothing I wish someone had given or told me because I feel lucky that I got a lot of incredible advice. I just wish I had known that they were right! " But I had to find out for myself. Someone can tell you something until they're blue in the face, but you still have to fall a few times yourself. I think the fact that I did get so much great guidance is what prepared me to be able to be in this role as a facilitator, and someone who wants to help. Even with all that advice, no one could save me from my own ups and downs—that's life and that's reality. My gratitude for the support I've received and the empathy I have for the girls about things I've walked through allow me to approach the girls without judgment and full of respect for their specific experience.
TV:" Who was your role model growing up? Who continues to inspire you?
Definitely my parents. My Dad has always believed in my dreams and never asked whyhe always just supported what I was going after. My mom is a beautiful communicator and always empowered me to be independent. Because of her, I never had the vision that I had to have a boyfriend. My mom always said that someone should always add to your life, that you don't need someone to make your life. Her kind of independence is something that I grew up witnessing in both her and my grandma—not so much by what they said, but by observing them. They lived the example and then I just absorbed it. My husband is also very supportive. I tell the girls that after going through different relationships, each relationship leads you closer to what you do want. Hopefully, even if you have a bad breakup, you can always learn from it and it can bring more clarity to what you want in the future. I found exactly what I wanted in a partner and he inspires me every day to live and to continue to step into my power. He's not afraid of me being a strong self. A lot of guys can be intimidated by someone ambitious. I dream big and then I take action. I don't just sit back. We both encourage that in each other.
TV:" How do you hope to continue to inspire teen girls?
With my acting career, college, and everything—with all that I've done, I've been very goal oriented and have taken actions towards my goals. Ask Elizabeth is such a pure mission for me that I have remained open to where this movement has expanded. If you had asked me three years ago if I would be a New York Times best-selling author for a book about self-esteem for teen girls, I would have been like, "Really?" Because that wasn't in "the plan." But the opportunity presented itself organically because girls kept asking me to create it for them. What I've done and will continue to do is remain open to what I'm hearing from the girls about what they want me to create for them and what they need. There's another book on my mind now, and I think expansion of the workshops is huge. Girls who have worked with me for a long time who are now in college in different cities across the country want to "pay it forward" to younger girls. They have been asking to be facilitators in Ask Elizabeth chapters across the country. This could be amazing. Of course, I'll continue to do the workshops personally as well. I'll continue to also create digital content and perhaps it could become a TV show. There are a lot of fun ways that this movement could go and I'm open to anything. If any girls at Teen Voices have some fun ideas, I welcome them!
TV:" We have to ask: How did your life growing up on the show Saved by the Bell allow you to be the person you are today?
I grew up in Michigan—as far from Hollywood as you can get! I didn't have any connections. I didn't have a famous uncle or father who could help. I had worked my whole life and took many dancing, singing, and acting classes each week, as much theater as I could do, and modeled." I did everything that I could in my hometown. My parents took my dreams seriously. When my older brother went to college, we decided to move because we knew that at age 18, I was going to move to Los Angeles. So from a young age, I got to do what I loved and I didn't feel held back in any way. I got to experience being a paid professional at a young age. And yes, you do grow up a little faster; it makes you more worldly. Some people might say, "Oh, well, didn't you sacrifice some things?" But I kept a good balance of regular high school and working." And on that specific show, I was working with peers. Sometimes when you're a teen actor or a kid actor, you're the only kid on the set and that can be kind of lonely. But on Saved by the Bell, we were all the same age. We really were 15 and 16 years old, whereas most shows with characters that age have 25-year-olds playing teens. There was something really sweet and innocent about our crew. Working from such a young age definitely powered in me a really strong work ethic. I also learned an amazing level of focus from dance classes. But I have to say, that kind of passion and discipline and work ethic is something I take into everything I do now as an adult. I'm grateful that I have consistently been working in all mediums--TV, film, and theatre--for so many years. Frankly, I love being on a show that still affects new generations.
TV:" How can teen girls turn a negative experience into something positive?
I'm the queen of that! Some people would say, "Oh that's little Miss Positive!" but I'm being real about it. I have no interest in being a victim of what happens. Whatever highs or lows I've been through in a given moment, there's always been a choice. You can choose to be the victim of whatever is happening to you on that day. You can choose to stay in a bad mood. You can choose to be hurt. You can choose not to forgive someone." And then who does that hurt? It hurts you. For me, as I say in the book, I "flip it"—it's a little catch phrase. Just "flip" whatever is going on. It's not like it can always magically, quickly happen. It depends on what negative situation we're talking about. If it is someone being mean to you and hurtful, then yes, it's going to hurt for a little while. You're going to have real feelings about it, and all of that has value. But how long you stay in it, whether you take that on as your belief in yourself, or you lift yourself out of that--that's your choice. There have been times when I've been rejected from a job and I could wallow in it." I might have a little sad moment, and be disappointed—but am I going to stay in that state? No. I'm going to say, "You know what? Let me look at why, maybe, that's meant to be, why maybe there's something else that I'm meant to get instead." So many times when I look at things in my life, this philosophy proves to be right—where something wasn't meant to happen and I was trying to force it. You're being protected even if you don't know it at the time. I have faith that I am meant to be working on the things that I'm working on, and loving the person I'm loving. There has to be some sort of faith involved. Girls sometimes say that everything feels helpless, but there are always things you can do to lift yourself out of it—whether it's being in a bad mood, having a broken heart, or not getting into the college of your dreams. Something may seem like a negative in the moment, but if you work through it and don't stay in that state, you might find some amazing gift or opportunity you didn't expect.
For more information on Ask Elizabeth, visit: http://ask-elizabeth.com
For a review of the book Ask Elizabeth by Teen Voices' reviewer Lauren Kearney, see: http://www.teenvoices.com/2011/07/06/elizabeth-berkley-elizabeth-book-review/
Tagged as: Ask Elizabeth, authors, Elizabeth Berkley, inspiring women, Michelle Golden