Rewind with Melissa Joan Hart: Her new memoir and ’90s teen queen legacy
Melissa Joan Hart stopped by to chat with Parade about her new memoir, Melissa Explains It All, her teen queen legacy, her college ambitions, protecting her kids from the spotlight, and more.
What inspired you to write your book?
“I wanted to write the book for a number of reasons, I was pregnant at the time, and had a lot of time on my hands because I wasn’t able to be on camera while I was pregnant, and people have been asking me for years to write a book. I never really thought I had enough to tell in a book, but after telling all my stories to my friends over the years, I kind of started to make a little list of things I could tell. Plus, I was always being asked, ‘How did you end up so normal compared to other Hollywood child stars?’ and the answer was too long to answer in any one interview, so I had to write a book for it.”
What was the toughest time of your life to write about?
“Well, the chapter about my mother was very difficult because I wanted to be honest to our relationship, but she’s my mom, and I love her and I treasure her, and I didn’t want to upset her, but I also didn’t want to not tell the truth about who we are as a mother and daughter because that’s very much who I am, and how I grew up. Actually, when I finished the chapter, I read it to her because I didn’t want her to read it on her own. I wanted to be able to cushion it a little, but after I was done reading it to her, she cried and loved it, so I knew I had a glowing review right there.”
What was the writing process like for you?
“Writing the book was a lot of ups and downs. It took me about seven or eight months. and in that process. I had a child as well, so a lot of it was done late at night. There were a lot of hormones involved in this book — a lot of mood swings. I was also reading a lot of other people’s autobiographies, so whatever I was reading at the time inspired different chapters or thoughts or details about my past. I was reading Rob Lowe’s book, and he talked about his audition for The Outsiders and I was like, I’ve got to write about my audition for Clarissa.”
What was it like growing up in Long Island, NY?
“Every household on Long Island had an average of five kids, and we had five kids when we lived there and when we moved out of Long Island, my parents had three more kids, so I ended up with a bigger household than most people on Long Island or most people in the world really! But it was fun; it was a normal childhood. I went to dance class; I rode my bike all over town. My parents had so many kids that they couldn’t be shuffling everyone everywhere. My dad worked endless hours, so my mom was home cleaning, cooking, taking care of the kids, and driving us to auditions. I was doing Girl Scouts, I was doing dance, field hockey, whatever I could. I did a short stint in horseback riding. I just really wanted to explore it all, but at the same time, I was auditioning in New York City and pretty much working a full-time job.”
You starred in so many commercials as a young child.
“Yeah, I think at the end of my commercial career it was around 100. I collected a Barbie doll for each one, so I know I had a lot of Barbie dolls. Once I ran out of Barbie dolls it became Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony, so I had this basement room filled with toys I got from all my little jobs.”
Do you remember your first commercial?
“My first on-camera commercial was a bathtub doll named Splashy. I remember having to get in the bathtub and the whole crew was standing there with the lights and the cameras. I was four and I was in the bathtub and I had a little swimsuit on, but I was topless, and I was like, ‘Mom, everyone’s going to see my boobies!’ So they had to put me in under the bubbles, and I was terrified, but once I got in, I was playing with the doll!”
What do you remember most about the fashion from Clarissa Explains It All?
“It’s so funny because the fashion from Clarissa has really come full circle now, the whole ‘90s look, all the layers, the combat boots, the leggings, it’s crazy. But when you look at that show, it’s bizarre the way they put those clothes together. I don’t think there was a rhyme or reason to it. I think they just put something together and said, ‘That looks cool for a teenager, there you go!’ But these days, it’s the same version, but a lot more fitted and a lot more intentional.”
What was life like for you at the height of Clarissa’s popularity?
“There was a little anonymity to being a teen star back then without social network and without the paparazzi as crazy as it is now. There’s so much more space to fill now, so there’s so much more interest in celebrity kids. I mean, you never knew who Paul Newman’s kids were. I think Madonna’s daughter was the first child that I remember being fascinated with seeing. And then Demi Moore’s babies because she was always pregnant on magazine covers. I feel like there’s this new phenomenon of wanting to know the details of everyone’s personal lives. I’ve had pictures of me taken taking the trash out and it’s weird because we used to think of our celebrities as bigger than life, always dressed up, always on a red carpet, always fancy, and wonder what happened in their personal lives, but not really that interested. And now everyone’s so interested, and I think it causes a problem for these teen stars. Every teenager thinks that every moment of their lives should be documented and everything they say is so important, but if I was going through a breakup on Twitter, I’m sure I would bitch about an ex-boyfriend. Then there would be my laundry for everyone to see for the rest of my life, and my husband now would see exactly what I said about that guy back then, so I think it’s dangerous and this generation is going to have to watch what happens.”
You went to college after Clarissa. How was that experience?
“I went to NYU for seven years. I should have been a doctor, but I never graduated! I think I’ll be one of those 80-year-olds who throw my cap in the air. It is a dream of mine to finish college, but I don’t know what I would study — I just want to study everything. I went to college because I wasn’t sure I wanted to act. Acting for me was a hobby, and when it came time to pick a career, I was looking for something else, but then I kept on this path. I really feel like I had a normal college experience for probably one year. I was able to live on campus and have roommates in the dorms and attend classes and then I moved into an apartment uptown and things changed a little bit. At the time, I had only done Clarissa, I hadn’t done Sabrina yet, so some people knew who I was.”
What was your favorite part about your role on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch?
“My favorite part about playing Sabrina were all the costumes. I still have all the costumes in my basement, so anytime it’s Halloween, I can be Little Bo Peep or an Army man. I can be whatever I want from those good ol’ days. We had a blast for those seven years on set. We became really close.”
How has your experience been on the set of Melissa & Joey?
“Melissa & Joey is the funniest show I’ve ever been on. We get to laugh endlessly and make people laugh, which is great, but it’s such an easy schedule that it’s nice for me and my family to have a little bit of extra time together during the day. I am balancing the show with family, and with Clarissa, I was balancing the work schedule with school, and that was really difficult at that age, and on Sabrina, it was just the work, so I had a lot of free time to be social and go out, and travel. Now, I have three little kids and a husband, and a home on the East Coast while I’m working on the West Coast, so balancing work and family is complicated, but it’s a great show, and it’s actually my favorite role I’ve ever played.”
How would you describe your relationship with Joey Lawrence?
“Joey and I are like brother and sister. I want to stab him in the eye with a pencil, but if anyone else threatens to do that, I will kill them! We’ve known each other since we were kids. We finally got the chance to work together when we were about 32 on the TV movie, My Fake Fiancé, which then spawned Melissa & Joey. We have a great time at work, we have a similar work ethic. We both grew up kid actors in the ‘80s when if you didn’t know your lines, there was someone behind you ready to do it. If you were working with Bill Cosby on a pudding commercial and you didn’t say, ‘Mmm, this pudding is delicious,” you were out. So you had to know your stuff. He and I know how to sell a joke, get the work done, be professional about it, and go home — and have fun!”
What’s it like being the only girl in a family of boys?
“It’s a lot of energy being the only girl in the household. I have three little boys, two dogs, and a husband, and they’re all boys. Its’ a lot of crazy. If I had one little girl that would just sit there and color or work on her rainbow loon, it would be awesome. Luckily, my little boys do have soft sides. They love rainbow loons, so I get lots of nice bracelets from them. They also like watching My Little Pony, which I’m not supposed to tell anybody! But I love that there’s this soft side to my boys, but they love to go out and wrestle and play swords and football.”
Would you let your kids go into acting?
“If my kids wanted to act, I couldn’t deny them that. But they have to go to one year of college at least. They have to get through the school system, have good grades, and do it right. I would encourage it, but I would also try to help them explore other areas because it’s a difficult business. There’s a lot of rejection, it’s a lot of wasted time, and you get one audition out of 1000. It’s a lot to put up with and you have to have a thick skin. It would kind of kill me a little bit every time they didn’t get an audition.”
Why did your family decide to live in Connecticut?
“Before our oldest went to kindergarten, my husband and I decided that we would find somewhere else to raise our family besides L.A. I’m from New York and he’s from Alabama, so we moved back east. We wanted seasons and weather and school busses; we wanted a more suburban life for them. We spent a summer looking for places to raise them, and we found Connecticut. It’s been this tranquil oasis; its been amazing.”