The Staggering Transformation Of Elizabeth Berkley

Elizabeth Berkley has gone through many phases in her career, from child star to movie star to disgruntled actor and nearly everything in between. The Michigan native got her start on "Saved by the Bell" in the early '90s, and many thought it would lead to a promising career in show business. On the contrary, Berkley's transformation as an actor was stunted by her role in the disastrous rollout of her first major film, making it hard for her to gain momentum in the years to come.

While she may not have evolved in the ways she expected as a celebrated actor, Berkley has certainly done so in her personal life. Roadblocks that once seemed enormous to her while she set out to trailblaze a formidable acting career have since become incredible lessons, ones that she admits have molded her into who she is today as a wife and mother.

Berkley may not have had the acting career she hoped for, but she has changed from her days at Bayside High. Decades later, she's able to look back at the many stepping stones in her life through a new lens and inspire many others to do the same. Hollywood may chew up and spit out many fledging actors, but this former sitcom star didn't give up when the going got tough. Here's a look at the staggering transformation of Elizabeth Berkley.

Elizabeth Berkley got into show business at a young age

Elizabeth Berkley was born in Farmington Hills, Michigan, in 1972 to her parents, Jere and Fred. She was raised in a Jewish family alongside her older brother Jason, and she got her start in the arts at a very early age thanks to their support.

By 5 years old, Berkley was already participating in many dance classes, including ballet, going on to perform in "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker." Eventually, she started to expand on her skills and combine dancing with acting as well. The future sitcom star performed at her local theater in her pre-teen years in plays such as "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and "Eleemosynary."

When she was 13 years old, Berkley got a head start in the industry when she won a modeling contest with Elite Model Management. The exposure led her to sign with the agency's New York branch, helping her book gigs in television ads and print modeling. Shortly thereafter, she landed small parts in 1986 episodes of the series "Gimme a Break!" and "Silver Spoons," as well as a supporting role in the 1988 television film "Frog." All of this solidified her potential, so Berkley and her family relocated to Los Angeles to support their daughter's dreams of being a star.

She got her big break by starring in Saved by the Bell

Elizabeth Berkley's first big break came with her starring role as Jessie Spano in "Saved by the Bell." The show began airing in 1989 and featured six close-knit teenagers navigating the complicated world of high school in a coming-of-age story that put Berkley on the map. Like many other sitcom stars in the early '90s, it gave her a formidable base as an actor, leaving the door open to a wide range of future opportunities at her disposal.

Berkley ended up leaving the series early in 1992, choosing not to participate in an additional 11 episodes leading up to the series finale in Season 4. At the time, she and the rest of the cast had already filmed the series' end before department heads decided to order extra episodes to air before the graduation finale, which she chose not to return for.

While some argue that the decision to bow out before the end may have negatively impacted Berkley's career, the sitcom star had visions of more complex roles in mind. Like many young actors, she was eager to find a jumping-off point. "'Saved by the Bell' was a beautiful first rite of passage for me," Berkley told People in 2020. "But as an artist, I was excited to dive a little deeper and explore." So dive deeper she did, but little did she know that her first major film role would change the course of her acting career for good.

Her first major film role was a complete disaster

The first major film role in any actor's career ultimately sets the tone for their future career. While some stars can survive terrible reviews, others fall into a vicious cycle of trying to regain the momentum they once had. Elizabeth Berkley falls into the second category, unfortunately, as her first-ever feature film, 1995's "Showgirls," was a disaster, tanking at the box office and earning embarrassingly bad reviews.

Berkley played the lead role of Nomi Malone, showcasing her character's journey from stripper to Las Vegas showgirl as she desperately clawed her way to the top. At the time, many Hollywood's elite starlets were vying for the role, but no one expected it to be perceived as comically bad. The film had a disappointing turn at the box office, ultimately bringing in a lackluster $20 million on a $45 million budget. 

Berkley was targeted by numerous horrible reviews, including a scathing one from Entertainment Tonight that dubbed the film "the worst thing that ever happened to its star, Elizabeth Berkley." As a result, the actor was dropped by her agent and left to fend for herself, without any future acting prospects to look forward to. "I never thought this continuous bashing of the movie and of Elizabeth would happen," said "Showgirls" director Paul Verhoeven to the Los Angeles Times in 1995. "I think she did exactly what we wanted and what we thought would be good. And apparently, we failed."

Berkley was bullied in Hollywood following Showgirls

The intense backlash from "Showgirls" took its toll on Elizabeth Berkley, who felt like an outcast following its premiere. "Of course, it was disappointing that it didn't do well, but there was so much cruelty around it," she recalled to People in 2020. "I was bullied. And I didn't understand why I was being blamed. The job as an actor is to fulfill the vision of the director. And I did everything I was supposed to do."

With her agent dropping her, and not many people from the film's making giving her public support, Berkley felt completely isolated as a young actor in Hollywood. "I was left out in the cold and I was a pariah in the industry I had worked so hard for," she shared. She ultimately focused her attention on finding roles in films with an attractive cast, or roles that were starkly different from her "Showgirls" character. Berkley gained some of her momentum back with supporting roles in films like 1996's "The First Wives Club" and the 2001 film "Curse of the Jade Scorpion," both of which fared well at the box office.

"Showgirls" became an important life-altering lesson for Berkley. "I would be a different person had I not gone through the depths of what it taught me," she explained, adding, "It was a vulnerable time, but it made me stronger."

She went back to her theatrical roots

Elizabeth Berkley returned to theatre acting in the late '90s, where she eventually made her Broadway debut. Her performances garnered mixed reviews, however, and didn't solidify a newfound career in the arts.

She starred in the 1999 play, "Lenny," as her character, Rusty, acting alongside British comedian Eddie Izzard. Her performance earned her a positive review from a critic, while Izzard was ultimately torn to shreds for his underwhelming acting. "We watch in disbelief as Izzard takes his wife Rusty (an impressive Elizabeth Berkley) back to meet his mum," wrote Robert Butler for the Independent. While the nod was certainly welcomed, the small mention didn't set her apart from the crowd.

Berkley made her Broadway debut in 2004 in the comedy "Sly Fox." She played the virginal wife, Mrs. Truckle, whose husband solicits her for sex in an attempt to inherit a large fortune. Unfortunately, her performance wasn't all the rave to some critics. "Less successful are Rachel York as a prostitute who wants to marry Sly and Elizabeth Berkley as Truckle's virginal wife," Frank Rizzo wrote in his Variety review. "Berkley mostly fails to mine the comic gold lining the script. (An absurdly funny reference to 'chastity shoes' misses its mark.)"

She tied the knot with Greg Lauren

Elizabeth Berkley married into a major dynasty in 2003 when she tied the knot with Greg Lauren. The latter is the nephew of famous designer Ralph, the face of fashion giant Ralph Lauren. Greg found his way into the former "Saved by the Bell" star's life in 2000 after the two met at a dance class that year. The two shared their vows in a beautiful, intimate ceremony in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where Berkley dazzled in a custom-made Ralph Lauren gown.

The couple lives together in Los Angeles, telling Us Weekly in 2018 that "sushi and meditation" are their favorite date night ideas. Lucky enough for Greg, he snagged the woman of his dreams and admitted that many people are openly jealous about it. "They either hit me or push or they don't even talk to me anymore," he shared. "I got Jessie, sorry Slater!" The feeling is reciprocated for Berkley, who told the publication that she feels equally as lucky sharing her life with her version of a Disney prince, especially Prince Eric from "The Little Mermaid," who she feels closely resembles her husband.

Berkley released a self-help book

Elizabeth Berkley eventually joined the multitude of celebrities who decided to become published authors. The only difference between her book and the many others released, however, was that her's was actually a hit.

Berkley published her book "Ask Elizabeth: Real Answers to Everything You Secretly Wanted to Ask About Love, Friends, Your Body ... and Life in General" in 2011, a self-help book written in the form of diary-like entries designed to help teenage girls answer all their burning questions. The actor was inspired to write the book after "Saved by the Bell" went into international syndication and she had started to get stopped in public, especially by the younger generation, looking for advice. Eventually, she started her own "Ask Elizabeth" workshops, which morphed into a website and later the book.

"Everyone just talks about the problems our teenage girls are facing and what they're dealing with," Berkley told Entertainment Weekly. "But there was, to me, a void in how they were being served or helped. I thought, 'Wow, I'd love to create something.'" Fortunately for her, "Ask Elizabeth" was a success story, garnering positive reviews. "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," she explained. "It was this community of, I call it different heartbeats on every page."

She welcomed her first child with Lauren

While Elizabeth Berkley has stepped into many roles in her life, nothing was more special for her than becoming a mother to her son, Sky Cole Lauren. She and Greg Lauren welcomed their first child in 2012, with the actor telling People that motherhood is the "role of a lifetime."

Berkley was eager to put all her time and energy into raising Sky, which meant any roles on the big screen took a necessary back seat after his birth. "I'm really savoring this time," she explained to Us Weekly in 2012. "I have a lot of work I will be doing, but I'm just enjoying the focus of where I should be. You can't get this moment back, you know what I mean? That's why I'm savoring it."

Sky was also part of the motivation behind Berkley's decision to join "Dancing with the Stars" in 2013, just over a year after giving birth. She had an excellent run in the competition, ultimately getting eliminated alongside her partner Valentin Chmerkovskiy ahead of the semi-finals. Still, she looks back at the experience as a huge gift. "I think it's important for a child to grow up and see their parent also passionate about something that they love, maybe artistically," she told People. "I want him to see that it's never too late to be courageous. Also, for myself, I wanted to challenge myself and step in and walk through my fears about doing a show like this."

​​Berkley joined her former cast mates for a SBTB reboot

Elizabeth Berkley warmed the hearts of many adoring fans in 2020 when she returned to Bayside High for a reboot of "Saved by the Bell." Nearly three decades after the series wrapped, Peacock launched a new installment of the beloved sitcom during the COVID-19 pandemic, starring many original cast members. Berkley signed up to revive Jessie Spano, alongside Mark-Paul Gosselaar (who plays Zack Morris), Mario Lopez (who plays A.C. Slater), Tiffani Thiessen (who plays Kelly Kapowski), and Lark Voorhies (who plays Lisa Turtle).

The relaunch features a new generation of high schoolers, with the original cast members returning to play grown-up versions of their former characters, with Jessie becoming Bayside High's guidance counselor. Berkley herself also worked behind the scenes as a producer. "This new show is a perfect bridge between generations. In terms of the timing — we could never plan for this in a million years," she told "We could not be more thankful for this to come out the day before Thanksgiving ... there are people that are isolated right now and we hope it brings warmth, joy, escape, and nostalgia."

Berkley's experience returning to the set of the same show that catapulted her into stardom was even more special because she got to bring her son. "Sky came to set and he got to have a clapboard and say action," Berkley gushed to People. "For him to get to really witness what I've worked for, and what I do, has brought a lot of joy."

The LGBTQ community came to love her role in Showgirls

While "Showgirls" may have gone down as one of the worst-reviewed movies of its time, for some audiences, it strikes a far different chord. Decades later, the film is looked at as a "camp classic," a term that Merriam-Webster defines as "something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing."

"Showgirls" has gained a whole new fan base that appreciates the movie for everything it tried to be and not for what it ended up being perceived as. The film has become particularly adored in the LGBTQ+ community — some of whom have taken themes from "Showgirls" and transformed them into drag performances — empathizing with lead character Nomi Malone's plight to be noticed in the dog-eat-dog-world of show business.

In March 2024, Berkley appeared in front of a sold-out crowd at the Academy Museum's David Geffen Theater in Los Angeles for a screening of the controversial film. "We really pushed the boundaries at that time that now have been embraced — not misunderstood but truly embraced," Berkley said at the screening. "And I'm so grateful that the film has found its way into your hearts and especially the LGBTQ community." Berkley got choked up in her speech, reflecting on the newfound audience's appreciation for her work. "You stood by the film," she continued through tears. "You always believed, as did I, and for that, I'm eternally grateful."