Made in the Shade
July 29 1995 / By Alan Carter
How does a hot TV star chill out over the summer? Well, 90210's Tiffani-Amber Thiessen goes from vixen to victim in two TV movies.
Most people simply check into a hotel; Tiffani-Amber Thiessen practically does the 100-yard hurdles through the lobby.
While on location for a TV flick last month in Lockhart, Texas., Thiessen, 21, was left pretty much alone by the locals--until prom week kicked in. "All the high school proms were in my hotel," she recalls. "And one evening these kids spotted me walking around, so I had to find the stairs and run up 11 flights to my suite." Later that night, as she was about to fall asleep, she heard some noise in the hallway: A mob of about 20 teens, dressed in tuxedos and gowns, had found her room and camped outside her door.
Just another perilous day in the life of a rising teen-TV queen. "I have more zits now than I did as a teenager," says Thiessen. "Stress zits."
After the Oxy 10-worthy pressure last season on "Beverly Hills, 90210" of "filling the shoes of Shannen Doherty--I heard that phrase, I think, a thousand times," Thiessen might have been expected to take the summer off. Instead, she turned her career down the movie-of-the-week path trodden by her 90210 mates Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth. Thiessen plays two sexual-assault victims in a pair of way-heavy TV movies slated for the coming season: In NBC's "Scared by Love", she portrays a teen who is raped by a high school football star (real-life beau Brian Austin Green plays her boyfriend), and in ABC's "The Stranger Beside Me", she plays a rape victim who unwittingly marries a serial rapist ("McKenna"'s Eric Close). Thiessen's motive for the double Jeopardy? "I'm not the girl from "Saved by the Bell", and I wanted to prove it."
Of course, Thiessen had already buried her 1989-94 image as "Bell"'s goody-goody Kelly about six thousand feet under last September, when she joined 90210—and helped lift the series to its highest ratings ever—as Walsh family friend Valerie Malone, a guy-chasing, booze-swilling, pot-toking, college-sophomore hussy. "The big joke on the set," says Thiessen, chain-smoking and breakfasting on a bran muffin in a hotel suite in San Diego, where she's making "Stranger", "is that Valerie has made a play for everyone but Mr. Walsh."
Landing the role wasn't automatic, even though Thiessen had inside connections in Green, whom she's been dating for 2 1/2 years (the two share a spacious house in the Hollywood Hills with her two golden retrievers, Bonnie and Clyde; his rottweiler, Alik; and two cats, Sadie and Savannah), and in Spelling, who had guest-starred on "Bell". "When Tiffani's name first came up I wasn't sure she was right for the part," admits Aaron Spelling, 90210's executive producer and Tori's dad. "But she obviously has played it wonderfully. She's getting amazing fan mail." Plus, Spelling continues, "Tiffani doesn't rock the boat. And frankly, after Shannen, it was important to have someone who would bring some quiet to the set. Before we hire now, we ask around. No more problems."
Still, we're talking about 90210, so it hasn't been that quiet. From the moment Thiessen crossed into the turbulent zip code, the rumor mill began churning. "First [the press] wrote that I was having temper tantrums on the set, which I really found amusing," she says. "Despite what you read, we all get along, and it's a very relaxed set." Less amusing were the harsher tales, like the story that Green is gay and the two are merely a couple of convenience. "We both laughed at that one," Thiessen says. "Can't they be more original?"
Then there's the recent rumor that Thiessen and "Whoobie" (don't gag, but that's her nickname for Green—"It doesn't mean anything, but now everyone on the set calls him that"; his pet name for her is Dumdum "'cause I'm so clumsy") are breaking up. She insists that their Beauty-and-the-Geek relationship shouldn't surprise anyone. "You should see the number of women who chase him. We are very happy together. We are, and remain, very dedicated to one another." (Green was "too busy" to talk about his girlfriend for this article.)
The cruelest cut, though, may have been the gossip about her alleged weight problem, spread by a 90210 extra who told the TV tab "American Journal" that Thiessen pigged out on M & M's between takes and had a weight clause in her contract. "That really got me frustrated," Thiessen steams. "90210 is not like boot camp. I don't have to weigh in. Honestly, I enjoy food. And I'm never going to be stick thin like Kate Moss. But I don't eat like a pig. That extra is a total idiot. Get a life. For one thing, I hate M & M's, okay? I called Aaron and said, 'I don't know who this girl is, but she's *not* going to be around next season!'" (Whoa — shades of Shannen?)
Thiessen does not argue with the following facts. First of all, she says, she owes her hyperextended moniker, which her parents simply liked, in part to her grandmother, who "always said that two names makes a stronger person." She is a Long Beach, Calif. native and a middle child; both of her brothers are in college this fall, which she envies ("If I have to go when I'm 40, I'm going," she vows). Dad is a parks landscaper and mom a homemaker, who "drove me to every audition until I was 16." She began modeling at age 9, appearing in a slew of kiddie commercials for products like Barbie dolls ("They never let me hold the Barbie," she complains. "I only got to hold Ken. I guess I wasn't blond enough").
After becoming 1987's Miss Junior America, she landed more serious TV work, including her first TV movie, 1992's "Killers Among Friends", in which she played a young girl who gets tortured and killed by her two best friends ("We did the killing scene in one day—I was so drained I got back to the hotel and went, 'MASSEUSE!'"). Her big break, though, had come on "Saved by the Bell", which made Thiessen a bona fide teen star—but didn't exactly make her wildly popular with her schoolmates. "I had only one girlfriend," she says. "Girls would write horrible things on the wall about me, and I don't know why."
These days, Thiessen can take comfort in her popularity with her producers, whom she inspires to unbelievably lofty praise. "She's a brilliant actress, and I'm not kidding," says "Stranger" producer Bill Shippey. "She touches on greatness in this." Adds hyperbolic "Stranger" executive producer Ronnie D. Clemmer, "Tiffani impressed me more each day. She has the potential to be very big in feature films" Read it and weep, Meryl Streep.
Reaching such tespian heights, however, was no day at the Peach Pit. "You have to see Texas in June," she deadpans, recalling the "Scared by Love" shoot. "I never saw so many insects in my life! Chiggers? Hello? What are those things? And I'm allergic to mosquitoes, right? My whole arm blew up. I looked like Popeye."
But the experience has left her more down-to-earth about her own career prospects. One would think Thiessen would have a grand design for avoiding Doherty-style stall-out, but she claims, "I really don't have a career plan. I like being challenged and thrown around. But it's only acting."
With the summer ending and Thiessen back on the 90210 set, her next challenge will be exploring the vulnerable side of Valerie Malone. As at the end of last season, she will prove susceptible to heartache, no longer just a pothead viper. "I had a little input on that," says Thiessen. "I said, "Uh, okay, guys. Next. Can we move on?'"
Beyond that, Thiessen's wish list is short: A vacation next summer. With a can of Off!