Tiffani Thiessen on trying to live up to the Kelly Kapowski myth: ‘I’m neither thin nor perfect’

The 49-year-old ‘Saved by the Bell’ actress is now reinventing herself as a foodie TV star after calling out the media scrutiny she has been subjected to on account of her shape

Kelly Kapowski
Kelly Kapowski was one of the stars of the hit TV series 'Saved by the Bell.'

Kelly Kapowski was a summer crush for millions of youngsters around the world during the 1990s. The protagonist of Saved by the Bell was the archetypal American sweetheart, a teenage version of Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan, who dominated the big screen at the time. Captaining the Bayside High cheerleading squad, as well as the volleyball and swimming teams, Kelly was a brilliant student, a thoughtful and funny companion and was, of course, dazzlingly beautiful with her big smile, dreamy eyes and a mythical mole on one cheek. Kelly was so perfect that Tiffani Thiessen, the actress who played her, would eventually feel pressurized into becoming embroiled in the losing battle of trying to replicate her in real life. “I was never like Kelly,” she says. “She was the cheerleader and the perfect next-door neighbor. I grew up in this business, and never went to school. I was also never a cheerleader, nor did I attend a prom. I didn’t have any of those experiences,” says the Californian actress, who has spent the last 25 years trying to distance herself from the expectations raised by her alter-ego.

Original cast of 'Saved by the Bell.'
Original cast of 'Saved by the Bell.'NBC (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

At 49, Thiessen is not about to return to the levels of international fame she enjoyed when starring in Saved by the Bell. Married to actor and illustrator Brady Smith since 2005, she has two children, Harper and Holt, and is now entirely dedicated to being a culinary TV star. After hosting her own recipe show, Dinner at Tiffani’s, she now presents a fun cooking show for MTV, called Deliciousness and has penned two books. In the latest, Here We Go Again, to be released this September, she focuses on recipes that recycle leftovers.

The actress has reinvented herself as a star of culinary TV.
The actress has reinvented herself as a star of culinary TV. Lars Niki (Getty Images for Gourmet Garden)

But being part of the foodie world has not let her off the hook as far as judgmental body scrutiny from the media is concerned. And the actress has complained on various occasions about negative remarks on her physique. “I’ve had issues with my weight since I was 17,” she told Forbes magazine after speaking openly about the 20 kilos she gained when pregnant with her daughter and during the Covid lockdown. “There was a lot of added pressure working with a lot of very beautiful, thin people, and I’ve been asked by my producers in the past to lose weight. It really hurts, but that’s part of this business. People expect me to be thin and perfect... but I’m not. Young actresses face extra pressure to look a certain way and be a certain size. I was not the girl that was a size 2 and didn’t work for it. I was never the waify model type.”

Thiessen became one of the idols of 1990s TV.
Thiessen became one of the idols of 1990s TV. Aaron Rapoport (Getty Images)

Before landing the role that would catapult her into the spotlight, Thiessen had worked as a model. As a child, she participated in different beauty pageants and, aged 13, she was crowned Miss Junior America. Three years later, she was chosen as Model of the Year by Cover Girl and hailed as a TV sex-symbol. “It definitely felt very overnight. You’ve got a group of 5,000 kids who are all wanting your autograph. It was very alarming,” she says of the sudden and overwhelming fame and the role her parents played in keeping her feet on the ground. “I credit my parents a lot for it. My parents keep me grounded still to this day.”

After relationships with co-stars such as Mark-Paul Gosselaar who played Zack Morris and Mario Lopez (A.C. Slater), in 1999 Thiessen was faced with tragedy when her off-screen partner, actor David Strickland, took his own life in a Las Vegas hotel.

The death of her boyfriend coincided with Woody Allen choosing her to appear in his film A Hollywood Ending. In the movie, Thiessen plays Val, an actress who tries to seduce a film director in a bid to resurrect her career, unaware that the filmmaker has just gone blind. The premiere meant a walk up the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival wearing Giorgio Armani. It was the indisputable crowning moment of her career.

Thiessen poses with Woody Allen and Debra Messing at the Cannes Film Festival.
Thiessen poses with Woody Allen and Debra Messing at the Cannes Film Festival. Anthony Harvey - PA Images (PA Images via Getty Images)

Thiessen had other opportunities to further her career. Some she turned her back on and some she missed out on: she declined to appear on the series Charmed, and lost the role of Rachel Green on Friends to Jennifer Aniston. “I was too young,” she says. “A little young to be able to square with the rest of the cast.” But the most bittersweet moment in her career came when she lost one of the main roles in the Bond flick, The World Is Not Enough, to Denise Richards. It was a chance to make the leap from the small to the big screen, which was not as easy as it is now. But it was not to be. “I was devastated,” she says. “I remember getting in the car and driving to the beach and staying there for hours, I just wanted to be alone. It hurt like hell because I wanted it so badly. The lesson I learned was not to want anything that badly because in this industry the most normal thing is that you don’t get the part.”

The original cast reunited a couple of years ago to try to reboot the series.
The original cast reunited a couple of years ago to try to reboot the series.Peacock (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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