Melissa Joan Hart Is Cool With Being Clarissa Forever, Just Don't Forget What A Boss She's Become
Nostalgia fiends around the world can breathe a sigh of relief: Actress, director, producer, and entrepreneur Melissa Joan Hart is happy being synonymous with Clarissa Darling and Sabrina Spellman — even if she's a bit more of a Clarissa IRL. Much like the strong, ambitious women she's so famous for bringing into our lives — and one young computer genius in particular — Hart has got some magic up her sleeve in her post-Clarissa life too.
On a recent visit to Bustle headquarters in New York, Hart was rather open about accepting her role as many a millennial's childhood hero, whether that's Clarissa, Sabrina, or both. She says she's used to being chatted up by diehard fans, many of whom she says are, above all, respectful of the work she put into '90s culture juggernauts Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina The Teenage Witch.
"People are always like 'Does it annoy you that you’re recognized as these things?' But I’m lucky enough that I am recognized about a lot of my work," she says. "When anybody respects your work or says something nice to you about your work, I still prefer that to when I have encounters with people who are like 'Are you that girl? Really. No. Are you really? Can you call my mom? Because she won’t believe me.' And it’s like, OK this is awkward."
Calls to random fans' mothers aside, Clarissa Darling's impact on millennial women is not lost on her.
"I think that Clarissa was someone who let, especially the girls, know that you can do whatever you want to do and it will be OK."
Clarissa Explains It All, which ran for five seasons and 65 episodes between 1991 and 1995 on Nickelodeon starred a teen Hart as Clarissa, a high schooler dealing with typically high school things, while maintaining her own extremely unique identity (a penchant for mismatched duds, a knack for computer programming, and an infamous pet alligator, for starters).
A few years later, in 1997, Hart would start the first of seven seasons on Sabrina The Teenage Witch, the anchor of ABC's TGIF Friday night lineup. The series enjoyed a larger network-level audience and saw such mega famous guest stars as Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, RuPaul, and Jerry Springer. (It also starred Ghostbusters director Paul Feig as Sabrina's science teacher.) Hart starred as a slightly more conventional teen, minus the teensy part where she had magical powers.
Personally, I always sort of held Clarissa and Sabrina in equal measure — Clarissa came along when the fearlessness of pre-teen youth took over before ego and peer pressure got too heavy, while Sabrina was perfect for the years when even the best of us could fall into the trap of wanting to be liked by the popular kids. For Hart, however, Clarissa was her clear favorite — and someone the actress says she related to far more as a bit of a rebellious person herself.
"I think that Clarissa was someone who let, especially the girls, know that you can do whatever you want to do and it will be OK. You don’t have to conform. You don’t have to be the cheerleader. You don’t have to date the football player. You don’t have to, you know be the model student. You don’t have to have a huge group of girlfriends. You don’t have to be part of a clique, you know?" she says. "You can have a guy friend. You can do computer graphics. You can like They Might Be Giants. You can date the bully. And these are all things that are acceptable and fine because if Clarissa thinks they’re cool then maybe some other kid would be like, you know what? It’s OK that I’m a little different because Clarissa’s a little different."
And that's exactly what you want from someone who played a character you idolized as a kid. For Hart to understand why that quirky girl who didn't fit in, but was so OK with it, was important to so many young women is the best possible outcome. And it's a snap for the actress, because she feels the same way about the character — Ms. Spellman, however, was tougher for her to get into.
"Sabrina was for me a little bit harder ... because she was trying to be the wallflower; she didn’t want to be special; she didn’t want to stand out. She wanted to fit in, and Clarissa was kind of the opposite ... she had no problem standing out and standing up for what she believed in," says Hart. "People found [Sabrina] very relatable ... I found my strength through Clarissa because when I started playing that character I was going through a time when I was being bullied in school and it just felt like I didn’t fit in. I was underdeveloped and I was a late bloomer and you know, just liked different music, liked different activities than other people did."
While it might come as a bit of a shock that Hart doesn't hold as much warmth towards Sabrina, it's somewhat understandable. Sabrina wasn't totally conforming — she was often busy tormenting the cheerleaders for being awful (ugh, Libby) — but she was actively trying to hide what made her special, i.e. being a witch. And while a lot of that had to do with laws governing witches and warlocks on the show, the message was clear, in retrospect: Teen girls could relate because they, too, were trying to blend in and duke it out with the popular girls for the affection of their own personal Harvey Kinkles.
"I think that Clarissa was a little bit more of a fantasy of what people wanted to be like. Whereas Sabrina was more of what people identified with," says Hart.
Too boot, Clarissa Explains It All was actually revolutionary: It was the first Nickelodeon series to feature a female lead. So yeah, it makes sense that Hart took so quickly to the character rather than the teen witch. But it also makes sense why fans took so quickly to Hart, and why she still has a place in their hearts: She's honest and not afraid to express an opinion that could furrow some brows. (Clarissa would approve.)
And while she really appreciates Clarissa Explains It All fans ("They all think they’re the real fan because they’re like, 'I remember you from Clarissa.' They all say it the same way. It’s hilarious," she says), should you be lucky enough to bump into the mother of three/businesswoman/cultural icon, it couldn't hurt to compliment her ventures outside of tween TV.
"It is nice when other things are recognized, [like] when people have seen me on Broadway or been like my Walmart commercials, you know? Those are always things I don’t expect to hear that are nice too," says Hart.
After all, Hart has not slowed down one single bit since the '90s. Back then, as she explains it, "The crew from Sabrina really traveled together for seven years. We did an episode in Orlando, Florida at Disney World; we did an episode at the new Animal Kingdom ... we were the first ones in it; we all took a trip to Vegas; we all went on ski trips to Mammoth and Tahoe and Alaska for the Special Olympics." Then came the teen movies: "For Drive Me Crazy they did the press conference junket in Cancun ... partied my butt off, in the morning I went and talked to people about my movie. It was fun. Adrian Grenier liked to shock the reporters — that was his favorite thing to do," she says.
Now, she's traded partying her butt off in Cancun for family time, but she's no less busy. While starring in and producing ABC Family's Melissa And Joey — which ran for four seasons from 2010 to 2015 — Hart started her clothing company; directed a movie for Lifetime (SantaCon, which also earned her a Women's Image Network award); guested on cult comedy Robot Chicken (twice); was in an off-Broadway production of Love, Loss, And What I Wore; and released her memoir (Melissa Explains It All: Tales from My Abnormally Normal Life). She's also currently running her kids' clothing line, King of Harts (or "my new baby," as she puts it) with her husband, and shopping for new directing projects.
Even when she sat down to speak with me at Bustle, she was respectfully checking her watch, wondering if she could attend that evening's Director's Guild meeting, meet up with her King of Harts clothing designer, and still get home in time for Bible study.
And that's what fans of Clarissa, and even Sabrina or Drive Me Crazy, might be able to appreciate most about who Hart grew up to be: This woman is a straight-up boss. While she's no longer on TV donning avant garde neon duds, hanging with a pet alligator, and messing with computer games on a device that resembles a dinky droid from an old sci-fi movie, Hart is still proud to have played such an awesome teen. Plus, looking at all she's up to now, I think it's safe to say that she still has the Clarissa spirit. And you know what, Sabrina fans? I think our favorite teen witch would be pretty in awe of that too.
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Images: Emily Geraghty/Bustle; Giphy