When good witches go bad

Melissa Joan Hart has joined the ranks of actresses who undress for success. Can the Olsen twins be far behind?

Pop culture

October 10, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

For anyone who grew up watching '80s prime-time sitcoms, using zit cream and believing in the purity of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a glance at the magazine racks recently was enough to provoke some deep soul-searching.

On the cover of Stuff magazine, Alyssa Milano, formerly the sweet Samantha Micelli of "Who's The Boss?" made sultry in a drenched white tank top. Nearby, Rebecca Gayheart, the former "Noxzema Girl," appeared topless in leather pants on the cover of Details.

Most wicked of all, though, was the image of Melissa Joan Hart, star of ABC's wholesome "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," flaunting herself on boy magazines Maxim (the "bare witch" in black lingerie) and Bikini (the wet witch in, well, a bikini.)

The images alone were startling. But in her accompanying "interviews," Hart also offered some disturbing dish, like an episode of tequila-induced vomiting and the difference between good and great sex.

You could hardly think back on her old kiddie sitcom, "Clarissa Explains It All," without feeling dirty.

Nubile starlets appearing semi-nude on magazine covers is nothing shocking -- or new. And any leap from ingenue to sex kitten is a calculated risk, something Hart seemed to have in mind when she declared on CNN: "You know, it's something I just decided to do. I'm 23, is the bottom line. I'm 23. I can do what I want. It's my career."

But this little witch has got more at stake.

Like, Melissa, you're the centerpiece of ABC's saccharine "TGIF" lineup -- the birthplace of "Family Matters," "Step By Step" and "Boy Meets World." There's a reason most of your fans -- with the exception of those who play drinking games to your show before going out -- are home watching TV Friday nights. They're 8 years old!

Sabrina's a good witch. Hart seemed like a good girl. Why go bad -- even if you do have a new movie, the teen flick "Drive Me Crazy," to promote?

"This is a game of publicity. It just elevates her status even more," says Neil Alperstein, associate professor of popular culture at Loyola University.

He says stirring up the controversy caldron has perks for everyone. Hart herself is luxuriating in the buzz and copies of Maxim are flying off the shelves.

But Sabrina's new tricks have also hurt her.

A couple of endorsement deals have been rescinded. She's been trashed in the New York Post. And Archie Comics publisher Michael Silberkleit, whose company licenses the Sabrina character, isn't thrilled about lingerie and tequila tarnishing his freckle-faced sorceress' image. He wants Hart thrown off the show, and is threatening to sue her unless she makes a formal apology.

"There are guidelines for portraying our character," he told Newsweek. "Everyone [from Archie comics] should be portrayed as virgins. No nudity, no drinking, no sex ..."

(For the record, Silberkleit made no mention of his comics' many voluptuous characters, such as Josie and the Pussycats in their revealing kitty costumes, or Betty and Veronica, buxom teens whose lives all but revolve around getting the attention of a dim-witted boy.)

Regardless of her new fan base of hungry young males, Hart does stand to lose some less lusty Sabrinaphiles.

"Sometimes people will reject the celebrity when they do something so antithetical to their value system," says Loyola's Alperstein.

After all, Hart has two audiences to satisfy: the kids who watch her and their parents.

"If she rode Sabrina to success, she owes something to that persona," says Sheri Parks, co-host of WJHU's "Media Matters" and a University of Maryland, College Park professor.

Is it unfair to shackle the young witch to this pristine image? Jim Kaminsky, co-editor of Maxim, thinks so. "It's a good thing to let everyone know she's an adult," he says. "That's a difficult thing to do."

Kaminsky added that offering his readers "your favorite witch without a stitch" wasn't a random decision. Maxim, he says, had received thousands of letters suggesting Hart grace the cover.

Not that his magazine would pander to every reader demand, Kaminsky assures. Maxim would never feature an under-18 starlet on its cover, he says, as Details did earlier this year when "Eyes Wide Shut" ingenue Leelee Sobieski displayed cleavage on its cover.

"It's not like we're pulling a fast one on any of these actresses," he says. With Hart, there was no arm-twisting, Kaminsky says. She and her mom, Paula, "Sabrina's" executive producer, seemed eager to do some high-profile image tweaking.

Whatever Hart's fans (and business partners) think of her abrupt image shift, it illustrates that heels, push-up bras and smoldering glances may just be the most reliable tickets to starlet success.

Parks of "Media Matters" says there aren't many other ways for young actresses to escape the teen sweetheart mold. Alperstein wonders if it's just Hollywood business as usual. "Is the system structured the same way as the casting couch in the early '40s?" he asks.

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