Khaki Wishes and Cookie Dreams: "Troop Beverly Hills" is Almost as Old as Your Dad's New Girlfriend!
I have many complaints about my childhood, but probably one of my biggest is the fact that my parents failed to recognize the obvious star quality their only daughter possessed…and therefore also failed to put their own personal ambitions and desires on hold in order to move me out to New York or LA to make me into a child star. I was hungry enough, I was obnoxious enough, I could have been cute enough with the right kind of “She’s Out of Control” type makeover, and I had at least a minimum baseline of talent that could have really turned into something with only a few thousands of dollars worth of classes and coaching.
There were two reasons for this burning ambition of mine:
1) I felt VERY slighted that I was not born into a disgustingly rich family, and so if my parents insisted on continuing to deny me the lifestyle to which I wanted to become accustomed, I was just going to have to go out there and get it for myself. And the best way to do that? Easy - just get into modeling or acting!!
2) I really liked attention, and I found that when I got some of it, I wanted more of it. And who got more attention than a child star?! Besides, I loved performing! I loved getting compliments! I loved being able to force people - mainly, people who were my parents! - to acknowledge my presence and listen to me sing and watch me dance because we were in public and I was on a stage in front of a big audience which meant that they could not, in fact, yell at me to be quiet!
And thus, I basically dedicated the whole of my childhood to the dream of becoming Hollywood’s greatest child actress, singer, or model. I’d watch Star Search obsessively, then lock myself in my bedroom and create song and dance routines that would surely get me a fast-pass onto the show (or, at the very least, resounding applause at the annual school talent show, for whom I usually listed my main talent as “Bein’ Cute”). I closely studied toy commercials and the advertisements in my mom’s magazines, practicing the wide-eyed gasps, winning smiles, and jaunty hands-on-one-hip poses in front of my bedroom mirror. I even started to break out these poses in my own family’s photographs, confident that someone important would somehow see them and realize that I was their golden ticket to the big time, baby!
Which actually really happened!!!! When I was 4 or 5, my mom, who worked as the Motivation/Activity Director at a local assisted living + nursing home, arranged for me to be the kid model for her workplace’s newspaper advertisements. I was POSITIVE that someone was going to see these Southeastern MN regional ads, hunt down my mom’s phone number, and ring her up to tell her, “That kid has really got something! Ya gotta get her to Hollywood!”
Spoiler: They did not, and she did not.
But I didn’t give up! I used my allowance to buy aspirational magazines like Vanity Fair and how-to books about making it in Hollywood, filled with super helpful antidotes like “Move to LA” or “Look Your Best Every Day…you never know when you’ll get noticed by a talent scout!” Even to my young child mind, the big tip regarding hanging out in a lot of shopping malls or parking lots felt like great way to either get discovered by an agent or get kidnapped (both of which, when you think about it, would lead straight to your face becoming plastered all over America).
But with this ambition also came with a dark side, my friends. This one time I was watching a TV show with my mom when a precocious kid actor suddenly broke out into a Broadway-type song. “Oh my gosh, she’s GREAT!!!! She’s wonderful!!!” My mom kept squealing, over and over, as this child star sang her way into the hearts of America. Gritting my teeth and fake-smiling, I was like, “HAHAHA, I know, wow, so great” but inside, I realized that I suddenly now knew what all those adults on TV were talking about when they talked about wanting to do a murder. I’d been spontaneously breaking out into song around my parents my entire life!! And all I’d gotten for it was my dad hollering at me to shut up!
Thus began my journey of both desperately wanting to be a child star and loathing anyone who was a child star. Why would I like them?!? They had what I wanted! And even worse, other people like my parents somehow immediately recognized that they had talent while simultaneously continuing to ignore the VERY OBVIOUSLY TALENTED CHILD sitting RIGHT NEXT TO THEM!! And you wanna talk about comparison being the thief of joy? Let’s talk about Jennifer Love Hewitt joining the cast of my beloved KIDS! Incorporated and RUINING it for me because unlike Stacy Ferguson, whom I admired because she was blonde and I was not blonde, Jennifer was a brunette like me and therefore my competition but she was also so godamn perky and cute that she made me wanna throw up. And don’t even get me started on having the title card of ‘Jennifer “Love” Hewitt’ - who the f*ck just ADDS “Love” to their professional name? That’d be like me declaring that from now on, I was ‘Amber “Dimples” Carter.’ Even when she got older and started appearing on Party of Five, I still did not forgive her for having formerly ruined my favorite kid’s show with her winning smile and jaunty side ponytail.
WHICH IS ALL TO SAY…when Troop Beverly Hills first premiered 30 years ago, I was simultaneously prepared to both love and hate it.
Love it, because it was about rich people, which back then was my all-time favorite genre.
Hate it, because it was packed to the gills with girls I hated because I had seen most of them in different TV shows and movies, so I already knew they obviously had the lives I very much wanted to lead. Like Emily Schulman, who played a walking junior high version of The Art of the Deal, Tiffany Honigman… she was the annoying neighbor girl on one of my favorite shows, Small Wonder, and she also had the exact same hair as my Cabbage Patch Cornsilk doll. Her role on Small Wonder also lives on in this, one of my all-time favorite GIFs:
And Kellie Martin, starring as cash-poor Emily Coleman, who had been in everything - TV shows like Highway To Heaven and Valerie and a bunch of Disney’s Movie of the Week (remember those?!?!) and even BIG movies like Jumpin’ Jack Flash. She was even on My Two Dads!!! Which was my FAVORITE show!!!! She would later go on to star in Life Goes On, and of course, the cult classic, Death of a Cheerleader with Troop Beverly Hills CO-STAR Tori Spelling.
I also knew Heather Hopper, who played future-self-help-guru Tessa DiBlasio, from seeing her on Punky Brewster and Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which was another one of my favorite shows because it was only available on HBO which meant that you kind of had to be at least little rich in order to watch it.
And of course, Ami Foster, whose role was kid actor Claire Sprantz, who, with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and angelic face had starred in almost everything… Webster, Fame, Punky Brewster, and Full House…if it was popular, she was probably on it at some point (and that’s not even including her voice work, which included Pound Puppies, Garfield, and a Snoopy movie, which, even before IMDB existed, I knew was her because I’ve always a freaky ability to recognize and identify a voice, which is REALLY fun for people who have to watch commercials with me and hear me constantly blurt out stuff like, “THAT’S THE VOICE OF CALLIE TORES FROM GREY’S ANATOMY!!!!”). I envied and therefore disliked her most of all.
So even though I was all, “Yo, I hate all these broads”, I still couldn’t keep myself from watching it. After all, it was about rich people, right? And I very much needed to see all the movies about rich people so that I could properly be one, someday.
So I watched it. And dear reader, I loved EVERY MINUTE OF IT!
The thing about Troop Beverly Hills is that every moment is a joy…it’s written and shot so as to be a pure delight, and it delivers. Based on creator and producer Ava Ostern Fries' “true-to-life anecdotes” of leading her daughter’s area brownie troop, it features a beautiful, fashionable, plucky heroine; a handsome hunk of an estranged husband/dad; a troop of girls I could actually see myself being friends with (or whom might actually be nice to me while they gently turned down the offer of my friendship); some adult situations (which was my favorite kind of thing in a movie, second only to rich people stuff); and a campy romp into the lives of the Beverly Hills rich and famous.
But more than that - and this is the stuff that would truly stick with me - it’s a movie about not letting anyone strip you of your individuality just so you can fit into their expectations of you. Which is important, yeah? It’s kind of like being a precocious kid who wasn’t gonna let anyone tell her she couldn’t be a child star just because she only got cast as an extra in the local theater production of Tom Sawyer. Maybe if I had been BLONDE and TALL and BEAUTIFUL and FIFTEEN, like the girl the dumb director cast as Becky, then I might’ve stood a chance. AS IT WAS, I still made the most of my small part and made sure to be in front of literally every other extra any time we were on stage, and if that’s not talent, then…okay so it’s not talent, it’s just very cunning planning, but still a valuable skill for makin’ it in Hollywood.
Anyway, Phyllis is a woman who fully enjoys who she is…she is deeply delighted by the sunny paradise full of luxurious treasures she finds herself living in, making her basically my life role model. And, unlike what we’ve been told to expect from the rich, it’s not a mask for an inner pit of unhappiness or insecurity, nor - as we see in an early scene, when she has a lovely, complimentary exchange with her gardener - is it used as a mechanism to exercise superiority or contempt. Which is really nice, you know? Phyllis is basically proof positive that money can indeed buy you happiness.
But Phyllis is also made to contend the big, always-relevant issue of her estranged husband Freddy not respecting or even acknowledging Phyllis’ very real contributions to their marriage (which kind of sounds like me having to contend with parents who refused to recognize my very natural performing arts talents, you know? Also my incredible talent to loosely relate any plot point back to my life and make it about me): The emotional labor she put into supporting Freddy during his career aspirations; putting her own dreams on hold to raise a kind, smart, and self-assured daughter; contributing creatively to his muffler business marketing; and developing and adhering to a certain image to help him network effectively and impressively. For centuries, the role of the successful man’s housewife has been dismissed as being “frivolous”, and even more enraging, painted as an unequal trade when it came to her access to HIS checkbook #WomenBeShopping. For a generation of girls, this movie was our first real exposure to the then-increasing stigmatization of homemakers.
For Phyllis, though, it’s all just extra motivation to really prove to her family and herself that she can stick it out as a Wilderness Girl troop leader. Which she DOES, but just not by anyone else’s rules or standards. After a few false starts, she decides to trust her instincts and relies on her inherent strengths to help her troop create achievement badges out of things they’re actually interested in…learning jewelry appraisal at Cartier, emphasizing the value of good personal hygiene with manicures at Christophe’s, spending the day at Divorce Court (because if we learned one thing from watching ‘80s movies, it was that everyone’s parents were getting divorced but then also coming to their senses and getting back together at end…which was totally not a unrealistic or emotionally shattering movie trope for ‘80 schildren of divorce at all!). She also puts her creativity and networking prowess to use by helping her troop raise literally thousands of dollars for charity through the sale of Wilderness Girl cookies. Take, for instance, this now iconic “Cookie Time” song (which, BTW, was written by the woman trying to sell Phyllis an evening gown in the opening montage), whose lyrics and dance routine I naturally had memorized by heart less than 24 hours after watching TBH for the first time:
While these methods are exaggerated for brilliant comedic effect, Phyllis playing to her personal strengths and interests - all of whom would traditionally be eschewed as frivolous or shallow - was a highly interesting idea that was fully digested by the women of my generation…women who would later grow up to lead the wave of digital entrepreneurs, content creators, branding experts, and Instagram influencers who made their names - and their money - on the idea that individuality could be your greatest strength.
And speaking of girls, let’s just take a moment to recognize how rare it was - and still is - for almost ALL of the main characters to be women. Phyllis and Freddy’s romantic entanglements aside, it also still surprises me to realize that there is literally nothing in the movie having to do with boys at all. Unlike soooo many movies featuring a majority of girls and women, none of the girls’ inherent motivations in Troop Beverly Hills has anything to do with impressing or liking or even competing with a boy. Again, aside from discussions about Phyllis and Freddy, none of them even talk about boys, not even ONCE! Instead, they have real, multi-faceted concerns…Emily wants her unemployed dad to find a job, Chica wants her parents to value her enough to remember her birthday, Claire wants to feel like a real kid with an ordinary life instead of just being a kid star (cry me a river, CLAIRE), Hannah wants her parents to come to their senses and stop this silly divorce nonsense, and everyone else wants to be taken seriously by the other Wilderness Girls.
I cannot understate how astounding this lack of “girls’ lives are centered around getting or keeping a boyfriend!!!” plot line still is to me…especially for the ‘80s, when Hollywood was still deeply entrenched in the idea that movies about men and boys sell, but movies about women do not.
Which, to be fair, the movie was not a box office hit. It was one of those movies that had lukewarm reviews (probably by all-male critics, GIRL YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE) and a poor showing in theaters, but the minute it was released on VHS, it became a constant fixture at slumber parties and therefore an instant cult classic. Like, honestly, Hollywood should really start centering their focus groups around whether or not girls are going to want to rent a movie for their slumber parties. Do you know how many movies us girls have made into huge VHS hits just by renting them for Kimmy’s 4th grade slumber party? Have you ever heard of the movies like Out of Control, Shag, or Drop Dead Gorgeous? 1 in 5 women of my generation has rented one or all of those movies SEVERAL TIMES during her adolescence, and that can be directly credited to watching them at least once during a slumber party.
Even though Troop Beverly Hills is now officially 30 years old this week, it still has so much more to teach us. For one, Shelley Long as Phyllis Nefler is a master class on comedic acting - have you even seen her legendary “He permed me” monologue, bro?
Second, the one-liners will never not be relevant. From “I started my new meaningful life today and I bought a whole new meaningful wardrobe to go with it” to “I may be a beginner at some things, but I’ve got a black belt in shopping” to “In the wilderness of life, we can never be too prepared” to “Just because you’re out in the woods, that’s no excuse not to look your best"…I mean, this is the shit of Pinterest queen dreams.
And the fashion. THE FASHION. The FAAAAAASSSSHHHHHHUUUUUUNNN. The whole movie is a whimsical mood board: The plush pink carpeting, the Florida beach pastels decor, and the FASHION. Besides bringing us fully back to the days of short peplum shirts, hats adored with huge fake flowers, and scrunchies GALORE, Phyllis’ fashion choices are completely bananas yet also so thoroughly enjoyable to behold. As someone who tends to wear her personal uniform of jeans and a trademark black shirt every day, I honestly admire any woman - real or imaginary - who can have this much fun with fashion.
Also, don’t even get me started on Phyllis’ best friend and my adult life icon, best-selling author of steamy novels, Vicki Sprantz (played by Dynasty star Stephanie Beacham, who - along with her Sister Kate co-star, Jason Priestly*, and TBH co-star Tori Spelling - would later go on to star in Beverly Hills, 90210, playing Dylan McKay’s mother, Iris). That scene where she pulls up to the park in her black sports car and uses her voice recorder to narrate a sex scene and her DAUGHTER suggests adding “his manhood rising to a frenzy”?!? And instead of being disapproving, instead she was all, “His manhood rising to a pulsating frenzy…yeah, that’s good, I love it!” AMAZING. From her leather ensembles - which I would have preferred to be faux, but this was technically the ‘80s - to her insistence that a cappuccino could help cure even the darkest depression, this character was made for me.
Also, can we talk about the fact that the title of her new best-selling book was “Malibu Bitch”?!?!?
Plus, I LEARNED things from this movie. There is not a time in my LIFE since watching Troop Beverly Hills that I don’t look at a piece of turquoise jewelry without remembering that we have the American Indian to thank for it. I also learned that 200 thread-count linens were ideal, that you could charge 10% interest a week on money you lent to friends, that silicone is buoyant, and that it’s still important to be a good sport even when the other teams are not. And not that I ever plan on using this hot tip, but I also learned that you can always tie a few hiking backpacks together - even ones from Giorgio Beverly Hills - to create a makeshift stretcher in case of an emergency!
In the end, Phyllis proves everyone wrong - even Freddy - by leading her troop to the ultimate victory - winning the annual Jamboree and becoming the poster troop for the Wilderness Girls…and she did all of that by staying true to herself and refusing to give up.
As for me, I did not prove everyone wrong and I absolutely did give up. I shucked my dream of becoming a child star just as I started hitting puberty, when it became apparent that, despite my loud personality, talent for making up fantastic dance routines to any and every Paula Abdul song, and a strong penchant for showing off, none of that would overcome an adolescent appearance that could - and often did - make a baby cry.
Instead, I decided that I was much happier getting rejected as a writer. And because we’re never too old to be re-inspired by a beloved childhood movie, after re-watching TBH a couple years ago, I realized that I still wasn’t entirely ready to give up on my Hollywood dreams after all. Maybe I’m not the person meant to be starring on a thing in front of the camera, but I am absolutely meant to be the one writing the words that they will regularly question and go over my head to try to change. After all, if 12 yr old me knew how to pander to a slew of Speech judges during the countdown to the Gulf War with my stirring original oratory, “The Importance of Freedom”, then grown-up me definitely knows how to pander to a bunch of Hollywood execs with some scripts that are all just basically different versions of “hot, single, successful career gal suddenly realizes her life has no real meaning if she can’t win the love and approval of an unambitious, average-looking, but funny man.” I mean, write what you know right?
So thanks, Troop Beverly Hills. You truly remain a thrill.
* Yes, I could do this all day. If anyone ever decides to make a TV version of VH1’s Pop-Up Video, please call me?