Emily Valentine: The Girl Who Set '90210' on Fire

'Beverly Hills, 90210' gave us a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but 20 years later, it's an outsider who's burned into our memories.


When you think teen drama, what shows come to mind? If Beverly Hills, 90210 is missing from that list, something's wrong with you. On October 4, 1990, Fox premiered a little show about the Walsh family, Minnesotans who move to Beverly Hills, Calif. There was father Jim, mother Cindy, and the two twins, the “perfect” guy in Brandon and the sweetheart with a mean streak in Brenda. This was no Beverly Hillbillies situation—the Walshes immediately became part of 90210's fast and fabulous lifestyle, for better or for worse. Many times for worse, as creator Aaron Spelling and co. used high drama to take its audience through a maze of hot button issues and messages. One week, the gang learned about drug addiction. The next week, racism. And who could forget the week the gang learned about gun safety? As cookie cutter as it may sound now, this show absolutely exploded, and made icons out of its cast: Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Luke Perry, Brian Austin Green, Tori Spelling, and Gabrielle Carteris. Even Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, who was coming off of teen heartthrob status from Saved by the Bell, became a bigger star after joining the show in season five.

Beverly Hills, 90210 lasted 10 seasons and 293 episodes, but 20 years later, some moments stand out more than others. In season two, after the success of the summer episodes, class was back in session for the kids of West Beverly High School. And like with any new year of school, there came the promise of new kids. That season, the fresh blood was Emily Valentine, played by Christine Elise, a motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing, punk rocker who definitely wasn’t like the rest of the girls in Beverly Hills. She was Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind Of Wonderful meets Aimee Mann in 'Til Tuesday, and she immediately found her way into the heart of Brandon and the crosshairs of his sister Brenda. Despite her hardened exterior, Emily Valentine was depicted as just as sweet as her name, a girl who was the picture perfect example of “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

But bring up the name Emily Valentine these days, and any Beverly Hills, 90210 fan will no doubt have something to say, usually something about arson and a little something called “U4EA.” The sweetness of Emily Valentine remained, but it fell to the background when she dosed the straight edge Brandon with a happy drug at a rave, started stalking him when he dumped her, and set fire to a parade float. All bets were off—and the show was way better for it.

There’s a sense of awe and fondness that goes with the memories of Emily Valentine, something one wouldn’t generally expect for such a “crazy” character. So with Beverly Hills, 90210 turning 25 years old, we tracked down the actress behind Emily to talk about her role as one of 90210’s most memorable characters. If you didn’t think you could love Emily Valentine even more, think again.

Why do you think people still remember Emily Valentine so vividly? She was only in a dozen or so episodes.
Part of why she stands out so much is that she was the first one—the first different one. She was the first one that came in that mixed it up at all. You know, there were no other bad guys—she was the new kid in the mix and I think the first one, really, that had any dramatic storyline. I know from what I hear from people in subsequent years that she stood for all the kids that weren’t popular. Whether they felt outside or less than or disenfranchised because they were either, you know, financially separated from the people they knew or they were gay kids or punk rock kids—she stood and held the place in that storyline for a lot of kids.

I agree because as much as I love the show, I would say the only character I ever identified with was Emily, even though outwardly, I’m nothing like her. But I moved around a lot, I was always the new kid, so it was refreshing to see because she’s so different from all of the characters.
Yeah. And totally accepted too. I think that not being accepted, watching somebody battle to be accepted, and achieve it, actually, I think is like a romantic comedy. Like Bridget Jones, the girl who is mousy gets Hugh [Grant] and Colin Firth to fight over her. That’s sort of a fantasy too, a kid fantasy to be like, “I’m an outsider, no one thinks I’m cool—and then they take me in.” That is powerful.

You got to make out with Dylan McKay (Luke Perry), so I’m sure lots of women were jealous of you back in the day. No one’s ever approached you about that, just to say you sucked? 
No. Everyone’s really nice. No one ever comes up to me and says, “I fucking hated you.”

With social media now though, have you gotten those fans who tweet at you like, “Emily Valentine was the worst?”
The only negative stuff I got about Emily Valentine was negative fan mail. My favorite stuff ever was the hilarious hate mail from like five or six little girls, it seemed to be. You know, pre-teens maybe, because some of them would swear and some of them wouldn’t. Like one girl called me a “female dog” and another girl had no problem calling me a “bitch.” It’s really funny—comparing me to Madonna and calling me a “pointy boobie girl” and telling me to stay away from Dylan, you know?

Pointy boobie girl?
“You look like Madonna, you’re a pointy boobie girl.” I kinda did look like Madonna back then too, so it obviously wasn’t something I was shying away from, but it’s a hilarious letter. This is not the negative experience of it that you might think, but [Emily] definitely bred some jealous little girls and she did some crazy shit. She did some bad stuff, you know? I was also amazed that people forgave her for so much, because, like you said, you didn’t outwardly have anything in common with her but still you felt spoken for by her, even though she did this crazy stuff. I’m sure you weren’t, like, drugging your boyfriend and stalking him but somehow the fans forgave her for that.

Well I think a lot of it is because for the majority of it Emily’s just the outsider—it’s basically like those two episodes where it goes “boom, boom, boom” and everything happens. What did you think of that, because I think part of my problem with it was that the way they handled mental illness within “My Desperate Valentine” is kind of iffy at best. Although, Andrea Zuckerman, surprisingly—Emily Valentine’s least favorite person—is the one who kind of sticks up for her and brings up her possibly having a borderline type personality disorder. And they never really diagnose her, but that’s basically what it seemed like. 
Prozac apparently helped.

How did you feel about that? Because I felt like one of the best things about the character, especially early on, was that it was very “don’t judge a book by its cover.” 
That’s exactly my line that I’ve given in a thousand interviews, that when I got the job, it was “don’t judge a book by its cover.” And then when Emily went crazy, it was, “you can just judge a book by its cover.” That did bother me and I went so far as to call Aaron [Spelling] and say, “I don’t like this. I feel like I’m betraying the original storyline with her.” And he was like, “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’re gonna redeem her.” And they did, they brought her back. And you’re right, the mental illness thing we only touched on really superficially, but it’s a light show and the show was for young audiences.

Especially since the first two seasons were very much "message of the week."
Right. “This week is bulimia, this week is date rape,” you know?

I was happy that they redeemed Emily, especially because she was obviously doing these crazy things, but clearly something was terribly wrong. To make her the villain would have left a bitter taste behind.
Well then you’d feel fooled. You’d feel tricked. And I’ve often sort of mocked them for Jamie Walters’ character Ray Pruitt also being blue collar, and also going crazy—it’s like apparently if you don’t have a good income, you don’t have good mental health either. Like domestic abuse and poverty go hand in hand or something. It bummed me out because I had to play her, you know? And every character I play, whatever they do, I have to find some way to justify it from their perspective. And that was tricky, because it was difficult to justify stalking and the weird pathetic-ness of stealing a Twins baseball shirt. It was just so desperate.

“She was initially conceived as more of a julia roberts.
i went into the audition with short blonde hair and motorcycle boots.”

How much of the Emily Valentine character would you say is like yourself?
Well, every character’s a little bit like me, because all I can do is bring my life experience to it. She was initially conceived stylistically as having cascading red hair, being drop dead gorgeous and more of a Julia Roberts character. I went into the audition with the short blonde hair and this hat and the motorcycle boots, and they reconceived her visually.

Do you find it kind of fascinating that Emily’s wardrobe has stood the test of time the most? Like, I could see someone dressed like Emily Valentine in Silver Lake.
Oh that’s very flattering, because in fact it was very much my personal style. I was a punk rock kid in high school and I was never a kid that followed contemporary trends. That might be why it holds up a little, because it wasn’t like the sundresses with the velvet choker and the things that the rest of the cast sort of wore.

Steve Sanders’ outfits do not stand the test of time.
I know, right? How about the mom jeans? On the boys! Jason [Priestley] in mom jeans!

How did you get along with the cast after the first few episodes?
I’m an actor that tends to hang out with the crew. Actors can be crazy; nobody in the crew is ever crazy. But that show was such a huge phenomenon, and they were sort of just all still reeling from that. It was still a new thing for them, that level of fame. And they were busy. They were busy in their lives—it wasn’t like I was really trying to be their friend in real life. I did most of my work with Jason, and Jason and Luke—Luke actually went out of his way to have lunch with me the first couple of days. He was the sweetest of all, actually, when I first got there. And then I got really close with Jason.

Do you have any good or fun stories from your time on the show?
Not offhand. They were doing these things called double-ups. Most television shows do 22 episodes a season, and when 90210 was in its peak, it was doing 32. They would literally shoot concurrently and they would shoot two whole episodes, and so, you could be, in the morning, doing a scene from episode three and later that day doing a scene from episode four. It was a grind. I don’t have any tales of shenanigans or anything like that. There were shenanigans, of course, but nothing that stands the test of, “Oh my god, wait ‘til you hear this!”

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What were your favorite moments on the show itself?
For me, the first episode was the most fun. Because, one, it was just incredibly exciting to be on that show. And the material, I think, resonated most for me. And Shannen—I was warned when I got to the show that “the guys will be really nice, I don’t know what the girls will be like, but the guys will be really nice.” And the girls, they just didn’t have the time of day for me really. They weren’t friendly—they weren’t like bitches or anything, that’s an important distinction—[they were] unavailable, basically. There was a weird tension with Shannen: I felt like I was trying to win Shannen over a little bit, the way her character kind of was. I think she’s a talented actress, and I believed her in the scenes when she was being mean to me. So my scenes with Shannen in that first episode are my favorite. I think I did things in them I didn’t expect or intend to do, just based on how much energy she was throwing at me. That’s fun, that’s the most fun thing about being an actor, when you go onto a set to do a scene and you get some preconceived thing about how it’s gonna go, and then it goes differently. You have a much more organic experience of the material than just being in your head and acting it. 

You were in the infamous “Scott shoots himself” episode. Emily and Brandon were making out the whole episode, so you weren’t really part of that, but do you even remember the vibe of the whole show during that episode or even any of the reactions to it?
I just felt bad for that actor. He was on the hottest show in America and being killed off of it, so for me, that was where my head was at. “This poor kid just got kind of out-cooled, and they’re gonna kill him off the show.” I was just busy being caught up in how exciting the whole thing was.

You wrote three episodes over seasons five, six and seven—what was that like?
I wrote them because I had watched Jason take advantage—Jason directed, produced, and he’d do things like buy equipment and rent it back to the show. I thought, “That’s fantastic. I need to find ways I can take advantage of the position that I’m in.” I had this idea that I would write the whole gang. Eight of them go on a three-hour cruise, a booze cruise in the marina, and suddenly a storm comes and Donna slips on the deck, bumps her head and has like a Wizard of Oz dream—but it’s Gilligan’s Island, and each of those characters is dropped into a Gilligan’s Island character. The characters fit really well into the Gilligan’s characters. I pitched it to the writers, and they went to Sherwood Schwartz to try to get the rights to do the episode, but he was gonna do a feature at the time and they wouldn’t let me do it. [Writing was] fun, it was an easy job because by then it was really serialized. I didn’t get to come in there and go, “Oh, this episode, Steve comes out as gay!”

Will you be watching Lifetime’sUnauthorized Beverly Hills, 90210 Story?
Fucking yeah, I’m watching that thing! I think they did a pretty good job trying to make a gesture at matching people [to the original actors]. The picture they have, the Lifetime poster, evidently the Brandon Walsh they have is wearing a pair of mom jeans! He’s got his thumbs hooked in the belt, just like Jason used to actually do. I’m so bummed they didn’t have an Emily Valentine character, a Christine Elise character. That would be hilarious to see. It’s like the same as having an action figure made of you.

Where do you think Emily Valentine is right now?
Well, I mean, she went to France to the Cousteau Institute to become a marine biologist, so I imagine she’s in Fukushima, taking radiation out of fish.

Do you think she would ever go back to Beverly Hills?
I’m hoping she wouldn’t go back. I’m hoping that she fell in love in France. She already gave that Brandon thing a second shot, and he was busy with Kelly.

You've mentioned before that you were originally supposed to be a Melrose Place spin-off character.
I called Aaron and said, “I don’t like what’s happening,” [then he had his line,] “We’re gonna redeem her.” Then a couple of weeks or months later, they came up to me and said, “Would you be interested in doing a spin-off?” And I said, “Yes.” We talked about it, and it just didn’t happen for a number of reasons. It was, like, their creative ideas and my sort of being concerned that my career would be forever linked to Jason’s and that people would perceive that I had my entire career gifted to me through the whole Jason thing. It wasn’t true but I was concerned it would appear that way. I also wanted to do movies, and I was sort of reticent to tie myself down to television. Because back then, you had to kinda pick. A lot of things contributed to my not doing it, but I don’t regret it at all.

You have a book out. Tell me everything about it, without spoiling.
Well, it’s based on a short film that I did, a ten-minute short film that people can watch at bathingbook.com. The film works as a trailer for the book. I did a little bit of stuff from my life. I absolutely, intentionally blurred the lead character in the book’s biographical details with my own, so that it would feel more like it was really me. But it isn’t, it’s fiction, and it’s an awkward comedy. It’s the funniest book ever written, I think. It’s sort of a, like, awkward, dirty book. Like if Larry David wrote a book about dating from a girl’s perspective. Cranky, awkward, embarrassing.

So before we go, do you have anything to say to the Emily Valentine fans out there?
I guess, thank you. Thank you for the support. Thank you for not hating her for going crazy.

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