LI to LA – Melissa Joan Hart: A True East Coast Sensation
Melissa Joan Hart, the local girl who stole America’s heart as a teenager in Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, is all grown up. We caught up with Hart at Richard Salgado’s annual “Big Daddy Golf Classic” at Oheka Castle this past June. Hart has been busy and has appeared onstage, competed on Dancing With the Stars, has directed several television episodes and written her own memoir, Melissa Explains it All: Tales from My Abnormally Normal Life, and is the spokesperson for Nutrisystem. This fall, she will be launching King of Harts, a clothing line for boys.
Although Hart, 38, has settled in Connecticut with her husband, musician and singer Mark Wilkerson, and their three sons Mason, 8, Braydon, 6 and Tucker 2, she splits her time between the East and West coasts. She is currently starring on the ABC Family series Melissa & Joey, shot in Los Angeles.
“When we begin shooting again I have to move my family back to LA for six months,” she said. “I loved playing Sabrina, but Mel from Melissa and Joey is my favorite role because I can be silly, quirky, and it also has a great storyline. Melissa and Joey has a Sabrina-esque ‘witchy’ element to it that I’ll be directing in an episode this fall.”
Originally, Melissa and Joey was pitched as a movie, but when Joey Lawrence was cast as the male lead, they loved working together so much it was turned into a series. Hart is not only the female lead, but director and executive producer as well.
“Directing is the most fulfilling role for me,” she said. “It’s a lot of work; I just finished directing a Christmas movie in Connecticut. With acting, you’re for hire. You can make choices and decisions based on your character, but only to an extent. With directing I have control of my project and still am able to come home to my kids.”
Clarissa and Sabrina made Hart a television icon with characters who spoke directly to the ’90s generation. Born in Smithtown, she grew up in Sayville. That Long Island experience is one she is looking to replicate with her own children.
“I loved my childhood, growing up playing in the neighborhood, playing baseball, riding my bike to school with neighbors, getting excited for the first snowfall of the season,” said an enthused Hart. “I really loved my ballet classes at South Shore Dance. Ralph Macchio took dance classes there as well. I wanted the same life for my three sons, so that’s why we moved to a suburban area in Connecticut.”
Although she spends much of her working life in Los Angeles now, the East Coast will always be home. And the Long Island storefronts, the family-owned businesses that catered to families like her, made a lasting mark on Hart.
“My parents were ‘hippies’ and raised us without a lot of money so we often ate at home, we had a lot of pasta, and sometimes got lamb chops if my family was lucky, even though I hated them,” she said. “When we did go out as a family, our favorite place was Sayville Town Pizza. We also loved Kingston’s Clam Shack. Once in a while we rode our bikes to Poppa-Mia Lemon Ices on the corner of Oakdale and Sayville.”
These days, her adventures take her to some more upscale places, though she does enjoy keeping it local.
“My brother grew up with Mike Wilson, who is the chef at Monsoon in Bay Shore,” she said. “The last time I was home to visit I went there for my mom’s birthday party. It’s a really beautiful building and the food is as good as it looks. All of our family birthdays are close together and we celebrated at Monsoon.”
Before she was in ABC’s Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Hart starred in Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains it All. At the time, Hart was a little embarrassed that she was a teenager on a children’s network, but she loved the premise of the show and how real it was. Not only was Clarissa Explains it All home to the careers of Michelle Trachtenberg and Wayne Brady, it also paved the way for some of the best writers in television history. Alexa Junge, television writer, producer and screenwriter, worked on-set and is best known for her work on the series Friends. Paul Lieberstein went on to work on the hit show The Office.
Hart gained valuable experience watching her mother, Paula, juggle career and motherhood. She explained that her mother was a mother first and a businesswoman second. She served as Hart’s manager, casting director and executive producer, helping Hart’s career grow very quickly and helped her daughter navigate what could have easily become treacherous waters. Together, Hart’s agent and mother always ensured that she was surrounded by morals and ethics.
Hart feels fortunate that Sabrina The Teenage Witch aired before reality television became a programming staple. What had come about as the result of labor strikes created a lasting genre that no one thought would ever survive, least of all Hart. Do not go looking for a Kardashian-like show about Hart and her mother, however.
“Reality has created stars for no apparent reason,” shared Hart. “It’s not even being socialites! It’s just being famous for being famous. I don’t know what would happen if that went on during my childhood. I wasn’t even allowed to wear black as a kid because my mother didn’t find it appropriate.”
When Hart grew older, she became business partners with her mother, producing the 2001 ABC television movie Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story, based on Temple’s autobiography. Hart described it as a labor of love.
“My grandmother introduced me to the movies as a little girl,” she said. “Being able to work on this movie was a dream of a lifetime. We met Shirley Temple and she trusted my mother and I to honor her mother’s memory in the film. We shot the movie in Australia during the same time Sabrina was filming.”
She hopes to show her boys Temple’s 1935 classic The Little Colonel someday soon.
Although Hart might be a wildly successful—and busy—Hollywood star, her mother’s strong influence helped her keep it real. If you follow Hart on social media, you’ll catch glimpses of her life with pictures of her boys and homespun status updates that sounds just like the girls who grew up next door to you.
Shrugging, Hart explains that she likes to document her children growing up as much as the rest of us do, and putting out candid pictures of her home life satiate the paparazzi, who then don’t swarm over her children.
In fact, you can catch her picture on Facebook with a bucket of ice water dumped over her head in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, just like everybody else on Long Island.
Just maybe, she looks a little better getting cold and wet than we do.
From Melissa’s book, Melissa Explains it All available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Own a Lucky Dress
It doesn’t have to be fancy, expensive, or covered in pennies and rabbits’ feet. You’ll know it works when good stuff happens while wearing it. Owning lucky lingerie can be helpful too, but that’s a whole other book.
Never wear mascara
I borrowed this one from my Mom, but I tell everyone it’ll make your lashes thinner than an Olsen Twin by the time you’re 28. Forget I said this if you want to offer me a contract to be the face of Maybelline.
The only regrets you should have are for the things you didn’t have the guts to do.
Don’t let fear get in the way of speaking your mind, kissing your co-workers, or jumping off cliffs with 30-foot drops.
The best part of being the boss is that you get to be bossy.
People like to say there’s no “I” in team, but I never understood why this matters if you’re in charge. You can also transpose the letters in the word “team” to get “meat,” and that has nothing to do with running an efficient business, either.
Always eat a spoonful of lentil soup on New Year’s Day
It brings good fortune and is full of B vitamins.