Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
Who was your first pop-culture crush?
We’ve covered embarrassing pop-culture crushes and current pop-culture crushes in AVQ&A, but we’ve never talked about old ones that we’re not ashamed of. Mine—along with a lot of people who watched Nickelodeon reruns, I imagine—was The Monkees’ Davy Jones. He was cute, non-threatening, and had this way of dancing that I thought was really adorable. Reading about him later in life, I think he might have been a bit of a creep, but aesthetically, I was into him, and when I was 8, that’s all that mattered.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person to admit having an early crush on an animated character (I hope?), but it’s hard to overstate just how gaga I was for Velma Dinkley on Scooby-Doo. I don’t know if it was her glasses, her bob haircut, her orange turtleneck sweater, or her ubiquitous “Jinkies!” catchphrase, but there was something positively enthralling about the gang’s biggest brain. (Her brain; yeah, let’s just go with her brain.) I moved on to more worldly, non-animated crushes later in life, though things got complicated again when Linda Cardellini portrayed Velma in those two Scooby-Doo movies from the early ’00s. Just don’t ask me how conflicted I felt when Cardellini/Velma popped up as Don Draper’s latest squeeze/symbolic mole in the current season of Mad Men.
In the third season of The Love Boat, Lauren Tewes got a makeover; she and her character, the Pacific Princess’ chipper cruise director Julie McCoy, transformed from bowl-cut-headed tomboy to wispy, feather-haired goddess, and I was hooked. The timing seems right, too; I was 8 years old, starting to stay up a little later—especially on Saturdays, when the show aired—and beginning to have stirrings about the opposite sex. Not the icky girls that shared recess with me, mind you, but older women, namely the young teachers that I had in second, third, and fourth grade. They had the same feathered hair and dressed in a way that was far less stodgy than the bun-haired teachers I had experienced to that point (in fact, this memory is also bringing up warm feelings I had about Connie Stevens when she was on Hollywood Squares. Something about feathered blonde hair in the ’70s did a number on me). Being the nerd that I was then, I was triumphant when Julie hooked up with goofy ol’ Gopher (Fred Grandy) a year or so later, because on TV, the nerd never got the girl… too bad they decided to remain “close friends.” By the time Tewes had to drop out of the show due to drug problems, I had moved on. But there’s still a place in my heart for the 1979 version of Lauren.
The year was 1979—and yet it wasn’t—when I fell in love with Erin Gray. I was 7, and the short-lived TV show Buck Rogers In The 25th Century debuted. I was already a science-fiction fan, and the show was filled with futuristic wonders, up to and including the bizarre, symbiotic, robot/sentient-computer duo of Twiki and Dr. Theopolis. But my eyes always seemed to lock longest on Gray. Her character, Wilma Deering, wound up being more of a buddy than a love interest to the womanizing Rogers, which was fine by me. Although Gray could just as easily have been one of Charlie’s Angels—or even taken Lindsay Wagner’s place in The Bionic Woman without my noticing—the space-opera backdrop made Gray pop that much more. Granted, her metallic blue spandex jumpsuits also did wonders for my burgeoning, um, imagination.
I made the mistake of admitting to my wife that, as a kid of 8 or 9—toward the end of Taxi’s run—I was enamored of Marilu Henner. Who wouldn’t be, though? Henner was a fiery redhead who could give as good as she got with the dudes in the garage, especially the lecherous Louie. (In real life, she even had relationships with both egghead lifer Judd Hirsch and down-on-his-luck boxer Tony Danza, so she was clearly non-discriminating enough to also consider dating a young Milwaukee boy still in his single digits.) I don’t think the crush lasted beyond those Taxi years—I didn’t even realize until researching this answer that she had been on Celebrity Apprentice. In fact, the last time I can remember thinking about Henner was when I heard she had hyperthymesia, which is a characteristic she shares with my wife, too. (In addition to me having a crush on her early in life, that is.)
I have a theory that a certain generation of girls came of age watching David Bowie in Labyrinth. That and Grease (Kenickie was another early favorite of mine, because I couldn’t handle John Travolta’s chin dimple) were two slumber-party staples when I was a kid. In retrospect, it’s sort of creepy that the movie is about a much older man trying to convince a very young woman (some would say girl) to come join him as his consort in Jim Henson’s version of Never-Never Land. I don’t think at the time, watching it, I was like, “Oh yeah, I want to get with that much older dude.” I think a lot of it was his character’s hair and makeup, which any girl who grew up during the ’80s would crave, but also the scene where he and Sarah dance to “As The World Falls Down” in the glass bubble, she in that big poufy dress and gorgeous hair accessories, he being all… David Bowie. It’s really a portal between girlhood and womanhood. I’m not embarrassed about that crush at all, to be honest. I just re-watched the dance scene and thought, “Oh yeah.”
This is a difficult question to boil down to a single answer, because I know of so many different gradations of crush. I know that there was a time early in my life that I was pretty certain I’d one day marry Judy Graubart from The Electric Company, and after that, there were a select group of women in popular culture who I couldn’t look at without thinking, “My body feels funny.” But I think the first time I felt it all was for Jan Smithers playing Bailey Quarters—smart (she wore glasses), painfully shy, and quietly signaling her desire to explode with passion for the right, badly chosen fella, basically the Annie Edison of the early ’80s—on WKRP In Cincinnati. If nothing else, she helped me establish that I have a type. And as I learned years later when I discovered that she was a popular dream girl among guys my age who watched too much TV, she also established a pattern that would repeat again and again for me: thinking that I was the only person in the world who could detect the seductive charms of someone every lustful bastard alive was also drooling over.
I have always liked quiet, serious women and loud, brassy women. Which, now that I think about it, makes it sound like I just like all women, which is not far from the truth, but I digress. And if I look back on some of my earliest pop-culture crushes, like Winona Ryder and, uh, Full House’s Jodie Sweetin, I can see some of that disparity locking in. But I think much of this can be traced to the woman who was probably my earliest pop-culture crush, Sarah Polley, whom I watched every week with my family on the Disney Channel’s Avonlea (properly called Road To Avonlea everywhere else). To be sure, I had more of a crush on her character, Sara Stanley—a bookish girl who grew into adolescence at roughly the same pace as me and also liked to have wild adventures. For a kid growing up in the great outdoors, with only a handful of girls attending school with him, this was, I suppose, roughly the equivalent of noticing the girl next door, who had always been your one female friend, was actually really kind of cute and cool when you thought about it, except for the fact that, you know, she was a fictional character from the early 1900s who lived in my television. Come to think of it, maybe this explains more about my career choices than anything else.
I was just talking about this very topic with Alyssa Stonoha and Griffin Newman on Twitter and Sarah Polley came up in that conversation, which is funny. But for me the answer always is and always will be Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice as Lydia Deetz. Eight-year-old David Sims watched that film without any real concept of what was going on. But something was going on. Maybe it was just that she was unlike any other teenage female star I’d seen in a movie up to that point. Maybe it was just Winona Ryder (I moved right along to Edward Scissorhands and eventually Reality Bites and Heathers). I don’t think it was the goth look, which didn’t recur in my pop-culture crushes. But I’ll always remember watching that movie as a watershed moment.
My biggest crushes have always been on unmotivated, slacker, punk-ish types like James Franco in Freaks And Geeks and Jared Leto in My So-Called Life (maybe I was attracted to future weirdos?) but looking back on it, Trent in Daria was the first. A lot of this attraction probably had to do with the fact that, similar to many sarcastic and bespectacled brunettes at the turn of the century, I fancied myself as Daria so it seemed only natural that I’d also pine over Trent. Between the spiked hair, lazy cadence, ripped jeans, and the terrible tattoos, Trent was basically perfect to me—except, unfortunately, he was animated. I also loved that despite his appearance, there was a real sweetness to him when it came to his friendships with both Daria and Jane. But most importantly? Trent was content with eating pizza and listening to music in his messy bedroom all day and that’s everything my tween self—and maybe even my current self—could ever want.
It’s odd how I can very vividly remember my first real crush (her name was Meghan, we were in junior kindergarten together, she told me that “girls were strong,” and was my first kiss), but I’m pretty fuzzy on my first celebrity crush. If I’d have to wager, I’d probably put my money on Amy Jo Johnson, otherwise known as Kimberly, the Pink Ranger from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. As a child of the early ’90s, MMPR was my jam during after-school day care and the like, and, well, Kimberly was hot. I wish I could say my 5-year-old self was attracted to her independence and intelligence. But let’s be honest, I was a barely formed human being, and probably just liked her because she was the prettier of the two girls in the series.
Laura M. Browning
I was in seventh grade in 1990, and while most of my girlfriends plastered their bedrooms with NKOTB posters, I had a different true love: Doogie Howser, M.D.Doogie was the first TV show I ever followed, and in those pre-Internet days, I scrounged for any scrap of trivia I could find in the grocery store checkout line on Neil Patrick Harris (he’s only five years older than me! It could have happened!). I worked out the theme song on the piano (hint: it’s not that hard) and obsessed over Doogie and Wanda’s breakup. I loved that a smart, geeky teenager could be (in my lovesick eyes) a heartthrob, and I even continued to follow NPH through a spate of bad TV movies (I have watched at least part of Snowbound: The Jim And Jennifer Stolpa Story). I was genuinely delighted that NPH made a cool-kid comeback with How I Met Your Mother and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and the Harold And Kumar movies, and now I like to think that he was the beginning of my excellent taste in gay men.
I like to think that Boy Meets World is one of television’s perfect distillations of the adolescent experience—but I only think that because I was the right age for the show when it premièred, and the development and maturation of its characters coincided with my own. For example, I probably realized I was increasingly enjoying the scenes with Danielle Fishel’s girl-next-door (if next door is in the California canyon that gave the character her name) Topanga Lawrence around the same time the show’s protagonist, Cory Matthews, came to terms with his own mixed-up feelings for her. I tended to crush on a lot of the female TGIF characters who were close to my age—I also recall nursing a thing for Al, the tomboy daughter on Step By Step. But there was an innate sweetness to Topanga (and a fun, teasing give-and-take between her and Cory) that stuck with me as I grew up alongside the characters—and probably informed what I ended up looking for in a life partner of my own. Also, she never melted into a pile of goo like my other major crush at the time, The Secret World Of Alex Mack’s Larisa Oleynik, so that was a plus.
For most of junior high, I was convinced I was in love with the comic-book character Rogue. Anna Paquin played her in the X-Men movies, but this was years before I could’ve used that as an excuse. In retrospect, the problem wasn’t so much that I was devoted to a fictional character—millions of people do the same, and I’d argue that crushes on real-life actresses and actors aren’t really more realistic. But still, I was super intense about it, the same way I was super intense about everything back then. I think I even realized how easily I was being played by the comics industry: Rogue’s mutant power is that she can’t touch anyone without draining their life force or whatever, and I was seriously into the idea of a beautiful woman who couldn’t touch anyone else except me, because, um, reasons. Anyway, I was a lonely kid, and while I had a few more credible infatuations (I was also into Kitty Pryde, the Winona Ryder of comic book crushes), Rogue stands out in my head because even recognizing the absurdity of my situation at the time didn’t mean any of it made sense, which is pretty much how all of junior high felt. Eventually my classmates found out about my crush and had the only sane reaction, which was gaping and then laughing until they couldn’t breathe anymore. I just kept walking into walls, hoping I’d find a dimensional portal to another world, or else maybe I’d hit my head hard enough to pass out.
How much embarrassment am I willing to sustain here? Probably a lot, insomuch as I’m participating in this AVQ&A. But the sheer number of answers has emboldened me to throw in with the rest of you and name Alyssa Milano my first pop-culture crush. It probably dates me to say that I watched every single episode of Who’s The Boss? growing up, right from the pilot, and so Samantha Micelli and I basically grew up together over the course of the show. Like a few others so far, I probably had more of a crush on Samantha than Alyssa, but at the time I wasn’t really aware of any particular distinction between the two. So it was easy to pretend what it would be like to be Samantha’s boyfriend and to maintain that illusion for many years, even if I didn’t have the first clue about what that type of relationship would actually entail. But it seemed like something I wanted to do, and maybe the fact that I knew I’d never have a chance of meeting her in real life made it far more comfortable to focus on her rather than the girls in my own class. (The fact that I was a social outcast with no chance of actually dating any of them, even in our own weird world in which “dating” meant “saying goodbye on the bus”, had nothing to do with my infatuation on a fictional character.) Many others would follow, but Samantha was the boss of my prepubescent heart.
I had to really think this one through, because when I think of my pop-culture crushes, I tend to think of the one that was the most powerful and has lasted the longest: Sherilyn Fenn. (I can’t forget that cherry-stem-tying scene no matter how hard I try, but in fairness, I haven’t tried very hard.) After really wracking my brain, however, and venturing as far back into the mists of time as possible, I’m pretty sure my first substantial pop-culture crush was Dana Plato, otherwise known as Kimberly Drummond on Diff’rent Strokes. Yeah, I know, as crushes go, that’s one that really just ended up getting more and more heartbreaking as the years went on, but during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Plato was certifiably swoon-worthy, even able to make green hair look sexy. Eventually, my fascination with Plato waned somewhat and I transferred my affections to Nancy McKeon instead, but when both of them turned up in High School USA, Plato in a cheerleader outfit, I realized that my crush on her would never die… even if she herself would, alas, and at the all-too-young age of 34. Sigh.
I saw Anastasia when I was 11 years old and immediately decided it was the most romantic movie I’d ever seen, which is the most embarrassing statement I have ever admitted to in public. In my defense, it is essentially an animated romantic comedy—Meg Ryan voices Anastasia herself, and Meg Ryan is the queen of romantic comedies. But it’s also a cartoon, and not even one of the critically approved “better” ones. It’s a rotoscoped, hacky Don Bluth production, but God help me, it seized my silly childish heart. It did not help that the romantic lead, a scrappy Russian named Dimitri, has the makings of every bad-boy teen hero, right down to turning down the money that he wins for turning the orphan girl into a (prom) queen. John Cusack voices the wisecracking, scheming troublemaker who falls head over heels for our heroine, the endearingly naïve teenager with amnesia. Now the plot feels warmed over—and Dimitri himself, an impractical, rootless vagabond without even a decent coat to his name—but ah! We were all young once.
The thing about crushes is that you can’t control them. I’d imagine this is especially true for those earliest pop-culture crushes, although several of you above have a pick that at least makes you look rational. I don’t have any such luck, myself, as I can’t really explain the earliest crush I can remember: Lauranafrom the Dragonlance series. My memory of the chronology is hazy, but I think I had the crush before I’d even read Weis and Hickman’s quite good novels. Instead, I think it was a description and a well-drawn picture from the game’s manual. Then I read the novels, which depicted her as pretty, but also sad, but then heroic! Apparently that, plus her Charisma stat of 16, was sufficient for young Rowan. I’d like to think I’d be pickier now, but the whole point of crushes is that you don’t get to pick.
I’ve had so many pop-culture crushes that many of the early ones are just a big obsessive blur, so I’ll move directly to my first pop-culture true love: Kim Deal. I can’t remember the exact moment when I realized that every single thing that Mrs. John Murphy did was pretty much perfect, but it was around the release of the Pixies’ Doolittle, which puts me in my freshman year of high school. I really couldn’t get enough of Kim, whether it was her exquisite voice, the way she told rumors about that guy being into field-hockey players, or all of the super-cute rock-mag photos that I’d cut out and tape to my bedroom wall. I couldn’t have been more excited the following year when I found out she was fronting her own band, though admittedly I’ve always felt that Kim’s done her best work with a bass in her hands and backing Black Francis on the mic. By the end of 1990, when I was 15—about a year and a half after my love first bloomed—I figured it was time to propose to her, so I wrote a six-page letter pleading my case (with my parents’ phone number included at the end) and planned to give it to her after a Pixies show in Ventura. Unfortunately our paths didn’t cross that night, but I kept the letter just in case, and almost exactly one year later—now with a driver’s license!—I discovered that a basketball teammate’s dad worked as a bouncer at the same Ventura venue they were returning to play. Finally, finally, I met Kim (as well as the rest of the Pixies, my favorite band), fell even deeper in love, and eventually had my little pubescent head blown off when she left a voicemail on my parents’ answering machine five months later. She didn’t touch the proposal, but did you hear what I just said? KIM DEAL CALLED TO THANK ME FOR MY SIX-PAGE LOVE LETTER. I even used the message as the intro to “The Kim Deal Song,” a song I wrote with one of my high-school groups, The Chia Band, which I suppose is worth mentioning included The Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello on guitar. But I digress. A hundred years later, I still love Kim, but my feelings are much more platonic these days; I think the excitement of my first pop-culture love began to wear off a bit when everyone else fell in love with her thanks to Last Splash, “Cannonball,” etc. Don’t get me wrong: If she wants to make out after the Fillmore show in August, I’m totally up for it, but it’s cool if she just wants to get a couple of 40s and drink in the park.
I’m shocked we’ve gotten this far into this exercise without anyone mentioning what I was sure would be an all-too common response: Princess Leia. Seriously, I can’t be the only one among this particular group of pop-culture nerds—weaned on those adventures in a galaxy far, far away—to first discover confusing pre-adolescent longings through the medium of Carrie Fisher’s tough but vulnerable depiction of Princess Leia Organa, can I? For me it was the Princess Leia of The Empire Strikes Back that kicked off my crush; I was too young for crushes in the original, and by the time Slave Leia was launching a million nerd fantasies in Jedi, I had already moved on to other crushes. But the way she looked and acted in Empire seems to have set a model for all my attractions to follow: feminine but not too girly; unwilling to take shit from any man, but willing and able to show affection when it was warranted. What’s not to love?