The world already knows Topanga. Now it’s time to meet Danielle.
Since 1993, Danielle Fishel has been best known—and in some circles, only known—as as the precociously odd (and now endearingly maternal) Topanga Lawrence-Matthews from the hit TGIF sitcom Boy Meets World, which ended in 2000, and, now, its Disney Channel sequel, Girl Meets World, which premiered this year.
And in that time, Fishel has gotten used to being inextricably tied to—and often confused for—Topanga, a phenomenon she discusses in her new memoir Normally, This Would Be Cause for Concern: Tales of Calamity and Unrelenting Awkwardness, which was published this week.
When she was younger, she writes, people would call her Topanga as they yelled at her for being on a date with someone who wasn’t Ben Savage, who played her fictional boyfriend-turned-husband on Boy Meets World, unable to separate reality from TV. They would call her that in the years since the show went off air, while taking selfies with her at restaurants on their iPhones. A college classmate even shouted, “You really are her!” in the middle of a lecture when Fishel returned to school in her late 20s.
And you know what? It’s never bothered her.
“It’s easy to remember,” Fishel laughs, when I ask her about spending two decades being called the wrong name. “That’s part of the reason why it’s never surprised me or bothered me that somebody doesn’t know my real name. What’s easier to remember, Danielle Fishel or Topanga? Topanga sticks with you.”
That certainly is true. Topanga—and Fishel—has stuck with us these past two decades, in ways that few television characters actors, particularly ones from children’s TV shows, do.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the phenomenal and enduring popularity of Boy Meets World because of its rare and persistent omnipresence: It has literally, thanks to constant syndication, never been off air. Maybe you’ve noticed the strange number of nostalgic homages to the series that have popped over the years on the Internet. Or maybe you caught a glimpse of the mass hysteria that erupted when it was announced that Fishel and Savage would be reprising their roles as Topanga and Cory on Disney’s Girl Meets World sequel—an unusual showing of enthusiasm from twentysomethings over the announcement of a Disney Channel program, for sure.
And it’s that return to TV that makes now as good of a time as any to explore how Fishel, by every account, managed to navigate some semblance of a stable and normal childhood while covering Teen Beat and Seventeen, manufacture a successful post-child star career, and actually have a healthy relationship with her sitcom past (and present).
She says she wrote Normally, This Would Be Cause for Concern to dispel the myth that “famous people have it all together and are worthy of being admired” for that. “It takes an army and a village of people to look like that for five minutes,” she says. “But beyond that they’re not so put together.” But the book also answers the question: What, exactly, has the girl who played Topanga been up to all these years?
“It’s been a full 14 years since the last time I did the show!” she says, eyes widening at the time between when the boy and the girl met their respective worlds. That’s a long time, as any actor can tell you. And the trajectory of child stars—particularly stars of long-running ’90s hit TV shows—during a time like that is well-trodden at this point.
There’s the temptation immediately after the series concludes to burn the memory of your precocious TV doppelganger to ash, toss it in the Santa Anna winds, and pray that it floats away from Hollywood’s—and the world’s—memory so that you might be one day considered cast-able as a different character. There’s the temptation to act out, sex up, behave badly, and go wild, so that you might be seen as a grownup capable of portraying mature, complex, and adult characters.
And then years later, perhaps recognizing the financial and professional opportunities embracing your pop culture past afford and the outsized popularity nostalgic entertainment has these days thanks to .GIF tributes on Buzzfeed and the like, you begin embracing that TV character you spent so long trying to shake. Dustin Diamond, née Saved By the Bell’s Screech, recently discussed that phenomenon with us. You can certainly see evidence of it in the career moves of stars like Beverly Hills: 90210’s Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling.
Fishel has her own version of this journey—there were appearances in the purportedly raunchy National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze straight-to-video films, a Maxim photo shoot, and several well-received hosting and correspondent gigs on The Tyra Banks Show, Style network’s The Dish, and MSN TV’s Last Night on TV before Girl Meets World happened—though she maintains that her relationship with Topanga has always been mostly positive.
“It’s tough, because definitely there were the years where I wanted to be working and I wasn’t, and a large part of that may have had to do with the fact that people didn’t want to see me as anything other than Topanga,” she says. “But I can’t really say that frustrated me. Because the way I’ve always looked at it is that actors work their entire lives to be remembered for just one role. So the fact that I was lucky enough to do that for seven years, I always looked at that as, yeah, could it frustrate me that no one wants to give me another job, or would I rather look at it and say I was lucky enough to play a character that resonated with people?”
Hearing Fishel talk about Topanga, it becomes easier to understand why she’s had an easier time than most actors being so closely identified with one role.
“In my opinion, Topanga was one of the most well-rounded, well-written characters on TV,” she says. “She was 12 and she was a feminist. She was one of the only female characters I could think of that was different and weird without being the nerd. You know what I mean? So many times the character that’s different in the story is typecast as being the nerd. And what I liked about her was that she wasn’t. And if she was, she wasn’t aware of it. Being authentic to her was really important.”
Throughout our conversation, there are things that Fishel definitely wants to talk about—her fondness for Topanga clearly chief among them. And there are things that she definitely does not want to talk about.
Her book, for example, does not discuss her buzzed-about, scantily clad Maxim photo shoot from last year, and so neither do we. During our lunch, she declined to talk about her relationship with Lance Bass (who she dated as a teenager without realizing he was gay) on the record, admirably not wanting to make a spectacle about his sexuality. In fact, kudos could be in order to Fishel for choosing to leave those two topics—endlessly fascinating to celebrity gossip fans—to bed, while other stars might have shouted about them from the rooftops to sell copies of their books.
What Fishel is eager to talk about, and for good reason, is her decision to return to college at age 27—a decision that was actually born from a desire to conquer a long-held anxiety.
“The only reason I hadn’t gone before is because I was afraid of what it was going to be like, that people were going to talk about me, that I was going to be the old lady,” she says. But in the years since Boy Meets World ended and she struggled to book regular acting gigs, “I didn’t like the fact that because I didn’t have any skills, I was stuck.”
Though she actually booked jobs hosting The Dish and Last Night on TV while attending college full time, she never considered abandoning school. “I was at the mercy of somebody else to just give me a job in the years after Boy Meets World ended, whereas if I had gone to college and had when a Plan B and it was something else that I loved, I could’ve walked away at any point,” she says. “So even though I was then working I didn’t want to let myself get into that position again. I didn’t want to have that same false sense of security again.”
Not that her reputation as Topanga didn’t precede her on campus. “Most people would say something right off the bat, which is fine,” she says. Tim Belusko, a classmate who Fishel would eventually marry, however, was not one of them. It wasn’t until a different classmate positively identified Fishel as Topanga—loudly, and in front of the entire class—that Fishel found out that Belusko, who she had already been seeing for weeks, knew about her sitcom history.
“Out of nowhere he goes, ‘Awkwarrrrd,’” she says, remembering that the whole class then laughed. “That’s the first time I knew that he knew.” And that’s probably for the best, too, she says. “I tell you for sure I would probably never have thought to have a relationship with him had he gone up to me right away and said, ‘Hi, I’m a big fan of Boy Meets World,’ I’d have questioned his motives.”
Not that Fishel has ever had any ill feelings for fans of Boy Meets World. She’s one herself, and has always enjoyed, in the years since the show ended, watching the oldest episodes, in particular, when she’d encounter them in reruns. “I really do look like a walking piece of hair,” she laughs. (See proof here.) “It was like a mop. I see some of those episodes and think, ‘How did I lift my head every day?’”
And now that she’s playing Topanga again on Girl Meets World, she says perhaps she is more accepting than ever of the fact that when people spot her on the street, they’re going to be shouting “Topanga,” at her—just as they have for two decades, and may now for two decades more. But perhaps after getting to know her a little better after reading Normally, This Would Be Cause for Concern, a few more people might shout “Danielle,” too.