'Whatever happened to Emily Valentine?"
I recently asked Jason Priestley about Beverly Hills, 90210's notorious bad girl when he was at CBC's Q, where I work as a producer.
His character Brandon Walsh may have been the star of the long-running teen soap, but it was his brief on-screen flame, Emily Valentine, who was the object of my fascination.
He smiled and told me that he and "Emily Valentine" just had dinner together the week before.
I clearly needed to spell out why I was asking about this rather obscure character and seized the opportunity: "Does she have any idea that she gave me and several of my queer female friends our first funny feelings?"
Priestley laughed, "I don't think so, but I will tell her!"
Beverly Hills, 90210 – which ran from 1990 to 2000 – followed a group of popular, privileged teenagers in California. It was the first mainstream teen drama of its kind – Dynasty for teenagers. It spawned successors like Dawson's Creek, Felicity, The O.C. and Gossip Girl.
Today there are many openly lesbian and bisexual female characters on TV, from Glee, Grey's Anatomy and Pretty Little Liars to Lost Girl, The Fosters and Orphan Black. Even the latest 90210 incarnation had a lesbian storyline. Orange Is the New Black – which returns this week – features an unprecedented number of diverse, queer women. Although OITNB may take place in a women's prison, I especially appreciate that it also highlights gender non-conformity, giving prominence to a trans woman and butch/tomboy lesbians who are still rarely seen on TV.
But back in the nineties, when I was coming of age, there were hardly any out queer women on TV. We had to read into characters to see some glimmer of ourselves reflected. As a "pregay" tween, my reading of Emily Valentine may not have been consciously queer, but there was something about her that compelled me.
Wednesday nights were never the same once Emily Valentine showed up – late – on the first day of school on her motorcycle, guitar-in-tow, wearing a leather jacket, boots and ripped jeans. She had short, spiky, bleached-blond hair and – as Priestley notes in his new self-titled memoir – "a much more alternative look than any of the other girls on the show."
Emily Valentine was this edgy, blue-collar, punk-rock girl on the most normative teen show of the nineties. She was a Beverly Hills outlaw. Unlike the other girls, she was tough. She did what the boys did, but she did it with hot red lipstick.
Although Emily Valentine was not written as a gay character, she nevertheless embodied many queer signifiers – tomboy, non-conformist, outsider. She was certainly queer insofar as she was "other." Eventually she would become obsessed with Brandon (the prettiest boy in school), develop stalker-like tendencies and try to set a parade float on fire. Talk about lesbian drama.
Emily Valentine only appeared in a dozen episodes, yet she made a lasting impression. Canadian author Zoe Whittall even published a book of poetry called The Emily Valentine Poems.
Sure, Emily Valentine holds a special place in our hearts, but does she know that?
"I know that a disproportionate amount of people who come up to me and say, 'Thank God for that character,' are queer. So that's conspicuous," says actress Christine Elise McCarthy by phone from L.A. "I know it definitely had an impact in that community."
McCarthy, who dated Priestley for five years back in the day, acknowledges that she didn't realize the particular image she was conveying triggered people's "gaydar." After I fill her in, she admits she can clearly see the connection. "I can also say that in real life, people always make that assumption about me," she says.
McCarthy tells me that over the years, nearly every gay and lesbian friend of hers and lots of strangers have expressed gratitude for Emily Valentine. People still come up to her and say, "Emily Valentine saved my life."
Yet it was not only queer kids who felt connected to her. "I am especially gratified to have played her because so many outsider and disenfranchised kids felt Emily Valentine put a face to their various forms of isolation – whether sexual orientation or economic or whatever," says McCarthy.
"All those kids needed someone besides David Silver to be the face of the outsider," she says of the school's DJ, who was portrayed as a geek in the first season. "It's a great gift to have been given, that anybody looks to me or that character to not feel so alone."
McCarthy says she loves that, considering she had her own outsider past. She explains she was a "punk-rock kid" in high school too – the only one at the elite Boston Latin School she attended.
"Everyone was afraid of me. They thought I was a troublemaker. Meanwhile, I did really well in school. I was a goody two-shoes – the opposite of what people thought I was, and that's exactly what Emily Valentine's arc was in the first episode.
"They got way more than they bargained for when they cast me," says McCarthy.
And they really did cast her. She says the character was initially written as "a drop-dead gorgeous Julia Roberts type, with cascading red curls." However, McCarthy went in as herself, with her own leather cap and engineer boots, and they were so taken with her that they reconceived the role.
"If they had cast the woman they were originally looking for they wouldn't have had the same impact," she says. "I think part of the reason people who were different identified with her was because I wasn't pretending to be different. I really was." Perhaps it's that authenticity that gave me those funny feelings. And maybe that's why I couldn't help asking Jason Priestley about Emily Valentine as I escorted him out of the CBC. I had a crush on her, just like he did.
I now realize that I'm Brandon and have dated a few Emily Valentines. In fact, considering the number of boyish lesbians – including myself – who continue to sport his hairstyle and neo-James Dean look, Brandon Walsh may in turn be the biggest overlooked nineties lesbian icon of them all.