When “Beverly Hills, 90210” premiered on television in 1990, millions of teenage girls grew up watching the beautiful Kelly Taylor, a cool, spoiled California blonde who cruised around her upscale ZIP code in a BMW convertible. The character was a world away from Jennie Garth, the actress who played her. The former farm girl came to Hollywood grounded by strong family ties, a Midwestern work ethic, and a professional attitude that makes her co-stars eager to work with her again and again.
“Jennie is so funny and spontaneous,” says Cameron Mathison, who plays Garth’s love interest in the upcoming ABC Family movie “Holidaze” and previously worked with the actress on TV’s “What I Like About You” and “Dancing With the Stars.” “And people might be surprised to learn she loves practical jokes—and she’s very good at them!”
Tomboy to TV star
Born in Urbana, Illinois, Garth spent most of her childhood on a 5-acre horse farm in nearby Arcola (pop. 2,894), on the edge of the state’s largest Amish community.
“It was idyllic, surrounded by animals and nature,” says Garth, now 41. “I’d ride my bike and do all the things kids do outside until dark.”
Both parents worked in education. John, her father, was particularly passionate about adult education and worked with local and state governments on literacy and diploma equivalency programs.
In her teens, Garth’s family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she began taking dance classes and modeling, and won a talent competition at age 15. A Hollywood agent took notice, and she and her mom, Carolyn, moved to Los Angeles so Garth could pursue acting. After a guest-starring role on the TV show “Growing Pains” in 1989, and the lead in a short-lived series called “A Brand New Life,” she landed her breakthrough part on “Beverly Hills, 90210” at age 18.
When the success of the show, which originally ran from 1990 to 2000, made Garth a household name, her upbringing kept her from getting too caught up in the trappings of fame.
“The Midwestern work ethic is inherent in who I am and where I come from,” she says. “It’s in my genes. I’m a trouper. I’m a professional. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time. That’s how I was brought up.”
Case in point: During an early season of “90210,” she ignored a high fever and reported to the set, eventually collapsing and being hospitalized for a kidney infection.
During “Holidaze,” Mathison says, “Jennie was in basically every scene, doing so much, and she always had such a great attitude. I love to watch her work.”
“Holidaze” stars Garth as Melody, a workaholic at a discount retail corporation. But one year, instead of spending a glamorous Christmas traveling with her pals, Melody is sent to her hometown to persuade folks to approve a plan for a gigantic new store.
In her haste to escape what quickly becomes a hostile environment, she falls and wakes up in an alternate reality and finds out she’s married to her childhood sweetheart and never left her small town.
The film was shot last January in Toronto, Canada, where there was snow on the ground. To play a character ultimately won over by the magic of Christmas, Garth drew on some of her favorite real-life holiday memories.
“As a child, I loved seeing the whole living room transformed into the ‘tree room,’” she says. “My favorite thing was the Christmas lights at night. I’d want to sleep on the couch in the living room, just to see the lights in the dark.”
The mom of three has built on that treasured memory with a new Christmas tradition she shares with her daughters Luca, 16, Lola, 11, and Fiona, 7. (She and the girls’ father, actor Peter Facinelli, divorced earlier this year.) They construct a miniature Christmas village under the tree, complete with houses and other buildings and fake snow.
“I feel a responsibility as a mom to continue all those traditions, no matter how exhausting it may be,” she says. “I wish there were magic elves to help!”
Though Garth’s daughters appreciate her efforts, one major disagreement erupts every Christmas: “I have a fake tree and they hate it,” she says with a laugh.
Though it might seem like a challenge to raise three daughters in image-obsessed Hollywood, Garth tries to keep her family focus “in the home as much possible—not to keep them in a bubble, but just to maintain those family routines, like dinners together.”
And when the family needs a break from the big city, they decamp to their 7-acre ranch in central California, though Garth admits she’s not the rough-and-tumble country girl she used to be. “I have horses, but I haven’t ridden them in years,” she says. “They’re just very expensive lawn furniture at this point!”
Fans of “90210” may be thrilled to know Garth plans to reunite with her former co-star Tori Spelling next year for an ABC Family original TV series called “Mystery Girls.” The longtime friends will draw on their personal histories to play former co-stars on a hit TV show who team up to solve crimes in real life.
Looking back on her career, Garth says she’s grateful for every opportunity, large and small. “I’m proud of all the jobs I’ve done,” she says. “They’ve given me the strength as a woman to walk on my own, know my value and move on to my next project with confidence.”