I have become addicted to Wonder Years re-runs. My wife laughs about it—”Really … again?” My kids ask to watch with me (they’re a tad young, but every now and then we hunker down). I love the nostalgia element to the show, but I also love the nostalgia element of the nostalgia element of the show. I was a perky teen when The Wonder Years was hot, and when I catch the re-runs I drift back to my youth.
Anyhow, last week I was watching the 1992 episode where Kevin, now in high school, dates a cute, semi-crazy chick named Julie. She’s one of three sisters, and all the women of the house control men, and Julie starts telling Kevin that he needs to wear stripes, come over every day after school, etc, etc. Good stuff.
When the program ended, I was sorta curious what ever became of “Julie.” The credits showed she was played by “Wendy Cox.” Did some Googling and a little IMBDing, found out Wendy Cox is now Wendy Hagen—and that Wendy Hagen is pretty darn fascinating. In no particular order: Wendy was a child actress who appeared in a handful of commercials (her Coke story below is priceless), popped up in such shows as The Wonder Years and Growing Pains, starred in The New Lassie, did some crazy circus stuff—then left. Just said, “Adios,” and went on to UCLA, where she was a cheerleader situated right below the basket when Tyus Edney hit his famed March Madness layup of 1995 (she’s sitting next to the bear in the photo down below).
Wendy is now a wife and mother of three, an author of the parenting book, “Totally Desperate Mom,” real estate maven, possessor of a cat who eats toilet paper, a Tweeter of some magnitude and a blogger of all things random, odd and funny. She has survived the death of a child and is a woman of deep faith and conviction.
JEFF PEARLMAN: I first became aware of you while watching a re-run of a Wonder Years episode you were in. You played Kevin’s girlfriend. Am curious what, if anything, you remember about that specific experience.
WENDY HAGEN: Good experience. I think I was 16. Nice cast. Loved that show—great writing. Had an interesting conversation at lunch with the cast about abortion and that somehow led to talking about the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). I don’t know how or who started that dialogue, but it wasn’t me.
J.P.: On your website, you write ” … back in the good ol’ days when you could actually watch shows with your children.” What do you mean by that? And are there shows in 2011 that you watch with your children?
W.H.: Seems like there was a lot more wholesome (and yet still witty, clever, entertaining) programming back then. Prime-time shows that you could sit down and comfortably watch with as a family. Cosby Show, Family Ties, Wonder Years, Growing Pains . . . to name a few. Maybe I am wrong, but these days there it seems that there are less and less television shows that are suitable for the entire family to watch together. I think Modern Family is ridiculously funny, but not something I could watch with kids. Right now we don’t have any shows we watch as a family. Off the top of my head American Idol is the only show I can think of that would be conducive to family viewing, but right now my oldest is 7 and he goes to bed at 8:15 pm. Plus, I don’t know if I could bribe my husband to watch American Idol anyway. He’d rather watch NBA games.
J.P.: I’m an agnostic Jew. I read with interest—and genuine sadness and empathy—about you losing your daughter Faith (pictured, below left) after four days. I can’t imagine what that was like, but I’m always amazed to hear people go through such an experience and emerge with renewed faith. I mean, it would strike me that, at such an inexplicably horrific moment, you’d think, “There’s no meaning for this.” So how did you and your family emerge more faithful? Because I think it’s striking—and fascinating.
W.H.: Even as I look back on our journey with baby Faith I sometimes think how did I even get out of bed in the morning? Strength, hope, peace, purpose from God. That’s the only way I can explain it. I know that is hard to understand as an outsider looking in—and not just from a faith perspective, but from a perspective of not being in the situation. But honestly, during that period (when I was pregnant with a baby who I knew was going to die, but didn’t know when) I experienced the reality of God and His love more than any other time in my life! I know that sounds so ironic because many would question how could a loving God allow that to happen? God showed up in so many ways and so many times during that journey. Not physically and wearing a white robe, with a long beard with a lamb over His shoulders, but through the Scriptures and through other people. At just the right time. It is really a book’s worth of explanation, but suffice it to say that even in the midst of our deepest pain, God was faithful to us and proved Himself to be real.
Let me give just one example. A few months after Faith died, my husband and I went on a trip to Hawaii (thanks to a bunch of friends who had sent money to a travel agent on our behalf). The last day of our trip we ended up in a strip mall in the middle of Kauai. And there were several circumstances (both good and bad) that brought us to that location at that time. A skeptic might call them coincidences, but I say no way. There were way too many events that brought us to that particular place at that specific time. We walked by a Calvary Chapel Church in the middle of that strip mall and then went to the ABC store. And the ABC trip is significant and part of God’s design—not because of the chocolate covered macadamia nuts or because of the awesome magnets you can pick up there. But because it all goes back to timing. To all the pieces working together to bring us to a specific place at a specific time where God would show up and remind us of His continuous love for us.
We left the ABC store and decided to go back to the church to check it out—not that there would be anything going on there on a weekday afternoon. When we walked in to the church there was a man in the foyer with a headset on. We introduced ourselves and asked what was going on. He was the pastor and informed us of what was going on right at that moment: “Oh, we are actually having a memorial service for people who have lost babies.” Tears. Disbelief. God had not forgotten us. He has a plan even when we don’t understand it. He shows up.
I believe there is purpose even in the worst of circumstances. Sometimes we can’t see the purpose. Sometimes we see glimpses. I saw a lot of those purposes while I was pregnant and when baby Faith ditched us for heaven after 4 days on earth. It was a devastating time in our lives and yet it was also full of blessings. (I am totally not trying to hijack your blog and make it a Jesus freak forum so if you don’t want to include that whole story, I understand. But by sharing that illustration I hope it helps you/others grasp what I mean when I say God showed up and how we could emerge more faithful under such tragic circumstances.)
J.P.: Along those lines—how do you know, 100%, that you’re right? I mean this with total respect, because it fascinates me. There are probably 500 religions in the world, and people of all faiths are convinced theirs is the way. How do you know, sans uncertainty, that you’re correct?
W.H.: Do I know 100% that I am right about Christianity? Some days yes. Some days no. That is where faith steps in. I don’t think you have to be 100% certain. But are you certain enough? I have not looked into 500 religions, but I have looked into a lot of them. (Was not raised in a Christian home.) And I have concluded that Jesus is as he claimed “the way, the truth, and the life.” Doesn’t mean I have it all figured out. Doesn’t mean that I like everything about it. There are some concepts that are difficult to understand and things I think I would do differently if I were God. But I trust that as Isaiah 55 says “His ways are Higher than mine” and ultimately I would really suck at being God. I look at Christianity as kind of like a puzzle—there are a few pieces that I can’t seem to make fit, but so many of them fit together that I trust that those pieces actually do fit. I just can’t understand it or see it right now. Most of and enough of the pieces make incredible sense to me. Add that to my personal encounters with God and it’s enough for me to commit my life to being a follower of Christ. It is definitely not blind or uneducated faith. I care about truth. So far I have not read or seen anything that has proven to me that what I believe is a fairy tale. And I read more than Christian literature and the Bible. In fact, right now I am reading Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. I like to try and understand different points of view.
J.P.: I like your blog, because I don’t entirely get it. I mean that as a compliment—it seems very personal, very heart-felt … and very random. Kids here, Hollywood there. What are you trying to accomplish? And why’d you start it?
W.H.: I don’t really get my blog either so you are not alone . . . I started it as sort of a scrapbook for my own family and friends. Mostly stuff about my family and then at some point I randomly threw up some old Hollywood memories. I love to write. It was therapeutic to write about some of the crazier motherhood stuff. And I since I had a good experience in Hollywood it has been fun for me to walk down memory lane in that way. When I started writing my book I thought I should broaden my blog world a bit. I had no idea there was such a huge blogosphere out there. I began writing more regularly and started reading other blogs. A few people suggested that I write a regular post about my Hollywood stuff because they found it interesting. Ultimately, I write what I feel like writing about when I feel like writing about it and it is therefore a hodgepodge. Motherhood, Hollywood, Jesus, a toilet-paper eating cat, ugly family photos, dirty minivan contests, and a Q&A with a Sports Illustrated writer. You never really know what you’re gonna get.
J.P.: Will Smith and Jaden Pinkett Smith (as examples) seem to relish placing their children in the spotlight. Two of their kids act, sing, dance, etc. From afar, I can’t think of anything worse for a child than celebrity. You’ve been there—agree or disagree?
W.H.: Children in Hollywood—that’s a tough one. Personally, I had a great experience. But I think several factors go into that:
1. I dragged my parents into it—I did not have a stage mom or a mom who took me to night clubs.
2. My family was supportive, but they were not living through me or depending on me financially.
3. I was 14 when I moved to Hollywood and had already began my faith journey. My faith was a priority.
4. My show was not a big hit. I was never famous.
5. Hollywood is a whole different ball game now. With the internet, cell phones, rampant paparazzi, and reality television. Not that those things are bad, they have just taken celebrity to a whole new level.
I would prefer that my kids do not get into the business, but if one of them wants to do it as badly as I did . . . I don’t know. I am so thankful that my parents made sacrifices to allow me to pursue my dream. So far my 4 1/2-year old has expressed interest a few times, but I was able to talk her out of it by telling her “You have to drive really far for auditions. Then wait around. Then go into a room full of strangers and do what they say to do.” She is really strong-willed so getting bossed around didn’t really appeal to her.
J.P.: What made you write the book, “Totally Desperate Mom”? And did you find the process as torturous as I do?
W.H.: I spoke at a Mothers of Preschoolers group at my church about taking care of mom. Afterwards Debbie Alsdorf (author and speaker) approached me and said, “You have to write a book about this stuff and call it Totally Desperate Mom.” At the time I was pregnant with my third baby and thought she was crazy. But then that third child arrived and the desperate mom material was hurled at me on a regular basis so I began to write. “Taking Care of Mom” is a section in the book. While I enjoy writing, it was a lot of work. A lot of late nights. And then there is the whole thing of promoting it and trying to get it sold! People ask me if I am going to write another book. I tell them I am still in recovery from writing the first.
J.P.: You starred in The New Lassie. Which, I must confess, I didn’t know existed until right now. Should I rent the DVD of the first season?
W.H.: If The New Lassie was successful and well-known enough to have the first season on DVD then you should totally rent it. Good luck with that.
J.P.: Best acting gig you ever had? Worst?
W.H.: Best acting gig was probably Growing Pains because that was the only time I taped a show in front of a live studio audience. My appearance on Circus of the Stars on The Russian Swing was not acting, but it was the highlight of my Hollywood performances. We trained for 3 1/2 months, 6 days a week, an hour a day. Then we performed our stunt in front of a live audience. I had a ton of friends and family come to see the taping/performance.
Worst acting gig I did was a Coke commercial. I was probably about 12-years old. It was pouring down rain. I was standing on a tractor with an open can of paint in one hand and was supposed to jump off the tractor . . . into a flock of chickens. I was freezing and scared to hurt the chickens. I think I did the jump once, the chickens didn’t really flee (none were injured or anything, but it was awkward) and paint went everywhere. Then the social worker/studio teacher put an end to that action and they changed the scene up a bit. And of course, that scene was cut out of the commercial (which happens a lot) so I wasn’t even in the commercial when it aired.
J.P.: Wendy, I know you’re religious, but I must ask bluntly: How the f— did you wind up in a photo alongside NWA’s Eazy-E?
WH: Seriously. Drug dealer, gang banger and little Lassie girl.
I have no idea why Athletes and Entertainers for Kids had him at their events. Well, it was an outreach to inner-city kids so of course they all loved him. But was he a good example of how to escape the hood? And they seriously had to be on the lookout for rival gangs. He was really nice, though.
I was the teen spokesperson for AEFK one year and he was at a lot of their events. He came to several of their events as well so we were homies.
I probably introduced him to Amy Grant music, and I am sure he loved it.
J.P.: You took an acting class with Leo, then worked with him on an episode of Growing Pains. What do you recall from the experience? And is it true he sends you half of all his paychecks?
W.H.: Leonardo was nice enough. Seemed like a pretty typical boy at the time. There was a girl in our acting class who had a HUGE crush on him and I totally didn’t get that. He was kind of scrawny and looked like he was 12 or 13 (when he was 15). This was all before he busted out into big time fame with that Robert DiNero movie and then of course, Titanic. He was sick the week we did Growing Pains. But he showed up, knew his lines, did a good job.
Hilary Swank had a small role in the Growing Pains episode. She and Leo were buddies.
I think Leo is an incredible actor. One of my favorite movies is Blood Diamond. And please don’t spread rumors about Leo giving me half of his paychecks. It’s only 25 percent.
J.P.: You have a cat who eats toilet paper. Please explain …
W.H.: I have no explanation for the cat. He makes his own choices. Maybe he was a child-actor cat before he got to us?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH WENDY HAGEN:
• Favorite actor and actress: Don’t have one. But more recently, I thought Christian Bale was phenomenal in The Fighter.
• Five things in your purse: Wallet, snacks for kids, receipts, cell phone, lipstick. That’s on a good day. On a normal day . . . oh my word. Just read this post.
• How’d you meet your husband: On a retreat with the college group from our church. We both went to UCLA.
• $10 million or you never have to go to the bathroom again: $10 million for sure. The bathroom is not so bad. With the exception of outhouses—I would not swim in one for ten mill.
• Would you rather have 25 kids or 1?: If I could have 4 nannies and 3 husbands then I would definitely have 25 kids. Otherwise, just one.
• Favorite UCLA cheerleading memory: NCAA tourney. 1995. Sat under the basket when Tyus Edney drove across the court to shoot the winning basket in 4.8 seconds.
• Hall & Oates or Celine Dion?: Celine because my heart must go on.
• In the past 10 years you’ve been recognized [FILL IN THE BLANK] times for a childhood acting appearance: Zero. Was rarely even recognized in my prime.
• More worried about climate change or the price of cereal?: Neither, because I don’t fully understand what’s behind either one.
• Who wins in an arm wrestle between you and Kate Winslet?: Me for sure. I am almost finished with doing the DVD workout Insanity.