Melissa Joan Hart Is A Total Sweet Hart

Melissa Joan Hart and son Tucker; photo by Lindsay May for Classic Kids Photography

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Styled by Monica Cotto
Hair By Chris Naselli
Makeup By Jordan Long

If you were a girl in the ‘90s, chances are “Clarissa Explains It All” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” were part of your television diet. The star of both shows, Melissa Joan Hart, effectively graced the screens of TVs across the country for over a decade, gaining a stable of young fans who grew up with the actress over the years. Many of us may still associate Hart with the innocence of childhood and the eccentricities of adolescence, but she’s been playing up the edgy side of her wholesome family act more recently as the plucky local politician Mel Burke on the ABC Family hit series “Melissa and Joey,” which begins its third season at the end of the month. 

After a brief hiatus from the small screen to start her own family, the fair-haired 37-year-old says her latest character, Mel, may well be her career favorite. As conventional as family television can sometimes be, Hart prefers characters with idiosyncrasy. From a witty and likeable adolescent with a unique fashion sense, to a good-natured teen with supernatural powers, to a spitfire pol who suddenly has to care for her recently abandoned niece and nephew—she typically plays characters known as much for their subtle sarcasm as for their general benevolence. Which is actually not too far from how the working mother is in person.

Fresh from a spin class with baby Tucker in a stroller and her essential bag of gear in tow, the mom of three arrives for her cover shoot completely composed, but she jumps right into wryly describing the chaos that can sometimes claim family life.

“Evenings and mornings are a little interesting… We’re just running, running, running to get everything done,” the TV actress says. “Once I’m at the gym, I’m like, ahhh. So being busy is good, because it doesn’t give me a chance to think about my workouts! I don’t have time to freak out.”

Melissa in blue silk blouse by Joie, vintage necklace, jeans by 7 For All Mankind; photo by Lindsay May for Classic Kids Photography

Though it’s hard to imagine one of television’s most family-friendly faces freaking out, it’s easy to see that Hart has her hands full. The baby is getting over a cold and Mom is preparing to move the family to the West Coast for five months. She typically tapes “Melissa and Joey” on weekdays in L.A., but decided that traveling back and forth without her Connecticut-based clan was too hard on everyone. “I really don’t want to leave my family again,” she says. “That’s no way to live.”

Having worked since she was just 4 years old, Hart is no stranger to long commutes, longer hours, and other sacrifices when it comes to her profession. The precocious child star got her start by simply asking her mom if she could try acting, and the two would commute into Manhattan from Long Island for auditions. “The theater work ethic really taught me to dig in and do the job,” she explains.

But her life as a recognizeable actress really took off when she was 13 years old and starring in her very own Nickelodeon sitcom. During those “Clarissa” years, Hart worked in Orlando, Florida, for three out of every four weeks while her parents and siblings remained in New York. It was tough for the young teenager, especially working on a set where her only peers were the boys that played her brother—the inimitable Ferguson—and her floppy-haired guy friend, Sam.

As Hart remembers, whenever another girl was on set, she made it her mission to make a friend: “I was like ‘Do you wanna have a sleepover? Do you wanna make cookie dough and watch “90210”? Do you wanna rollerblade in the parking lot? Let’s hang out all week!’”

Not that there really was that much hang time. “I was working 70-hour weeks and balancing school,” Hart says. This meant that the all-important SATs and college applications were squeezed in between takes of “Clarissa.” But in spite of the difficult schedule, she persevered, and after the show ended in 1994, the New York native enrolled in NYU and got halfway to graduation over the course of seven years while working full-time as television’s favorite teenage witch.

“I had a career in my hands; I didn’t need to be finding one,” Hart remembers. “But I loved to learn, so I started a book club on the set of ‘Sabrina.’ And that was fulfilling to me.”

Despite practically growing up on set in the notoriously cutthroat teen television industry, Hart managed adolescence with aplomb. In many ways, the career-minded actress seems cut from an entirely different cloth than many of her show biz peers. Free of substance abuse, incriminating rumors, or other young Hollywood scandals, she sailed through adolescence and her twenties relatively unscathed.

Melissa Joan Hart; photo by Lindsay May for Classic Kids Photography

Hart strongly attributes her success as a young woman to her upbringing. “I think my parents did a great job of raising all eight of their combined kids,” she says about her mom and dad, who separated when she was 14 years old. “We all have good self-esteem… Everyone takes care of themselves.”

“My parents made us feel like we could talk to them about anything,” she continues. “But I also felt a certain sense of responsibility for my mom. I didn’t want to let her down. I didn’t want to get bad grades or get in trouble in school or stay out past curfew.”

The conscientious Hart is now responsible for a big, supportive family of her own. She’ll be celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary with her husband, musician Mark Wilkerson, in July. The family-focused couple has three boys: Mason, 7 years old, Braydon “Brady,” 5, and Tucker, 8 months.

“We really took it easy this year on activities,” Hart says when describing her family’s weekly routine. “Mason and Brady are only doing hockey. They were both doing soccer twice a week, baseball, [and] flag football.”

When she was pregnant with her first child, Hart was like so many other expectant mothers—afraid of doing something wrong, thinking and rethinking every decision she made, taking everyone’s advice to heart. “I basically stayed in bed and ate Sweet Tarts because I was afraid of everything—except diabetes,” she deadpans. “I went back to all my old foods from childhood, all my New York foods. Rice pudding and bagels and things I hadn’t eaten in a decade.”

Now, juggling three children at very different developmental stages in their young lives, Hart gets to enjoy watching their personalities develop.

“Mason is testing boundaries and Brady is my little angel right now. It’s funny because it used to be the opposite,” she says of her 5-year-old adjusting to his new role as the middle child. “Tucker is very social. We were in airport the other day and there was a wall with this huge picture of this man smiling. I looked down at Tucker and he was laughing at the guy!”

Hart hints at the fact that she’s a softie when it comes to her children. Calling Mark the disciplinarian, one of the toughest things about parenting for her is taking a hard line with the kids while also being there for them. Like most parents, she’s hoping to engender both respect and trust from her children.

“We try to be open with them so they will always come to us with problems, good things, bad things,” she says. And while they agree on their parenting approach, most minor disagreements that Hart has with her husband can be attributed to the typical disputes about sharing the workload.

“We both feel like we’re doing a lot for the kids, so the fights tend to come from who’s doing more or who’s not pulling their weight,” she says, while admitting that she relies on Mark to do the cooking.

But having it all figured out doesn’t seem to be at the top of Hart’s list. She seems to embrace challenge and growth and trying new things, if only to see what she’s capable of. It’s how she describes her current character, Mel Burke.

Of the three titular roles she’s played, “Mel is, I think, the closest to my personality,” says the actress, who’s also the show’s executive producer. “I told ABC Family, I’m so sick of playing characters who always have it together. I want to play someone who’s a wreck. And that’s what I love about Mel: she’s totally flawed.”

Melissa Joan Hart; photo by Lindsay May for Classic Kids Photography

The show’s other star, Joey Lawrence—best known for his roles on sitcoms like “Blossom” and “Brotherly Love”—is a close friend whom she’s known since they were kids. “We work really well together. But we’re like brother and sister, too. We have our great little arguments,” Hart says.

Curious about these flaws and arguments? The squeaky clean, churchgoing mom will divulge the stories behind her successes and her setbacks in her memoir, Melissa Explains It All, coming out this October. Aside from her steady and unadulterated career as an actress, producer, writer, director, and even sometimes singer, the book will give fans deeper glimpses into Hart’s personal life. Readers may be surprised to learn that she likes to wakeboard, snowboard, and—although she hasn’t done it since having her first child—drive racecars.

On the acting front, Hart is both practical and aspirational. She’d like her career to go the way of celebrated film actresses like Sally Field and Goldie Hawn. But her current dream job seems to be closer to home. “I would love to do ‘When Harry Met Sally’ at the Westport Country Playhouse and then transition it to Broadway,” she says. “I want to play Sally so bad—and I would be great at the orgasm scene. I had to do it for ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ so I’m ready!”

With a baby cradled over her shoulder, it’s something only a woman as charming as Hart could say and still sound so sweet.

For more with Melissa Joan Hart, click here.