Words by Kat Thompson
Photography by Bobby Kim
Hair and makeup by Jennifer Fishel
I was nervous about interviewing Danielle Fishel.
I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, or gush too much about how I idolized her growing up, or shake her hand with a sweaty palm. I didn’t want her to get the impression that I only viewed her as Topanga Lawrence—the phenomenal breakout role she occupied for seven years on Boy Meets World—because I don’t. I worried about referring to the hit series too much (or maybe not enough?) and wondered if it was a sensitive topic for her.
But those anxieties melted away when I finally met Danielle, face-to-face. “Let’s do the interview on this couch!” she said, gesturing towards a tiny, black sofa in the photo studio she had been modeling in earlier for Jennifer. “We can cuddle,” she added, smiling.
It’s an exhilarating feeling to meet someone you grew up admiring so much and to learn that they are just as kind and smart as they appeared on TV, if not more. Danielle feels like a wise older sister—far from the diva-like stereotypes that pervade people who are considered “child stars.” It’s obvious to me she’s grown up with grace, maturity, and a solid foundation to pursue her multi-faceted talents and interests.
From studying psychology in her undergraduate career to creating concepts for new children’s shows to writing and directing for the spin-off series Girl Meets World, Danielle has thoughtfully paved her own way since her days as Topanga on Boy Meets World over seventeen years ago. “I really feel that I’ve totally found my passion and my purpose,” she told me, grinning. Instead of seeking the spotlight, she finds fulfillment and joy that begins first and foremost with herself. And if that isn’t quite working for the day, happiness—for Danielle—is just a plate of curly fries away. Meet Danielle Fishel.
Well first of all, this is a crazy experience for me because I grew up watching you. Not to be a weird fan girl or anything.
No! Not at all. It’s very sweet, thank you.
So what is that experience like for you? Because I think a lot of people have such fond memories of you, watching you growing up. Is it weird to you that you are sometimes, in the minds of others, solidified in this time period as Topanga?
No! What’s always made sense to me is that when you watch TV and you watch the same show, especially for seven years—which is rare, a lot of shows don’t even make it a full season, let alone seven—so when you watch something like that and it’s on Friday nights and it’s such a family show, I recognize that it basically feels like I’ve been in your living room for seven years. So, when people see me and there’s a sense of familiarity… people are like, “I know you!” Actually, at first, a lot of times when people see me, they ask, “Did we go to school together?” They think they know me! They don’t catch right away that it’s from TV. I also think I’m now, you know, 36 years old. We started in 1993. I’m kind of far removed from it now. I get to see it from afar. I kind of see it for being… I don’t know, it feels like somebody else’s life almost.
Speaking of that, you’re 36. You’re so young, but you evoke this sense of nostalgia to people. It’s a really unique experience—what is that like?
It is a pretty unique experience! I think I either make people feel old or other people will make me feel old. There are 19 year olds who are still, just now, experiencing Boy Meets World for the first time. 19 year olds will say, “Man, I wasn’t even born when that show started!” I’m like, “Please!” [laughs].
Yeah, I was born in ’93 actually [laughs].
Yeah, you were born the year we started. So, that makes me feel old. But that’s okay!
So you did Girl Meets World also—did you ever expect to come back and revisit that character?
Not even in a million years could I have ever guessed that I would revisit that character or done a show that called it back somehow. Never. It was a total shock and surprise. I mean, I’d actually gone to school for psychology. I’d just been accepted to Chapman University. I was going to get my Masters in family therapy. So it was kind of like, “Whoa, where did this come from?” I had kind of left acting and entertainment behind. And the great thing—one of the greatest gifts Girl Meets World gave me—I was able to direct and it kind of showed that this is like the next path I want to take: writing, directing, producing. It’s nice to now be behind the camera.
Yeah, that’s so cool. And you did leave Hollywood behind—was that an intentional choice?
And why was that?
I mean there’s several reasons… It’s getting better now, but there aren’t that many great parts for women. And I got tired of feeling like I had to take parts that I didn’t want because I needed money. And I was like, “I don’t want to be in this situation anymore.” I’m also type A and a control freak and the fact that, as an actor, you have zero control over when you work or what the projects are that you work on—I just didn’t like that. I [didn’t] want to do that anymore. And I knew that I could find something that I didn’t think of as being plan B, it was something I looked at as being ‘I love this just as much.’ So it’s like a secondary plan A. That’s what psychology was for me. Psychology and marriage and family therapy and doing that kind of stuff was like, secondary plan A. And then, I don’t know, I’m very spiritual and kind of feel like God was like, “Yeah, that’s a good path for you,” but then He brought Girl Meets World into my life and that then showed me like, “Hey, there’s also all this stuff behind the scenes that you can do!” And now, with that, I really feel that I’ve totally found my passion and my purpose.
I was reading in your LA Times article from 2014 that you were going into psychology and higher education to find fulfillment. Do you think you’ve found your calling in directing, producing…?
Yeah! Especially directing kids programming, which is what I grew up in. I feel like I have such a unique voice and [ability], being able to work with kids who are exactly who I was in ’93. Sabrina and Rowan and kids that I work with on shows that I do now, it’s like, I get to form that bond and that connection with them and show them that you can be in this industry and turn out well and be normal and have a successful life.
Yeah! It’s not all about celebrity.
It’s not just about celebrity, it’s not just about photo shoots, it’s not just about red carpet events and all that kind of stuff. It’s like, it can be about more than that. You can have a real life. I love that—that’s my favorite part of the directing part… I love that connection and that bond that I am able to make with them. And not just help guide them acting-wise on camera, but also kind of make sure I’m in their life. You can text me, you can call me for advice, I’m here for you. I know exactly what you’re going through.
So being more of a positive influence or mentor.
Exactly. I feel like no matter what I do, I want to be a positive influence. Whether it’s writing, whether it’s directing—everything I put out into the world, I want to be positive and uplifting. There’s so much negativity and so many things, everywhere you turn, that can make you upset or depressed. I’m a realist, but I also know that everything happens for a reason. And no matter what hardships you are going through in the moment, they are temporary. No matter what—they are temporary. And, if they aren’t temporary and are going to be something that is lifelong, you find the way around. You overcome it. You can do hard things. I say that to myself all the time: “I can do hard things, I can do hard things, I can do hard things.” I try to tell that to people, too.
That’s so awesome that you prioritize bringing good into the world, especially since so often people’s priorities are out of whack. What do you think is the most surprising thing about you?
Most surprising thing people find about me? I don’t know… It’s a tough question. Maybe the fact that I was so… I don’t know, because most child actors aren’t so quick to want to leave the entertainment industry? But it was not a thing for me. I looked at it as being, “Maybe it was a one-time, temporary experience in my teenage years” but I don’t know. You know what’s funny? I haven’t done much. I don’t go to a lot of events, I’m not into red carpets. I don’t do a bunch of interviews. I kind of just like to keep to myself. I live in Orange County. Actually, my boyfriend would tell you, people would be really surprised to find out I eat pretty much exclusively at Ruby’s.
Yeah! [I] pretty much eat at Ruby’s—I’m not kidding—like four or five times a week.
So what’s the go-to order?
Well, I have several things. But I do love their Chinese chicken salad. I know it’s weird because it’s a diner, but their Chinese chicken salad is amazing. Their grilled cheese and French fries are ah-mazing. The Ruby melt: fantastic. If I need red meat, that’s what I get. Their chicken fingers: delicious. But I don’t get the coleslaw. Not a big fan of the coleslaw, so I get double fries. Who doesn’t need extra fries?
This is so random but it’s a good segue. I ask this for every interviewee I’ve done with Jennifer, but what’s your death row meal?
Oh man. That’s so tough for me. Because I’m obsessed with Mexican food, I’m obsessed with diner food, I love sushi. As much as I love sushi though, I don’t think it would make it to my death row meal. My death row meal would be seasoned curly fries—
There’s a place by my house that’s also a diner called Keno’s. They have the best. But also, I like seasoned… who is it that does seasoned curly fries, there’s like a fast food place that does it?
Jack in the Box?
Jack in the Box. Let’s say that, because people will know what that is. Jack in the Box seasoned curly fries, ranch dressing, I would need a grilled cheese and a patty melt. Can I do half and half? Wait yeah—it’s my death row meal. I would only eat half of each because I would need room for afterwards an Oreo chocolate shake. A diet Coke, also. I’m pretty sure that’s what it would be.
That sounds so good. Anyway, going back to Boy Meets World. What was the biggest takeaway that you had growing up and being on a show for seven years? I mean, that was a huge chunk of your life.
Yeah, you know, I think the ending message that Mr. Feeny gave all of us: the “Dream, try, do good.” That, mixed with the message that Girl Meets World gave, which is that “People change people.” Those two things really kind of speak to my motto in life, which is [that] I believe in having lofty goals. I believe in really dreaming for what you like. I believe really powerfully in the law of attraction and that we can manifest things for ourselves. I think about that as being the ‘dream.’ ‘Try,’ as I was telling you about, like “I can do hard things.” ‘Do good’: I believe in only putting out the best, positive, most wonderful version of yourself you possibly can. I also feel that about things that I take in. You can only put out what’s inside you. You can’t put out into the world something you don’t have. And so if I take in a bunch of negativity, if I’m taking in a bunch of garbage, or foul language, or murder, or violence, or whatever, that’s all that I’m filled up with. That’s automatically what I’m putting out. So I’m very mindful about what I take in because I recognize that that’s what I’m putting out. I feel pretty solid in the fact that life imitates art and it’s not the other way around. It’s really important to me that the art we put out there changes people and it changes them in a way that’s good. So I think Boy Meets World really instilled [that] in me. It’s kind of where I first heard any of these life lessons. And there are other things that fit into it, but that idea of “Dream. Try. Do good.” You can’t top that motto.
And did you feel like you really identified with your character? Are you and Topanga inextricable?
Absolutely. We’re not really any different. When the character first started and she was a flower child and she was very slow talking, and then she kind of changed. Michael ended up writing the character to be what Danielle was. It is part of the reason why we are so similar. She started off very different from me but by the time we were done she just was me. And I don’t have kids of my own, but even as a mom [on the show], there were moments where we’d be doing scenes and I’d be like, “Yup, this is exactly what I’d be doing too.” I wrote an episode called “Girl Meets her Monster” that I also directed and it was about entitlement and I’m very big into kids not being entitled. So that episode, since I wrote it and also directed it, I was like, “Yup, this is exactly how it’s gonna be and nope, you are not going to get away with anything!” So yeah, I feel like we’re basically the same. I always describe her as being on the other side of my heart. It’s just really a heart flip and then I’m her, and I flip back. She’s always there.
I think that’s really special because sometimes, when people have certain roles that they’re remembered for, they don’t want to be tied down to that role. It’s cool and empowering that she’s so you.
No, I love her. I don’t want her to go anywhere. As much as I feel like I’m removed from it, because you know it was such a time capsule of life, she’s still just yeah—on the other side of my heart.
So you were talking about your aspirations and what you want to pursue now. What would you say are your current goals that you want to accomplish?
My current goals are to direct. I want to direct more projects. But my number one primary goal is that I have a couple of what I believe are great ideas for kids shows. So my goal right now is to become a creator of children’s television. I feel like the country, and the world too, is really craving really good, smart, wholesome, family programming and kids programming. And I feel it’s really lacking right now. It’s what we need. We need it. I feel like there’s not an option—those options don’t exist right now. That’s what I’m trying to create, that’s the content I’m trying to create. That’s my goal.
You mentioned mentoring and talked in depth about spreading positivity; what kind of words of wisdom would you bestow upon a reader who wants to be in the entertainment industry or do what you’re doing?
I think the thing I would say is, “Never stop learning.” We always think that we have figured “it” out—whatever “it” is. We know what our passion is, we know what our calling is. But you’d be surprised how much you change in a short period of time and you’d be surprised about how you learn something new and it sends you down a rabbit hole—like “whoa, I didn’t even know this world existed!” and you can find something else that just lights a fire in you. And the other thing that I would say is never feel like you are done. There are second and third and fourth chances. Every time you feel like you’ve had a failure, you haven’t had a failure—you’ve had another opportunity to learn. And also, nobody else is paying as much attention to your life as you are. So when you are so worried about what other people are thinking, guess what? They’re only worried about what other people are thinking about them. No one’s really paying that much attention—we’re all in our own little worlds. That’s not an excuse for you to be like “oh I can blow that off because nobody really cares!” Be the best person that you can be, but when you do have a mess up, just know “okay, you know what? Not a big deal. In a week this won’t be a big deal and I can move on from it.”
Lastly, what kind of legacy—beyond Boy Meets World and everything—do you want to leave?
We’re talking about death row meals and what people are saying when I’m dead [laughs]. When I die, after eating my Oreo chocolate milkshake, and my grilled cheese, and my patty melt, and my curly fries with ranch, I would like for people to say that I always challenged the people around me to elevate their game. That I made the people around me better people and that I never stopped trying. And that I was a compulsive self-improver. And that I was kind. I was kind to people. That’s what I want my legacy to be.
Kindness—people don’t remember that enough.
It’s true. And when somebody is nice, people are like, “Oh my gosh, they are the nicest person.” It’s shocking to people. There’s a lot of reason for it, but sometimes people forget that it doesn’t take any time to be kind. It’s a choice. You have a choice in every single second about how you’re going to react to something and I try not to react, I try to respond. There’s a difference between the two. A reaction is something that is unthinking, you’re just like “BLAH!” but a response is something that is measured. You can go, “What do I want to be in this moment?” That takes a second to think of and then you make your choice. I try to be a responsive human and not a reactive human. I’m a work in progress though, that is FO’ SHO.
But we all are!