Danielle Fishel of 'Boy Meets World' looks back on going to prom with 'first true love' turned longtime friend Lance Bass
Fishell and Bass are working on a TV series about the year or so they spent as a couple.
Danielle Fishel will forever be known as Topanga, the character on ABC sitcom Boy Meets World over sevens seasons, from 1993 to 2000, but back then she was just a girl herself, starring on it from the ages of 12 to 19. And she craved the experiences that teenagers who weren't on a hit TV show were having — like going to prom.
"I had a very normal high school experience when I was there," she tells Yahoo Entertainment for our Are the Kids Alright? series on former child stars. "When I was there [attending high school] one week out of the month and then full time from March until June, I was just like any other student. I had normal friends. I went to football games. I went to the dances. I went to all the classes. I passed notes in the hall. All of those things. And yet, I was also working full-time on a television show for ABC. So having a famous boyfriend who went to my high school prom with me, to me just felt like bringing my worlds together."
Her boyfriend was, of course, not a regular student. It was Lance Bass, whose band NSync was at the top of the charts. The two have remained close in the decades since, and they're working on a series about their relationship of a year or so, which Fishel describes as her "first true love relationship."
"It's such a relatable experience, where, when Lance broke up with me, I immediately internalized it and was like, 'What did I do wrong? It must be me. There's something wrong with me,' Fishel says. "And Lance was having the same conversation with himself. 'Why can I not make it work with Danielle? What's wrong with me? And of course at the end of the day, there was nothing wrong with either one of us. It was just a matter of self discovery and figuring out who we are. And the fact that it made it as close as we have been all this time, and now we are both married with children of our own, and are still as close as we are… it's such an inspiring friendship, and it is a love story. We call it a new rom-com."
Fishel has said before that she and Bass are working on a project about their time as a couple, and she confirms that's very much still in the works.
"We have two amazing writers, Lauren Lapkus and Mary Holland," Fishel says. "They are plugging away at something for us. There's all kinds of tumultuous things going on in the entertainment industry; There may be a writer's strike, we don't really know what’s going on. But if that project doesn't get made this year, it’s at the top of our lists for 2024."
Fishel now focuses mostly on directing, and she stepped behind the lens for the new Tubi movie Classmates, although she still acts and has a Boy Meets World rewatch podcast, Pod Meets World, with former co-stars Rider Strong and Will Friedle. In her new movie, Classmates, two very different college women pose as each other, so one of them can see how the other half lives, and they both end up learning about themselves.
'I want to be on TV'
Fishel first started working in the entertainment industry when she was about 10, after an older girl at her elementary school in California told her she was going to be on TV.
"I decided that's it, that's what I wanna do, I want to be on TV," Fishel said. "And I begged my parents for a year. Please, please, I want to be an actor. They kept saying no, no, no. It's not an industry for kids, no. And then finally they relented, and then we sent in pictures to different agents that we found in a book. My mom found a book that was like, How to Break Your Child Into the Entertainment Industry or something. We mailed pictures, through snail mail, to these people. And ended up signing with an agent. I then pretty much started working in commercials almost immediately thereafter."
The role of Topanga, the love interest of the main character on ABC's Boy Meets World, came in her first handful of jobs, and she notes that she's grateful.
"My first audition for Boy Meets World, I went in and I didn't get it. I didn't even get a callback," Fishel says. "But the next day, I got an audition for a different character, and I went in for that one, and I booked it. And that character had like two lines. And so I showed up on set that Friday, and did rehearsal, and then by the time that day ended, they were replacing the girl they had cast as Topanga. And they asked me to audition a second time. And I ended up getting that one."
The show was a hit, of course. Fishel was a high school student when she realized what was happening at an inopportune time: her little brother's birthday. She felt guilty about it for years.
"We had gone to Ruby's Diner in Woodland Hills and there was a kids' soccer team that was eating there after one of their games, and they recognized me and they came up and asked me for an autograph. And so they were lining up at the table," Fishel says. "And here it was my brother's birthday, and all of this attention was now being focused on me. I just remember my brother being bummed… So that was one of my first experiences with it, of seeing how fame not only impacted the person who was famous but the way it impacts the people around you."
Goodbye, Topanga... for now
Fishel happened to be quite close with her family, which she says helped her avoid the pitfalls of child stardom.
"I had two of the most supportive parents," she says. "It's one of the things we talk about amongst ourselves from the Boy Meets World set a lot, is that all of us had very strong support systems with our family which is one of the reasons, I think, we all have been successful adults is that none of us were the primary breadwinner for our families."
She was worn out as her sitcom ended, even having had an optimal experience.
"When Boy Meets World was in its last few years, I felt very burnt out," Fishel says. "I had been in school full time and I had been working full time for seven years. So from 12 to 19, I was never not in school while Boy Meets World was on. And I just felt very much like, I need to get away from this. I need to get away from this. I need to figure out who I am. I know so well who this character is but I don't know who I am and I'm ready to go into real life. Now, looking back, I wish I could tell Danielle, like, 'This is real life. You're gonna want to go back to this time and live in the present more.' And so I really felt that through my early 20s, a real pushing away of Topanga, and not wanting to be Topanga. And then, as my self-identity became more — I don't want to say fixed, 'cause I'm constantly changing — but as I really figured out who I am more, the more I started to embrace my past and my career."
When she was 27, Fishel went to college at Santiago Canyon College then transferred to California State University, Fullerton. She was nervous, especially because she knew many of the other students would be a decade younger, but she found her place and realized that she truly enjoyed learning.
In the years since, she's continued to appear on TV, hosting shows such as Style Network's The Dish, and reprising the role of Topanga in Girl Meets World, which aired from 2014 to 2017. While she's not counting out acting again in the right role, she's found directing to be the most rewarding profession.
Fishel's new movie allowed her to work with her husband, Jensen Karp, who's the screenwriter, and with Trina McGee, a former Boy Meets World co-star: "She has been a huge supporter of my directing career, and it was really fun to be able to do this together."
She's found her early experience in the entertainment industry to be tremendously helpful when working with child actors, who she laments live in a time in which social media exists.
"I think actors feel very safe with me because they know I know exactly what they're going through. I myself have been there, and I was once their age… I work with kids now who are 12, and I go, I was exactly you!"
Classmates is now streaming on Tubi.