Growing up, a crush wasn’t always that boy or girl sitting across from you in chemistry class. Sometimes it was that person who popped up on the television screen during the TGIF lineup. In the 1990s, TV execs managed to program shows featuring a never-miss lineup of hot leading ladies and men to adore every week. These stars graced the covers of teen magazines everywhere, sometimes with pop-out posters that were perfect to display on a bedroom door, in a locker, or on a bulletin board.
Other characters, mainly the supporting cast of a series, didn’t get the same air time as their more popular co-stars, even though some people actually prefer the brain. You know, the shy unassuming sidekick, who has this cuteness that’s often hidden behind a pair of glasses, sweater vest, paint-covered pair of overalls, or ponytail.
Here’s the thing. If someone is good looking enough to be an actor, odds are, most of the time they’re a pretty fantastic looking human being. Sure they might not look as shiny and sparkly when they’re standing next to the specimen cast to play the captain of the football team or cheerleading squad, but odds are if you saw them at a house party, they’d be turning heads.
TV nerds have a certain kindness to them, a classic dignity, and sexy librarian ambiance that was a staple of 1990s television. Sometimes they were able to transcend their nerdiness and hang with the cool kids, or viewers even forgot that they were nerds in the first place. It didn’t matter if the show was geared towards tweens, teens, or adults, that person who knew their way around a microscope, larger than life laptop or could help you study for your SATs knew that brains beat brawn in the long haul. Here are 15 of the hottest TV nerds from the 1990s.
15. Dana Foster (Step By Step)
Step by Step was a sort of 1990s reboot of The Brady Bunch concept with the main plot centralizing on two families attempting to blend. When mom (Suzanne Somers) and dad (Patrick Duffy) suddenly decide to elope on vacation, the two very different families have to work together to make things work, step by step (get it?). The oldest daughter was Dana Foster, and is played by TV veteran Staci Keanan. The petite blonde is portrayed as a smart, witty, and wisecracking feminist, who often ends up acting like a third parent to the other siblings, and step-siblings throughout the series, while younger sister Karen plays the popular beauty queen, even though both could easily win contests. Keanan was a star student both off and on screen having won many scholastic awards including a New York essay contest and the National Language Arts Olympiad. Today Keanan put her book smarts to work and is a practicing lawyer in LA.
14. Jessie Spano (Saved By The Bell)
Smart, tall, and best friends with the head cheerleader Kelly Kapowski, Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) had it all. This high achieving mama had a different cause to support nearly every week, and still managed to keep things running as an honour student as well as Bayside High’s school president. Highly competitive, to the point of having a caffeine pill problem to help her study that had her, “so excited” in an episode of the show about the dangers of drug addiction, Jessie also has her faults, but looks were never this nerd’s problem. Jessie isn’t your average Brainiac. She was among the select few women of Bayside selected for a fundraising bathing suit calendar, and isn’t afraid to show off her long legs. Following the show Berkley attempted to “bust” out of her nerdy image in the flop cult classic Showgirls. Today the former straight-A student can be seen featured for guest slots in popular shows including New Girl, CSI Miami, and The L Word.
13. David Healy (Roseanne)
We were first introduced to adorable The Big Bang Theory nerd Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) when he portrayed Darlene’s love interest in the hit family sitcom Roseanne throughout the 1990s. Even though he was the younger brother of bad boy Mark Healy, we knew with that floppy hair and soft-spoken voice, that he had a heart of gold. He was a true comic nerd, and Darlene and David bonded while creating adorkably brilliant graphic novels and comics together. He soon endeared himself into the hearts of viewers everywhere, and the entire Conner household, particularly Roseanne. The first time he appeared on the show his character’s name was Kevin, and the script later joked that David was a name that Darlene made up for Kevin when the two became a real couple. In real life Galecki remains close friends with former co-star Sara Gilbert. Galecki has been praised for the way he played David by Roseanne herself for his admirable vulnerability. Galecki says of the role, “Eventually, that became something. The way they wrote it and the way I played it. And it fortunately played so well off the ‘Darlene’ character, too. My spinelessness and her strength.”
12. Willow Rosenberg (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)
She was the shy, sweet, and doting best friend. Alyson Hannigan’s portrayal of nerdy and awkward Willow was spot on, but even in the early days of Buffy, writers and viewers couldn’t ignore how sexy Hannigan could be when she wanted to. This smart witch also had a dark side that could be seen on full display in Vampire Willow and when she succumbs to her addiction with dark magic. Never the cool kid, but always approachable (unless she’s gone evil) Hannigan also portrayed the confident, band dork Michelle in the American Pie series. It feels very fitting that in real life Hannigan married fellow Buffyverse nerd, Watcher, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, played by Alexis Denisof and the pair has two daughters. She played a less nerdy character in her role of Lily Aldrin in the series How I Met Your Mother, but will always be one of our favourite monster fighting nerds from the ’90s in our book!
11. Monica Gellar (Friends)
Hot or not, Monica Gellar was a complete nerd. Despite getting fit post-high-school, Monica continued to be a complete nerd into her twenties and thirties proving this was something she wasn’t going to outgrow. She is an obsessive neat freak who spends most of her free time cleaning, ensuring everything is organized and in tip top shape, and sees anything vaguely competitive as a personal challenge that she needs to win. From the episode where she helps Chandler get into shape, the meticulous planning for her wedding, or any time she plays a game and gets super intense to the chagrin of her fellow friends (like in “The One With the Ball”) we feel her dweeb antics all the time. Just because she’s cooler than Ross (cause who isn’t?), it doesn’t make her any less of a goober. I mean she and Ross even have a dance routine together that they meticulously perfected. Nerd Herd aside, Monica is also a great chef, a fantastic friend, and possesses a beauty that can compete against Miss Popular Rachel Green, so go Team Monica!
10. Steve Urkel/Stefan Urquelle (Family Matters)
Family Matters was supposed to be a show about the Winslow family, but quickly got usurped by the next door neighbour, a nerdy Steve Urkel who took over the entire show. The series was a spin-off of the popular 1980s series Perfect Strangers and was a staple to the TGIF lineup for nine seasons. The early seasons focused on the weird inventions and antics of super nerdy Steve, who had a mega crush on next door neighbour Laura. He was known for the mega annoying, yet highly addictive catch phrases, “Did I do that?” and “Got any cheese?”. As the show got long in the tooth, it became harder and harder to hide the fact that Jaleel White (who played Urkel) had become quite good looking and grew out of his ugly duckling phase. In response, or because they were bored, writers had Urkel create an invention which would transform his DNA using something called “cool juice” (we wish we were joking) to become the cool, suave, and good looking alter-ego Stefan. For the remainder of the series Laura was charmed, and uncharmed by both the original Steve and the significantly sexier Stefan.
9. Topanga Lawrence (Boy Meets World)
In the beginning of the TV series Boy Meets World, Topanga is shown to be an overachieving flower child, and is portrayed as a hippie vegetarian who sits with all of the other “freak” kids. She’s more of a thorn in Corey’s side, than the hot girl she becomes as the seasons go on. Most of her early efforts are shown as environmental crusades, but soon she falls for main character Cory Matthews, and he for her, and her more dorky pastimes are downplayed significantly. She’s seen more as a smart student than the weirdo we first meet. Essentially she takes off the proverbial glasses and lets down her ponytail, revealing she’s the hot chick and not the geek. She gets into Yale, but chooses to forgo her Ivy League aspirations and goes to a local college in order to be closer to her friends, and the love of her life Cory. She and Cory end up marrying, proving that his sport loving boy next door routine is a really good balance for her hyper-focused academic approach to life.
8. Lindsay Weir (Freaks And Geeks)
The entire premise of this show stems around a family of nerds. Former mathlete Lindsay Weir decides to pass on her once clean-cut and dorky image in order to hang out with the school burnouts. This happens simultaneously with her nerdy younger brother entering the same high school as a freshman. Lindsay is a nerd at heart, but has lost heart in her old passions after her grandmother passes away. She hangs up her nerd uniform of turtlenecks and dorky sweaters for a wardrobe consisting of her dad’s old olive army jacket and jeans but truthfully it’s hard to stifle Linda Cardellini’s beauty no matter what she’s wearing, thus proven throughout this tragically short, yet fantastic one-season series. Torn between her old life and new one, Lindsay struggles to fit in, find herself, and tries to remain friends with her old mathlete bestie Millie.
7. Elizabeth Wakefield (Sweet Valley High)
Based on the highly successful book series by Francine Pascal, and her series of ghostwriters for 20 years, Sweet Valley High follows the lives of two very beautiful but incredibly different identical twin sisters, played by twin sisters Brittany Daniel and Cynthia Daniel. The series focuses on how Elizabeth, the older twin, is practical, studious, sweet, and kind, whereas younger twin Jessica is mischievous, popular, and gets into a ton of trouble. Both twins are popular and good looking, but deal with their popularity in very different ways. Elizabeth wants to be a journalist and spends much of her time working for the school’s paper, whereas Jessica just wants to do whatever she wants, as long as it involves her popularity. This set of blonde beauties are the ultimate example of the Betty and Veronica debate, but with two leading ladies who look like Betty.
6. Blossom (Blossom)
Mayim Bialik seems to be destined to play a primetime nerd no matter what decade it is. First as Blossom Russo on the 1990 series Blossom and then as Sheldon Cooper’s long term girlfriend on The Big Bang Theory. While Bialik isn’t a traditional Hollywood “hottie”, she definitely has a niche market of those who appreciate her somewhat exotic beauty, and a bunch of young girls who saw her as a fashion icon. Blossom is a sensitive soul, intelligent, and an acquired taste, with those who like her, liking her a lot— just ask her long term on and off bad boy with a heart of gold boyfriend Vinnie Bonitardi. Another piece of trivia for a The Big Bang Theory and Blossom connection, Johnny Galecki played a boy who Blossom went to a make-out party with in the 1990s series. In real life Mayim Bialik is also an accomplished academic, she has a PhD in Neuroscience.
5. Giles (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)
Sure, he was a lot older than the rest of the Scooby Gang, but with that accent and salt and pepper haired charm, he was the watcher you wanted to watch. Upon a recent viewing, and binge watching the series on Netflix there is no denying the subtle, sexy charm of Giles, who bends the typical hot female librarian paradigm with his book smarts and Hell Mouth knowledge. Much like the teen cast of the show, it’s easy to lose him and focus on the whole Team Angel/Team Spike Debate— also because a crush on Giles was probably pretty inappropriate the first time you watched the series. There’s probably a good reason that your mom tuned into Buffy with you every once in awhile, and it probably had very little to do with girl power, vampires, Trip Hop, or even the clever dialogue the show is known for.
4. Andrea Zuckerman (Beverly Hills, 90210)
Speaking of sexy librarian types, 90210’s Andrea Zuckerman is the ultimate contrast between the typical “Kelly”esque members of the “student body” at West Beverly High. Andrea is from out of district and is at West Beverly in pursuit of a top notch education even though she needs to lie to attend. Unlike her beach-bodied peers, romance is not a priority until she meets Brandon Walsh, a fellow school reporter. While Andrea is at school to secure an amazing education and focus on getting good grades, she’s slowly sucked into a social circle very different than she’s used to thanks to popular Brandon and their undeniable chemistry. Although Andrea and Brandon never really hook up, we all kind of wanted it for them throughout the series. Andrea rocks long floral skirts, trademark glasses, and a need to please that we expect of her, plus she has that whole older woman appeal. She was nearly 30 years old when she was cast to play a high school student nearly half her age.
3. Donna Pinciotti (That ’70s Show)
Although it’s set in the 1970s and pays pretty close attention to fashion, sets, and trends of the time, there’s something about the show that screams the 1990s (when the series began). Donna is literally the girl next door to Eric Foreman (another awkward 1990s clumsy nerd), and even though there’s no doubt she’s attractive, she’s still a nerd. After all, if she wasn’t why would she even consider dating Eric? She’s tall, athletic, ambitious, and really smart. She spends most of the series being a strong student, ardent feminist, and pretty much the only adult in her swinging parents’ household. (Side note: what is it about 1990s TV shows portraying feminists as nerds anyway?) It’s no wonder Eric is so crazy about her, what with her long legs and flowing sheets of red hair. She wants to be a newswoman, and a writer, and within their group of friends, Donna and Eric often play the “mature” parental figures to their friends’ usual hijinks.
2. Felicity Porter (Felicity)
Shy, studious, and sweet with ringlets to fidget with, college student and barista Felicity Porter, played by Keri Russell, was a fantastic student in high school. This is one of the reasons why her parents were sufficiently steamed that she made an impulsive decision to follow her crush to the University of New York, because of a comment he wrote in her year book that implied missed opportunities, instead of attending the Stanford pre-med program. Known for being smart, yet unsure of herself, Felicity slowly finds her way, and makes a move that she needed to make, away from her family on the other coast. This series shows hope that even the nerds can find love, and even get entangled in a series of love triangles once they leave the world of high school and enter college (even after they cut their trademark gorgeous locks).
1. Sean Hanlon (Breaker High)
There is a little known Canadian series about a group of high school students from all over the US who attend school on a cruise ship while they visit all sorts of interesting places all over the world. This show starred a nerdy character who really wanted to be a ladies’ man, but never quite pulled it off. There are many misleading things about this series: 1) despite it being about world travel and American students, it was filmed entirely in Burnaby, BC, Canada, 2) the cast “nerd” known as Sean Stanley Hanlon was played by a much younger, smaller, super awkward Ryan Gosling. Even though the show is fairly unwatchable, there is no denying the lovable, goofy charm of a young Gosling, even if he hadn’t crunched his way to perfect abs yet. This over-confident and cocky, goofy, nerdy character will give anyone a glimpse into why we shouldn’t underestimate nerds on TV, or in real life.