HARTFORD, Connecticut—Welcome to 90s Con, where the Nineties live on. The decade where all that glitters is gold. Fans of 1990s pop culture have made the pilgrimage here on an arctic March day for a weekend of time travel, transforming the Connecticut Convention Center into a pastel love-fest. Reality? Adulthood? The passage of time? As a great woman once said: As if.
Outside these walls, the years start coming, and they don’t stop coming. But in here, the Nineties dream lives forever. The place is packed with stars. The cast of Saved By the Bell is here — yes, even Mario Lopez. Yes, Elizabeth Berkeley. So are the casts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Beverly Hills, 90210. Also Full House, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Danica McKellar from The Wonder Years. Steve Burns from Blue’s Clues. Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson from All That.
There’s a boy-band event with the coolest two-fifths of ‘NSync (Joey and Chris, bien sûr) and one-fourth of 98 Degrees (Jeff.) And be still my heart — there’s a reunion for the greatest movie of all time, Clueless.
Amanda Bynes is the most eagerly anticipated star at 90s Con, as part of the All That reunion. This would have been her first public appearance in a minute, almost a year after her conservatorship ended. But sadly, she’s been discreetly dropped on Friday afternoon (when her autograph booth isn’t there). It soon becomes clear why. Over the weekend, Bynes is placed on a psychiatric hold, after being found Sunday morning wandering the streets of downtown L.A., naked and alone.
But nobody knows that yet when I walk in on Friday afternoon. The room is thumping with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which segues right into the Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There” into Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” (Maybe Kurt would have been … amused?) This is an alternate universe where the Nineties never ended. TRL never got canceled. New Kids on the Block have a bunch of hits. Donna Martin graduates. Friendship never ends. So what if the outside world wants to forget this era? Let’s don’t forget about it!
Nostalgia is big business these days — decades have their own fandoms. About half of this Con crowd was alive when the Nineties happened, while the other half wasn’t even In Utero. Nobody’s surprised to see so much Gen Z here. Well, maybe a little surprised. “I teach high school,” a guy in the burger line tells me. “I ask my students, ‘Who’s seen Full House? Who’s seen Saved By the Bell? Every hand goes up. It all comes and it all goes. With the Internet, nothing ever goes away anymore.”
So many Chers and Dionnes in the house this weekend. Alicia Silverstone famously wore 64 different outfits in Clueless, and they’re all here this weekend. There are fans in yellow-and-black plaid skirts, jackets, pants — even two dudes in matching kilts. When I ask Stacey Dash why, she stares me dead in the eye and tells me, “Because Cher and Dionne were genius.” She’s not wrong.
Women wear T-shirts that say “We Are the Weirdos, Mister” or “I Heart Jordan Catalano” or “Introvert But Willing to Discuss Boy Bands.” Fans dress up as all their Nineties faves. As Jennie Garth says, “The amazing thing is when you see your face tattooed on someone.”
Here, the 2020s get put on hold. George W. Bush never happened. Neither did 9/11. The 2016 election? Talk to the hand. MTV still plays music. The only pandemic is Backstreet fever. The room is full of flannel and pastels. All tribes, fandoms, races, genders, sexual identities, abilities are welcome here. It does not say RSVP on this Statue of Liberty.
I spend a few bucks on merch at My So-Called Crafts: a Team Kelly shirt, an extremely glam badge of Rose McGowan in Jawbreaker saying “I killed the teen dream. Deal with it.” I spend $5 to get my photo taken with the Golden Gays, three drag queens giving Blanche, Rose, and a frighteningly fierce Dorothy. I don an Estelle Getty wig and glasses, while Blanche holds a sign declaring me the “Token Sophia.” The Golden Gays have one of the longest lines at the Con.
There’s an old-school phone booth, with a broken rotary phone inside. Dozens of kids stand in line, waiting for their turn to get a selfie in a real live phone booth. There’s vintage video-game consoles with Mortal Combat II and Street Fighter III: New Generation. There’s a line for the Baywatch pinball machine, while a few feet away, an announcer yells “Last call for Mario Lopez photo op!”
As the song booming on the speakers is saying right now: How bizarre, how bizarre.
At the Shannen Doherty booth, you can get an autograph for $50, a selfie for $50, or the selfie-autograph combo for $80. The offers vary. Ian Ziering has “phone calls, videos, voice recordings” for $80. Rose McGowan gives “quotes” with her autograph for an extra $20. (She takes cash only. There’s something so charismatic about McGowan’s cash box sitting there on her table, before her session begins, empty but ready to begin duty.) These lines are packed all weekend. Fans are in line for Shannen hours before her session; the ones up front tell me they got here at doors.
You can snag private portraits with the stars, too — Alicia will run you $75, Shannen or Tori $70, Jason P or Jennie G $70. You can capture your moment with the 90210 full cast for $280, or just the Walsh Twins for $130. But the Jawbreaker femme-fatale threesome are a bargain at $170, and the Clueless cast is a steal at $225. Quite a few of their portraits have the whole gang doing “whatever” fingers.
This fest is a treasure trove of memorabilia and merch. Vendors hawk every kind of action figure, comic, gadget, doll, Beavis & Butt-Head bobbleheads, Spice Girls Pop Figures. You can get your photo with the Mystery Machine van or the Jurassic Park jeep. There are stacks of magazines — sorry, “paper collectibles” — where you can find a back issue of YM (“98 Degrees on Why Virginity Is Sexy”) or Teen People (“Ricky Martin: How Superstardom Has Turned His World Upside Down”), or Teen (“Hanson Is Hot and Guess What — They’re All Single!”). A disgruntled My So-Called Life fan is rifling through the magazines. She fumes, “They have everything but Claire Danes!”
There are a few tattoo booths — not airbrush tattoos, the real thing. A guy in a chair is getting a Star Wars bounty hunter on his right collarbone. Two BFFs are waiting to get matching Charmed ink — one with the book, one with the cat. There’s a long waiting list on the sign-up sheet, with lots of requests for “Be Brave. Live.”
There’s also a booth where you can throw a Koosh ball — but I skip it because I’m a Clueless fan, and my plastic surgeon doesn’t want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose. (Well, there goes my social life.) As I pause for a moment to look around the room and take it all in, I catch myself singing along with the Spice Girls. “If you put two and two together, you will see what our friendship is for …” Hey, I just got that.
All weekend, everybody keeps it positive and avoids drama. All the messy stuff that follows the stars around — politics, sex, divorce, health scares, legal battles —i t’s all put aside for another time. Everybody checks their It’s Complicateds at the door. Inside these walls, the only major controversy raging is Backstreet Boys vs. ‘NSync. Everybody’s got an opinion. It’s absurdly easy to start arguments with strangers by asking, “Lance or A.J.?”
Sometimes the positivity goes to ridiculous extremes. During the Charmed reunion, everyone takes care to avoid mentioning the main character Phoebe, played by a famous actress whose name rhymes with Schmalysssa Schmilano, who’s been the target of bitter social media aggro from Rose McGowan. Today, Rose snuggles on the couch with Shannen Doherty and says she wishes they could have been witch sisters at the same time. (Rose came in when Shannen got killed off. It’s messy.)
None of the fans bring up controversial questions. Except maybe the 90210 fan who asks Tori Spelling point-blank: “Given that Donna clearly broke the rules, do you think Donna Martin should have graduated?” That heresy does not go over well with this crowd. But Tori thinks for a moment and says no — Donna should have gotten kept back in high school, so she could have her own spinoff. Tori is no fool.
Yet fans have flocked from around the world to be in our happy place, rolling with our homies. This is a crowd for which every star has devotees who know every arcane corner of their filmography or discography. Alicia Silverstone can name-drop The Crush without having to explain, “You know, the 1993 erotic thriller where a real-life teenager plays a deranged equiestrienne who tries to seduce her parents’ lodger Cary Elwes, wait, that movie really happened?”
You are in a building full of people who share your love for Tori Spelling’s autobiography, sTori Telling. Or Elisa Donovan’s poignant grief memoir, Wake Me Before You Leave. Maybe even Stacey Dash’s book about her turn to right-wing politics, with the excellent title There Goes My Social Life.
But anything that’s a “flop” in the outside world is a “cult classic” in here. We’ve got hardcore O-Town freaks in the house — at the boy-band event, they scream whenever the group gets mentioned. I couldn’t really guesstimate the worldwide population of O-Town fans, but I do know downtown Hartford is crawling with them right now, and they’re feeling their power. We fit together, baby.
It’s a safe space to leave your troubles outside. Like Rose says in Jawbreaker, “You are going to walk into that room and strut your shit down the hallway like everything is peachy fucking keen.”
Random thing that happens: The fans swarm around the video-game area, while “Smooth” booms overhead. Three different men sing the line “my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa” out loud to themselves. I’m one of them.
Fame was different in the Nineties. Social media did not exist. The online harassment was message boards and AOL chat rooms — which were already plenty to worry about. As Marc Blucas from Buffy says, “Joss [Whedon] told me, ‘Don’t go online, because they’re gonna hate you.’ He was right.”
The funniest guy I meet all weekend is Chris Kirkpatrick of ‘NSync. This guy has been through it. He laughs in my face when I mention his Rolling Stone covers. “Oh man, that is the moment,” he says. “That’s one of the few things I have up in my house, because that’s the pinnacle of pinnacles. My favorite was the one with the silver jackets on. The only thing I hated was those jackets. They were basically cardboard jackets, then they put on the glitter spray paint, which was like sandpaper. I think I lost half a nipple on one of my shirts. I was like, ‘Can we put undershirts on? Because I’m rubbing myself raw over here.’”
He lost more than a nipple. The celebrity hustle knocked him for a loop. “The hardest thing was the transition afterwards,” he tells me. “It was kind of like I felt abandoned. I work my ass off for 10 years, then they say, ‘OK, we’re moving on to the next thing. See ya later.’ So I went out and started partying. I wish somebody would have sat me down and said, ‘Listen, keep it going. Let’s transition easier than just drinking and partying.’”
The music world is once again full of young boy bands. What advice would he give them? “Have an exit plan,” he says. “It’s like when kids say, ‘I’m gonna grow up to be in the NFL,’ so you say, ‘Let’s talk about what else you could do besides that. Maybe you make the NFL, but what will you do after that?’ Because I don’t think I really had that.”
Yet he’s proud of the boy-band tradition. “BTS, Jonas Brothers, New Kids — boy bands come and go. But the music is what’s the best — the music is what lasts. The New Kids songs are still played. Jackson 5 songs are still played. Our songs, Backstreet’s songs, 98 Degrees’ songs. Look at One Direction. I mean, Harry Styles just won Album of the Year.”
Chris is a major Harrie. “I got to meet Harry Styles when we did the MTV Awards with Justin, seven or eight years ago. They were having a party for One Direction, and I was out, drinking up and down in New York. I show up and it’s a black-tie party, but I’m in shorts and a T-shirt. They say, ‘Come meet Harry.’ I’m like, ‘Heck yeah! I love Harry.’ I love all the One Direction guys. But I love Harry.”
Chris sighs. “I remember us taking a picture and there’s drink stains all over my shirt. I just put my arm around Harry and say, ‘Don’t become me, bro.’”
The women sitting next to me at the Buffy reunion break down each cast member. “I wouldn’t be here if Xander were here,” one tells me. Why? “I wouldn’t watch a panel with both him and Charisma Carpenter. That Valentine’s Day episode with them together — that scene makes me cry. I’m getting chills just talking about it.” She changes the subject to something less fraught: another cast member’s history of bad hair decisions.
One of the Con’s big emotional moments comes when a fan asks the Buffy cast if the show had a message. Kristine Sutherland, who played Buffy’s mom, speaks up. “Just wait till you’re 30,” she says. “Just wait. Your people are out there.”
There’s an audible gasp of pain all through the crowd. Everybody knows what she’s talking about. That’s why we’re here.
What is it about the Nineties pop culture that people keep craving? “It was right before the age of the internet,” Danica McKellar (a.k.a. Winnie Cooper) tells me. “We were watching TV shows and even listening to music together. Not texting people or scrolling on social media for all that quick instant-gratification stuff that speeds up life and distracts us, and then someday it’s over, and what happened? So in the Nineties, people could live in the moment more.”
Winnie’s got a point. This was the era just before everything changed. Before Peak TV happened — The Sopranos began in 1999 — and TV became a prestige art form, something that was Good for You. TiVo and DVR didn’t exist yet. Bingeing didn’t exist. “Have you seen Charmed?” meant “Have you spent an hour or two with this show?” — not “Have you locked yourself inside to view all 178 episodes in order with your laptop on your crotch?” Being a fan was … less work? More innocent? But it was a different time. And then — in an mmmbop, it was gone.
For the stars this weekend, the world outside might be a hostile hellmouth, but in here, everyone’s young and famous forever. “Thank God for social media,” 98 Degrees’ Jeff Timmons tells me. “And YouTube, TikTok, all these different media that weren’t available before. These young kids discover everything.” It’s one thing to see Gen X fans here, but it’s another to see Gen Z. “Instead of ‘weird,’ I would say it’s ‘surreal,’” Kel Mitchell tells me. He’s as surprised as anyone he’s doing Good Burger 2 with Kenan Thompson, picking up a joke they started on All That in 1994. “We’ve got five-year-olds doing Good Burger birthdays, and they weren’t even born in ’94, man.”
But nobody’s less surprised than Joey Fatone. He’s Mr. Entertainment, the guy who got even more famous after ‘NSync, with the most unstoppable hustle in show biz. “I’m always out there,” he says, nodding, looking fly in his Urkel T-shirt. “When I meet people, the grandma goes, ‘I loved you in Dancing With the Stars,’ the mom’s like, ‘I loved you in ‘NSync,’ the teen goes, ‘I loved you in Hannah Montana,” the younger kids are more like, ‘I loved you on The Masked Singer or Impractical Jokers.” (If you missed him on The Masked Singer, he was the rabbit, belting “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”) I ask Joey if he’d give any advice to his younger self. “Look at your contracts,” he says. “Make sure you know what you’re getting into.”
The reunions are emotional roller coasters. A fan asks the Charmed sisters to do the Power of Three chant they never got to say together on the show. Shannen, Rose, and Holly Marie Combs huddle together and chant: “The Power of Three will set us free!”
At the Sabrina reunion, Caroline Rhea rocks an “I identify as a witch” shirt and jokes about how they’re here to put the “coven” in “convention.” Given that Sabrina had the queerest family on TV at the time — even the cat was gay — the stars share their favorite coming-out stories from fans. Rhea tells a story about meeting Beyoncé, who came up at an award show and called her “Miss Caroline.”(Rhea says, “Thank God she didn’t call me ‘ma’am,’ which is Southern for ‘no longer hot.’”) Beyoncé said she was a huge fan, and she’d love her group to do the show. I can’t even process the revelation that Sabrina blew the chance to have a Destiny’s Child episode.
The 90210 panel is a huge highlight. Tori Spelling, Jennie Garth, and Jason Priestley cozy up on one couch; Rebecca Gayheart and Ian Ziering on the other. Shannen Doherty does not show up, even though she’s in the building. Seems she mysteriously scheduled an autograph session for right now. (It might seem like a “Brenda gonna Brenda” moment, but everybody here today knows all about her long battle with cancer, and everybody’s just grateful she’s made it here. She comes out later for the Charmed panel, saying that she’s “feeling great.”)
Garth, my 90210 spirit twin for life, not to mention auteur of the Body in Progress VHS exercise tape, raises eyebrows when she reveals that she wishes Kelly could have ended up with Jim Walsh. That might’ve been a messy match for sure, given that he’s married to Brandon and Brenda’s mom, but given Kelly’s luck in that department (in every department), she’s done worse. A fan asks: What would their characters be doing now? Priestley muses, “Given the downturn in journalism, Brandon would be unemployed. He might be living in a Chrysler K-car on the outskirts of Baltimore.” Garth says, “Kelly would have been arrested for stalking Jim Walsh.”
Ian Ziering, Unlikely Source of Life Lessons: The erstwhile Steve Sanders offers a little wisdom on the hard-knock struggles of adulthood in the real world. He says, “It’s too late to make a brand-new start, but it’s never too late to start a brand-new ending.” I’m not the only fan who gets out a pen to jot that down. [https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/11/05/new-ending/]
A hush falls when a very nervous-sounding fan raises a hand to ask if Luke Perry was really as cool as we all thought he was. The whole cast simultaneously says, “Yes, he was.” You could hear a pin drop.
One of the happiest places to be is the Saturday-afternoon Cosplay Contest, with dozens of fans ready to strut in their Nineties finery. The judges’ panel: Caroline Rhea, Danica McKellar, Olivia D’Abo, and Chris Kirkpatrick. The costumes are awe-inspiring. There’s Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus! There’s Oblina from Aaah!!! Real Monsters! Hey, it’s Loonette from The Big Fluffy Couch Show! Four women as the cast of Mondo Burger! Me, I cheer loudest for Aaliyah and Daria.
Part of the fun: The celebrity judges have no idea who most of these characters are. D’Abo tells Daria, “You look like you’re from a Nirvana video — know the one I mean? ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’!” One costume stumps the room: The Dude, i.e., a bearded dad in a bathrobe. None of the audience or judges has heard of The Big Lebowski. Caroline Rhea says, “I thought you were Jesus.” I go up afterward to shake his hand. He shrugs and says, “The Dude abides.”
It’s a nail-biting competition right down to the finalists: Urkel, the Chris Farley Lunch Lady, the Source of All Evil from Charmed, a Beanie Baby. But the winners get one of the weekend’s warmest ovations: two toddlers dressed as Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World. What could be more Nineties than a three-year-old who has just barely learned to yell “Party on, dude!”
I’ve waited years to see this Clueless reunion. I’m not alone. The crowd erupts as soon Alicia Silverstone walks out. She’s introduced as “Ah-LEE-see-ya,” and everyone does a great job of pretending they haven’t been pronouncing her name wrong all these years. (Talk about going down a shame spiral.) Breckin Meyer mentions that in real life he was Silverstone’s high school classmate. She says, “Really?” She had no idea. Elisa Donovan discusses her legendary “balls fly at my nose” line. “I didn’t get that,” she admits. “I said, ‘OK, I guess there must be something funny about this.’ Halfway through, I went, ‘Ooooh.’”
Elisa symbolizes the Nineties if anyone does. She’s not just brilliant in the movie, she steals the show in the hugely underrated TGIF sitcom version. She’s connected to the other Nineties fandoms here — she played Sabrina’s college roommate Morgan, and she also played Joey Fatone’s girlfriend in an ‘NSync video (their hugely underrated TRL banger “I Drive Myself Crazy,” prized by fans as the hit where Chris Kirkpatrick gets an all-too-rare lead vocal). She’s also the mom in The Dog Who Saved Christmas, where Mario Lopez does the dog’s voice.
The Clueless crew gets asked what cassettes they wore out during the filming. Alicia says Jagged Little Pill. For Stacey it’s Nirvana; for Elisa, Public Enemy; for Breckin, it’s Rage Against the Machine. Alicia discusses her upcoming film with Justin Timberlake and Michael Pitt, but breaks a few of our hearts by revealing she’s not planning Excess Baggage 2. Someone asks if she would do a sequel to Blast From the Past. “With Brendan?” Silverstone asks. (Fraser, she means — the former 1990s It boy who just won an Academy Award.) “I would do anything with Brendan. It was so much fun. I just saw Brendan after he won his Oscar, and he’s so cute!”
Some of the Nineties stars have passed away, which means some heavy moments. Bittersweet memories, as Whitney used to sing. The Clueless cast can’t stop talking about how much they miss Brittany Murphy. When a fan asks their favorite lines from the movie, Alicia puts on her Brittany voice to sneer, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive!” Some fans laugh, but more give out a sad groan. It’s an emotional punch that seems to hit us all a little deeper than it should.
After the Clueless session, the voice of Cher comes on the speakers — not Ms. Horowitz, the original Cher. She wants to know: “Do you belieeeeve in life after love?” All due respect, Cher, but we’re very not in the mood to face that question right now.
The crowd is thinning out by Sunday afternoon. A couple of families stage a dance-off to Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage,” in the abandoned autograph lines of stars who’ve gone home. But the smart fans stick around, because nobody wants to miss the Day of the Living Boy Bands. The ‘NSync and 98 Degrees dudes are easily the weekend’s loosest, loudest, funniest event. These guys have the exact right attitude. When asked about the Backstreet-vs.-‘NSync rivalry, Joey Fatone declares, “We won. Two of us are here, and they’re not.” That’s why we love Joey Fatone.
The “Dirty Pop” veterans have seen the highest highs and lowest lows. Everybody in the room agrees we’re long overdue for the four-man ‘NSync tour, without that Justin guy. “How about it, Joey?” Chris asks. “Wanna go play Sea World?” Joey replies, “Sure, we can play Chuck E. Cheese!” The crowd’s laughter is pained. “It happens, kids,” Chris says. “From stadiums to Chuck E. Cheese.”
For reasons that make sense if you think about it, Chris and Joey can’t sing any ‘NSync songs today, not without giving lawyers multiple orgasms. People scream requests anyway. But when Jeff pauses midstory to say “I swear,” Joey and Chris kick in to croon “By the moon and the stars up above.” The audience is already singing along. For a moment, we are truly All-4-One. They also make fun of Jeff for his group’s atrocious dancing, getting up to do their parody of a 98 Degrees box step while singing “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche).” Beautifully, by the way.
The guys boast about how they blew their money, which absolutely none of the TV/movie stars are willing to discuss. Chris says, “Maybe I shouldn’t have put a Hibachi grill in the middle of my swimming pool.” Joey has a few regrets about pimping his house with a Star Wars theater that cost more than the actual house. Turns out that’s not a joke.
Chris mentions the time he and Jeff were in a band together. Nobody cheers — in fact, nobody has any clue what he’s talking about. Not even Joey. Come on — you remember Sureshot? The boy-band supergroup Chris started with Jeff, Color Me Badd’s Bryan Abrams, and LFO’s Rich Cronin? For the 2007 VH1 reality show Mission: Man Band? They all moved into Chris’ pad in Orlando, to create mind-blowingly goofy jams like “Work That Out.” Sorry, but this group actually happened. He and Jeff can’t help cracking up. Here they are in a room packed with fans, all here because of obsessive devotion, but not a soul even pretends to remember Sureshot. They look relieved.
A fan raises her hand to ask the panel, “What was the moment when you knew you’d made it?” Chris asks, “We made it?”