Soleil Moon Frye 'lost sight' of herself. Facing her darkest memories brought her back

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Amy Kaufman
·12 min read
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A smiling woman standing in the water in a brown t-shirt and blue jeans at the beach
Soleil Moon Frye, at Venice Beach, is the star of a new "Punky Brewster" revival and the director of a new documentary about her childhood. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Soleil Moon Frye never had a “Wrecking Ball” moment.

At the height of her fame on "Punky Brewster," she teamed up with then-First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign to urge kids to resist drugs. When the sitcom came to a close in 1988, she returned to school in the San Fernando Valley and spent her summers at camp in Malibu. In interviews, she spoke proudly about being a virgin. And after being taunted by boys who called her “Punky Boobster” because of her size 38DD chest, she got a breast reduction at age 15, using the experience as a platform to address teenage body insecurities.

So why didn’t Moon Frye feel the need to make a theatrical, public break with her squeaky clean child star image?

Because she was actually like Punky. Relentlessly upbeat. So self-possessed that she was somehow able to pull off a rainbow wardrobe. Always eager to solve a problem — even one as daunting as administering CPR to her best friend, who got locked in a refrigerator during a game of hide-and-seek.

“Punky and Soleil were so intertwined,” said Brian Austin Green, who became friends with Moon Frye as a fellow kid actor before he was on the TV series “Beverly Hills, 90210.” "The character was so extreme compared to society, but Soleil, being as kind and loving as she was, I think she opened people up to the experience of Punky. No one was like, 'What the f— is wrong with this girl? Why is she skipping everywhere and wearing different colored socks?’”

So it should come as no surprise that when Moon Frye was approached about reprising the iconic role, she didn't hesitate. She was already in the midst of revisiting her youth when conversations about a “Punky Brewster” revival — recently launched on NBCUniversal’s new streaming service, Peacock — began a few years ago.

The young Soleil Moon Frye.
Soleil Moon Frye was cast as Punky Brewster when she was 7. (Soleil Moon Frye)

Shortly after her 40th birthday, the actress started to question her identity. She’d gotten married at age 22 and went on to have four children with her husband, producer Jason Goldberg.

“I’m so proud to be a mom, but I started to wonder: 'Who am I, in addition to my children whom I love so much?'" said Moon Frye, now 44. “I had a really unorthodox upbringing that was amazing and so colorful, being raised by a single mom. But that led me to desire some tradition — the love and joy of family. And I became so focused on giving my all to being a mom and a wife that I lost sight of the artist inside me.”

Moon Frye was sitting at her place in Venice, a couple blocks from the beach, with stacks of her old journals surrounding her. As a kid, she relished documenting her life: She begin keeping a diary at age 5, recording audiotape at 12 and filming with a video camera at 14. She’d always held onto them — they were well-preserved in big Tupperware containers — but it wasn’t until 2017 that she felt called to revisit them. It was a journey, she said, that has not only produced a new documentary — Hulu’s “Kid 90,” out March 12 — but also led her back to herself.

Moon Frye spent nine months combing through hundreds of hours of her footage to create the film, which offers an intimate look at what it was like to be young and famous in an era before social media. The actress — who was cast as Punky at age 7, beating out 1,000 girls to play the precocious youngster — became something of an unofficial ringleader of kid stars in Hollywood . Her circle of friends included Green, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, David Arquette, Stephen Dorff and Heather McComb, all of whom sat for interviews in “Kid 90” to reflect on their adolescences.

She took her Sharp camcorder everywhere: On group outings to Magic Mountain, to the hospital before her breast reduction, to a field in Antelope Valley where she tripped on mushrooms. Picking up the camera, Moon Frye said, was her reaction to a childhood spent with the lens focused on her: “I wanted to flip the perspective and document everyone else. The camera became a shield between me and others, in a way.”

A girl in a blue shirt climbing on the back of a boy in a pink shirt reading Mark Paul
Soleil Moon Frye and Mark-Paul Gosselaar were part of a circle of close-knit kid actors in the 1990s. (Soleil Moon Frye)

Gosselaar — who, like Moon Frye, also recently returned to his teen roots on Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” reboot — befriended the actress after guest starring on a 1988 “Punky” episode.

"Being with other actors, it didn’t even register that she had her camera out," he said. "We all banded together, because the market wasn’t saturated with young actors yet. So I think she and I are very similar in that we feel we had pretty normal childhoods. I did stupid s—. I hear now, ‘Oh, Justin Bieber egged a house.’ I did stupid s— like TP-ing a house on Halloween when I was 16, but nobody took a photo. And back then, you couldn’t see how popular you were. I didn’t wake up the morning after my show premiered to find out how we did in the demos. Now, you know how many followers and likes you have.”

Nostalgia for that period was part of the reason Hulu was interested in co-financing “Kid 90.” Belisa Balaban, the streamer’s vice president of original documentaries, said she felt the behind-the-scenes glimpse into the 1990s would play well with the company’s large millennial audience.

“But I also thought that Soleil’s story was both specific and very universal for young women coming of age,” said the executive. “At a very young age, she was cast into a role and was the object of a lot of interrogation and scrutiny. As an adult woman, she can take control of the narrative. There’s something deeply powerful about the fact that she is the author of this work.”

An assortment of books, journals, videotapes and audio cassettes in open Tupperware containers.
Moon Frye drew from this collection of journals, video tapes and audio cassettes to make her documentary "Kid 90." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

At first, Moon Frye wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a part of the documentary, envisioning it as a piece that would explore “the last decade of privacy.” But as she spent time reacquainting herself with her teenage persona, she was forced to confront the darker reality of experiences she had blocked from her memory.

There was the journal entry written when she was 17 revealing that a man had forcibly thrust himself inside her when she was a virgin. “He asked if I’d say that he had raped me, but I wouldn’t. I was also to blame for my forwardness,” she’d written. And the audio recording of her confronting a male friend about what happened on a night where she drank only ginger ale but somehow blacked out.

“Even now, I’m still trying to put the pieces together of experiences that I didn’t really completely understand,” she said. “Only now do I know what [date rape drug] GHB is. I’d just pushed that all down, and I don’t think I ever thought I would really share or confront it. But I wanted to find forgiveness — both for the people involved and for the little girl who felt in some way responsible for any shame or pain.”

Moon Frye does not name the men she now believes sexually assaulted her. She does, however, reveal that her first consensual sexual experience was with Charlie Sheen, when she was 18 and the actor was 29. Despite the age gap, she described Sheen as “so kind and loving” toward her, and she said they’ve maintained a friendship. (In 2020, Corey Feldman released a documentary alleging that Sheen raped the late Corey Haim when Haim was 19; Sheen denied the claim.)

“I can only speak to my experience and what the diaries say,” said Moon Frye, whose own film includes footage of Feldman. “I don’t know about anyone else’s experiences. I don’t think people are devils or angels.”

Moon Frye applies makeup.
In making "Kid 90," Moon Frye revisited traumatic teenage experiences with men that she never thought she'd confront. (Soleil Moon Frye)

Coincidentally, her return to “Punky Brewster” would prove surprisingly personal too. In the new iteration, Punky is newly divorced and raising a mix of biological and adopted children. Unbeknown to the showrunners, Moon Frye was weathering her own marital struggles when the series began shooting in 2019; in late December, she announced that she and Goldberg were divorcing.

“We really worked on our relationship. This didn’t just happen overnight,” she said of the decision to end her marriage. “But I had gone through this major transformation. I hadn’t even shared certain parts of what I had gone through with him for so many years. Through that unwrapping of experience and discovery of self-love, the relationship transformed.”

But addressing raw issues was part of the DNA of “Punky Brewster.” The show famously addressed the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle as well as childhood illiteracy, prescription pill addiction and bankruptcy.

“At the time, I don’t think there were any other shows doing that in a real way at that level,” said Steve Armogida, who developed “Punky” 2.0 with his brother, Jim. “It wasn’t just all a bunch of laughs — it had moments that could sink in. Punky was always a good role model for kids, this tough, independent girl who never let anything get her down.”

Decades after “Punky” went off the air, Moon Frye said she constantly ran into fans of the original who wanted to share their connection to the character. During the 1984-1985 TV season, she received 7,000 to 10,000 fan letters a week. Once, two sisters approached her on the Venice boardwalk to tell her how they’d come from a broken home and Punky helped them get through it. “We all just wept in each other’s arms,” the actress said.

Moon Frye in overalls with a dog on the new "Punky Brewster."
On the new "Punky Brewster," Moon Frye plays a divorced mom raising a mix of biological and adopted children. (Evans Vestal Ward / Peacock)

Then, in 2017, she did a guest spot on a Pop TV show called “Hollywood Darlings” that featured three other former child stars — Jodie Sweetin, Christine Lakin and Beverley Mitchell. When it was announced that Moon Frye would be on set, creator Jimmy Fox said he was suddenly inundated with requests from network executives to score introductions.

“And the way the leads of the show responded to Soleil too — there was great deference there, in terms of the landscape of child stars. She really is looked at as the GOAT,” Fox said. Observing the continued effect of Punky Power got the producer’s “wheels turning,” he said, and before long, he and Moon Frye teamed up to bring the show back.

“It’s so refreshing for someone who played a character when they were 8 to be like, ‘Yep, love it. Love every bit of it,’” Fox added. “She often says that she doesn’t know where Punky ends and Soleil begins. And I really just think this was the character she was born to play. She is without a doubt the most positive human being I’ve ever met in my life. By comparison to Soleil Moon Frye, I am, like, Eeyore.”

Everyone who speaks about Moon Frye references her effusive positivity. She’s a “unicorn of a person” who has the kind of “authentic optimism that it’s hard to find in someone in L.A.,” said Jennifer Davisson of Appian Way, Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, whose name is on “Kid 90.” (DiCaprio, another of Moon Frye’s childhood buddies, also turns up in the film.) “90210” veteran Green said he’s even told her it’s a quality that can be hard to find a match for.

“Because I think there are a lot of people who would be intimidated by that — men who are used to being the powerful one in the room,” Green said. “Soleil just leaves no room for that. As a guy, you would have to check your ego at the door.”

Moon Frye at the beach.
Through revisiting her childhood memories, Moon Frye said she feels like she's "found [her] voice again." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Moon Frye isn’t thinking about dating yet, anyway. She and Goldberg have listed their home in Hidden Hills, and she’s not sure what part of town she wants to move to. She’s been meditating more and returning to the authors she found meaningful when she was younger — Carl Jung, Anais Nin, Charles Bukowski. And she’s shown “Kid 90” to her two daughters, ages 15 and 12 (she also has two sons, ages 7 and 4), in hopes of starting a dialogue about how to cultivate self-love.

“I wish I could wrap my arms around teen me and say: ‘Everything’s going to be OK. The pain, the heartache, the love — keep writing it down. Keep documenting it.' Because our stories are so important,” said Moon Frye. “I was always raised to know that life is like a boxing ring — you get knocked down and you get back up. I think for a while I had forgotten some of that. And so to rediscover it? It’s like I found my voice again.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.