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Fittings have not always been Josie Totah’s favorite.
The 19-year-old actress, who came out as transgender in 2018, says that getting dressed to play characters who didn’t reflect her gender identity at the time left her with PTSD. “I’ve been on so many shows in my career where fittings were something that I dreaded most,” explains Totah, who rose through the child-star ranks playing boys on such sitcoms as the Disney Channel’s Jessie and NBC’s Champions. “I never felt like I was 100 percent myself. I was put in a lot of sweater vests, which has now traumatized me.”
That’s not her story any longer thanks to Saved by the Bell, the Peacock revival that cast Totah as Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio, the popular cheerleader with a sharp tongue and over-the-top wardrobe. She is quick to give credit to Saved by the Bell showrunner Tracey Wigfield and costume designer Mojdeh Daftary, who helped turn the halls of Bayside High into makeshift runways for Lexi’s head-turning ensembles. “Being that she’s the queen bee, we wanted her to be unapologetic and fierce in wearing designer clothes like it’s nothing, as if it’s just another day,” explains Daftary. “The clothes are a little out there, but that’s who Lexi is, she’s extra and not sorry about it.”
Totah makes no apologies, either, as she relishes the opportunity to create a larger-than-life character who also happens to be transgender, though it’s not central to her storyline. She was initially inspired by looks from the iconic comedy Clueless, something that meshed well with Daftary’s vision to give Lexi an aspirational and high-fashion closet with streetwear influences. “It’s so fun,” says Totah, “and that’s a credit to Mo’s talent and ability in sourcing materials from different places.”
Daftary says they’ve been “all over the map” as far as designers, plucking pieces from Marc Jacobs, Versace, Chanel, Fendi and Alexander McQueen as well as custom outfits. But the through-line has been ultra-feminine looks accessorized by the character’s inner confidence.
One thing they decided was to never put Totah in pants on the show (aside from one scene). “Lexi has the money and influence at school to be all the way extra,” says Daftary. “She has the money to throw at designer clothing so that she is on trend or ahead of it at all times. She uses this as part of her power, intimidating her fellow classmates with her fierceness. I wanted Lexi’s look to fully embrace her femininity. Lexi is living her truth, and that includes her wardrobe. This is why we made the conscious decision to never put her in pants, except for the school play.”
Totah says that eschewing pants “contributed to the aspirational myth of the character and just the psychotic-ness of wearing ball gowns to algebra class. She’s in her own world.”
The series — which has been renewed for a second season — has been a game-changer for her, she adds.
“I was always playing a role, having to step into an identity that I wasn’t; it was like if Charlize Theron had to play Megyn Kelly for every single show she’s ever done,” Totah says. “It’s really different when you finally get to step into clothes that feel unique to your identity and feel specific to who you are as a person. Once I was able to do that with this show, I felt so much more confident on set and so much more comfortable. It’s been such a joyful ride.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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