My American idols: Teenage role models live forever through those influenced

Seen here with his father figure, Carl Winslow, Steve Urkel was a common sight on Friday nights on ABC. Photo by Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank.

On March 4, the world lost a teen idol/icon in actor Luke Perry.

Back in the early 1990s, Perry was the definition of cool. He was so trendy that he brought sideburns back in style first the first time since Elvis Presley. When he passed, Perry was only 52 years old.

But it was almost 30 year ago he rose to fame as Dylan McKay on the hit FOX show “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

He brought the show to mainstream popularity through being so charismatic. Perry’s sex appeal and love triangles kept 90210 a ratings monster for a few years. Perry and his castmates brought the teen drama genre to prime time.

What I remember most about Perry and the show was my mom and sister treating it as must-see TV. My sister, Shay, who is three years older than me, explained to me in that mean big sister way why Dylan was so important to her.

Then I noticed she had a longer list of “heartthrobs.” Like Perry, the guys on her list were the ones girls wanted to be with and other guys emulated.

So I became an official teenager September 1994. My run came to an end Sept. 7, 2001. As I reflect back on that period in my life I had a few role models like the Wayans brothers, 2Pac, Bill Goldberg, Jerry Rice, Steve Young and much more.

If I tried to compose a list of my overall teen idols, I would be writing a novel. For this list, I have narrowed my teen idols to television stars who were teenagers or portrayed teens from September 1994 to September 2001.

10. Luke (“Growing Pains”)

One of my favorite shows of all time was “Growing Pains.” And the breakout star of the show during the early days was Mike Seaver, played by Kirk Cameron, by the way, an ’80s teen icon. But as Mike aged and his younger brother Ben wasn’t as cool, the show got a boost with the arrival of Luke. And America was introduced to a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

At the time, DiCaprio was 16 years old, playing Luke Bower, the homeless teen who was taken in by the Seaver family. DiCaprio displayed solid acting range from dramatic situations to lighthearted moments with his new family.

It was also clear to see girls would think he was a cutie. Meanwhile he brought a nice edge to the suburban family and was a good sidekick to Ben. I learned a little mischief from the duo.

9. Cast of “Ghostwriter”

As I prepared to leave Delano Elementary, I discovered the PBS program “Ghostwriter.” It was a children’s mystery program based in Brooklyn, bringing a group of diverse teenagers together to solve crimes and issues.

The series was designed to teach reading and writing skills to elementary and middle school children. With the talented cast of Todd Alexander, Blaze Berdahl, David López, Marcella Lowery, Tram-Anh Tran, Sheldon Turnipseed, Mayteana Morales, William Hernandez, Melissa Gonzales and Lateaka Vinson, I was tricked into learning. I developed a passion for reading and history.

I started writing more and using my critical thinking skills.

Each mystery was presented as a case, covering four or five 30-minute episodes. So I had to be patient and try to solve the mystery along with the crew. The magical Ghostwriter would assist the children throughout the process, making letters come to life.

While the invisible Ghostwriter was a cool hook to the show, the cast defined the show. All ethnic groups were represented, teaching me different cultures. They dressed in the latest styles and made learning hip. I still dream of being called to a RALLY to hang out with the crew.

8. Carlton Banks (“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”)

By the time NBC brought the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to the airwaves in the early 1990s, Alfonso Ribeiro was a veteran actor, dancer and singer. He was a key part of Silver Spoons before landing the role of Carlton Banks.

It is known as Ribeiro’s breakout role. He took a character that was first an overbearing, straight-laced rich nerd and developed him into a funny, fun-loving vital part of the show. From September 1990 to May 1996, Carlton Banks became a part of Americana. He went from the antagonistic cousin of Will to his best friend over that span.

What I borrowed from Carlton was style. I still love to wear khakis and sweaters. Give me some sweet loafers over Air Jordans any day. And I do borrow my dancing chops from Carlton. I learned from him it is OK to like “lame” music. Instead of Tom Jones, I play Barry Manilow.

7. Cory Matthews (“Boy Meets World”)

Let’s get this out of the way first: The love saga of Cory and Topanga, although entertaining, did not capture my heart. I already had a teen couple I invested in prior (details to come later). The reason Cory A. Matthews makes my teen idol countdown is because of how he helped me navigate middle school.

As I endure puberty with Raleigh-Egypt Middle School as my backdrop, Cory was my protagonist at John Quincy Adams Middle School. He was the boy meeting the world leaving elementary school. He had his best friend, Shawn, and big brother, Eric. He had a few mentors, including Mr. Feeny.

Through Ben Savage’s portrayal of Cory, I learned being genuine will get you far in life. I’m a little awkward, goofy and afraid of change like Cory. Thanks for shining a spotlight on all those things, Cory.

6. AC Slater (“Saved By The Bell”)

First brought in as the antagonist to Zack, Albert Clifford Slater developed into his best friend by the time they graduated from Bayside High.

Slater, brought to life by Mario Lopez, went from rival to sidekick. And we the audience loved the transition. Slater got a chance to find love with Jessie, be the star football player and show jocks have hearts and brains.

Slater was my gym role model on television. He reminded me to hit the gym and get into better shape. When I started high school in 1995, I was 5-feet, 5-inches tall. I hit the scale at 265 pounds. By the time I graduated from Raleigh-Egypt, I stood nearly 6-feet tall and weighed 185 pounds. I was cut like AC Slater.

5. Theo Huxtable (“The Cosby Show”)

I was blessed to grow up in a time when television has an innocence. There were so many good and decent role models for all children to emulate. As a black boy, I had a few to choose from, including Theodore Aloysius “Theo” Huxtable. Malcolm-Jamal Warner did a masterful job of sharing the screen with television icon Bill Cosby on “The Cosby Show.”

Theo was flawed but had his father’s support through his trials. He did have his share of success with dates, school and family. Then again, Theo endured hardships with girls, his education and loved ones.

Theo was my role model when I didn’t even know it. I had to overcome reading issues from elementary to high school. I went from a 20 score on my TCAP to a 90 in three years.

I wanted to go to college and I worked hard to achieve that goal like Theo. Then when it comes to girls, I fell in love hard like Theo.

The final episode of “The Cosby Show” was Theo’s graduation from college. Heathcliff reflected on a moment when he felt his son had the turning point to reach that achievement. Watching that episode when I was about 16 years old inspired me.

4. Shawn (“Boy Meets World”)

Rider Strong’s performance of Shawn Patrick Hunter in “Boy Meets World” was amazing. He first presented Shawn as a goofy sidekick to the main star Cory. Then as he matured into a heartthrob, his character grew in range. But under the charm and appeal, Shawn was still nutty and stupid at times.

His loyalty to Cory and the rests of those he loved was admirable.

Shawn illustrated to me no matter how cool you are or how good others think you have it, you will face growing pains. He tackled hardships while trying to be there for those he cared about.

Shawn is a role model of loyalty wrapped in coolness.

3. Will (“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”)

Losing 80 pounds during high school, I got checked by my peers calling me Will Smith. I would hear “Fresh Prince” often walking down the halls. I guess my high-top fade contributed. Then I started to sport waves about the same time Will got a haircut.

It was a total coincidence, but they thought I modeled my life after whatever Will was doing. OK, I did dress similarly to Smith. And being a big fan of his show, I absorbed some of his lessons on coolness.

During my teen years, Smith was big in pop culture through music, television and eventually movies. He had an infectious sense of humor, charm with the ladies and his own style. So I learned how to make girls laugh to keep them interested in me. Will taught me you treat females differently from males with your conversation. And about the time I got to college I started to create my own look with my wardrobe. Some would say I was “fresh.”

2. Zack Morris (“Saved By The Bell”)

One of the iconic images of the 1990s is Bayside High’s Zack Morris from “Saved by the Bell.” Image copyright by respective production studio and/or distributor.

The hair, the phone, the timeouts and Kelly are a few things that made me invest in the iconic Zack Morris. Let me say a personal thank you to Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

He couldn’t have imagined a kid in the classroom of Ms. Bliss would blossom into a pop-culture phenomenon.

I will admit that Zack might rub some folks the wrong way. He was a privileged, spoiled brat at times. But by the time the show ended, Zack Morris displayed a gentle side and some humility. He developed into a loyal friend to Slater and Screech.

And his love affair with the girl of his dreams, Kelly Kapowski, had me tuning in every week. I was so happy when they first went steady. I cried when they reunited. And I did watch the movie that brought forward their union.

Besides all of that, Zack was my role model because he was the star of the show. He was the reason you tuned into “Saved By The Bell.” With my friends, I had to have those Zack moments when I was the main focus.

You wanted to steal the moment like you called a timeout to get the situation perfect for yourself. You want the girl of your dreams at the end of the day. And you want your hair and accessories to look good in the process.

1. Steve Urkel (“Family Matters”)

Jaleel White did too good of a job of bringing Steve Urkel to life. Even today the name Urkel is synonymous with “Family Matters,” TGIF, nerds and being borderline stalkerish.

Steve is No. 1 for two reasons on this countdown. He made being a nerd acceptable in the black community. With him overdoing it with the voice, glasses, pants and suspender, I looked like a cool dude while getting my education.

Then I admire Steve because he never gave up on love. Laura Winslow was the reason he woke up every morning. He learned to stop idolizing her and he developed genuine affection for Laura. Steve grew love for her family and overwhelmed Laura’s heart with a steadfast approach. He never gave up on getting the girl of his dreams.

He served as inspiration for me around the age of 13. I chased my first girlfriend from eighth grade to 10th grade. When she told me, “Do you want to go out?” instead of saying yes I ran out of the library.

I leaped into the arms of my friends in celebration. Then I finally caught my breath and told her yes. I had my Steve Urkel moment.

THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for Journal West 10 Media LLC. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to