In a 2001 review, Roger Ebert wrote, “Josie and the Pussycats are not dumber than the Spice Girls, but they’re as dumb as the Spice Girls, which is dumb enough.” Like so much 2000s culture that was created for and featured young women, Josie and the Pussycats had to wait 20 years to be given a fair evaluation not saddled with all the sexist baggage teenagers and young women were meant to carry at the time.
In the years since its release, not only has Josie proven not dumb, but incredibly smart, lampooning a culture that builds pop stars as marketing tools and literally destroys them as soon as they can no longer sell Sketchers to teenagers, a conversation that has become commonplace in collective reconsideration of the ways in which celebrities like Britney Spears were made and broken by the late ’90s and early ’00s fame machine.
And while that conversation continues, Josie fans are finally getting their say, as the Archie universe has once again been reimagined for new audiences in the hit show Riverdale and a new Robot Chicken special. One of those fans is its star Rachael Leigh Cook, who spoke with Jezebel about Josie and the Pussycats, reprising her role for Robot Chicken, Riverdale, and all the other things she’s been telling us were cool since the ’90s that are just now only getting the critical appreciation they deserved. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation below.
JEZEBEL: Are you aware that you made us all get the pixie cut/bob thing that looked so great on you after She’s All That, and it made us look terrible in our yearbook photos?
Rachael Leigh Cook: I had a professional styling me! It did not stick around long after filming was over. Let me be clear. I’m sorry for that. I do think it’s less problematic than the Josie McCoy haircut. That spiky feathery thing—that’s a real specific person that can pull it off and I don’t feel that it was me.
I have recently learned that was a wig.
Half the time it was, yeah, because we tried to dye my hair red and red doesn’t stay in and then your hair’s a weirdo pink color like almost the next day. We wanted it to be really vibrant for the movie but the only way to do that without dying it every four days or so was a wig. So for about half the movie, it’s my hair and the other half it’s a wig.
We all got that haircut too.
I’m so sorry.
Just don’t get any more haircuts because there’s an entire generation who will do whatever you do to your hair, just like the fans in Josie and the Pussycats.
My first actual question other than the hair is when all of the reviews came out for Josie and the Pussycats, they were just so sexist. Did you think that you’d still be talking about the movie 20 years later?
Hard no. Absolutely not. It really seemed like people did not get what we were trying to do at all. But hey, talk about ahead of its time. Here we are 20 years later and people are like “Oh yeah, that movie’s pretty cool.” And it’s really validating and appreciated.
I think the people who are writing about culture now are the people who were sitting in the movie theater parking lot as teenagers saying “That was so good” instead of 60-year-old men. What’s your take on such shitty feedback on something that girls clearly enjoyed?
Pitting women against each other saying one thing is dumber than the other. It’s like that just invents new levels to be offensive on at every turn. That’s kind of remarkable.
So much of my writing is about what it was like as a 15- or 16-year-old girl watching girls my age being made into products and then being dragged for it. As you were making a movie that’s about that very thing, how aware were you of that kind of happening around you?
As much as the messages in the movie are extremely valid and prescient today as much as they were back then, it’s difficult for me to say as the title character in a movie that’s about girl power that I was paid well for that I felt exploited. I felt celebrated and like we were shining a light on something. It was one hundred percent not a great situation for women in our culture at that time, but to say did I feel that way? Not really. I think a lot of us in Hollywood can feel a bit tossed out when something doesn’t make dollars and cents but did I feel like a product to be disposed of? No, I think I just felt pretty special because I got to be in a movie. That sounds kind of naive in retrospect but that’s how I felt then.
So you were the original take off your glasses girl, first as Mary Anne from The Baby Sitter’s Club and then again in She’s All That. She meant so much to us, but why do you think you were the one that they kept putting those glasses on?
Wow, that’s a really good point, and I don’t actually know why I don’t have a deal hawking eyeglasses now. I have no idea. I like to think that I have other skills. I’m not sure how that ended up being my main thing. I can’t have been the very first. What about that guy in Can’t Buy Me Love? He did it.
Patrick Dempsey. Was he the original take off your glasses girl? He might have been.
I think so. Or what about She’s Out of Control with Tony Danza?
That was take off your braces girl.
I can’t claim to have been the pioneer. I would feel false.
But you, Julia Stiles, and Leelee Sobieski were the ones when a movie needed a teenage girl with depth, you were her, and you played it so well. Did you have a sense of that at the time?
I really thought I was a lot more mature than I was. I was positive that was the case. I was not, but I thought I was. I would be interested to know from those women, do they think in retrospect that they sort of felt the same way. I think I had a deep sense of self-importance and believing I was an old soul at the time. And I think that translated well into those roles and gives it a sort of false but somehow self-important attitude to those parts for the storylines.
While you were creating the pop culture that we were all consuming, what was the pop culture you were consuming?
Oh my god. I was busy trying to find out about obscure bands and pretend that I liked them when in fact I did not, that’s something that I did a lot of. I did a lot of reading books that I pretended to enjoy that I did not.
So many of the things you were involved in, the Riverdale world, The Babysitter’s Club, now the reboot of She’s All That, things that were sort of dismissed at the time are getting so much attention right now. Are you like “Yes, I told you this thing was good 20 years ago?”
My ego feels great about this. Honestly, it feels like a strange, very far after the fact compliment. It feels very validating. I’m into it.
But what it is is just a moment of nostalgia. People want to connect with a time when things seemed simpler, and by the way, same. I remember being in a store pre-pandemic and they were playing an *NSYNC album straight through and subconsciously I was like, I have been in this store for the last eight songs, I don’t even want anything. It made me feel really good.
What’s it like doing things like Robot Chicken that are throwbacks to the things you were the originator of?
I feel lucky having been friends with Seth Green for 20 years now that I got that call because there is another Josie on the block now, which is totally fine. I’m happy to pass that torch to anyone who wants it but I feel lucky that Seth called me to voice this. I don’t know anything about the kind of intense underground world that the show is actually based in, but I always feel a lot cooler when he calls me to do a voice on the show. They are doing Riverdale in a way that no one ever has. Even if you’re not a fan of Robot Chicken, it’s so out there and throws again such a hard spin on the Riverdale world.
Okay, I also just have lo-rise jeans written in my notes here.
Are we definitely doing that again?
I think we’re excused if we did it the first time. But are there any outfits from Josie and the Pussycats that you’re like, I would still wear that?
Absolutely not. I’m 20 years older, but thank you for even asking.