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Girl, uninterrupted


 March 7, 2011

If "Gossip Girl’s" Jessica Szohr appears to be right at home in the spotlight, it’s probably because she was practically born there. The Menomonee Falls native began modeling for local department stores as a toddler, and is now building a career that not only includes starring on one of TV’s hottest hits, but acting in independent films as well. But Szohr, 25, is still right at home sitting in the cozy kitchen of her family home in The Falls, catching up on local gossip with her sisters and cousins.

Viewers of the CW Network’s "Gossip Girl" series, now in its fourth season, recognize Szohr as "Vanessa Abrams," a documentary film student from Vermont who works in a New York coffee shop. Vanessa’s middle-class background makes her an outcast among the silver-spoon characters on the show, where money equals power. Szohr describes Vanessa as a "hippie Bohemian Brooklyn chick."

"I really enjoy playing her," Szohr says. "She never changed her life for anyone and she always goes after what she wants."

Szohr notes that Vanessa is also very opinionated and is the "most reliable" friend among the characters on "Gossip Girl." "All these things add up to (Vanessa) being screwed over," she says.

Vanessa may be a character that teen audiences can identify with, Szohr says, because of her background. "You can relate to having a normal job at 17," she explains.

As the character develops, Szohr says she would like to see Vanessa have more of an edge, "but it’s not like I want to make her a horrible brat."

Although some parental watchdog groups have criticized the show for its adult themes, Szohr believes the writers are doing "a good job" of incorporating issues that are drawn from everyday life, such as the loss of a parent and drug abuse. She says parents can watch "Gossip Girl" with their teens and talk about the situations and consequences of the choices made by the show’s characters.

That’s the type of relationship Szohr has with her mother, Sharon. "I could always go to my mom with anything," Szohr says. "I feel like the woman I am today and the woman I want to grow up to be comes from my relationship with my family and my mom."

Szohr is the "big sister" to Megan, Danielle, Nick and Sadie. During a recent trip home to Menomonee Falls, she was looking forward to a cookie-baking session with her sisters and cousins at her grandparent’s house, just two doors down, and taking in a Green Bay Packers game.

"She’s a good role model for all her cousins," says grandmother Karen Szohr. "They all look up to her. She’s so sweet to all of them."

On her first night back home in Wisconsin, Szohr sat up chatting with her grandparents until 2 a.m. Karen Szohr is proud of her granddaughter’s success, and says it was fun to visit her in New York during Fashion Week, when she found herself saying "hi" to the E! News camera.

"The thing I’m most proud of is that she’s still the same Jessie, very true to her friends," Karen Szohr says. "She never lets it go to her head. She remembers her roots."

Jessica Szohr’s favorite memories of growing up include building bonfires in the backyard, "and I really liked my room upstairs — it was like my own little apartment," she says.

Sharon Roach says her daughter was always "a little ham" and seemed to enjoy being in front of the camera. Roach, a freelance hair and makeup stylist for local department stores, says Szohr started modeling at the age of 3 or 4 and began to get bookings through Arlene Wilson Model Management at the age of 9. That led to assignments in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles for major advertisers throughout her school years.

"Szohr just lights up the room, but she never had a mean or jealous bone in her body," Arlene Wilson says. "She would always be bringing in kids from school who told her they were interested in modeling."

Wilson says Szohr wisely saved her money from modeling so she had a "nest egg" when she was ready to strike out on her own.

Although good models are often tempted to leave school to pursue their careers, Szohr finished her studies and graduated from Menomonee Falls High School one semester early.

She enrolled in Chicago’s Columbia College, but her Chicago agent convinced her to go to Los Angeles for pilot season auditions. She found more commercial work and appeared in "My Wife and Kids" with Damon Wayans, "CSI: Miami," "What About Brian" "Joan of Arcadia," "What I Like About You" and "The Reading Room," a made-for-TV movie.

Szohr also took a class taught by acting coach Howard Fine. "Taking that class made me say, ‘This is what I want to do,’" she says.

She landed the "Gossip Girl" role almost by chance. A friend invited her to a barbecue and, although she really didn’t feel like going out, Szohr says the friend insisted, so she went. The next day, her agent called and said the creator of "Gossip Girl" had been at the party and wanted her to audition, even though the show’s pilot had already been completed. Two days after the audition she was on a flight to New York to start filming.

"It was exciting to play a girl in New York and be in the city and that whole world," Szohr says. "And it was surprising how quickly the show had a ‘buzz.’"

Partly because of that buzz, the show’s stars can turn up in tabloids, but Szohr says the rumors "kind of go in one ear and out the other." She says she was taken aback when a friend called and said, "I heard you got married," after reading an erroneous tabloid article. Her relationship with fellow "Gossip Girl" star Ed Westwick was a prime target of celebrity magazine fodder, and a December trip to a Milwaukee Bucks’ game with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers still has gossip-mongers buzzing.

There seems to be no limit to the lengths some will go to get the goods. As she was leaving the set one day, Szohr says a "fan" handed a security guard a Hello Kitty keychain to give to her as a gift. When the guard snapped off the head, a microphone was found inside.

That kind of pressure is sure to heat up as Szohr launches her film career. After last summer’s action thriller "Piranha 3D," she went on to New Orleans to star in the romantic comedy "Love, Wedding, Marriage" with Mandy Moore and Kellan Lutz. Upcoming movies also include the independent film "Art Machine," where she is cast as another Brooklyn girl, an outsider artist, opposite Joseph Cross.

Szohr says she would love to act in a film with a political theme, be cast in a role as a mother and work with Johnny Depp. "If it’s great material, it’s the most fun," she says. M

She recently bought a home in Los Angeles, and also has a place in New York. Although she is now officially bi-coastal, Szohr says it’s always good to come home to Wisconsin.

"What was nice about growing up in the Midwest is that it keeps me grounded," she says. "Once I leave the set, I’m just Jessica from Menomonee Falls." 

Fashion styling by Jordan Dechambre

Hair and makeup by Scott Yance and Michael Weiss for Erik of Norway Salon Spa, Mequon and Milwaukee

Clothing and jewelry provided by Lela, Milwaukee


This story ran in the February 2011 issue of: