A confident, charismatic actress, Lisa Whelchel went from "The New Mickey Mouse Club" (syndicated, 1977-79) to teen stardom on "The Facts of Life" (NBC, 1979-1988). Playing the conceited but ultimately kind-hearted rich girl Blair Warner, Whelchel struck sparks with classmate Jo (Nancy McKeon) as well as with the younger Natalie (Mindy Cohn) and Tootie (Kim Fields) under the wry, watchful eye of Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae). A low-key, long-running sitcom hit that proved immensely popular with young audiences of multiple generations, the series became a fondly remembered pop cultural reference point and lived on in reruns as well as in "The Facts of Life Reunion" (ABC, 2001). Grammy-nominated for her 1984 Christian music album All Because of You, Whelchel left the business after the show ended, marrying a pastor and focusing on being a stay-at-home mom who also became an in-demand inspirational speaker and author of religiously-themed books on parenting and homeschooling. Still much loved by nostalgic fans, the actress earned considerable publicity when chose to compete on the 2012 Philippines-set season of "Survivor" (CBS, 2000- ). Thoroughly at peace with her unique slice of 1980s pop cultural immortality, Lisa Whelchel displayed a refreshingly grounded perspective on showbiz and built an enviable balance between life and work.
Born May 29, 1963 in Littlefield, TX, Lisa Diane Whelchel made her screen debut as one of the youthful cast members on the reboot "The New Mickey Mouse Club" (syndicated, 1977-79), where she sang, danced and acted in skits. A quickly rising star with a blonde beauty and confident screen presence, Whelchel saw many professional doors open for her after her initial success. After a guest spot on the ABC drama "Family" (1976-1980), she starred in the "Shadow of Fear" installment of "Walt Disney World's Wonderful World of Color" (NBC, 1954-1990) and made her film debut in a pair of projects "The Double McGuffin" (1979) and "The Magician of Lublin" (1979).
Whelchel achieved stardom, however, for her long-running role as Blair Warner on "The Facts of Life" (NBC, 1979-1988). Created as a spin-off of "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC, 1978-1985; ABC, 1985-86), the series started off when the Drummonds' housekeeper, Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae), left her post to work for Eastland, an all-girls' boarding school. Although the first season featured seven girls under Mrs. Garrett's care - including a young Molly Ringwald - the second season was heavily retooled into the format most viewers would remember - that of four girls: the bubbly Natalie (Mindy Cohn), the tough Jo (Nancy McKeon), the sweetly naïve Tootie (Kim Fields) and, of course, Whelchel as the pampered, pompous Blair.
Although never a critical darling, the series achieved more than its quiet but successful run seemed to reflect; it truly became part of the fabric of American pop cultural, from its catchy theme song to the names, personalities and quirks of each of the main girls. Decades after the show's run ended, interest in the series and the actresses continued, with reruns guaranteeing new generations of fans. Whelchel's Blair proved especially fascinating, with her mixture of princess-like self-absorption yet with a compassionate heart. In the hands of a less talented actress, Blair could have been insufferable, but it was a testament to Whelchel that Blair not only grew enormously as a person but remained likable throughout.
Some of the more memorable Blair subplots included a recurring series of visits from her cousin Geri (Geri Jewell), an aspiring comedian with cerebral palsy and an instance in which she plagiarized an Emily Dickinson poem. The latter storyline proved so popular that the construction of a parade float to honor the episode sparked the plot of an episode of "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999-2002; 2005- ) decades later. Arguably, Whelchel and McKeon's characters and their spiky-but-ultimately-supportive friendship provided the show's most important relationship and the emotional lynchpin of the entire series.
Earning three Best Young Actress Young Artist Award nominations for her work as Blair, Whelchel appeared in such projects as "The Wild Women of Chastity Gulch" (ABC, 1982) and on "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) as well as joining her castmates for such lightweight but fun fare as "The Facts of Life Goes to Paris" (NBC, 1982) and "The Facts of Life Down Under" (NBC, 1987). Although an attempt was made to reboot "Facts" as a new series where Blair bought Eastland and made it co-ed, the series finally ended in 1988. Off-screen, Whelchel was steadfast in her Christian faith, earning a Grammy nomination for her 1984 inspirational album All Because of You, and turning her focus from Hollywood to living a life of faith once the show ended.
The same year "Facts" went off the air, Whelchel was married to a pastor and all but retired from acting, devoting herself to starting a family and subsequently homeschooling her three children. Becoming a popular speaker on the topics, Whelchel wrote a string of inspirational-themed books on homeschooling, child discipline and parenthood and founded the religious support group Momtime Ministries. Although she appeared in "Where the Red Fern Grows: Part Two" (1992), the actress stayed off the mainstream entertainment radar until the turn-of-the-century wave of nostalgia inspired execs to greenlight "The Facts of Life Reunion" (ABC, 2001).
The warmhearted update reunited most of the cast except McKeon, who was busy on the set of "The Division" (Lifetime, 2001-04) and featured Whelchel's Blair as the successful CEO of corporate megalith Warner Industries. After spending most of the remaining decade focusing on her family and Christian pursuits, Whelchel made headlines once again when it was announced she would be competing on the 2012 installment of the ultimate reality competition, "Survivor" (CBS, 2000- ), set in the Philippines.
By Jonathan Riggs
Cast (Feature Film)
Made TV debut as a Mouseketeer on syndicated "The New Mickey Mouse Club"
Feature film debut, "The Double McGuffin" with Ernest Borgnine and "The Magician of Lublin" with Alan Arkin
Landed breakthrough role of spoiled rich girl Blair Warner on comedy series "The Facts of Life" (NBC)
Co-starred with Bette Davis in NBC movie "Skyward"
Released Christian pop album <i>All Because of You</i>; earned Grammy nomination for Best Inspirational Performance
Appeared in the family drama "Where the Red Fern Grows: Part Two"
Published the child-rearing book <i>Creative Correction: Extraordinary Ideas for Everyday Discipline</i>
Reprised Blair Warner role in "The Facts of Life Reunion" (ABC)
Released memoir <i>The Facts of Life: And Other Lessons My Father Taught Me</i>
Published the illustrated children's book <i>The Adventure of Christmas: Helping Children Find Jesus in Our Holiday Traditions</i>
Competed on the CBS reality series "Survivor: Philippines"