Hello Sweet Hart!
With a thriving career, a “likethis” group of girlfriends and a third baby boy, Westport local Melissa Joan Hart proves she can have her cake and eat it too.
Melissa Joan Hart is hard at work. But instead of rolling out hilarious punchlines before a live studio audience on ABC Family’s Melissa & Joey, she’s rolling out fondant in front of her Westport girlfriends. The occasion: a baby shower for Melissa’s third child, due in t-minus two weeks. The theme of the day is decorate-your-own-cake at creative party mecca Make Meaning on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Thrown by Melissa’s pal and fellow Westporter Amanda K. Ruisi, owner of AKR Public Relations, it was just what the doctor ordered. “I thought all of the Westport mommies would enjoy getting into the city,” says Amanda. “And who can resist a little sugar?”
By the looks of the room, no one. “I’m making an octopus cake out of Godiva truffles!” exclaims Lisa Aldridge, one of the many mommy friends Melissa met through her sons’ preschool three years ago. “We all have a major sweet tooth,” admits Mackenzie Pretty, another pal and instructor at JoyRide Cycling Studio in Westport, who is decorating her orange and yellow cake in JoyRide colors. “We have book club every month and there’s always someone baking.”
But the group that pigs out together also sweats together via spinning, dance, and yoga classes around town. In fact, Melissa galvanized the girls to form a rowing club on the Saugatuck River, says friend Amie Peck, an instructor at Kaia Yoga in Westport. “We rowed for two months, right after I had my third baby, so I’m going to get Melissa back there right after she has hers.” An act of revenge, perhaps? “She had me rowing literally five weeks after I had my baby,” says Amie. “I said, ‘I can’t move!’ and Melissa said, ‘Get over here! We’ve got an 8 a.m. lesson.’ ”
When it comes to rallying her troops, Melissa is a pro both on and off of the water. Friend and mother of five Jeannie Smith was blown away when she ran for local office on Westport’s Board of Education and Melissa insisted on writing a letter to the newspapers on her behalf. “Her character is a politician on Melissa & Joey, so when she wrote to support me the joke was, ‘I play a politician on TV so, therefore, I can have a say in what I think is good for our town!’ ” she laughs. Kidding aside, “Melissa has such a heart for the community, and this is a place where she wants to invest her time,” Jeannie says. “She wants to serve and make Westport even better than it already is.”
It was Westport’s small-town feel that lured Melissa here more than three years ago. She and her husband, musician Mark Wilkerson, knew Hollywood wasn’t where they wanted to raise their sons Mason, six, and Braydon, four. The couple had been house-hunting from Long Island to Tennessee, hoping to put down roots before Mason started kindergarten. “My friend Michele Roofthooft is Mason’s godmother and the reason I’m in Connecticut,” says Melissa, pointing to a pretty brunette decorating her cake a few seats down. “She and I go back to Clarissa days,” she explains of meeting Michele, a wardrobe coordinator on Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains It All. “Michele lived in Darien and had a friend who was a Realtor. Once she showed us Westport, we fell in love with it.”
Melissa was instantly charmed by the town’s traditions. “I love the flags on the bridge in town between Memorial Day to Labor Day. I was so sad to see them go away, but I’ll be excited to see them again next year,” she says. “I love the first snowfall, and I love paddle-boarding on the river. There are just so many things for women and families to take advantage of in Westport.” Another tipping factor was the town’s great eats. “We’re always at Bobby Q’s, Little Kitchen, Spotted Horse…and the sweet butter on the bread at Terrain is unbelievable,” Melissa gushes. “I order the watermelon salad, a burger and fries every time. I used to get the blueberry cobbler but I just discovered the chocolate pudding…” Other girls in the table sigh in agreement.
Talk turns to Melissa’s due date, which she thinks she’ll hit. As for that long road to go-time, “I like to labor at home as much as possible,” she says. “Line will be there in case things go terribly wrong and we can’t make it to the hospital!” Line Blanco, Melissa’s gregarious next-door-neighbor, gives her friend a knowing ‘I got you, girl’ nod, then jokes that she’ll be painting six-pack-abs on her gold-sprayed cake and calling it “GTL” (gym, tan, laundry), a la Jersey Shore.
Line, whose comic timing rivals Melissa’s, replays the day she met her famous neighbor over three years ago. “I’m waddling around in my house nine months pregnant with no makeup on, looking like a beached whale, when the doorbell rings,” she recalls. “I open it and she says, ‘Hi, I’m Melissa, I’m your next door neighbor.’ I think, Am I being punked?” But it all added up, and Melissa and her family ended up hanging out at Line’s house for three hours. Says Line, “I knew right then that we were going to be great friends.” The duo is even considering installing a zip line from Line’s master bedroom to Melissa’s closet. “I’m serious!” Line says. “It creates a perfect beeline between our houses.”
Calling Melissa connected to her girlfriends is an understatement. “It’s really important to nurture my female friendships because a lot of us don’t have family in the area and we rely on one another,” she says. Mackenzie chimes in while crafting a sunflower for her cake. “Melissa’s life is so hectic and yet she makes us a part of her family. Even if she’s in town for just a weekend when she’s working on set, she’ll bring us all together.” The group raves about Melissa’s famous clambakes—in which her father brings in fresh seafood from Long Island—and their annual tacky sweater Christmas party.
“We call Melissa our ‘Social Coordinator,’” says friend Marlo Villepigue. “She’s started great traditions for us. On each of our birthdays, she makes us take a photo wearing a rhinestone crown she bought at Disneyland, then we pass the crown to the next birthday girl.”
Come spring, Melissa’s coterie of gal pals may find themselves in MJH withdrawal when she tapes her third season of Melissa & Joey in Los Angeles. In the past, she would rack up frequent flier miles like nobody’s business, but her newest addition will mean temporarily staying put on the West Coast. “With the baby we’ll have to change the way we do things a little,” explains Melissa. “I’ll tape for twenty weeks at a time, so we’ll rent a house in L.A. and we’ll be back before the school year begins.”
How does she keep a work-family balance while the cameras are rolling? “Every day it’s a different set of priorities,” she says. “It’s important that my husband and I are both fulfilled in our careers, but, at the same time, we also have to be there to help the boys with homework and for bath time.”
Melissa’s master juggling act doesn’t go unnoticed. “She’s a really hands-on mother,” says Lisa Sabino, Melissa’s pregnancy buddy. “When I first met her, I imagined nannies trailing around, but she’s a normal, everyday mother with a full-time, high-powered career.” And while Melissa admits this pregnancy has been tougher than the first two, it hasn’t slowed her momentum. Head to the local Starbucks and you’ll find her camped out with her laptop, cranking out her memoir, Melissa Explains It All: Tales From My Abnormally Normal Life, out in fall 2013. “I’m ready for the baby to arrive,” she says, “but I want to get some more writing done first.”
Shouldn’t the star whose career began at age four and includes actress, writer, singer, television director, and producer give herself a break? Not a chance. “The top secret thing about Melissa is she’s a brilliant businesswoman and most people don’t realize that,” says actress and Westport local Jodi Schoenbrun Carter, who worked with Melissa on the Ephron sisters’ off-Broadway hit Love, Loss, and What I Wore. “She has an amazing understanding of the industry, especially for someone who started out so young. She knows who she is and who she wants to be, which is why I think it’s great that she ended up in Westport.”
Melissa puts the final touches on her cake. It features baby buggies, a nod to the Baby Buggy charity she asked her friends to donate diapers to in lieu of gifts. She incorporated both pink and blue in her design, which leaves a question mark looming. “We didn’t want to find out the gender this time,” she says. “It’s going to be a big surprise and I’m really excited. I have two outfits to take the baby home in from the hospital, and the one that doesn’t get worn will go to my next friend who’s pregnant.” Regardless, the baby already has a fan club. Amie Peck’s cake features a not-so-subtle placard with “Godmother” written in chocolate. “I accept!” Amie declares, winking at Melissa.
“You see how competitive they are?” Melissa says with a smirk, looking around at her posse. “Who’s going to be godmother, who works out more, who has bigger boobs. Actually, that would be me right now!” she laughs. Everyone howls, and it is obvious how lucky Melissa feels to have found her crew. “I thought a lot of them wouldn’t be able to make it today because they have too much going on with their kids, but they all found babysitters, they all figured it out, and they all wanted to be here,” she says. “It’s really important, being there for one another through pregnancies and supporting one another after we have the baby. That’s what I’ve found in Westport. It’s a real community. It’s what I dreamed of.”