after some stormy seas, miss july wants to be captain of her own ship
Erika Eleniak is sitting in the living room of her mother's airy suburban home in San Fernando Valley. Of course, in a manner of speaking, it's also her fiancé's house. And to cloud the issue further, the house technically belongs to a man who is both Erika's future father-in-law and her potential stepdad. Confused? "I know it's bizarre," confesses Erika with a shrug. "I have a very interesting life." That's true. Almost everything about Erika is interesting. Take, for example, her career. As she sits, wearing a floppy straw hat, pink T-shirt and shorts in a living room jointly claimed by her mom, boyfriend and future father-in-law, she talks animatedly about Baywatch, a two-hour NBC-TV pilot about lifeguards that she recently finished filming. In it, she plays a rookie lifeguard, along with actors David Hasselhoff and Parker Stevenson, and if NBC likes the pilot, Erika will have a regular berth on a prime-time series. If not, as she points out with equanimity, it's just another job. Most fledgling actors would fret about their show's future, but not Erika. At 19, she's a pro -- with nine years of modeling assignments and acting jobs on her résumé, including a role as Elliot's girlfriend in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Besides, Erika, after a rocky start in life, has learned to take her problems in stride. Those problems began when she was young and her parents divorced, leaving her on her own much of the time. "I chose to be the girl you don't want to mess with," she explains. "I was into heavy metal. I didn't have a lot of direction in my life, so I partied too hard." In the San Fernando Valley, as in many other places, if you party too hard, you pay the price with drug and alcohol problems. "I was going through so much pain," Erika recalls. "I had a boyfriend I had no business being with, and I felt not good enough, abandoned." But when she was 17, someone new entered her life. On wheels. His name was Steve Ferguson, and he'd been a quadriplegic since a diving accident seven years earlier. The two ran in the same social circles, and Erika had definitely noticed Ferguson, but not just because he was wheelchair bound. "I'm like most of us when it comes to people in wheelchairs," she says. "I didn't want to stare, but he's very good-looking."
Two years ago, after breaking up with her other boyfriend, she ran into Ferguson on the Venice boardwalk. "I guess I was a brazen little brat," she recalls with a laugh, "because I walked up to him and said 'I think you're really cute and I just wanted to say hi.' " Ferguson, who is 23, made some big changes in Erika's life. First, he introduced her to A.A., and she has not been drinking for more than two years. Then, he and Erika plotted to introduce his father to her mother. "Why don't you have your dad drop you off at my house one day?" suggested Erika. "Boom!" she says now. "That's all it took." The two have been an item ever since, and Iris, Erika's mother, now rents a house owned by Robert, Steve's father. "It can get a little claustrophobic," admits Erika. When her first fling at living with Steve didn't go smoothly, she decided to take a breather and move out. However, her room at her mother's had been Steve's room while he was growing up, and just sitting among his memorabilia was painful. Besides, his father was a constant presence around the house, so Erika found other, though equally illogical, living arrangements; she moved in with Steve's mother. Needless to say, that didn't help her forget Steve, and it provoked not a little sarcasm in her own mother: "Sure," she cracked, " go and stay with my boyfriend's ex-wife." Eventually, Steve and Erika ironed out their differences and Erika moved back in with him, but she recalls that period with wide-eyed amazement. "It was so weird," she says, showing a flair for understatement.
Now, they're one big Eighties type of extended family. If Erika and Steve get married first, which is likely, her father-in-law will be dating her mother. If Iris and Robert tie the knot first, Erika will end up marrying her stepbrother. "I'm getting used to it," she says. Despite the wheelchair and the soap-opera family arrangements, Erika and Steve lead a rather typical life. "More than any other boyfriend I've been with, Steve takes me places and does active things. He has a boat and races it, and he drives a van. We're just like any other couple, except that Steve doesn't stand up when we talk, he sits down. And I get the common question, 'Can he have sex?' Yeah, absolutely. Steve has taught me so much," she says. "I've never laughed so much in my life. From the time I get up in the morning to the time I go to sleep at night, I'm laughing." She is also very busy. Her manager keeps sending her on auditions (just in case Baywatch doesn't pan out), her fiancé keeps taking her on trips and she has scarcely enough time to hang out at her mother's, where she can do her laundry and visit with her 15-year-old sister and talk things over with Mom. "A.A. has really made me aware of my feelings. I don't want to hurt anymore and I don't want to be under anyone's thumb. I want to take charge of my own life and I want to be a good person. I've already started acting that way."
Photography by Richard Fegley