Thiessen shines as wife in 'White Collar' (July 12, 2011)

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There's nothing worse for a former beauty queen than to appear in front of a camera less than perfect.

But sometimes life gets in the way. For Tiffani Thiessen — who rose to fame as sweet Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell — motherhood made shooting the third season of White Collar tricky.

She had a baby in Los Angeles and couldn't immediately travel to the New York set. So she had to shoot her scenes at home on a green screen, and they were then edited into the episodes. "It was so awful!" she says. "But we made it work."

These days, things are less complicated for Thiessen, whose daughter Harper recently turned 1. She's since returned to New York to finish shooting White Collar, which airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Tuesdays on USA Network.

"I was more emotional last year," says the 37-year-old actress. "I went back to work six weeks after I had (the baby). I'm still nursing, but I feel I'm on a more even keel these days."

Normalcy returns for her on-screen character as well. "You'll definitely see more of me this season. My character (Elizabeth Burke) goes back to her original career. She starts working with the art gallery again, and that pulls her more into the show in general."

The focus of White Collar is on its two male leads: Tim DeKay plays Peter Burke, an FBI agent and husband of Elizabeth Burke. Matthew Bomer plays Neal Caffrey, a thief and a forger. Each week the men work together to solve white-collar crimes.

"We ended Season 2 with a big cliffhanger not knowing if Neal is going back to his line of work again," says Thiessen. "The answer to that plays out for a long time. There will be a lot of suspense."

Thiessen, who plays a supporting role on White Collar, doesn't mind that she's not the series' star. "I'm totally OK with its not being my show," she says. "It's Matt and Tim's show. I have a young daughter. I don't mind not working 17-hour days."

She's certainly had her fair share of extra-long work days. Theissan began her career as a model at the age of eight, after her uncle, actor Roger Ernest, took some pictures and showed them to an agent. "I loved it," she says, "and my parents let me as long as working didn't interfere with what was important — school."

She went on to win the Miss Junior America beauty pageant in 1987 and Teen Magazine's Great Model Search the following year. "I was very lucky, and I had really great experiences," Thiessen says. "My mom and dad were very much a part of what I was doing, so they were around a lot. I don't regret it."

During her teen years, Thiessen — then known as Tiffani-Amber Thiessen —became internationally known through her work on Saved by the Bell, on which she starred as Kapowski for five seasons. After that, she traded wholesome for racy as catty Valerie Malone on Beverly Hills, 90210.

After five years and more than 130 episodes, it was time to move on — even if the audience didn't agree with her decision. "I've had a hard time getting away from Beverly Hills, 90210," she says.

That's one reason she decided to drop her middle name, Amber. "The people around me professionally — my agents and managers — advised that I separate myself from what I was known for when I was younger," she explains. "I was growing up and getting into the adult world."

In the past decade, Thiessen starred in numerous made-for-TV movies, and appeared on TV in episodes of Two Guys and a Girl, Just Shoot Me!, Fastlane, Good Morning, Miami and What About Brian.

Thiessen now divides her time between New York and her native Los Angeles area. In 2005, she married actor Brady Smith. The two have a home in Los Angeles. "When I'm filming, we're all crammed into this little apartment in New York with our dogs," she says. "My mother is my nanny."

Will she encourage her daughter to go into acting? "I'm not going to definitely push her in that direction," Thiessen says. "The business has changed a lot in the past 25 years. The paparazzi weren't around so much when I was starting out. When she's old enough and wants to make the decision on her own and she's 18, that's fine. But it's nothing that I would want for her when she's young."

Meanwhile, Thiessen is branching out. She started her own company, Tit 4 Tat Productions. Six years ago she directed a 21-minute film, Just Pray, which won several awards. And, along with her interior design partner, Lonni Paul, she recently launched an eco-friendly line of baby and children's furniture and bedding called PetitNest.

Thiessen is not worried about becoming an aging beauty. "Look, I can't compete with 14-year-olds, nor would I want to," she says. 'The things I think about are being a good mother and being a good actor….I look at my mother and grandmother, who have aged beautifully and gracefully. I hope to God that I age as beautifully. Botox and all those things haven't been a thought process in my mind yet, but that doesn't mean they won't be 10 years from now. But right now I'm fine with the way I am."