TORONTO - When Nicole Wichinsky first saw Joey Jeremiah in his signature Hawaiian shirt and denim vest, brown locks cascading beneath a wide-brimmed fedora, his impish grin sent her heart aflutter.
For the 12-year-old growing up in New Jersey in the early 1990s, this was more than just a crush, but an introduction to the close-knit, if sometimes overdramatic, social scene of "Degrassi Junior High" and its senior successor "Degrassi High."
"The actors on the show looked like people I knew... And it had real issues that couldn't be summed up in 27 minutes," said Wichinsky, now a 38-year-old talent agent in New York City. "Here's a school, and I feel like I'm a part of it even though I don't go there."
Wichinsky is among hundreds of fans who are making the pilgrimage to a Toronto venue for Friday's kickoff of Degrassi Palooza, a three-day nostalgia fest where the stars of the original series, and the viewers who grew up alongside them, will relive their glory days at the fictional school in the 1980s and '90s, according to organizer Pat Mastroianni, who played the dreamy Joey Jeremiah.
"Normally, a high school reunion is tedious, and you really don't want to go," Mastroianni, 47, said by phone last week. "For many of our socially awkward fans ... this is the high school reunion they want to go to."
At the request of the show's rights-holders, Mastroianni stresses that the event at the Westin Toronto Airport Hotel is in no way affiliated with the official "Degrassi" franchise. The 47-year-old celebrity booking agent is self-financing the convention, and broke even a few weeks ago after selling 300 tickets.
The schedule includes a bus tour of the Toronto locations where "Degrassi" was shot; a trivia contest; a cosplay competition where fans will whip out the hairspray and don their '80s finest; and a throwback karaoke and dance party.
Roughly 25 cast and crew members are on the guest list, including Nicole Stoffman, who played queen bee Stephanie Kaye; Amanda Stepto, who defied follicular physics with her fanned-out feathered hairdo as Christine "Spike" Nelson; and Stefan Brogren, who played Archie "Snake" Simpson, one of the rockers in the band "The Zit Remedy."
The lineup has been sorted into groups of five that will meet with fans, sign autographs and hold photo-ops that can cost up to $70 a pop.
Mastroianni said most "Degrassi" alumni have been out of the limelight for decades, and the fees are only meant to cover their costs of travel and accommodations.
For Stacie Mistysyn, who played teenage activist Caitlin Ryan, Degrassi Palooza represents a much-needed "escape from momhood" as the stay-at-home caretaker of two young children.
Mistysyn, who has previously made appearances across the country with other castmates, said it initially felt like she was more nervous than the fans at the meet-and-greets.
But as people confided in Mistysyn about the show's impact, both as a form of escapism and a reflection of their real-life struggles, she came to see that the universal tumult of growing up transcended the TV screen.
"I feel like we have grown up together, because they watched us on TV, and they were the ones going through it with us," said Mistysyn, 47.
In the lead up to the extravaganza, the Degrassi High and Degrassi Junior High Facebook group, which has more than 2,000 members, has been abuzz with excitement from fans flying in from as far away as California. There's also a hint of FOMO — fear of missing out — from those who couldn't make the trek.
This sense of community is integral to the "Degrassi" ethos, said Mastroianni, enshrined in the crew's nickname for the cast, "narbos," an acronym for "no acting required by others."
Plucked from high schools across Toronto, the untrained actors in the inaugural class of "Degrassi" imbued the show with a low-budget verite that set it apart from slick TV dramas such as "Beverly Hills, 90210," or even the later "Degrassi" reboots that launched the careers of stars like Drake and Nina Dobrev.
The Toronto-set teen soap opera depicted adolescence in all its hormone-crazed, pimple-studded ennui, he said. The characters were working class and represented a range of family and racial backgrounds, and the storylines confronted taboo issues including teenage pregnancy, abortion and suicide.
Mastroianni said he and his fellow original "Degrassi" cast members weren't just actors reciting lines from a script, but teenagers reacting to the world around them. In the show, viewers saw themselves, he said, and so too they have adopted "narbos" as the moniker for the fandom.
He said his goal with Degrassi Palooza is to erase the high-school-esque hierarchy that elevates the celebrity "cool kids" above their adoring masses, so whether one experienced "Degrassi" on set or watching at home, narbos can come together and celebrate how far they've come.
"We all made it through that very awkward stage in our life, and we're on the other side," said Mastroianni. "We're still sometimes a little bit shy and awkward and anxiety-ridden, and that's OK. We're allowed to feel that way, and we can teach each other some life lessons along the way."