The career challenges facing Shannen Doherty are these: How can she convince a skeptical public that she is not the tantrum-throwing prima donna, impoverished spendthrift, and out-of-control Hollywood headache that a barrage of reports in the higher and lower echelons of journalistic enterprise have made her out to be?
How can the young star of Beverly Hills, 90210 redeem Brenda Walsh, her TV character, from the purgatory into which she has descended, wan and bereft of her broody boyfriend, Dylan McKay, and mocked by former fans who once loved wholesome Brenda but who now, at the end of the show's third season, hate her for her moody, goody-goody, expensively dressed ways?
How can the small, pale, 22-year-old Southern Baptist from Memphis, Tenn., get everybody off her case?
For starters, she can settle in with a plate of french fries and a pack of Marlboro Lights and a cup of cappuccino and start confessing. About her money troubles. About how she knows she truly ought to stop smoking, since cancer runs in her family and the habit is turning her teeth yellow and will eventually make her fine skin look old. She can roast the old anti-Shannen chestnuts: that she slugged a woman in a bar; that she pitches fits to such an extent that she appeared as a joke in last week's Doonesbury. She can accept some blame.
Which is what she did just as 90210 began its three-month spring hiatus this month and shortly before she left for a week's Hawaiian vacation with her live-in boyfriend, photo-studio owner Dean Factor, 28 (of the Max Factor cosmetics family), and with friend and 90210 classmate Tori Spelling, 19, and her beau, would-be actor Nick Savalas, 19. (Also planned for the break: starting work on Blindfold, a feature starring Judd Nelson; and attending a Grateful Dead concert.)
In fact, Shannen Doherty who first found fame a decade ago on TV's Little House on the Prairie and went on to torment Winona Ryder as a bitchy high school snob in the 1989 film Heathers talked and talked and talked, as if her career depended on it. And now we talk back, with a tailor-made image-rehab plan for the woman who inspired The I Hate Brenda Newsletter. (Will Brenda go to the University of Minnesota and be written out of the series next season? Get real.)
1. If you can't pay cash, you can't afford it. On the one hand, Doherty admits to running up major bills (some reports put her debt at over $36,000). On the other hand, Doherty says she's paying it off and insists she's no pauper. ''I'm really fed up with people printing how much I make, especially when they get it wrong,'' she says. ''I do not make $12,000 a week. I make a lot more money than $12,000 a week. But I'm in the highest tax bracket, and I have, you know, attorneys to pay for. And, granted, I have gone on shopping binges. When you're young and all you know is how much money you make a week, you don't necessarily start thinking about, you know, everything that comes out of it.'' Splitting the rent on the Beverly Hills Cape Cod-style house she now shares with Factor will cut expenses, but there's still $13,000 in dispute on her former house, which the landlord claims is owed as back rent and which Doherty claims represents the security deposit and lease option owed to her. ''I didn't get thrown out of my house,'' she says defiantly. ''Otherwise I wouldn't still have the keys.'' The case is currently being litigated.
Limiting herself to one Mercedes instead of two will also save a bit, although reports that several cars have been repossessed is just exhaust, she says. She authorized the repo of a 500 SL she had leased for an ex-boyfriend (''a car that I wasn't even driving, and for somebody that I wasn't even ^ going out with''). ''If I had all these problems with my leasing company, why am I able to drive around in a Mercedes that I leased through them right now?'' Doherty challenges. ''If I had all these financial problems, there's absolutely no way in hell a bank would finance an $80,000 car.''
2. The Donna Reed routine is refreshing. Keep it up. ''My boyfriend and I are both sort of through with doing the nightclub scene and partying and drinking,'' says Doherty, who has often been photographed carousing (usually with Spelling and accompanying escorts) at L.A.'s trendy club, Roxbury. ''Clubbing was a big part of me, but I think it's because I was a little lost. I was young and under a lot of pressure and unhappy in my personal relationship. I don't have that problem anymore.'' She now describes an idyllic life of cooking chicken dinners with Factor and playing with her three dogs. Staying home should help her bottom line, too: After she made headlines like Brawling Starlet Busted last December for tangling at Roxbury with lesser-known actress Bonita Money (charges were eventually dropped), she says she lost at least three product-endorsement deals.
3. Shock your public: Say you're sorry! ''I will grant that in the first season, I was not the most diplomatic person. But I did not throw temper tantrums. I went days and days and days without having a fit! Weeks!'' says Doherty, with a laugh. ''You know, right now I feel very much in control. Besides,'' she adds, more wishful, perhaps, than sure, ''there are a lot of people out there who are getting very, very sick of Brenda bashing. People come up to me and go, like, 'We thought you'd be a bitch, we just wanted to come up and see if you were or weren't. And you're not.''' (The 90210 cast, having offered supportive comments in the past, is now tired of being asked about her; Doherty's recently fired publicist gives a terse ''no comment'' on her former client.)
4. Lighten up. That goes for Shannen and Brenda. Doherty is deeply steamed about the jokey one-shot I Hate Brenda Newsletter, which rode a wave of anti-Brenda/Shannen sentiment and showered considerable media attention on its two young creators. ''It's ridiculous,'' she says, non-temper flaring, ''that two girls, wherever they are, are so incredibly jealous of one person who happens to be on TV and are so desperate for publicity that they would create lies.'' But she can see how one might think Brenda is a pill. ''The  writers and I have had this conversation,'' she says. '''Let's make her not quite so pathetic, let's have her mellow out.' And that is happening. You'll see Brenda spiritually become a little bit of a stronger person.'' (Of late, Brenda is looking spiritually subdued: humble in washed-out lipstick tones and more modestly dressed.)
5. Do not do that Playboy pictorial. She's thinking about it, negotiating with the magazine over how much of her body she'd expose. ''They offered me a very large sum of money over $300,000 which I think anybody would have a very hard time turning down,'' she explains. ''Besides, it might make people say, hey, she's not Brenda Walsh, she is Shannen Doherty, and she can play a lot older than 17 and high school.''
We repeat: Don't do it. If you pose, you will share that undistinguished honor with Mimi Rogers. La Toya Jackson. Joan Collins. Vanna White.
And you'll never, ever win back Dylan McKay.