Helga Geraldine Pataki is the semi-antagonist of Hey Arnold! She was voiced by Francesca Marie Smith for the entirety of the series and the movie.
Helga has bright, blonde hair tied into long pigtails without any visible hair ties (both of which are shaped like broomstick ends) and a thick, black unibrow. She usually wears a large, pink bow tied into her hair along with a pink dress over a white shirt. Helga may continue to wear the bow due largely to a remark by Arnold when he was younger age, stating that he thought it looked pretty on her. Although Helga's wardrobe features a broad variety of clothes, she is never seen wearing them. In the show's continuity though, Helga has most often dressed differently from her everyday attire, including appearances as a French girl, a hall monitor, a sophisticated lady, and others. In the pilot and clay animation shorts, Helga wore a pink dress that had sleeves and a white collar.
Helga is a tomboyish girl, as evidenced by her interest in playing contact sports alongside her male classmates, blatant lack of femininity, and disregard, to near dislike, for stereotypical female behavior, as seen in the episode "Helga's Makeover". Despite her occasional disdain for more feminine things, on several occasions she tries very much to make herself appear as an attractive female, with varying degrees of success.
Helga can be very cynical and a bully, bossing around her fourth-grade classmates with an iron fist (especially her best friend, Phoebe). However, Helga also has a much softer side, which becomes apparent only when she is alone. On instances she has conformed and tried to protect her friend Phoebe. Several times in the series, she has also gone to considerable lengths to make her secret love Arnold happy. Some such episodes are "Arnold's Hat", in which she spent literally hours digging through the city dump to find Arnold's lost hat, and "Arnold's Christmas" in which she gave up a highly coveted gift in order to facilitate the fulfillment of a holiday wish for him.
Helga is heavily emotional, and able to comprehend spectrum emotions such as love and hate. This emotional extremity is a running joke throughout the series, as Helga is often the first to go into hysterics in times of crisis.
Helga is extremely intelligent. In the episode "The Aptitude Test", in which the class takes a standardized exam, it is eventually revealed that Helga achieved a perfect score on the test and the most outstanding result since her perfectionistic sister, Olga Pataki, took the test. The types of grades she receives on an average basis in school, however, are low; in the episode "Quantity Time," Helga tells her parents that she failed another math test at school. Her bad grades are most likely caused by her lack of motivation, attention and academic concern. Mainly, Helga displays a remarkable gift for poetry, creating dramatic soliloquies expressing a situation or feeling with a generous use of vocabulary, especially for someone her age. These instances were more simple in the earlier episodes, but as the series progressed, grew in their intensity. Aside from poetry, Helga exhibits further aspects of cultural experience, being able to identify the work of Edward Hopper and make reference to George Orwell's 1984 in "Helga on the Couch".
Helga also possesses an almost shocking ability to memorize written works. Such as when she prepared for a vocabulary contest in "Spelling Bee" or when she successfully memorized all the lines of Juliet for the play Romeo and Juliet in a single night in the episode "School Play."
It is also insinuated throughout points in the series and also stated explicitly as an opinion by her older sister Olga, that Helga is highly perceptive and a good judge of character. Though her judgment of people is often overshadowed by her feelings, her gruff cynicism or pessimism, emotions and sometimes petty irritations, in the show she has perceived trustworthiness or the lack thereof in characters correctly, including even her own family members. Some such examples are "Olga gets Engaged", in which she quickly realizes the man her sister is engaged to a charlatan, or in "Helga on the Couch" in which she realizes she can indeed trust her psychiatrist.
Helga is secretly in love with Arnold. Various episodes have her going to the extreme to prevent her secret from being exposed. One such example is the episode “Helga Blabs it All” in which, under the influence of laughing gas from a dental filling, she leaves a love declaration on Arnold’s answering machine. After beating up and taking the clothes of a “Campfire Lass” (equivalent to Girl Scouts of the USA), she pretends to be selling cookies in order to gain entry to Arnold's house and steal the tape before he can hear it.
In one of the show's most noteworthy episodes, "Helga on the Couch", she actually discusses her obsession with the school psychiatrist (voiced by Kathy Baker). Herein it is revealed her romantic love towards Arnold is the result of transference; where her family relationships were weak, Helga subsequently transferred all feelings of love towards the one person who fulfilled her idea of care, Arnold. This is revealed by a flashback in which during Helga's first day of pre-school, her family seemed to completely ignore her existence, forcing her to make the trek to school alone in the rain and mud. Upon arriving at school, it is Arnold who offers her a helping hand and true kindness.
Helga confesses her love after being caught helping Arnold, by Arnold, in Hey Arnold!: The Movie though the two both agree afterward that it was in the heat of the moment.
It is also sometimes hinted in the series Arnold has strong feelings for Helga. Events in episodes like "Married", with Arnold's nightmare of married life climaxing with a heartfelt attempt by the dream Helga to express her love, also implies he has as much trouble as Helga has coming to terms with how deep his feelings are. Craig Bartlett revealed during a chat that he planned for Arnold to ultimately confess to have loved her and the two would be together in the Jungle Movie.
Although Helga has acknowledged her feelings regarding Arnold, she opts to keep them private as well as publicly denying and rejecting Arnold through displays of verbal and physical abuse. It is suggested in the episode "Helga on the Couch" that Helga treats Arnold as such due to fear of rejection and because of public humiliation.
In contrast to Helga's feelings towards Arnold, she is almost always followed by Brainy in each episode, where he is right behind her breathing very hard. Though it's apparent that he is in love with Helga, she never returns the feelings as mutual; on scant occasions, she has kissed him due to something going right for her. Usually every encounter with Brainy has Helga punching him between the eyes. This became a running gag for the series, so much so that when Helga on rare occasion refrained from striking Brainy, he bludgeoned himself in her stead.
Helga has a very dysfunctional family and suffers from parental neglect.
Her father is Robert "Big Bob" Pataki (Maurice LaMarche), a successful pager salesman who suffers from workaholism, rarely notices her existence, favoring her over-achieving, neurotic college-aged sister Olga.
As indicated in the episode "Road Trip," her mother Miriam Pataki (Kath Soucie) was born in late 1951 or early 1952 (she says that the Summer of Love happened when she was 15). Indicated by the presence of beepers and larger cell phones, the series is set in the mid-1990s, meaning Miriam had her first child, Olga, in the mid- to late 1970s while being in her mid-20s. When Helga was born in the mid-1980s, Miriam would have been in her early to mid-30s. This corresponds closely with Helga's voice actress Francesca Smith's birthday in 1985 when Hey Arnold! premiered in 1996. In "Olga Gets Engaged," Miriam advises Olga not to make the same marital mistake she did, and in "Road Trip", Miriam reveals that she used to be a rodeo queen. In "Olga Gets Engaged," Miriam mentions to Olga's intended fiancé that she was once an Olympic class swimmer and would have most likely been a contender for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich had she not married Big Bob.
Miriam often gives off hints of being an alcoholic: she looks depressed, speaks in a slow, slurred voice, exhibits emotional detachment from her husband and children, is often found asleep in odd places (behind the couch, on the living room table), drinks "smoothies" (some of which have items normally found in cocktails, such as Tabasco sauce and celery stalks) and coffee (in a misguided attempt to stay sober). She also has to do a "community service job" at an animal shelter, indicating she has committed some sort of offense. It's also implied (according to the episodes "The Beeper Queen" and "Road Trip") that Miriam is a horrible driver and has had her license revoked, possibly for DUI, which may or may not tie in with the community service job she was sentenced.
In the episode "Olga Comes Home," Helga changes one of Olga's grades sending her sister into a tail spin of depression. In one scene when Miriam and Bob look into Olga's bedroom to see her crying in bed, Bob says "She can't just mope around in bed all day. It's not good." Whereby Miriam replies "Why not? I do it all the time." This implies that Miriam suffers from depression which would probably tie into her alcoholism. Helga also refers to her mother as "Miriam" and relates poorly to her. Though apathetic at home, it is suggested in multiple episodes that Miriam is capable of improving her life, but is stunted by her marriage to an overbearing Bob which may tie in to her depression and underwhelming lifestyle.
In the episode "The Beeper Queen," Miriam's abilities are showcased when she fills in for Big Bob at his Beeper Emporium when he must stay home due to a back injury. In this episode Miriam packed Helga an exceptionally nutritious lunch, shared stories, listened to Helga and helped her with her homework. In the Thanksgiving Special, Helga left her home because of frustrating events with her family, but when she came back home, she found out that Bob, Miriam and Olga had searched for her. In that episode Miriam went to the police station and asked to speak with the police captain in an effort to find her "little girl."
Olga Pataki (Nika Futterman) suffers from perfectionism, which creates a great strain on her relationship with Helga. She is also very warm and friendly which makes Helga feel uncomfortable when it is directed towards her (like when Olga hugs her). Olga and Helga do not relate to each other well, causing great conflict and resentment on Helga's behalf (Much of the resentment is exerted by Helga, for Olga doesn't seem to resent her little sister at all). Helga is jealous of Olga's image of perfection and of the attention she receives from both of their parents, Bob and Miriam. In the episode "Helga on the Couch" she tells the school psychologist Dr. Bliss about her home life. The viewer is soon taken back in time to when Helga was a toddler. In the scene, Olga is playing a tune on the grand piano for their parents. When Olga finishes the tune, she receives praise from Bob and Miriam. However, when Helga interrupts by tugging on Bob's pants to tell him "I have to go to preschool!" He replies "Go play outside." Eventually Helga announces that she's leaving for preschool. All the while Bob, Miriam and Olga ignore her as she walks out the door. Soon the episode returns to a 9-year-old Helga, who reveals that she believes Olga hogs all the attention and is insincere. However, throughout the series, viewers only see the sibling relationship from Helga's point of view. The viewer doesn't know with any certainty if Olga is intentionally a selfish attention seeker as Helga perceives her to be or in denial and oblivious to the family dysfunction. Overall, Olga is kind to Helga and has good intentions. But Helga does not respond to her kindness because she feels it is insincere. Olga does not listen to or address Helga's more serious concerns about their family and relationship. Olga is condescending to Helga, calling her "baby sister" which Helga finds irksome. However, during one episode, Olga, rather dramatically, retreated to her bedroom for a few days, believing that she had got a B+ grade on her report card rather than her usual straight A's. It turned out that Helga had deliberately changed it to knock her sister down a peg or two and to gain some attention for herself. Later in the episode when Helga admits to changing her grade, it is revealed that Olga does feel pressured by their parents, telling Helga that she's lucky that their parents don't notice her, whilst Olga "has to perform all the time like some little wind up doll". This indicates that to some extent, both sisters are envious of the others predicament.
However, there are times where Helga showed some affection and concern for Olga. In the episode "Big Sis", when Olga becomes Lila's big sis after joining a "Big Sis, Little Sis" program, Helga continually tries to muck up Olga and Lila's plans unbeknownst to them. At the end, she reveals to Olga that she is jealous and envious of the relationship she has with Lila. Helga is reassured by Olga that she will always be her "baby sis" and that they have a strong "bond" that only real sisters have that no one can break. If she really didn't like Olga, she wouldn't have been jealous of her spending time with Lila and wouldn't have exerted all her time and energy into messing things up. In another episode when Olga becomes engaged to a man named "Doug," it becomes apparent to Helga that he is unfaithful. Initially Helga is amused at the thought of Olga marrying Doug and becoming a disappointment to their parents. But at the end of the episode, Helga has second thoughts and intervenes on Olga's behalf which helped end her sister's risky engagement to Doug. In the episode "Student Teacher", Helga does everything in her power to make Olga lose her assistant teacher/internship position at her school and urges Olga to become a teacher in Alaska as was Olga's original plan. After Helga has a heart to heart conversation with Olga, she eventually convinces Olga to leave for Alaska. The episode ends with Helga reading a post card she received from Olga and writing a letter in response. Helga initially writes "From" and then looks at a picture she has of Olga. After looking at the picture of her sister, she crosses out the word from and instead writes "Love".
- In the episode "Helga on the Couch", when Helga has a flashback to when she was approximately between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, Olga is seen playing a tune on the grand piano. Helga interrupts and asks her parents, "Who's going to take me to preschool?" However, she is ignored and when Olga finishes her tune, Miriam praises her saying to Bob, "Can you believe her! Olga only fifteen years old and already a piano concertist and class valedictorian!" It can be assumed that since Helga mentions preschool, that Olga is probably 10 to 12 years older than her.
- Although Helga says Olga attends Bennington College (a college with that name does exist in the U.S.A. within the state of Vermont), the envelope containing Olga's report card in the episode "Olga Comes Home" has Wellington College (colleges with this name also exist but they are located in England, Ireland, New Zealand and Hong Kong and some other countries) as the return address.
- In "Big Sis", it is evident that Olga and Lila have similar personalities and interests.
- In the episode "Spelling Bee" Bob tells Helga that Olga won the spelling bee as a child because she remembered to include the silent letter "l" in the word qualm. It was after the spelling bee that Olga continued to win more trophies from other competitions and contests. So much so that they began to fill up the living room which is why Bob began calling it the trophy room.
For a brief period, a spin-off series called The Patakis was planned. The premise was a continuation of Helga's life into her teenage years with a joint focus on her family. Nickelodeon didn’t like the idea as it was considered too “dark” for Nick at Nite. MTV considered the idea, but ultimately decided that it was too similar to their own production Daria and couldn't really afford to do another show like it.
- Helga's middle name is never mentioned in the show explicitly, so while no in-show canon exists, producers of the series gave her the name "Geraldine" as a tribute to former Nickelodeon executive Geraldine Laybourne.
- Olga and Helga are variants (respectively, Russian and German) of the same name.
- Helga is left-handed or south-pawed. Considering the fact the she's left-handed, she used her right hand to write "Arnold loves Lila" in the episode "Arnold and Lila".