MarieClaire.com Exclusive: Portia de Rossi on Her Shocking New Memoir
After her interview with Oprah Winfrey earlier this week, we got the chance to speak with Portia, who opened up to MC about Ellen, those controversial Ally McBeal days, and overcoming anorexia in her new book, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, out now.
Photo Credit: Nino Munoz
Marie Claire: What was the process of writing this book like?
Portia de Rossi: It was difficult, but it kind of flowed out of me actually. I had a very defined outline and I worked really hard to get a story that would move. The hardest thing for me was remembering what it was like to be that ill and then try to make counting calories and running up and down stairs exciting. I mean, when I was ill, I didn't see anybody, I didn't go anywhere. Nothing happened, other than me just trying to eat 20 calories less of the same old food. That was the trickiest part for me, was to make it compelling and make the story move.
MC: How did you feel about baring your soul?
PdR: Well I realized that unless I really got down into it and showed how people how sick I really was, then they couldn't really understood how far I've come. I could write from a healthy person's perspective and say, "I was sick once," but unless I really wrote in the voice of that really sick person I don't think that people really could understand what it was like and how bad it really got. And it was definitely hard.
MC: When you were trying to recreate how sick you really were, did you feel scared that you would get back into that place in your head?
PdR: I certainly have great respect for that horrible disorder, because it took 15 years of my life, so I was very careful to be very aware of my feelings. Ellen kept an eye on me too, to be honest. She would talk to me after a day of writing and she'd ask me how I was feeling, and I think that really helped me. It was great also that I could say to her "I kind of feel a little strange today, I feel " There was one point when I was writing when I felt my chin connect with my chest, like I didn't have a neck. I thought 'Oh God.' I knew I was bordering on having that horrible, dysmorphic thinking. But it was kind of good, because I really went through it again. I think that I needed to, and it was the right thing for me to do because the story came so quickly to me. It was very cathartic and I don't think I would have properly healed unless I really went back and examined it. I'm not saying that in order to be healed you have to write a book, but you do have to look at what happened. Eating disorders are shrouded in secrecy and there are so many things I felt very ashamed of that I could never talk about. Even though I have fully recovered there were still things that I needed to go through again and work through. So I'm glad.
MC: Do you feel as though, even though you've recovered, the illness is always with you?
PdR: No, absolutely not, that's the thing I actually wanted to get across in the book. That you can suffer very, very deeply and be fully recovered and never ever think about diets or your body image or food ever again.
MC: What is your relationship with food like now?
PdR: I have a very, very healthy relationship with food in that I eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I never restrict quantities or types of food. Everything that I want I allow myself to eat. As a consequence, I eat a very kind of regular, normal diet and it's not perfect, it has a kind of smattering of junk food in there. It's because I allow myself to eat potato chips if I want potato chips and candy if I want candy. I never, ever, restrict food and I will never go on a diet ever again. Not for my wedding day, not for this publicity tour that I'm doing, there's nothing that will make me restrict calories. Even if I'm hormonal and I feel like I've got a couple pounds of water weight, I will never starve myself, I will never, ever go in a diet.
MC: That's such a powerful message.
PdR: Well, I mean, I know it sounds ridiculous, but dieting was the cause of my eating disorder. I was 12 years old when I went on my first diet and I got the high of losing a pound, I felt that sense of accomplishment when I lost weight and I felt devastation when I gained it back. That cycle began when I was 12 and it continued in varying degrees until I was 30 years old, until I figured out that dieting was actually a major cause of my lack of self-esteem and my lack of acceptance of myself and my body size and it made me very, very depressed. It made me feel out of control, it made me feel weak. I could never stick to a diet no matter how hard I tried, and when I tried really, really hard I got down to 82 lbs and my organs were almost shutting down. I mean what is a successful diet, really?
MC: When you were 82 lbs or even when you were 100 lbs, were you hungry all the time?
PdR: I don't remember if I was hungry all the time. I'm sure I was hungry some of the time, or even most of the time, but I do think that after a while I didn't even recognize that I was hungry. I felt very empty and I felt very anxious. It was worse than hunger. I felt like my brain wasn't functioning.
MC: Did you have headaches all the time?
PdR: I don't remember headaches, but then I was smoking like crazy as well.
MC: Do you still smoke?
PdR: No, I don't. I felt very bad all the time, and you know it's funny, I've been speaking to women who have eating disorders, and anorexia in particular, and we all have a kind of similar story as far as our brain's not working very well, and getting into car accidents. What I didn't really write in the book was that I had minor car accidents constantly.
PdR: Because I literally couldn't think. It's weird my reaction time would be very strange and I just wasn't functioning.
MC: Like you were impaired in some way?
PdR: Yeah, exactly. Food is fuel, food keeps you alive, food keeps everything working, food keeps your heart beating. So depriving yourself of food will certainly take a toll on your body after so long, but also your mind. I mean your brain just can't function.
MC: Do you think your illness was enhanced or intensified by the environment where you were working at the time, on the set of Ally McBeal?
PdR: I would be naive to think that it didn't have any effect on me whatsoever. But then again, and I'm not saying this to be protective of anyone at all, it wasn't the environment of Ally McBeal. It was the general environment of actresses at that time and we just happened to be on a very popular TV show. I mean, the whole kind of super model era was over in the late '90s and actresses started taking their jobs and taking their place. We were on the magazine covers and all of a sudden we're wearing all the designer gowns, and doing beauty campaigns. So I think there was a lot of pressure on actresses to be model thin and live up to the image of the perfect woman and to emulate models at that point. I know that I felt it because everyone around me that I knew was getting a beauty campaign or the cover of a fashion magazine, and I wanted to do that too because that just seemed like part of what made a successful actress at that time.
MC: Do you think that people with eating disorders enable each other?
PdR: I do. I think that when your behavior is shared with everyone else, then you no longer look at it as abnormal; you look at it as normal. So I think that when you're around like-minded people it's hard for you to really examine your behavior, for sure.
MC: You wrote in the book that no one on the set of Ally McBeal ate lunch together.
PdR: The only thing that indicated to me, or why I even wrote about it, it wasn't even about food or dieting or eating or not eating. It was about the fact that we didn't connect to each other. We didn't talk to each other, and kind of establish a trust amongst us so we never really could talk to each other about our experiences.
MC: It seemed like there was not a lot of camaraderie.
PdR: It was a nice environment. We were all very friendly to one another but we weren't very intimate with each other; we weren't very close. I think it was partly because the set was so well organized and it was so well run, and I've never seen this since actually, where you get your work time, and everything would work like clockwork. It would take exactly the time that was allotted for the scene and we were all very professional and very prepared, and it was like a well-refined machine.
MC: I imagine the set of Arrested Development was completely different.