Chrissy Metz knows why you recognize her. The character she plays—Kate Pearson on this year's most beloved new show, NBC's This Is Us—is plus-size, a rarity on network television. And while this season has seen Kate navigating dating life and family melodrama, most of her plot lines have focused on her efforts to lose weight: joining a weight-loss group, considering gastric bypass surgery, checking into a fat farm.
For her part? Metz doesn't even know how much she weighs. "I don't worry about numbers," she tells MarieClaire.com. "It just messes with my mind."
Not that it was easy to get here. "Fat was like a cuss word," the 36 year old says of her childhood. Food was equated with love, like the grilled cheese sandwiches her grandmother would make when Metz came home from school. But it was also the enemy: When Metz was 11 and chubby, her mom signed her up for Weight Watchers. "I can't tell you how many times I've tried [to lose weight]," laments Metz, who describes herself, at various times, as "plus-size," "big," and "overweight," but rarely "fat."
"But if I had," she levels, "I would never have gotten this role."
During elementary and middle school in Gainesville, Florida, Metz was bullied for her size. She was also the class clown, the bubbly performer in her blended family—mother, stepfather, brother, sister, and two half-sisters—who she calls "salt of the earth; funny, loud people." By high school, she was a tomboy who sang in chorus and thought about going to art school. After college, she took a job as a preschool teacher.
One day when Metz was in her early 20s, she tagged along with her younger sister Morgana, then 14, to an open-call audition. ("We have different dads; she's tall and thin.") Metz was filling out paperwork for her sister when a former teacher from Metz's school saw her in the waiting room and suggested that Metz audition, too. "You're here for a reason," Metz recalls the woman saying. "In my heart, I was like, 'Yes I would love to,' but I was too afraid of my own shadow," Metz says. Her mother, Denise Hodge, explains that Metz was surprisingly shy: "With family and friends she was the cut-up, but other people had to get to know her first."
She went for it anyway, singing Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." The next day, a manager called their home: She wanted to sign Morgana for a modeling contract and take Metz out to LA to audition. "She said, 'Mom, I'm going to live my dream,'" remembers Hodge. A few months later, Metz, her manager, and about eight mostly teenage clients caravanned out West for pilot season.
As the oldest, she became her manager's de facto assistant, taking kids out on auditions, traveling back and forth between California and Florida for the next few years until she finally moved to LA for good in 2006. Her agent needed an actual assistant; Metz's manager encouraged her to take the job. "I was like, 'This isn't fair, I didn't come here for that,'" she says. But she took it anyway, and ended up becoming an agent herself. Acting became a hobby. "There just weren't roles. And if there were, you're the butt of the joke," she says.
For a while, Metz averaged just one audition a year, where she'd see the same group of fellow plus-size actresses ("so supportive and not catty," she says). Occasionally she'd be the biggest person there: "I walked into rooms a lot of women thought I shouldn't be in," she says. "They were picking up their phone texting their agent, I'm sure." She booked small parts with character names like "Chunk" and "Heavy Girl" on the sitcom My Name Is Earl and The Onion Movie, but otherwise watched her own clients book more fulfilling and steady roles.
She found it all so depressing that she gained 100 pounds over the course of her 20s. "I eat my feelings—when I'm happy, when I'm sad," she says. I tell her I'm in the same boat: I've been working long hours and there's a chocolate bar in my bag that I've been carrying around as a reward. Talking about weight with Metz is cathartic for me, as someone who has dealt with body-image issues and food issues—and their ripple effects—my whole life.
On her 30th birthday, Metz tells me, she mistook a panic attack for a heart attack and landed in the ER. Following her "anxiety breakdown," as she calls it, she went to a few sessions with a therapist, but mostly got into self-help and spirituality, like reading Deepak Chopra and going to Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City. A hundred pounds were gone within just over five months. "When you do put the food down and those feelings come up, you're not being numbed anymore," she says. "You're like, 'I got to deal with this.' That is hard."
When a role on Ryan Murphy's 2014 series American Horror Story: Freak Show came up—Ima Wiggles, the sideshow's Fat Lady—three different friends texted her about it. "They wanted a very big girl; they didn't want to necessarily do a prosthetic suit," Metz says. "They wanted it to be as real as possible." She got the part, and they put her in a prosthetic fat suit anyway. "I was like, 'Wait? This time I'm not big enough?'"
Still, the calls weren't coming in. "How is it that I had this great opportunity, an arc on a high-profile show, and then nothing? Like, give me a chance. I can hold my own with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates," says Metz. She considered moving back home for good. "My mom said, 'You could be miserable in Florida, not pursuing your dreams, or you could be miserable in LA, pursuing what you want to do.'"
Perhaps it's her interest in self-help, but Metz is the kind of person who believes that she has to trust that everything happens as it should. "I don't necessarily blame the industry," she says. "People didn't know what to do with me."
A year passed. Then an agent friend told her about the role of Kate, saying "This is so you." Metz read the script and got an audition; she made it all the way to the final round, along with four other actresses, all talented and dying for a substantive role on a pilot. "With plus-size girls, we know that roles are few and far between in general—let alone this kind of role," she says. "I honestly don't know if I would have continued acting if I didn't get it. I would have been absolutely devastated."
Metz thought she bombed the audition, and called her agent from the parking garage to tell him the bad news. At the same time, a number she didn't recognize popped up on her screen. She thought it might be a bill collector —Metz has said that she had 81 cents in her bank account at the time—but she answered anyway: It was Dan Fogelman, the creator of This Is Us, along with the rest of the producers. "They said, 'We just wanted to tell you you're our girl.' I said, 'I'm gonna pee my pants!' They laughed. I told them 'You've hired a classy broad.'"
When the first This Is Us table read made executives cry—the pilot alone features a naked weigh-in, a death, and finding a long-lost parent—Metz knew that the show was going to work. "It's one of those things I believe everybody needs right now—a cathartic cry or a laugh," she says. "The show's not cynical, it's warm."
People stop her in the bathroom and at grocery stores. Within minutes of Metz's arriving for our brunch meeting at GC Marketplace in the Valley, not far from where she lives, both the café's owner and a handful of fellow diners come over to shake her hand. Metz beams and thanks them profusely. She tells me how, when her sister Morgana gave birth, Morgana's nurses found out she was related to Metz and made Metz FaceTime them to say hello.
The few women on TV who hover somewhere between tiny sample sizes and plus sizes—women whose bodies I would love to inhabit—are still routinely called "fat." Unless it's a reality show about weight loss, plus-size American women, whose average clothing size is 16, rarely see themselves on TV. It's one of the reasons Metz thinks her character is so beloved: "It's a really raw and vulnerable portrayal of a plus-size woman." Kate is the sole fat member of her family: her biological twin brother, Kevin, a sitcom actor trying to be taken seriously, is played by the chiseled and ultra-fit Justin Hartley, a former soap opera star; her adopted other brother, Randall, played by Sterling K. Brown, is a finance wiz looking for his birth father. It's that relatable feeling of not fitting in, even in your own family, that makes This Is Us work. "Kevin's being judged solely on the way he looks; Randall feels inadequate," says Metz. "We all feel that way. We all feel out of place."
Metz is comfortable talking about the similarities between her own life and Kate's character arc; their differences are harder to get across to fans. On the show, Kate bought two seats on a cross-country flight. "I've never bought two seats," Metz says, "but I've had people look at me, give me the stank-eye, and maybe get up and go somewhere else," says Metz. "Fair enough. What I had to learn is that it's not personal. If they paid for their seat and I happen to be spilling over on it and that offends them, that's their stuff."
At least she no longer needs to worry about bill collectors calling her. Now that the show has been renewed for two more seasons, Metz is trying to adjust to a little bit of newfound financial security. She still lives in an apartment in Valley Village with a roommate and is not one to splurge: she finally purchased a laptop (her first) after Niecy Nash told her she deserved to buy herself something nice. The studio gave Metz a Louis Vuitton bag, but she isn't even sure she needs it. (Her sister has volunteered to take it off her hands.) It's the first time in her life she's had money, and she's reluctant to get too comfortable. And then there's the literal cost of being a rising star. "People don't realize how much money you have to spend: styling, publicity, a manager, and your agent. That's a chunk of change."
Apart from her alter ego's weight, Kate's love life has been central to the show's plot, setting her apart from the few other plus-size protagonists in TV history. Men fall for her out of the blue, including a fellow dieter at a weight loss group and a dimpled employee at fat camp. Chris Sullivan, who plays her fiancé Toby on the show, wears padding—he only plays fat on TV. "I was like, 'Why does Toby have to be big? Also, can we have some black or Latino men?"
Still, she says, "I'm glad that people are like, 'Yo, I'm into Kate.' For so many projects, the fat girl is the secret girlfriend. She's not attractive; nobody wants to date her."
When it comes to real-life relationships, Metz attributes her success to her confidence. "I don't have to have a man in my life, and I think men are attracted to that," she says. And she doesn't buy the platitude that people see beyond her weight to a sparkling personality within. Some men like her because of her weight—which she doesn't think is uncommon, it's just not as acceptable to talk about. "I know that men—or women, whoever you're attracted to—are attracted to women with something-something, but because we're taught that [thin] is beautiful, it's more accepted to like skinny girls. It's weird if men like big girls, like, oh, do you have a fetish?"
For the past five months, Metz has been dating Josh Stancil, a camera grip on This Is Us. While wrapping the second episode, she spotted him putting things away in his truck and eating a taco bowl. "I was like, oh he's cute, with shorts and his backward hat, kind of masculine," she says, giggling. "Before I even know it, I called out, 'You better slow down or you're going to choke on your food.' I am typically a little more charismatic than that, I swear." They'd say hi to each other on set, and after a month, he asked her out for a drink. "It was very unexpected," she says. "My priority was my job and I was not trying to blow my big shot. Josh even offered to go work on another show."
He is, as she puts it, "not chubby." She's weighed more than boyfriends before, including her ex-husband (at 28, Metz married a screenwriter; they divorced five years later and are still friends). Stancil told her he'd never dated anyone who was plus-size. "I'm like, 'Is this weird?' He's like, 'No.' And that's the end." When she went to the Golden Globes, he put a note in her clutch that read, "You're the most beautiful girl in the room. Good luck tonight, have a great time."
To walk the Golden Globes red carpet, Metz intended to wear a gown by Christian Siriano. The designer—one of the few couturiers to dress non-sample-size celebrities—made her two custom pieces. But due to a leg injury, she ended up wearing a purple gown the designer Nathan Paul had made for a different event.
Her stylist, Jordan Grossman, has a relationship with plus-size brands. "Society Plus, Torrid, Eloquii want to design stuff for me," she says. "I'm so grateful for the designers who are excited—I remember growing up and having no options at all—but other designers haven't really reached out. I don't know why they think that their clothes lose integrity by being cut bigger. But it's their art. It would be nice if Valentino was like, 'Hey girl, want a dress?'" she shrugs. If she had her choice, she'd also love to wear Alexander McQueen and Carolina Herrera.
Metz manages to seem both sober and outraged at Hollywood's slim definition of desirability. "Size doesn't equate to beauty. I don't understand why that's a thing. Well, I do, because the media has told us thin is beautiful. But is it? Because I think people are miserable not eating and smoking cigarettes," she says. "I've had roommates who were thin girls and constantly working out and trying to stay under a certain size. Even the average girl looks ten pounds heavier on the screen." Brave might be an overused word, but that's what comes to my mind as Metz discusses her body so plainly—and publicly. Dieting is often a guilty secret, one that I've only recently started writing about and talking about with friends. For so many people, it's a completely private battle.
"I do want to lose weight," Metz concedes. "But not because anyone is telling me to do it." In fact, last November, People published a short interview with Metz about her character's weight loss storyline, and whether she would be dieting alongside Kate. "It's definitely a conversation that we've had, and it's in my contract," she said at the time. Now she asserts that that was false. "Nothing is mandated. It's not like, If you sign this contract you have to do this. We haven't even talked about an actual number with Kate. Ever."
Her goal is simply "to be proportioned. I carry a lot of my weight in my stomach." A size 24 top might be too snug, but she wears an 18 or 20 in pants. "I just want to have…not even a number, but to have my body in a different shape."
Right now she's trying to eat balanced meals and a few healthy snacks. It's a mellower approach than the fat farm Kate checked herself into. Not that she would rule out a more rigorous approach to weight loss. "I would love to go on The Biggest Loser, where it's a concentrated thing," she says, which is surprising, given her body-positivity. At first it seems to be more about the fantasy of losing weight quickly, of having nothing else to do but exercise, but then she starts talking about family history. "My father is a big guy; he's had a quadruple bypass surgery, and that's scary. Those are real things that happen in families with overweight people, and I don't want that," she says.
Ever since her breakdown at 30, she has been trying to get to a healthy relationship with food, but it's hard. "If I'm upset or I have to confront somebody, I'm like, 'This feels really icky. Let me have a burrito.' I believe that if we haven't learned our lessons, they will continue to come and circle back around. Obviously I haven't figured it out with food."
I ask her if she's become popular enough that casting directors and producers are seeing beyond her size and considering her as, say, the lead in a rom-com. "I haven't been offered any roles," she says. But that's okay—Metz is busy facing the stigmas head-on. In March, she's doing a stage reading of Neil LaBute's play Fat Pig, about the social consequences of a man dating a plus-size woman. The play works as a critique of society's beauty standards; ideally it would go into production either on stage or as a film.
Someday I hope we live in a world that's ready for a romantic comedy whose heroine just so happens to be fat. A movie about a woman who is real, and nuanced, and who has many layers, just one of which is that she's not a size 4. And to all the agents out there trying to cast it: Chrissy Metz is your girl.