Dimensions Title Bar

Actresses starve for attention

Tuesday, October 27, 1998

Special form Knight Ridder Newspapers

The report was completely bogus, but a New York news program snatched a few headlines with the story that the "Ally McBeal" production had closed down because of star Calista Flockhart's anorexia.

When they finally checked with Fox, they found that uncooperative weather had earned Flockhart an unexpected day off, and that she always eats her porridge like a good little girl.

So everything ended happily. But it brings up an issue that no one ever talks about in Hollywood: the pressure on performers -- especially females -- to stay bone thin.

Calvin Klein's ads featuring emaciated models were only an overt symptom of a malady that has oppressed Tinseltown since Lillian Gish swooned in "Orphans of the Storm."

It's true that the camera adds a little bulk to the silhouette, but many starlets literally starve themselves to cadaverous dimensions, hoping the lean and hungry look will widen their cinematic possibilities.

With no regard for health, the show biz industry has imposed impossible standards for women. Not only are their talent and ability put to the test, but so is their dress size.

More than a few voluptuous females have arrived on the Sunset Strip only to diet themselves into beanpole status.

Jennifer Aniston, Dolly Parton, Ally Sheedy, Helen Mirren, Elizabeth Hurley, Sherilyn Fenn, and Kim Basinger were once women of pleasingly rounded proportions. Now they're as lean as 10-year-old Romanian gymnasts.

Jane Fonda has admitted that she was anorexic for a time. Alexandra Paul ("Baywatch") told me she suffered from a similar eating disorder a few years ago, and so did Susan Dey.

Since the powerful studio days, women were required to look frail and helpless. It is well known that the studio often guarded Elizabeth Taylor from caloric consumption, and that diet pills were prescribed for Judy Garland.

Alicia Silverstone has been derided for her round-cheeked baby fat, and Drew Barrymore, who's been acting since she was a plump toddler, frets when she allows her exercise program to lapse.

"The minute you start to get too lazy about it, you get that drive again," she says.

When Marie Osmond and her brother, Donny, helmed their own TV show in the late Seventies, chubby little Marie was almost destroyed when a producer took her aside and told her she was embarrassing her family because she was overweight.

"Being a 14- to 15-year-old girl, that was major. It was at that point I just stopped eating for three days of the week," she says.

"That was a very difficult thing to go through where you had to find self-esteem inward and not outward, and finding that being healthy is so much better than the physical shell because your soul is dead."

Bulimia and anorexia are serious disorders. Anorexia nervosa ran its cruel course when singer Karen Carpenter died of it in 1983 at the age of 33.

Andie MacDowell, who began as a model, wars against the tyranny of the tape measure.

"I'm real frustrated," she says. "I know where I live I can separate myself and live a normal life. I eat very healthy and don't have neurotic problems. I don't work out two hours a day and just eat vegetables, let's put it that way. But when I come into the business, there are people who are setting up this kind of body for women. I think it's extremely frustrating."

Producers have often admonished her to lose weight. "They want me to look like a girl, and I'm a woman. It's very hard for women nowadays. I think it's hideous. I don't read articles about men working out three hours a day and eating just vegetables."

Anna Nicole Smith has always fought the prison-camp image for models. She finally managed to drop to the pounds for a series of sexy Guess ads. Now she says, "They wouldn't let me model. I was too big, and my hair was too light. Before I had Daniel [her son] I weighed 125 pounds and, looking back, I was so anorexic. And it was so sickening! After I had my son I got up to 211 pounds and that's how I've gotten so, uh, large, and they don't want large women. They want anorexic. And I said, 'I can't do that. I look horrible."'

It's true that most women are dissatisfied about the way they look. Jennifer Lopez and Sharon Stone -- peerless specimens in person -- moan about their oversize derrieres.

Roseanne not only lost weight, but submitted to a permanent touch-up on her face. "Women especially are nicer to you when you're thin," she says, "absolutely. It's so amazing, it's really depressing. You lose a lot of weight, you're always prepared for men to be nicer to you, but nobody ever tells you about the women."

Many stars began as dancers. And the draconian dancer's discipline often remains, keeping devotees working out at the barre and sipping Slimfast long after they need to.

Neve Campbell used to dance seven hours a day. Teri Hatcher studied six hours of dance a day until she was 16. Jane Leeves, Mary Tyler Moore, and Teri Garr all began as dancers. So did Sarah Jessica Parker, who still slips into a size 4.

Lea Thompson, who started as a dancer, told me a few years ago: "Most of the dancers I danced with wanted to be anorexic. Sometimes I think I am, because when I feel really nervous or really upset, like if I have a movie coming out, I have trouble eating. But I think that's just nerves. I don't think I ever was anorexic. I've always been pretty healthy."