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Valerie Bertinelli is trying to make me understand. Not about her long and prolific career (which currently includes a stint as a contributor to the Rachael Ray Show), her 20-plus year marriage to (and recent divorce from) rocker Eddie Van Halen, nor her stunning weight loss -- 40 pounds and counting over nine months -- which has left her, at 47, Hollywood's sexiest girl next door. No. These are all important, and they are chronicled in Losing It: And Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time, her gripping new memoir coming out this month about sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll -- and food. But right now there's more at stake. Seated in her New York City hotel room, her hair still damp from the shower, football fanatic Bertinelli is trying to explain to a sports moron (me) the significance of Ohio State University's team, currently playing -- well, someone -- on the flat-screen TV.
"What's so amazing about Ohio State is that even when they lost 11 guys to the pros, the next year they still managed to become number one," Bertinelli begins. She stares at me, waiting for the import of this news to sink in. "They lost 11 of their best players!" she shouts. Nothing. "And they were still able to build their team! And become number one! And stay number one!"
I smile and nod vigorously. Please, I think, please don't hurt me.
She chortles cheerfully and gives up. It's not surprising that Bertinelli loves this team's fighting spirit -- she's something of a fighter herself. How else to explain 20 years with one of rock's most notorious party boys, who still smokes despite battling mouth cancer not once but twice? Or joining Kirstie Alley as a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig and putting herself and her weight woes on display for the whole world? Bertinelli calls herself "an average Joe in a bizarre job" and she has a point. A single mother (to son Wolfgang, 17) who chubs up when she gets depressed: What could be more regular than that?
Later on she and her live-in boyfriend of three years, financial adviser Tom Vitale, 46, who sits at her side during our interview, will leave the hotel to find a sports bar to watch her beloved New Orleans Saints. (Bertinelli was born in Wilmington, Delaware, but her family moved to Louisiana when she was a teenager.) But first she opens up about her painful past, her new life, and her thoughts on love and loss.
Ladies' Home Journal: You weighed 172 pounds before signing up with Jenny Craig. This may have felt heavy for someone as petite as you (Bertinelli is 5 foot 4), but you weren't by any stretch of the imagination "obese."
Valerie Bertinelli: I was a size 14. But I was 10 pounds short of the weight I was when I gave birth to my son. I was fat for me. My knees were killing me. I couldn't walk up the stairs without breathing heavily.
LHJ: Was it difficult to lose weight so publicly?
VB: You walk by people and they're like, "Whoa, you look great! Keep it up!" How can you not love that? But there's the flip side. I was halfway through my diet when I went to Hawaii in July. I had the nerve to put a bathing suit on. The paparazzi took a photo of me from behind, bending down. Who but Cameron Diaz looks good in that position? But then I thought, "Who am I kidding? I'm a spokeswoman for a diet company and I'm in a bathing suit. And I look like hell. Of course they're gonna take a picture and make fun of me." I learned my lesson. But wait till next summer. I'll have my bathing suit on again and say, "Okay, now make fun of me!"
LHJ: Have you and Kirstie Alley become friends through this whole thing?
VB: I would say yes. Our kids go to the same school, so we were acquaintances before. But now we've gotten to know each other better.
LHJ: Do you feel competitive with each other about the weight loss?
VB: Everyone's made it like there's some sort of competition. There is none. Two women can't work together without being cats? Ridiculous. The last time I went to her house, we went into her pool and did an hour workout. She kicked my butt!
LHJ: Why do you think men can be fat in Hollywood and women can't?
VB: I don't know why women are held up to a higher standard. I don't get it. It's an unspoken rule about women having to be young and thin. And it's not just who the men in charge are hiring. Women are in charge, too.
LHJ: Have you always battled your weight? Even when you were that skinny teenager on the '70s sitcom One Day at a Time?
VB: I don't remember a time when I didn't struggle, though Hollywood made it worse. People were always saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if you were just a size smaller?" And then I was always comparing myself to MacKenzie [Phillips, who played Bertinelli's sister on the show, and also had a well-documented drug problem]. She was a rail. I used to get so mad about my hips. Now I appreciate them -- they brought Wolfie into the world. Even when I got really thin, though, I never had an eating disorder. Well, at one point I may have been a little anorexic -- I'd go on these super-restrictive diets.
LHJ: In your book you talk about using cocaine as an appetite suppressant shortly after your marriage to Van Halen.
VB: Yeah, that's when I got way too skinny. [In the early 1980s, Bertinelli's weight dropped to 98 pounds.] Ironically Ed saved me.... [In her book she says that Van Halen told her, "That's enough. I can feel the bones in your back. I don't care what you think. It's not beautiful."] And he marched me to a hot dog stand where I had this chili dog with cheese. I have always loved food way too much to have an eating disorder.
LHJ: At your heaviest, what would you eat in the course of the day?
VB: I ate unconsciously. I'd grab some Jordan almonds...and before I knew it, I had gone through an entire bag. Or if I made gumbo, I'd have two or three bowls, no matter how full I was after one bowl.
LHJ: Did you have one moment when you realized you were really, really unhappy with your weight?
VB: Last year I did this movie, Claire, for Hallmark. I saw the director's cut. I usually don't like watching myself. But I thought I'd better. I was in denial. When I saw myself right up there on the screen, I went, Oh, God, I can't deny it anymore.
LHJ: Did the breakup of your marriage in 2001 contribute to your weight issues?
VB: No. I can't blame Ed for my psychotic way of thinking about my body. I can only blame myself.
LHJ: What about the media?
VB: Well, I do get mad at designers. When there were several of those models dying from anorexia and I read that Gisele Bundchen said something about its not being the designers' fault but the parents' fault, I was like, well, now, wait a minute, Miss Skinny Girl. Designers do have something to do with this, because they hire women like you. There was this one designer who was proud of herself because she hired models that were a size 4. And when asked why she didn't hire a 6 or an 8 she said, "Because the clothes don't look good. They don't hang right." Well, then, aren't you not doing your job? Aren't you supposed to design clothes that look good on real women?
LHJ: Let's talk about your marriage. Over time, your husband's drinking and addiction -- did it just wear you down? [In the book, Bertinelli says Van Halen abused alcohol and cocaine.]
VB: There was so much denial, so much not talking. Take the cigarettes: The guy has mouth cancer, gets part of his tongue cut out, and he still insists cigarettes have nothing to do with it. [Van Halen has said he believes holding a metal guitar pick in his mouth might have contributed to his cancer.] You should have seen the guy he attributes his "cure" to. [In the book, Bertinelli says Van Halen sought treatment from a practitioner of alternative medicine.] They sat around drinking and smoking in our hotel room. But, well, his cancer hasn't come back yet, so who am I to say?
LHJ: You write about the mid-1990s, when you discovered your husband had been cheating on you. How surprised were you? This was Eddie Van Halen.
VB: It wasn't that I was shocked. But I was so disappointed. [In her book, Bertinelli alleges the other woman took pictures of Van Halen, including one of him naked with his guitar, which was later published in the Globe.] And it was in our bedroom, mybedroom. I threw the mattress away. But anyway, it was more shock at myself about how long I'd managed to stay in denial.
LHJ: Not that you were a total innocent. You reveal an affair you had toward the end of your marriage.
VB: Yes, the weekend I decided to end it. It was like, "Hey, why don't I just make everything wrong?" For the last 10 or 15 years of our marriage, when I was always upset about the drugs or drinking or whatever, his attitude was always, "So, divorce me." And finally I was like, OKAY! I didn't want to. I thought like a lot of women: I wanted my son to have two parents. But of course, I also didn't want him to think that the way Ed and I were with each other was the way people in love treat each other. So in the end, much of the reason I left was Wolfie. He is the catalyst for so many of the good things I did in my life. Ed still doesn't know about the guy I had an affair with.
LHJ: Are you worried about what Eddie will think of this book?
VB: I'm not worried. He has his own perception of things. And I've made it clear to him that this is not about finding an enemy. It takes two people to make a marriage work and two people to ruin it. He's a good man, but we couldn't live together. He's got issues that he needs to deal with, and I hope he will. No one else can bring him out of what he's in but himself. Not even his son.
LHJ: Wolfie is on tour with Van Halen, playing bass. Is it hard letting him travel with a group that is known for partying?
LHJ: Heck yeah! He still needs his momma as far as I'm concerned! But he's got a lot of people watching out for him, including his father, who is always telling him, "Don't do what I did." Sometimes he doesn't want me around. But the other night [during a Van Halen concert], when he didn't know I'd be there, I went to stand in my usual spot and when he saw me, his face just lit up.
LHJ: What's the most important thing you've learned from divorce?
VB: You must love your children more than you hate your ex, period. Luckily, I've never really hated Ed. But I've seen exes who do. All it does is hurt the kids. I mean, do you hate your ex so much and want to hurt him so badly, and watch your children be harmed by it, that that gives you joy? Isn't it much easier just to have peace than be right all the time?
LHJ: What do you think about monogamy now?
VB: There is no way ever I will not be monogamous. Tom and I talk about this. I now know how it feels to cheat, and be cheated on. If my eyes ever stray or his, it's to be talked about -- and if we want to act on it, we leave each other first. You just can't cheat. It hurts your own soul.
LHJ: How did you and Tom meet?
VB: Through my youngest brother, Patrick. He also introduced me to Ed!
VB: Yes! He took me to a Van Halen concert. But anyway, Pat introduced me to Tom. We were both at this wine auction. It was 2004, and there was this baseball game on, and we both noticed we kept leaving our table to check out the scores. That's how it started.
LHJ: Did you like Tom from the start?
VB: There was instant attraction. But we didn't start dating until two months after we met. Tom was afraid. Someone told him I was out of his league!
LHJ: Had Tom been a fan of yours?
Tom Vitale: Yeah. When I was a teenager and watched One Day at a Time, I'd kiss the television screen when she was on. 'Cause she was so hot.
LHJ: Do you ever think of remarrying?
VB: We talk about it. But we just don't want to plan the party. It's too overwhelming, it's too much work, and we're so happy the way we are.
LHJ: What's the most romantic thing he's done for you?
VB: We were in, I think, Michigan. My family and I were seeing Wolfie on tour. We were all in the hotel room, hanging out. And then Tom left. And I'm like, "What happened to him?" Then he came back. An hour later we called it a night and back in my room there were candles everywhere, and the bed was covered in rose petals.
LHJ [speaking to Vitale]: Is Valerie romantic?
VB: I don't think I am.
TV: Do you remember the time for my birthday, the Four Seasons....
VB: Okay, that's not printable [laughs].
LHJ: Did it involve skimpy outfits?
VB: It did -- that and chocolate sauce and whipped cream and strawberries. And it's not printable.
LHJ: Valerie, what would you tell other women who are trying to lose weight?
VB: Do it with a friend, a lover, a husband -- you need a buddy. I resisted this until I started Jenny Craig. I didn't want anyone to know I was dieting. Now I know you need a community around you. Like now, my mom and brother are doing it. This is the first time I've done it this way and it works. It's encouraging to you -- and you can find joy in other people's successes.
LHJ: How did you train yourself to not be an emotional eater?
VB: Journaling was helpful. Writing down for myself all the times I was tempted to overeat. Most recently it was when my cat Dexter got sick -- and I was writing about how I wanted to eat, so badly. I got him in Christmas 2000, just about the time my life totally changed. He's seen me through all this stuff ... thank God, he got better.
LHJ: Are you also exercising? What's your typical workout?
VB: It'll either be the elliptical or the treadmill, and for the very first time, last week I went jogging. Three and a half miles. It's the first time I moved my legs that far in 20 years. And because I lost weight my knees didn't hurt, though my thighs were killing me. But still, I thought, I can do this now!
LHJ: What do you want to do in the future?
VB: Write more books. The next one will be about divorce, and how you can do it without hurting your children. I also hope to keep doing stories for Rachael Ray...about women's lives...I've been talking to Paramount about doing my own talk show. Rachael Ray is a way of testing me out, to see if I'm comfortable with this format.
LHJ: Our credo is "Never underestimate the power of a woman." What does that mean to you?
VB: A woman's power is her intuition and her ability to persuade men. She doesn't have to push too hard to get her point across. If more women would do that "I don't have to let him know that I'm right" thing, we'd have a more peaceful world.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2008.