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Bertinelli slides open the doors of her bedroom closet and lets out a mysterious sigh. Satisfaction? Distress? It's hard to tell. At 49 the actress, mother, best-selling author, and weight-loss superhero looks as adorable as ever standing barefoot in a tie-dye sundress inside her Malibu beach house. Her face is naturally youthful, save for a few well-deserved laugh lines, and she still has the feathery brown hairstyle ("I color it but...whatever," she laughs) she's worn since the '70s sitcom One Day at a Time. Still, as she flips through clothes arrayed neatly on red and white plastic hangers, it's clear that Bertinelli and her closet have had a love-hate relationship.
"This used to be my misery collection," she says, blowing a wisp of hair from her face. "For years I hated all my clothes and how I looked in them, and I hated myself for it." Bertinelli plucks out a pair of skinny-girl jeans and smiles. "Now it's my inspiration cabinet," she says. "I look in here and everything fits. It's kind of a miracle."
A miracle built on self-discipline, sweat, and faith. Only two years ago, around the time she and rocker Eddie Van Halen divorced, 5-foot-4 Bertinelli weighed 172 pounds. She had a wardrobe heavy on puffy sleeves, elastic waistbands, and what she and her boyfriend, Tom Vitale, called "granny panties." Now she's a rock-solid 128 pounds with no plans to return to "dressing in drapes," as she puts it. "The weight is off for good," Bertinelli declares, shutting the closet behind her. "My stick-to-it number is 132 pounds. But if I hit 130 on the scale, it's time to lay off the mozzarella and get my butt out for a serious run."
Bertinelli first chronicled her weight-loss adventure in the 2008 best seller Losing It, and now comes the sequel, Finding It: And Satisfying My Hunger for Life Without Opening the Fridge. This one tracks Bertinelli's rise as a diet guru of sorts. "It's definitely easier maintaining your weight when a couple million people are looking over your shoulder," she says of her public commitment to stay lean. But Finding It is also the story of a down-to-earth mom juggling 1,001 everyday situations and setbacks. She freaks out when her teenage son, Wolfie, now a bassist for Van Halen, asks to spend the night at his girlfriend's place. She worries when her aging mom faces emergency surgery. The highlight, though, is Bertinelli's scramble to get into bikini shape for the whole country to see.
"There was no hiding behind Spanx for that one," Bertinelli says of the swimsuit reveal for Jenny Craig last spring. "I was hesitant, but I was working out so friggin' hard." Her trainer had her walking up to 20,000 steps a day and she monitored every morsel on her way to a remarkable 123 pounds. Why a bikini? "I thought, 'Why not show this body off?'" Bertinelli says. "I'm almost 50 and I haven't felt this good about myself since I was 16." The image of Bertinelli in a green two-piece that appeared on the cover of People last April was so jaw-dropping that bloggers tried to prove her head was secretly Photoshopped onto the body of a younger model. It was not.
But it's more than just her svelte figure that has Bertinelli bopping around like a teenager these days. After decades in a rocky relationship she has found a steady partner in Vitale, an investment fund manager whom she met in 2004 while she and Van Halen were separated. He's now her workout buddy as well as the rudder that helps steer the large blended family the couple has assembled (including four children from his previous marriage). Meanwhile, Bertinelli is using her renewed career momentum to develop a TV talk show and a workout DVD, which is due this month. "If my life's work is being an inspiration to people, then hell, I'll sign up for more of that," she says.
Bertinelli heads downstairs and into a living room replete with stunning views up and down the coast. "There are a lot of ways to eat. If you use food for comfort, that's not okay," she says, curling up on an oversize sofa. "I'm Italian and food is love, food is family. But food also makes you a real fatty if you're not careful."
She's quick to admit she has no answers -- only strategies -- for what works for her: Stop eating when you're full. Eat what you want (within reason) but in small portions. Don't leave tempting foods lying around. "It's a constant challenge," she says. Asked what she has learned by watching the former Jenny Craig spokesperson Kirstie Alley gain back her weight, Bertinelli says, "I understand it. What woman doesn't? I told her to come work out with me. You need support. Otherwise it's 'I'll start tomorrow, then tomorrow,' and tomorrow never comes."
Bertinelli looks to her trainer and Vitale to keep her focused. She and Vitale recently completed a half marathon, which is still a sore point for Vitale. "She's older than me, yet somehow I finished eight minutes after her," he says, laughing.
The other man in Bertinelli's life isn't here today but judging from all the framed photos of him around the house, Wolfie is never far from Bertinelli's heart. Now 18, Wolfgang Van Halen is her only child, and much of Finding It is devoted to the bittersweet emotions of watching her floppy-haired son transition into adulthood. Bertinelli writes of adjusting to Wolfie's first serious girlfriend and feeling rejected when there's no seat for her on the band's private jet. "My son doesn't always want me around," she writes, "as much as I want to be around him."
On the upside, there's now less of a strain between Bertinelli and Eddie Van Halen. She has made peace with their turbulent relationship and considers the musician a good friend. "Tom and I even sat in the front row at Ed's wedding last summer," she says.
Above the living room's brick fireplace there hangs a brightly colored painting of Noah shepherding animals from the ark. Bertinelli glances up at it before discussing another subject in the book: her decision to develop a closer relationship with God. "I've always believed there was a higher power," says Bertinelli, who was raised Catholic. "But now I've started to wonder about what I've done to make Him happy. I've spent so much of my life worrying about what other people thought of me. But God's is the only opinion I truly care about," she says, then smiles. "I don't want people to think I'm some freaky Jesus nut. You say something about religion and you're labeled as a crazy person or a raving conservative. The bottom line is, I'm just me and I'm just searching."
The sun is sinking toward the Pacific and Bertinelli heads into the kitchen. Three of Vitale's children, as well as five of the couple's friends from Chicago, are visiting. The table is crowded with hungry, sun-kissed guests.
At the stove Bertinelli helps herself to a small serving of pasta with lots of fresh tomato sauce. "This sauce isn't fattening. It's what you put it on that counts," she says, taking her spot next to Vitale. For crunch she goes for grilled fennel with olive oil and sea salt instead of the crusty Italian bread. But it's not what she's eating that matters so much, it's the look on her face: contented, peaceful, happy. "I've realized I'm more important than food is. I love a big slice of pizza. But I love myself more. Being thin is about changing the way you think about yourself. It's about saying you deserve to be healthy. In no way have I perfected this eating thing and I don't know that I ever will," she says. "But life is about making progress. It's not about perfection."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2009.