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"Elizabeth Taylor and I were laughing at lunch the other day," Kirstie Alley says in a way only Kirstie Alley can. She's so down-to-earth, Alley could say she was having lunch with Cleopatra herself and it wouldn't sound like name-dropping. "We realized there've been a few famous women who've been targeted for their weight -- and she and I are two of them. We've been stalked for decades for being fat!"
The actress and former Jenny Craig spokesperson is sitting at the butcher-block island in her green-tiled kitchen at home in Los Angeles. At 59, she may be better known for her yoyoing dress size than she is for starring in the popular sitcom Cheers or movies like Look Who's Talking. "The last time I stepped on a scale I was 230," says Alley, who is 5-foot-8 and weighed 143 when she flashed her bikini bod on Oprah in 2006, after a 75-pound drop. Wearing a bright silk dress, she still looks glamorous with her long blond hair, diamond bling, and manicured everything, but clearly she's ready for a change.
"It's insane! I'm disgusted with myself!" she says. Alley's tone is breezily matter-of-fact. "I let myself down and, worse than that, I let other people down. People were looking up to me for losing all that weight and then I went and got all chub on them. And I set a bad example for my children. I'm finally ready to pay everybody back."
As if on cue, a camera crew marches into the kitchen -- cameraman, sound guy, nervous producer, all in a line -- to get some shots for Kirstie Alley's Big Life, the new A&E reality series that premiered in March. The show chronicles her latest effort to beat the bulge once and for all by dropping 100 pounds. Along the way it introduces viewers to her two teenage children, son True, 17, and daughter Lillie, 15, from the actress's previous marriage to Hardy Boys actor Parker Stevenson. There's also a cast of real-life costars: friends, assistants, trainers, and the ever-present paparazzi.
"The most interesting part of life is the journey," Alley says. "Over the years I've lost weight, then I've gained it back. But no one has seen what happened in between. This show follows that journey." As she speaks a pair of lorikeets squawk behind her in an ornate birdcage. They're part of a veritable private zoo that also includes house cats, dogs, parrots, chinchillas, and a chattering troop of lemurs caged in front of Alley's pink 1920s Hollywood mansion. "It's been a major eye-opener, having these cameras around," Alley laughs, as the crew looks on from a doorway. "I had no idea how kooky I looked until I saw the early footage. Then I thought, Oh my God! I'm the crazy lemur lady!?"
The other revelation was how grossly overweight she had actually become. "I was shocked because I looked, you know, circus fat," says Alley, who claims cookies, salty snack foods, and no exercise were her undoing. Not to mention denial. "When we get fat, we fool ourselves with every kind of lie imaginable. By 2008 my weight started creeping up and I said, 'Oh, I still look good at 150. I still look good at 155. I still look okay at 165. Some of my clothes still fit at 175.' And nobody was saying, 'You're fat.' I was like a bank robber who was getting away with it. Next thing I know I'm 190, 200, 210 -- and meanwhile I'm only looking at myself in the mirror from the neck up."
As her size shot up, so did negative attention. National Enquirer splashed unflattering pictures of her on its covers. ("I notice more photographers at the gate outside my house when my weight goes up," Alley says. "Those ugly paparazzi shots sell.") By the time she returned to Oprah's couch in April 2009, Alley had gained all her weight back -- plus 10 pounds -- and she had become a kind of national punch line. "Punching bag is more like it," she sighs. Although she publicly committed to slimming down again, the hammering she got from late-night jokesters and supermarket tabloids hurt enough to send her into seclusion.
"My self-esteem was basically zero, so it was hard to get the eating under control," she says. "It made me completely self-conscious. I stopped going out, especially to restaurants. I stopped seeing my friends. I succumbed to the meanness and attacks and lost my way in the process. I'm telling you, it was hell."
Alley didn't always play the role of "fat actress," to borrow the title of her 2005 Showtime sitcom, loosely based on her weight troubles. As a girl growing up in Wichita, Kansas, she was a cheerleader and an athlete in a family where everyone was basically thin. "My mom was skinny, my dad was hot-looking, and my two siblings were just normal-looking healthy," Alley says, smirking. "People say, 'Oh, you're just big boned.' I'm not big boned. My bones are small. I just ate too much."
But coming under the lens of fame distorted her self-perception. "I remember the first time I dieted as an actress. I was 30 and weighed 124 pounds," she says, laughing at how silly that sounds. "I thought, if I could get under 120, I could be more successful. And fortunately or unfortunately, as soon as I got under 120, I got my first movie" -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That milestone triggered a new way of thinking: "Being thin does make a difference, I told myself. In my head I got that role because I was 114 pounds, not because I was a good actress or looked like a Vulcan."
She says she began putting on the pounds after she had a miscarriage while playing the hyper-intelligent bar manager Rebecca Howe on Cheers, in 1989. The attention from that iconic '80s show went beyond anything she had experienced. "It was the first time I ever gained weight," she says. "I went from 118 to around 135 and the press began talking, which was weird because I was still thin." Later, male producers and directors and boyfriends she dated after her divorce would urge her to diet. Alley says it's a double standard that plagues women in show business. "If guys get fat in Hollywood, it's always for a role," she says. "If it's a woman, it's because she has let herself go to crap.
"I have never been bulimic, I have never been anorexic, I have never missed a meal in my life," she continues. "But when you have people in your life telling you you are fat, it starts messing with your head."
As she chats Alley alternates between sips of coffee and swigs of a cranberry-colored elixir she pours from a tall plastic bottle. It's part of a new signature weight-loss-supplement line called Kirstie Alley's Organic Liaison. The actress, who parted ways with Jenny Craig after her contract ran out in 2008, worked with nutrition researchers to develop the program. "Many weight-loss companies approached me about becoming their spokesperson, but I thought I could offer a better product," she says. "Little kids who grew up with the Jenny ads would come up to me and say, 'Hey, it's Jenny!' I thought, No, I'm Kirstie. I want to be the face behind my own success story." As for how she feels about her friend Valerie Bertinelli's impressive weight loss as a Jenny Craig spokesperson, Alley says, "I admire her and her abs so much, but, man, am I jealous. I honestly believe she won't gain her weight back."
Alley insists the plan will help her meet her own audacious weight goal of 135 pounds by the time Big Life wraps in late spring. "I know that's a serious challenge, but it comes from me asking, 'How do I want to live the second half of my life? What do I want to look like? It's up to me to become the person I want to be."
"'How come you never see overweight vampires?'?" Alley reads. "?'I guess blood is low-cal.' Oh, that's hilarious!" The actress has moved over to her laptop, where she's reading messages from her newest friends -- all 600,000-plus Twitter followers.
"I was never a computer person until I discovered Twitter last year and now I am beyond hooked," says Alley, who posts an average of 10 tweets a day. What she loves is the intimacy. "When you're famous you can't really talk to normal people. It's all about having your picture taken or people wanting something from you. On Twitter I can say, 'What's your life like? What are your challenges?' It has opened up a whole new reality to me I haven't had since I've been recognized as an actor."
As with everything she does, Alley Tweets with gusto and brass. She stirred up controversy this year for publicly blasting, among others, Joy Behar for overreacting to the Tiger Woods scandal. ("CHEATING is between a husband and wife," Alley wrote, "not TMZ and Joy Bewhore.") Another time she lashed out at what she called the "religion haters" of her faith, Scientology.
Alley has been a committed Scientologist for more than 20 years and credits the religion with helping her quit cocaine and smoking and, now, confronting her weight issues. "Scientology helps you lose your insanities," she explains. "One of the keys is they say, 'You're in charge of your life, buster. You're responsible for any condition you're in.' If I look at it that way, it helps. I've been irresponsible many, many, many times and that has resulted in my being fat. They hold you accountable to living a life without making excuses for yourself."
That means resisting urges. Alley says part of why she got big was her inability to say no. "On one hand, it was the greatest thing in the world getting fat," she says. "Every meal out was an event. Or we'd go to Italy and we'd have pasta, truffles, and dessert and then plan the next incredible meal. It was a happy-go-lucky time. I never had so much fun."
But she also gets satisfaction from slimming down; to date she estimates she has lost 30 pounds ("though I don't weigh myself," she insists). For her new Web site, organicliaison.com, Alley, who works out for an hour a day, plans to post a list of "50 Ways to Lose Your Blubber." Tips include dancing, jumping on a trampoline, walking instead of driving to dinner, and emulating kids. ("They're always in motion. Go ice-skating, play kickball!") "You've got to make this process fun or else you'll want to quit," she says. "Losing weight should be at least half as much fun as having sex."
Speaking of which, Alley rolls her eyes when asked how things are in the romance department. "Nonexistent," she says, but again, there's no heartache in her tone. "As I get older it's harder to know what I would want in a relationship. I love spending time with my kids and my friends and my animals. I love traveling and working. The last thing I need to think about is some dude."
Not that Alley doesn't have guys in her life.
"Hey guys! Treats!" she says, as she walks into the giant lemur enclosure in her front yard. Several cuties with zebra-striped tails come bounding toward her. Alley reaches into a bag of organic cranberries to feed them as a particularly friendly critter hops on her shoulder.
"Hi, Jimmy! What's up?"
Alley takes a seat and the lemurs climb all over her. After a minute she looks up and laughs because she knows how kooky it looks. "See what I mean?" she says. "It's crazy lemur lady!" But like all things, Alley doesn't take any of it -- especially herself -- too seriously. "Elizabeth Taylor helped me put things in perspective," she says, and it still doesn't sound like name-dropping. "She taught me to enjoy the craziness. And more important, to laugh at it. This is my life," she continues. "It's crazy, and it's definitely big. But it's my life -- and I love it."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2010.