Portia de Rossi's Anorexia Battle
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Portia de Rossi's Anorexia Battle

Portia de Rossi has been on hit TV shows (Ally McBeal, Arrested Development) and is happily married to talk-show host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres. But for 15 years, the successful 37-year-old actress carried a dark secret: She suffered from anorexia and bulimia.

At her lowest weight of 82 pounds, she was living on about 300 calories a day, mostly tuna, yogurt, egg whites and sugar-free gelatin -- which she ate slowly with chopsticks. She shares her story in her memoir, Unbearable Lightness, and talked with LHJ's entertainment editor, Susan Pocharski, about what she learned along the way.

Why write about your eating disorder?

I wanted to figure out how I got myself into that situation -- and how I got out of it. It's been cathartic, going back through my life and looking at how I could have helped myself along the way. When I look back, I see a girl who thought she was taking control of things. I also see a girl who was completely out of control.

You started modeling at age 12. Did that contribute to the pressure you felt to be thin?

I'd have people look at my body and talk directly to me about what was wrong with it, which is hard when you're 13. Modeling made me think that my looks were more important than what I thought or did.

In the book, you talk about the rituals you developed around food. Can you share some details?

I only ate with chopsticks because it seemed logical to me that if I slowed down when I ate, I would eat less. I had rules about how much food should be on the chopstick: I'd allow myself a half-inch of food, so it only reached the tips of the chopsticks. I'd only eat at certain times of the day. I'd eat dinner at 5, then run on my treadmill for hours, to make sure I had burned up the calories before going to sleep.

82 Pounds

You write that you would never wear lip gloss to a restaurant. Why not?

One of my biggest fears was ingesting calories that I wasn't aware of. I didn't wear any lip gloss or lip balm so I could detect if there was oil in the grilled vegetables I'd order. If there was, I wouldn't eat them.

When you were at your lowest weight of 82 pounds [at 5-foot-6], how many calories a day were you eating?

About 300 calories. At that point my diet consisted of tuna, yogurt, egg whites, sugar-free jell-O, Extra chewing gum and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spray. The craziest thing I'd eat was sugar-free jell-O with butter spray and Splenda. I would mash it all up in a bowl and eat it with chopsticks.

Did you think you looked good at 82 pounds?

I knew my arms were too thin. I could see my rib cage. But my legs still had a little fat on them, and my stomach was a bit flabby. I was looking at myself in the same way everybody looks at themselves. They look in the mirror and their eyes are drawn to the one part of their body they dislike. I would always go to my thighs and think, Eh, they're still not good.

At one point in the book, your family pleaded with you to stop dieting. How did you react?

When people tell you you're too thin, it's a contradictory message for someone struggling with anorexia. On the one hand, it actually means you won the battle the whole world is fighting, which is to be skinny. When I'd get those reactions I'd think, That's fantastic! How can you be too thin? It was also nice for me to hear that people were worried about me. It felt like love, like caring, so why would I give that up?

Breaking Free

How did you ultimately break free of the disorder?

I collapsed on a movie set in 2000. I was told I had lupus and osteoporosis at age 25. My liver enzymes were dangerously high. At that moment I knew if I kept living this way, I was going to die.

You saw a counselor after your diagnosis. What did you learn from her?

The best thing my therapist told me was that I would recover. That was like a beacon of hope, because I didn't want to be on a diet for the rest of my life. And I wanted to be free of thinking about food. The idea that I could one day wake up and not wonder what I ate the night before made me hopeful. Most people think that you deal with an eating disorder for the rest of your life. If I had come across a counselor who told me it would be like a 12-step program, where I'd have to deal with food issues for the rest of my life, ugh, what a horrible thought. But I found one who said, "You'll get over it." It took several years after that to get better, but I did.

What else helped you?

I dated a girl who was naturally thin and ate whatever she wanted. So I thought, Well, why don't I try that? It was very difficult for a while. But eventually I came to realize that's the only way to live and maintain a consistent, healthy weight -- without restrictions. When you have restrictions they build up and you end up bingeing. Every diet I would go on, I would gain the weight back.

Paying It Forward

How much do you weigh now?

About 130 pounds. That's where my body is happy. What I learned through this is, if you can accept yourself the way you are, and the weight that your body is healthy and feels most comfortable, then you can live diet free, eat what you want, exercise for enjoyment and focus on other things -- like your mind.

Are you happy with the way you look now?

Most of the time. One great thing my therapist said to me was, you can't hold ex-anorexics to a higher standard than the rest of society. Just because you've been through an eating disorder and out the other end doesn't mean that you think your body is perfect. The things I used to hate about my body, I still hate. Only now I don't think I should change them. I'm just happy that being thin is not the most important thing to me anymore.

Were you worried about how Ellen would react to the book?

Yeah. It's hard letting people read about all your crazy behavior. These are my shameful secrets. But I knew that she would be understanding. If she had winced or grimaced when I read her something, I probably couldn't have written the book.

What advice do you have for people living with an eating disorder?

The key to recovery is hope. If you feel like there are things in your future to be hopeful for, then you're ready to seek help. You need guidance and you need to know you don't have to deal with this forever. I wrote the book I wish I could have read when I was struggling. It helps to know you're not alone.