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Valerie Bertinelli scans the room as the band strikes up "New York, New York" and Liza Minnelli steps onstage. I am Bertinelli's date to the TV Land Awards in New York City, where the iconic sitcoms of our youth are being honored. Bertinelli and her cast mates from Hot in Cleveland are there to present an award to the girls from The Facts of Life. I am, of course, chill, and not at all moved by the fact that at the table to the right of us are the Huxtables -- the gang from The Cosby Show -- and to the left, the Keatons from Family Ties. Though I grew up with these people, Bertinelli, who played One Day at a Time's Barbara Cooper, was one of them.
"I hope I don't make a fool of myself tonight, and see people I like and fawn all over them," she whispers. "I'm going to try and be on my best behavior."
Hello? Valerie Bertinelli, you who were beaten with the Cute Stick and then had your very own sitcom from 1975 to 1984? You, starstruck? Absurd. And really, isn't the whole thing absurd? Both of us are far too sophisticated to...Oh, my God, there are the Sweathogs! The evening was just a little bit surreal. But then, so is Bertinelli's life right now. Because who would have thought that at age 51, Bertinelli would be back on top of her game with a hit sitcom, a new marriage, and, oh yeah, that bikini-ready body. "I know, right?" she says. "Every day I wake up and go, This is good!"
What's so good? Well, let's start with Hot in Cleveland. Starring Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, and Betty White, Hot is one of the most popular sitcoms on cable television today. It's like The Golden Girls, only dirtier -- there should be a drinking game where you have to do a shot every time someone mentions sex.
True, the premise demands that you suspend disbelief. Three women of a certain age from Los Angeles all move to the same house in Cleveland, where Betty White is the caretaker. They get their mojo back because men actually want them, though of course they're also abject failures at love, since that makes the plot more interesting.
I admit to Bertinelli that I find the whole concept a little annoying, as if there's anywhere the three of them wouldn't be noticed. "No, you don't understand, that's the part of the show that's totally believable," she insists. "In L.A. it's all about how old you are. After a certain age you start to feel invisible."
Unless, of course, you're Bertinelli. At 47 she started turning heads after she lost the 40 pounds she gained during her marriage to rocker Eddie Van Halen. Not that she ascribes the slightest blame to him; growing up in a food-is-love Italian family probably had more to do with it. But there is no doubt that when she quit using cocaine in her 20s and her marriage started to unravel, food became her solace, her lover. After all, rock stars may betray you, but a jalapeno popper will never let you down.
Bertinelli met investment fund manager Tom Vitale, now her husband, in 2004, before she lost weight. "So I had this person who loved me as I was. But I didn't realize how much the weight was holding me back and holding me down and holding me away from being the person I could be."
So what turned her life around? Simple. "I really think it started with Jenny Craig," she told me. Bertinelli became a spokeswoman for the diet company four years ago and just signed on for another three years.
She admits it's easier to be vigilant about your weight when someone is paying you to keep it off, but that doesn't mean it's easy. The 5-foot-4 Bertinelli is careful to keep her weight between 128 and 132 pounds. If she goes beyond that mark she cuts back on calories or steps up her exercise -- which sometimes involves a trainer but right now consists of running most mornings. (She trained for the Boston Marathon last year for six months and gleefully showed me photos of her feet, minus her toenails: "Nobody told me they'd fall off!")
"I weigh myself every day, but only when I'm home," she says. "If I use different scales when I travel I'll freak out worrying that they're not right." Still, she tries not to obsess. "It's been three years since I lost the weight and this is the longest I've kept it off," she says. "I can't say it's not challenging: There are days when I could be more diligent. But I don't want my weight to be what my life's about anymore. I just want to take care of myself, be good to myself, eat right, and exercise. I think I've finally turned a corner to where even if I weren't a spokesperson for Jenny Craig, I'd still be doing all of those things for myself."
What's interesting about Bertinelli is that she's as vain as the next woman, but not a whit more. In fact, in some ways, less. When she met me earlier in the day, it was fresh out of the shower, with no makeup, no hair extensions -- just the grown-up beauty of a woman who has lived. There's been no plastic surgery -- not even injectables like Botox. Not out of any anti-cosmetic-surgery principle, but simply because "I'm scared of needles. Really scared," she says. "Still, I'd never say never."
"Never say never" is something of a guiding principle with Bertinelli, since every time she does say "never" she later finds herself saying, "Why not?" Take her recent marriage to Vitale, whom she wed at her Malibu cliffside home on New Year's Day.
Although they'd been together for six years, Bertinelli had been fairly certain that as much as she loved him, she didn't want to marry again. (Vitale has four children from a previous marriage, ranging in age from 12 to 20; the younger ones live with the couple part-time in Los Angeles.) Then Vitale proposed to her on a vacation to Florence, Italy, last year. "When he asked me I thought, 'Well, he's very old-fashioned, and I want to do it for him.' But as soon as he put the ring on my finger I realized, no, I did it for me. This is the man I love. I wanted to be able to say that this is my husband, as opposed to this is my best friend, buddy, spousal equivalent...but even 'husband' doesn't seem big enough for what he is in my life."
Vitale, Bertinelli says, is a lot like her father. "I always told him he was born 20 years too late. He's like one of the Rat Pack guys, suave, only with traditional family values." Their idea of a perfect weekend together? Watching football in sweats ("I'm a New Orleans Saints fan and Tom's a Cleveland Browns fan," she says) and keeping fit together. "We walk a lot," she says. "We'll walk around our neighborhood or we walk to town for dinner and walk back after. That's what we did in Italy and we never gained anything. Now we try to live our lives like that here."
Not that the couple is always compatible. "Tom's nickname for me is Shhhhh. In the morning I'll be turning a page in a book while he's sleeping and I'll hear, 'Shhhhhhhhhh.' He has ultra-sensitive hearing, so he married the loudest woman in the world. This is God's sense of humor."
And as anyone who has read Bertinelli's memoirs (2008's Losing It and 2009's Finding It) knows, God is very much on Bertinelli's mind. "I'm always trying to find my spiritual path," she says. Raised Catholic, Bertinelli has explored various religious philosophies, including, briefly, Kabbalah. "I love their belief in wearing a red string: It's supposed to be a protector against mean things coming toward you, but for me it was a reminder not to put anything negative out there. I believe what you put out you get back," she says. "If you don't hold yourself responsible for your own behavior, it's gonna keep coming back to you...I mean, it's not like I can be friendly to everyone. But you try not to do anything so bad that it comes back to bite you on the butt."
One of the more challenging areas of Bertinelli's life in recent years has been watching the struggles of her only child, Wolfie, 20. He has inherited his father's musicality, but when he replaced Van Halen's bassist, Michael Anthony, in 2007, critics said he got the job through nepotism rather than talent. On top of that, he had to deal with his father's very public battle with alcoholism. (Van Halen has said he is now sober.) "Wolfie's been hurt, he comes out of the hurt, then he gets hurt again...and all along he's been such a sweet, sensitive soul," Bertinelli says. "When he was little all I wanted to do was to protect him from everything. But it didn't work out that way." Still, she adds, "He's come through it all with flying colors. He and his dad are close, and that's the gift that came out of it."
Perhaps Bertinelli sees a little of her earlier self in her son: unsure, self-critical, a little too eager to please others. "Look, this journey that I'm on, of trying to keep yourself healthy and trying to love yourself and feel you're worth it...it's the journey millions and millions of people are on. Mine is just more in the public eye. There's a song out right now by Pink called 'F'in' Perfect.' The other day I was jogging and listening to it and I started to cry. The line in it about stopping the negative voices and listening to the good ones instead is so profound. So many of us feel so little about ourselves. Why not try to be positive instead?"
Bertinelli has changed the voices. Not that her life is seamless, but she is clear about what she wants ("I could see moving out of L.A. and maybe to Ohio, where Tom is from. I'm a small-town girl at heart.") and what matters most. "I never pictured myself being happy," she says. "So all of this is a lovely surprise. But it's also my choice. I wake up every morning and before I even open my eyes I say a prayer of gratefulness for the life I've been given. Being happy is a choice."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2011.