Kirstie Alley: Keeping It Off for Good
"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."