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."