To celebrate our 25th anniversary, we're bringing some of our cover stories online for the first time. From our Dec/Jan 2011 issue, here's our cover story with Portia de Rossi.
When Portia de Rossi got her big break on Ally McBeal in 1998, she was the picture of idealized feminine beauty. But her perfect image hid an obsession that almost killed her. Here, the actress opens up about her memoir and her marriage, and reveals, “I now love being a sexual person”
"I don't know how you’re going to put me on the cover of your Sex Issue,” says Portia de Rossi, laughing. “I really don’t.” We’re talking on the phone, but I can picture the 38-year-old actress on the other end of the line, and the image of her saying this is absurd. Because—and let’s get this out of the way now—Portia de Rossi is gorgeous. I mean, she is unquestionably lovely, whether you are gay or straight or into blondes or brunettes. Yes, she is also a talented performer and really nice and very smart. And yes, these qualities are more important than her looks. But it is also true that she is beautiful. This is a fact that’s hard to forget even when you’re on the phone with her, talking about her impressively well-written anorexia memoir. Listening to her, knowing full well that body dysmorphia is not tied to objective reality, it is still really hard not to wonder, How did this person almost kill herself out of some mistaken belief that she wasn’t good enough?
As de Rossi writes in Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, there was a time in the late ’90s when she felt that, in order to be attractive, she had to restrict herself to 300 calories a day and exercise almost constantly. This was before her roles on Arrested Development and Better Off Ted made her a beloved comic TV actress. It was also before she came out as a lesbian and married talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres. This was the Ally McBeal era, when de Rossi was in her mid-20s, closeted, and terrified that someone might figure out that she was, as she writes, “an ordinary, average, fat piece of shit.”
De Rossi, née Amanda Rogers, grew up in Geelong, Australia, and from an early age, she proved what a dangerous cocktail could be made by mixing crippling insecurity and grim determination. She began modeling at 12, and almost immediately, the cycle of dieting, binging, and purging began. At 15, she made up the name Portia de Rossi because it sounded exotic, and at 19, she left law school to take a role in the 1994 film Sirens. She discovered that she loved acting and soon was living in Los Angeles. By the time she landed the role of Nell Porter, the ice-queen lawyer on the series Ally McBeal in 1998, de Rossi had gotten married and divorced and realized that she was gay. And the pressure of being suddenly in the spotlight sent her spiraling. She rigged a fan to a treadmill so she could run during her lunch hour without ruining her makeup. She ate her dinner, a 60-calorie portion of tuna, with chopsticks so it would last longer. And after a night of “binging” on six ounces of yogurt, she writes, “it crosses my mind to vocalize my thoughts of self-loathing, because speaking the thoughts that fuel the sobs would have to burn more calories than just thinking the thoughts.” At her lowest point, she weighed 82 pounds.
Happily, de Rossi recovered before she caused any permanent damage, and she found out that she’s more than good enough—both for her career and for her life. This is why she is the perfect cover girl for BUST’s Sex Issue, despite her protestations. She embodies the idea that real pleasure, sexual and otherwise, comes with honesty, and that the road to that honesty is often paved with insecurity—no matter who you are. It was evening when we talked, and fittingly, de Rossi was just sitting down to dinner. “I love your magazine!” she says, as soon as we get on the phone. As if we needed another reason to love her.
I’m excited to talk about your book. What has the reaction been so far?
The reaction has been positive, my feelings about it have been very positive, and I’ve received overwhelming support from my family and Ellen and my friends. It’s such a strange thing for me to get all of this goodness out of something that was really, really bad, you know? It really is like a second coming-out for me.
What made you decide to go through with this coming-out?
I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I see the value of honesty and the value of sharing your experiences—not only to help others but also to rid yourself of all the guilt and shame and negativity that surrounded whatever experience you were having. I saw that when I came out as a lesbian, and I’ve just been living my life in a more honest and open way, so this was a natural extension of that. Even though it was a very private struggle, it is more universal in that I really struggled with self-acceptance.
Speaking of universal struggle, there does seem to be a continuum of behavior that connects anorexics with more “normal” women. There are things you describe in your book that I have done, that lots of women have done. You know, lying in bed and feeling self-loathing and grabbing the fat on your stomach.
Absolutely. Most women have problems with body image because of what we’re force-fed in the media about how we’re supposed to look. There’s so much emphasis placed on our bodies in a cultural sense that it’s not surprising that women would grab an inch of fat and starve themselves for a couple of days to try to look thinner. If you have ever been on a diet, you have experienced a form of disordered eating, because you’re eating when you’re not hungry and you’re not eating when you are hungry, so it’s not that different. It’s just the degree that’s different. I wanted people to understand what is going on in the mind of someone who’s so sick and make the disorder a little bit more understandable and relatable. It just seems like a whole lot of crazy from an outside perspective, but when I was in it, I felt like I was doing the best thing for my life and my career.
You do write about starving yourself as if it were the professional thing to do, as if it were part of your work ethic.
Right, it was. Because I started modeling at 12, I always had it in the back of my mind that in order to feel like I was giving it everything I had, I had to get to a certain weight. I felt like an athlete training for a competition. And it was a very strange time. It was 1998, and actors all of a sudden were on magazine covers and getting beauty campaigns, and it seemed like if I wanted to compete as an actress, I had to act more like a model, which was to starve.
You also created this really deep level of artifice for yourself, from your name, to your sexuality, to your weight, to your accent. Did it ever seem completely untenable?
It always did. It always felt like I was at the breaking point. What I didn’t realize, though, was how bad it was not being able to be honest about who I was. I thought I was doing what I needed to do. When I changed my name as a little kid, I felt like I had to make sure no one found out that I changed it. And then I didn’t want people to know that I permed my hair. I wanted people to think it was naturally curly. It was one thing after another that I felt could potentially expose me for the very average, ordinary person that I was. It’s really only now that I feel like I’m no longer hiding anything. I really have literally nothing to lose now, which is why I think I could write a book like this.
I wanted to ask you about the famous scene on Ally McBeal, when your character tried to seduce her boss by stripping down to her underwear. You write that it was a turning point for you.
Yeah, well, that’s the thing with television. You never know what’s going to be written for your character or how you’re going to feel about it. The show was a huge break for me, and of course I wasn’t going to make waves. I wasn’t going to question anything that David Kelley had written for my character. But I was definitely shocked and disappointed that I’d gone from this really professional, hardworking woman to someone who just strips down to her underwear begging her boss to sleep with her. I mean, as a feminist, it was revolting to me. And it damaged me, I think, because I realized I had no control. I just felt very cheapened by it. The only thing at that moment I really could control was what I looked like.
You were quite young then, but if you could go back, would you quit or think about protecting yourself differently?
I don’t think so. The way that I should have protected myself was not to place so much emphasis on what I looked like. I just got really caught up in this idea that I was hired because of what I looked like instead of the way that I portrayed a character. I kind of forgot to act, at some point. And I was old enough to know better. It wasn’t like I was 15 and easily manipulated—I was 25. It was definitely where I was at that point in my life, and I don’t think it could have been avoided.
You wrote that, when you were recovering, you were ashamed for calling yourself a feminist when you had based your self-esteem on your looks. What does being a feminist in Hollywood mean to you now?
What does being a feminist mean now, period? I don’t think the younger generation is even aware that there was a huge fight for equal rights for women, which is ironic, because we still haven’t achieved equal rights. We’re still being paid less than men in practically every profession other than prostitution and modeling. But it just became so unpopular to call yourself a feminist. It became synonymous with being ugly, being a man-hater.
Do you think that’s still true, though? There’s quite a bit of feminist media today, and even in popular culture, you see more different types of women and more roles for women on TV. It’s changed a bit since the late ’90s.
Yes, it has—a little bit. But when you think about the images out there of the ideal woman, it’s not better. It’s worse. I feel like women have two images available for us. One is a rail-thin 14-year-old model who has not even developed into a woman, and then there’s a Victoria’s Secret model, who is in the porn realm of plastic surgery and fake breasts. We’re still dealing with the virgin and the whore.
As you know, this is our Sex Issue, so this seems like a good time to talk about how your eating disorder intersected with your fear of your sexuality. Was that something you realized only in hindsight, or was it explicit at the time?
I don’t know. I had two major things going on in my life. One was that I realized I was gay after a brief marriage to a man. And I had just started this big career that was all-important. It felt like [my eating disorder] was driven more by the desire to succeed as an actress, but it also meant hiding my sexuality. I felt like I was hiding it from the public, but what I was really doing was just starving it away. I didn’t want to feel like a sexual being. I didn’t want to think about sex. I didn’t want to think about people being sexually attracted to me. All of it was too difficult to deal with.
I have to say—you were talking about idealized female forms, but I’ve always thought of you as an example of idealized female beauty.
Well, I mean, clearly I didn’t. And that was a problem, because I didn’t want to play, like, the provocative temptress. I don’t like that character, and it’s really not because of my sexuality, it’s more because I’m not an exhibitionist in a sexual sense. For me, sex is very private. I’m a little prudish, and I’m a little old-fashioned in that sense. I now love being a sexual person, but I don’t like to show it on the outside. I don’t lead with sexuality, and I don’t like it when other people do, men or women. It’s just not part of my makeup.
How is married life going?
I love being married. I’ve never been happier in my whole life. It feels completely different than just being a couple. Being married feels like having a real partnership. We make decisions together, and I think we’ve both become less selfish. Before, I would think about what was good for me, and now I think about how decisions will affect us as a couple. I can’t say enough good things about it. And I don’t know why it’s so different. But it just is.
It was fun seeing Ellen pop up early in your book, before you knew her, as your “worst-case scenario.”
Yeah, that was hilarious. My mother would freak out about me dating women. If I called her and said I’d been out on a date, she’d start panicking and saying, “What if they find out? What if they find out who you are?” So I’d say, “Mom, relax, I’m not dating Ellen DeGeneres, for God’s sake.” It was really funny because when I finally called her and said, “Mom, guess who I’m dating—Ellen DeGeneres,” it was that worst-case-scenario moment for her. I guess it was for me, also, because I had been kind of creeping out of the closet, but I’d never come out in the media and confirmed that I was, in fact, gay. I just lived my life openly and whoever knew, knew. But I’ve since realized that that’s even more damaging, because if people assume that you’re gay but you don’t publicly admit to it, it seems like there really is something to be ashamed of.
When you made your relationship with Ellen public, the reaction was really positive, right?
It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it. We were lucky, however, because it was the same weekend that Brad and Angelina got together.
That was a big weekend!
It was a big weekend for brand-new couples. But I was amazed. I don’t know what I was expecting, but we seemed to be really embraced by the media, and I think it’s because Ellen is such a loved and trusted public figure. People really adore her and want her to be happy, and I think they saw real love between us. Considering that gay marriage is a very controversial topic, it still amazes me that we’ve had such a great run in the media as one of the most prominent married gay couples in the country. We’re surely an example of the fact that it’s not a dangerous thing, you know? We’re just busy loving and supporting each other and being married, and that’s it.
Well, that sounds terribly threatening.
It’s terribly threatening! The whole country is going to collapse because of our love.
By Priya Jain
Photographed by Andrew Eccles
Styles by Emily Barnes
Hair by Mitch Barry @ Bryan Bantry
Makeup by Matin @ Artists by Timothy Priano
This story originally appeared in the February/March 2011 print issue of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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