How does an American television sweetheart reinvent herself later in life?
At 57, Valerie Bertinelli is busy crafting her next-life episode – this time, as a celebrity chef on the Food Network with a noontime Saturday show, Valerie's Home Cooking, and a cookbook of the same name, published in October.
You may remember Bertinelli as the younger sister from One Day at a Time. Since then, she has starred in Hot in Cleveland with Betty White and worked as a Jenny Craig spokeswoman who lost nearly 50 pounds. Oh, and she was married for two decades to, and then divorced from, rock star Eddie Van Halen. Their son, Wolfgang, is a musician in his father's touring band, Van Halen.
Proof she's down-to-earth? Bertinelli's Twitter handle is @wolfiesmom instead of something more Hollywood. "That's my first job, is mom to my son, even though he's now 26," she said in an interview.
We asked Bertinelli — who is headlining the "55 + Thrive" event hosted by the Inquirer and Philadelphia Media Network on Nov. 19 at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown — how she went about reinventing herself, and how that can motivate others to do the same.
First, she takes issue with the term reinvention.
"Is it really reinventing my life or just growing into the next phase of my life? And making it just as exciting as the last few phases? I went through a period where I wasn't as happy. In just the last few years, I would reframe it as creating the next chapter of my life so I'm a viable human being in this world.
"Really, it has to do with keeping yourself happy — whether in your job, or in a job you don't love. What do you do when you're not working? Or do you want to have a downtime in your family? The key is asking that question and walking through it."
Can she pinpoint the moment when she wanted to be a TV chef?
"The past few years, it's all been a surprise. I mean, I've been cooking longer than I've been acting. Acting, now that I look back, was a setup for doing what I love. By cooking on camera, it's a whole different animal than cooking at home. Years of training on camera made me able to just cook on camera, and invite people into my kitchen. That was my goal. I want people to realize you don't have to be a trained chef. It's a chance to be able to spend time with your family, share love and communicate. Our dinner table was a place to reconnect, and food can be that connection."
That said, she does want to go back to cooking school — but for baking, perhaps in Napa Valley or in the Carolinas. "I'm dying to take some amazing baking course, because it feels so artistic. My mom's a painter, and my brother is a carpenter. I used to sketch, I can fill that need in the kitchen. I'm excited about recipes and ingredients. It was more about fear when acting. The great thing about mistakes in the kitchen is it can lead to a new recipe."
Bertinelli wants to "figure out the science of baking, and why yeast and salt are needed. I want to go and study. Once we stop learning, we're dead. And there's so much to learn."
Her show, Valerie's Home Cooking, came about a bit by accident. Three years ago, she said, "I was doing Hot in Cleveland, and the cooking show was going to be a fun summer thing to do. Then Hot in Cleveland was canceled, and I still had my cooking show and it did very well."
She had no idea it would turn into a full-time gig. "We've just finished our eighth season, and it's been 100 shows. I could not be happier. I feel at home."
As for television or movies, Bertinelli would "love for Hot in Cleveland to be revived." But she's aware of the treachery of fame for women in Hollywood. What does she make of the latest sexual-assault scandals to come out of Hollywood, involving Harvey Weinstein and other male directors and producers?
"I'm incredibly proud of the women who've stepped forward and who have given all women a voice now. What's been happening for the last few years will be difficult to happen again in the next few years. I think a lot of these people should be in jail."
Still friendly with ex-husband Van Halen, Bertinelli was remarried in 2011 to businessman Tom Vitale, and they maintain a blended family. The only daughter of a General Motors executive, Bertinelli was born in Delaware and raised with one older and two younger brothers. The family traveled through so many cities that she dubbed herself a "GM brat." These days, she and Vitale have just sent their youngest off to college and are officially empty nesters.
So what's next?
Her husband's Sicilian family and her own father's Italian heritage have inspired Bertinelli to consider touring Italy and "find my roots and my husband's roots. I'd like to walk the streets where my grandmother sold gelato so she could come to America." Her husband's parents immigrated to America from Sicily, while Bertinelli's father's parents emigrated from the Piedmont and Marche regions of Italy.
"The next phase of life is really being part of a blended family, and trying to get along with exes and our children and their children. Since the last one's in school, we're left with four cats and a dog, and we all cook together. Tom's really opened my eyes to exploring ways to cook in the kitchen. He has different tastes."