By Jeannine Stein
Los Angeles Times
On the A&E show "Kirstie Alley's Big Life," the star sits in bed, working on her laptop and talking to her kids about her weight. "Does it upset you that I'm fat?" she asks them. "No," they both reply, the end of the word going up slightly the way it does in uncomfortable situations.
"Slightly?" she says. "It's never embarrassing?"
The kids — 17-year-old son True and 15-year-old daughter Lillie — look down and say no again.
"You're not —" True begins, and Alley finishes his sentence: " — circus fat?"
Welcome to the era of the fat celebrity. No longer is it shameful, shocking or a career killer for the famous to make weight struggles the centerpiece of their lives. In fact, they're making money off of it.
And we can't get enough.
In addition to Alley's show, we have:
"Carnie Wilson: Unstapled," in which cameras follow the singer-performer-author as she goes about her life. They chronicle, among other things, her efforts to lose the weight she gained after bariatric surgery and after giving birth to two children. She complains to her trainer that stretching hurts, frets to her sex therapist that she doesn't feel desirable and worries that her young daughter Lola is becoming a little too fond of sugar.
"Celebrity Fit Club: Boot Camp," a reality show that pits a bottomless pool of chubby D-list notables against one another to see who can drop the most pounds through rigorous diet and exercise. Put through their paces by tough-but-lovable trainer Harvey Walden IV, some lose weight, some maintain and a few actually gain during the show.
"My Footprint," a new book by actor and comedian Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry David's portly friend and manager on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Proving that food obsessions aren't just a girl thing, Garlin writes about the repercussions of his compulsive overeating in excruciating detail. He'll start his diet after he finishes those empanadas. No, after Yom Kippur. No, after eating that entire box of chocolates.
Then there was the Kevin Smith cause celebre, in which the director and actor was booted off Southwest Airlines earlier this year for being too heavy to fit into his seat. He tweeted the news himself, touching off days of Internet ranting and media discussions on obesity, fat acceptance and whether obese people pose a safety risk on airplanes. Smith has been frank about his size before in his blog and various interviews, previously confessing to once breaking a toilet. No doubt Smith isn't finished thrashing out this subject.
This smashup of our national obesity crisis and our fascination with all things celebrity offers something for them and us.
Famous overweight people get an opportunity to come clean about their binge eating, food fixations and extreme yo-yo dieting. And we get the chance to relate — their battles to resist cheesecake are just like our battles to resist cheesecake.
Somehow it's reassuring to see that stars aren't immune to the lure of good food and a comfy sofa, despite enormous pressures and incentives to be thin.
"Fat celebrities are particularly irresistible because in the real culture people are constantly struggling with what's wrong with their bodies," says University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, author of "The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health." "People can identify with that, and this is another way of tapping into the fascination with celebrities as being both unique but somehow just like us."
The phenomenon also underscores the fact that the obesity epidemic doesn't exclude famous people.
"The presence of so many really obese celebrities reflects the high level of obesity in the country," says Carla Wolper, a research faculty member at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City.
The formerly slim Alley gained so much weight by 2004 that she became a tabloid staple, photographed eating fast food and wearing unflattering, shapeless clothes. She turned that notoriety to her advantage, landing the Showtime sitcom "Fat Actress" in 2005.
Soon after, Alley signed up as a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, ultimately losing 75 pounds. Her appearance on "Oprah" in 2006 in a bikini caused an 81 percent bump in phone calls to the weight-loss program.
Yet it wasn't long before Alley fell off the wagon, mirroring the weight-loss pattern to which so many succumb. Not only did she gain back the 75 pounds, she added 10 more and either left Jenny Craig or was dropped from the company, depending on whose story you believe.
Not to be counted out, today she graces the cover of the May issue of Ladies' Home Journal with the optimistic blurb, "I'm going to lose 100 pounds again!" Never one to miss a marketing opportunity, Alley has also launched a natural weight-loss product line to coincide with the new show.
WHY STARS FAIL
What makes these televised and talked-about struggles with weight even more confounding to viewers is that celebrities seem to have every resource imaginable at their disposal — trainers, nutritionists and exclusive spas — and yet they often can't slim down or keep weight off.
Even bariatric surgery, often considered a radical last resort to losing weight, isn't a permanent solution. Carnie Wilson had bariatric surgery in 1999 after her weight ballooned to about 300 pounds — she even broadcast the procedure on the Internet. Wilson ultimately lost 150 pounds but over the years has put about 50 back on.
We may connect with someone like Alley, says Dr. Naomi Neufeld, clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA and founder of KidShape. "But I think she's also a cautionary tale that she's carried her weight to an extreme."
Identifying with a celebrity about their weight is OK, Wolper says. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it. If they're describing the difficulties they're having, I think other people can relate to what they may have to say."
What's lacking, however, is a success story with legs. "It would be nice if there was somebody out there doing it the right way," she says, meaning a sensible diet and regular exercise, with pounds coming off slowly. No doubt there are celebs who have slimmed down that way, they're just not doing TV shows about it.
Because it would be boring.