Marjorie Rosen
January 14, 1991 12:00 PM

Rapid reverse, if you will, to November 1988. The slim, elegant woman in the size-10 jeans strides onto the set of her TV talk show, dragging a little red wagon filled with 67 pounds of animal fat. It’s a victorious moment as Oprah Winfrey reveals she has melted away the same number of her own lumpish pounds on a medically supervised liquid diet called Optifast. But that was then. Today the bulk of those 67 pounds is back, and the dress size—forget jeans—is in the dread 14-and-over range. And though her gain may have been accompanied by shame, a new defiance and resolve are present as well.

“I’ve been dieting since 1977,” Winfrey says, “and the reason I failed is that diets don’t work. I tell people, if you’re underweight, go on a diet and you’ll gain everything you lost plus more. Now I’m trying to find a way to live in a world with food without being controlled by it, without being a compulsive eater. That’s why I say I will never diet again.”

She could be speaking for a large segment of people on the tube. For the first time in the history of pop culture, a bevy of big stars—physically big stars—is dominating TV. Oprah, Delta Burke, Roseanne Barr and others (see page 86) have initiated a television revolution, showing audiences that—onscreen, at least—they’re as sassy, sexy and self-confident as their willowy pals. Which is probably why, viewer-wise, they’re worth their weight in Nielsens. Yet in private, television’s zaftig stars find themselves caught in a tricky balancing act between self-acceptance and self-chastisement.

Oprah, 36, is one of the most visible examples. Considering the weight she regained, she views her upscale downslide thoughtfully. “My greatest failure was in believing that the weight issue was just about weight,” she says. “It’s not. It’s about not being able to say no. It’s about not handling stress properly. It’s about sexual abuse. It’s about all the things that cause other people to become alcoholics and drug addicts.”

Winfrey was not a fat child, but she was a wounded one. By her own account, she was molested repeatedly between the ages of 9 and 14—first by a 19-year-old cousin and later by a family friend—and grew into a rebellious but slim teenager. She was so naive and sexually confused that she went through the entire fifth grade thinking she was pregnant. It wasn’t until she was 19 and began working in TV—”when I was first put in a really stressful situation”—that she started to gain weight. Since then, she says, “trying to live and not be controlled by food has been an ongoing process for me. It’s a behavior I’m trying to learn.”

Winfrey isn’t alone with her twin obsessions—fat and food. A study by the National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 27 percent of American women and 24 percent of American men are considered overweight. Small comfort, however, for a woman who, having had a taste of being slender, must now deal with the return of unwanted pounds. Even today, despite her own achievements as a talk show host, producer and actress, Oprah still regards that weight loss as “the single greatest accomplishment in my life”—an astonishing testament both to the enormous discipline it took and to the great desire she had to be slim.

Moreover, along with the guilt and frustration of regain, Winfrey has been forced to eat her words. After all, in March 1989, five months after her exuberant weight-loss announcement, Oprah boasted, “Asking me if I’ll keep the weight off is like asking, ‘Will you ever be in a relationship again where you allow yourself to be emotionally battered?” I’ve been there—and I don’t intend to go back.”

Yet she did, and her diet slips and stumbles were apparent to anyone who watched her show. And so in November, almost two years after her debut as an Optifast success story, she came to grips with her waistline in a show called “The Pain of Regain.” Her message was simple: “If you lose weight on a diet,” she told her audience, “sooner or later you’ll gain it back.”

While her gloomy prognosis carries a taste of sour grapes, it also brings some truth. The rate of regain on any weight-loss regime—not just liquid food replacements—is a whopping 95 percent, unless paired with exercise, according to Dr. Keith Berndtson, a weight-management specialist at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago.

Statistics aside, anyone following Oprah’s post-Optifast lifestyle would have concluded that her own actions made piling the pounds back on inevitable. First, before she reached goal weight, she dropped out of her diet group. (Her reason, she says, was the fear that what she was telling the group “was going to be reported in the tabloids.”) Next she kissed off her maintenance program and stopped exercising regularly. Finally, in what might have been the most calorie-defiant blow of all, she opened the Eccentric, a chic Chicago restaurant specializing in Oprah’s favorite dish, butter-glistening mashed potatoes made with horseradish. (No wonder her nickname is Taters.)

Dr. Theodore B. VanItallie, a weight-loss specialist, professor emeritus of medicine at Columbia University and attending physician at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, says, “If patients simply lose weight and then don’t make permanent changes in eating and exercise, regain is inevitable. Oprah’s experience shouldn’t be used to discourage people from legitimate weight loss, but simply to point out the problem of maintenance and to stress the long-term nature of the commitment. People must exercise, monitor their eating, and recognize early that they’re regaining weight. But often they deny it until they get so fat that they can’t hide anymore.”

“I didn’t do whatever the maintenance program was,” Oprah admits. “I thought I was cured. And that’s just not true. You have to find a way to live in the world with food.”

For all the grief of her recent gain, the experience has had its illuminating aspects. “I used to brag, ‘I don’t ever get stressed.’ I’d ask, ‘What is stress? What does it feel like?’ The reason I didn’t get stressed is, I ate my way through it.” At photo shoots, for instance, she’d require Pepsi and potato chips—usually two bags—for nibbling while her makeup was being applied. She also cats heartily at mealtimes. As a waiter at one Chicago restaurant observes, “She always orders the Key lime pie.”

Such public scrutiny has been nonstop. Occasional Oprah-sightings are made now at the large-size-clothing store the Forgotten Woman, rather than at Chicago’s exclusive Oak Street boutique Ultimo, where she shopped frequently after her weight loss. And Winfrey fans lap up each detail, taking comfort in the fact that their familiar, large-size TV friend—the powerful mommy figure—is back to her old self.

For different reasons, doubtlessly, Winfrey’s boyfriend, tall, trim public relations executive Stedman Graham, 39, has accepted her regain—or so Oprah claims. On a recent trip to her Indiana farm, she says, Stedman asked her, “Do you think I could only view you, with all you have to offer, as a person with a weight problem? Look, if you’re happy, I’m happy.”

Oprah isn’t happy over the constant public examination of her figure and food intake. “I’m just sick of it,” she says, “sick sick sick sick sick sick sick. We all make it an issue—I’m as guilty of that as anybody. I would like to reach a point where it is not an issue with me. I wish that I’d kept my weight off, but I do not feel like a failure. I feel like someone who has a weight problem. I feel like, oh, another 40 million Americans who are dealing with this in their lives.”

And what of those designer jeans that fit so trimly two years ago? “I still have them,” she says. “But the jeans are no longer the issue. What is the issue is getting healthy, getting fit and being strong.”


That America—or any nation that spends $23 billion a year on diet food and drink—is obsessed with weight is not news. What is news is the way weight is being treated on TV. Change the channel day or night, and between the svelte supermodels selling products there is a parade of chubby charmers: not just the Big Three—Oprah, Delta and Roseanne—but Marsha Warfield of NBC’s Night Court, Nell Carter of CBS’s new sitcom You Take the Kids and the three capacious stars of Fox’s Babes. “What we might be hearing from the public is, ‘Enough is enough. I’m sick of dieting,’ ” suggests Dr. Thomas Wadden, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor specializing in obesity.

Of all the TV heavyweights, none has inspired such inflammatory headlines as Delta Burke, 34, Designing Women’s queen-size ex-beauty queen. Slim at the show’s start in 1986, Burke gradually bulged as the seasons went by. But her relatively abrupt gain of more than 40 pounds led to the creation of a poignant episode—”They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?—for which Burke won her first Emmy nomination.

Now, while Oprah has expanded, Delta is slowly shrinking, claiming she has lost 30 pounds over the past few months. “Last year I was at the end of my rope,” she says. “I’d never put on weight like that. Your body and mind are tied in together, and if you’re that unhappy, you’re not going to let go of what’s troubling you. The moment I decided not be threatened anymore, I started to lose weight.”

According to Burke, the threat comes from Designing Women’s wife-and-husband production team of Linda Blood-worth-Thomason and Harry Thomason and their feuds with Delta over egos and tensions on the set. The mounting frustration that the fighting generated sent her home to gorge. (For their part, the Thomasons insist that Burke’s weight gain never entered into their conflicts.) Finally, says Delta, fed up with gaining pounds and losing face, she began speaking her mind about the work situation. It didn’t hurt that she’d spent several weeks at the Santa Monica Pritikin Center last summer. “I went to a lot of their lectures on stress, and psychologically it was good for me,” Delta reports. “I can’t change Linda, Harry, the network or studio, but I can change the way I react to them so they won’t have the control to make me that stressed.”

Taking control, says Burke, “was a turning point for me. When you look a certain way, you tend to hide behind it. But when I put on weight, I couldn’t hide anymore. I lost my identity. I lost all self-esteem.”

Or whatever self-esteem she’d been able to salvage from childhood. Burke, who stated before marrying Major Dad’s Gerald McRaney in May 1989, “There’s never been a good, strong male figure in my life”—says she was molested at age 4 by a neighbor, who subsequently killed himself. Later, when the Orlando native and future Miss Florida of 1974 was traveling on the beauty pageant circuit, she says she often attracted unwanted attention from unsavory types. As a consequence, she became a self-proclaimed hermit, terrified of men.

Burke’s history, so similar to Oprah’s, conforms to a classic psychological profile: the fearful woman who subconsciously gains weight to create a protective shell and keep men at a distance. “This is a common phenomenon, particularly with women who’ve been sexually abused,” says psychotherapist Jane Hirschmann, who, with Carol Munter, coauthored the book Overcoming Overeating. “Whenever they get anxious, they return to a symbol of caretaking—food—to help them through it.”

Although Burke has used crystal meth to stimulate her system and suppress her appetite, today she swears off drugs and crash dieting. “It messes up your metabolism,” she says. Her housekeeper cooks “in the Pritikin fashion”—that is, low fat, salt and cholesterol—but Delta eats what she likes. “I’m not in a race with myself,” she says. “The body is a miraculous thing; it knows more than we think it does. So I’ve decided to listen to it more. But mainly, I’ve taken charge of my life.”

Her bitterness with the Thomasons and the circus of headlines inspired by her hips notwithstanding, Burke insists that this is a happy time. “With Mac by my side, I feel safer and not so alone,” she says. “It’s still scary as hell, but I feel really good about where I’m going.”

While TV’s current celebration of human plenitude owes a debt to Oprah and Delta, much of the ground breaking was done by Roseanne Barr. Until Roseanne, the fat women who could command prime-time TV shows of their own were few and fleeting. Moreover, Roseanne was a rarity in another way too—she was sexy, sassy and the jokester rather than the butt of jokes. Big girls were usually “best friends”—take Vivian Vance in I Love Lucy, for example. As for fat men, they’ve fared almost as badly. Did pudgy Ralph Kramden ever make a woman swoon? And how about roly-poly lawyers and gumshoes, like Raymond Burr in Perry Mason and Ironside, or William Conrad in Cannon and Jake and the Fatman?. Onscreen these guys have been about as sexually active as monks.

Then along came Rosie and TV hubby John Goodman, and suddenly the tube had something new in its frame: two chubbies smooching and cuddling, as playful and sexual as teenagers. Roseanne moved quickly to the Top 10, and despite its star’s sometimes off-putting public behavior, it has remained there for three seasons.

The show reflects Roseanne’s attitude toward her own weight. “I like food as much as I like sex,” admitted Barr, 36, who less than a decade ago weighed in at a petite 128. “To me, being fat isn’t a negative. Being fat is a response. If you eat, you’re choosing to be fat. Fat is a great friend. It’s a cushion, very comforting at times. I feel sexy when I’m fat, but then I feel sexy when I’m skinny too.”

Marsha Warfield, 35, is another big celeb who has made peace with her bulk. Having lost—and regained—a good deal of weight before she started Night Court in 1986, Warfield says, “I was very lonely when I was slim. I was always hungry. And I actually didn’t work much when I was slim either.” Viewers accept her at her current size and often urge her not to diet—not that she was planning to. “I got a lot of letters from women who felt Oprah had let them down and somehow invalidated them when she lost all that weight,” says Warfield. “People write me saying, ‘Please don’t do that. You’ll betray us.’ ”

Not every bodacious star is as comfortable with the subject of weight. Although Babes was created in part for an audience of full-figured women, its star Wendie Jo Sperber refuses to discuss her figure because she doesn’t want to be stigmatized as fat. Her apprehension, however, isn’t shared by her two co-stars. “I’ve never let being overweight get in the way of anything I do,” says Lesley Boone, 22, a biker who can often be seen zipping through the San Fernando Valley on her purple, pink and fuchsia Harley-David-son. “I go out all the time; I have no problem meeting guys.” As for snaring roles—”Slim, drop-dead gorgeous actors are a dime a dozen.”

For the third Babe, Susan Peretz, the extra pounds led not only to the series, but a challenging guest spot on LA. Law, where she appeared as a woman who loses her job because of her weight and sues for discrimination. “That episode was personal,” says Peretz. “I’ve experienced those problems.” She is also familiar with the early psychological damage overweight can cause. “Growing up in my house,” she recalls, “I’d always hear criticism about my weight, and somehow I felt that I was a bad person. I think there’s an unconscious attitude out there that overweight people are not intelligent and lack discipline. But most people aren’t perfect; most people aren’t size 6.”

At this point in popular culture, whether Oprah, Delta or any other star reaches size 6 or 16 is certainly less important than the strong, positive personalities they’re projecting. According to weight-loss expert Theodore Vanltallie, “We’d all like to see obese people reduce the amount of self-hatred that many of them have.” By finally breaking the image barrier and providing role models in all categories, the small screen may take a big step toward doing just that.

—Marjorie Rosen, Beth Austin and Magda Krance in Chicago, Lois Armstrong, Eleanor Hoover and Darryle Pollack in Los Angeles, Mary Huzinec and Sabrina McFarland in New York City

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