On the ’80s sitcom Facts of Life, Lisa Whelchel was 16 when she won the role of spoiled teen beauty Blair Warner and Mindy Cohn was only 13 portraying her plucky classmate Natalie. For nine years the cast (which also included Kim Fields and Nancy McKeon) relished the good and endured the bad of being young girls growing up in the spotlight. “Imagine having your entire puberty onscreen. That’s what we lived with!” Cohn, now 46, says, laughing. Here, 25 years after the series finale, Cohn and Whelchel, 50, discuss how they survived Hollywood criticism as teens and learned to become well-adjusted adults.
MC: At this stage of our lives, we’re both focusing on doing things on our own terms. But it’s different than when we were on The Facts of Life. Weight was always an issue back then.
LW: An everyday battle. Our bodies were a topic of conversation. There wasn’t the Internet, but we knew what people were saying. Joan Rivers called us ‘The Fats of Life.’
MC: That was part of the routine. She’d say [imitates Rivers], “Did you see the latest episode of The Fats of Life?” And of course everyone would laugh. We didn’t really talk about weight on-set. We were so tired of that conversation.
LW: But the producers sent me to quite a few fat farms! I’d say, “I’m going to Texas on my hiatus,” and they’d say, “Oh, no you’re not. We bought you a ticket to the fat farm!”
MC: Which is ridiculous. You have the most perfect genes ever!
LW: Aw, thanks. They were trying to figure out how to deal with our changing bodies.
MC: They did the best they could with what they had, but the producers were men who were talking to teenage girls about their bodies. Awkward!
LW: I know, right? Craft services had all sorts of food, and it was delicious. Then one day they replaced the doughnuts and cookies with carrots and celery. [Laughs] No one on-set was ever cruel. But I was just a young girl. It was hard feeling that my body wasn’t acceptable.
MC: I went through it in reverse. The summer I turned 17, my metabolism changed. I became active. I came back from hiatus – looking good, mind you – and was told, “What happened to you? You have to gain that weight back.” I took offense because Natalie wasn’t defined as “the fat girl.” People on the outside defined her like that, but there weren’t fat jokes about her on the show. I came home saying, “I have to gain 40 lbs.” And my mother said, “That’s not happening.” She told the producers to go to a school to see what normal girls look like at our age.
LW: As I got older and I became a mother, I became more comfortable in my own skin. I got a role in A Madea Christmas [due out this year], which is my first film in a long time. But going back into show business, I don’t want to starve myself. I would rather play a part that looks normal. A 50-year-old’s body is going to have some roundness. It’s going to have fallen in some places. It’s not going to be stick skinny. I’m also doing an exercise video called Everyday Workout for the Everyday Woman.
MC: You are? That’s a wonderful idea!
LW: Thanks! I’m not going to starve myself to lose 15 lbs. so I can look fabulous in the video. That’s not fair. I don’t want people to base their self-worth on what they see on television today. I want to be comfortable with my weight.
MC: I’ve never been a size 2. I was blessed with being a character actress. That being said, I’m also hired for a look and you can get angry about being told to maintain that look, but that’s part of the business. I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about what people think, but I can’t worry about that. It’s not in my best interest. I support myself doing lots of theater and indie movies. I’m happy.
LW: My faith in God helps me. It’s empowering to realize that it’s not important how your body looks. If you’re healthy and focused on the inside, that’s what matters.
MC: For me, it’s about self-acceptance, not self-improvement. I remind myself that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I choose that every day.