“Is that really me? Did you stretch me somehow?” Valerie Bertinelli stares at the image of herself on a photographer’s monitor in disbelief. He tells her no, he hasn’t used any computer tricks; rather, after losing 30 lbs. in just over four months as a Jenny Craig spokeswoman, she really is that slim. Hearing that, Bertinelli, 47, tears up a bit. “I want to get to the size I was when [my son] Wolfie was in kindergarten 10 years ago,” says Bertinelli, who split with hubby Eddie Van Halen in 2001. (For the past three years she has been dating Tom Vitale, 46, a financial planner.) “I know I can do that. I hope!” Cheering her along every step of the way? None other than fellow Jenny Craig pitchwoman Kirstie Alley, 56, who says she has kept off the 75 lbs. she dropped on the plan. As stars now known as much for the fluctuations of their scales as for career highs like One Day at a Time and Cheers, Bertinelli and Alley convened in L.A. for a frank conversation with PEOPLE’s Maureen Harrington about what it feels like to be big – literally big – in Hollywood.
How did you two meet?
Alley: Our kids go to the same school. When I first saw her, I was like, “Oh, she’s famous.” But then I had this reaction: “I’m fat. I don’t want to talk much.”
Bertinelli: And that was me, too! It was like, “I don’t want anyone to see me. I’m fat.”
Alley: It’s worse when you run into famous people, because you’ve lived a public life of skinny, and here you are at your child’s school looking awful. That was my biggest disgrace.
Bertinelli: You just don’t want people to see what you look like, because you can hear their brains going.
Alley: You don’t want them to see what you’ve become.
Bertinelli: What always got me was someone would come up to me and say, “I think you’ve put on a few pounds.” Really? Because I don’t own a mirror? I know – believe me!
Alley: And thank you for telling me.
Bertinelli: Like that’s going to help!
Alley: You have so many people “helping you.” They’re not helping you. They’re invalidating you.
Bertinelli: That’s one of the first things Kirstie said to me when we started this journey. She said it’s going to be about much more than just losing weight. She was absolutely right.
Bertinelli: We’re taking responsibility. No one shoved that food in my mouth except me.
Alley: Exactly. It’s making me more ethical as a person who’s taking responsibility for how she got there in the first place. My opposition to gastric bypass is you never undo what you did to begin with, so you’re sitting there with the same bad habits.
Bertinelli: I’ve come to the realization that once you lose the weight, you don’t all of a sudden get happy. Sure, it’s easier to put on clothes, but I’ve lost the weight so many times thinking, “Oh, if I just weighed this much I’d be so much happier.” I know now I still have to work on that other stuff that has nothing to do with weight.
Beyond the weight itself, what was the worst part about being heavy?
Bertinelli: Wardrobe fittings! It used to be when I’d do a movie, I’d be like, “Do I have to tell them I’m a size 14”? and be really embarrassed about it.
Alley: I think about all the parties I didn’t go to because I felt bad about how I looked. That’s so selfish. And I look at how my children [Lillie, 13, and William True, 14] suffered because I wasn’t happy.
Did the two of you talk before Valerie joined up?
Bertinelli: We talked for a long time.
Alley: I had a bit of approval [over hiring] Valerie, and wanted to make sure that she was a strong enough personality to handle [the media] attacking her.
Bertinelli: I had no idea what I was in for! I had finally reached a point where I was starting to feel good about myself and then [after unflattering bathing suit photos appeared] the tabloids have me as a “Diet Disaster”!
Alley: They’ve been following me since 1986, saying I weighed 180, a hundred and whatever – and now they’re starting again.
Bertinelli: What I don’t like is that I take this job incredibly seriously. I am on this diet; there are people that see my weight – I don’t lie about it. But you put me in a bathing suit and I’m sweeping the deck and I just got out of the pool and I have no makeup on – yeah, I look like a 47-year-old woman! Give me a break.
Alley: I remember probably five days in my entire life of looking at myself and saying, “You look amazing!”
Bertinelli: That’s it?
Alley: Body-wise, yeah. I’ve never been very okay on my body.
Kirstie, when you gave your top weight as 219 lbs. in past stories, PEOPLE got letters from similarly sized readers challenging it. And Rosie O’Donnell said you were shaving a few pounds off the truth.
Alley: I have zero comment about [her]. We all have children. When you get into the realm of name-calling and accusations, it’s unacceptable.
Bertinelli: And why does it matter? She lost 75 pounds!
Alley: Per my contract, I’m allowed to fluctuate within five pounds. But I want to get myself conditioned. I was in better shape when I did the Oprah show [in a bikini] because I was dancing three hours a day. I need to get back to that. I want to make an exercise video of dance.
At the same time, Valerie, some of our readers were upset that you called yourself “fat” at a size 14.
Bertinelli: I read an article about that online, someone saying, “How dare she say she’s fat at a size 14! I’m a size 14. I weigh 140 lbs.” Well, if I was a size 14 and 140 lbs., I’d be proud of that, too – but I wasn’t. [Editor’s note: Bertinelli declined to reveal her heaviest weight.] So people should not take my being fat at a size 14 as an attack on them. There are size 14s out there who are perfectly healthy and should stay a size 14. I wasn’t one of them.
How do you now deal with cravings – like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s at 3 a.m.?
Alley: I was never a night eater. But for dinner I could eat 10 pounds of pasta.
Bertinelli: That sounds so good!
Alley: It sounds good to me, too – except there is a consequence. I was an athlete, so I used to be able to eat tons of food, but I was also probably working out four or five hours a day. That was hard for me when I could no longer eat tons of food.
Is it harder to diet or maintain?
Alley: Harder to diet, because of all the bad habits [you have to break]. For instance, I don’t eat anything fried. I’m not saying I never would . . .
Were you a big fry baby?
Alley: God yes! I’m from Kansas. You’d fry your children if it weren’t illegal. One of my favorites was bo logna gravy. You fry bologna up, make gravy out of it, and put it over biscuits or toast. I don’t do that anymore.
Bertinelli: I love to cook, too, but now I’ve learned to eat sensibly. I hope this is it for me. I’m done with the crazy eating.
You two seem to genuinely get along. Does that mean the rumors of tension on the set are exaggerated?
Alley: Oh, I’m glad you asked us that! I look at it this way: If we were fighting with each other, it would be exciting, sort of Dynasty-ish. But honest to God, I have not had an upset with any actress.
Bertinelli: We’re both professionals. If we didn’t care for each other, which isn’t true, we would still do our jobs.
Alley: Honestly, have you ever worked with actors you hated?
Bertinelli: There have been guys I didn’t want to kiss. Other than that, no.
Alley: During the first commercial, I gave her a pair of Christian Louboutins.
Bertinelli: I mean, they’re like, so cool. My first pair!
Alley: See? While we’re being accused of killing each other, I’ve given her $1,200 shoes. She gave me a freakin’ TiVo! That’s how much she hates me.
Bertinelli: And I’m going to fix her up with my brother. He’s divorced, but not rich.
Alley: Is he cute? I’m more about being cute than rich.
Valerie, as you near your goal, what milestones have you celebrated?
Bertinelli: Today I’m wearing my skinniest pair of jeans that I couldn’t even get over my thighs before.
Alley: The only jeans I saved was the pair I wore when I tried out for Star Trek in 1981. My daughter, who’s 13 and wears a size 2, they’re tight on her. Isn’t that insane? I think we were crazier when we were skinny than fat.
Bertinelli: We’re less crazy now because we’ve been through all that ridiculousness.