“Empty!” shouts Wolfgang Van Halen, shaking a large box of Corn Pops cereal at his mom, actress Valerie Bertinelli. “Every single piece of food in the house is Jenny Craig,” laments the high school sophomore and guitarist, surveying the airy kitchen in the family’s Studio City, Calif., home, which is now brimming with prepackaged food from the weight-loss program. And Wolfie—the 16-year-old son of Bertinelli and her ex, Hall of Fame rocker Eddie Van Halen—is having some issues with the controlled portions. “You open a bag of [Jenny Craig cheese curls] and there’s, like, three in there.”
Evidently he’s not the only one feeling the pinch. Bertinelli’s boyfriend of nearly three years, Tom Vitale, “hit our Doritos last night and ate like 14 bags!” reveals Wolfie, laughing. Then, looking over at his bemused mom—who lost 10 lbs. in her first three weeks on the diet—he shrugs. “Well, it is working,” he says. “So maybe it’s for the best.”
Cheese-curl rations and all, Bertinelli, who turns 47 this month, has no complaints. Joining Kirstie Alley as a celebrity face—and body—for Jenny Craig, the 5’2″ actress best known for her 1975-84 sitcom One Day at a Time is vowing to lose 30 lbs. by September (from a size 14 to a size 8). Going public with her goal “is the motivation I need,” she says. “I need to do this in front of millions of people so I can’t mess up. It is freeing because I can say it first: I know what you’re thinking—I’m fat.”
“We feel the same way about weight loss,” says Alley, 56, who has maintained her 75-lb. downsizing. “She isn’t interested in promoting whittling yourself down to a size 0, and I agree.” Bertinelli says Alley also offered some advice: “She said, ‘Even if Wolfie wants to go to In-N-Out Burger, don’t do it, because paparazzi will photograph you!'”
The campaign, for which she will shoot a new ad every month as she shrinks, represents a major step back into the public eye for Bertinelli, lately a stay-at-home mom whose last big TV role was on Touched by an Angel in 2003. “Wolf is my priority,” she says. “I was a Hollywood hermit.” Also, she adds, “I didn’t like going up for interviews because I didn’t want to hear how fat I am.”
Although she remains guarded about her current weight—”Tom doesn’t even know and he’s not going to until I get down”—she is blunt about her goals. “I don’t know how my size, 14, has become obese while size 0 is normal,” she says. “It’s insane. I’m not even going for a size 6. I’ll be happy with a size 8.”
So how did the cheery actress—whose screen-brightening smile, apple cheeks and thick brown mane remain enviably unchanged from her TV heyday—get to a size 14 in the first place? “I love food,” she says simply. “The only thing I can think of that I don’t love is liver and onions. I like sweet, savory and everything in between.” One particular favorite: New Orleans-style gumbo. “When I finally learned how to make gumbo—oh my God!—I would have a big bowl with red beans and rice.”
Like many women, she slowly put on the pounds without realizing the cumulative effect. “I enjoy being a mom, and I love to cook,” she says. “I never binged—I grazed. A lot. My portion [size] wasn’t T.G.I. Friday’s but not Jenny Craig’s either.”
In January “I was playing a game of touch football during the halftime show for the Super Bowl, and I got winded quickly,” she recalls. Her “rock-bottom” moment “was seeing pictures of myself and realizing I looked like Jabba the Hutt. I reached a point where I didn’t want to be fat for the rest of my life.”
Bertinelli is equally frank about body image. “Don’t tell me I have to lose weight to feel good about myself or worthwhile,” she says. “I want to lose weight to have more energy and feel better, but it’s what I want to do.”
Still she’s hardly immune to cruel comments. “I hear people in the grocery store say, ‘I thought she was a lot prettier than that.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m right here!'” She also admits to being defensive about her size in the past. “I was like, ‘I’m going to get fat, and if nobody hires me then that’s their problem because they have a warped sense of what a woman should look like.'”
She kept telling herself that even as she was trying “every diet—Atkins, Weight Watchers,” she says. “I’d lose 10 or 15 lbs. but I never stuck with it.”
Although she clearly wanted to lose weight, when the call came in February from Jenny Craig execs, “I was horrified,” she says. (It’s a tough job, being the one to tell a star she’d make a great diet pitchwoman. “It is tricky,” says Jenny Craig Marketing VP Scott Parker. “But the Kirstie Alley story has made it easier.”) Bertinelli gamely said she would try it. After losing 2 lbs. in a week, she signed on. Prepping for her first shoot, the ad folks “were picking me apart, but in a very kind way,” she says. “Look, my ego is gone.”
The night before officially kicking off her 1,200-calorie-a-day plan—which is accompanied by a walking regimen that requires a minimum of 10,000 daily steps measured by a pedometer—Bertinelli and her family indulged in a feast. “We went to Morton’s and I had steak and lobster,” she says. “I raised my martini and said, ‘You are not going to see this in my hand until I lose 25 lbs. At 25 lbs. I’m having a martini.'” A few days later—and accompanied by two girlfriends who are dieting along with her—she stepped on the scale for her first weigh-in at Jenny Craig. “When it was Valerie’s turn, she stripped down to her skivvies—I guess she is like most women who want to take everything off to get to the lowest number possible,” jokes her pal Suzanne Ferleger, a homemaker. Adds Bertinelli: “It was hard, but then I ripped off my jeans and just let it go.” ”
It’s the kind of regular-gal earthiness that helped make Bertinelli a star at 15 playing Barbara Cooper, the wholesome younger daughter of a single mom (Bonnie Franklin) on One Day at a Time. As a teen star “I felt no pressure to be sexy. I never thought about breast implants or anything like that,” she says, laughing. As for her costar MacKenzie Phillips, who played her older sister, “Mac was tall and thin and I just couldn’t compete with that.” Even as Bertinelli developed a large fan base of teenage boys who helped make the show a hit, “I preferred being the girl next door,” she says. “Now I’m the mom next door.”
But even before her breakthrough role, Bertinelli says she faced scrutiny from casting directors about her weight. “I was told I was too fat at age 13,” says the Delaware-bred actress, the daughter of a former General Motors exec and a homemaker. The criticism did have an effect. “God knows I’ve starved myself,” she says. “I’ve been down to 98 lbs.” But unlike actresses in similar situations who succumb to eating disorders, “I never got in trouble, because when I would get to a certain point I’d go, ‘This sucks! I want to eat!’ and stop myself from destroying my body. I would say I’m a survivor.”
It’s a quality that helped see her through the rough parts of her 20-year marriage to Van Halen, 52. After meeting backstage at a concert in 1980—she was 20 and a TV star; he was the guitar god of a wildly successful band—the pair quickly became the ultimate good girl-bad boy couple. They wed the next year, and after a miscarriage followed by years of trying to conceive, in 1991 Bertinelli gave birth to Wolfie, named for Van Halen’s favorite composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Even as Wolfie became “the joy of my life,” her husband’s well-documented battles with alcoholism strained the family. (Recently Van Halen called off the band’s planned summer tour, for which Wolfie was to play bass, to check himself into rehab.) “We all know Al-Anon,” Bertinelli says of the support group for friends and families of alcoholics. In 2002, shortly after Eddie successfully battled oral cancer for the second time, the couple announced their separation. “I still love Eddie and always will, but we just can’t live together,” she says. Their divorce is not yet official, but “we’re getting there,” she says. “We all have painful pasts we have to get through. My addiction is food. His is something else. And only the two of us know how it feels to love Wolfie the way we do.”
Looking back, she acknowledges that the stressful period after their split—during which she also was commuting between L.A. and the Touched by an Angel set in Utah—contributed to her expanding waistline: “I was in the airport five days a week. I would fly home just to tuck Wolfie in before going back to work.” Meanwhile “the show kept buying me bigger and bigger clothes—a size 14 felt tight—but nobody made me feel bad about it,” she recalls.
What’s more, her workouts were half-hearted. “If I used a pedometer and didn’t get 3,000 steps a day, I was like, ‘Oh, screw it,'” she says with a shrug.
She also avoided the dating scene for several years: “I was really trying to get my head on straight.” Then in 2004 Bertinelli’s brother Patrick introduced her to Vitale, 45, a former financial planner, at a wine-tasting event in Arizona. “I was basically a seat-filler for their extra ticket—it wasn’t really a date,” recalls Vitale, who has four children from a previous marriage. But the attraction was there. “I wanted to kiss him the first time I saw him,” she says. The next day the two met up at Patrick’s house. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is how it’s supposed to be with a woman,'” says Vitale. Two weeks later they were together watching Wolfie play with his dad at a Van Halen concert.
For her son, having a new man around was initially challenging. “I felt like he was taking her away from me, and I was really protective of my mom,” says Wolfie. But since Vitale moved into their hilltop home last year with his son Tony, 16, the blended family has occasionally even come to include Van Halen and his girlfriend Janie Liszewski, who says, “I lucked out to be brought into such a close-knit family.” Last month the whole group celebrated Wolfie’s birthday. “We had a huge cake, but Mom ate her Jenny Craig fettuccine,” says Wolfie. “I’m proud of her; she’s really working for it.” (Vitale is too: He’s lost 8 lbs. so far.)
For now Bertinelli is taking things one pound at a time—and looking ahead to that celebratory martini, among other rewards. In the past, “I would treat myself with a steak dinner,” she says. “Now, if I want to give myself a treat it will be a new pair of shoes or a handbag. And when I get down enough, an even better treat—a new pair of jeans!”