April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

Preparing for her role as a dying lover in the recently released Sweet November, Charlize Theron adhered to a draconian diet regimen devoid of even the slightest wiggle room. “Don’t eat any starches, don’t have any dinner, don’t have anything after 5, no alcohol,” recounts the 25-year-old actress, who last year lost about 16 lbs. for the part. Plus, “a lot of yoga, a lot of running.”

A typical mantra among thin-is-always-in Hollywood stars, right? Maybe, except that Theron’s attitude about all that required calorie-counting seems refreshingly ticked off. “I’m way too skinny for myself,” she complained to a reporter at the Cannes Film Festival last May. “There’s something that happens to your body—you just don’t feel as strong. I’m usually around a size 8, which I love.”

Granted, in an age when the average American woman is a size 14, size 8 still falls on the slim end of the spectrum. Not to mention that with her Miracle-Gro legs and dandelion-stem neck, Theron has the kind of body that suggests she’s holding a winning ticket in the Lucky Genes lotto.

Yet for all her litheness, the South African-born beauty also boasts a physical attribute that has been conspicuously absent among A-list actresses in recent years: curves. And not artificially padded curves either, but the kind of honest roundness that a diet of dressing-free salads cannot produce.

What’s more, Theron is hardly alone. In recent months, a growing band of leading ladies—among them Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jennifer Lopez—have begun to say it loud and say it proud: Yes, they eat; yes, they enjoy it; and no, they are not finding that they have to be a size 0 to get work. “You know, when I put on 15 lbs. [after making 1994’s Speed], I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ ” admits Sandra Bullock, 36. “But I didn’t stop eating those cookies. It’s actually liberating.”

Now resigned to the idea that “I’m never going to be thin and waiflike—I tried, it’s not going to work,” Bullock says she’s never been happier. The added pounds, she says, “round you out. I love my body now that it’s softer.”

Of course, no one is claiming that Hollywood’s obsession with thinness is over. Less established actresses in particular don’t always have the option of ignoring the scale. “I think there’s still huge pressure on actresses” to be thin, says veteran casting director Juliet Taylor. “They do a million things to make themselves look beautiful.” And though Amy Jo Berman, a casting executive for HBO, commends convention-bucking actresses for saying, “To heck with it—this is how we look,” she is quick to issue a caveat: “Even with [actresses’] being a little heavier, they’re still smaller than most of the population.”

Nonetheless, in an industry that has preached the gospel of thin for decades, there are signs that rounder bodies are enjoying a revival. “I’m aware of actresses looking more natural today than they did two, three, four years ago,” says Hollywood producer David Foster, who worked with Zeta-Jones, 31, on 1998’s Mask of Zorro. The Welsh beauty, he notes, “is not this skinny-rail” kind of woman. Although she worked hard to regain her figure after giving birth in August to Dylan, her son with Michael Douglas, “it’s not about starving yourself,” she told OK! magazine in December. “I wanted to be healthy.” Says Foster: “If there’s a piece of chocolate cake, she’ll dig in. If she wants to drink a bottle of wine, she’ll drink it. She enjoys living life.”

Barrymore, 26, put that philosophy on film, insisting on a scene in last fall’s Charlie’s Angels that depicted the sexy crimefighters chowing down on burgers and fries. “I think it’s fun for men when they’re around women who eat and aren’t self-conscious,” she told TEEN PEOPLE in November.

Even stars who were once painfully scrawny seem to be reclaiming their own healthy appetites. Take Courtney Thorne-Smith, 33, who now admits that costarring on Ally McBeal alongside one of the thinnest actresses in Hollywood—Calista Flockhart—severely undermined her self-esteem. “I was working in a very weight-conscious environment,” she recently told Self magazine. After dropping more than 10 lbs. prior to her departure from Allylast year, “I was frail,” says the actress, who has since regained the weight. “I was beating up my own body.”

Her former Ally costar Portia de Rossi, 28, can relate. After joining the show’s cast in 1998, the Aussie actress launched herself on a low-carb diet and strict exercise regimen. “I got on the Hollywood bandwagon,” de Rossi told Britain’s Sunday Express last summer. “Unfortunately…I got to a weight where I just didn’t look good anymore. So I put some back on.”

Former Baywatch star Gena Lee Nolin, 29, experienced an awakening of her own after the 1997 birth of her son Spencer. During her three seasons on the swimsuit-centric show, which she exited in 1998, “I was absolutely under pressure to be the thinnest I could be,” she confesses. Starring in the syndicated series Sheena, the still-slender 5’9″ actress currently weighs 129 lbs., 10 lbs. more than she did at her slightest. “Hollywood is becoming more flexible in terms of women’s shapes,” she says.

Motherhood also proved an epiphany for ER star Ming-Na, 37, who gave birth in November to daughter Michaela. “I feel more sensual [now] that there are more curves in my body,” she says. “I don’t think showing your skeletal structure is sexy.”

Actress Téa Leoni, whose daughter Madelaine is 1, agrees. “I’m much happier with my body now,” she told the Orange County Register in December. Leoni, 35, married to actor David Duchovny, also offered a quick rebuke to potential critics. “If I’m not rail-thin enough for Hollywood,” she added, “I’m sure they’ll let me know and I’ll be glad to leave.”

Sharon Stone, 43, is similarly defiant. “At home, I like to make a big bowl of pasta and stick two forks in it for our dinner. I think that’s sexy,” she told Marie Claire last July. “My husband [newspaper editor Phil Bronstein] likes me better when I’m not too skinny. …Truth is, most men don’t like really skinny girls.”

Count mega-producer Brian Grazer (The Grinch) in the pro-curves camp. “I don’t want the actresses I work with to get too thin—I just don’t like the way that looks,” he says. Grazer’s longtime business partner, director Ron Howard, concurs, adding that he has heard industry talk of a shift away from ultrathin actresses within “the last six or eight months.” Will the trend continue? “I hope so,” he says.

Apparently audiences do too. Lorraine Toussaint, 40, who costars on the Lifetime drama Any Day Now, says her figure has drawn praise from similarly shaped viewers. They “appreciate that I look like a normal woman,” she observes. “Most women have hips and busts and are struggling to stay healthy and toned and tucked.” Still, she notes, “being beautiful today means being very, very thin. I hope we can expand that, because as an African-American woman, we’re not built that way.”

Okay, so it’s a tad premature to break out the Häagen-Dazs in celebration of a curvy renaissance. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of actresses from readying their spoons. “I want to eat fun meals and laugh and enjoy myself,” Drew Barrymore told TV Guide last fall. The actress “is not a skinny Minnie,” says Manhattan celebrity-fitness guru High Voltage. “She looks very comfortable in her own skin.”

Jennifer Lopez, 31, the reigning Queen of Curves, shares that self-confidence. “When I first started teaching Jennifer,” recalls New York City trainer-to-the-stars Radu, “she said, ‘Don’t you dare work off my butt! I’m very proud of it.’ ” Indeed, when it comes to body size, “I don’t believe in beating yourself up,” Lopez told OK! magazine last February. Producer Michael Shamberg, who worked with the actress on 1998’s Out of Sight, says Lopez brings a needed dose of realism to her film roles. “Movie actresses have to be re-latable, not inaccessible like models,” he says. “If [actresses] are too thin, they don’t look real.”

British actress Kate Winslet, 25, voiced the same concern earlier this year, while noting that she was trying to peel off some of the 50 lbs. she gained during her pregnancy with daughter Mia, 5 months. Her grudging admission to Britain’s Radio Times in January that she needed to lose weight “or I won’t work” disappointed some of her fans, who had regarded Winslet as a champion of womanly fullness ever since her radiant turn in 1997’s Titanic. Yet shortly after her initial remark, the actress insisted that she had no plans to waste into waifdom. “I shall always be the curvy Kate that everybody knows,” she told a Los Angeles television reporter. In February, she drove that point home, proclaiming, “I don’t believe in diets, damn it!”

Neither does Charlize Theron, who didn’t hesitate when asked how she planned to regain her weight after wrapping Sweet November last summer. “I’m having a home-cooked English breakfast,” she gleefully proclaimed. “The steak and the eggs and the potatoes and the pancakes!”

Michelle Tauber

Pete Norman in Cannes and London, Karen Brailsford, Alison Gee, Meg Grant, Marisa Laudadio, N.F. Mendoza and Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City

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