'Now I Can Be Free'
FOR FOUR YEARS, UNTIL SHE WAS 12 years old, Soleil Moon Frye had the title role on the NBC sitcom Punky Brewster, playing a pint-size, pig-tailed orphan whose sunny disposition brightened the lives of everyone around her. But when Soleil, now 16, started to grow up, she developed an unexpected problem. By the time she was 15, the 5’1″ Soleil had an unwieldy size 38-DD bust line. She couldn’t even jog around the corner from her Burbank, Calif., home without boys taunting, “Hey, Punky Boobster!” And, Soleil says ruefully, “people started to think of me as a bimbo.”
Soleil, who suffered from a medical condition termed gigantomastia (literally, giant breasts), decided to have breast-reduction surgery, an operation performed on 2,500 teenage girls each year. Another 21,500 adolescent boys and girls annually go under the knife to have their noses, chins or ears reshaped or to have fat-reducing liposuction on their legs, hips or necks. (See stories beginning on page 88) “Making a change at this point can make a substantial difference in a teenager’s psychological adjustment,” says Dr. Peter McKinney, a Chicago plastic surgeon. But McKinney also cautions, “Teens are incredibly vulnerable to suggestion. Sometimes they just need to be told that their breast or nose size is fine.”
Soleil’s problems, however, were physiological as well as psychological. The weight of her breasts caused back pain and sore shoulders under her bra straps. “It was hard for me even to give somebody a hug,” Soleil says. As she speaks, her mother, Sondra Peluce, who runs Mother Moon Caterers, serves Soleil sushi and cappuccino in the living room of their white stucco home. “I couldn’t sit up straight without people looking at me like I was a prostitute,” Soleil says. “My breasts became an insecurity.”
For a young actress, they were also a liability. Soleil had trouble playing girls her own age, she says, “because my body looked like an older woman’s.” The offers she got, she says, “were tits and ass,” and male producers regarded her as “a wild girl.”
Worse, Soleil began to lose both her cheery outlook and her self-esteem. “I used to be a free spirit,” says Soleil, who, as a child star, held her own socially with Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and other high-profile friends of her father’s, character actor Virgil Frye (Colors). With Sondra, who divorced Frye when Soleil was 2, Soleil belonged to a buoyant, hippielike extended family of friends and relatives “who always made me feel comfortable,” she says.
Now, though, Soleil began to feel ill at ease especially around boys. “No matter how much a guy cared for me, my breasts were a distraction,” says Soleil, who has dated actor Eddie Furlong (Terminator 2) as well as pop sex symbol Marky Mark. “Backstage at Mark’s concerts,” Soleil says, “other girls would look at me like I was an object. I would come home and start crying.”
“Soleil had always been animated and fun,” says her mother, who, with a 36-D bust line herself, could sympathize with her daughter’s plight. “She was becoming self-conscious and would sometimes wear shirts tied around her waist to draw attention away from her chest.”
Still, Soleil’s decision to have plastic surgery was difficult. “It was scary,” she says. “It was a time when I was confronting my fears about becoming a woman. I needed to be sure that I was doing this for myself—not for producers or boyfriends or my family. It takes a lot of courage.”
First she confided in Sondra, who was all for the operation. On the recommendation of a friend who had had the surgery, in February 1992, Sondra took Soleil to Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Steven Zax. Zax agreed to perform the operation, called a reduction mammoplasty, because, he says, “her breasts were exceedingly large and uncomfortable and prevented many activities.”
Usually 16 is the earliest age recommended for such a procedure, yet the time when a girl’s physical development is likely to be complete varies with each patient. And so, last May 15—three months shy of her 16th birthday—Soleil submitted to an arduous six-hour operation at Century City Hospital in LA. First Dr. Zax removed segments of each breast, including skin, nipples and tissue. He then recontoured the breasts into a size 36-C by elevating them, centering them on the chest and replacing the nipples. The surgery required 4,000 stitches and left both breasts bruised.
For the next day and a half, propped up in a hospital gown while Demerol dripped intravenously into her system to ease the soreness, Soleil held court for a parade of Hollywood’s busiest teens—including Tori Spelling and Brian Austin Green from Beverly Hills 90210 and Jay Ferguson from Evening Shade. “There were as many as 40 people in my room at one time,” says Soleil proudly.
Still, when the Demerol began to wear off, she says, “it hurt like hell. It was very scary.” Taking painkillers every four hours for a week helped. So did antibiotics to counter an infection that developed in her left breast, which originally had been larger and was more traumatized during surgery. But for the next month Soleil was unable to lift her arms and could sleep only lying on her back. “Soleil thought, ‘In a week I’ll be up and out,’ ” says Peluce. “She didn’t realize the time it takes.”
What she did understand were the trade-offs. In return for smaller breasts, she decided that she; could live with C-shaped scars under each breast and around her nipples, plus a scar running from each nipple down to her rib cage. She could also accept her eventual inability to breastfeed and the chance that she would never regain feeling in her nipples. Fortunately, she says, in the 11 months since the operation, “the scar tissue has completely faded, and I’ve gotten sensation back in my nipples—totally!”
When Soleil described her ordeal in detail to her friends, she says, “they were shocked that I’m so open. I’ve talked to Marky Mark and Eddie Furlong. They were curious about it.” They were also supportive. “Eddie was like, ‘I can’t wait until you get your bandages off so we can really hug,” Soleil says. Ten days after surgery, bulky with bandages, she attended a Hollywood Athletic Club pool tournament for pediatric AIDS charities. “Everyone was playing pool,” recalls Soleil. “But I couldn’t lift my arms. So I held the stick down and popped the ball in to the pocket. Luke Perry [of 90210] was going, ‘Hey, that’s damn good for just getting out of surgery.’ ”
Soleil picked up her acting cues early, since both her brothers, Meeno (now 23 and a director of TV commercials) and Sean (now 26 and a UCLA psychology student), were kiddie thespians. But even though she got her first part at age 5—in the 1983 ABC-TV movie Who Will Love My Children?—big bucks didn’t follow. “My mom was catering nights and days, and Meeno would take care of me. It was hard, but every year she would get us a really special birthday gift. We didn’t have money, but we had that sense of family and home.”
For her early childhood education, Soleil attended private school in Los Feliz, Calif. Now a senior at a San Fernando Valley college prep school, she has applied to Boston University and the University of Colorado. Each morning she hops into her shiny red Jeep and heads off to school, where, between 8:15 a.m. and 1 p.m., she studies psychology, trigonometry and English literature. Afterward there is dance class, hanging time with pals like Spelling, homework and meetings about new projects. Right now she’s appearing in the play Orestes/I Murdered My Mother in West L.A. She has guest-hosted on a new syndicated young people’s TV talk show, You Are Here, airing next season, and her first grown-up movie, The Liars’ Club, an offbeat thriller, will be released in July. As for romance, Soleil says discreetly, “I am dating a few people, but I don’t have a serious boyfriend.” Does she feel prettier with her new, smaller breast size? “Now I’m not insecure,” she says, “and I can shine.”
Though she isn’t thrilled with her solo status, she isn’t panicking either. “I’m still a virgin,” she says. “Some-times my friends joke about it, but they respect the fact that I am open about it. People realize that it’s okay to say no until you meet the right person.”
In the interest of helping other teens, she and Meeno are making a video about her surgery. On the tape, which she hopes will be distributed to video stores, she explains, “I am making a transition in my life. I want kids to know that it is okay to make a change in order to feel better about themselves.”
Sinking into her sofa. Soleil adjusts her tank-top dress over her newly reshaped breasts and says, “I didn’t know I would be so happy.” She hesitates for moment, then smiles. “I am just loving myself right now. I’m finally free to be the teenager that I am.”
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles