January 15, 2001 12:00 PM

Clad in form-fitting brown suede pants and a matching long-sleeved T-shirt, Carnie Wilson stepped onto the stage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Above her, projected on a giant screen, a photograph taken in May 1999 showed her at 300 lbs. Now, as the band 98° introduced her to the audience at the Dec. 5 Billboard Music Awards, the audience erupted in stunned applause. Wilson, weighing just 148 lbs., was making her first major public appearance since she whittled herself down to less than half her former size. “Standing here with these guys,” she said with a grin, “I really want to feel a little slap from each of you on my butt.”

Who could blame her for being playful about her svelte new body? After spending most of her life struggling with obesity and such related problems as sleep irregularity and dangerously high cholesterol, Wilson, 32, has dropped 150 lbs. and almost 20 dress sizes from her 5’3″ frame since undergoing gastric-bypass surgery in August 1999. (By exercising regularly and getting surgery to remove excess skin, she hopes to lose 15 more pounds.) Though she has taken some criticism for choosing such a drastic, possibly dangerous method to lose weight—not to mention having the procedure broadcast live on the Internet, a move that struck many as tasteless—Wilson says she has no regrets. After trying all sorts of diets without success and confronting mounting health problems, she says, “I had no other alternative.”

And this alternative worked. Ten months after the 90-minute operation and already down to 165 lbs., she married her boyfriend of a year, Rob Bonfiglio, guitarist for the band Blush. Purchased after the surgery, her wedding dress still had to be altered twice to fit her shrinking body. “She looked so beautiful,” says Bonfiglio, 33, “it was overwhelming.”

Wilson is herself overwhelmed by the new joy she finds in the most ordinary activities. A trip to the mall, once as appealing as a visit to the dentist, has become a favorite pastime. There was a time when simply walking from the parking lot left her gasping for breath; now she flits effortlessly from store to store. And she’s loving every moment: Anyone standing outside the fitting room at the Sherman Oaks, Calif., Bloomingdale’s one day recently might have been puzzled by the hoots and hollers coming from within. Shaking her hips in a stretch denim skirt, an ecstatic Wilson kept checking the label to reassure herself that she was wearing a size 6, not a 26. “You want to know why I’m screaming?” she asked a saleswoman. “Because this is what I looked like a year ago.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a picture of herself at her heaviest. The woman just stared, Wilson gleefully recalls. “She said, ‘I don’t believe it. I just can’t believe this is you.’ ”

Sometimes, neither can Wilson. As dramatic as the physical transformation has been, the emotional change has been even greater. “It’s a major sense of freedom,” says Wilson, who now wears between a size 6 and a size 10. “I walk by a window and see my reflection and I can’t believe it’s me in that tiny body. I just start smiling. People think I’m nuts because I’m always smiling out of nowhere. They’re like, ‘What’s so funny about seeing your own reflection?’ and I’m thinking, ‘You just don’t understand.’ ”

The daughter of songwriter Brian Wilson, 58—whose band, the Beach Boys, popularized California’s surf culture with a string of hits starting in the early ’60s—and Marilyn, 52, now a real estate agent, Wilson always struggled with her weight; her sister, Wendy, now 31, never did. One of Wilson’s earliest memories, dating back to when she was 4, is of sitting on the kitchen floor and eating raw cake mix out of the box. The binges continued, and by age 9, she weighed 110 lbs. “She was insatiable,” says Wendy. “Even when she was eating her own food, she would start picking at my plate. It wasn’t about food; it was more emotional. She was trying to fill some void inside her. I’m sure a lot of it was because we were missing our dad.”

In the ’70s, with the Beach Boys’ glory days behind him, Brian Wilson descended into depression, heavy drug use—and overeating. At one point he ballooned to 340 lbs. “Food was just an issue with everyone in our family,” says Carnie. “I used to be amazed how quickly he ate his food and how much he ate.” One night, both sisters recall, Brian woke Carnie up to join him for a bowl of Raisin Bran and Half-and-Half. “I think it was a bonding experience for her,” says Wendy. But Brian, who was divorced from Marilyn in 1979, denies that he contributed to Carnie’s weight problems. “I don’t think my eating habits affected her,” he said last year. “She turned to food whenever something was difficult. She just kind of went overboard.”

When other kids teased her, Wilson responded with humor. “I wasn’t your typical shy overweight girl,” she says. “I was on a mission to have everyone like me. I was a ham, so I was always naturally performing.”

It came as no surprise when she followed her father into the limelight by forming a vocal group, Wilson Phillips, with Wendy and their lifelong friend Chynna Phillips, daughter of onetime Mamas and the Papas stars John and Michelle Phillips. Though their debut album, Wilson Phillips, brought great success—it sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and produced three No. 1 singles—the pressure of being in an image-conscious industry took its toll. By working out with a personal trainer three times a week and adhering to a strict diet, Wilson came down 90 lbs. to 185 just before the group’s first single was released. “My body felt foreign to me, like I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin,” she recalls. Soon she was back over 240 lbs. and dreading shooting music videos alongside her two slim bandmates. After the second album flopped and Phillips left the band in 1992, Wilson continued making music with her sister and was tapped to host a daytime TV talk show. When Carnie was canceled at the end of its first season, she tried her hand at acting, snagging the part of Mama Earth in the 1999 TV mini-series The ’60s. “She was perfect for the role; she’s so full of life,” says director Mark Piznarski. “Unfortunately the reality is that if you weigh 300 lbs. you’re not right for every role.”

Faced with that reality, Wilson began considering stomach-reduction surgery after TV’s Roseanne, who underwent the procedure in 1998, recommended it to her. Diagnosed as morbidly obese (100 lbs. or more over her ideal weight), Wilson decided to have the surgery despite her family’s reservations. “I thought maybe that it was dangerous,” says Brian. In fact, doctors say the dangers to Wilson and the 45,000 other Americans who last year had the surgery—which is covered by many insurance plans—are considerable. “The risk of any surgery among the morbidly obese is higher than the normal risk,” says Dr. Alan Wittgrove, who performed the $20,000 procedure on Wilson. Among the possible complications: small bowel obstructions, infections, leaks in the small intestine, and potentially deadly blood clots. Dehydration and protein and vitamin deficiencies are also concerns after the surgery, and because the procedure is still fairly new, there are no studies of its long-term effects. But Wittgrove says patients find that their improved health makes it a “positive trade-off.”

Agreeing to show the procedure on the Internet, Wilson says, was “an opportunity to talk about morbid obesity. People just think, ‘Oh, you’re just fat and lazy and a pig.’ But it’s a disease, and it’s not taken seriously.” These days she is constantly approached by people who want to tell her how good she looks and to share their own struggles with weight. “People pour their hearts out,” says Wilson, “and it’s because I did. I went public.”

Three months before the surgery she met her future husband at a concert in Philadelphia. “She just seemed like a very charismatic person,” says Bonfiglio. “There was an instant attraction.” But Wilson worried about her size: “I thought, ‘I know he thinks I’m pretty, I know he loves my personality, but is he turned off right now that I’m having trouble getting out of the car?’ ”

In August 1999 Wilson had the surgery, which reduced her stomach—normally the size of two fists—to the size of a thumb and connected it directly to the lower part of the intestine. Her stomach has since stretched slightly but will never expand to hold more than one ounce, whereas the average stomach holds a full quart. After two days in the hospital and a week convalescing at a hotel, Wilson started seeing the pounds melt away. She lost 60 lbs. in the first eight weeks and 110 after eight months. “It feels as if I blinked and the scale just went, ‘Wuuupp!’ ” she marvels.

Last June she married Bonfiglio at the Hotel Bel-Air. Her father, from whom she was estranged for most of her teens, gave her away. “Getting married was something I had wanted to do forever, and he was there, just like I had always dreamed,” says Carnie. The four-layer wedding cake was perfect too. “It was so good it was unbelievable,” she says. “I only had a bite though.”

Of course that doesn’t mean her love of food has disappeared. “The surgery doesn’t work on the brain,” she says. “But I have fewer cravings. I know that I’m going to get full quickly, and that comforts me.” Instead of five junk-food binges a day, Wilson now eats three light meals: a small portion of protein such as fish or chicken, a bit of starch in the form of pasta or rice, vegetables and a piece of fruit. Snacks—a spoonful of peanut butter or a handful of almonds—are allowed in moderation. Not that she could overeat even if she wanted to. The way her digestive system is short-circuited now, too much sugar would send her body into an insulin reaction. “I get nauseous,” she says. “But it’s a blessing, because it keeps me from eating foods that are not good for me.” Because she’ll never be able to eat as much as she did before, says Dr. Wittgrove, “it’s very hard to gain the weight back.”

Now settled in a three-bedroom, three-story row house just outside Philadelphia (there are L.A. digs too), Wilson—who is writing songs for a Wilson Phillips reunion album and also acting as a spokeswoman for http://www.Spotlighthealth.com, the host for her obesity support group—is savoring newlywed life. “We do physical activities together, and we wouldn’t have if I hadn’t lost the weight,” she says. “It makes the relationship more exciting. Sex has always been great. But there is just more because we’re happier.” Bonfiglio agrees. “I’ve only known Carnie for a year and a half and she’s lost half her body weight. She’s the shrinking wife! I’m thrilled for her. I see it as a new beginning.”

So does Wilson. It will just take a little more getting used to. “The hardest part has been to let go of that fat person,” she says. “I mourn the loss of my old self. It brought me some protection in some way, and now that it’s gone I sort of feel empty.” But then she brightens. “I’m noticing men staring at me,” she says incredulously. “And you know what? They’re not just staring at my face; they’re looking at my entire body. It feels wonderful.”

Julie K.L Dam

Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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