May 26, 2008 12:00 PM

Even by soap opera standards, it was a stunning plot twist: During the April 9 episode of Guiding Light, Ashlee Wolfe—one of daytime’s few plus-size characters, portrayed since 2006 by actress Caitlin VanZandt—announced she was going to get weight-loss surgery. “It will change me for the better,” Ashlee told her boyfriend during the scene. “So my outside will match what’s on the inside.”

Now, after weeks of fans hitting Internet message boards wondering if the fictional story line matched what was going on in real life, VanZandt, 22, reveals for the first time that, yes, just like her small screen alter ego, she, too, has undergone weight-loss surgery. On Feb. 29, during a 40-minute procedure at the New York University Medical Center, the actress had a device known as a lap-band placed around her stomach, shrinking the organ to the size of a golf ball, thereby limiting how much she can eat. Why would the 5’8″ VanZandt—who had parlayed her size 18 body into a successful career, with roles including crime boss Johnny Sack’s daughter on The Sopranos—opt for the surgery? “My body never limited me from doing anything,” she admits. “But I never felt very good about myself. I want to be able to watch the show and go, ‘That was a great moment,’ and not focus on, ‘I hope they cut in closer instead of doing a wide shot.'”

But before going under the knife, she consulted the show’s executive producer Ellen Wheeler, who specifically cast Ashlee as a full-figured character. Her response? “We’re not going to fire Caitlin because she’s no longer heavy,” says Wheeler, who instead weaved the surgery into the show with VanZandt’s blessing.

Still, her decision—and the show’s—angered some fans. “It perpetuates the idea that ‘fat girls’ have no value until they ‘do’ something about it,” one devotee wrote on a fan site. While she remains sensitive to her fans’ concerns, VanZandt—who has dropped 41 lbs. and is down to a size 14—says she has no regrets. “I chose to take control of my life and raise awareness that you can be healthy.”

These days healthy is all about watching her portions, sticking to a packet of oatmeal for breakfast and a can of tuna with light mayo (no bread) for lunch. “When I go out to eat, I have half my dinner and have them wrap the other half,” says VanZandt, whose goal size is an 8. “The wardrobe at Guiding Light is getting ridiculously big, which is lovely! It’ll be fun to shop for that.”

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