For 15 years, actress Yeardley Smith, 39, has been the voice of sensible brainiac Lisa on The Simpsons. But in More, her recent Off-Broadway one-woman show, Smith spoke up about her tumultuous private life. Here she tells correspondent K.C. Baker about her 25-year battle with bulimia, romance troubles and plastic surgery.
I always felt that I had this hole inside of me, this bottomless pit of wanting global adoration. I wanted to be the best at whatever I did, or it wasn’t worth doing. When I was 5 and growing up in Washington, D.C., I posed as a living portrait of Mary Cassatt’s Child in a Straw Hat at a neighbor’s house. I thought I was the best living portrait ever, and got bit hard by being in the spotlight. I thought that if I could be the most famous actor in the world, win an Academy Award by 20 and another by 21, then I would feel whole. When I got my big break as an actress—taking over [Sex and the City star]] Cynthia Nixon’s role on Broadway in The Real Thing in 1984—I thought I’d begin to feel that fullness I sought. Instead I felt a sense of panic, like, “Oh no, I don’t feel prettier or more accomplished than I did yesterday.” That was very confusing.
I always set the bar higher, and did a lot of things to cope with that quest for perfection. Like bingeing and purging. When I was 14, I already had enormous body issues. A friend told me she could eat all this stuff and throw it up, and that’s how she stayed so skinny. I really didn’t enjoy making myself vomit, but I was determined. I thought, “If I can achieve this, I can beat the enemy, my body.” I was always at my heaviest when bingeing and purging was at its worst; I learned years later that if your average binge is 3,000 calories, you may end up throwing up only half of that. As always, I blamed myself: The reason it’s not working is I’m not doing it well enough. I was also a compulsive exerciser. I’d go to the gym, take a class, go on the bike and treadmill for an hour and then lift weights. Then, of course, I would be starved and would binge and purge.
I also blamed myself when I didn’t get a part: It was because I somehow didn’t measure up. The movies I did get [such as 1985’s The Legend of Billie Jean, 1986’s Maximum Overdrive, 1992’s Toys] didn’t do very well, and that was a great disappointment to me. I wasn’t going to win my Academy Award, and my 20s were ticking away. I got this funny little show called The Simpsons and was completely uninterested in doing voice-overs. I’m enormously proud to be a part of it, but since it wasn’t on my list, I didn’t feel it counted.
Then the quest to fix the inside from the outside graduated to a whole new level: plastic surgery. I thought, “Maybe if I take extreme measures to fit into this mold of what’s physically successful in show business, I will work more.” I spent more than $40,000 and had my thighs sucked three times, along with my knees, ankles, arms and cheeks, and had my eyelids tucked twice. So I got smaller, and got a great job [in 1997’s As Good as It Gets], but my next two jobs were each a [script] page long and didn’t have a name.
I was not able to accept myself, so I chose men who wouldn’t accept me either: married men, men who ignored me, men who tried to make me into something else. Then in 1998 I met Daniel Erickson. I felt like somebody had dropped a house on me. I just knew. His loving but hands-off approach made me feel brave enough to address my bulimia for the first time and realize the work was mine to do: “It’s your responsibility, and you will deal with it when you are able to deal with it.”
Even though I was in love [they married in 2002], my bulimia had escalated from 90-minute binge-purges to three hours or more in the fall of 2002. That’s when I hit my bottom. I decided to find an eating-disorders group. It met eight hours a week for 13 months, but it took that much focus on the problem to shake it loose. It was a complicated process, and then on Aug. 6,2003,I had my last binge and purge. I haven’t had one since. But one doesn’t do a victory dance, because the game isn’t over. I have to cross the street to get away from the bakery if I’m feeling vulnerable and fretful.
I have things more in perspective now. I don’t regret my plastic surgery, but I do regret feeling at the time that I couldn’t live without having it. One of the unexpected benefits of writing More is that I was able to go, “Look at everything you have done, and this absurd perception you have of your success.” I’ve learned to accept who I am, thank God, because there is so much energy that goes into that self-loathing of how come my hips aren’t a size 36 or whatever. All of those feelings of failure are completely in my own head. I finally get it.