March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

Delta Burke grew up, she recalls, “a bit of a loner,” in Orlando. Seeing how the boys at school fussed over blonde girls with tans, the pale brunette “thought she was the ugliest thing in the world,” says her mother, Jean Burke (a Mississippi-born beauty queen who married Delta’s adoptive father, Frederick Burke, an Orlando real estate agent, in the late 1950s). Enrolled in modeling classes at 13, Delta discovered the thrill of “getting onstage and being a ham,” as she describes it in Delta Style: Eve Wasn’t a Size 6 and Neither Am I, a memoir published this month by St. Martin’s Press.

While her talent for performing was rock solid, Burke’s confidence was not. Though close to her mother (she says she never knew her real father), she worried about gaining weight. “There is not a female member of our extended family,” she writes, “who is under a size 12.” The struggle to stay thin reached its nadir in 1991-92, when—as a 215-pound star of the sitcom Designing Women—Burke “had to stand in the grocery store checkout line next to tabloid headlines that screamed I was devouring whole boxes of candy and chasing people around on the set to get their candy.”

In 1995, following the failures of the sitcoms Delta and Women of the House, she fled Hollywood and, she says, with the help of psychotherapy and antidepressants finally managed to conquer her weight-induced depression. Diagnosed with mild diabetes last fall, she is learning to adapt her diet and to regulate her blood-sugar levels. The size-14-to-16 Burke now tries logo for long walks each day when in New Orleans, where she lives with husband Gerald McRaney (star of CBS’s The Promised Land). Her mother resides nearby. With a signature line of clothing for large-size women sold on QVC and in stores around the country, she has become a role model for others who’ve struggled with weight. “They trust that things will be all right for them,” she says, “because they’ve seen me go through all of it.”

I WANTED TO BE A STAR, RIGHT from the get-go. At 15, in 1971, I remember getting off a plane after my first acting job, which was playing nursery-rhyme characters for Tupperware salesmen. I told my mother, “I know what I want to do the rest of my life.”

I entered my first beauty pageant at 16. The winner was to represent the local fire department: Miss Flame. Although I was a nervous wreck and acted on instinct alone, I won. I thought, my God, I may actually have a knack for this.

Because my own sense of self was so shaky, dressing up let me become someone more beautiful, poised and outgoing than I thought I was. It was odd, my entering beauty pageants—yet having little social life and being uncomfortable with my looks and the reactions I got.

All that freedom from the real world changed dramatically at 16, when, happily rolling an inner tube down the dirt road leading from my grandmother’s house, I got a terrible feeling. The road had always been seen in my mind as the way to the Scary Place, for reasons long forgotten. Only now I remembered why. The memories came trickling in—how I had traveled down that same path when I was only four years old, going to visit my friend, and how her teenage brother had “played” with me, and how uncomfortable it made me feel. I remembered going to my mother—and she listened to me. Other things came back to me: the bright lights of the doctor’s office, the gloves, and Momma going to their house. And suddenly it occurred to me that it was from that point on that my friend and I were never friends again.

I ran home and went to my grandmother and asked her if I had dreamed it all: Had my neighbor’s brother actually molested me? She looked at me for a long time and then said yes.

I don’t want to make too much of this—the fact that my mother listened to me probably helped me avoid major problems later on. Because she believed me and looked into the situation, this was a one-time-only event. I am writing about it now so parents will believe their children and take action. The molestation did have a profound effect on me for a long time. Now I understood why I couldn’t deal with people’s sexual interest in me. It scared and frightened me. At times I think I gained weight because it felt safer to be heavier.

At 17, I was the youngest Miss Florida ever. Before the Miss America pageant in September 1974, I met with state pageant judges, and they decided I needed to lose some weight. So I turned to water pills, diuretics. The weight would come right off, but so would the good stuff, like vitamins and minerals.

I was devastated when I didn’t make the top ten in the Miss America pageant. But it wasn’t a total loss. I used the money I won in a nonfinalist competition to study, in 1976, at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Unfortunately London was also where I first discovered those troublesome diet pills called black beauties. They made my heart race, so in order to keep from fainting I would have to stop at every landing on the school steps. To make things worse, I’d have nothing to eat all day. Then I would go back to my room and open up one can of macaroni and cheese with some diet crackers. But it seemed worth it: I got down to 112 pounds and a size 6.1 remember going to a fancy dinner party and making what I thought was a dramatic entrance at the top of some very elegant stairs, and the next thing I remember, I’d passed out.

I moved to Hollywood in 1978, and I had amazing fortune my first year: I won the lead in the pilot for a series, Charleston. There I was, at 22, selected from thousands of girls to carry a big-budget television series. I remember being determined to stay thin, so feeling cold, clammy and dizzy from not eating was the norm.

Charleston never made it past the pilot stage, but it led to The Chisolms, a short-lived CBS western series. I was becoming the subject of catty remarks because of my “weight problem.” When I went to lunch on the set, I would get some type of snide comment regardless of what I did. If I ate anything, I’d get, “You shouldn’t be eating.” If I didn’t eat, I’d hear, “Oh she’s starving again; how sad.”

The thing is, when I look back at television footage from that time, I was a goddess. And I didn’t even know it. How could I let them convince me that I wasn’t thin enough or beautiful enough? Why did I believe them?

Two years later, in 1981, I met the writer/producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason while shooting the pilot for a show called Filthy Rich, which Linda was writing and producing. It was about an ex-beauty queen who marries an old man for his money, and then during sex he dies.

At that point, I wasn’t big but I wasn’t exactly a size 6 either. I had put some weight back on, and I started to hear about it. My body normally wanted to stay at an 8 or a 10, which would have been fine, but I kept trying to make it a 6.1 went back to starving myself, sometimes going without food for five days.

In 1986, I was cast in Designing Women, about a group of interior decorators in Atlanta. I played Suzanne Sugarbaker, a sassy, self-absorbed ex-beauty queen. But behind the scenes, I was feeling insecure: I veered between sizes 8 and 10, and no matter what size I was, I was certain I looked awful. I’d get up to 140 or 145 pounds and think, I’m such a cow.

Let’s see, how many “diet” programs did I go through? You name it, I tried it. But I never felt that “the weight” could affect my livelihood until the end of Designing Women’s first season, when a crew member whispered to me that the word on the set was that I had better lose some weight or I was going to get fired. I was stunned. Of course, I believed the rumor and decided to do what I have always done: diet, starve, faint, whatever it takes.

Off the set, my life had been a replay of high school days: work, career, maintenance. I rarely dated; I didn’t have time, and I was more than a little intimidated by the whole thing.

Gerald McRaney was offered a part on one of the first episodes of the second season, playing my first husband. At first, we kind of circled each other. Mac soon got around to asking me out to lunch, and I turned him down: I was drinking those damn diet shakes to lose some of my 155 pounds.

For me, trying to please everybody, adjusting to being famous, and the general stress on the set of a hit show—all this was pushing me past my limits. At the same time, I was trying to become more comfortable with my body. Mac, whom I wed in 1989, was always supportive, and that made me relax some. I stopped going on starvation diets—and if that meant never being a size 6 again, so be it. But the press decided to make an issue of it—you would have thought I had committed murder. As my insecurities mounted, so did my weight, to about 170 pounds.

First I tried to stand up to the criticism. Then I tried to make light of it. My breakdown occurred at the end of the second season: I started having debilitating panic attacks. By the time I was finally hospitalized for “nervous exhaustion,” I wanted to die.

The hospitalization gave me a safe place to go. With therapy, medication and coping skills to short-circuit the panic attacks, I made it back to the set. Other factors contributed to my getting stronger: A self-defense class was offered that year on the set, and I took it. The woman who was teaching it was very large, and yet she appeared strong, empowered and, best of all, not embarrassed. Seeing that inspired me. All of a sudden it was me getting up there and being physically powerful. And, during the worst of the tabloid abuse, I received a wonderful note from Elizabeth Taylor, calling me “beautiful, courageous and radiant.”

In early 1990, I went to Linda Blood-worth-Thomason and said I wanted to do a show about the weight. She said she hadn’t dealt with it because she wasn’t sure what I wanted to do; try to lose it or stay that way. I told her I’d like to lose it but it didn’t look like that was going to happen. And I said, “Please let me have the jokes about the weight rather than be the butt of the jokes.”

So Linda wrote this beautiful script, “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” It was all about Suzanne Sugarbaker going to a class reunion and being stung by catty comments. That show was truly the beginning of the person I am now.

At the end of the fifth season, in 1991, Mac broke the news to me. “Sweetie,” he said gently, “they didn’t renew your option.” I was hurt—I had never been fired from anything, ever!

Nowadays, at 41, I find that my weight stays at a healthy level and even goes down naturally when I’m busy doing something I love. Since my diabetes was diagnosed, the doctors are educating me about food—I can have only so much fruit, so much sugar, and picking the right stuff off hotel menus can be tough. When I’m home, I do better.

It’s been said that discrimination against overweight people is the last accepted prejudice. Now that science has proved that weight is often genetically determined, we know that some people will never be a size 6. But for women the stereotypes and the discrimination persist. One of the biggest misconceptions about real-size people is that they are not fit, athletic, nor graceful. The truth is that many large people have active lifestyles and work out regularly.

I hope young women, in particular, will learn to accept their bodies. It took me a long time to do so and I don’t want others to waste their youth feeling unworthy, like they’re not good enough to deserve a happy and fulfilling life. We have a responsibility to show our daughters that they need not compromise themselves in order to meet an idealized image. We have to show these girls that there are many definitions of beauty, so they don’t feel compelled to chase down an image that can be murderous to maintain. We have to give them some breathing room to let their beauty evolve from the inside out.

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