The soprano, fired for being too fat, fights back against weight bias

By Liz McNeil
Updated January 19, 2015 08:30 AM
Richard Phibbs

Legendary soprano Deborah Voigt made headlines in 2004 when she was fired for being too fat after she couldn’t fit into a size 12 black dress at London’s Royal Opera House.

“It’s incredible someone can get way with saying those words,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “It’s still open season on overweight women.”

Voigt details her struggles with food, men and alcohol in her new memoir, Call Me Debbie.

She also describes a double standard that found her being fired for being “too fat,” while a portly tenor gets away with simply being called a “teddy bear.” As Voigt writes, “Why is it okay for the male opera stars to be big and not the women?”

Voigt, 54, never thought it would become known that she’d been fired for her weight, which happened when she couldn’t fit into a little black dress opera costume. It wasn’t until an interview six months later that the truth came out – from her lips.

“They didn’t fire me because I couldn’t sing,” she tells PEOPLE. “Was I supposed to cover their asses? I didn’t know what else to do.”

The public uproar proved a surprise – and a comfort.

“At first I couldn’t believe anyone cared, but it was a little gratifying,” says Voigt, who, at her heaviest, weighed 333 lbs. “They should be riled up a bit. I’m not the only person who felt it wasn’t the right decision.”

Today, the singer, who’s now a size 14, is in recovery from her addiction to food and alcohol. She also knows the story of the little black dress will follow her wherever she goes.

“When the opera archives of my generation are released,” she says, “this will forever be part of my history.”

She’s also putting her own twist on her story and developing an autobiographical one-woman show, Voigt Lessons, which she’ll perform for the first time in New York on Feb. 26.

“I hope my story helps others,” says Voigt. “I know I’m not the only one who struggles with food and can’t fit into their favorite pair of jeans.”

For more on Deborah Voigt, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now