'This Is Us' ' Chrissy Metz on Finding Happiness After Years of Dieting and Depression: 'I'm Proud of Who I Am'

The hit show's breakout star opens up about finding success by embracing her body — and why she still plans to lose weight

After years of struggling with diets and depression, This Is Us star Chrissy Metz looks back on her journey to self-acceptance, fame, and becoming a role model for body positivity. Subscribe now for the inside story — only in PEOPLE!

In the less than five months since NBC’s smash hit drama This Is Us premiered, breakout star Chrissy Metz has found fame and a calling as a role model for body positivity. But just a few years ago, Metz was nearing a breaking point resulting from a decade-long spiral of depression and self-doubt.

Jim Wright

“I’d be getting maybe two auditions a year, and I’d always see the same small group of girls,” says Metz, who was a size 12 when she was first scouted but dropped 50 lbs. at the recommendation of her then-manager before moving to L.A.

With work slow, she took a job as a junior commercial casting agent but says having to backburner her own dreams “was like watching your boyfriend take another woman out every day.”

Depressed and “eating my feelings,” Metz gained more than 100 lbs. before a panic attack on her 30th birthday sent her to the hospital and snapped her back into reality.

She set about overhauling herself physically and emotionally, including following doctor’s orders to lose weight. “I was so gung ho, I lost 100 lbs. in less than five months,” she says. “All I did was eat a 2,000-calorie diet and walk 20 minutes a day.”

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As the numbers on the scale fell, Metz regained confidence. Then she landed the recurring part on American Horror Story: Freak Show that would kick-start her career.

Playing a “fat lady” meant stepping into a fat suit. “It was sobering,” she says. “I thought, ‘What if I become that heavy and can’t walk around or get stuck in the doorframe? I was like, ‘I don’t want this for me.’ ”

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The role also lead her to This Is Us. Baring her body and stepping on a scale within the first few minutes of the show’s pilot this past September, Metz — through her character — Kate instantly instantly became a fan-favorite.

“You don’t realize that somebody who’s average or even very fit could relate to someone who’s overweight,” she says of the feedback she’s gotten, “but it’s not about our size — it’s how we look at ourselves and how we feel about ourselves.”

  • For more from Chrissy Metz on how her confidence led to the role of a lifetime, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Though there was a bit of blowback to Metz’s prior statements about losing weight in tandem with Kate on the show (Metz now tells PEOPLE her contract with NBC does not mandate a specific workout regimen, any surgery or include an explicit weight-loss target), the actress acknowledges that having her own physical journey tied to Kate’s is a key element of why This Is Us is the role of a lifetime.

“You have to use what you have, and I wouldn’t have this role if I had already lost weight,” she says. “Now it’s about telling a story of a woman struggling with her weight, just as I have and still am.”

As for what’s next, while Metz says she’s taking steps to lose weight, she does make it clear that the stops along her weight loss journey are “not for anybody but myself. … I want to have a fit, healthy body and not have to be put in a box. I don’t want to be limited by anything.”

This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.

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