Actress Portia de Rossi published her memoir, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, to give readers a sense of what it’s like for a woman to struggle with an eating disorder.
De Rossi, who’s married to Ellen DeGeneres, certainly achieved her goal, as her book successfully chronicles how her efforts to stay thin dominated her life from the age of 12 until the age of 25 when she collapsed and had to be hospitalized. By sharing details such as the anxiety about chewing a stick of gum because of the 5 extra calories she’d be ingesting, de Rossi tells a compelling story.
As I read the book, though, I was even more intrigued by a second theme that emerged in bits and pieces as the Australian-born beauty recounted her life in Hollywood.
The first “bit” came early in the book when de Rossi recreated the phone conversation she had with her mother in 1998 when she landed her first major role. The actress screamed, “I’m going to be on Ally McBeal! I’m their new cast member!” Then she added, “Ma, I’m going to be famous!”
The thrill of becoming the new hottie on one of America’s most popular TV shows was tempered, however, by a fear lurking in the back of de Rossi’s mind. As she wrote in her memoir, “with the excitement came a little fear. I was gay. I knew that being openly gay wasn’t an option, but what if they—the press, the public, my employers—found out?”
De Rossi had come out to her mother at the age of 16 when Mom found a copy of The Joy of Lesbian Sex under her bed (oops!), but she’d hidden that aspect of her life from other friends and family members. Among the folks who were kept in the dark was her husband of three years, Mel Metcalfe. (The marriage ended when de Rossi’s hubby took off with her brother’s wife—no, that’s not from a soap opera plot, it’s from de Rossi’s real life.)
Staying locked tightly inside the closet comes up again about a third of the way through the book. This time, de Rossi is describing how she was so afraid of being outed, once she became a TV star, that if she saw a woman she believed to be a lesbian walking toward her on the sidewalk, she’d cross to the other side of the street.
Portia on coming on.
This statement launched the author into talking about why she had no choice but to stay closeted. To me, de Rossi’s insistence that a mere rumor that she was gay would have ended her career had the ring of truth to it. Please know that I’m a huge advocate of LGBT folks acknowledging their sexuality to themselves and to others—for their own well-being as well as for the community writ large.
Then again, I can see why de Rossi was concerned about her career. During her four-year stint on Ally McBeal she ranked high on the “hot” scale in the polls featured in men’s magazines. If she’d suddenly announced that, in fact, she had no sexual interest in men, I’m guessing Fox would have dropped her from the program tout suite.
This isn’t to say that de Rossi didn’t pay a price for her decision to play straight, on screen and off. Her favorite restaurant chain was Koo Koo Roo, which she liked because it served turkey in small enough portions that she could eat it and not gain weight. She had to steer clear of the Koo Koo Roo closest to her apartment, though, because it was in a section of Hollywood that was predominantly gay. “I was terrified that if I were seen there,” she wrote in the book, “people would know I was gay.”
De Rossi had reason to be cautious. One paparazzo had learned that she was gay and was on a mission to capture that reality in a photo. “She stalked me,” de Rossi said. “She waited for me every day in front of my building and followed me everywhere, occasionally making eye contact with me and signing to me that she was watching me.”
Of course the more fundamental price the actress paid was that she was denying who she was, which is extremely unhealthy from a psychological standpoint.
The degree to which staying in the closet translated into self-loathing for de Rossi comes through loud and clear when she said, in Unbearable Lightness, that several times she wrote the same admonition to herself in her diary: YOU ARE A FAT UGLY DYKE.
De Rossi’s story has a fairy-tale ending. That is, after her doctor diagnosed her as suffering from osteoporosis and showing signs of cirrhosis of the liver, she took the steps she needed to take in order to regain her health. These included gaining weight (she went from 82 pounds to 168 pounds in 10 months) and going to an eating disorder treatment center for counseling.
With regard to her sexuality, de Rossi began the process of coming out. Her first step was to tell a few gay friends. “I figured that I had completely ruined my career by being fat, so I might as well be gay also,” she wrote. “I figured that if I ever worked again, it would be as a ‘character’ actress or playing the best friend to the lead female, so if my homosexuality was rumored around town, it wouldn’t really do any further damage to the image I’d already created for myself by being fat.”
A major part of de Rossi’s real-life fairy tale came in the form of two romantic relationships. In 2001 she began dating Francesca Gregorini—de Rossi doesn’t give the singer’s last name in the book, but, hey, it’s just a Google search away! The women were together for three years, and de Rossi credits Gregorini with helping her become comfortable with her sexuality.
The paparazzo who’d been stalking the actress hit pay dirt in late 2001 when she took photos of de Rossi and Gregorini canoodling. De Rossi wrote that she’d been arguing with her girlfriend and they’d moved into an alley to make up. “The photographs went around the world,” de Rossi said, “and outed me to everyone who stood in a supermarket checkout line.”
De Rossi went on to thank the paparazzo for forcing her to be honest with the world about being gay. “She freed me from a prison in which I had held myself captive my whole life.”
Of course the biggest of the elements in de Rossi’s happy ending came when she began dating Ellen DeGeneres in 2004 (de Rossi’s book is thunderously silent on precisely when her relationship with Gregorini fizzled out and when her new one with DeGeneres burst into flame).
Toward the end of Unbearable Lightness, de Rossi gushes about her new girlfriend who, in 2008, became her wife. “Ellen taught me to not care about other people’s opinions. She taught me to be truthful. She taught me to be free. I began to live my life in love and complete acceptance. For the first time, I had truly accepted myself.”
Just think how many closeted women would come bursting out of the Hollywood closet if they knew they’d end up with the most famous—and probably the wealthiest—lesbian on the planet.
By Rodger Streitmatter
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