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Portia De Rossi: Unbearable Lightness

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Portia and Ellen

I went away last weekend to finish a big editing project that was due this week and which I naturally didn’t start until 72 hours before it had to be completed.

While I was editing my own stuff, I knew that I needed something to read as well as write otherwise I would have gone stark raving bonkers.

So I excitedly bought Portia De Rossi’s new memoir, Unbearable Lightness, on my Kindle for the astonishing price of $12.95. I only know how to read books two ways – fast or not at all. I inhaled this one in a couple of days.

When I mention to anyone that I read it, they seem very eager to know how it was. So I’m going to tell you.

Intense.

There really is no other way to describe it. I was going to tell you who this book isn’t for. I was going to tell you that you’d be disappointed if you were hoping to read about some of the celebrities Portia has worked with, like Elle Macpherson, Hugh Grant, Calista Flockhart, Courtney Thorne Smith, Jane Krakowski, Lucy Liu and Christian Slater. There’s no mention of most of those people and maybe one or two sentences about the others. There’s not much Ellen in this book either, not until right at the end in the epilogue.

And this frustrated me at times when I was reading it.

Media coverage of her weight

But then I realised something. This book is about an eating disorder. A terrible and extreme eating disorder. And what I came to understand through the book was that anorexia – or any eating disorder – is a lonely, isolating, life-sucking thing that doesn’t leave room for anything else.

I don’t know if this is a good book to read if you currently have an eating disorder or are in the early stages of recovery. I’d be interested to hear what others thought about that.

There are a lot of details about Portia’s anorexia and bulimia. Excruciating detail. She leaves nothing out in the name of vanity or nicety or an attempt to sugar coat what her life was like for her, physically, mentally or emotionally. Actually, the book is often quite emotionless because an eating disorder can often be used as a way to block feelings.

She examines her body and her relationship with it scrupulously and in minute detail, repeatedly turning it over and peering at it incessantly from every angle. And this can be exhausting just like being in the grips of an eating disorder must be exhausting. And yet I never wanted to put it down. I was propelled through Portia’s story, willing for her to get better.

And she does, as we know. She meets her Princess Charming and they marry and she gets better. Actually, that’s not true.

The cast from Ally McBeal

Importantly, she gets better BEFORE she meets Ellen and I’m relieved about this. Ellen doesn’t ‘save her’ from anorexia. Nobody can. Portia saves herself but not before she nearly dies. Throughout her life she does a damn good job of trying to kill herself with (and without) food.

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But I won’t pretend there weren’t big gaps in this book where I wanted more. And I don’t think it was just a desire for gratuitous celebrity detail….

I have written a memoir (albeit I’m not a celebrity and I’m not married to a celebrity). I understand some of the delicacies and the politics involved when you write hoenestly about your life. It’s Portia’s story but it’s also a story that belongs to other people whose lives intersect with hers, personally or professionally.

Like every writer, she had to make many many decisions about what to reveal in such an intensely personal book. And I can only imagine that this is magnified a thousand percent when you are a celebrity writing about other celebrities. One observation about Calista Flockhart’s weight or personality could quite literally turn into international headlines.

And yet….

Ally McBeal producer, David E. Kelley with wife Michelle Pfeiffer

And yet there IS too much left unsaid. One person she allows herself to be angry at – very briefly and sporadically – is the creator of Ally McBeal, David E. Kelley. In the 90s he was THE man in television, married to Michelle Pfeiffer and responsible for the biggest hits on TV including Ally and The Practice. Everything and everyone he touched turned to gold.

However it has been frequently noted elsewhere in the media that the women on his shows were extremely thin, often shockingly so. And many of them seemed to struggle very publicly with anorexia – Portia, Calista, Courtney Thorne Smith and Lara Flynn Boyle.

Not all of them have come out and spoken about anorexia like Portia has so until they write their books or speak about it themselves, we can only make assumptions about their weights and mental states. And the fact that Portia never mentions the weight of ANY of her co-stars is a glaring omission which speaks very loudly.

The only reference she makes to it EVER is when she writes about someone saying to her “Just because someone you work with is thin, it doesn’t mean you have to be too.”

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I wanted more. I wanted to know more about what it was like to work with women who appeared to be sick….what was it that caused it? Is anorexia contagious? I’m not being a smart-arse when I say that. I’m truly interested to know the effect it had on Portia because while, by her own admission, her eating disorder began years before she landed a job on an internationally successful TV show, they reached their worst point when she lived and worked in that world, at its apex.

She criticises David Kelly for turning her character from the strong, smart, independent woman she signed up to play, into a simpering, sex kitten who sleeps with her boss an hardly says anything. She also accuses him of cutting the character of Nelle Porter into two when he hires Lucy Liu to play Ling Woo. But it’s palpable that she’s holding herself back.

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She does write a lot about what it’s like to have wardrobe fittings – for Ally, for fashion shoots and for a L’Oreal advertising campaign. She talks about how now that actresses have taken over from models on the covers of magazines and in ad campaigns, they are the ones who are now forced to squeeze into the sample sized clothes that are sent by designers. These are the clothes made for models who only come in teeny tiny sizes, usually 0-2.

Portia painstakingly describes the humiliation of walking into a fitting for a shoot and being faced with racks and racks of clothes, none of which fit. And as the stylist got increasingly irate, Portia is mortified as she finally blurts out “Nobody TOLD me she’s a size 8!” as if she had turned up with three arms. Oh the horror of being SIZE 8.

And for Portia it WAS a horror. The whole book documents her absolute anguish with her two mortal enemies: being fat and being gay. She is so tortured about the idea of both of them that she transfers that torture onto her body and punishes it again and again.

Happy couple

And perversely, this is fascinating to read about. If you know anyone who is suffering or has suffered from an eating disorder, this book will be hugely helpful in helping you understand what’s going on in their head. And it took enormous courage to write this book. I’ve always known that I liked Portia. And there are no words for how much I like Ellen except for A LOT. I like the two of them together even more. I think they seem like a beautiful, beautiful couple.

Oh, I just remembered I just remembered to tell you that I knew Portia many years ago. I met her a few times and I knew she was gay before she even went to Hollywood and landed Ally McBeal. She used to be my ex-boyfriend’s flatmate and she used to bring girls home for sleep-overs. I shared the odd cup of tea with them in the grotty kitchen in the Bondi Road unit where they lived for a year or so. I think she’s a remarkable actress. Loved her on Ally. LOVED her on Arrested Development. Wish she’d act more although after reading her book, I now better understand why she doesn’t.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and/or you need help please contact The Butterfly Foundation.  The Butterfly Foundation provides support for Australians who suffer from eating disorders and negative body image issues.  They also provide support for their carers.  They can be contacted through their website at  http://www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/ or on (02) 9412 4499

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