Showbiz Chicago Interview: Portia de Rossi
Despite landing into the axis of the public eye at the age of 24, Portia de Rossi has long been as adept at personal concealment as she has her unique inclination for irreverent comedy. Boasting starring roles in lauded sitcoms such as “Ally McBeal”, “Better Off Ted”, and the cultural phenomenon “Arrested Development”, de Rossi quickly rose to fame following both her refreshingly intrepid performances as well as what the media deemed to be an unearthly physical appeal. Dissembling her sexual identity for fear of a public relations downfall- a trend that had been cemented with Ellen DeGeneres’ then televised outing- de Rossi became at once defined by those traits with which she felt least connected: glamour, allure, and confidence. The public eventually came to regard her as the celebrity ideal personified. Coveted by men and envied by women, few knew that the crux of de Rossi’s reality rested in a very personal, and ultimately life-threatening struggle.
Yet in the last several years, de Rossi has begun to shed the pretenses and images that at one time enveloped her. Following the outing of both her sexuality and relationship (she is now married to Ellen DeGeneres), as well as political leanings, de Rossi has finally discarded what may be the last of her real-life characters. In her new memoir “Unbearable Lightness”, she weaves a harrowing and humanizing account of her life-long battle with anorexia, a condition that not only threatened her career, but ultimately her sense of self. ChicagoPride.com’s ShowBizQ recently caught up with de Rossi to discuss her personal journey through the memoir, what the culture can do to combat the epidemic of disordered eating, and why her decision to finally come clean with herself and others may have been the most important yet.
AN: (Alissa Norby) In the epilogue of your new book “Unbearable Lightness”, you describe the often painful episodes you went through in writing it, as well as the fact that you felt as though you were telling a story about a different person. What drove you to finally agree to do author the book after an initial hesitation and to get through the process of reliving those memories through your writing?
PdR: (Portia de Rossi) I was a little hesitant simply because the idea of a memoir for me at 37 seemed very overblown, and it didn’t fit my life. I thought, how could I possibly make an eating disorder compelling and interesting when all I did was cook food and eat, or not eat, and then go on my treadmill? I thought that was the most boring book that I could possibly ever write [laughs]. I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t go anywhere, and I thought that a memoir had to be full of interesting things that happened to the person. But then I realized that what I was really writing about were the things that were going on in my head, not just the things that were going on in my life. I realized that in my head there were two realities, one being me so completely insecure and struggling so much with my new role as an actress and television celebrity, but then the reality of looking at that celebrity and thinking that everything was fine. It was a character I was playing. There was my real self, having hidden my sexuality, and then this character. I really felt like two completely different people. So when I sat down to write it, I realized that I didn’t have all of the answers. I didn’t know how I was going to write it or what it was going to truly be about until I constructed an outline. I knew how it ended though, it had a happy ending. But I really had to go through each impactful moment in my life, so it was sort of like putting a puzzle together with all of these pieces. It was shocking, and ultimately so revealing to me when I would write something and become overwhelmed by the sheer truth of it. It was a series of understandings of, “Oh my God, that was it. That was that moment that drove me to insanity.” I hadn’t really dealt with it before. The thing that helped me to keep going was the fact that it was somewhat like therapy on steroids [laughs]. I knew I was uncovering all of these pieces of my life, and by going through it I finally realized that it was truly a part of my past. I knew that I could heal myself from this process, and hopefully make the disorder more understandable for people who think that those who suffer are insane, or even vain.
AN: One of the most moving themes of the book was the idea of living in fantasy, or playing a role, stemming from when you were a child model, to your first marriage with a man, and then to your struggle during “Ally McBeal” to convince yourself and others that you were deserving of the Hollywood limelight. Looking back, what would you say was the significance of this kind of offscreen acting in your real life?
PdR: I believed that who I was had to be just completely unacceptable. There was no way that I could be true to myself, or even trust myself to make decisions, because I did not know what it meant to be a celebrity. I didn’t know how to do it. So I would look to everyone around me to tell me exactly how I should be, even when it came down to a certain dress that I would wear. Even if I personally would not like it, I just doubted myself and thought that I clearly did not know what a celebrity was supposed to wear, and if they wear these dresses, then that is what I am supposed to do. I completely gave my power over to everyone around me, just assuming that they knew better than I did. I lost myself in a way. I was aware that I was playing a character, that I was creating this other, more acceptable Portia.
AN: To the point where you would allow others, specifically your management team, to manufacture red carpet responses.
PdR: People have laughed at me for that. But secretly I think there are a lot of celebrities who have a great deal of anxiety about answering questions from journalists, as well as those who prepare in their own way before doing talk shows. They haven’t come out to me yet. But I’ll find them [laughs]. But when I was alone, I wasn’t laughing at it like, “Oh there’s that character of me.” I just felt like an empty shell, a vessel for this other character, other person that I wasn’t and couldn’t live up to. I never felt that I was secure in who I was or that I had a life beyond “Ally McBeal” and its spotlights. I wasn’t my true self because I ignored my true self, so what I was really feeling just shriveled up and died in many ways, and that was the sick part. I just didn’t trust myself anymore. The impact of that was that I had no self confidence at all, and I really didn’t know who I was. As a result, I didn’t want to be around my friends, or have to justify what I was doing. Everyone that knew me knew I was lying all of the time, and that was uncomfortable.
AN: It is interesting to hear of the significant divide between your persona and identity, as so many individuals looked up both to you and your first celebrated character, Nelle Porter. I recall wandering around as a young person telling people that I wanted to be Nelle when I grew up.
PdR: And after reading the book you were like, “Hmm, maybe not.” [Laughs]. That is amazing. While I really loved the character of Nelle Porter, because of course she was really strong and really interesting, there were aspects to that character that really, really bothered me. I really prided myself on being independent and being a feminist, and really representing women in the right, healthy way. And then I got this role where all of a sudden I was removing my clothes and throwing myself at my boss, begging him to sleep with me. I was really troubled by that. I had no control over where my character was going, but I just felt very uneasy about the message that the character was sending. Yes, she was a very powerful attorney, and yet she is sleeping with her boss? What? [laughs] So that was interesting for me, and to try to have that disconnect of, “Oh but it’s only a television show.” My close friends thought that I was just being way too serious about it, but it just never felt comfortable for me. I didn’t want to play that character and send that message. But for four years I was struggling with that.
AN: Individuals in our culture often push to segregate the significance of entertainment media and the actual consequences it engenders in our culture, specifically with the current, popular aversion to the term feminism.
PdR: Oh, listen, the word feminism has completely disappeared. No one wants to associate themselves with that because the culture did a fantastic job of making feminists ugly, and saying that ugly is the worst thing a woman could possibly be. So anyone associated with feminism, or anyone who willingly calls herself a feminist, is considered ugly. So everyone wound up distancing themselves from that word. It is really disappointing. “Ally McBeal” was supposedly during this new era of post-feminism and Calista [Flockhart] was the poster child for that. But what is wrong with feminism? And while I’m on that topic, because I am on that topic and it is something that is so incredibly disturbing to me, Naomi Wolf in “The Beauty Myth” writes that the emphasis on female thinness directly correlates to the rise in female power. In the 1960s women became a lot more self-confident and were out in the work place and very visible, but then along came Twiggy, almost instantly. So instead of concentrating on the outside world and being successful, women were chained to dieting, and this feeling of deprivation of food. Yet you need food in order to think, we all need to nourish our bodies to be strong and healthy and energetic. It is the way we stay alive. We have to be vital, and only then can we go out into the world. But you have to be properly fed to do it. We have created this culture of women who are constantly hungry, undernourished, or feeling guilty that they are not on a diet or ashamed of being curvier than this so-called ideal image of what the female form should be, which is really a very young teenage girl who has not even developed.
AN: I caught your appearance on “Ellen” the other day and was struck by your insight into photoshopping, and that the notion our culture has of the ideal woman is nothing more than an illusion. And yet, as you detail in your conversation with your friend Ann following the famous Nelle Porter strip scene, the idea of being called a “normal, healthy woman” is a negative one. Why was this concept of “normal” so discouraging to you, and why do you think our female culture has adopted it as a bad word?
PdR: It’s true. That phrase, “normal, healthy woman” was the worst thing I could have heard. Honestly when you look at this country and you think of the concept normal, or the normal weight range for women, it is so completely the opposite of the image that it conjures up of these stick-thin models we are accustomed to seeing in Vogue magazine. The idea of being normal was being fat, same with healthy. Healthy says robust, chubby, you could lose a few pounds. Even the word “woman” seemed to be some kind of negative insult, because we are so used to our culture being a youth culture. You are supposed to look like a girl, straight up and down, not this woman with breasts and hips. It is something that I think we all need to take a step back with and really look at what is being forced-fed to us. It is time we took up where Naomi Wolf left off twenty years ago, because these problems are chronic, we are really dealing with an epidemic. It is incredibly unhealthy and you can see that, because on the one hand in places like New York and Los Angeles women are starving themselves to be skinny, and yet the rest of the country has pretty much given them the finger and have become overweight. It is all because of dieting though. We need to realize that dieting is not the way to live a happy, healthy, and successful life with confidence.
AN: Exactly. And it is a sobering thought to recognize that a term as basic as the word “woman” has become derogatory.
PdR: It does for me. I don’t think I am alone in thinking that being called a “woman” is somewhat negative now, because it suggests that you are older and it also suggests you are curvy. We really need to look at this. I mean, most men don’t want to be called boys, that is for sure. I hope that people, after reading the book, will think about this culture that we are in, and realize how off things are for women.
AN: One of the most perceptive and topical of your quotes in the book is that there is a fine line between being private and being ashamed. We are unfortunately in the throes of an LGBT youth suicide tragedy, many of whose victims heard similar phrases that you did such as, “It’s okay to be gay, but don’t tell anybody. They wouldn’t understand.” How did you get through this, and how do you feel young people can work through these often well-meaning, but ultimately shaming comments?
PdR: I have to talk to the parents, I have to talk to the adults who believe that they are well-meaning and saying the right thing. The best thing a parent can do when a child comes out to them is to have the attitude of who cares? So what? It is not a big deal, and is not something that is that important. I wish that everyone adopted that attitude because really your sexuality is a tiny percentage of who you are as a person. It is very important early on to put it into perspective. The fact that my spouse happens to be female really doesn’t say that much about me, it really doesn’t [laughs]. It doesn’t say that my book is interesting to read or that my career is a certain way, it really says nothing. But it is the law that teaches us how to treat one another. The law says right now to treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens, and yet we are looking at thirteen year olds in the schoolyard and saying, “You’re a mean old bully.” I mean it has to start from the top, with the law, with the adults. Until gays and lesbians have equal rights, I think we are always going to be seen as less than the rest of society, because we legally are. So the whole idea that there is a fine line between being private and ashamed came from a conversation between me and Ellen. There was always that concept fed to us when we were closeted, that our private life was our own and that no one had to know about what happened in our private lives. It was almost like you had to keep this to yourself despite being in the public eye and giving so much of the rest of yourself to the world. Initially it seemed like the right thing to do, and you would look at celebrities who would walk the red carpet without their spouse or separate their public and private lives, and it made sense. But the more [Ellen] and I talked about it the more we realized that it needs to feel right to share our lives, but it should always be something that we should be able to do freely and without so much discussion. But also it is just a thinly veiled way of saying, “You are living your live in shame and whatever you do, make sure no one finds out about it.”
AN: And these were ultimately sayings that become rather common in your household.
PdR: It is exactly what my mom used to say to me, “Just keep your private life private and no one has to know. Why would you want to tell anyone anyway?” That is all I ever heard from her. I think she thought she was doing the right thing. Even now she’ll say, “I’m sorry, but you worked so hard for your career, and you finally got to this great place. Why would I want you to lose it?” But it’s ridiculous to think that I couldn’t work and make money if I was gay, but that was really how I felt, that my livelihood would be taken away from me. That is when I realized, well, my mom wasn’t private about my brother’s life. Every girl he dated was immediately welcomed into the family, talked about, and when he got married it was this huge public celebration. But that is all supposedly private, isn’t it?
AN: Absolutely. Yet we continually aim to terrify those in many professions, but specifically the entertainment field, into remaining in the closet. The Newsweek article from last year is just one example that comes to mind.
PdR: There are a lot of gay actors out there who still believe that they shouldn’t have to come out because they have a private life and that’s that. But you look at all these teenage kids committing suicide and you’re like, “Really? You think it’s not important?” Because I think it is. It takes everyone in their profession. More people need to come out, live openly, live without shame and fear, and then it will be okay. But it takes a few very brave people to do that and pave the way. And it really is everyone else’s duty to follow their lead. [Ellen and I] are doing it for ourselves because it is the only way to live, open and honestly. But we are aware that we could lose a lot because we really do think about the broader social significance of it. I had no gay role models when I was a kid, no one I could really look up to and want to be like or admire. No actors, no public figures or politicians. Nobody. And I’m only 37. It’s got to change. And it has to change soon.
AN: You spoke often in the book of your quest to feel special, and to convince other people that you were special, primarily by pretending to be someone you weren’t. Ironically, now that you are out of the closet in many ways, with no scripted red carpet answers, you have never been more famous or celebrated by audiences. What is your take on this?
PdR: [Laughs]. Yeah, exactly. And you know, being honest for the first time makes me feel a lot more useful, and for the very first time, purposeful. I think that by being purposeful I definitely have a much healthier sense of self and have a lot better self-esteem. It is kind of ironic though, isn’t it? I think we all put a certain face on when we go out in the public or to work, so I hope that this book ultimately resonates with everyone and convinces people to just drop the act, because you will feel a lot happier. I know I did.
For more information or to purchase “Unbearable Lightness”, please visit www.Amazon.com.