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For a whale of a time, dine with a size-0 star

Friday, November 23, 2001

I was having dinner with Michelle Pfeiffer the other night at this charming Italian restaurant in Brentwood (all right, we were doing an interview, but it sounded pretty glamorous, didn't it?), and we got to talking about body image.

This is not unusual. Put a fork in the hand of any beautiful woman, and eventually it will lead to a discussion about her backside. It's like introducing a gun in the first act of a play: Sooner or later, it's going to go off.

It's especially piquant to talk about body image with movie goddesses. For me, there is nothing more humbling in this great green world than trying to eat a meal opposite a truly stunning actress. (That this is shallow does not make it less true.)

Try it some time. Never will your thighs squeak against the leather banquette quite so loudly. Never will your napkin appear to cover so little of your lap. Waiters who murmur approvingly over your famously thin companion's choice of entrée will ever-so-subtly raise an eyebrow at yours.

If she eats daintily, you will feel like a yak, and if she eats with gusto, you will burn with envy and rail inwardly against the unfairness of God. By the time the dessert menu arrives, your feigned nonchalance will deserve an Oscar.

Since restaurant meals are the de facto activity for most celebrity interviews, I have had ample opportunity to watch stars eat. This activity has jump-started many a reporter's diet and exercise program, and sent countless others swan-diving into a tub of Heavenly Hash. It's also led to a distinct genre of journalism, which I call the "she stabbed her fork into her salad" school.

I'm sure you know it. Everything the actress orders becomes a metaphor for her personality, and every bite she takes is used as punctuation. " 'I'm so not interested in fame,' the actress says, jabbing her knife into her chicken breast." Her words say no, but cutlery never lies.

I confess, I've often used the food thing in my stories. I described how Lara Flynn Boyle, the stick-insect-thin actress on The Practice, told me over and over how much she loves McDonald's, but for our lunch "just felt like" having only a wee cup of pea soup and 50 cigarettes.

I wrote at length about Jennifer Lopez's breakfast: Three assistants ordered six different plates for her because they weren't sure what she'd be in the mood for and they desperately wanted her to be happy. She touched none of them.

And I did not disguise my pleasure when Rebecca DeMornay opted to skip dinner altogether and continue drinking double margaritas instead. I expected -- I intended -- readers to infer things about these actresses based on their meals.

Now these very same skinnies are donning fat suits in movies to get laughs. Julia Roberts wore a prosthetic suit in America's Sweethearts to make her look 60 pounds heavier. When I had lunch with her, she ordered a plain piece of salmon, no butter, no oil, and ate it with her fingers.

Courtney Cox, who plays Monica on Friends, regularly slips into a fat suit that adds 100 pounds to her hyperfit frame, for humorous flashback scenes. Flashback Monica eats legendary amounts, including whole pies after full Thanksgiving dinners. Courtney occasionally has milk in her coffee.

The padding that whippet-thin Gwyneth Paltrow wears in the current film Shallow Hal makes her appear to weigh in at 300 pounds. In close-ups, her flesh looks so mottled and lumpy that people in the audience groan aloud. Gwyneth herself has admitted that she's never had to worry about her weight. When we had breakfast together, she polished off fried eggs, bacon, toast and a towering iced latte.

All these actresses say they had the very best intentions when they made their fat-suit comedies. Gwyneth wore her padding incognito to fancy hotel bars, and was shocked -- shocked! -- that people didn't look at her the same way. The women claim that their characters are shown to be great people, no matter what their weight, and that their movies teach valuable lessons about empathy and kindness.

But I think this is condescending hogwash. We're invited to mock, then pity, then love Paltrow's character -- in that order. Roberts's character is rewarded with love and confidence only when she's thin. Off-screen, when her makeup artist suggested that Roberts nap while her chubby cheeks were being applied, the actress replied, "If I fell asleep and woke up 60 pounds heavier, I'd never go to sleep again." Talk about your valuable lessons.

Pfeiffer, by the way, ordered calamari steak as an appetizer, followed by a Caesar salad and a slab of swordfish with tomatoes and olives. She ate most of it. About her backside, she said, "I think all women should have a butt." She also admitted, however, that she watches her food intake closely and works out rigorously.

I realize that in today's world, where actress Carré Otis (Wild Orchid) can call herself a plus-size model because she ballooned up to size 12 -- not a plus size where I come from, honey -- Pfeiffer's honesty about food and exercise practically constitutes a philosophical position.

But I think most of us subperfect humans already know what it feels like to be judged by our appearances and found wanting, even if we weigh far less than 300 pounds. I think we could all use a little more openness and empathy. But I don't think a size-0 beauty in padded pants is the most effective medium for the message.

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