Can stars be overweight and successful in appearance-obsessed Hollywood?
For a long time, the answer has been no.
But lately, plus-sized performers are confounding the conventional wisdom and not only getting work, but landing starring roles and snagging awards.
Melissa McCarthy of CBS' hit sitcom Mike & Molly is the prime example. McCarthy, 41, is fresh from an Emmy win for her work on the show, and two weeks ago she hosted Saturday Night Live to rave reviews. All of that is on top of a standout performance in summer blockbuster movie Bridesmaids.
And tonight marks the debut of MTV's new reality series, Chelsea Settles, about a 24-year-old from Pennsylvania who weighs 325 pounds and moves to Los Angeles to try to make it in the fashion industry.
"It was really important for me to do the show because I've had these dreams of working in fashion," Settles says. "But being overweight or morbidly obese stopped me from believing I could pursue a career because I didn't think anyone would take me seriously."
Will anyone? Are Tinsel Town attitudes about body weight really changing?
"Three or four years ago, it was all about skinny, skinny, skinny. And now we are going back to and that's seen as just as beautiful," says Melanie Bromley, West Coast bureau chief of Us Weekly magazine, which regularly covers the fluctuating weight of celebrities "because that's just what girls out there are interested in."
Sherri Shepherd, 44, a co-host on The View, who went from size 16 to 6 to escape diabetes type 2, agrees that weight is always a hot topic. And a touchy one.
"They don't give big girls a chance," she says. "I think Hollywood has not caught up to real people. …When I'm heavy, the photographers tend not to take as many pictures. When I lost that weight, they took so many pictures."
Says veteran publicist Howard Bragman, "You are required to look good."
He still tells young actors: Your body is your message at an audition, and these days it's harder to hide if it's not perfect. "What's changed now is the transparency of the world we live in," Bragman says. "If you're on a beach with your shirt off, you can bet someone is going to notice and take your picture." And it will be online in minutes.
Barriers are coming down
Our culture's definition of conventional beauty hasn't typically included plus-sized women. But pop culture does seem to be reflecting reality more.
The list of larger-sized entertainers is substantial: Oscar winner Kathy Bates (Harry's Law). Emmy winner Loretta Devine (Grey's Anatomy). Grammy winner Adele. Amber Riley (Glee). Sara Ramirez (Grey's Anatomy). Rosie O'Donnell.
"Barriers are breaking down because people are looking for archetypes who look much more the way America really looks," says public relations executive Michael Levine. "But TV is an emotional transportation device — it takes us from the quiet desperation of our lives to fairy tales and fantasy.
"That argues against significant change," he says. "So these dueling forces of the way the world really is and the way we would like it to be are locked in a real struggle."
Christina Hendricks, 36, who plays zaftig Joan Holloway on Mad Men, has become known for her curves as much as her work on the show and says she's been hurt by the label of "big girl" in the media.
Backstage at the Emmys, when Mad Men collected the best-drama award, Hendricks was upset when a reporter again pressed her about her shape. She said her performance is what counts, and series creator Matthew Weiner jumped in to defend her. After all, he pointed out, no one says to series star Jon Hamm, "Lift your shirt up and show us your abs."
Hendricks, though, also has become a star in a show that's an ensemble. That's no small feat. Plus, her movie career has taken off — she's starring in Drive with Ryan Gosling and I Don't Know How She Does It with Sarah Jessica Parker.
Attitudes are changing, says Josh Berman, executive producer of Drop Dead Diva, Lifetime's dramedy about a size 0 aspiring model who dies and comes back in a plus-sized lawyer's body. "You don't have to have perfect, plastic people as leads," Berman says. "It's up to other networks and studios to push forth the most talented actors and not necessarily the Barbie and Ken dolls of the world."
The Diva show concept might not have sold 10 years ago, he says, but the multiplicity of media outlets now encourages creative types to be more realistic about the characters they create and present on-screen. "I readily took advantage of a marketplace more open to different types of leading women."
Billy Gardell, 41, who plays hefty Mike to McCarthy's Molly, says there is a place for everyone in Hollywood. He knows he was never going to get the buff action-hero parts, even though he recently has lost 25 pounds.
"You need a wisecracking buddy standing next to you? That's the role for me," he says. "You got the guys who are knock-down drag-out handsome. That's what people want to see — let that guy be the hero. But there's always a role for the everyman."
For Jerry Ferrara, that role was Turtle in HBO's Entourage. For six seasons, he was the hefty driver in a pack of Hollywood hunks. Then, over the past two years, he lost 60 pounds, to become an entirely different Turtle who wrapped up the series run this summer.
Ferrara says Doug Ellin, the show's creator and main writer, was miffed. "We didn't see each other for a month or two (and) he said, 'You couldn't just wait one more year? I didn't even recognize you,'" says Ferrara, 31. But it was worth it to start "feeling healthy," he says.
Healthy, but still human
Healthy. It's the new buzzword. The new defense. The new goal.
Demi Lovato, 19, showed up at the MTV Video Music Awards in August after a rehab stint and became the brunt of derogatory weight-related comments on Twitter. "Guess what, I'm healthy and happy, and if you're hating on my weight you obviously aren't. :)," she tweeted.
Comedian Carlos Mencia, 43, who has lost 70 pounds this year, knows it could hurt his career (he has a special scheduled for Dec. 4 on Comedy Central) but had an epiphany when a friend told him there are no fat old people.
"As a comedian, it's better to be chubby," he says. "The more visible flaws you have, the easier it is for people to identify with you and you can get away with more. … But I wanted to be healthy, I wanted to play catch with my kids, show them how to play soccer and not just show them videos of soccer players."
Singer LeAnn Rimes, 29, says she has felt pressure about her weight since she was a child — criticized for being too fat and then criticized for being too thin. Damned if you do, damned if you don't in Hollywood, where all eyes are still on your body, she says.
"I don't know what people's obsession is with body image and how they think celebrities are not human at the end of the day," she says. "Like we're not going to fluctuate and go through situations that are going to make us eat, not eat. I think people sometimes forget that you're a human being."
But for human beings in Hollywood, your body is your job, and most stars work hard for the slinky silhouettes. Gwyneth Paltrow, who's 39 and has had two children, often works out two hours a day, and Hugh Jackman, 42, hates working out but does it because he gets paid to.
Carrie Fisher. Kirstie Alley. Sara Rue. Valerie Bertinelli. Kelly Osbourne. Star Jones. Seth Rogen. Drew Carey. Raven-Symoné. Queen Latifah. Jonah Hill. Even Snooki. All were once ample; now they are much less so.
Fisher, 54, says she was inspired to lose 50 pounds this year, as a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, when she realized that she couldn't wear anything in her closet and that she was much heavier than her famous mother, actress Debbie Reynolds. "It got to the point that it was really humiliating to be a lot fatter than your mom," she says.
Mo'Nique, 43, who won an Oscar in 2010 for Precious, used to say bigger is better, but her doctor didn't agree, she told Oprah Winfrey (who has had her own well-documented losses and gains over the years). Now she has lost about 50 pounds and is working out five times a week to lose more weight.
After Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for Dreamgirls in 2007, she signed up with Weight Watchers and shed 80 pounds. Last month, she graced the cover of Self magazine talking about how she did it.
"It's like a brand-new me," she told Winfrey. "Sometimes I don't recognize myself."
Celebrity stylist Linda Medvene, who specializes in dressing plus-sized celebrities and worked with the designers at Marchesa to make Gabourey Sidibe, 28, look like a "fairy princess" in a royal-blue Marchesa gown for the 2010 Oscars, says you can be heavy and successful in Hollywood.
"The days of being emaciated and really skinny are over," Medvene says. "People are looking at the actor, at their performance, instead of their body."
Size 0 is just 'not realistic'
Besides, the size 0 look is not for everyone, says Us Weekly's Bromley, because it doesn't always look good and it's not very practical. "For a normal woman, you can't afford to have a trainer every single day, you can't afford to have your meal delivered to your house every single morning," she says. "It's not realistic."
Ashley Koff, nutritionist to the stars and the dietitian on CW's Shedding for the Wedding and Lifetime's weight-loss series Love Handles: Couples in Crisis, says it's really about health. It has become trendy now for stars to say they have personal nutritionists and dietitians in addition to personal assistants, trainers, stylists and chefs.
"I do see an incredibly growing awareness and strong interest in health, and it cuts across all clients," she says. It used to be her celeb clients would never acknowledge her in public. "The other day, I walked into a party and three top celebrities all ran over to me, (saying) 'Let me tell you about my colon,' and 'This girl saved my life.' Now that surprised me."
Not surprising? Some stars aren't eager to dish about their battles with the scale.
When asked if he would miss out on plus-sized roles now that he has lost so much weight, Moneyball star Jonah Hill, 27, was crestfallen. "With the part I play (in Moneyball), it wouldn't have mattered what size I was. You just play people," he says.
Ask casting directors if Hollywood conventions about weight have changed and their spokesman, the Casting Society of America, declines to comment.
The trend of incredibly shrinking plus-sized performers stretches to the 1980s and Ricki Lake as roly-poly Tracy Turnblad in the original 1988 Hairspray.
Now, 23 years, many TV roles, a stint as a talk-show host and many, many pounds later, Lake is losing again as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, which started out as a competition show about dancing but has evolved into a new weight-loss program .
"The magazines love these pictures," says Bragman, who represents Lake. "When Ricki lost her weight, every weekly made us an offer. Everyone wanted to put her on the cover, because those are big-selling issues."
Dancing with less weight
Lake, 43, spends four to five hours a day working out and rehearsing for DWTS, and the result is she has lost 12 inches off her figure, Bragman says.
But that's nothing compared with the 38 inches that the previously thin-then-obese Alley lost during her stint on the show. Now 60, the star weighed more than 220 pounds at her heaviest, but she told reporters recently that she has lost 100 pounds and is now a size 4.
So, with all these shedding stars, are people such as McCarthy and Margo Martindale (a veteran character actress who won an Emmy last month for FX's Justified) just anomalies? Can an ample actress like Sidibe sustain a career without losing weight? (She next plays a maid in the Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy flick Tower Heist out Nov. 4)
Sidibe told Winfrey that she had to work hard to accept her body. "One day I had to sit down with myself and decide that I loved myself no matter what my body looked like and what other people thought about my body," she said.
This question of whether you can be overweight and successful will be explored by Settles. She knows she will be judged by her bulk, but she doesn't accept the assumption that is all she is.
"The ideal figure should be embracing what you have and fine-tuning it and making the adjustments to live a long and happy, healthy life," says Settles. "It shouldn't be, oh, we all need to be a size 2."
There will always be celebs with fluctuating weight — it's the bread-and-butter for celeb magazines. But, Bromley says, "those days of most girls wanting to attain that very thin figure are over, and that is in part thanks to pop culture and shows like Mad Men showing us you can be even more beautiful or just as beautiful with a few more pounds on your body."