The Up-side of Being Plus-Sized: Kirstie Alley and Her Big Life

Kirstie Alley has more than 600,000 followers on Twitter. In a technological age the actress claims to have a difficult time fully grasping, that’s an awful lot. People like Kirstie Alley, whether they’re familiar with her from her days on the blockbuster sitcom Cheers to her more recent and very public struggle with weight loss. Even if they’re baffled by Alley’s close ties to the Church of Scientology or haven’t actually seen her act in ages, she remains wildly popular.

Put that down to her personality, which at the risk of stumbling over a cheap line, is as big as her weight. In my defense, Alley talks about the subject a lot, both jokingly and from the more serious perspective of someone who’s not only struggled to separate herself from the actual weight, but also weight as a metaphor, dragging her onto the front pages of tabloids and presumably out of contention for certain film roles.

Rather than shy away from the attention, Alley has reveled in it, using it to carve out new avenues for fame and — because that’s what celebrities do — profit. She famously lost a bunch of weight as the spokesperson for the Jenny Craig weight-loss program, and parlayed the notoriety into a short-lived pseudo-documentary series on Showtime called Fat Actress. She appeared on Oprah in a bikini, and then gained the weight back.

In 2010, history repeats itself, as Alley is launching her own weight loss program — Organic Liaison – and starring in Kirstie Alley’s Big Life, an A&E reality series which premiered with a pair of episodes just this past week. As on Fat Actress, Alley plays herself on Big Life, which has been sold as reality, but as with most programs under the umbrella, feels as though it’s been massaged and manipulated and manufactured into something unreal. But sometimes that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it’s this entertaining.

As Big Life begins, Alley and her children — True and Lillie — are seen leaving a restaurant and running a massive gauntlet of paparazzi as they try to locate their car. Whether the event itself was a put on for the purposes of setting up the show is irrelevant, because what it does is successfully lend what will likely seem absolutely surreal to the majority of Big Life‘s viewers a certain level of familiarity. Let’s face it, chances are you or I will never know what it’s like to be insanely famous or insanely wealthy. Whether we’re intrigued or repelled by such a notion, as a culture we find it hard to look away. And that’s why Alley’s show is going to succeed. Because whether we’ve had weight issues or grown up in a small town or had people dismiss our crazy ideas as, well, crazy ideas, we probably identify in some small way with its star.

Alley was in New York recently to promote Big Life and Organic Liaison, meeting with bloggers and online journalists in A&E’s Manhattan offices one day after an interview on The Today Show went off the rails when Meredith Viera repeated former Fox News reporter Roger Friedman’s claims that there was a connection between the controversial Church of Scientology and Organic Liaison. Within hours of that Today Show appearance, those of us invited to Wednesday’s Q&A were asked by publicists to steer clear of the topic, but shortly after entering the screening room in which a rough cut of the third episode of Big Life had just aired, Alley addressed the topic herself.

“It was disturbing, to say the least,” said Alley of the Today Show kerfuffle. Without getting into the specifics of the argument in a story ostensibly about a television show, Alley claims Friedman’s attempts to portray Organic Liaison as being Scientology-based are false. According to Alley, of the 25 people involved in the weight-loss company, four are Scientologists. Alley said the Friedman piece was indicative of his bias against Scientology.

“The source is important,” she said. “So when I see this guy up there … if you just Google him you will see the problems he has with my religion and the people in it … when I saw that as the source, it was an ambush.”

Alley, true to her word, had no concerns about discussing Scientology, and even when exhibiting what might be deemed by some as paranoia (anonymous internet detractors were called “fringy little creeps”), she did so with a balance of humor, passion and calm.

“If I wanted this to be a Scientology company exclusively, I would have done that,” she said. “And I would have told the world.”

Alley said the attention Scientology is given in relation to her life is a “cheap shot” by the media “because they can’t write well enough,” and whether it’s always true, it’s undeniable that controversy gets attention, and attention sells. The equation doesn’t just work for the media, but as evidenced by her recent career arc, it’s not hurting Alley, either. And in that sense, it’s a symbiotic relationship, even if it’s one based on mutual disdain. It’s possible the media needs Alley as much as she needs them, though it doesn’t always seem like an idyllic arrangement.

Alley was critical of the press’ insistence on focusing on her weight, her religion and sometimes both, though she did the same herself.

“‘The controversial Church of Scientology has a fat girl in their religion.’ Wow, that’s funny, because I thought there were like eight-fucking-million fat Catholics,” she said. “None of them are on the cover of a magazine.”

It’s easy to read words on a page and miss the nuances of their delivery, but let me assure you that Alley’s spirits seemed high throughout the more than an hour she spent with the assembled online media. She laughed often, but remained focused, and even when a question led down a long unexpected road, she always managed to steer it back to where she was expected to answer. She’s an actress, and often a dynamic one. In her 30 years of Hollywood, it’s clear she’s become comfortable in her own skin, even at times when that skin is tangled up in body issues.

Three episodes in, and Kirstie Alley’s Big Life is about a lot of things: Celebrity and family may be the most apparent tent poles, but the entire show is built around weight loss. Alley said she hoped the show would document that journey as much as whatever the eventual destination might be. Any reality show basically uses the same formula, condensing hundreds of hours of footage into each episode in such a way as to make the finished product as interesting as possible. And because of this, reality isn’t really reality at all, but rather a series of highlights meant to tell whatever story the producers hope to tell.

Sometimes it takes time for a television show’s characters to hit their rhythm, even in the realm of reality when it’s presumed some of the people have already known each other for some time. In addition to Alley, Big Life stars her two children, who Alley is clearly enamored of.

“My kids were excited,” she said. “This was the first year that they decided they wanted to get jobs.”

Though it wasn’t clear the first time she said it, the jobs Alley’s children have are appearing on a reality show, which regardless of what it actually pays is quite a bit different than taking on a paper route or working in the local movie theater. But her kids also seem fairly well adjusted, despite having the Travolta family on speed dial and having to deal with paparazzi peering over their fence. Sure, the show is cut a certain way, and maybe they struggle a little more than they let on. But Alley said her relationship with her children is part of why she’s taken on certain roles, including this new series.

“I think probably the kids had something to do with it,” she said. “There have been nights when I get a little bit grief … I think I’ve gotten a little needy. I find myself, whatever they’re doing on their own, I’m like wanting them to do everything with me now, because I’m concerned about when they’re going to leave.”

In the meantime, the real family is expanded by a family of assistants, assistant’s apprentices, trainers, designers, and — rather curiously — handymen. The latter, the rather heavy Jim Hazel, is shown in the first episode as struggling with completing projects, with the demands of his job and with his own weight. The revelation that this “Chubby Buddy” should join Alley in her efforts to trim down feel a little forced, and it’s not hard to be cynical and think this Everyman is getting so much airtime because it’ll attract men to a TV show they might otherwise avoid. And like the rest of the viewing audience, those men are going to hear about Organic Liaison.

It hasn’t happened in three shows, though it’s coming. Organic Liaison, Alley’s USDA-certified weight loss program, isn’t just going to crop up in ads running alongside episodes of Big Life; it’s going to appear in the show itself. As it hasn’t happened yet, how the producers managed to avoid (or perhaps embrace) the appearance of being little more than an infomercial remains to be seen.

Alley, who said she’s spent the past two years working to develop the program, is clearly unafraid to hype herself and the things she believes in. She’s also completely comfortable discussing her career, and how both it and Hollywood as a whole deals with weight.

“The industry is psychotic, and it’s men-driven psychosis,” she said, recalling a conversation she said she had with Adrian Lynn, director of the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. Alley said she was up for the part of Alex Forrest, a successful editor who finds herself obsessively fixated on Daniel Gallagher, an attorney as played by Michael Douglas. The role eventually went to Glenn Close, but it was a conversation with Lynn that illustrated Hollywood’s own fatal attraction with female boy image, says Alley.

“I weighed about 125, and he told me to go home and lose at least 10 pounds,” she said. “He wanted to see me in two weeks. I got down to 114 and went back and met with him … I’m 5’8″, [so] 125 is too fat. I need to weigh 114; I need to basically be emaciated.”

Alley said that attitude was with her for much of her career until she’d finally had enough.

“I thought, ‘Fuck this. This is dumb. I’m not going to do this anymore,'” she said. “That’s when I got fat.”

Alley is certainly not the only actress to struggle with the issue of weight, and she said it’s not something that looks like it’s going away any time soon, either.

“I see young actresses now, they’re emaciated, some of them,” she said. “And I’m sure they get these signals from all over the place … I think there’s an insanity on the reverse side too, like ‘Who gives a fuck, I’ll just be fat.’ I don’t like being fat. That’s just me personally. I don’t like it; I don’t see any merit in it. The only good part about it was getting to sort of be wild and eat whatever I wanted when I wanted. But there’s a penalty.”

Alley noted that Hollywood and the media aren’t holding men to the same standards.

“Why aren’t they interested in these guys who are fat being on the cover?” she said. “I can name 20 of them. I joke, but it’s true; if you want a sitcom, get fat if you’re a guy and you’ll have one.”

But Alley’s weight clearly hasn’t hurt her career, and to her credit she isn’t claiming otherwise. Witness the name of her television show: Kirstie Alley’s Big Life. Asked if she worried about how she might come off in the final analysis, she said it wasn’t something that troubled her … at least not at first.

“I, at first, wasn’t concerned,” she said. “But I saw the first footage and said, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I’d said, ‘I’m not one of the Kardashians. I’m not going to have hair and makeup. Let’s just see me natural.’ Then I thought, ‘Get me the hair and makeup! Natural’s not good anymore!’ It was startling.”

Though she didn’t have the crew with her at the A&E offices, Kirstie Alley’s Big Life is still in production. And so is her personal weight loss, which incorporates Organic Liaison as well as a fitness regimen already demonstrated early in the series.

“Who knows how long it will take me to lose all of the weight, because I’ve got a lot of it to lose,” she said. “I’ve got personal body goals, which is, ‘You can shoot me from any direction, and I don’t care. You can shoot me walking up the stairs.’ I said to the cinematographer the other day, ‘Do you have to shoot my ass every time? Is it really part of the show where you just shoot my ass chronically? It’s Kirstie Alley’s Big Life, not Big Ass. Come on!'”

But the appeal of the show — and it does have appeal — is in its relationships, whether they revolve around weight loss or not. Kyle Little, the flamboyant assistant’s apprentice, met Alley during one of the actress’ visits to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. He worked in a salon that has since closed, freeing him up to work for Alley. The show’s first episodes portray Little as lazy and ill-equipped, but eventually dedicated. And he’s also clearly fun to have around, which is maybe just as important to Alley.

“We’re sort of [like] the Ozzie & Harriet family meets the Addams Family,” she said. “We’re a little bit old fashioned and a little bit like we just dropped down the rabbit hole.”