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Vanna Talks Candidly About Overcoming 'Bingeing Stage'

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Recently, I heard that ABC was renewing the contract for Wheel of Fortune through 2016. Vanna White was signing on to help contestants puzzle over the iconic puzzle-board for three more years. So I was curious: What happened to Vanna?

2012-12-02-vannaheadshotsmall.jpgI'd previously interviewed the svelte co-star of the most popular syndicated game show at a Las Vegas fitness convention in 1988. Warner Books had just published her bestselling memoir Vanna Speaks, and Weight Watchers Magazine assigned the Vanna interview to yours truly. So I sat down with the all-American blonde and asked her how she maintains her camera-perfect figure. That was 24 years ago.

As hard as it was to believe that nearly a quarter century had come and gone since my little heart-to-heart with America's favorite letter turner, it wasn't all that hard to dig up that old interview. When I reread what I'd written in 1988, I was more than a little surprised. While Vanna never used the phrase "eating disorder," she'd admitted to struggling with "emotional eating" and went on to describe one of the main symptoms of the least-recognized, most common of all the eating disorders: binge eating disorder. In the show's 30-year history, Vanna's name has never been associated with any eating problem. But she'd actually been bingeing before she made her name on Wheel of Fortune.

Check out this excerpt from my 1988 interview:

Seeing Vanna today, stunning in a slinky silver evening dress with a thigh-high slit, it's hard to picture her even an ounce overweight. She has been, though. Sipping a Diet Coke, she recalls the days when she binged on whole pies and cheesecakes, entire meat loaves and doughnuts by the dozen ... "I don't turn to food for emotional reasons anymore. Instead I shop. Nothing lifts my spirits better than finding a $10 dress and matching it with a $100 belt!"

To be fair, Vanna and I weren't the only ones who didn't use the term "binge eating" to describe the consumption of much larger-than-average portions. In the '80s, there was no mention of binge eating disorder in psychiatry's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In fact, when the much-anticipated fifth edition of the DSM is published next spring, the diagnosis of binge eating disorder will finally take its rightful place alongside anorexia and bulimia.

2012-12-02-vanna_pat_small.jpgFor a number of reasons, I felt compelled to set up another interview and ask Vanna that iconic therapy question: "How are you?" On camera, she looked as healthy and happy as ever. But looks can be deceiving, especially in Hollywood. How's she really doing, I wondered.

Interviewing Vanna again would be a chance to see if she was still struggling with bingeing or if she'd found a way to move on. Talking with this now 55-year-old single mother of two would also be a great opportunity to speak the unspoken truth about this all-too-common eating problem. What's more, reconnecting with Pat Sajak's loyal sidekick was a way to remember my mom, long gone now, who dreamed of, and finally got to be, a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.

Long story short, I recently tracked down and chatted up Vanna. What follows are questions and answers from that candid conversation.

Q. When I interviewed you 24 years ago, you told me that maintaining your figure is crucial to your success. Anyone can see you've succeeded in maintaining your figure and your career. What they can't see is how you deal with the pressure to look camera perfect year after year after year. How do you deal with the pressure?

A. Every couple of weeks, I have to do wardrobe fittings. Before I go in to try those dresses on, it's like, "Oh my god, they better fit!" I have to make sure I don't gain too much weight those two weeks when we're not filming. I pretty much stay the same weight, but every once in a while, like over the holidays, I'll go back and I'll have gained five pounds, and the dresses are extremely tight. Having those fittings keeps me in check. It's like, "You have to wear these dresses next Thursday. You can't go overboard. Do not eat that pint of ice cream!"

Q. At this point in your career, maybe your success no longer depends on maintaining your figure. Lady Gaga's recent weight gain certainly hasn't harmed her success. If you ate with more abandon, if you gained a few pounds, do you really think it would jeopardize your job?

A. No, I don't. I do not think it would affect the way people look at me. When I was pregnant and gained a lot of weight, it did not affect my job. For me, I know what weight feels good and healthy. I pretty much range between 112 and 118 [pounds], and have since high school. When I'm on the higher side, 118, I'm not fat by any means, but I feel a little sluggish. If I gained 10 pounds, it's not that big of a deal. I'm definitely not obsessed with my weight, but I do want to fit into those dresses.

2012-12-02-vannapuzzlemed.jpg

Q. Lady Gaga's response to her body critics was to encourage fans to feel good about themselves however much they weigh. In light of the fact that you've been in Gaga's shoes -- you once struggled with a 25-pound weight gain -- what might you like to tell your fans?

A. Everybody always worries about their weight. You should eat pretty good. You should not live off fast food and dessert every day. You need to eat healthy. But as long as you feel healthy, you can feel good about yourself.

Q. Last we spoke, you said you struggled with emotional eating early in your career. That is, until you found other ways of dealing with difficult emotions. How do you cope with difficult emotions nowadays?

A. Exercise is my main outlet; it kind of releases things. Even if I can't go running, I can just take a walk. I also love hiking, listening to soothing music, meditating. Everyone deals with stress in different ways. For me, it's just relaxing and calming yourself down. Not thinking about bad things, just good things.

Q. Do you ever binge like you used to?

A. My bingeing stage was when I first moved away from home and moved toward food. I would eat uncontrollably. Back then, I was thinking: "I don't have my parents to tell me I can't eat this, so I can eat a whole pumpkin pie." It was almost like a rebellion thing. I was away from home; I could do whatever I wanted. And I do have sweet tooth.

Q. I'm glad we could clear that up. Moving along, when Merv Griffin cast you as a letter turner, you had no way of knowing he was also casting you as an American fitness inspiration, kind of like Michelle Obama. The First Lady has used her position to inspire children to shape up. How would you say you've used your position?

A. I try to be a good role model for people who watch our show -- to think positively about taking care of ourselves. When we're young, we think we're invincible. Nothing can ever happen to us. But obviously, we need to take good care of ourselves. I have children. I try to teach them to eat properly, wear sunscreen, exercise. They've watched me do these things. It's important to start incorporating things [like regular exercise] at a young age. But there can be too much pressure put on kids about "Oh, you have to be thin." If you eat healthy, exercise and get plenty of sleep, it will all fall into place. My advice is to feel good about yourself. Don't be obsessed with weight. You don't have to be thin, just be healthy.

Q. According to the Vanna FAQ, one of the most frequently asked questions is "How do you stay in shape?" So tell me, how do you stay in shape?

A. I exercise on a regular basis. I love spinning! I spin five days a week, and I will run a couple days a week. It kind of depends. If I go to work, I don't have time to spin, so I'll do a quick couple mile run. It gives you such energy! I also do weights, pushups and sit-ups. My son had the pull-up bar in his room so I started doing pull-ups for upper-body strength. I mix in a little yoga at times, but that's sporadic.

Q. Is there anything else you want to tell me that I didn't ask?

A. My philosophy is eat when I'm hungry. Don't just eat to eat. If I wake up in the morning and I'm starving, I will eat something. If I wake up not hungry at all, I don't eat. Listening to my body has worked for me. I have gotten used to eating certain things in the morning. I just had cottage cheese with bananas and blueberries. Sounds horrible probably, but I love it! Of course, I occasionally splurge on ice cream, but my eating habits have gotten so much healthier.

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I've always liked Vanna, so I was happy to hear she sounds as good as she looks. It's always reassuring to hear that someone you care about has gotten a handle on her eating issue. There's no doubt about it -- Vanna is unusual. She moved past her bingeing problem on her own. Not everyone is strong and resourceful enough to stop bingeing without professional help. If you or someone you care about has tried and failed to stop, know that binge eating is a treatable problem, and effective treatment is available.

For more information, contact the Binge Eating Disorder Association. For a variety of effective self-help strategies, check out my book and audio companion, The Self-Compassion Diet.

Vanna White headshot by Charles Bush
Vanna White at the puzzleboard by Carol Kaelson
Vanna White & Pat Sajak archive photo courtesy of Wheel of Fortune

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see www.jeanfain.com.

For more by Jean Fain, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W., click here.