"I bought into the whole diet industry": Valerie Bertinelli on loving herself, food and Betty White

On "Salon Talks," Valerie Bertinelli discusses her book, "Enough Already," moving on and cooking from the heart

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published February 3, 2022 7:14PM (EST)

Chef Valerie Bertinelli onstage presenting a culinary demonstration at the Grand Tasting presented by ShopRite featuring Culinary Demonstrations at The IKEA Kitchen presented by Capital One at Pier 94 on October 12, 2019 in New York City. (John Lamparski/Getty Images for NYCWFF)
Chef Valerie Bertinelli onstage presenting a culinary demonstration at the Grand Tasting presented by ShopRite featuring Culinary Demonstrations at The IKEA Kitchen presented by Capital One at Pier 94 on October 12, 2019 in New York City. (John Lamparski/Getty Images for NYCWFF)

Valerie Bertinelli has had enough.

The Golden Globe award-winning actor, New York Times bestselling author, and Emmy award-winning television host's new memoir is all about having "Enough Already: Learning to Love the Way I Am Today." The veteran of the Norman Lear classic "One Day at a Time," "Touched by an Angel," "Hot in Cleveland" and "Valerie's Home Cooking" joined us recently on "Salon Talks" to discuss self-acceptance, the joy of cake from a mix, Van Halen and what Betty White taught her about gratitude. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You've written books called "Losing It," "Finding It," and now . . .

"Enough Already."

You use that phrase so often in the book. What does that mean to you at this moment in your life?

It means a couple things. It means, enough already, with the self-loathing, the bad talk, being unkind to ourselves. Enough already. It also means I am enough already. Perfection isn't a part of being human, I'm enough. In and of myself, I am lovable. I don't don't have to be a certain weight on the scale. I don't have to be a certain size in my jeans. I'm enough, I'm enough. We all are, we are all enough.

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It's about being fed up but also acceptance. You talk in this book about something that I don't know too many women who can't relate to — gaining and losing the same 10 pounds.

I'm so tired of the script.

What caused the shift in you? When did you say, "Okay, I don't want to do this with these same 10 pounds for the rest of my life"?

Age might have something to do with it. I've just lived long enough on this treadmill that I don't want to be on anymore. When am I just going to be happy? Just be happy. I like to say all the time, "When faced with a choice, choose happy." But happy was getting more and more challenging to choose because I was so worried about what I looked like. As you age, you start to worry less, or at least I do. It is what it is.

I think I learned at a very, very young age that when I gain weight, I'm unlovable, which is a huge lie. The way my father treated my mother when she would gain weight wasn't very kind. I had an elementary school teacher point at my belly and say, "You're going to want to keep an eye on that." Before that, I wasn't even aware of my body. Those things now make me angry. What they did to me as a young child is they gave me a core memory of how to be accepted. Don't gain weight, that will make you unlovable. Now I'm just trying to dig all of that crap out of my body and my heart and my mind, so that I can truly live in this body that I have today and just accept myself.

I've done too many things to make my life miserable because I didn't like what the number on the scale said. I never liked what the number on the scale said, it doesn't matter how small it was. When it was big, I wanted to hide away, but it was never small enough. What's the point? If that number's never going to make me happy, stop looking at it. And I have. When I finished writing the book, I stopped getting on the scale and my jeans still fit. Obviously, I was so worried I was going to gain so much weight if I didn't know what it was.

I want to be very clear though, that because I'm saying enough already, I'm not going to worry about this any longer, it doesn't mean that I'm not going to care about putting good things into my body. I want to eat more fruits and vegetables. I don't want to have as much alcohol. I want to have less sugar. I'm not going to deny myself anything, but I am going to try and treat my body in a way that will get me up those stairs when I'm 80 years old, so I don't have to worry about that.

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That's the difference. It's about moving from a place of self love. That is always a work in progress. I was really heartened the other day, you posted something on Instagram where you admitted you were really a having a hard day. It's not something that we arrive at and then it's ever done.

There's no sexy before and after picture, like when you lose weight.

Yet you famously have been the sexy before and after girl, Valerie.

I bought into the whole diet industry, as well. I'm actually a little ashamed of my role in it, that I would ever make someone feel less than just because I got into a bikini. It was my job to do that. I worked out twice a day, I barely ate. It was not a way to live a life, for sure. That's not the life that I want to live. It just keeps coming back to that.

But all of this is real. These expectations and these judgments are real. We don't exist in a vacuum, and it's hard to wake up in this world every day.

It doesn't just click on like a light bulb. That's why I wanted to show that I was struggling that day because I had seen a picture of myself that was going to be printed in a magazine. I was like, "Oh God, everyone's going to see it." Well, who cares? Yes, I've gained weight obviously, but it doesn't make me less of a human being. I'm still the same kind person or, at least, I try to be. I was traveling into that self-loathing and I could feel myself spiraling down and I thought, "OK, this is where I put into action everything I've been trying to learn for the past few years."

How do I get myself out of it? I have to click my mind onto something else and not just stay in my head. I walked outside in the rain. I thought, "OK, I'm going to look at the rain. It's beautiful, it makes me feel good. I love the water." Looking around in my surroundings and looking at the flowers and just clicking your brain into something else, so you don't stay there. I wanted to just show how I hopefully got out of it. I think a lot of people were focused about me not being there yet and being uncomfortable with where I am and not being where I want to be. I also showed how to get out of it, and I hope that was helpful for some people.

You talk in the book about your career in food television and how unexpected that was and what a new chapter that has been. I wonder if that's part of your shift in your relationship with your body and having this new relationship with food. How has that affected you and how you feel in your self image?

I had to go back to the original thing about food, where food is love. Food is the way that my mother showed her love. Food was my Nonie's love language. It was my great-grandmothers, who I never met. I was able to find out that she actually worked in a home in San Remo as the house chef. So it's in my life. Food is important. It feeds you, it feeds the love that you have for people. It feeds your soul. I wanted to get back to that because there was a lot of years there where I was afraid of food and it's going to destroy me.

It's not the food doing it, it's the way I used food. Now that I've somehow got this amazing career, being able to cook for people, it feels like, food's not the enemy. I'm actually able to show people love again. So I've taken this full circle. I've come back to the love of food and how you could share your love with people that way. There's never not a recipe developing in my head. So I'm going to deny that for the rest of my life? No, no, no. That's part of me.

You talk about the way that food has also been a love language for people towards you. A lot of the book is also about your mom. Talk to me about what you learned about your mother through learning from her recipes.

That's where regret comes in, too, because I wish that I was able to talk to her more and open up with her more and have her open up to me more. She was a very reserved woman with a great sense of humor but she never felt like anybody listened to her anyway. We were able to get closer near the end of her life, thankfully, and we did have a great joking relationship. She was always telling me my lasagna wasn't right because there was no ricotta in it because I like to change it over to béchamel.

I know that she used food to engage my dad's family because she was not accepted into the family. She was an English-Irish woman and this is a purely Italian family and they weren't having it. Then she gets pregnant and they have to get married. I think her learning how to cook like an Italian woman is what got her closer to the family. She used food as acceptance. That was important in her life because the family that she had growing up, wasn't a family. Her mother died when she was nine. She really wanted to be accepted by my dad's family and she was finally, through food.

And then, I see you doing that in the beginning of the book with your mother-in-law.

Oh, yes. It was the one thing we could talk about without her hurting my feelings. She was really good at hurting people's feelings. I don't think she even realized it but she had a really tough life, as well. I never ever knew it, until Ed would tell me something after she passed. I didn't get a chance to really dig into her and her heart and her soul, as well. I did learn to cook some of her amazing dishes and I'll forever be grateful for that. The way I grew up was Italian cooking.

And then to learn that there's this Indonesian cooking that is amazing and spicy but yet they still have a spaghetti dish, called Bami. It's a little bit different. It made me realize that food really is so universal that we all have a spaghetti dish, a noodle dish. We all have a dumpling dish, a ravioli dish.You can have gyoza or you can have ravioli or cappalletti. And it's all around the world. People have different kinds of bread, pizza. We're so much more alike than we really give ourselves credit for. To celebrate other foods, other cultures, it connects us so much more. I'm so grateful for Mrs. Van Halen having teaching me all of those things.

One of the things that really jumped out at me is a carryover from your show, as well. The way you talk about food and the way that you write the recipes, they're all so accessible. You use the no boil noodles. You make this Sicilian love cake, which is just the sexiest sounding thing in the world.

It's with a box mix.

It's a box mix. I'm a big fan of the St. Louis gooey cake, which is also a box mix recipe.

Well, I need to know what that is.

It's made with a box and that's part of what makes it so delicious. We have this culture of perfectionism and your recipes are very anti-perfectionism. It's about, it's okay to use the no boil noodles. It's okay to use a box mix.


Why is that an important part of the conversation around food?

Because, I think, sometimes people get intimidated by food, intimidated by cooking. It really is much easier than some chefs would have you believe. Yes, there's some techniques that I'll never be able to learn and I don't really want to. I want my life to be easier in the kitchen. I want to have fun in the kitchen. I want to create, I want to use it as a way of expressing myself. That means making it a little bit easier, too, so it can connect with a lot of other people. I can show love and they can feel love through this because they'll want to recreate it for themselves. If it's going to be challenging and there's going to be ingredients that you've never heard of, it's not going to be fun to make.

Throughout the book, you use these recipes to illustrate these moments of connection. So much of the spine of this book is your relationship with your late ex-husband Eddie Van Halen. So much of it is framed around the last year or so of his life and this incredibly loving, respectful friendship that not a lot of exes get to have, Valerie. How did you two manage that? Because it's really so inspiring to see.

He was angry at me when I first left for quite a bit. He was really angry with me. I was angry at him for a lot of the things that he had done, but I never hated him. I always loved him even when I was angry with him. I know he always loved me even when he was angry with me, so we always had that to fall back on. Near the end of his life, it was important for him to really let the people know how much they were loved and how much he appreciated and how regretful he was about things that he had done in his past that I still don't blame him for.

Because drugs and alcohol were his tool in his toolbox to deal with the pain that he felt, the immense grief and pain that he felt in his life and the challenges of his life. I used food. I wish that I had been a little bit more understanding early on, but I was 20 when we got married. I wasn't really developed in a way of relationships like that. I was learning with my relationship with him on how to treat someone you love. I took things way too personally. His drug and alcohol had nothing to do with me but I felt like his addiction.

I felt it very personally. Like, "Well, if you loved me, you would get better." That's impossible. Nobody can love you enough to get better. They have to love themselves enough to get better. That's the only way it works. I didn't know that back then, so I could have been a little bit more understanding. But luckily we grew. We knew each other for 40 years, so we were able to grow into that and really come back to the real love that we shared with each other.

To end a life on that note, I'm sure that meant a great deal to your son to see the two of you connecting like that.

Oh, yes. We stayed connected and stayed friendly for Wolfie, but then it grew back to the original feeling of that soulful love that we have for one another.

I want to ask you about some of the other people who have been in and out of your life. We're thinking a lot about one of your former co-stars, Betty White. In the book, you describe her as a person who glowed. As someone who also has spent decades in entertainment, what did you learn from her as this amazing, hilarious veteran of show business?

Besides her timing being impeccable, and you can't really learn that, that really is innate. Take away all the brilliance that she is as a comedic actress and a dramatic actress — and people don't give her credit for that. She was a really wonderful, dramatic actress, as well. She was just a really kind person. That oozed out of her, that was her glow. That was when she would walk on a set, not even making a big deal, just walking on a set. There was just this beautiful aura around her. She was just the embodiment of gratitude and love and kindness. She never tried to be nice, she just was nice. She never tried to be kind, she just was. And she really, really lived in gratitude.

That's a good one to try and learn from each other, for sure.

It is, it is. It was a really good lesson to just be grateful for everything, even the bad days because through the bad days, you can see the light days. You can't have the light without the dark. So you've got to have that comparison. We don't want it all the time, but it's good to see sometimes.

Speaking of your co-stars and show business veterans, you have been working more recently with Demi Lovato, who like you started out as a teenager, has been very open about the system and the pressure put on actors to be a certain size and a certain weight.

I can't believe that they're still having to deal with that, as well. We should be beyond that by now. We really should be beyond that. They are old enough to be my daughter, young enough to be my daughter. I'm really excited about this show that we're shooting together because it is about that. Suzanne Martin, who wrote "Hot in Cleveland," also wrote this for Demi. I play Demi's mother and it really is about the diet culture and what society has done to make you feel less-than because of what you weigh or what you look like. It really speaks to that in a very funny, smart, witty way. I cannot wait for people to see it. We're going to be shooting it in about a month. The original pilot, they want to redo for a multicam, which I think is so much better. So I'm really excited about it.

Can you tell me what it's called or what the tentative title is?

It's called "Hungry." It's perfect. Hungry for life. Hungry for love. Hungry . . .  just hungry to be accepted.

Hungry for cake.

Yes. And cake is OK.


More Salon Talks: 

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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