Q&A: Rebecca Harrington follows celebrity diets and lives to write about it
Two raw eggs mixed with warm milk. Broiled lamb, steak or liver. Five carrots. And a hot fudge sundae.
This was apparently what Marilyn Monroe ate every day in 1952. And it’s what Rebecca Harrington ate for 10 days while researching celebrity diets for her new book. In “I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting” (Vintage Original: $14.95 paper), the 29-year-old author tries to follow the culinary guidelines set out by svelte stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna and Cameron Diaz.
The results aren’t always pretty. On the second day of the Monroe diet, for instance, she finds herself particularly repulsed by liver.
“I wash the globs of blood off the liver and cook it,” she writes. “It is the worst thing I have ever had in my life. Such an odd taste, both bitter and meaty. I eat very little of it.”
Harrington, who has also written a novel called “Penelope,” first had her food exploits published on New York’s fashion blog the Cut. She spoke by phone from Manhattan, where she lives.
Why would you ever want to do this?
It started as a lark. I had gone on a sleep apnea website that was talking about the diet William Howard Taft went on in 1905. It was boiled sole and glutinous biscuits. I thought, “I need to go on a diet, and this seems fine.”
Have you been a dieter all your life?
I’m super Venn diagram normal about stuff like that. I’d go on a diet before prom for four days and then fail. I was a huge reader of women’s magazines like Elle and Cosmo, and they’re obsessed with dieting. So I was always curious about diets and the “being a better girl” perspective.
Did the experience change the way you approach food?
I wish. I like to call my diet the “proximity diet.” I eat the melange of things that are near me at any time. I have no restrictions and no plan. I like flavored popcorn. In a spasm of guilt, I’ll have a green juice in the morning. Talk about making me feel virtuous! You can have two Umami burgers after that. And I still try celebrity diets. I’m doing Taylor Swift’s right now. There was an article that she heavily contributed to on WebMD when she was 16 that said she liked salad and flavored lattes from Starbucks. So every day I have to have a pumpkin spice latte.
But do you think stars really eat what they say they do in interviews?
I don’t know. Marilyn’s diet definitely seemed like what you’d eat if you were on barbiturates. Like, “I didn’t eat anything all day and then I had a hot fudge sundae!”
How do you think we became so obsessed with what celebrities eat?
I actually read one text that speculated that when people first started taking pictures, they realized that they looked heavier than they’d imagined. So with the rise of moving pictures, when stars were blown up on this big screen and still looked thin, they became the experts on dieting.
Did you notice diet trends shifting over the decades?
I think there’s much less emphasis on portion control now, but the foods are inherently less caloric. The entire portion control movement is an ‘80s and ‘90s thing. It’s probably based on the Lean Cuisine idea of dieting. Don’t change that much of your life — just eat nothing! We almost put value judgments on food now, which is very odd.
Of the 14 diets you sampled, only two – originated by Karl Lagerfeld and Carmelo Anthony — were created by men.
It’s so odd, but you can’t find out what a male celebrity’s diet is unless he’s marketing a film. Bradley Cooper might be like, “I gained 30 pounds of muscle for ‘American Sniper,’” and so he’ll talk about what he did to prepare. But it’s amazing: You can be a random actress and people will be like, “What do you eat all day?”
A lot of the stuff you had to eat seemed gross. Why do you think stars force themselves to eat unpleasant foods?
A lot of it was so disgusting I couldn’t believe it.... There is this whole, sad school of dieting that is like, “Let’s make food so gross that you won’t eat it.” There is literally no way to eat a lot of steak and peanut butter [like Liz Taylor].
Was that the worst thing you had to eat?
Greta Garbo’s celery loaf was so disgusting. When I was cooking it I was literally dry heaving. It tasted like vomit. She was the weirdest. She’d drink raw egg in orange juice and say, “This is breakfast fit for a king!”
Was there anyone’s diet you actually enjoyed following?
If you are a millionaire, Gwyneth’s is the best diet of all time. She had salt-baked fish and gluten-free tortillas and fish tacos. Every meal was so good.
You said you found yourself starting to feel “slightly superior” on her diet. You tell your friend to start soaking raw almonds in water like she recommends.
There’s a weird competitive element to all of it. Regimented eating plans are so easy to market because they really are a commodity. Diets are the greatest iteration of the star’s commodified status — the one thing that you can pretend to do that will make you look like this person. Even though it won’t! It seems to give people a measure of control over their destiny.
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