11.08.11

The Anorexia Reality Show

Tracey Gold became the face of anorexia nearly 20 years ago when she admitted she had the disease and left Growing Pains. Now she’s back with a Lifetime series, Starving Secrets, that helps other women battle eating disorders. Ramin Setoodeh talks to the actress and gets an exclusive first look. 

Rivka is 28, and she’s suffered from anorexia since she was a junior in high school. “Oh God, I’ve done a lot of treatments,” she says. “I kept relapsing. I’ve done in-patient, out-patient, residential, day patient, every level of care, hospitalization, all of it.”

There was just one option left. Last February, she signed up to be on a new reality show called Starving Secrets, for women with anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. The show’s host, Tracey Gold, is the former Growing Pains sitcom star who became a tabloid story when she checked into an anorexia treatment center back in the 1990s. “I think the biggest gift she gave me was that she went through this process herself,” Rivka says.

With some help from the reality TV Gods, Rivka left her home in Toronto for Los Angeles, where she endured eight months of intensive treatment. She even checked herself into an overnight facility for part of that time. Gold visited her every few weeks—and the cameras rolled through every tearful breakdown. “I was highly emotional,” Rivka says. “I cried all the time.” She also had concerns about revealing such an intimate part of herself, as one of 10 women between the ages 19 to 43 cast in the first six episodes. “I don’t want to be associated with an eating disorder. It’s not something that I feel very proud about.”

The idea of showcasing such a private health battle will no doubt cause a stir in TV land, but that’s probably the point. Lifetime airs the premiere on Dec. 2. The network has yet to establish buzz-worthy original programming beyond those ubiquitous made-for-TV movies and marathons of Project Runway, a series that it snatched away from Bravo in 2009. Starving Secrets comes from GRB Entertainment, the same production company that made Intervention—the reality show about addiction that became a hit for A&E.

Gold assures that the show is handled tastefully, and the women featured are not exploited. “It’s not an easy show to watch, but it’s riveting and it really lets you know what it’s like,” she says, in her first interview about the project. “When we first started, every story tore me apart. I had such a close relationship to the subjects. As we got further along, I was able to get some distance.”

She’s had 20 years of distance from her own public battle with an eating disorder. Gold was the first actress in Hollywood to come forward with anorexia, and certainly the first to allow the public a glimpse into her life as she was undergoing treatment. In February 1992, People magazine put her on the cover, with an explosive sit-down interview (“I am fighting it, but it’s hard,” she said at the time) and quotes from her mother about keeping her 22-year-old daughter alive. At her worst, she weighed 80 pounds.

Gold still remembers those days vividly. She’s spent most of her adult life telling her story to high school and college students and other young women. “I started to really see that it could make a difference,” she says. “The response I got was so positive and so fulfilling, it’s hard to turn your back on that.”

For a long time, she was the face of anorexia. “We’re talking about a town where eating disorders are fairly common,” says Rob Sharenow, Lifetime’s executive vice president of programming. “I can’t think of another celebrity who was honest about it.” Adds Lynn Grefe, the CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association: “People were keeping this a secret and getting so sick. She was part of the engine that got people to mobilize in this field, because she spoke publicly.”

Gold took on the role of the nerdy Carol Seaver on Growing Pains at the age of 16. She had struggled with food her entire life, but among the things that put her over the edge were the fat jokes targeted at her character. She recalls sitting at script readings, pleading with the writers to cut the nastier lines (they countered with, “But it’s funny!”) “I think the fat jokes did a disservice to young girls in America, because I was never fat,” Gold says. “It was really hurting my feelings. It wasn’t about Carol Seaver. If you’re making fun of Carol Seaver’s body, you’re making fun of Tracey’s body. It was a personal kind of thing at a vulnerable age. I didn’t know how to really process that.”

(On the subject of Growing Pains, she also debunks the myth that Brad Pitt was her first kiss. But she did kiss him on-screen, when he debuted on the show. “He was a good-looking guy,” she says. “When you’re 17 and you have to do that on camera, trust me, it’s so embarrassing and not fun.”)

Gold went on a crash diet in her early 20s, and as the pounds flew off, she all but stopped eating. By the end of 1991, she was a shadow of her old self. The producers of Growing Pains finally had to intervene and send her to a health clinic. When she left the show, the tabloids pounced on the story, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Once everybody knew about her ordeal, she had to make herself get better. “It actually helped me get healthier,” she says. “It gave me some strength to know other people relied on what I was saying. When I was really fragile in my recovery, when I was scared of progressing forward, I didn’t want to be a fraud.”

“I think the fat jokes did a disservice to young girls in America, because I was never fat.”

She hopes the same happens for the women she’s featuring on her show. If the series is a hit, some of the future episodes will include men. “I think it is gay men, but I don’t think it’s just gay men,” she says. “You see it in sports like wrestling. It’s image. Men are more into the way they look.”

Gold is now living a suburban mom life just outside Los Angeles with her four sons (ages 14, 12, 7 and 3) and husband Roby Marshall. “I have a regular relationship with food,” she says. “I’m also a woman in Los Angeles. Do you watch what you eat? Of course. I’m reasonable and moderate about it. Do I have pizza on Friday night? Yes. I have no fear of foods. I have no restrictions. It’s all fine.”

“I consider myself recovered,” she adds. “I know that I’ll never go back there. It’s taken me too long to get here.”

Rivka, from the show, is beginning to feel as if a recovery is possible for her too. “I went through a really dramatic change in eight months,” she says. “I put on a load of weight. I’m eating my food and taking care of myself. I’ve never done this well before. Ever.”