The Secret That Nearly Killed Her
In 2004, her personal life also made headlines when she started dating comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. The couple married in 2008 and are now one of Hollywood's most celebrated couples.
But before Portia found love and happiness, she says she spent years living a secret life. A closeted lesbian, Portia says she was terrified of being outed. She was also waging a vicious battle with anorexia and bulimia. At rock bottom, Portia starved herself to 82 pounds.
Now, Portia is coming forward about it all in her new book, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain.
"After the diet, I'd do the job, I'd binge, and then I'd have a few days to get the weight off before I did the next job,” says Portia. “But as the jobs got booked back-to-back, I had to get the weight off faster, so I used laxatives, I used diuretics, and then when that didn't work, I was forced to purge...to throw up."
Portia says she wrote Unbearable Lightness for anyone who's ever struggled with her body image. Brutally honest and at times graphic, she says the book is written from the perspective of the sick person.
“I thought it was so important to be honest and to go so deeply...into the crazy part,” says Portia. “Even though I was kind of afraid to do it because I thought maybe everyone would think that I'm nuts. But I think it's really valuable because there is a point where a diet becomes a disorder."
After her first day on the set of Ally McBeal, Portia says she met her brother at a Mexican restaurant and ate "practically everything on the menu." Afterward, she sat alone in her car and threw up her entire meal—plus the food she binged on during a post-dinner trip to 7-Eleven.
"I hated purging. It was punishment that I couldn't stick to a diet," she says. "I hated binging, [but] binging momentarily gave me relief, because I'd been starving, really. Psychologically, I just wanted to fill the void. But the purging, the purging made me feel more pathetic than just having failed yet another diet."
"Now this happens on TV—you don't really have control over where your character is heading," she says. "The only thing I really had control over was how I looked and what I weighed."
Portia says the scene left her feeling "cheapened" as an actress and deeply insecure. Feeling unsure of how she appeared on camera, she asked everybody she knew how she looked.
"I was constantly looking for external validation," she says. "'How was it? How did I look?' And one friend of mine, one very good friend, said to me, 'You looked like a normal, healthy woman.' And those three words really sent me into shock."
To Portia, those words translated to robust and curvy—far from the skinny and narrow ideal that she was reaching for at the time. She says the scene sent her into a downward spiral.
Portia was sent to a dressing room to try on jackets and skirts, and to her embarrassment, all of them were too small. After trying on a dozen suits, it became clear to everyone—the costume designer, the tailor and her manager—that Portia's body did not match up with her stated measurements.
"The executives from L'Oreal wondered why they hadn't seen any photographs of any of the outfits I was going to wear, so they walked into the fitting and the costume designer, in frustration, turned to them and yelled, 'Nobody told me she was a size 8!'" Portia says. "And at that moment, I have never felt so humiliated in my whole life."
Portia walked out to her car with her manager, who she assumed would comfort her somehow. Instead, Portia says her manager turned to her and said: "Just face it, honey, you have big legs. Just face it."
Watch Portia talk about her extreme exercise.
At the height of Ally McBeal's popularity, the show's female stars were the subject of "scary skinny" tabloid stories. However, Portia says there wasn't any pressure on the set to be thin. Since she "didn't know how to be a TV star," Portia says she looked around the set and saw that the other women were dieting, working out and hiring nutritionists. Portia followed suit...but with her own personal adjustments. She was only consuming 300 calories a day, and her weight dropped down to 82 pounds.
"It wasn't that I was proud of it, but it was certainly a recognition for my self-control,” says Portia. “I definitely had some amazing willpower to get down to 82 pounds, and that's what I was holding on to. I didn't think about anything else."
“Having to hide something like that just ruined me,” she says. “It really, really killed me, because even though I'd gotten to a point where I wasn't ashamed of it anymore, I was doing it for financial reasons. I was doing it so I'd have a career, because there were no lesbian TV actresses ever in history.”
In 1997, Portia's now-wife Ellen DeGeneres came out to the world. Portia says Ellen was the litmus test for gay actors everywhere. While many celebrated Ellen's honesty when she came out, others were not supportive. Ellen's sitcom was canceled a year later.
"[I thought], 'If she went down, there's no way in hell I can come out,'" Portia says. "'If someone as charming and wonderful as Ellen DeGeneres can't pull this off and keep her career, it's not going to work for me.'"
Portia continued to hide her sexuality to protect her career. "I would never do a talk show because I was so terrified—especially late night, the male talk show hosts—I was terrified if they would ask me if I had a boyfriend, because I didn't know how to answer that," she says.
Between hiding her sexuality and struggling with her eating disorder, Portia was coming to a breaking point.
On Christmas Day, Portia sat down to eat with her family. Even though she took very small portions of food, Portia says it was a "big deal" for her to eat turkey roasted in its own fat, beans glazed with oil and potatoes. But she says she soon became panicked. Her family looked on as she jumped up and down in the living room to burn off the calories she'd just eaten.
"At the time I thought: 'You don't know what it's like to be me. You don't have to be on TV. You don't have to worry about that extra 10 pounds that the camera puts on,'" she says. "So I didn't really think that my behavior was that crazy. I just thought that nobody could really understand my life and what I needed to do to keep it up."
Soon after that Christmas dinner, Portia's brother confronted her about her weight. "He broke down," she says. "I'd never really seen him cry before, and he just said to me, 'You're gonna die.' And it just woke me up. It was the thing that led me to think about getting better."
While that conversation opened Portia's eyes, the thing that made her change was when she collapsed on a movie set. Afterward, she was sent to a doctor who told her that her organs were failing and her health was in a dangerous state. She was only 25.
"At that point, I thought, 'I have a choice,'" she says. "And I didn't want to live like a sick person. I thought that maybe there was something out there that was going to give me joy. I just didn't want it to be all over.”
"I thought she was the most incredible woman I ever met," Portia says. "I was very excited to be around her, but there's no way in my mind I would ever think she'd be attracted to me at that weight—but she was."
Portia says Ellen saves her every day by loving her for who she really is—no matter how she looks or what she weighs.
"I think her love for me is so unconditional that it actually makes me feel like maybe I should kind of start accepting myself for exactly who I am, because she seems to," she says.
Watch Ellen talk about Portia's painful past.
"That really is the only way that food loses its power over you," Portia says. "If you can have something every day, as much as you want, you tend not to want it as much anymore. And after a period of time, you actually eat what you body needs, you eat what makes you happy and you don't think about food ever again."