From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As a high school senior in Lockport, N.Y., in 1977, Kim Alexia swam the butterfly and backstroke competitively and planned on becoming a pharmacist. But after a talent scout discovered her in Buffalo's June II modeling school, the 5'10", 145-lb, blond beauty was led down a greener path by John Casablancas, owner of the high-powered Elite modeling agency. "He guaranteed me a certain amount of money, "she says, "if I lost 15 lbs."

Carol, Alt was a straight-A, prelaw student at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., when a photographer noticed her waiting on tables at a Long Island restaurant and gave her the phone numbers of several top Manhattan modeling agencies. The 5'8" azure-eyed brunet didn't use them until a few weeks later, when a broken romance put her in an adventurous mood. She consulted an agent who "told me I'd be perfect," she says, "if I lost 15 lbs."

Like Alexis, young Beverly Johnson was a champion swimmer. Like Alt, she planned to be a lawyer. The strong-boned, 5'9" knockout from Buffalo was a criminal justice major on a full scholarship at Northeastern University in Boston until she was persuaded by friends to drop out and model. In 1971, at 17, she came to New York City, walked into Glamour magazine's fashion offices and was given an assignment on the spot. At 135 lbs., though, she too was told to slim down.

And so each budding supermodel began an odyssey that led to fame, fortune and more than 2,000 magazine covers among them. But behind the smiles were diet-related health problems and stress. Says Alt: "Anybody who thinks that society pressures women to live up to our image should think of what we have to go through to maintain that image."

Today the three supermodels have branched out, are raising families—and say they have learned the sensible way to control their weight (see page 86). Alexis, 32, now hosts a weekly parenting show, Healthy Kids, on cable's Family Channel, is the celebrity spokesperson for Contempra Indoor Grills and is working on a fitness video. The divorced mother of two sons—Jamie. 6, and Bobby, 3—she lives in Tampa with her new husband, former hockey star Ron Duguay, 35. Alexis now weighs 138.

Alt, 31, has a three-year contract to endorse Hanes pantyhose but otherwise has forsaken modeling for acting. Her next project is a syndicated miniseries, Vendetta II, with Michael Ontkean. She lives with her husband of nine years, Ron Greschner (a former hockey teammate of Duguay's), 37, outside New York City. Alt once weighed as little as 115 but has now stabilized at 127. "I eat everything in moderation," she says.

Johnson, 38, has roles in two forthcoming movies, Robert Townsend's Meteor Man and Loaded Weapon I with Emilio Estevez. Divorced since 1979, she lives in L.A. with her daughter, Anansa, 13, a fledgling model, and dates Christopher Noth, 38, a star of NBC's Law & Order. Johnson says that she has fluctuated between 103 and 165 lbs. (during pregnancy) and now weighs 120.

Associate editor Elizabeth Sporkin brought the three women together at a downtown Manhattan photo studio. There they recounted their often agonizing battles to stay slim in an unforgiving business.

Alexis: I remember trying every fad diet. I remember starving myself for four days in a row. I remember trying the Atkins diet, which was low carbohydrate, high protein. If I didn't drop 10 lbs. in a week, I was on to another diet.

Alt: Do you remember the Beverly Hills diet? You only ate fruit. It was terrible. At another point I was drinking eight cups of coffee a day, and I ate salad for dinner.

Johnson: I ate nothing. I mean nothing.

Alexis: When I first started out, I was rooming in a New York City hotel with Kelly Emberg [the 1980s supermodel who was Rod Stewart's live-in girlfriend for five years and is the mother of his 5-year-old child, Ruby]. One night I came home, and I was eating only a head of lettuce for dinner. Kelly walked in and said, "You're eating a whole head of lettuce? How could you?" I cried and said, "But it's all I've had all day. It's not even 50 calories!"

Alt: On my first modeling job, I fainted right into Kelly's arms. It was summer, and the two of us were posing in furs and woolens. An editor had given me one month to lose 12 lbs. If I did, she promised me a trip to Rome for a shoot. I had never been to Rome. So I stopped eating. Maybe I'd have celery. An apple. On this particular day, it was 97°F, and the photographer said, "Carol, look up." And I went right over. and Kelly caught me.

Alexis: I think I was a normal person before I started screwing around with all these diets. My metabolism got screwed up. I lost my period for two full years.

Johnson: I developed some kind of thyroid problem that I always attribute to the crash diets.

Alt: I went along doing the one-salad-a-night routine for a year. And I remember feeling so tired and depressed and irritable. I had no personal life. I was always flying someplace—weekends, holidays, vacations. Dinners at night were no fun because I couldn't eat. I remember sitting in a studio one day, thinking, "Why am I doing this?" And in popped another model, Nancy Donahue, who was bubbly and energetic. And I said, "How do you stay healthy?" She said, "I go to a nutritionist." I canceled all my bookings and went to her nutritionist the next day. I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia, an abnormal decrease of sugar in the blood. Eventually I learned to eat five small meals a day. Now if I'm making a movie and get hungry, I call time out to eat some crackers.

Alexis: But back then we had mental anguish about eating. I remember every booking I'd go to. I'd dread lunch because the client would look at me and say, "You're not going to eat that, are you?" Women who styled clothes for the shoots would say, "Honey, your ass is a little big." They didn't want me to be perfect, so they would pick on the one flaw. I cried for the first year of my career.

Johnson: So did I. But it changed when I got more successful. I was doing a shoot in Europe once, and they were paying me a lot, but I had put on some weight. When the clothes didn't fit, they said, "You are too fat." I said, "I'm Beverly Johnson. Cut the dress down the back!" And they did. I learned that trick from Cristina Ferrare and Cybill Shepherd, who had a tendency to be heavy and yet were very successful models.

Alt: Yes, once you became a famous model, you had the luxury of being able to fall off the pedestal—for a moment. But it you went too far, they would say. "She's too heavy. We can't work with her."

Johnson: In our profession, clothes look better on a hanger, so you have to look like a hanger. It will never change. I personally took extreme methods to lose weight and as a result ended up bulimic and, at one time, when I was 27 or 28, anorexic. One day I was visiting my mom, and I had taken a shower, and my mother dragged me out of the bathroom. I said, "What are you doing?" She stood me in front of her three-way mirror, and I looked like a Biafran. My ribs were poking out, and I started to cry.

PEOPLE: Did that bring you to your senses?

Johnson: No. I think that I will always have an eating disorder. I think once you have it, it never leaves you completely. But seven years ago, I went into a 12-step program, Overeaters Anonymous.

PEOPLE: What was your motivation?

Johnson: I was sitting in front of the TV, gorging on a box of doughnuts. I was a famous model at the time, so being fat didn't handicap me. But I was really unhappy and out of control and, at this point, had bulimia. A girlfriend heard me purging in the bathroom. She took me to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.

PEOPLE: Was your friend another model?

Johnson: A regular person.

Alt: A civilian.

Johnson: I thought, "I'm not going in there with a bunch of big obese people." But I was in this room with people who were thin. They shared their stories, and I knew I was in the right place.

Alt: Thank God there are places out there for women. When my sister, Christine, who's two years younger than me, became anorexic and bulimic, my mother had no idea what was happening. When I found out how serious it was, I cried.

PEOPLE: How did you find out?

Alt: In an article that she wrote for Glamour magazine last March, saying she was angry at me because I went on living my life without realizing what she was going through. She's 5'11", and she made it down to 120 lbs. She was nervous, irritable, couldn't sleep, couldn't work, couldn't do anything. She was trying to be a size 6, and she wasn't meant to be a size 6. Now she weighs around 150, and she looks great. She's a very successful large-size model.

Alexis: She was just trying to follow in your footsteps.

Alt: And everybody made her feel like she had to, and it was terrible. Here was a person who used to have a great sense of humor. And she did a complete 180-degree turn.

Johnson: Well, starving is very prevalent, I think. I have a 13-year-old daughter, Anansa, who's starling to model. She is a big, healthy girl like we were. In this business, she'll starve herself like the other girls. She's going to get the same treatment that we did.

PEOPLE: Does your heart go out to her?

Johnson: No. I tried to discourage her from being a model, but if she wants to be one, OK. Good luck. She will be humbled.

Alt: This is not an industry to be in if you are sensitive.

Johnson: From the moment I took my first picture, I thought it would be my last, and from the moment I started modeling at 17 years old, I thought that the next 16-year-old girl who came in would be better than me.

Alt: That's the nature of this business. Ever since I started to model at 19, people would always ask, "What are you going to do next?"

Johnson: I think the image of models is very destructive to women. A girlfriend of mine recently asked me what to do with her hair. I took a magazine and pointed to a picture of model Christy Turlington with a perfect haircut. I said, "You see this? This took hours to get. Don't think just because they are models, they wake up looking like this. If you want to look good, it takes time and money. Simple."

Alt: It takes two hours to put on natural makeup.

Johnson: One of these days my daughter will be in Vogue magazine, she will weigh 105 lbs. and pose in a dress that a 35-year-old woman then will want to buy. That's really unfair. It does a lot of damage to women's self-esteem because it makes them try to reach a goal that they will never reach. I think that's why there's so much plastic surgery.

PEOPLE: Have you had plastic surgery?

Johnson: No, but if anything happens to me, I will be the first to say, "Doctor, fix it." Everyone should have enough money to get it. But we know people who...

Alt:...have had everything done twice over.

Johnson: Sometimes seven, eight times! Like dieting, plastic surgery can become addictive.

Alt: When we started in the business, you couldn't fit into the clothes if you had any breasts at all. They would bind us up. Now all the girls are getting implants.

Alexis: I am fortunate enough not to really have to change anything. I can't imagine paying somebody to have a knife stuck in me.

Alt: I have an incredibly supporting, loving husband who told me if I ever get plastic surgery, he will not touch me. That frees me up to be who I am. When I am not eating, he says, "You're not eating." When I am unhappy, he tries to cheer me up.

Alexis: I was never thin enough or smart enough for some men. I would eat a plate of steamed vegetables, and they'd say, "You're eating too much." I'd say, "Look at this, it's 200 calories. How am I supposed to survive?"

Alt: I've known Kim for 13 years. She has been on every cover there is. She's one of the most beautiful women in the world, and I've never seen anyone with lower self-esteem.

Alexis: I think I felt I had to be punished for being beautiful, to humble myself.

PEOPLE: How did pregnancy affect your self-image?

Alexis: When you're pregnant, you have the fear that people won't love you because you're fat. But I had to love the baby more than I loved my own image, and just sacrifice. I gained 35 lbs. with my first child and 50 with my second. I had fat armpits, I was so fat.

Johnson: I loved being pregnant. I gained 50 lbs. I was fortunate; because I was married to a health fanatic. So I drank spinach juice and ate healthy. And Anansa turned out to be such a beautiful child. I remember being on the delivery table awaiting her birth. My husband was just OK-looking. I was in labor, and I said to him, "What if she's ugly? You're ugly!" But I couldn't believe how beautiful this child was. I said, "This is my successor. Here she is."

Alt: I think that what scares me more than getting fat during pregnancy is the responsibility of a child.

PEOPLE: But is the thought of gaining weight during pregnancy a real problem for you? You haven't had children yet.

Alt: There is always that fear of getting fat again. It is always a thought, but it wouldn't stop me.

Alexis: After my first child was born, the weight came right off. I did the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED swimsuit issue six months after my first child, and I ran the New York City marathon after that. But it was harder to lose the weight after the birth of my second child. I was on a strict diet and working out an hour and a half a way. I lost the whole 50 lbs. within 2½ months. I was miserable. I had no energy.

PEOPLE: Are you raising your children to eat healthy?

Alexis: Yes. I do the shopping in my house. Whole grain pasta, spaghetti sauce with no sugar, and no fat. I bake cookies with fruit juice. I don't allow ice cream.

Johnson: The emphasis for my daughter is more on no drinking, no drugs, no cigarettes. We try to eat healthy, but we will stop at McDonald's if we're running late.

PEOPLE: When you finally decided to stop modeling full-time and move on in your careers, did you feel relieved? Were you able to allow yourself to eat a little more?

Johnson: I thought I would be. But I realized I still want to look good. Staying fit and trim is an ongoing process.

Alt: I'm more conscious of my appearance now that I'm acting than when I was modeling. Three years ago, after I did Vendetta, I worked out and completely changed my body. I did a light, 30-minute exercise regimen and took a walk every day.

Johnson: I can't get the obsession with exercise down yet.

Alexis: For me, exercise is a daily part of my life. I would rather exercise than read a newspaper.

Johnson: Give me a newspaper and a bagel any day. I'm lazy. And I still like sweets. When I am under stress, I need a chocolate chip cookie.

Alt: You can change that. I worked in a bakery in my first year of college. I ate sugar all the time. Now I can't eat anything sweet. I thought bad thoughts about the sugar.

Alexis: You look at it and say, "That would be nice, but look what that would do to me." It might be good for five minutes, but in three days it will be on your hips.

Johnson: I put it in my purse when nobody is looking! If I want that cookie, I will have that cookie. I don't diet anymore because I've got a bank account.