After spending a 12-hour day emoting on the set of Grey's Anatomy
, Chyler Leigh isn't quite ready to unwind. Instead the avid fan of the reality-show Top Chef
whips up gourmet meals for her family of four, then asks her husband—actor Nathan West—to score her creations. And this judge doesn't pull his punches. There was the time when Leigh tried chicken breast with goat cheese. "I added spinach to the cheese, and it was grainy," the 26-year-old actress recalls with a shudder. How bad was it? West, 30, invokes the TV competition's send-off line: "She almost had to pack her knives and go."
Luckily, Leigh is winning raves outside the kitchen as Meredith Grey's quirky half sister Lexie on ABC's hit drama. A 12-year showbiz vet, Leigh has finally found success on Grey's
, her longest acting job. She paid her dues on several failed TV shows, including a stint on The Practice
in '03 that ended when she was axed because of budget cuts. "People were starting to call me Show-Killer Leigh," she quips. "This is the first time I've gone past 13 episodes." There have been blessings along the way—marriage to West, followed by the birth of son Noah, 4, and daughter Taelyn, 2—but more than a few bumps in the road. "It's been a long 26 years," Leigh says. "I've been through hell and back."
When she was 8, Leigh's parents, who ran a Virginia Beach-based weight-loss business, declared bankruptcy; at 12, she was uprooted to Miami by her mom, who reunited with her first husband. Her parents' split led to a six-year estrangement between Leigh and her father, and in 1999 Leigh and her mother moved to L.A. so that Leigh could launch an acting career. It was a decision Leigh says was voluntary, "but I was quickly over it. Someone could tell me I wasn't pretty enough or good enough? I hated it," she recalls. "I used to cry on the way to auditions."
But at 16, Leigh met West at a tryout for a TV series called Saving Graces
. They both landed parts and after sharing their first kiss onscreen fell in love. The series flopped, but afterward Leigh left home to live with West.
Still, settling down didn't end Leigh's troubles. The couple "went through a teenage fascination with drugs and drinking," Leigh says, that spun out of control. With money earned from acting jobs, they "did everything but LSD and shooting up," she says, including cocaine and marijuana. "We were both so broken," she says, shaking her head. "[Drugs] put us in a false sense of reality—everything's fine, sweep it under the rug. Then you get sober, and you're like, I can't live like this. I don't want to live sober because then I have to actually feel something." Adds West: "What do you do when you're 20 and you have thousands of dollars in your pocket and you don't have a focus? We were lost for a long time."
The breaking point came in 2001. Barely eating because of her drug use, Leigh was becoming malnourished and coping with irritable bowel syndrome. On the set of Not Another Teen Movie
, the director pulled her aside. "He told me, 'You need to eat more; you're looking too skinny on film.' That was a reality check," she says. "When you're in such a self-absorbed lifestyle, you forget how what you're doing can affect so many things. What we were doing to our bodies was no good. There was something in both of us that knew we needed help. We hit a point where it was like, things probably can't get much worse; we need to do something."
Around that time a friend invited them to a service at a nondenominational Christian church. They went—and now see it as their first step toward getting clean. "In the beginning [church] was a hard pill to swallow," Leigh admits. But by attending regularly, "I realized there was so much more to life," she says. "It was like when the light switches on; you can't see something the same way again. We made the decision to quit everything." The couple never sought professional rehabilitation but feel that their faith helped them along the way. "I wouldn't say [we recovered] overnight. We knew what we wanted, and we worked hard for it. We had great support in each other."
The couple, who wed in 2002 in front of 30 close friends and family in West's native Alaska, now have seven years' sobriety. "By the time we got married, we had been through so much. We got it all out of the way," says Leigh, who lives with her family in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "I am so in love with my family, and I am so in love with my husband. When I think of all we've been through and the success of our children, I fall in love with him every day."
Building bridges with other family members has been a longer process. Although she has reconciled with her father, Leigh has not spoken to her own mother in more than four years. Still, she holds out hope that they might eventually reconcile. "As a mother, I feel sorry for her because I know how much I love my kids," she says. "And I know how much she loves me." But she's just not prepared to reach out yet. "When I'm ready, I'm ready," she says with a shrug.
In the meantime Leigh makes sure the bond she shares with West stays rock solid by scheduling date nights and balancing their work commitments so that Noah and Taelyn come first. For now that means Leigh, who landed her Grey's
part in 2006, is the main breadwinner. "How would we see each other if he were doing a show and I was doing a show?" she asks. "It's not feasible." While his wife clocks in at Grey's
, West (whose most recent film was the indie Forever Strong
) records songs with his band Silo as the lead guitarist. Leigh cherishes her mom time: "If I come home after they've already gone to sleep, I'll just lay in bed next to them and breathe them in."
These days Leigh is creating a life that is the opposite of the unsettled existence she knew growing up—devoting weekends to family pancake breakfasts and beach outings. And though she's tasted real Hollywood success, the weekly Grey's
viewing party she and West host for pals is as close to the fast lane as this reformed party girl plans to get. "I really believe I have what was taken from me as a kid," she says. "For the first time in my life, I have joy."