My Secret Struggle

updated 07/03/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/03/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On her way to being crowned American Idol runner-up, Katharine McPhee earned rapturous praise for her classically trained voice, which judge Simon Cowell declared "the best of the competition." What hardly anyone watching the show knew, however, is that only months earlier, McPhee was on the verge of destroying her ability to sing at all: After a five-year battle with bulimia—an eating disorder characterized by food binges followed by purging, which affects as many as 4 million young American women—McPhee risked eroding her voice with all the self-induced vomiting. At her worst point, she was throwing up as many as seven times a day, which she compares to "putting a sledgehammer to your vocal cords."

And so after successfully auditioning for Idol last fall, McPhee, 22, decided to seek help. With the support of her parents, Peisha, 52, and Daniel, 57, and her actor boyfriend, Nick Cokas, 41, McPhee in October enrolled at Los Angeles's Eating Disorder Center of California, where she spent three months undergoing group and individual therapy, six days a week. "I'm really proud of her for talking about it, because there doesn't have to be a stigma," says the center's founder and executive director Carolyn Costin. "It's a real illness, and you can get real treatment, and Katharine is a good example of that."

Still, when McPhee returned to the Idol set in December, she kept her bulimia a secret from the judges and contestants (though she did clue in producers). "I wanted to be liked because of me, not because of what had happened to me," she explains. Now, with her first single out June 27, and the Idol tour kicking off on July 5, McPhee—who has dropped 30 lbs. and three dress sizes as a result of the "intuitive eating" approach she learned at the center (see box)—sat down with PEOPLE correspondent Monica Rizzo to share for the first time the story of her journey back to health.

When I made it onto American Idol, I knew that food—my eating disorder—was the one thing really holding me back. I was bingeing my whole life away for days at a time—I mean, here I am, this singer, and it was so horrible on my vocal cords. So when I got on the show, I said, "You know what? I can do well in this competition. Let me give myself a chance and just get ahold of this thing."

I knew I had put off going to a treatment center long enough—I'd been struggling with bulimia since I was 17! Growing up in Los Angeles and spending all those years in dance class, I'd been conscious of body image at a young age, and I went through phases of exercising compulsively and starving myself—I'd do all that stuff. But my junior year of high school, that's when I really started bingeing and purging. Food was my crutch; it was how I dealt with emotions and uncomfortable situations. As soon as I would feel something, I would eat over it so that I didn't have to feel anything I didn't want to. It was literally a drug—you know, these sensations would come over my whole body and it would be urgent, like nothing else mattered but getting to that food. I couldn't have one slice of pizza, I had to have the whole pizza.

I hid my bulimia for about five or six months. When I finally told my mom, she reacted probably the best way a parent could. She didn't make me feel guilty or that I was a bad daughter. She just embraced me and said, "It's okay." The day after, she did all this research but I didn't want to go into a program. There was this whole denial factor: "No, I'm not that sick. It's fine."

Later I started going to therapists and dietitians, and that would work for a while, but then I'd relapse. I remember sitting in one dietitian's office crying, "I'm so miserable. I'm so depressed. I can't get ahold of this." I went to Food Addicts Anonymous, where I could only have three meals a day and nothing in between. Plus no sugar. No flour. I remember I got down on my hands and knees and prayed every day, "Just give me an abstinent day." After 14 days of being on the program, I lost it and literally binged on anything and everything I could get my hands on.

That's why I say American Idol saved my life, because if I hadn't auditioned I don't think I would have gotten a handle on food. I entered the program because I wanted to give myself the best shot I possibly could on the show, and when I did it was like God put hands on me and said, "I want you to be healed." Of course, it was still a difficult time. I really had to surrender and give up having a free life to do the program, because I'd be there from 9 in the morning until 7 at night; the only day off was Sunday. My dad and I really bonded. I remember that first night, my dad holding me, crying and saying, "I don't know why you have to suffer through this, but it's going to be okay."

There were a lot of people at the center who were still fighting; they want to live their life with their eating disorder. I was over it; I didn't want it anymore. I just got it right away, what they were trying to teach me. I learned that there's no such thing as a bad food. If you look at a doughnut, people think it's a fattening food—why? Because if you eat it you'll get fat? No, you'll get fat if you eat 10 doughnuts. If you deprive yourself of something, you're going to want it more. It's like with a man who you feel is not all that into you, and you go, "Why am I so in love with him?" Because you don't have him completely. That's how my relationship with food was. So I experimented with every kind of food I was scared of. I ate ice cream for a lot of snacks, and peanut butter. Well, I haven't had peanut butter since I left the program.

During Idol, I had somebody I would try to go see on a weekly basis to check in with and talk to, and I never relapsed. I really got lucky—I have not binged since two weeks before I entered the eating disorders program. I'm definitely not completely healed; I still have to be really cautious of diet mentalities, like, "Oh, I shouldn't eat this because I have this event coming up." That's why I don't want to talk about numbers. I don't want people to read, "Oh, she's that size," because it causes people to be more obsessed.

But I'm not spending my life bingeing, and I'm much happier about the way I look now. I've also learned to deal with emotions in a different way—to deal with them, instead of with food. I still chew on my cheeks, you know. I still bite my nails. These little things we do. I'm not a perfect human being. I am just the person who didn't want to settle for not having everything I dreamed of.

WHAT IS INTUITIVE EATING?

Imagine eating whatever you want, when you want it. That's the idea behind the 2003 book Intuitive Eating, which McPhee credits with helping her learn to eat normally. While the idea of eating, say, brownies without guilt may be "very, very scary" to some, says co-author Evelyn Tribole, an Irvine, Calif.-based nutritionist, in fact, she says, denying yourself "bad" foods only leads to cravings for them. "The more you're exposed to a food, the less desirable it becomes," says Tribole. For McPhee, that meant eating four mini-Snickers bars—one of her "fear foods"—with each meal while in treatment. "I have not eaten a Snickers since," says McPhee. The book also explains how to stop eating when you're full: "Believe that you will be able to eat again when you get hungry." Says Tribole: "You become the expert of your body, instead of relying on some diet."

HER CHANGING BODY

TINY DANCER
"I remember being young and knowing I was skinny," McPhee (at 7) says. "I grew up in dance class, so I was looking in mirrors all day."

TEEN JOCK
"It was a coed swim team, so I'd get out of the pool and really rush for the towel," McPhee (at age 16) recalls.

ASPIRING 'IDOL'
At the time of her Aug. 18, 2005, audition in San Francisco, McPhee says her bulimia "was really getting out of control."

STAR TURN
Today, a healthy McPhee "is embracing and owning who she is," says the singer's best friend, Michele Daranyi.


MORE ON: Katharine McPhee

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