After Fate Almost Gave Her a Stroke, Terena Twyman Cut Herself Down to Size and Became Mrs. California

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Terena Twyman always believed in thinking big. Unfortunately, she especially believed in it at mealtimes. "I'd eat a whole pie in two days. I'd demolish a pound cake," says the 5'8" former model who, at 32, had blimped up to 209 lbs. and a size-16 wardrobe. "I was a blob."

Two years and 80 lbs. later, Twyman has gone from blob to reborn beauty. Last July the mother of three outclassed 23 competitors at the Mrs. California International contest, and now she is preparing for a fall trip to the annual Mrs. U.S.-International pageant, where she will be her state's first-ever black representative. For Twyman, the contest means more than a walk down the runway. It is also a major step on the road back from disaster.

Near the end of her pound cake days, Twyman had a lot more than weight to worry about. Late in 1986, after three years of gorging, she began to suffer dizzy spells, headaches and blackouts. At times, her limbs would go numb, and she was constantly short of breath. "When you're young, you don't think you can be stopped by an illness," she says. "I just thought I was doing too much, so I'd lie down and wait for the symptoms to pass."

They didn't. Over the next few months Twyman's fingers began to cramp "so badly that I couldn't use them. And my eyes were always bloodshot." No less distressing was her psychological anguish. "I thought I was ugly when I was fat. I hated myself," she says. "I cried a lot."

Once a model for Montgomery Ward, Twyman had put her career on hold nine years earlier when she married Moses Twyman, a telephone cable installer whom she had known since junior high school in Pomona, Calif. The couple had their first child, Moses, in 1978. Milan, now 8, and Misha, 7, quickly followed. "I knew the weight problem was from having the kids back to back," says Moses, 35. "But I also knew that it wasn't healthy for her to be that size. I was scared. Scared that I was going to lose her."

"I was scared too," says young Moses. "I remember going into my mom's room, and she would have this real big ugly red eye. She would talk funny too, like she was whispering. She would always complain of being dizzy and lay down a lot. I was afraid."

Eventually, Twyman's growing size and diminishing health began to affect her marriage. Moses "had married this skinny, attractive woman who was now fat," says Terena. "He would always say, 'Why don't you lose weight? You're not the same.' We argued a lot. We even thought about separating. I realized my husband was ashamed of me."

One day at Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, where she worked as a quality inspector, Twyman began feeling faint. When they checked her blood pressure, members of the company's medical staff at first thought their equipment had gone haywire because the readings were so high. "They wouldn't let me see the figures they had written down," Twyman recalls. "They just kept saying they had to get me to the hospital. But I didn't want to go. I was scared." Instead, she headed for home in nearby Pomona, praying as she drove. On the way, she began losing the vision in one eye; by next morning her left leg was numb. Moses feared she was dying.

Her doctor had once described her blood pressure as "a little high" and had prescribed water pills, but Twyman was now in imminent danger of having a stroke. Casual testing had failed to disclose chronic high blood pressure, and Twyman's family history provided only mixed signals. A cousin had died at 32 from a stroke, but Twyman's mother and one of her nine siblings had, in fact, suffered from low blood pressure.

Her doctor immediately prescribed a low-cholesterol, low-sodium diet, new medication and regular exercise. The debilitating symptoms gradually began to dissipate. For Twyman, however, the scare had been warning enough. A born-again Christian who never smoked or drank, she began a four-day-a-week workout program at a neighborhood gym and revamped the family diet, adding more fruits and vegetables. "The complete menu has been changed," she says proudly. "We no longer eat pork, and we thoroughly rinse as much starch as possible off our rice and potatoes. We eat lots of Jell-O and drink low-fat milk."

Although Twyman's crowning as Mrs. California in July drew a few boos from the audience ("I think they wanted the one who looked like Morgan Fairchild to win"), she insists the rebuff didn't bother her. At the time, "I was a bit thrown," she admits, "but I was proud." So proud, it seems, that she is thinking big once again. Twyman now hopes to resume her modeling career—she has participated in several charity fashion shows—and even take up acting. In the meantime, she has begun visiting with community groups to share her story and her weight-loss regimen with others. "I tell people it can be done," she says. "Don't say, 'I'll start doing it tomorrow.' I'm the victim of a lot of tomorrows."

—By Roger Wolmuth, with Darlene Donloe in Los Angeles

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