Gaining Control

updated 04/17/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/17/2000 01:00AM

For singer Carnie Wilson, the price of success was measured in pounds. Heavy since childhood, she saw her weight balloon after she and her sister Wendy, performing with Chynna Phillips as the group Wilson Phillips, hit gold in 1990 with their debut single, "Hold On." In 1998, by the time she was 30, Wilson, daughter of rock and roll legend Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and his wife, Marilyn, was morbidly obese, carrying nearly 300 lbs. on her 5'3 " frame. Dieting never seemed to work for Wilson, who came to suspect her weight was related to emotional issues. "I wasn't around much when she was a kid," admits Brian, 57, who over the years has waged his own battles with obesity, depression and drug abuse.

Obesity kills 300,000 Americans prematurely every year and is second only to smoking among preventable causes of death. It can also lead to other serious ailments, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and breast cancer. Over the past couple of years, Wilson, 31, who had to strain just to get out of her car, began to fear for her very survival; a doctor warned her that her weight would likely cut years off her life. In August, on the recommendation of friend and former manager Mickey Shapiro, she underwent gastric-bypass surgery, which closes off most of the stomach and is usually seen as a last-resort, lifesaving operation for those who are morbidly obese—usually defined as being 100 lbs. or more over one's ideal body weight (in Carnie's case, 105 to 140 lbs.).

"Carnie was a good candidate because she met the weight criteria and is pretty healthy," says Dr. Alan Wittgrove, 50. The 90-minute operation was performed at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego and broadcast live on the Internet to an audience of 250,000 by A Doctor in Your House, a Los Angeles-based Web site that Shapiro helped found and for which Wilson now works as a spokeswoman. Using a laparoscope, which minimizes the danger of hernia by working through a small incision, Wittgrove sealed off most of Wilson's stomach. "Instead of being as big as your head, we make it about half an ounce inside or as big as a thumb," he says. "Then we bring a limb of intestine up to drain it. That's the important part. If you just deal with the stomach, people may get a sense of fullness, but the sense of satisfaction is probably an intestinal factor. This way, the feedback mechanism goes to the brain and makes you feel satisfied."

In the eight months since the operation, Wilson, who has been on a protein-rich diet, has shed 112 of the 160 lbs. she hopes to lose. Along the way she has also managed to find love: Last November she became engaged to rock guitarist Rob Bonfiglio, 32, whom she will wed in June. "My life has done a 360-degree turn," she told staff correspondent Ulrica Wihlborg, with whom she shared the story of her lifelong battle against obesity.

I started to gain weight when I was around 4. My whole family, dogs and all, moved from L.A. to Holland because the Beach Boys were making an album there, and I think I felt disoriented, scared. I just started wanting more food.

I remember I always ate more than my sister "Wendy. I always wanted to finish her plate too. But then everyone in my family, except for Wendy, is overweight. My mom and dad have always struggled against it.

My particular weakness has always been sugar. I loved Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies. I remember being obsessed with Hostess. Even now, I see a Hostess truck and I start salivating.

When I was about 8 or 9, I got up to about 110 lbs. and was definitely the biggest kid in my class back in L.A. I was teased a lot. But I was a happy kid, so my problem was disguised. I was a ham, a performer, making everyone laugh. When I was in fifth grade, we started playing spin the bottle and I felt really self-conscious. I didn't think anyone wanted to kiss me. That summer I went to a Weight Watchers camp and I lost 20 lbs. But I gained it all back during the school year. That went on for several years. Still, from sixth grade on, I always had boyfriends. I wasn't a great student, but I was funny. I may have been 20 or 30 lbs. heavier than all the girls, but I also had more personality. But I never truly accepted my size, and I've always wished I was thinner.

When I was 19, I told myself, "I'm going to lose 100 lbs. when I turn 20." Wilson Phillips was formed about six months after I graduated from high school, so I felt I had to be thin for that. I started on my 20th birthday. I got together with a trainer and exercised with her three times a week. I did lose the weight, and I got down to about a size 9. But when I got down to a size 9,I felt weird in my own skin. I wasn't comfortable being really good-looking. There was something foreign about my body. I can't really explain it. I only lasted at that weight about a year.

Wilson Phillips took off in 1990, when I was 22. Then when our first album came out, I got scared and started to put on weight. Wendy and Chynna, who've never had weight problems, both got slimmer; their way of dealing was to eat less. Mine was to eat cheesecake at 3 a.m. Pretty soon I ballooned to more than 200 lbs.

With the record came the music videos. I never felt inferior to or not as pretty as Wendy or Chynna—just not as svelte. I knew I was fat. But when I was onstage, performing, I never thought about it. Others did though. One record executive told me straight to my face that I had to do something about my weight, and I just started crying. It made me feel worse, and it made me eat more. I remember when I went to Hawaii in 1992 with my mom, Wendy and my then-boyfriend. We stopped in the airport cafe between flights, and I was about to take a bite of my chicken sandwich. A little boy at the table next to us looked at his dad and said, "Dad, why is she so fat?" I just burst into tears. I felt like I was 9 years old again, on the school bus with the kids teasing me.

I had started therapy when I was 19, and already I'd begun to realize certain things about my childhood and my dad. I discovered through therapy that one reason I was gaining weight was I didn't feel love from my father.

For many years my dad and I were strangers. He left home when I was 11. We didn't even have his phone number for years. Then in 1993 a friend whose own father had died said, "You really need to call your dad, because my dad's not here anymore, and I can't tell him the things I want to tell him." So I called him, and he called me back. Wendy and I started seeing him more. He's apologized for not being there for us; he felt very guilty.

In 1992 the band broke up, and I was devastated. We were at my house, and Chynna just walked in and said, "I have goals, I have aspirations, I'm leaving." Wendy and I formed a duo, and we were about to put out our second album in 1994, when the record company decided not to promote it. I was really hurt. I think my weight has been a hindrance in terms of getting a record deal. I also think the industry cares about it more than the public does. Aretha Franklin got heavier, but people love her.

In late 1994 I got a call from Telepictures, a TV production company, and they asked me if I wanted to host a talk show. My weight didn't even cross their minds. We taped 155 shows, and it ran for almost a whole season until it was canceled. Four years later, I went on the Roseanne show as a guest. She'd had stomach-reduction surgery, and she said to me off-camera, during a commercial, "If you ever want to deal with your weight problem, talk to me." She recommended some doctors I could talk to. When I started reading about what could happen to me if I didn't lose the weight—I was 300 lbs. then—I got scared. I never really paid attention to the health problems associated with obesity. When I found out that in five years I would probably have diabetes, it scared the crap out of me. I'd tried everything—liquid diets, low-carb, high-protein, hypnosis—and I'd just gotten bigger and bigger. Morbid obesity is a clinical disease, and the surgery I had is a way to help a person get healthy. It's not a cure, but it's a serious catalyst.

In June, right after I had decided to have the surgery, I met my fiancé, Rob Bonfiglio. I was doing a concert, and he was backstage. I couldn't take my eyes off him. I thought to myself, "He could never like me. All the guys I'm attracted to never like me—they always like my sister." But he was instantly attracted to me. It felt so good. I was so happy. He is a musician, so we share the bond of music together.

Last Aug. 10 I had the operation. Mom and my sister and my aunt all went with me. I agreed to have the surgery broadcast live over the Internet because I wanted the opportunity to talk about morbid obesity. People just think, "Oh, you're just fat and lazy and a pig." But it's a disease, and it's not taken seriously.

The night before, I'll admit, I was frightened. Anytime you're above a certain weight, my doctor told me, there's a danger a blood clot will form in your leg and travel to your heart. Before they took me to the operating room, I started singing Elvis songs like "Kentucky Rain" with Wendy to feel less scared. Then they knocked me out. The day after the surgery, I had to walk, which was very painful. You are so aware of your stomach area because it's so sore. It's like you did 500 sit-ups.

My mom and I stayed at a hotel close to the hospital the first week after surgery, and I was on water, broth and Jell-O for seven days. The opening to my stomach is now very small, so when I eat, I have to chew my food very carefully and take small bites. Otherwise it gets stuck. It will make its way down, but it sits at the opening of the stomach for a while and it's uncomfortable. The first real food I had, a week after the surgery, was a poached egg. My mom took pictures of me eating it, it was so good. It tasted like heaven. Then my first real meal, on the ninth day after surgery, was a piece of salmon, and it was perfect. I will never forget that, it was so good. I literally would take a bite and moan.

The first two weeks, I was sort of craving sugar. But I can't have it. Three weeks after the operation, I had a little apple juice in the morning and I got sick. If you eat the wrong foods—like sugars and heavy fats—you can get a headache and start sweating, have diarrhea, vomit, feel dizzy or faint, because the food goes directly into the intestine and causes a surge of insulin. I can have a bite or two of cake but no more.

Now I eat only twice a day and drink tons of water. I'm never hungry. What happens is, if you snack, your stomach stretches and you won't lose as much weight. I have dinner between 6 and 9, and I'll have a beautiful piece of fish—about three to four ounces—and I'll have a little bit of vegetables and sometimes two small bites of a potato.

The thing is, I feel satisfied after just a little bit of food. Like, out of nowhere, I just go, "Oh, I think I feel full." This is for the rest of my life. I'm drinking my water. I'm taking my vitamins. I'm walking for exercise. I'm starting to lift weights.

Every day I see myself shrink a little bit, and I become more and more accepting of it. I couldn't physically touch my underarms before, and now I can. Since the surgery, I feel lighter, I feel sexier—inspired. I can't wait to have my own children.

In November, Rob proposed. It was so beautiful, so romantic. We plan to get married in June in Los Angeles in front of 200 guests. We'll honeymoon in Italy. Right now my life is just filled with wedding plans. I've already picked out a dress. I'm having it altered two weeks before the ceremony because I keep losing weight.

My father can't be more happy for me. I've seen him about once a month since the surgery, and he's in absolute shock. He says he used to cry about me every day, worrying about my health. He's so relieved.

My advice to anyone who is struggling with their weight is: Pay attention to what you really want. If you are overweight and you have been for a long time, you have the power to change it. I know the step I took is drastic, and it may not be for everyone. But a lot of people don't know their health insurance may cover the cost of the surgery. Plenty of insurance companies do. If you can't get insurance or you can't afford it, then I just hope you take better care of yourself. But if you're scared of an operation, I ask you: Is a heart attack scary? Cancer? There are risks worse than surgery—and that was my deciding factor.

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