A Conquering Heroine

UPDATED 08/21/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/21/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

In 1985, Maria Conchita Alonso's star was rising. After only three years in Hollywood, the Cuban-born, Venezuelan-bred actress was getting raves for her performance as Robin Williams's Italian girlfriend in Moscow on the Hudson and had received a Grammy nomination (the first of three) for Best Latin Artist. Yet the former beauty queen (she was Miss Teenager of the World 1971) wasn't satisfied. A boyfriend's harping about her weight undermined Alonso's fragile self-esteem. She began dieting, then slipped into the self-destructive syndrome called bulimia nervosa, prompting Alonso to eat uncontrollably when stressed, then vomit to avoid weight gain. "I didn't want him to put me down anymore," she says.

Alonso worked steadily in film and TV over the next decade, but she continued to struggle with the condition, damaging her esophagus and, eventually, her teeth. But now, with the help of a balanced diet, exercise and a physician specializing in eating disorders, the outgoing 44-year-old entertainer (she stars opposite Tom Skerritt in the Aug. 20 TBS remake of High Noon and is recording a new album) has learned to control her condition, which is generally regarded as incurable. She hasn't had a relapse in five years. Alonso calls on friends, family and her boyfriend of a year, model and actor Adnan Taletovich, 32, to alert her when she falls prey to overeating.

In hopes of helping the millions of people in the U.S. afflicted with eating disorders, Alonso spoke out about her bulimia at length for the first time at her airy Beverly Hills home. "I see people around who lie about bulimia, or hide it," she told correspondent Leslie Berestein. "But you can die from it."

All my life I've had a weight problem. As a child I loved to eat. I would hide from my mother and drink whole cans of condensed milk in my room. When I was 12 my parents opened the first private women's spa in Caracas. My mother would say, "What a shame to have a chubby daughter. You have to represent us well."I didn't pay attention to her. I know that did not contribute to my bulimia. But I always wanted to be respected for who I am, not for what I look like.

In 1975, when I was 18, I represented Venezuela in the Miss World beauty pageant. I entered because I knew that would open the door for me in the entertainment industry. But in the 10 days before the contest, I ate every meal and nibbled at cocktail parties. I went from a size 7 to a size 9. I had to wear a bigger gown and bathing suit. I ate my way out of the contest.

During the next 10 years, my weight fluctuated from 119 to 145 lbs. But it wasn't until 1985, after I moved to California to pursue acting, that my bulimia started. My boyfriend always told me I was fat, even though I realize now that I was never fat. At the time, I wore a size 7 dress and was doing jazz and ballet every day. But after he told me this, I stopped eating and dropped at least one dress size.

After a few months of dieting, I was in Mexico promoting my album Maria Conchita and found this huge bag of chocolate in my hotel suite. I hadn't had chocolate in so long, so I ended up eating the whole bag. Afterward I went crazy. I thought, "I can't gain any weight!" That's when I went to the bathroom and threw up. I had no idea there was a disease called bulimia. I thought, "This is so cool. I can eat something and then throw it up! Wow." I had no idea it could hurt me, so I started throwing up once every two or three days. Then it became once every day, then a couple of times a day. I was always in the bathroom.

When you're doing promotion, you have interviews all day long. Sometimes you feel like you're suffocating and don't want to see anybody. To calm my nerves, I would eat. Then, feeling anxious, I would throw up. I used to eat a lot, throw up, then sometimes eat more. I felt bad remembering the image of me throwing up. It lowered my self-esteem. This went on for nearly 10 months.

Then one day in spring 1986, I was in New York City doing promotional work with a radio station. I had to have lunch with fans and dinner with more fans. After each meal, I threw up. That night, I looked at myself in a magnifying mirror and noticed little red dots all around my neck. They were exploded blood vessels. During the previous few days I hadn't been able to sleep lying down. If I tried, I felt a very strong pain, like a knife cutting me through the chest. I had to prop myself up with a pillow. I finally called a girlfriend and said, "I'm dying. Come help me." She came to my room and gave me the name of a doctor in L.A. When I returned to California a few days later I went to see him, and he asked me, "What did you have for breakfast?" I told him, "Coffee." He said, "Go eat! Have a piece of toast." I gasped and said, "Toast? Oh, no!" I wouldn't eat it because I was afraid to have carbohydrates.

I told him about my bingeing and purging and the pain in my chest. He diagnosed me as bulimic and said that as a result of vomiting so much, I had torn a hole in my esophagus. That was the worst time. Luckily, after about a month the hole closed by itself. The doctor also prescribed a mild tranquilizer to calm the anxiety that pushed me to eat.

I saw the doctor for about two years, first about three times a week, then twice a week, then once a week, then every few months. He gave me a balanced diet—proteins, plus toast and vegetables, things I had avoided. But he was also like a psychiatrist for me. He made me feel good about myself, made me understand that I was able to eat a little bit of everything as long as I controlled it. Slowly I started eating healthy things.

After a year and a half, my bingeing and purging started to slow down. I don't know how, but I never allowed the bulimia to get in the way of my career. And I don't think Hollywood pressure to be thin caused the disorder. For me, the most important thing besides my family has been my career. I did not want to do anything to mess it up.

In my case, personal problems usually triggered the relapses. I've always been more in control of my professional life than my personal life. Although I'm a strong woman, when I fall in love I just give myself 100 percent. I become secondary. Maybe being Latin, the ups are very high and the downs are very down. So the bulimia was more about not getting what I wanted in my love life than about not getting a part.

I stopped seeing my boyfriend in 1986. I still had sporadic bouts of bingeing and vomiting over the next 10 years. My worst relapse was while working on the soap opera Alejandro in Venezuela in 1994. There wasn't any healthy food on the set, and I started eating and gaining weight. I started throwing up again about once a week. But I never was late for jobs or canceled anything. The men I dated never knew unless I told them. I often had bad breath, so I always ate mints. I told some friends and family members about my problem, but although I was skinny I still weighed enough that it never showed.

My last relapse was in the spring of 1995, about a half hour before I was to go onstage in Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway. I'd just had a huge lunch and felt full. I threw up in the bathroom in the theater. That was the first time I had ever vomited before a performance. When it happened, I felt very bad about myself. I thought I could harm my career if I continued. It opened my eyes.

Also around this time I ended up having lots of dental surgery. I think it came from throwing up so much over the years. They had to open up my gums, which were infected, and operate on them. I had to have four or five root canals because some of my teeth were so damaged on the inside. I'm lucky I didn't lose my teeth.

I still don't know how I became bulimic. But bulimia is like alcoholism; you never get rid of it. I can seldom eat greasy pastas, pizza and fried foods—which make me want more and more. Now when I see pizza on the set I wait until there's one piece left, so there's no more to eat. I talk to my boyfriend and family. You feel relieved when someone else knows about the problem. Hiding things makes you go crazy. Right now the disorder is under control, but it's something I always think about. When I sit down at the table, I have to watch what I eat. I'll live with it forever.

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