Rebecca Harrington, author of I'll Have What She's Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting, deserves some sort of diet Nobel. In this collection, which probably has the highest LOL/word count ratio of any book currently in my possession, she does nothing more or less than eat like various celebrities, past and present, and describe her experiences. Victoria Beckham, Sophia Loren, Madonna, Jackie Kennedy and Carmelo Anthony, among others, are emulated. Tofu cheese, steak with peanut butter, and enough green juice to fill a kiddie pool are all consumed.
I came away from the book with a lot of respect for Harrington—the same kind of respect I have for deep-sea explorers, journalists who cover war zones, and that rock climber who had to cut off his own arm and be played by James Franco. I also felt worried for her, not for her sanity but for her physical well-being. No one should ever be on Karl Lagerfeld's diet, which consists of 10 diet cokes a day and something called "protein sachets," not even for an hour. I am terrified by the prospect of being on it for one day. I had to eat a yogurt (one of those Noosa ones that has 25% of your RDA of saturated fat) just to get through writing this paragraph. Rebecca Harrington is a far braver woman than I am.
I do, however, share her fascination with celebrity diets, as do we all if we're really honest with ourselves. One of the most horrifying and interesting things to me about my favorite magazine Us Weekly's semi-failed attempts to transform itself from glorified tabloid to lifestyle magazine in recent years has been its concomitant uptick in celebrity diet coverage.
Though these diets are always billed as new and innovative, they also are all the exact same thing: plans that restrict calories, typically by excluding carbohydrates, to just at or slightly below the level that a human adult needs in order to live. In order to follow them to the letter, you need infinite amounts of disposable time and income and, ideally, a live-in servant who prepares all your food. If you don't have the latter, you not only have to commit to disordered eating and outlandish expenditures on things like the $30/worth of organic produce that goes into a morning green smoothie, you also have to disrupt every other aspect of your life. Hey, we're all going out to grab lunch, want to come? No, I'll just be here in the office kitchen with a food scale, preparing a salad comprised of ¼ cup arugula, 4 oz of grilled chicken breast, and exactly 11 almonds.
Karl Lagerfeld and Gwyneth Paltrow. Images: Getty.
No one should live like this, even temporarily. I sincerely hope that everyone who reads Us Weekly realizes that unless being photographed "casually" romping in St. Bart's in a designer bikini is part of your job description, there could never be a compelling reason to eat like a celebrity. The only other reason to do it is if, like Rebecca Harrington, you are writing an entertaining book.
Harrington takes on these diets in the refreshing spirit of hilarious science experiment, not societal critique. That dieting is patently absurd, dangerous, antifeminist and even counterproductive goes, blessedly, without saying. She also dodges what could have been the one thing that would have turned me against this book: The temptation to mock the (mostly) women who subject themselves to these regimes.
It's easy as vegan, gluten-free pie to make fun of people like Gwyneth Paltrow, who not only eats crazy stuff all the time but has gone to the extra effort of creating a website and several manuals for her lifestyle, in case you'd like to join her in her craziness. But the thing Harrington gets, and which I agree with, is that Gwyneth Paltrow is also pretty awesome. She's good in movies (Harrington admires her work in A Perfect Murder) and sometimes sort of seems to have a sense of humor about herself. She's clearly slightly neurotic around food and her body, and she has the resources to indulge her neuroses fully. She avoids nightshades and dairy and sometimes is vegan, and she follows an exercise regimen that requires you to "hold tiny weights in your hands and then flap your arms wildly like a person in a Victorian insane asylum having a fit" to the "dulcet beeping of late Madonna."
But, in Gwyneth's shoes, who wouldn't be bonkers? Her diet turns out to be Harrington's favorite, and I can see why. It contains lots of actual recognizable food, like barbecued chicken and fish with anchovy sauce. "One time, Gwyneth went to Arizona for a spiritual retreat. She was walking in the Sedona mountains, and the rocks told her, 'You have the answers. You are your teacher.' I agree with those rocks," Harrington reports. I also agree with the rocks.
The grosser, sadder and more dangerous diets turn out, shockingly, to be the more vintage ones, which I had expected to be charmingly indulgent, like diets in name only. But it turns out that if even if you're eating raw eggs whipped in whole milk and steak with carrots like Marilyn Monroe, you might still be hungry most of the time because you aren't eating anything else. Also, the raw egg thing. "They plop into the milk, like two round globules of mucus. I stir them. The yolk comes apart in dribs and drabs, and the milk slowly turns yellow." Just rereading this, I have almost lost my appetite. (I finished the yogurt and have moved on to a bag of roasted salted almonds; by the time this review is done I will have consumed more calories than Karl Lagerfeld does in a day.)
Harrington doesn't learn much from her time experimenting with celebrity dieting, and neither will you from reading this book, unless it's somehow a revelation to you that macrobiotic sweet-and-sour tempeh is not very tasty and that dieting is a waste of time, money, and mental real estate. But you will laugh a lot, which—just like sitting at your computer reading this review, breathing, and most other activities associated with being alive—burns calories.