In Rebecca Harrington’s delicious, disgusting, and very funny new book, I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting, an expansion of her wildly popular “celebrity diet column” for New York Magazine‘s The Cut, the intrepid journalist and the author of the novel Penelope tries some truly nasty-sounding foods — Greta Garbo’s celery loaf, Marilyn Monroe’s raw eggs in warm milk, Dolly Parton’s Cabbage Soup — all in the pursuit of perfection. What we learn is that that pursuit is all pretty silly, as to properly emulate a female celebrity’s aspirational lifestyle, you have to live a truly awful life. Harrington’s book has some sharp feminist commentary about our demented diet culture underneath its candy shell, and we talked to her about the horrors of eating like the stars.
Flavorwire: What’s new in the book?
Rebecca Harrington: I wrote up seven new diets, and the intro and conclusion.
Which one was the best?
None of them, what? It was all terrible.
So which one was the most terrible?
The Posh [Spice] diet was pretty horrible, that’s only five handfuls of food a day. It’s very existential.
I imagine her hands are really small, too.
Her hands are super small! You can’t even do it the size of your full hand, it has to be the size of your palm and that’s maybe the smallest part of your hand. Most of a hand’s percentage is just fingers. But I did read her autobiography (Learning to Fly) while on this diet, it has a murder mystery element. She wrote it when she was 27 and it was 700 pages. She wrote another book called That Extra Half an Inch, where she writes, “you should wear a tutu to a party.”
Why is it that we’re so obsessed with celebrity women’s diets?
The diet industry is an incredible business in a lot of ways. You google any celebrity you can think of and the word diet comes up. Any famous woman, the first thing you know about them is the way that they eat. It’s a way to connect in this kind of highly distancing way. It’s a real way for celebrities to commodify their stature. You eat like this person, you will look like this person. It’s aspirational, in this slightly creepy way.
I think the industry surrounding it is so weird but so pervasive that you can’t opt out. The only way to accurately criticize it is to do it, so that is my philosophy in some way.
What diet made you feel the most unhealthy?
Marilyn Monroe’s. That diet was messed up. She’d eat two raw eggs in warm milk, nothing all day, then a steak with raw carrots, and then a hot fudge sundae at ten p.m. You feel so bad, you felt like shit all day, you just wanted to sleep.
What’s next, are you going to do the diets of presidents?
I did do the diet of William Howard Taft, that blew so bad. I’d definitely do the diets of a million presidents if i could. The thing about men is that nobody publicizes their diets, and nobody cares. You can’t find anything about Bill Clinton, but ask Madeline Albright what she ate.
Is there a Hillary Clinton diet?
I will definitely do it if there is.
And then, what has Michelle Obama’s reign been as First Lady been if not all about food?
People love to hear women talk about food. People are obsessed with the way women look and eating is the biggest core of it, and the biggest corollary to how you look, I guess. In some ways it almost defies explanation. There’s sexism at work but at what level people must determine for themselves.
You had an article about Taylor Swift’s diet this week that was really funny.
It was great, who doesn’t like a pumpkin spice latte?
And you went to modelFIT. What was that like?
It was so funny. It really was full of entirely models, which was so cool. There were so many models there and it was called modelFIT; do you ever get that kind of absolute symmetry in the world?
Tell me more about Greta Garbo’s diet.
I think what happened was she was famous in the 1920s, but she had a more rubenensque figure, and then Louis B. Mayer was like you need to lose weight, and then she got obsessed. They were obsessed with dieting in the 1920s, it was when the dieting industry formed — this was another theory I read in a book, and I may be butchering it — people had not seen themselves in photos before. They hadn’t known that the camera added weight, and they were like, ‘Holy fuck, I didn’t know that I looked like that,’ so hey were looking for different ways to lose weight. These film stars became these experts in physical culture in some ways, so people looked to them to tell us how to lose weight.
Did you learn anything from this experiment?
I don’t know if I’ve necessarily learned anything, I’ve learned it’s really hard to diet, but I vaguely knew that in my capacity as a female woman. One thing I would say is that the dieting did help me feel more compassionate towards people. I am more compassionate towards celebrities at a certain level — it’s a hard life. There’s a lot of attention on you. Every woman has to deal with scrutiny, but not on that level. For celebrities, that amount of scrutiny is a tough life! I mean, in a lot of ways, it’s a great life, but it’s a tough life, too.