Judith Light Opens Up About her Former Struggles with Emotional Eating
The picture above, in my humble opinion, tells you everything you need to know about Judith Light. Fearless, fashionable, casual, charismatic as hell, and—damn it—she’s bendy to boot. Light’s flexibility extends to her unparalleled television, film, and stage career in which she’s earned two Tony Awards (for Other Desert Cities and The Assembled Parties) and a pair of Daytime Emmys (for One Life to Live). Famed for also starring on Who’s the Boss and Ugly Betty, Light is now receiving some of her best reviews for her role as Shelly Pfefferman on Transparent and her sensational one-off turn as Marilyn Miglin, the wife of Lee Miglin, one of serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s victims in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Over tea in N.Y.C., she tells me just how she keeps that Light on.
Laura Brown: First off, how did you get so bendy?
Judith Light: Life requires you to be flexible. I started taking dance classes when I was a very young girl in New Hope, Penn. I danced from the time I was little, and then when aerobics came in, I was doing a lot of that. I danced for so long that I have a knee problem, so I had knee-replacement surgery on that leg I had up [in that photo].
LB: How do you take care of yourself from day to day? You live on both coasts and have a very intense work schedule. Are there certain routines you do to keep your ship steady?
JL: One thing I try to do every day is some kind of meditation for however long it might be. As prep before a play begins, I’ll do a lot of kundalini yoga, which incorporates “breath of fire.” It exercises your diaphragm in a really powerful way and gets your energy going. And I do my best to eat well.
LB: You’re pretty healthy.
JL: Oh, yeah. I’m primarily a vegetarian, and I try to lean in the vegan direction.
LB: And then lean back the other way [laughs]. What’s the silliest thing you’ve done in the name of beauty?
JL: Oh my god, when I was so heavy …
LB: When were you ever heavy?
JL: Oh, I was 50 pounds heavier when I was at Carnegie Mellon University. It wasn’t just freshman 15—it was freshman 30 for me. We didn’t have grades; we had comments, and there was this teacher who commented, “If Judy does not lose weight, she is going to play kooky character parts forever.” It was interesting. Anyway, I would put plastic wrap around my thighs ...
LB: No! Did that even work?
JL: Honey, you just sweat a lot and get rid of a lot of water. I would put plastic wrap around my middle and my arms, and then I would walk or run to try to lose water weight. That’s probably one of the silliest things I’ve done for beauty.
LB: How did you even out when you started working?
JL: I actually went into therapy. The underlying issue was that I was eating out of emotion … out of worry and frustration and fear. I had this extraordinary therapist, and he said to me, “You’ve never learned how to eat, so I want you to eat.” So I said, “OK. Fuck you. I’m gonna go eat.” I ate everything. If it moved, I ate it. I kept gaining weight. Then one day I went to the refrigerator, and I was like, “I can have whatever I want. What do I actually want?” And it was a revelation. It wasn’t about losing weight to be on television or for my career. I didn’t want to keep eating from emotion, so that’s how it happened. I began working out, and the weight started coming off.
LB: What’s beauty to you?
JL: People say it’s what’s on the inside that makes you beautiful, which sounds awfully new agey but is true. If one looks at oneself—and this has been a lifelong process for me—to say, “Who am I being? How is the connection, the communication?” If you listen too much to people who are telling you that you should be doing this or that, all those “shoulds” can accelerate a person’s worries.
JL: I don’t think about life as doing what I want. It’s about doing what I think works. And then all of a sudden there’s a natural progression of things that happens for you and with you. Being patient with other people creates a connection and produces an intimacy that is much deeper and more substantive.
LB: Anything else you’ve tried?
JL: Years ago I went to a Sikh yoga ladies’ camp in Española, N.M. A lot of my health-care people in Los Angeles are Sikhs, and they’re wonderful. So my internist said to me, “Oh, you might wanna come to this.” You sleep in tents, take cold showers, and wake up at 3 in the morning to do yoga and meditate. I went several times and loved it. I felt connected to myself and the earth and other people. In the Sikh religion, they talk a lot about your grace. How do you present your grace in the world? I took a class that was called “What is your image?”
LB: Oh [laughs]. Not the one you’re used to in Los Angeles.
JL: So, I’m in the class, and the teacher is passing around pictures of models and all these gorgeous people, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to pick that.” And then she passed around this photograph of a[n old] woman wrapped in a blanket sitting in front of a mountain. And I was like, “That’s who I aspire to be!” She must have been 90 years old, with this presence and regal bearing. You could see the light in her face and in her being, and it radiated from the photograph. She was a person of substance.
LB: Speaking of substance, you are about to start shooting the fifth season of Transparent.
JL: It’s going to be later than planned. I also just finished working with [writer, producer, and director] Ryan Murphy on The Assassination of Gianni Versace …
LB: And people are dying over it, asking to change the Emmy categories so you can get the guest actress nomination. You’ve always received a lot of attention, but how does it feel when you get this confluence of great reviews?
JL: It’s so wild. It always feels good. I was at a Christmas party with Joan Rivers once, and we were having this lovely conversation, and she said, “I say yes to everything,” explaining that the world works out for you in certain ways when you say yes to things. And it’s true. That’s how a whole trajectory of things fell into place, including working with Ryan Murphy, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.
LB: And he’s so great with women who aren’t 12. I mean, Jessica [Lange], Kathy [Bates] …
JL: Exactly. We didn’t really know each other, and then, when he saw a play I did [Other Desert Cities] and the response to it, he just said, “OK, we’ll do things.” He was so incredibly gracious and kind.
LB: Isn’t it wonderful that one of the great things about getting older is the equity you own? There’s something about “You know me and my work, and you know that I’ll show up for you” …
JL: That is so brilliant and so true.
LB: Who do you find beautiful?
JL: The memory of my mother is very beautiful to me. My father, the same thing: really light, beautiful. We’re talking about soul beauty now. My husband has been so beautiful and present for me—you know, my publicist, my agents, my friends … All the people I worked with on The Assassination of Gianni Versace and Transparent. They are people who are there in the goodness of their being, not in their doing.
LB: And that is …
JL: That is beauty.
Photographer: Robbie Fimmano. Fashion editor: Andreas Kokkino. Hair: Matt Fugate. Makeup: Jamie Greenberg. Manicure: Marisa Carmichael. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download April 13.