Valerie Bertinelli has had a whirlwind year – in a good way. The veteran actress famously lost 40 pounds in nine months on Jenny Craig, instantly propelling herself to bikini-clad cover model status. And on top of that, she recently debuted an already-successful sitcom, Hot In Cleveland, and became engaged to her long-time beau, Tom Vitale. We caught up with Bertinelli to dish on keeping the weight off, the challenges of raising a blended family, and what it’s like to work with Betty White.
Tell us about your new TV sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, which also stars Jane Leeves, Wendi Malick, and Betty White.
It’s a fun show about four women living in Cleveland, three of them who are transplants from Los Angeles. It’s like a fish out of water [experience.] [My character writes] a book called 200 Things Every Woman Should Do Before She Dies and one of them is to fly to Paris with your best friends. So we head on out to Paris, and our flight gets diverted to Cleveland. We go to a bar to catch a drink, and we notice all the guys are staring at us, as opposed to looking past us like they do in L.A. And we think, “Wow, we’re hot in Cleveland,” so we decide to stick around.
What compelled you to take this role?
There are so few roles out there that are funny and for my age. There aren’t a lot of roles for women our age, so for all of us to be cast and to have such individual character, it’s just a dream.
What’s it like to work with Betty White?
She is amazing. They definitely broke the mold when they made Betty. She’s 88 years old and proud of it. She’s a trooper, a real pro; there’s just nobody like her.
Do you learn a lot from her?
Oh, heck yeah! I already have. It’s a learning experience with all of us, too. We’re very supportive of one another. We want the show to be the best it can be. We’ve all been doing this for such a long time that there’s no diva [behavior] going on. There’s no reason for it. We know about how to make the job easy and fun, and that’s what we do.
Are you and your cast-mates (Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick) close?
I’ve known Jane for 17 or 18 years now; her nephew and my son used to go to the same preschool together. And I met Wendie through the show, and it’s been a dream. She’s an amazing woman and so not her character. She’s got this big huge heart and she’s so kind. She thinks about other people before she thinks about herself – just the opposite of her character.
What’s your favorite part of being on the show?
Every day I wake up in the morning and I can’t wait to get to work. The rehearsal process and doing [the show] in front of the audience [is] so much fun!
You lost 40 pounds in nine months on Jenny Craig – congrats! What first motivated you to do the program?
The amazing part, for me, is that I’ve been able to keep it off as long as I have. That’s never happened to me before! I’ve lost the weight a million times, but keeping it off is the challenging part. Sticking with the program and having my consultant is really what’s been the game-changer for me. I’ve tried every diet and they didn’t work, and [Jenny Craig] came to me and said, “Would you like us to help you?” And I said, “Okay, you know what? I haven’t been able to do it on my own thus far, so I have to take the help.” And it ended up changing my life.
Was there ever a point where you felt like quitting?
Favorite vacation spot: My backyard. And if it’s not my backyard, Italy. I want to move to Florence – or at least to Tuscany. You get lost in the cities; it’s a dream. It’s the first time I’ve gone 10 days without wearing heels – you can’t wear heels in Italy because you’re walking all the time!
Favorite exercise: Favorite exercise? I wouldn’t necessarily put those two words together. But I like running. After the first 20 minutes, I really like it and I like the way I feel when I’m done – breaking a really good sweat and the pride that comes with it.
What I’m reading right now: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I’m in a book club with a lot of my girlfriends who I met through our kids going to the same kindergarten together. We’re going into our 15th year!
Oh, all the time! We all know what it’s like to diet and how un-fun it can be sometimes.
What was the hardest part about losing the weight?
Having been through it and now living through maintenance. [Also], not feeling like I deserve it. That’s a lot of the reason why my weight went back on before. [It's] just trying to do the work inside your head and your heart. A lot of us go around thinking, “I don’t deserve this; I don’t deserve that. I’m a bad person, I didn’t do this well.” But I think we’re too hard on ourselves. I think we need to give ourselves a break more often than not.
How did you get through that?
It’s still a daily thing. Some days are much better than others and I feel I deserve all the good things that are coming to me. And there are other days when I think, “Wow, how did this happen to me?” I’m just so blessed and lucky. Every day I’m grateful.
What was your favorite thing to shop for after you lost the weight?
Jeans! Isn’t that the bane of our existence, finding the right pair of jeans? Being able to wear a nice pair of jeans and a simple top is a dream. The simplest things can make your day, [like] whether your jeans fit or not. I know it sounds shallow, but it really can make or break my day.
You’ve already raised a 19-year-old son, William [with ex, Eddie Van Halen]. If you could give any advice to new parents, what would it be?
Relax more. My mom tried to tell me that because [at the time] I was reading all these parenting books and she said, “You’re stressing out too much; just relax. All they need to know is that you love them.” When a child feels unconditionally loved, which is pretty easy to do, that’s all they need. And if they misbehave, it’s more about their behavior, not “You’re a bad boy,” but “your behavior [is bad].” And giving them boundaries and limitations so that they know where their stop point is – that’s unconditional love, too. I noticed with Will when he was growing up that when he knew what limitations were that he wasn’t allowed to cross, it almost calmed him down more.
What shocked you most about parenting?
I didn’t realize my heart could grow that much fuller. The sun [rises] and sets on my child. At a certain point you go, “Wow, I didn’t know I could love that much.”
What was your biggest challenge when your son was younger?
Having my job pull me in one direction and knowing I just wanted to be with him. I took five years off to be a full-time mom and even when I did go back to work, I still considered myself a full-time mom, and part-time actress because I’d only work when I could bring Will with me. The pull of the two jobs made me feel bad. A lot of women have to put themselves in two places, and I don’t have the key to make it any easier. It’s hard.
What’s your biggest challenge as a parent now?
Knowing that the cord has to be chopped off and that he feels free and independent to be able to make his own decisions, which means I’ve done a good job. I miss hanging out with him. I don’t see him as much; he’s getting his own apartment. Then I have the challenges of a blended family [with fianc', Tom Vitale who has kids ranging from 11 to 20]. These are children I love and adore, but I’m not their mother, so there’s a fine line there to try to walk, to make sure they know that they’re loved by me but that I can’t necessarily reprimand them. It’s not my call because I’m not their parent. But I’m [going to be] married to their father, so it’s difficult. I’m finding it’s a different, odd challenge I wasn’t prepared for.
Do you think already having raised an adult son has helped with this?
That’s definitely helped, but I try not to make one child more important than the other – and my future husband feels the same way. I try to make them all feel like they’re loved the same.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I wouldn’t call it guilty, but being able to sit down for three hours and read a book with no interruptions. I don’t know where I’m ever going to find those three hours! I try to keep my Sundays free because I work all the rest of the days. Sometimes I [have to] get stuff done, but if I could just sit for three hours in front of the fireplace – or during the summer, outside at the beach – and read a book, that’s a big pleasure of mine.
So you’ve lost all this weight, you have a new hit show, and you’re recently engaged. This seems to be your year.
It started the year the Saints won the Superbowl. I’ve been rooting for them for 30 years. 2010 is definitely my favorite year; I don’t want it to end. 1991 was my other favorite one because that’s when my son was born.
Are you looking forward to anything to come?
I don’t even think about looking forward to anything because everything has been such a surprise this year. I wasn’t expecting it! I just want to keep my mind and heart open; that’s when all the good stuff happens.