Christina Applegate's World

A child of Hollywood and a hardscrabble Laurel Canyon lifestyle, Christina Applegate grew up to face down bad boyfriends and, at 36, a double mastectomy. But she found the tools to survive and thrive, rebuilding her life with a caring fiance, their adored baby girl and her boisterous TV series, Up all Night

by Gerry Hirshey
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Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Sadie has also just dropped her afternoon nap, and Applegate stands ready to absorb the resulting late-day meltdowns. She is trim, strong and, according to the physical exam she underwent earlier this morning, robustly healthy. For several years before her 2008 breast--cancer diagnosis, she was one of the most scanned celebrity denizens of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Her doctors have insisted on regular diagnostics since her early thirties, given her mother’s two bouts: breast cancer at age 38, then an ovarian-related recurrence 16 years later. Applegate is sure that a breast MRI in early 2008 saved her life. “I had two lumpectomies, and I was supposed to start radiation. Then I found out I had the gene [the BRCA1 gene mutation that increases risk and recurrence of breast and ovarian cancers], and my decision was to undergo the prophylactic double mastectomy.”

She smiles as she recites a line from Anchorman, in which dishy Veronica Corningstone asks newsroom letch Fred Willard if he plans to deprive her of a spot on his news show “because I have breasts? Exquisite breasts?” Applegate appreciates the artistry of her reconstructed versions, which she got a few days before her 37th birthday. Nonetheless . . .

“Aw, I miss my exquisite breasts sometimes,” she says. Now she runs a foundation, Right Action for Women, which helps make early breast MRIs affordable for women at high risk. She says she is fine with taking on the sort of cancer career expected of high-profile survivors, from Melissa Etheridge to Sheryl Crow. She just wishes her double mastectomy hadn’t been outed by the media before the anesthetic had even worn off.

It happened when Applegate was still in the hospital. Though there had been a guard outside her room, doctor’s orders required that she “start walking right away. I was walking with my little IV drip thing, in my little robe. My friend said he saw someone take a picture of me. The next day I got a call from my publicist, who said, ‘It’s out.’ ” Still groggy from medication, Applegate sat down to draft a statement.

Only in hindsight did she recognize the personal toll of going public so quickly: She denied herself the time to grieve. “The good thing is that we got the information out, but talking about the facts of the disease, I didn’t have to see what was going on with me. I think when it slowed down, all of that came crashing down.” Applegate overcame what she calls a “total emotional collapse” with the support of family, close friends and her spiritual adviser from the church she turned to during her mother’s cancer recurrence. Most of her healing was done quietly, at home.

This is a woman who knows how to stand her ground, in many ways. “I’ve never lived more than five minutes from where I grew up,” she says. She was 24 when she bought her house—located, like her childhood home, in Laurel Canyon—with her earnings from her role as Kelly Bundy. At the time, she was fleeing a relationship that turned scarily abusive. “I just had to leave,” she says.

Applegate has lived in the house for 17 years, but never alone. There have been roommates, boyfriends, a husband (actor Johnathon Schaech, to whom she was married from 2001 to 2007), cats, dogs, actors, rockers and her beloved mom, who visits almost every day. Protective child gates now crisscross the landing above the cavernous great room where le tout young Hollywood once partied. It’s a home that has adapted to a series of upheavals and changes in Applegate’s life and kept her centered.

Resolutely, this is “Christina’s World.” In November of 1971, singer-actress Nancy Priddy and record producer Robert Applegate named their only child after the muse in the Andrew Wyeth painting of that title. But Applegate shares little else with Wyeth’s solitary, handicapped woman crawling across a windswept field.

“She’s extremely vulnerable and has always been that way,” Priddy says of her daughter. “But she’s very strong.”

First published in the November 2012 issue

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