Jamie Lee Curtis: True Thighs

Jamie Lee Curtis bares her body without makeup or airbrushing.

By Amy Wallace
jamie lee curtis before and after thighs image
Jamie Lee Curtis in MORE’s September 2002 issue
Photograph: Photo by: Andrew Eccles

Jamie Lee Curtis wants to expose herself to you. It is, she says, the only way to make things right.

Look at her, traipsing around a whitewashed Los Angeles photo studioin nothing but a sports bra and tight spandex briefs. When she strikes a pose, her dark blue eyes stare unabashedly into the camera lens. But don’t let the swagger fool you: She knows she’s taking a risk. The 43-year-old movie star, who bared her breasts in Trading Placesand did a bawdy striptease in True Lies, has certainly showed more skin in the past than she’s flashing right now.But in a very real way, she’s never been more naked.

At her insistence, the photographer, Andrew Eccles, is shooting her with no makeup, no manicure, no professional coif, no diamond jewelry and no high couture. The lighting is unforgiving. So is the full-body camera angle and Curtis’ straightforward stance. But everything is just as the actress wants it. She says it’s the least she can do.

“There’s a reality to the way I look without my clothes on,” she says. “I don’t have great thighs. I have very big breasts and a soft, fatty little tummy. And I’ve got back fat. People assume that I’m walking around in little spaghetti-strap dresses. It’s insidious—Glam Jamie, the Perfect Jamie, the great figure, blah, blah, blah. And I don’t want the unsuspecting forty-year-old women of the world to think that I’ve got it going on. It’s such a fraud. And I’m the one perpetuating it.”

But not anymore. In an age when divas often use their clout to nix unflattering photos in magazines, Curtis has demanded the opposite: Glam Jamie will pose only if Real Jamie gets equal time. See that worry line between her eyebrows? It exists, she earned it and she wants it to show.

She even knows what this article should be titled. “True Thighs,” she declares.

You might think that the Scream Queen—as she’s been known since her star turns in a string of horror films, starting with 1978’s Halloween—has lost her marbles. She hasn’t. Quite intentionally, Curtis is reinventing herself. It’s a process that started ten years ago, when she began writing books for children and discovered something more gratifying—she likes to say more “authentic”—than the pretending for which she gets paid millions. Her first four children’s books, which are not only smart but also tend to land on best-seller lists, have dealt with issues as varied as adoption and mood swings. But they all share a common thread: It’s okay to be you. The fifth, which hits bookstores this month, is the most directly self-affirming so far. Its title? I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem(HarperCollins).

Which, in a roundabout way, is how Curtis ended up here, in this airy photo studio, wearing unflattering undies, not a smudge of eyeliner and a big fat smile on her face. She knows that her body, held up as an icon of female perfection in movies such as, well, Perfect, has made some women think that they don’t measure up. She knows how that feels—not being good enough. The daughter of two members of Hollywood royalty, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, this actress has struggled with feelings of inadequacy all her life. So while she knows that part of her still clings to her bodacious physical image, she is enjoying the hell out of poking a hole in it.

“You know, a G-string would make me look a lot better because G-strings make your legs look longer,” she says, clearly pleased. “This underwear, it cuts you off. It’s not good.” When the “before” photos, complete with worry lines and exposed midriff, are in the can, Curtis looks radiant. “I love you people!” she yells at Eccles, before ducking into a back room, where a makeup artist and manicurist await. Only now, with Curtis’ blessing, can the transformation to Glam Jamie begin.

In youth-obsessed Hollywood, where the dearth of good roles for women over 28 is a constant lament, it’s a ballsy move to admit your age at all—let alone revel in it. But Curtis is seeking something bigger than her next acting job. She wants to feel at peace with her flaws, her genes. “Demystifying has been a real goal for me,” she says. “For myself, as well as on a public level.”

To be sure, her acting career has slowed down. Last year, she got good reviews for her role in The Tailor of Panama, with Pierce Brosnan; she also appears in Billy Bob Thornton’s Daddy and Them, set for release next year. Since then, however, she’s been absent from the big screen, save for a cameo in this summer’s Halloween: Resurrection, the series’ eighth installment. In this film, her character is finally killed off—a plot point that seems to fill Curtis with relief. “Laurie Strode is dead,” she says happily. “And I never have to be in another sequel again.”

The timing couldn’t be better. As the Scream Queen exits, the Self-Esteem Queen is poised for her entrance. And Curtis has chosen this magazine as the place to reveal herself. Literally.

“I’m trying really hard to take the veil off the fraud, to be real, to start with me,” she tells me over lunch the day before she will pose in her skivvies. We are in the dining room of the sunny, comfortable four-bedroom Spanish-style home that the actress shares with her husband, satirist and film director Christopher Guest, and their two children. It is, Curtis points out, a house that she and Guest bought with their own money. Contrary to what many people assume, she’s never received financial support from her famous family.

“In the recovery program I’m in [for addiction problems], they talk about peeling an onion, exposing more layers,” she says. The myth of the perfect Jamie is, she confides, something she “actively participated in—and, by the way, profited from. Now, I’m sitting here high on my hill, debunking the very foundation that I sit on. Don’t think I’m not afraid of it. I’m not financially independent enough that I don’t rely on outside income still.”

“But it’s just money. It isn’t love,” she continues, observing that not one of the many close girlfriends who make up her “Estrogen Posse” works in the movie industry. “That’s what I have to remember,” she explains. “I don’t have any dear friends from the movie business. It’s my job. I do it well, I worked hard, I made some money, I saved some money. You know, I didn’t let it go to my head. I knew that it was going to have an end point.”

This is not the first time that Curtis’ work has led her to make  changes in her life. In 1999, after writing her third book, Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day, it occurred to her that, even as she was urging kids to pay attention to their feelings, she had difficulty expressing her own. The result: She quit drinking and ended a lengthy addiction to painkillers that she said began when she was recovering from plastic surgery. Yes, that’s right: Curtis is a veteran of the nip-and-tuck.

“I’ve done it all,” she says, breaking yet another unwritten Hollywood rule: Never fess up. “I’ve had a little plastic surgery. I’ve had a little lipo. I’ve had a little Botox. And you know what? None of it works. None of it.”

Curtis leans forward in her chair. “Ten years ago, before anybody did that, I had fat taken from underneath my eyes because I was on a movie and I was puffy,” she says. “And I remember the cameraman saying, ‘I can’t shoot her now.’ I remember being mortified. And yet, you know what? Nobody tells you if you take fat from your body in one place, it comes back in another place. All of these ‘bettering’ experiences are not without risk. And there is this illusion that once you do it, then you’ll be fine. And that’s just horseshit. I looked worse. Worse. Am I right?”

Her question is directed to Annie, her 15-year-old daughter, who has joined us at the table and is munching a falafel burrito. The girl tries to answer, but she is laughing too hard, which makes Curtis look at her fondly, and then point at me. “She’s going to write, ‘Her daughter laughed knowingly,’” she warns. Annie keeps giggling. “What did you say?” Curtis presses. “You’re allowed to tell me now. Totally allowed.”

“I said,” Annie says finally, “you’re neurotic.”

“I am neurotic,” Curtis agrees, smiling.

There’s a lot of laughter in the Curtis/Guest household. It’s a place where visitors are sometimes greeted with the cheerful salutation, “Welcome to hell!” and where for years there was no dishwasher because—to her family’s amusement—Curtis insisted that housework made you feel good about yourself. It’s a place where, even in summer, there are holiday gifts hidden away on top of bookshelves (“I buy Christmas presents in April,” she says), and where a framed New Yorkercartoon depicts a bearded man in a carriage drawn by two cheetahs (“Amish Midlife Crisis,” the caption reads). It’s also a place where, in the middle of an interview, Curtis will suddenly dash out of the room, retrieve a camera and start taking your picture.

“Stop,” she commands when I protest. “The light is pretty.”

Curtis loves photographs. They’re all over her house—ones she took, plus others by such famous photographers as Sally Mann and Dorothea Lange. Upstairs, in the hallway outside her children’s bedrooms, every class picture from each year of their upbringing is displayed. In a drawer in her study, she keeps a greeting card of her mother, screaming in the shower in Psycho. Beneath it is a 1971 school portrait of Curtis, age 12, with feathered hair, braces and a floral print dress (“That’s attractive,” she says sarcastically. “That was actually the dress I got felt up in first.”) There’s also an unusually geeky Polaroid she took of her husband of 18 years, his head partially shaved for a role in his upcoming comedy about folk singers. Curtis loves to get it out, roll her eyes and say, delightedly, “Here’s the guy I married!”

The actress has taken a series of self-portraits, too, all of which play with her famous image. Using a mirror, she’s photographed her back, the way the soft skin folds into creases when she twists around. She’s examined her own feet. But her favorite seems to be a black-and-white shot of another mirror, broken into shards on the ground. “You have to find me,” she says as I search for her face reflected in one tiny sliver. “I’m in there.”

“I’m tremendously immature,” Curtis announces. We’re back in the dining room, which looks out at one of Santa Monica’s windswept canyons. “I’m still the type of person who will chew my food and open my mouth.” She glances down, only to discover that her black Jil Sander jeans are inexplicably unbuttoned. She shoots me a look as if to say: See? Annie agrees with her mother’s self-assessment: “She’s the four-year-old in the family.”

But now, the actress’ immaturity—which served her well in such comedies as A Fish Called Wanda—is really paying off. She loves to get down on the floor with children. She loves the way they talk, urgently and without self-doubt. “I hear them and I think, ‘Oh, that’s just poetry,’” she says. When she goes on her book tours, she gets a charge out of talking to other parents. It feels important, she confesses, in a way that acting never has.

Curtis isn’t finished with acting. Not yet. She has optioned a memoir by a fellow children’s-book author, Leah Komaiko, about Komaiko’s friendship with a 93-year-old blind woman. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, whom the actress got to know when she did The Heidi Chronicleson TV, is adapting it for the  screen. Meanwhile, though, she has no movie roles lined up.

Annie likes to tease her mother about being retired. “I think what’s happening is that the more I like me, the less I want to pretend to be other people,” Curtis says. “I would like to say I’m retired. I’m not sure I can afford to be retired. But if I could, I’d  retire in a heartbeat. A lot of people stay at the party too long.” She stops, suddenly sure of what she intends to say. “I think there’s a point where you become a caricature of yourself. And it would be very easy for me to become that. For ten years there, you would draw the caricature of me in some leotard with my breasts hanging out. I don’t think that would be the case now.”

Or at least, that’s what she’s hoping. Already, Curtis regrets that when her six-year-old son, Tom, hits adolescence, his friends will be able to rent a movie that shows her topless. “I have to hope that I’ll be so far out of show business by then. I hope they’re like, ‘Jamie who? Oh, yeah, she writes kiddie books, huh?’”

The photographs on these pages are Curtis’ effort to jumpstart that transition. To have a life beyond the movie business, she figures, you’ve got to find out who you are without the stylists, the Harry Winston jewels and the fancy borrowed outfits. You’ve got to be able to look in the mirror and recognize yourself.

“Hopefully, in two years, when I promote my next book, I will literally be able to look like just me,” she says. “There is a me that I will get to that will say to the editors of magazines, ‘This is what I wear, this is how I wear my hair, this is the color I wear on my toes, this is how my hands look.’ I want to do my part, as I develop the consciousness for it, to stop perpetuating the myth.”

She glances down at her feet, shod in designer sandals, and smiles. “I’m going to look the way God intends me to look,” she says. “With a little help from Manolo Blahnik.”

This article appeared in the September 2002 issue of MORE

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First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:07

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