by Joseph Roddy
She still has the sensuously fragile voice, the flowing platinum hair, the beauty mark, the feline smile. But it is all packaged in such a sleek form these days that people are asking “Is that all there is to Peggy Lee?”
Thanks to willpower and a weight-loss program carefully supervised by a medical specialist, the answer is yes. The singer has lost more than 50 pounds in three months. “Only people who have struggled with a weight problem can really know how good it feels to finally overcome it,” she says with a sigh.
Ever since she first gained notice as a singer with Benny Goodman’s band in the early ‘40s, the 54-year-old Peggy Lee has been battling to stay on the right side of the line that divides the sexually substantial from the unpleasingly plump. Most of the time she succeeded well enough to gain a reputation as one of jazz’s most attractive, as well as talented, artists. But in recent years she ballooned perilously close to 200 pounds. Her usually graceful, fluid presence became a kind of unwitting Totie Fields imitation, and she was forced to wear gowns that concealed her like a tent.
For a woman who is such a perfectionist that she bristles when one note or one hair is misplaced, her own lack of self-control rankled to the point where she often seemed to be trying to coax extra applause out of even receptive audiences, as if seeking reassurance.
“I spent 10 days in the hospital once on a diet of 250 calories a day and only lost a pound and a half,” she recalls. “Nothing worked.”
It was by lucky misfortune that Peggy met the doctor who helped her. (He is a prominent Los Angeles endocrinologist, who insists on anonymity lest he be accused of unethically seeking publicity.) About five years ago she developed a goiter that was pressing on her vocal cords. Her throat doctor sent her to the endocrinologist.
“The goiter just ate itself up,” says Peggy. “It was a miracle.” But in the hospital tests to determine the singer’s body chemistry, the specialist discovered that her body tended to retain an abnormal amount of water, a condition found more often among women than men. She says that in one three-hour test she stood as still as possible, without eating or drinking, and nonetheless gained three pounds. Her doctor – who describes Peggy’s weight problem as “75 percent pounds, 25 percent fluid” – devised a regimen of 700 calories a day (heavy on raw vegetables), a restriction on salt and horizontal rest for 45 minutes three times a day. (The rest cuts down the flow of blood to her muscles and tissues, which soak up fluids at an abnormal rate.)
She followed her doctor’s instructions faithfully. “I would pretend a wedge of cabbage was a piece of toast,” she says. Now she can eat just about what she wants, but she is continuing the rest periods. As the new Peggy Lee, she is wearing a size 10 gown and finding her appearance to be an asset again as she keeps up an always-demanding series of club dates.
My legs and feet keep getting slimmer, and I have ordered a whole wardrobe of sexy shoes and stockings,” she says. “It’s marvelous to see slender legs again, and I’m enjoying showing them off.”
Perhaps most important, she has regained that celebrated self-confidence. When a band hit a clinker behind her recently, she turned to the conductor and said, “I don’t think we are in the same key. I’m in tune with the infinite, so you figure out where that leaves you.”