Katharine McPhee doesn't want to hide anymore. The "American Idol" runner-up comes out as a recovering bulimic in the new issues of People and Teen People, which hit newsstands Friday and June 30, respectively.
Ardent observers may have noticed that McPhee dropped three dress sizes from when she first auditioned for "American Idol," but the singer attributes the weight loss to her recovery, not her illness. Her battle with bulimia started her junior year in high school, and McPhee said her real problem was avoiding her emotions.
"Food was my crutch," McPhee told People. "It was how I dealt with emotions and uncomfortable situations. It was literally a drug."
The singer said she thinks her body-image issues started when her body changed at age 13. Before then, she said, she didn't think about food. She was a "stick" and "could eat all I wanted." Then, seemingly overnight, she had "womanly curves," which made her uncomfortable. Though she had always been athletic, taking dance classes and competing on the school swim team, she started exercising compulsively and starving herself.
"I got more and more obsessed with trying to lose weight and looking like other 14- and 15-year-olds," she told Teen People. "I think it has to do with growing up in L.A. where more people are body-conscious."
She didn't force herself to vomit until she was 17, she said, and she was able to hide the behavior for about six months, at which point she told her mom. She tried going to therapists and dieticians and then relapsed. She tried going to Food Addicts Anonymous but only lasted two weeks.
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McPhee's problem got worse when she went to college, studying musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, where her behavior was encouraged by her dorm-mates. "I definitely put on the 'freshman 20,' " she told Teen People. "We would [go out], get back to the dorm at 2 in the morning, have three slices of Little Steve's House of Pizza — which were big — and go to bed."
McPhee recognized that her behavior was self-destructive, but she thought it was the only way to succeed as a singer. She likens the purging to "putting a sledgehammer to your vocal cords." When she was rejected from 195 of 200 auditions she went to in the 18 months before "Idol," she attributed the failures to her weight, not a lack of talent. Her manager reinforced this perception, telling her, "Just lose 10 to 15 pounds, and we'll start booking stuff," she said.
"She looked beautiful but felt she wasn't camera-ready," her mother Peisha told Teen People. "It's unfortunate our society is obsessed with being so stick-thin."
But the 22-year-old finally realized she needed help. When she auditioned for "Idol," she was vomiting seven times a day, and she knew if she made the show, that couldn't continue — not if she wanted to win.
"Food — my eating disorder — was the one thing holding me back," she told People. "I mean, here I am, this singer, and it was so horrible on my vocal cords. So when I got on the show, I said, 'You know what? I can do well. Let me give myself a chance and just get a hold of this thing.' "
McPhee entered a three-month program at the Los Angeles Eating Disorder Center of California in October so she could start shooting the show in December. She did group and individual therapy six days a week and read "Intuitive Eating." She lost her fear of so-called "bad" foods by allowing herself to eat ice cream, peanut butter and mini Snickers bars (four with each meal). Now she doesn't want Snickers anymore, and she hasn't binged since two weeks before entering the program.
"I was actually addressing the issue, not trying to lose weight," McPhee told Teen People. "I was letting my body do what it naturally wanted to do, by eating normally."
While McPhee doesn't consider herself completely healed, she's thrilled at the progress she's made so far — and is hopeful that by coming forward now, she'll "encourage other people not to hide."
"I've learned to deal with my emotions differently," she told People, "to deal with them, instead of with food."
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