History should make you feel weird and so, apparently, should diet books.
Support the show
[Maintenance theme music]
Michael: God, it's been so long, I forgot how to do this with you.
Aubrey: Isn't it super fucking weird?
Michael: I don't like it.
Aubrey: I don't like it either, Michael. [crosstalk] I'm so glad to be able to talk in a sustained way.
Michael: [laughs] Talking. I like it.
Aubrey: It's good karma actually.
Michael: Okay. I've had, like, a month to think about this fucking tagline, [Aubrey laughs] and all I could come up with is still bad. Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that has been married nine times but continues to hope. Is that a thing that I know about her? Am I thinking of someone else?
Aubrey: Eight times. You were so close. Eight times to seven dudes.
Michael: Oh, really? One of them was a repeat offender. I didn't know that.
Aubrey: Yeah, Richard Burton. It's the big one for her. It's the big one.
Michael: I am Michael Hobbes.
Aubrey: I am Aubrey Gordon. If you would like to support the show, you can do that at patreon.com/maintenancephase. You can also buy t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, all manner of things at TeePublic. Both of those are linked for you in the show notes. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcast, you'll get the same audio content as you get on Patreon.
Michael: Same stuff.
Aubrey: And Michael.
Michael: And Aubrey.
Aubrey: Today, we're talking about a diet book written by none other than Elizabeth Taylor.
Michael: We're doing it. We're doing all the Hollywood royalty.
Aubrey: We've done Gwyneth Paltrow. We've done Elizabeth Taylor. We've done Ed McMahon.
Aubrey: Michael, tell me what you know about Elizabeth Taylor. It sounds like, generally that she was married a lot. What else do you know about Elizabeth Taylor?
Michael: Literally an actress who was married a lot.
Michael: We've reached the limits of my knowledge.
Aubrey: I should also say, before we sort of dig in all the way, that this episode includes some really gnarly abuse stuff and some extra gnarly anti-fatness in it. So, really, really take care.
Michael: It's an extra gnarly one.
Aubrey: It's worth noting that Elizabeth Taylor is, like, an incredibly complicated person. She received incredible scrutiny for her appearance in the press from her loved ones across the board, and she was also repeatedly referred to as the most beautiful woman in the world.
Michael: So, in other words, a famous woman.
Aubrey: She was famous and have the audacity not to be a man.
Michael: This is what I wanted and a living nightmare.
Aubrey: She's also a white person who played Cleopatra in one of the most famous and foundational cases of whitewashing African history, like, off the charts. She's a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat who married a Republican elected official and started hosting fundraisers for Republicans on the eve of Reaganism. She was disabled. She had scoliosis and was scapegoated in the press constantly for these sort of costly production shutdowns, some of which are the result of her being a frivolous rich lady and being like, “I wanted to go to Greece this weekend,” or whatever.
Aubrey: And some of which are, like, “I'm in the hospital for complications from my disability," or "I'm really sick.” And that all got read through the lens of, like, "She's wasting everybody's time."
Michael: This is the beginning of the difficult women industrial complex.
Aubrey: There is a lot of difficult women sort of foundational material showing up here, for sure.
Aubrey: It is also worth noting that she was well ahead of most other folks, an outspoken advocate for people with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s.
Michael: Oh, interesting.
Aubrey: When the CDC and the Reagan administration were still studiously ignoring the AIDS epidemic, and she established her own foundation to reduce stigma around HIV and AIDS.
Michael: This is back when it was controversial to be like, "Wow, this lady is sticking up for people who are dying. What a weird thing for someone to do."
Aubrey: Courageous, radical, dangerous?
Aubrey: Should we dig in on some, like, a little touch of 101 Elizabeth Taylor bio stuff?
Michael: I like that you've made me feel weird about this person already.
Aubrey: We got to know what the weird tension is, because the tension, Michael, I don't want to spoil it, except I want to spoil it. The tension is only going to get tenser and weirder.
Michael: Oh, good. Okay.
Aubrey: So, Elizabeth Taylor was born in February 1932 to American parents in London. Her father owned and operated an art gallery, and her mother had acted on Broadway when she was younger and really felt like she sort of missed an opportunity for herself to continue her career path in acting.
Michael: So, we've got a nepo baby on our hands.
Aubrey: We've got [laughs] nepo baby.
Michael: Part of the current discourse.
Aubrey: Elizabeth Taylor moved with her family straight to California at age seven, and her mother immediately started preparing her for what she saw as sort of Elizabeth's inevitable child stardom. She was just like, “I have this kid. She is unbelievably, strikingly beautiful, even as a child. I'm going to make the most of it.” So, Elizabeth was expected to be immaculately dressed all the time in case they ran into any power players when they were out and about in LA.
Michael: Oh, God.
Aubrey: But also because and her mom was very explicit with her about this, that when she was a star, this would be expected of her. You have to look impeccable all the time.
Michael: Holy shit. So, this was preordained?
Aubrey: Yes. Age seven is when these conversations happened. She and her mom spent hours every day working on her look, her manners, her posing. In grade school, her mom talked about Elizabeth having a job, and her job was to become a star.
Michael: Oh, my God. This is bumming me out so much.
Aubrey: Oh, Michael, it's going to get bleaker before it gets better.
Michael: I just consider fame to be a form of abuse. It's like off repping somebody for this. Like, you're going to be scrutinized for your looks your whole life. It's just like, ugh.
Aubrey: You and I talk about being uncomfortable with our level of whatever. I have never been an Elizabeth Taylor. I will never be an Elizabeth Taylor.
Michael: This is all we talk about, Aubrey, [Aubrey laughs] get on this while we record. We're like, "Here's what I'm feeling weird about this week."
Aubrey: Here's everything I'm saying no to because it makes me uncomfortable. [crosstalk]
Michael: It makes me weird, yeah.
Aubrey: So, her mother spoke about Elizabeth's “responsibility to the family” as a breadwinner before she turned 10.
Michael: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: She is very young and is being sort of piled on with all of these adult responsibilities. She's taught specific responses to how to receive a compliment. She's supposed to curtsy, look down and demurely thank the person while she's not making eye contact with them.
Michael: Ooh, a lot to unpack there. How much time do we have? How long is the episode going to be?
Aubrey: Not only that, but her mother expected her to practice her facial expressions for that process and responses to compliments in front of a mirror.
Michael: Oh, my gosh.
Aubrey: So, Elizabeth did that every day.
Michael: Was she even acting at this point? What were people complimenting her on? Or was this just prep?
Aubrey: I think this was mostly prep, and also there is-- look, in a lot of Elizabeth Taylor biographies, there are a bunch of deeply fucking uncomfortable descriptions where they're like, she was a strikingly beautiful eight-year-old. And you're like, “Nope, no, no, no.”
Michael: Yeah. This is maybe not the time to mention this, but can I look up a photo of her?
Aubrey: As a child?
Michael: Yeah. [laughs]
Aubrey: Sure, go for it.
Michael: Elizabeth Taylor child.
Aubrey: Oh, you know what? The earliest one you can definitely find is age 12, she was in National Velvet. That's her first velvet.
Michael: She just looks like a nice girl. She's got a dog in one of the photos. Like a little tiny, like, Wizard of Oz dog.
Aubrey: It is a really cute dog.
Michael: She looks so much older than 12.
Aubrey: Yeah. So, this is also sort of part of her story a little bit. In 1944, at age 12 is when she starred in National Velvet, which was sort of the film that kick started her career. It was a huge hit and it earned her a seven-year contract with MGM, which was one of the most powerful studios at the time.
Michael: Oh, this is part of the studio system where it's like, you just have to do what they tell you to do, basically.
Aubrey: Yeah, you sign on and then your career is in their hands, period. She, at age 12, starts earning a weekly salary of $750. In today's dollars, that's $12,700-ish.
Michael: A week?
Aubrey: A week. So, she's earning $660,000 a year. Just about.
Aubrey: And this is the point at which she becomes the family breadwinner, officially.
Michael: That's a lot of bread.
Aubrey: It's a lot of bread and she is a middle schooler.
Michael: Yeah. Jesus Christ.
Aubrey: So, she never really has a childhood to speak of. And by the time she turns 14, her mother starts dressing her in much tighter and much more revealing clothes and starts setting up photo shoots with a brief to the photographer to shoot this 14-year-old seductively and in a bathing suit.
Michael: Oh, so it's like as soon as she has, like, boobs and hips, they're already being weaponized basically.
Aubrey: As soon as puberty hits, she is being portrayed by her mother as, like, a teenage seductress. It is then unsurprising that her first marriage is at 18. As we mentioned, she was married eight times to seven different dudes. As I read about these relationships, many of them were profoundly and explicitly abusive.
Aubrey: Some of those husbands were physically abusive. Most were verbally abusive. Almost all of them picked at her body. Richard Burton's nickname for her was Tubby.
Michael: Fuck off.
Aubrey: Another one of her husbands, there's this anecdote in the book that she talks about where another one of her husbands thought it would be funny to introduce her to his friends for the first time under a different name. And one of the friends says to her face, “Oh, my gosh, you look like a heavier Elizabeth Taylor.”
Michael: Jesus Christ.
Aubrey: And then her husband starts laughing and says, “I told you were getting fat,” and smacks her ass. Bad news all the way down. On top of all that, she's like a working actor. Agents and casting directors and everybody ever is just, like, openly giving her notes on her body and her face and how she should look different and all that kind of stuff.
Aubrey: I wanted to talk a little bit about her marriage to her first husband, who is Conrad Hilton Jr. The heir to the Hilton fortune.
Michael: Oh, he's like a Hilton Hilton.
Aubrey: This was seen as a mutually beneficial relationship at the time for certain social climbing purposes.
Aubrey: Elizabeth Taylor was a young, promising actor who didn't really have a foot in the door with high society. The Hilton family at this point is frustrated with being seen as “new money.” They think a Hollywood marriage will help them be seen as more established.
Michael: Big problems. "We're rich, but people think we're the wrong kind of rich."
Aubrey: Yeah, totally. What a shame.
Michael: What you must have been through.
Aubrey: At the time that they get married, Elizabeth's mom is aware that Nicky Hilton was very big into drinking and gambling, and it was much more important to her that the Hiltons had the wealth and cachet that she was after.
Michael: I love that this is the time in Hollywood where it was like, yeah, the fact that he's, like a huge piece of shit is, like, eh, is that really that big of a deal. But she gained two pounds over the course of the last year. It's like the moral standards applied to men and women are just completely upside down.
Aubrey: So, over time and not even over that much time, like, in a matter of months, Nicky Hilton's, like extremely dark side starts to come out in their relationship. He becomes increasingly just furious that he is being overshadowed by his young wife.
Michael: Oh, God.
Aubrey: That fury starts to manifest more and more as, like extraordinarily brutal physical abuse. I'm not going to tell the details of this one. But at one point, she becomes pregnant and he becomes so abusive that he causes a miscarriage for her.
Michael: Oh, fuck. God.
Aubrey: And she leaves immediately. She calls her mom and is like, “I'm out of there. I can't do it.” And her mom tells her that she should have tried harder to stay together.
Michael: Jesus Christ.
Aubrey: It's grotesque. As soon as they break up, Nicky Hilton starts going to the press and talking like horrific shit about her.
Michael: Oh, of course, this piece of shit move where you're like, trying to preempt any of the rumors and you're like, “She was difficult and crazy. She's going to say stuff like, 'I used to hit her.'”
Aubrey: It's not even that, Mike.
Aubrey: At one point, she's photographed at different points with different men, including she has a number of good friends throughout her life who are like gay men who are sort of famously closeted gay men.
Michael: Oh, Rock Hudson. That's the only other thing I know about her.
Aubrey: Rock Hudson is a good friend of hers. Montgomery Clift is a good friend of hers, like there are a number of these. So, she's photographed with men from time to time. And Nicky Hilton goes to the press and says, “Every man should have the chance to sleep with Elizabeth Taylor, and at this rate, every man will.”
Michael: Oh, he says that publicly?
Aubrey: He calls a reporter to tell a reporter this, and then that reporter is like, "Good point," and prints it.
Michael: He's like, “Look, I have the most horrifying zinger you've ever heard. Let me tell you the most fucked up shit anyone has ever said about their ex-wife. Please put this in the newspaper.”
Aubrey: The other relationship that seems worth naming here, if we're doing, like, a highlights reel, is the one man that she married twice, Richard Burton-
Aubrey: -whom she met while she was filming Antony and Cleopatra. It made big headlines in part because both of them were married to other people at the time and they were filming a movie about a scandalous affair.
Michael: So, they were like the OG Brad and Angelina.
Aubrey: This is their Mr. And Mrs. Smith.
Michael: I remember when that happened, I was like, “Why is everybody speculating, these people are clearly just friends.”
Aubrey: Michael Hobbes on the right side of history.
Michael: I know. I really was not clued into this. I was like, "It's so mean. Everybody should stop talking about this. They're two extremely attractive people spending time together."
Aubrey: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor have a famously incredibly chaotic relationship. He repeatedly told her, “You're much too fat love, but you do have a pretty little face.”
Michael: That's like a neg. He's, like, negging her.
Aubrey: He's Mystery, the pickup artist.
Michael: He’s got a top hat.
Aubrey: The criticism about her appearance is not just coming from her husbands and her relationships. It also shows up in the press a lot and much earlier in her career than I would have anticipated. One critic famously described Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra as, “Overweight, overpaid, and under talented.” That's the cultural script about Elizabeth Taylor at this point is, like, "She's unbelievably beautiful and also, what a piece of shit."
Michael: I'm looking at photos of this on google now, and she has an hourglass figure. She's extremely conventionally attractive.
Michael: Her eyeshadow is deranged, but I don't think that's her fault.
Aubrey: The makeup is bananas. The hair trying to give a white lady black hair is-
Michael: Yeah, it's not.
Aubrey: -adventure all its own.
Michael: I have other comments.
Aubrey: So many, so many.
Michael: Yeah. [laughs]
Aubrey: We're going to talk about her marriage to US Senator John Warner. They got married in 1976. She was 45. She is getting more and more and more scrutiny for her body because she is back in the public eye in a new way. And she's in her mid-40s, and she looks like a woman in her mid-40s.
Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aubrey: She's put on a little bit of weight. She looks a little bit older. After her marriage to the senator, she checks herself into Betty Ford for a dependency on pain pills, which is where she meets her final husband, Larry Fortensky. Later in her life is actually where the bulk of her wealth comes from. That's when she starts endorsing products, including, first a perfume called Passion and then White Diamonds.
Michael: White Diamonds. [Aubrey laughs] She was just this lady on TV talking about perfumes. When I was a kid, that's all I knew of her.
Aubrey: Same here.
Aubrey: Okay. Are you ready to watch White Diamonds?
Michael: Wait, really?
Aubrey: I sent you the link.
Michael: Dude, yes, yes, yes.
[ad clip playing]
Michael: Oh, the editing, it's like MTV cribs.
[ad clip playing]
Michael: It's like porn music.
[ad clip playing]
Aubrey: These have always brought me luck.
Michael: Oh, my God. I just got, what's like, the good version of a heart attack. I just got something that is, like, so much nostalgia.
Aubrey: Isn't it wild?
Michael: I have seen this ad, like, 400 times and have not thought about it since.
Aubrey: It sort of like, activated the same part of my brain as, like, the Viennetta commercial.
Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aubrey: Where they're all eating Viennetta. [crosstalk]
Michael: Yes. Yes. I am like, watching this ad, I am homesick with the chicken pox in elementary school, and I'm watching TV at 11:00 AM, where they have the weirdest shows and the weirdest ads and this is just always on.
Aubrey: That is my entry point, sort of chronologically in my life to Elizabeth Taylor stuff, is seeing her as this sort of coded as glamorous lady in 80s terms, which means a wild look.
Michael: And also as a young person, you never see, like, “glamorous people,” who are older than 23.
Aubrey: Certainly not in the 80s.
Michael: You're like, "What is this woman [laughs] in a normal age being on television?"
Aubrey: During this sort of cash grab era, during this extremely profitable era for Elizabeth Taylor is when she writes her diet book, Elizabeth Takes Off.
Michael: We've circled back to the title of the show. This is where we would put our first ad break if were, like, an [crosstalk] show and then sell mattresses.
Aubrey: So, I just sent you the cover of Elizabeth Takes Off, and I would love it if you would describe it.
Michael: Ooh. This photo is amazing.
Aubrey: Tell me what you are seeing.
Michael: Okay. This is like a super glamour shot.
Aubrey: It looks like a marketing image for the place glamour shots for the service of glamour shots.
Michael: [laughs] It's the like Target photo studio poster that they have outside, yes. It says Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image, and Self-Esteem by Elizabeth Taylor. The whole thing is just like, super, like, old money glamour lady. She has pearl earrings the size of golf balls. And then her makeup, she's airbrushed, but in the pre photoshop era. So, she just looks like, sort of blurry and washed out.
Aubrey: She really does. She looks gorgeous in an extremely 80s way. Those giant pearl earrings are surrounded by a huge gold braid, that big clip-on earring kind of look from the 80s. She's wearing this, like, bubble gum, pink kind of lipstick. She's got this like, sweetheart neckline dress that is white. She looks like, resplendent. And then the background looks like a driver's license background. It's just like, flat blue in a way that is really funny to me. So, she looks amazing on this. And it's totally, like, “Buy this book from a movie star.”
Michael: So, this is end of career. This is her looking back on her career and her legacy.
Aubrey: This is not a mid-career book. This is a retrospective. The author here is listed as Elizabeth Taylor, but this is a time when her top priorities are making money and doing her advocacy work. So, it is ghostwritten. It was written by a writer named Jane Scovell, according to the Washington Post. This is as reported by the Washington Post. Scovell also ghost wrote for Ginger Rogers, Tim Conway and Kitty Dukakis, among others.
Michael: Dude, when I was a kid and dreaming about becoming a writer, I dreamed of two things. One, becoming a ghostwriter for celebrity memoirs, and two, writing novelizations of movies. [Aubrey laughs] Those were, like, my peak pinnacle goals as a writer.
Aubrey: When I was a kid and I dreamed of being a writer, I dreamed of being a speechwriter. Then I realized that's mostly not a job. And when it is, you have to be on a presidential campaign or some, like, absolutely hellacious scenario that I absolutely don't ever want to be part of. And I was like, nah.
Michael: I used to do speech writing background stuff for various UN people, and there would be times when they would be having a debate where they were fighting each other about something, and I would be writing both of their speeches. [laughs] "What my colleague doesn't understand," like, they're both feeding me lines.
Aubrey: It's like your version of, like, a stuffed animal tea party, [laughs] just, like, acting out, like the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So, when Elizabeth Taylor releases this book, her press, the quotes that she gives to the press around this book are so fucking rough. It is a real indication of how much shit people talked about her body throughout her career and also how effectively that trained her at talking about other people's bodies in those same terms too.
Aubrey: So, in the Washington Post piece, they say, “She doesn't buy theory that as people age, a bit more weight fills out their faces attractively.” I think that's bunk. I think that's a cop out is what she says about that. And she talks throughout this book almost constantly about cop outs. She imagines these whole narratives that people who are fatter than her have about their bodies, and she summarily dismisses all of them as excuses or cop outs.
Michael: It's like a portrait of how bias gets reproduced, because it's not only adopted by the majority, it's also adopted by minorities themselves. So, you have her internalizing all this anti-fat shit. The terrible treatment that she's gotten. She's like, “Yes, you're correct about that. You were right to criticize me for my looks.” And now she's criticizing other people.
Aubrey: It's really bleak. I think it's also, to your point, in addition to showing how bias operates, it also shows how abuse operates, which is that we experience abuse and take it on, and that causes a number of really hard and horrific outcomes in our lives. And one of those hard and horrific outcomes is that it trains us to be abusive toward other people.
Michael: Ultimately, it's like, "Well, if I hadn't been so fat, they wouldn't have said those horrible things to me."
Aubrey: Right. Absolutely.
Michael: That's just another way of defending that treatment, which is totally indefensible.
Aubrey: That is essentially the thesis of this book.
Michael: Oh, God. Jesus Christ.
Aubrey: The hard thing is, like, I hear what you're saying about part of how bias operates is that people on the downside of power take it in too. Elizabeth Taylor is not at any point in this book someone that I would consider to be a fat person. In all of the photos that I have seen of her and all of the everything, she is not on the downside of power, but she is in an industry where her body and scrutiny of her body is going to happen at a fever pitch. That will make her feel like she is on the downside of power, even though she remains this famously beautiful, famously wealthy, famously everything woman.
Michael: It is kind of fascinating, because by Hollywood standards, I guess she like, is fat, but by literally any other standard, she isn't.
Aubrey: It's really fucking weird and it mirrors. I've had at this point a number of conversations with people who were like actors now, who will sort of toe a really careful line in their conversations with me and be like, “I understand that I'm not a fat person. I also understand that I'm in an industry where I'm being treated like a fat person.”
Michael: It is kind of fascinating to me that you've become a person who celebrities come to when they feel weird about their bodies. [laughs]
Aubrey: Not that many, but there have been a handful. I'm like, "This is a part of this work that I did not anticipate."
Michael: "I'm a famous person with feelings. Let me let me call Aubrey."
Aubrey: Yeah, totally.
Michael: "What’s Aubrey going to tell me."
Aubrey: Totally. So, the book is divided into sections, and we're just going to take it section by section. Section one is titled How It Happened: A Personal View. The it happened here is how she gained weight. This entire section that is roughly a 100 pages of this book is just a little bit of her life story, mostly focused on her adult life through the lens of here's how I allowed it to happen that at one point I was fatter than at another point.
Michael: This is what we were talking about last episode about how fat people are called upon to explain the origin stories of their bodies.
Aubrey: Yeah, explain it. Write a book.
Michael: Of, like, "You're calling me fat, and I'm going to tell you how I got this way."
Aubrey: Yeah, totally. "And you're right. You're right but you shouldn't have said it," is sort of the vibe. The narrative that she offers of her own body feels really to me like an encapsulation of, like, very 80s thinking about bodies and diets, which is that for her, her weight gain is both a reflection of her own low self-worth and a cause of that low self-worth.
Aubrey: She says at one point, “In my late 40s, weight gain became a primary factor in my feelings of self-worth. And when I finally had the courage to do something about those added pounds, I was forced to acknowledge that loss of pride played a large role in the reasons I put on weight in the first place.” So, she's sort of describing this symbiotic relationship, that, again, feels not dissimilar from what you would have heard at Weight Watchers meetings at this time.
Michael: So, it's like, “Basically everyone was terrible to me, and I started to internalize that criticism where it became part of my self-worth and the solution to that is I should have lost weight.”
Aubrey: Yeah, absolutely. She also talks at this point about how this wasn't just happening in the press, it was also happening in her personal relationships. And she brings this up in a sunny, chirpy way as part of the narrative. And I don't find it sunny or chirpy. I'm sending you a quote about her friends.
Michael: She says, “Recently, some of my friends have told me how flabbergasted they were by the amount of food I could pack away. The awful part is I wasn't even aware of some of my gastronomic feats. It makes me wonder if it might motivate fatties to diet, if someone filmed every meal and snack they ate in a day, the subject could then watch the movie and see firsthand just how much she was consuming.” What we're learning here is that Brian Wansink plagiarized this by trying to install cameras in cafeterias and show you how fat you become.
Aubrey: I forgot about that particular wrinkle in the Brian Wansink legacy. Thank you for that reminder.
Michael: Too bad this was published before TED Talks. She could have given one with that little microphone. [crosstalk]
Aubrey: But again, this is like sort of one of countless quotes in this book where you're like, “Oh, my God, your friends are horrific.” Why are your friends telling you as soon as you become thin again that they're like, "Man, you were really packing it in." It was gross. It's essentially what this quote is.
Michael: Does she use the term fatties throughout the book?
Aubrey: A lot. She uses it a lot. She also sort of talks about how this behavior shows up in the entertainment industry. There are a couple of longer quotes in this episode. This is one of them. But I think it's worth. I don't actually want to paraphrase it because the way she writes it is so-- it would sound like I was exaggerating.
Aubrey: So, I just sent it to you.
Michael: She says, “Not so long ago, I was at a benefit with Joan Rivers who had been foremost among the entertainers who made my weight the butt of their jokes. When I was ready to leave, she took my hand, saying, ‘Elizabeth, you look wonderful. I just want you to think about why I said those things when you were heavy.’ ‘Okay, I'll certainly do that,’ I answered and tried to get away. She held onto my hand and repeated, ‘No, no, I mean it. I want you to really think about why I did it.’ I didn't have to think about it. I knew what she was implying. She was taking credit for my losing weight. But I don't think you can justify cruelty and turn it around into a benediction. Jokes were made about my weight because they got laughs.”
Aubrey: Joan Rivers in this particular anecdote, popping out of a fucking trash can to be like, “You're welcome for making fun of you because now you're thin.”
Michael: Yeah, like, making fun of you to a bunch of other people, like, making fun of you publicly to humiliate you. “You're welcome bestie.” That's terrible.
Aubrey: There is also a moment at the time that she is at her fattest. She gets a chicken bone stuck in her throat and has to be rushed to the hospital to have it surgically removed.
Aubrey: This story starts to make the round and it makes an appearance on Saturday Night Live.
Michael: Of course.
Aubrey: And we're going to watch a little clip of that.
Michael: Oh, fucking hell. You're going to make me watch fucking Saturday Night Live?
Aubrey: Can I tell you this episode musical guest, the Grateful Dead. [laughs]
Aubrey: That's how 70s it is. They're playing Casey Jones.
Michael: I didn't even know that was, like, a thing. I didn't know they were ever famous enough to be on SNL. Wow.
Aubrey: Oh, for sure, for sure, for sure.
Michael: Buck Henry was the fucking host.
Aubrey: It's wild.
Bill Murray: This chief politician, John Warner's wife is none other than perhaps the greatest actress that's ever lived and whose face has set the standard for screen beauty for so many years. Of course, I'm talking about Elizabeth Taylor. Liz, welcome to Celebrity Corner.
[laughs and applause]
Michael: It's John Belushi.
Bill Murray: Liz, welcome to Celebrity Corner.
John Belushi (as Elizabeth Taylor): Thanks, Bill. It's so nice to be here.
Bill Murray: Liz, how does it feel to be Mrs. Almost-Too-Soon-to-Tell Senator-Elect Warner, anyway?
John Belushi: Very exciting, Bill. I'm looking forward to being a Washington hostess.
Bill Murray: Liz, tell me this: we heard that you promised that if John won the election, that you would go on a diet from your present weight of 167 pounds, down to your "Butterfield 8" weight of 120. Is that true?
John Belushi: That's right. I've started on a strict diet. Nothing but chicken.
Bill Murray: That sounds great, Liz. But to me, I don't care how much you weigh, just so your cheeks don't puff up over those beautiful violet eyes that I've been in love with since National Velvet.
John Belushi: Mm-hmm. [choking] Thank you, Bill. [coughing]
Michael: Can we be done now?
Aubrey: We're done.
Michael: Argh. That was excruciating. There's not even really a joke.
Aubrey: No, there's not a joke. That's what my notes say.
Michael: She's being played by a man and he's fat. Like, the joke is that she chokes on a chicken bone, I guess. But that's not even a joke. It's just a thing that happened.
Michael: You're just acting out like a factual thing, but you're laughing at it.
Aubrey: It's not funny. There's not a setup. There's not a punchline. There's nothing that is recognizable as a joke structure.
Michael: That's really bad.
Aubrey: There's not even enough plot to recognize it as any kind of sketch structure.
Michael: It's also fucked up because, you know she must have known when she was choking on the chicken bone that like this would be a joke.
Aubrey: I'm sure she did.
Michael: Right. There's this whole circular thing of anything humiliating that happens to you, you're like, “Oh, great, this is going to be a story because there's been decades of speculation about my weight and I now have a injury that is in some way adjacent to food. Oh, good, months of discourse about this really awful thing that's happening to me."
Aubrey: So, in the book, she writes, “Naturally, I've been asked if I saw the Saturday Night Live television skit that featured a coal-eyed John Belushi dressed in drag doing a takeoff on the accident. Yes, I saw it, and I laughed. He was very funny. How ironic and sad that that gifted young man satirized my excesses and then died of his own.”
Michael: Oh, my God. She's just reproducing the worst parts of that fucking sketch.
Aubrey: She's writing this after being in treatment for her own addictions and then is like, “I'm a dunk on this guy for doing the same thing.” Wow, you really had the upper hand there and you just happily threw it away.
Michael: You keep showing the media and then I feel bad for her, and then you read me quotes from the book, and then I stop feeling bad for her. [laughs]
Aubrey: It's a real roller coaster. The whole book is a real roller coaster.
Michael: These terrible things happened, but it also made you a terrible person, I don't know what to do with that.
Aubrey: She is all over the place, and, like I say, a really complicated character heading in a bunch of different directions. She, in this section, often describes her own body in the same breath that she describes her theory of fat people's failings. So, I'm going to send you a little quote.
Michael: It says, “For a long time, I closed my eyes and saw what I wanted to see. I fooled myself by looking at my body with what I call obese eyes. I truly think that some fat people perceive themselves with the same distorted image as anorexics. No matter how skeletal the latter see themselves as fat, I admit I could never totally deceive myself.” Oh, so wait, she's saying, like, "I thought I was thin, but I was actually fat, and that's bad?" Is that what she's saying?
Aubrey: Right. And then she's comparing that to her own definition of anorexia, which I think she's just talking about body dysmorphia, which is different than anorexia. But, yeah, she's essentially just like, "I thought I was thin even though I was so fat. That's how fat people think about themselves." And I'm like, “No, that was you.”
Michael: Yeah, so you're literally not fat. That's why you didn't think of yourself as fat. But also this whole, God, this whole thing is so dark.
Michael: How dare I felt okay about my body.
Aubrey: And also, she is then seamlessly segueing into a proposal of a worldview that's just like, “Here's what I did and that's the real problem with fat people.” And you're like, "Wait a minute. You made seven leaps, go back."
Michael: She's generalizing to other fat people from her own experience, which is that of, like, a movie star.
Aubrey: Yes, totally.
Michael: It's kind of by definition, there's only, like, 20 of those in the country at this time. So, most people are not being brutally scrutinized by the media because most people are not movie stars.
Aubrey: Just like you, I am no longer haunted by my images in national tabloids.
Michael: "Yeah, the time I was on the cover of a magazine."
Aubrey: So, that section one is essentially like she is both sort of like, defending her body and telling all of these absolute horror stories about how she's been treated, and then again, in the same breath, is turning it around and going, and here's how you should think about fat people.
Michael: God, we're only a quarter of the way through this book. Jesus Christ. This is abysmal.
Aubrey: It's rough here.
Michael: This is so bleak, dude.
Aubrey: This goes into the same category as many episodes that you and I have tried, where I was like, “We'll just do a diet book and it'll be Elizabeth Taylor's diet book, and it'll be fun and frivolous and fizzy and fluffy.” And it's not.
Michael: Remember how I was going to do the Minnesota Starvation Experiment? I was like, “Aubrey, I can't.”
Aubrey: Yeah, totally.
Michael: This is worse. [laughs] This is so bad.
Aubrey: Okay, we're now heading into Section Two, which is called Gearing Up for Taking Off: Some Favorite Tips.
Michael: Okay, now we're into weight loss stuff. Okay, now this feels like it could be slightly happier.
Aubrey: Have you listened to our show?
Michael: Okay, fair.
Aubrey: This is where she talks less about herself and more about other people and more about the mechanics of how it's done.
Aubrey: One of her diet tips is that you should make bribes.
Aubrey: Incentivizing weight loss. This is a thing that comes up for a lot of dieters. I will say, as a kid, I heard from a number of adults that I should get myself clothes that I really wanted that were a size too small, and that would be my motivation.
Michael: Oh, you put a photo of yourself on the fridge being thinner, and then you won't eat the yogurt or whatever.
Aubrey: Well, that is also one of her tips. She actually suggests at one point, she's like, "I did that for me. I put my photo of my fatter-self up on the fridge.” And then she's like, “For you, I'd suggest using a photo of yourself and not me.” I'm like, “Elizabeth, who's going to use a photo of you?”
Michael: That would be so weird to have a photo of Elizabeth Taylor on your fridge.
Aubrey: She talks about the importance of “making bribes.” And then she tells this horrifically gremlin anecdote that she frames up as, like, “I did a good deed.”
Michael: “Let me tell you about a young woman I met a couple of years ago. She was one of the most appealing girls I've ever known, with fair haired, blue eyed, good looks. She was bright, vibrant, and intelligent. She was also obese. She told me she was getting married in six months and was trying to lose weight. Although I normally don't go around poking my nose into other people's business, there are, as you know by now, occasions where I can't keep from interfering. On impulse, I handed this girl a mimeographed copy of my diet and said, ‘Follow this, and if you lose 50 pounds, I'll buy your wedding dress.’ You should have seen the expression on her face. She took the diet home with her, and for a few weeks, she was afraid to begin. She had been trying to slim down since she was a child. Her parents had taken her to nutritionists and clinics and special summer camps until she just couldn't bear to even hear the word diet.
She might never have started mine had her fiancé not stepped in. He told her at least to give it a try. She did. Later, she told me it was the first time in her life she had actually enjoyed eating while on a weight reduction plan. By the time her wedding day rolled around, she'd lost 45 pounds. I still bought the dress. I can't say that the promise of the dress alone did the trick, but rewards do help.” Oh, so it's somebody who's tried losing weight her whole life and nothing has worked, but here's my dumb celebrity plan. And also, like, thank God her husband told her to lose weight before the wedding.
Aubrey: Right. Also,-
Aubrey: -Elizabeth Taylor carrying around copies of her diet for just such a moment.
Michael: [laughs] On the off chance a fat person says anything in my presence, have you tried this piece of paper?
Aubrey: Right. And then that is, like, “I took care of a major wedding expense for this person by essentially, like, coercing them into dieting.” The other version of this story is like, “I either gave somebody an eating disorder or made their existing eating disorder worse. You're welcome.”
Michael: The best thing about being rich is lording money over people and making them do things for you. Like a trained seal.
Aubrey: It's wild to me that this is presented as, like, totally unbidden good feedback, where she was like, "She really liked the diet." "What did you think she would say to you?"
Michael: Yeah, wedding dresses are expensive.
Aubrey: Are you ready for another diet tip?
Michael: No, but okay.
Aubrey: Okay. Well, you're right not to be ready, because the next diet tip is use threats and shame.
Michael: Oh, God. Of course, of course.
Aubrey: She talks about how you also need to use negative incentives, like a husband who said this to his wife.
Michael: Oh, no.
Aubrey: Hold please, for quote.
Michael: I always play the terrible husband on this show. “Darling, I know I can't keep nagging you about your eating habits. So, I've decided this will be my last word. The day your weight goes higher than your IQ, I'm leaving.” Dude. The average IQ, by definition is 100. unless your wife is, like, hella super genius, this is a fucked up thing to-- I mean, it's a fucked up thing to say regardless.
Aubrey: It's a fucked up thing to say regardless. You're comparing two famously fraught garbage measures IQ and weight.
Michael: Right. I want to do a eugenics twice in this conversation.
Aubrey: I want a wife that's thinner than she is smart. What?
Michael: Usually that trade-off is not this explicit.
Aubrey: She also talks about another dieting tip of hers being that you should write down everything you eat but that you shouldn't be weird about it socially, so you should be obsessive about writing it down. But, “When you're dieting, be discreet. You don't have to report to your acquaintances as though they were the commanding officers of your great war against fat. Even your most supportive friends can become bored.” Look, I don't disagree. Talking about diets is profoundly boring most of the time with people who are on diets. And also she's fully like, "Be neurotic, but don't let other people know that you're being totally neurotic."
Michael: It's like the French women don't get fat thing where it's like, have a secret eating disorder. Don't tell people how much you are fixating on your physical appearance and your diet.
Aubrey: She talks about this whole thing of being like, "Don't let on and your friends might get bored. And then she immediately turns around and writes this.
Michael: “Eventually I learn to take an ornery kind of pleasure in denying myself in the midst of plenty. If you're on a diet and doing well, rub it in. Be outrageously virtuous and let your exaggerated behavior act as a shield. Pass up the wrong foods as if they were stepping stones to hell and let the no thank yous, fall like rain.” Ugh, so, like ostentatiously be like, “No, I'm not having a brownie.”
Aubrey: Yes, this could have been a quote that we could have used in our last episode where we talked about like, I don't like gaining weight, but I don't treat fat people differently. This feels like a great example of, like, be discreet about your diet, but also make sure everyone else hurts because you're doing so well.
Michael: Another hallmark of these, like, self-help books is just totally contradictory advice, just like, back-to-back.
Aubrey: Her next diet tip is don't count calories.
Michael: Reasonable stuff. Queen.
Aubrey: Which sounds like a really good idea. But then she explains her reasons why. I sent you a quote.
Michael: Oh, no. I hate it when I see the little dots in the chat.
Aubrey: [laughs] I'm really glad that I've given you some Pavlovian conditioning to be afraid of what I text or DM you.
Michael: Like, here comes a big fucked up. She says, “It's too easy to become fixated on calories. Too tempting to say to yourself, I can have 20 potato chips for 230 calories or six ounces of chicken for 310 calories and then go for the potato chips. That's no way to lose weight. If you must know the number of calories you'll be getting on my diet. It's somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand a day.” God, she's playing the hits, huh?
Aubrey: [laughs] Don't count calories because you're not going to go low enough.
Michael: Because you're going to be hungry and grumpy all day. “On the maintenance plan,” Oh, she was so close, “the calories vary between 1200 and 1500 daily.” So, the starvation diet and then the “maintenance phase” in which you regain all the weight.
Aubrey: You actually can get fatter if you count your calories.
Michael: Right, because you're going to go for the potato chips rather than the chicken.
Aubrey: Gross. This felt to me like a really good example of why sort of anti-diet work is necessary but not sufficient. If your analysis stops at diets are bad, you can end up in weird places like this. Diets are bad because you actually don't diet well enough when you're on them. It feels to me related to like how folks are currently invoking the phrase diet culture to describe kind of everything. Diet culture is a term that allows thin folks to recenter themselves in conversations that are often about anti-fatness or maybe about classism or maybe about racism or maybe about, like, a bunch of different things. But we call it diet culture so that it provides a softer entry point for folks. But also, when you call it diet culture, it doesn't require any further analysis of folks. So, again, in this case, you've got Elizabeth Taylor ostensibly saying a good thing like, "Don't count calories," and then being like, "The reason is this." It's because you won't be essentially restrictive enough with yourself.
Michael: I'm glad that this book allowed you to say something on the show that you've said to me off the show numerous times.
Aubrey: Yeah, there we go. The show doing what it's supposed to do. So, there are more diet tips than that. Those are some of the high points. But it's worth noting that this entire section is powered by this explicit disdain and distrust for fat people. She is constantly sort of batting off these "imagined excuses," that her readers might have for not losing weight. She has a whole section where she repeatedly brings up, like, "Unless you're one of those rare people with a bona fide medical condition, please refrain from using your thyroid as an excuse."
Michael: Yeah, there's always a little section where it's like, “Oh, well, there are some people that have an excuse,” but then they never lean into that. Well, maybe it's just none of my fucking business how big other people are.
Aubrey: Right. It's essentially paying lip service too. Some people might have a reason that I approve of for being fat.
Michael: And I'm still going to assume when I'm out and about that every single fat person I see doesn't have an excuse.
Michael: Despite knowing nothing about them.
Michael: But like, yeah, I'm just going to treat everybody like shit anyway, just in case.
Aubrey: I wanted to close out this section with another absolute gremlin anecdote.
Michael: Oh, God. “Some fat people will only pick at their food in public. Whenever I went out with a certain friend of mine, she would never touch the bread or rolls, would order sensible entrees, and would never ask for any dessert except fruit. Meanwhile, she weighed over 200 pounds. For a long time, I bought the story that her metabolism was so screwed up, she couldn't lose weight no matter what. Maybe not. But one night after a dinner party at her house, I saw what she really ate. She had cleared the dishes into the kitchen, and after she'd been absent for a while, I decided to go and see if I could help with anything. I found her standing over the sink scraping plates. But before she threw away the scraps, she was shoving the choice pieces into her mouth. I felt so sorry for her. All the time she was blaming her metabolism, she had to live with this monumental lust. I ducked away before she saw me, but I have never forgotten the sight of her putting garbage into her mouth.” This is like a super fucked up thing to put in your book because that person must know who they're talking about.
Aubrey: That's the unwritten part of this story is like, "She never saw me, and I never said anything about it to her. I just wrote about it in my giant book that I did a full court press about."
Michael: Put it in my bestselling book.
Aubrey: The function of this anecdote is if you mistrust fat people and their narratives of their own bodies, you're right, there's probably something else going on. Fat people are liars is the moral of this story.
Michael: And, like, anyone who says, like, “I have a slow metabolism,” they're really just, like, binge eating every night.
Aubrey: Also, it is very strange to me that she reconfigures the meal they just ate as garbage. You were just eating that off of a plate, and then when the plate gets taken into the kitchen, you decide that this is now garbage. What?
Michael: It's also so fucked up to act as if thin people don't have occasional binge eating behavior. Sometimes I will have a box of Oreos in the house and I'll eat the whole fucking box.
Aubrey: It is a reverse engineered justification for the way that Elizabeth Taylor describes herself treating fat people throughout this book. She's like, "Aha, I was right all along." Genuinely, maybe this is a one off. Genuinely, maybe this is something most people do when they're clearing places, go, “Oh, there's still a little piece of steak that looks pretty good on there.” yoink, chunk. The inclusion of this passage is only to be like, "gotcha" to all fat people at the expense of her friend of years and years by her own account.
Michael: Also, not to tell you how it feels to read this as a fat person but isn't this also the thing that fat people are afraid of that their thin friends are fucking surveilling them all the time.
Aubrey: I don't think it's something that I'm afraid of. I think it's something that I'm aware of, that it's happening all the time.
Michael: That is literally happening.
Aubrey: It's really interesting to me. There is this sort of a whole line of rhetoric around anti-fatness that usually comes from thin people that's like, "No one's paying as much attention as you are, and you're probably just imagining their judgment." I'm like, "You need to walk through this world as a fat person," because it's not imagined when people just go, “I've been noticing that you're eating this garbage and maybe if you ate this other garbage that I think is good, you would be a thin person like me.” People just say it outright to you.
Michael: This is why it feels like, especially in like, fat activisty spaces, like, fat people are oftentimes pretty slow to trust thin people, which makes sense to me.
Aubrey: Right. This is also an instruction manual to anti-fatness sort of throughout this book, she's telling these little parables about, like, "Here's how you should treat fat people. Here's what's really going on with them." And they are based on just aggressively terrible behavior from her that is also learned, didn’t come from nowhere. It comes from her own trauma, and then she is unleashing that trauma on the rest of the world, whatever fold.
Michael: I'd love to read a memoir from her fat friend of being like, “My messy ass friendship with Elizabeth Taylor. I tried to be nice to this lady, but it was rough. She made it hard sometimes.”
Aubrey: "Day 27 of knowing Elizabeth Taylor, she's told me for the 4000th time while she stares at me, at least I'm not that fat."
Michael: "Here's how I feel when I hang out with Liz."
Aubrey: So, Section Three is called the Taylor Made Diet, which is a cute title.
Aubrey: T-A-Y-L-O-R. Like her last name, Taylor made.
Michael: Fair enough, Liz, we're giving this to you.
Aubrey: The diet itself is, frankly, very underwhelming.
Aubrey: It is straightforwardly a low-fat, low-calorie diet. She advocates for, like, "aerobic exercise," which she's just like, “Try stretching.” And I'm like, “Is that aerobic? But okay.”
Aubrey: And her recipes.
Michael: Oh, no.
Aubrey: Oh, my God. [laughs]
Michael: Now we come to our favorite thing to do on the show, talk shit on recipes in diet books.
Aubrey: She has a dessert where she's like, “You're going to love this dessert and I'm going to send it to you.” It's the most 80s shit.
Michael: It's going to have cocaine and shoulder pads, isn't it?
Aubrey: [laughs] That would honestly be more interesting than what it is.
Michael: It says, “Chocolate Fantasy, four servings. One envelope dietetic chocolate pudding mix, half cup evaporated skim milk.” Evaporated skim milk? “One and one quarter cup black coffee, one egg yolk, combine pudding mix, milk and coffee in a saucepan and cook. Stirring over moderate heat until thickened. Remove from heat, add egg yolks, stirring constantly. Return to heat. Pour into individual bowl.” What? So, it's like a pudding?
Aubrey: It's jello pudding plus black coffee and an egg yolk. And she's like, “Check out my amazing diet recipes.” The only thing that's making this a “diet recipe,” is the “dietetic chocolate pudding mix,” which just means, like, 80s language for low-fat.
Michael: Yeah, this is like the opposite of decadent.
Aubrey: Totally. It's like air and wishes in the way that so much 80s diet food is. Where you're just like, “Oh, it's like some kind of powder. There's a memory of the flavor of chocolate.”
Aubrey: So, then I'm going to send you also one of her suggested meal plans for the day.
Michael: Okay. “Diet Day 10. Breakfast, passion fruit, and then one slice of dry toast.” Dry toast? “Lunch, cold crab salad.”
Aubrey: Affordable for the every man.
Michael: “Snack crudites.” Oh, she's eating with Dr. Oz, “With dip." Just dip. "Dinner is grilled lamb chops with raita sauce, pureed summer squash and brown rice. Anytime during the day, a half a cup of skim milk.” That's your snack.
Aubrey: That's your treat?
Michael: That really hit the spot.
Aubrey: Sorry. Breakfast is passion fruit, lunch is crab, and dinner is lamb chops.
Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aubrey: She has multiple recipes for lobster in this book, and she keeps doing, like, “If I can do it, anyone can do it.” You're like, “Elizabeth, this is like cartoon rich people food.”
Michael: Yeah. Also, someone else is making this for her too. I mean, she's not making her own grilled lamb chops, I presume.
Aubrey: She's not putting tweezers with gold leaf on top of her lamb chops. [Michael laughs] There was a piece in the cut where someone talked about trying the Elizabeth Taylor diet.
Aubrey: At one point, this person tries out one of the recipes in the diet and says, “For dinner this evening, I am supposed to cook a piece of steak, then sandwich it in peanut butter and bread.”
Michael: Oh, what?
Aubrey: “Despite being so hungry I could eat my hand, I cannot handle this concoction. I have three bites, then throw the rest out.”
Michael: But at least I've also declared bankruptcy from buying all the lobster.
Aubrey: [laughs] I bought a $40 ribeye and then slathered it with jiff.
Aubrey: But then she goes on to say some really good things in the conclusion. One of her pieces of advice is she says that you should give of yourself, where she's just like, “I just was sitting around one day going, people really need to ease up on people with HIV and AIDS, and people are just being awful to them and somebody ought to do something. And then I realized I have the time and resources to do something.”
Michael: “Oh, yeah, I'm a famous lady.”
Aubrey: "I'm a famous lady with a lot of money. What if I spent some of that money on doing the thing that's seems like a problem to me?" But also, at the same time, in the back of my head, I'm like, “But you were also raising funds for Republicans during the era where they were shutting the shit down. I don't know, man.”
Aubrey: And then in the conclusion, she has one quote that I found much more useful than almost the entire rest of the book.
Michael: She says, “In overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I learned that my oversized body wasn't the biggest barrier to my self-esteem. To regain a healthy sense of self-worth, I first had to break down old fears and doubts and anxieties. Only then was I able to reshape my image successfully.” It's funny how these diet books include some fairly prudent and nice advice, but you just have to ignore the 97% of the book that just totally negates them.
Aubrey: Right. Where she's like, "It turns out that in order to fix my self-esteem, I had to work on myself and fix my self-esteem, not lose weight." I'm like, “Elizabeth, why didn't you write that book?”
Michael: She also could have pushed some of this anger outward too, and been like, "You know what, it's really fucked up for the National Enquirer to put another photo of me," in the magazine and it'd be like, “How dare this lady be fat?” “Fuck you. I look great.”
Aubrey: Right. There's no point in this book where she's like, “You know what a good answer would be here is this same kind of approach that I'm taking to my work around, like, HIV and AIDS, which is like, we need to reduce stigma. We need to lay off of people who were all too eager to pile on to." There are places where she's taking that note in her life, and there are places where she is not. Her politics around fatness and body size and weight loss are a place where she is not taking that note. I don't know if she would be able to, given the upbringing that she had, but I do think she could let this opportunity to just write a book about how craven fat people are. She could just let that opportunity pass her by.
Michael: What you're saying is why couldn't Liz be Lizzo? I think that's a fair question.
[Transcript provided by SpeechDocs Podcast Transcription]