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At the age of 27, I thought making the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in New York was going to be my biggest challenge. I was one of hundreds who had auditioned to earn the coveted title of Radio City Rockette. I had made it through round after grueling round of auditions, watching my hopeful, leggy cohorts get snipped from the running. I was fortunate enough to make it to the final leg of the audition, callbacks, and measurements, before being told that I would be gracing the stage as one of the technically perfect Radio City Rockettes for the 2000 Christmas season.
What hid behind my smile and precision dance moves during those auditions was a secret: I was bulimic.
I had already performed as a Radio City Rockette for two seasons in Branson, Missouri. Outwardly, you would never know I was bulimic. Like me, many afflicted with the disorder are “normal” weight. However, most of my castmates knew about my eating disorder, as I was often missing before, in between and after shows, escaping to binge and purge.
I had been bulimic for 11 years already before performing at Radio City Music Hall. I dieted briefly when I was 15, before I decided to try purging as a solution to my dieting woes after watching a movie on bulimia in my school health class. At that time, I was not consciously trying to have an eating disorder. I just wanted to be skinny while being able to eat whatever I wanted to. I had no idea that one year later I would be a slave to the disorder.
By the time I performed in my first season as a Rockette in Branson, Missouri, I had years of therapy and two eating disorder hospitalizations under my belt. In fact, just three weeks prior to my first season of rehearsals, I had been hospitalized for two months for bulimia and low body weight. Still, I went into that first season hopeful and seemingly healthy; I had regained nearly half of the 25 pounds I had lost over the three months before my hospitalization. Moreover, I had many healthy coping tools to replace my maladaptive coping mechanisms.
Like other dance jobs, however, whether I was performing in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Europe, this was no different. Within two days, I was off of my prescribed food plan and back to bingeing and purging. Any tools I had learned could not compete with my cravings and desire to fill myself with food.
While I knew that none of my past dance jobs or geographic changes ever led to cessation of my eating disorder symptoms, I thought that maybe since the New York show was such a great job, and it was located in my favorite city on the planet, that the external glitz and glamour of being a part of such a talented troupe would lead to an internal shift. Maybe I would actually be able to feel the happiness I portrayed to the audience show after show?
I was sure that this would be the job to change my life.
At that final callback, when I heard the director welcome me and the other dancers to the cast, I thought, this is the first day of the rest of my life without bulimia.
After having been through hours of auditions, I decided to kickoff my new lifestyle with a healthy salad. Once again, I conned myself into thinking that this disease was merely about food and weight, paying attention only to how the disorder manifests symptomatically. I was negating the myriad complexities that had kept me shackled to the disorder for over a decade, like my chronic low self-esteem, self-loathing, loss of control, perfectionism, anxiety, depression and denial of my sexuality.
Yet, even though I told myself that it would be my first day without my eating disorder, the feeling of fullness overwhelmed me. A few bites into my meal, I knew I was going to purge.
While I broke my promise to myself, I was determined that I wasn’t going to let my “mishap” shake my confidence that I could finally get my eating disorder under control. In the months prior to rehearsal, I did everything I could to “fix” my eating disorder. I went to OA (Overeaters Anonymous) meetings, tried to follow a food plan, went to therapy, etc. None of it worked. I was a complete junkie with food. Nothing, except food, could fill my insatiable emotional hunger.
Once in the rehearsal hall, in the room full of beauties, my confidence immediately dwindled. I compared myself to them. Most had beautiful long hair and faces to match. Their bodies were the same or better than mine. I instantly became self-conscious of my acne-scarred face. Before I had even practiced my first precision dance move or eye-high kick, I was sure the director and choreographer were reconsidering hiring me.
My lack of confidence was exacerbated by my inability to speak properly during the media training, being on the higher end of my determined weight range, and having a higher percentage of body fat than most of the girls during our weight and body fat testing. Now, when I look back, I wonder just how distorted my body image was; I was never told to lose weight.
Rehearsals and shows certainly did not help with my self-esteem or eating disorder. While many cast members were lovely, the ones who were catty rolled their eyes and blatantly dismissed my presence. It was as if they could tell that I wore my self-consciousness on my sleeve. All I needed was one excuse to justify succumbing to my eating disorder, and I had a handful. My day went like this:
I’d wake up, do a quick body scan to see how fat I felt and looked, and that determined whether I allowed myself to keep food down. If I felt that I didn’t deserve to digest food, it led to my first binge of the day. If I passed my body checking test and allowed myself to eat, I purged anyway because my stomach was so sensitive to fullness due to years of chronic purging, so I would grab only a balance bar and a Diet Coke on the way to Radio City.
Once in my dressing room, I’d get ready for the show, sitting in front of my mirror in my show bra and tan tights, silently berating myself. Throughout the first performance, I’d wonder just how I was going to make it through the day. I was emotionally drained from the purging and verbal abuse in my head.
In between shows, I would go to Dean and DeLuca or a nearby deli and eat an appropriate amount of food before purging in any bathroom I could find. I would do this routine in between all shows. Even though I hated my behavior and wished that I could just eat “normally” like other women, the only way I got through the final show was knowing that I would “reward” myself with a binge and purge in the privacy of my apartment after work.
I had two full-time jobs: one at Radio City performing as a Rockette and one as a bulimic. It was exhausting. I did reach out to one woman in my cast. She performed at Radio City during the off-season of her athletic training competitions. She was kind to me and would try to help me by giving me healthy recipes and assisting with food planning. But I knew how to do all of that. What I didn’t know was how to deal with life without an eating disorder.
After a while, not only did I have confirmation that this job was not going to change my life, my eating disorder had progressed. I was spending 50 to 100 dollars a day on food and purging 10 to 30 times a day. Day after day, I’d sit in front of my mirror in my dressing room, listening to my colleagues chat cheerfully together, while I silently deliberated about if and how I was going to kill myself. I was a prisoner to my eating disorder, and I wanted a way out.
One day during the last week of rehearsals, I chose bingeing and purging over going to work. I didn’t call. I just didn’t go. While I had not shown up to menial restaurant jobs that I didn’t care about, I had never not shown up to a dance job. But who cares about potentially getting fired from a dance job when you’re contemplating suicide?
That day, I did almost die. During my binge, I hate a huge ball of mozzarella cheese and choked on it while purging. After that day, I spoke to my dance captain and told her everything about my eating disorder. She was supportive.
I didn’t get fired from my job. In fact, I was hired for another season. But the day I pulled a no-show was the beginning of a six-month downward spiral that eventually took me to a hell I never knew existed and allowed me to hit my bottom. From there, I went off to rehab for four months of treatment, leaving my dance shoes behind.
Today my life has completely changed. I have been in recovery from my eating disorder for many years, and I work in New York City as an eating disorder and addiction therapist. I just published my memoir, "Something Spectacular," about that final year dancing as a Radio City Rockette.
This year I went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for the first time since performing on The Great Stage. It was both exciting and sad to watch, knowing what my experience could’ve been had I not had an active eating disorder, but also feeling proud that I was part of such a wonderful organization.
I was lucky. My life has changed dramatically. Through my recovery and my ability to help others, my life is exactly what I’d always hoped it could be ... spectacular.