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Delta Burke looks back on ‘Designing Women’ exit, and using crystal meth to lose weight

Nardine Saad – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

“Designing Women” alum Delta Burke says her “ugly” experience on the hit CBS sitcom drove her away from Los Angeles, and her long-time struggle with her weight led her to use crystal meth to keep off the pounds.

Known for playing the sassy former beauty queen Suzanne Sugarbaker on the 1980s comedy, Burke opened up for the first time in years on “Glamorous Trash,” a celebrity memoir podcast hosted by TV writer and comedian Chelsea Devantez, who revisited Burke’s 1998 book, “Delta Style: Eve Wasn’t a Size 6 and Neither Am I.”

The 67-year-old actor told Devantez how she turned to crystal meth to slim down when she first arrived in Hollywood. She explained that while she was in drama school in London, a doctor gave her pills to help her lose weight, but when she came to the United States, she didn’t realize that the “Black Beauties” that she had been prescribed were illegal stateside.

“They were like medicine to me: take them in the morning so you won’t eat. It wasn’t a recreational thing. After you build up a tolerance to anything and it wasn’t working anymore,” she said, explaining that the Black Beauties eventually stopped working for her and that she had to start using something else.

“Nobody knew about crystal meth at the time,” she added, and a dealer who had previously obtained the Black Beauties for her introduced her to the new drug and told her to chop it up and “snort” it. But she didn’t feel comfortable with that administration of the narcotic, so she put it in her cranberry juice and drank it instead.

The “Women of the House” and “What Women Want” star said she would drink a glass before going to work on the early 1980s sitcom “Filthy Rich,” and then she “wouldn’t eat for five days.”

“And they were still saying, ‘Your butt’s too big. Your legs are too big,’” Burke said. “And I now look back at those pictures and go, ‘I was a freaking goddess.’”

The former Miss America contestant explained that “the look” of the time was Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall,” and she was encouraged to dress like the thin Oscar winner for auditions. But, she said, she “had bosom and hips and wonderful curves” that didn’t adhere to beauty standards of the era, lamenting that the press treated serial killers “kinder than if you put on some weight.”

The Emmy nominated star endured a media maelstrom over her figure during her later run on “Designing Women.” She was also hounded by fans who constantly asked her if she was pregnant. At one point, she said a person flung open her coat and said, “Let’s see, how fat are ya?”

“I’m so good at low self-esteem and self-loathing — I’ve really got that down — so when I start getting down about getting old and ‘I’m too fat’ and whatever, [my husband] Mac will remind me — and I’ll try to remind me — that in another year you’re going to look back at this and go ‘whoa, I was looking pretty good.’

“I did look back at that and I realize I was beautiful, I was gorgeous, and nobody said that. All they said was what a pig I was and this that and the other, which fed into my insecurities. I wish I had known — I wish that every young woman could know — she is beautiful. She’s got power and she doesn’t know because they don’t want you to know it.”

Burke said she was “emotionally fragile” and always struggled with her weight while doing the show, which ran on CBS from 1986 to 1993. Much of that was written into the series, including in the touchstone episode “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” Burke exited the series in a tumult with producers and abuse allegations, and after her option wasn’t picked up. She was trailed shortly by co-star Jean Smart, who went on to “Hacks” fame.

“I thought I was stronger. I tried very hard to defend myself against lies and all the ugliness that was there, and I wasn’t gonna win. I’m just an actress, you know. I don’t have any power,” she said. “I remember on the set, when it got to be really bad, and I wasn’t handling it well with a smiling face, my whole body language changed. I would kind of hunch over … and I just tried to disappear.”

Burke said she had a breakdown and was hospitalized as early as the second season and said she didn’t want to go back to work on the series. So writer and co-creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, whom she worked with on “Filthy Rich,” agreed to write her “light” and help her character grow.

“It got ugly and very sad,” she said, and things grew contentious between them (“basically we tried to kill each other,” she said) even though they reunited later in another series.

“We do ‘Designing Women,’ and I’m so happy to be there,” she said. “I love everything. But then things started to change, which I won’t go into. But that combined with becoming famous, that I simply couldn’t cope with, and I wanted to leave and I wasn’t allowed to leave.”

Burke said she didn’t know what would have happened if she had been allowed to leave the series, but staying came with a few benefits: She loved seeing Suzanne evolve during her five-season run, embodying “an amazing character to get to play, grow older and fatter with.” She also wouldn’t have met her husband of 35 years: “Simon and Simon,” “Major Dad” and “This is Us” star Gerald McRaney, who appeared in the series.

“Sometimes I wonder, would I have been happier if I hadn’t done the show, but the thing is, I don’t know if I would have had a career or become well known for this fabulous character, but I wouldn’t have met Mac. So it was worth anything, whatever went down that was bad, it was worth [it] and we’re so happy to be here. “

“It just got too much for me, it got too ugly. The joy of acting left me. I was stunned, that’s what I am, I’m an actress, that’s what I identified [as] since 12 or 13. That really threw me, but it had been ruined by the ugliness that goes unfortunately with a lot of the business. I had removed myself from public life. “

That removal meant she wouldn’t accompany her husband to public events because she couldn’t put up with the “nonsense” that came along with it.

“I knew that I just wanted to stop so that’s what I did and [I] got out of L.A.,” she said, moving to Florida with her husband during the COVID-19 pandemic. “In our third act, I get to be in a place that makes me so happy. I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy or content… I love my life truly for the first time and I love him desperately. I know that I am safe and I’m loved. I didn’t feel that there.”

Unfortunately, she said, she never found anything creative to replace acting.

“So I’m just being me and I’m stuck in Hollywood. I was trying to be supportive to Mac and he was so wonderful and accepting that I can’t go out there with [him] anymore because that means the next day there’s going to be ugly pictures all over the internet with ugly stories and I can’t handle it. He was fine with that. And you’re getting older and you didn’t want to die in L.A. He’s from Mississippi and it’s sort of like salmon swimming upstream, and I remember getting in the car and I could smell the earth and I was home.”

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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