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Health

Bethenny Frankel: The Healthy 'Housewife'

Bethenny Frankel has turned her one-time unhealthy obsession with being thin into a multifaceted empire.

Her Skinnygirl brand features supplements and reduced-calorie margaritas. She has cookbooks, exercise videos and soul-baring tomes.

The natural food chef-turned-reality television star is finding success in food — the source of decades of struggle.

"I was obsessed with being thin," Frankel, 40, recalled. "I didn't care about health."

Frankel, who started dieting at 8, will mix heart-wrenching tales with humor and good old-fashioned girl talk Saturday night when she appears at the Hippodrome for "Skinnygirl Night Out: A Conversation with Bethenny Frankel."

"It's a 2 1/2-hour conversation where I discuss women's issues, dieting, gossip and my show," Frankel said. "I talk about my book ["A Place of Yes:10 Rules For Getting Everything You Want Out of Life," due out March 22]. We drink margaritas; there's a lot of laughing. It's very inappropriate. It's a really great night."

The New Yorker is not your typical "housewife" looking to cash in on over-the-top antics. Frankel approached the popular "Real Housewives" franchise with the same business savvy that TV viewers observed in 2005 when she placed second in "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart."

Frankel resurfaced in 2008 as one of the original cast members of "The Real Housewives of New York." Last year, she became the first woman from any of the hit Bravo "Housewives" shows to get her own spinoff, "Bethenny Getting Married?" Last month, "Bethenny Ever After," a show that chronicles her life as a newlywed, premiered.

Frankel, who falls somewhere between sugar-sweet and villain on the reality-TV spectrum, attributes her success and staying power to her candor.

"Everything is authentic and truthful," she said. "I don't have to think or look at a piece of paper to answer any questions because this is what I actually do. If I was married to someone wealthy and went on a show and had to find something to talk about or to sell, then that would probably be an inauthentic association."

Maybe that authenticity can be traced back to Frankel's approach to reality television. Before becoming a household name, she was successful as a natural-food chef. Upon graduation from the Natural Gourmet Culinary Institute in New York, she launched BethennyBakes, a company that provided baked goods and meals. Frankel eventually closed the company to focus her attention on her Skinnygirl brand in 2009.

"I went to culinary school originally as a hobby," Frankel said. "I ended up liking it. I saw an opening in natural food — reinventing recipes and making them delicious."

Frankel said she was able to keep her struggles with food separate from her career as a chef.

"It's not like I worked in a fast-food restaurant with burgers and fries," Frankel said. "Even if I did, I don't think that would be a problem. I never thought about working around food as a problem. Most chefs that I know abide by what I'm doing — they try everything and taste nothing."

Even though Frankel stopped feeling guilty about food several years ago, it was a long battle getting to that point.

Frankel believes that being called a "whale" by classmates as an 8-year-old triggered body-image issues.

"I think that's where it began," she said. Life at home only added to the pressures of being thin.

"I grew up in a house where it was everything to be thin," Frankel said. "I was always on diets."

She would comb magazines for the latest crash diets. She said she overexercised and obsessed about fatty foods. Pressures from others to remain thin as she pursued an acting career didn't help.

"It's all I wanted," Frankel said. "I just wanted to be thin."

It wasn't until a trip to Italy in 2006 that she broke the cycle of guilt, binge eating and extensive laxative use.

"I didn't want to go on a trip and not eat while I was there," Frankel said. "We're so crazy in this country about tall fat-free lattes. In Italy, it is all about portion and quality. They are thinner than we are. We are all too obsessed."

After the trip, Frankel changed her approach to food. Now she does not feel guilty about what she eats.

"The body is a bank account," she said. "Nothing should be forbidden. People are afraid of food. You can have it all, but you can't have it all at once."

Frankel maintained her eating approach during pregnancy. As a result, she was comfortable with being photographed in a bathing suit for magazines three weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Bryn, now 10 months old.

"It wasn't a problem," said Frankel about regaining her figure. "I was happy and healthy before, during and after. It was the easiest thing in the world. Most people view pregnancy as one gigantic binge. I didn't."

To juggle book signings, promotional appearances for her television show and other events associated with her brand, Frankel has enlisted the help of a nanny. She also prioritizes.

"I say no a lot more to other things because I just want to be with [Bryn] and my husband," said Frankel, who advised other working mothers to do the same.

Mothers should not attempt to do everything, according to Frankel.

"You are never really going to have balance," she said. "Do not take on too much. You have to say no sometimes. Don't get obsessed with other things. Don't feel guilty; we're doing the best we can. That's all you can ever wish for."

Frankel said she is determined not to allow the same hangups about body image to bother her daughter.

"Since she was born, we said she's a nice girl," Frankel said. "She'll be nice and open — and know that everyone is different. And that's what makes the world a beautiful place."

Frankel has a message for bullies who may target her daughter in the future.

"No one's bullying her," Frankel said without hesitation. "They'll be terrified. I'll go in and kill somebody. Are you kidding me? They have to know who they are dealing with. Nobody's bullying my child."

It's that bluntness that has helped Frankel distinguish herself in the reality-television genre.

"That is what the goal is — to be completely honest," she said. "I didn't know how far it would go when I first started. I have such a great open and trustworthy relationship with my fans. I feel an obligation to them to be honest and give them the whole story. They may not like everything I do, but they know that it is going to be the truth. They know they can trust it."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

More from Bethenny

Dream 'Housewives' cast: "Kim [Zolciak], Nene [Leakes], Gretchen [Rossi], Caroline [Manzo], me. I think that's it."

On 'Real Housewives of New York': "I don't regret it. It was a wonderful, amazing decision that I made, as far as business and the opportunity," she said. "I don't regret it, but I am very happy that I am not there anymore."

Her style: "I do a show-and-tell after my appearances on shows each week [on my website, bethenny.com]," said Frankel, who describes her style of dress as "simple."

If you go

"Skinnygirl Night Out — A Conversation with Bethenny Frankel" is at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $35-$125, plus fees. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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