Leigh-Allyn Baker sits in a West Hollywood café, slowly stirring whipped cream into her Americano. A working actress with credits like "Will & Grace" and "My Name Is Earl" under her belt, the Kelly Ripa look-alike is six and a half months pregnant and highly conscious of the calories she's about to consume.
"Dieting is still always in the back of my mind," Baker admits. "Really I wanted a latte, but it had too many empty calories."
During the 14 years she has worked in Hollywood, the 35-year-old has endured constant pressure to be movie-star slim. At one audition that called for a woman who felt comfortable being onscreen in a bathing suit, a casting director scoffed at the sight of the 5-foot-2-inch, 110-pound actress in her bikini, rolled her eyes and said, "You think you're thin?"
"If you're an actress, you're always on one diet or another -- it's a way of life," Baker says, sighing. She has suffered through juice-only fasts such as the master cleanse, attempted a raw-food diet and other food-restriction plans, popped phentermine and Prozac and tried drastically slashing calories. When she got pregnant, Baker was elated that she could buy previously off-limit foods. "The first two things I was going to indulge in were a sweet potato and a banana, and I remember thinking, That's really messed up -- it's a big extravagant hurrah to have a banana now?"
Welcome to Los Angeles, perhaps the only place on earth where a piece of fruit is, well, forbidden. Talk to your average Angeleno, and odds are you'll hear a history like Baker's, one riddled with a variety of extreme weight loss attempts: fasts and detoxes, pills and painfully restrictive menus. L.A. women live in the entertainment capital of the world, where beauty standards are unrealistically high and the ultimate compliment is "Omigod, you're so tiny!"
"Most women here are at all times either on a diet, thinking about one, reading about one or hearing about one their friends are on," says Kathy Kaehler, a fitness and food coach in L.A. who works with Julia Roberts and other celebrities. But there's a hitch. Even in this city, if you go on too many diets, your friends will start to think that you are vain, have an eating disorder or are just plain annoying. As a result, women here are -- superficially, anyway -- forswearing dieting and embracing a new euphemism for it: cleansing. Sure, you're still expected to fit into those size 00 jeans, but instead of merely being super skinny, now you're supposed to be skinny and healthy.
The problem for the rest of us is that what happens in Los Angeles never stays in Los Angeles for long. For better or worse, any weight loss craze there will spread, inevitably, to the rest of the country, thanks to the blogs, TV shows, tabloids and tweets that obsessively monitor the bodies of Hollywood celebs. During one week this past January, for example, OK! and two other celebrity weeklies dedicated a total of 15 pages to the hottest Hollywood diet fads, including vegan, Izo Cleanze and master cleanse. When Anne Hathaway went on a 48-hour lemonade detox before the Golden Globes, the news was splashed across the pages of People.
"That's how the ripple effect across the country begins," Kaehler says. "If someone out here is drinking lemon juice and dropping pounds, Lisa in Nebraska will hear about it and start drinking lemon juice."