In 2020 we said goodbye to Will and Grace once again when the eagerly awaited reboot ended its four-season run. Yet several months later leading lady Debra Messing opened up about her experiences on the hit comedy first time round. And she revealed the painful truth behind her late ’90s weight loss.
Messing was in reflective mode on the I Weigh podcast, which is hosted by another sitcom star: The Good Place’s Jameela Jamil. The actress best known as Grace Adler told listeners that she was a size eight when she bagged the role that would launch her to global fame. But pretty soon Messing had dropped to a size two.
So how exactly did Messing lose so much weight in such a short space of time? Well, like many Hollywood stars, she started doing the mountain pose and downward dog every day. Alongside her regular yoga sessions, the redhead also took advantage of a service delivering slimming meals.
And Messing’s weight loss efforts certainly didn’t go unnoticed. The actress told Jamil that the response from the Will and Grace team, in particular, was overwhelmingly positive. She said, “I started to get smaller and then I was a six, and they were like, ‘You’re losing weight, you look amazing!’”
Of course, Messing wasn’t the first guest to open up about body issues on I Weigh. Billy Porter, Nicole Byer and Matt McGorry had all previously revealed their personal battles with its British host. For reference, the podcast had launched in March 2020 in a bid to challenge the value that society places on weight.
You may not know that Messing very nearly passed on the part that made her name. The actress had planned to take some time off in 1998 after fronting a lesser-known sci-fi show named Prey. But after reading the Will and Grace script, Messing realized that Grace Adler was a role she was born to play.
And did you know that Messing pipped future Desperate Housewives star Nicollette Sheridan to the role? Funnily enough, the latter would later pop up in the NBC sitcom as one of Grace’s love rivals. But Messing soon proved that the casting team made the right decision. By the end of its first season, Will and Grace was garnering an impressive 12.3 million viewers, according to the Nielsen rankings.
If you’ve somehow never seen the show that graced NBC’s “Must-See TV” Thursday programming block, then Messing’s character was an interior designer. The Will in the title was her gay best friend played by Eric McCormack. The dream team was completed by Sean Hayes as extroverted aspiring actor Jack, and Megan Mullally as Grace’s spoiled, high-pitched assistant Karen.
Grace had dated Will when they were both studying at Columbia University. But even after he came out, the pair continued to maintain a close relationship and they eventually shacked up together in New York City. Although their platonic friendship was undoubtedly the basis of the show, Grace still had plenty of love interests, too.
Yes, a six-toed guy, a randy cellist and a mortician were just a few of the intriguing characters Grace was paired up with over the years. Her most memorable romantic partner, though, was undoubtedly her one-time husband: Harry Connick Jr.’s Leo. In the original series’ finale, the reunited couple are shown relocating to the Italian capital of Rome before becoming parents to daughter Lila.
But Grace and Leo’s relationship had been retconned when the sitcom unexpectedly returned to the NBC schedules in 2017. That’s right, the daughter they once shared no longer existed. Turns out she’d been nothing but a figment of Karen’s dreaming imagination. And sadly, the now very much childless couple were also still separated.
All this revisionism didn’t seem to bother Jamil too much, though. The British actress and presenter couldn’t stop gushing about the show when Messing appeared on I Weigh. She began, “It’s so exciting to have you on this podcast. It’s quite surreal because I’ve grown up watching you.” The Good Place star then revealed that Will and Grace offered her comfort throughout her teenage years.
Jamil continued, “And you were a massive hero of mine, especially as a young, queer kid who didn’t feel safe to come out for another like ten years. That show meant so much to me. It made me feel less weird and less alone and just taught me so much about the world. So thank you for that. And it’s wild that you’re here.”
Luckily, Messing appeared to be touched by Jamil’s unashamed bout of fangirling. The actress known to millions as Grace Adler responded, “Well, thank you for those beautiful words… Laughter is medicine… And I’m just so glad that we were there to make you laugh during obviously an incredibly difficult time.”
Although I Weigh is primarily designed to explore body image issues, its guests often open up about other personal areas of their lives, too. And Messing was no exception. The Golden Globe nominee told Jamil that at the peak of Will and Grace’s success, she was diagnosed officially with depression.
Messing noted the irony of suffering from depression while filming one of the nation’s funniest comedies. She told Jamil, “It’s the moment in my life when I have reached my dreams and I get to laugh every day at work. And I’m working with people who I respect and love. But what I was not prepared for was having people jumping out of bushes to take pictures of me and sitting outside my house.”
As you could imagine, Messing’s state of mind wasn’t helped by this increased attention. She continued, “In order to sort of make myself feel more comfortable, I started to go grocery shopping at 1:00 in the morning thinking like, ‘Okay, you know, no one’s gonna be there.’ But inevitably someone would follow me around the grocery store. And I just felt it was a very powerful thing to experience having people know you and you don’t know them.”
Messing went on to recall one particularly traumatic incident which occurred when she visited her personal trainer’s home. She told Jamil, “… I remember, I drove up outside his house and I opened my car door and I got out and six men jumped out of the bushes with long lenses on their cameras. And I hit the ground like my instinct was they’re guns. They’re going to kill me.”
It was a moment that Messing admitted profoundly changed her. The star continued, “And I was hiding behind my car door and just sort of realizing, ‘Okay, they’re not guns, they’re cameras.’ And I started to shake and I stood up trying to compose myself. And these photographers, they were like, ‘Oh, we’re sorry, Debra. We’re sorry.’”
Of course, all the interest surrounding Messing meant she was often invited to pose for magazine covers. The actress told Jamil that this was initially a fantasy come true, adding, “You know, I was being a princess. They were dressing me up. And I was basically being told I was pretty. Which I never really believed.”
Unfortunately, this soon brought its own set of problems. Messing recalled, “It was always a source of intense stress because I would arrive and they would only have sample sizes in all of their clothes. And sample sizes were size zero to size two. And I was a size eight. And so, they were like, ‘Okay, well, you know, we’ll leave the back open’ and, ‘Okay, we’ll tape the back to your body.’”
Messing revealed that she tried to laugh off the situation, but inside she was hurting. The star continued, “And it was always this problem solving that had to be done. What are we going to do with Debra’s body? Because she doesn’t fit into the clothes… The thing that is most outrageous is that they’re given our sizes and our dimensions and they still ultimately say we couldn’t find anything in your size.”
Sadly, these difficult wardrobe experiences further tested Messing’s mental health. The actress admitted that her husband once found her crying in their lounge because she was so anxious about a photo shoot later that day. But her pleas to stay at home fell on deaf ears. Messing revealed that this is when her depression really started to take hold.
This form of objectification also left Messing deeply confused. She added, “… I felt schizophrenic because there were moments when I would be full of joy. And I would feel like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so incredible and special.’ And then the next second I would feel like I just want to be in bed.”
So how did Messing get through this difficult time? Well, she was prescribed medication by a therapist which the actress said had something of a stabilizing effect. But the redhead still struggled to deal with Hollywood’s impossibly high standards of beauty – something Messing admitted also stemmed from her early years.
Discussing her Rhode Island upbringing, Messing reflected, “… I was one of three Jews in the entire school and I knew that I was different from a very young age. And I knew that the thing that made me different wasn’t good. So I had big features and I had kinky curly hair and all the other girls had straight silky blond hair or had little noses and looked like… Cheryl Tiegs… That was the ideal beauty at the time.”
Messing continued, “So anyway, I think just from a very young age, I just knew immediately what was beautiful and what wasn’t. And I was not in that category. I think as I grew up and became a woman, I think the way I described myself was striking. Not beautiful. And I think that’s accurate.”
Of course, it wasn’t just at magazine shoots that Messing felt despondent about her weight. She also found her wardrobe fittings for Will and Grace a stressful experience. The actress told Jamil she struggled to fit into 80 percent of the outfits initially presented to her, adding, “I would just leave hating my body and hating myself.”
Messing expanded, “I loved my costume designer, she would always say, ‘Don’t worry,’ and she would talk to her assistant and say, ‘Okay, can you call over and get a larger size?’ And that was sort of the thing that was always on repeat all the time. So of course, I thought, ‘My life would be so much easier, and it would be easier on everybody trying to do their job, if I just lost weight.’”
This was a period when the likes of Portia de Rossi and Calista Flockhart were being celebrated for their skinny appearances. And Messing admitted that she ruined one particular awards experience by comparing herself to the two Ally McBeal stars. She recalled, “I would try to fit into these gowns and of course they weren’t sample sizes and it was like, ‘Okay, we have to let out the seams, etc.’”
Messing acknowledged, “This was supposed to be the greatest time of my life – being nominated for Best Actress in a TV show I loved for an Emmy and walking on the red carpet. I walked out and I immediately felt so incredible. And then I was standing next to all of these other actresses who were half my size, and I felt fat, and I felt ugly.”
Yet Messing now realizes that she wasn’t seeing what everyone else was at the time. She told I Weigh listeners, “I look back at those pictures and I was beautiful! I mourn the fact that that was my interpretation of reality and that was the torture that I put myself through. I was way too skinny…”
Mind you, Messing also acknowledges that her weight loss did give her a career boost. She added, “… But, you know, going in for those fittings, I fit into everything. And all of a sudden, I literally could fit into anything that was high fashion. So all of a sudden, everything seemed to open up for me, because I was a two.”
Thankfully, Messing eventually recognized that losing so much weight was having a damaging effect on her health. She told Jamil, “I got sick. My body just could not hold out. My adrenals crashed, I was exhausted and it just became clear to me that I couldn’t be healthy and a size two at the same time.”
Unfortunately, Messing then had to contend with degrading articles about her weight. The actress recalled the time when just eight months after giving birth she was pictured sunbathing in the National Enquirer under the title of “Will and Gross.” The piece circled her thighs, stomach, arms and neck and compared them to those of other famous new moms said to have more beach-ready bodies.
As you’d expect, Messing was left devastated by the magazine’s cruel tone, adding, “I said, look, it takes nine months to make a human. You, you know, for you to think that it will take any less than that to get your body… stabilized with all the hormonal changes and everything. It’s torture. It’s, you know, it’s literally torture. And that was the one that really rocked me.”
Though fans of the Will and Grace star will be pleased to know that Messing is much more comfortable in her own skin these days. She told Jamil, “I am bigger now than I’ve ever been in my life. I feel okay about being larger than I was when I was 25 because that is normal.”
Mind you, Messing still has the occasional moment when her size will come into play – particularly before awards ceremonies. She explained, “They say, ‘We… literally don’t have any clothes in your size.’ And I’ll be like, ‘But I’m nominated for Best Actress.’ And they’re like, ‘Nope, sorry. If you were two or four, we would be able to make it work.’”
So does Messing have any advice for those with similar body issues that she once had? Well, the actress told Jamil that focusing on something much more significant can help. Reflecting on her experiences as an AIDS global ambassador, Messing recalled a life-changing trip to Africa. She said, “… Just bearing witness to the poverty, to the lack of healthcare… it was so eye-opening to me and I felt inspired and compelled to use my platform to try and help.”
Messing continued, “And as soon as I was given that opportunity, something shifted in me. I think it was perspective. It’s like, you know what? If I’m ten pounds overweight, that’s not important when we’re talking about children in cages on the border… I’ll catch my reflection in the mirror and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, my gosh… I’m not 25 anymore.’ But then I’ll just get right back to the matter at hand and then I’ll be like, ‘Who the f*** cares?’”