Feb 1, 2006

On the cover of SELF - February 2006 issue

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Everything about actress Ellen Pompeo is thin: her fingers, her waist, even her size 7 1/2 feet. She looks frail enough to be blown over by a sparrow's whistle, but her diminuitive build makes her inner (and outer) strength an even sweeter surprise. "I've always been so small, I have this fear of being taken advantage of, so I feel like I have to compensate for my size," says the 36-year-old actress, who plays the endearing intern Dr. Meredith Grey on ABC's breakout hit Grey's Anatomy, a sort of ER meets Sex and the City drama. Pompeo says there's a certain survival aspect to her life. "I've had to learn lessons, and I've made mistakes," she says. "I've been through a lot in my life, and that's contributed to my strength."
Pompeo lost her mother when she was 4 (she prefers not to disclose details publicly) and was raised in a working-class town outside of Boston by her father, grandmother, aunts and uncles, three older sisters and two brothers. "It's not something you ever get over. I have a permanent hole in my heart, but I'm the person I am and have the compassion I have because of it," she says, her eyes welling up with tears. "I try to be the best person I can because of that. I feel I have to live the life my mother never got a chance to live." That sense of responsibility is closely linked to Pompeo's reluctance to slow down. "I always feel like I could be doing more," she says. "So what if I work 80 hours a week? A lot of people do. That doesn't mean I shouldn't have time to design my new kitchen, too. Martha Stewart could do it from jail."

Pompeo recently bought a 3,000-square-foot Los Angeles home; she shares it with her boyfriend of two years, music producer Christopher Ivery, and her two toy poodles, Gigi and Valentino. ("I have asthma, so those are the only kinds of dogs I can have," she says.) Now, in addition to working 14-hour days, she is in the throes of a major renovation. To maintain her frenetic pace -- she's often the first to arrive on set and the last to leave -- Pompeo refuels like an athlete. "On weekends I eat whatever I want," she says over a Saturday-morning stack of pancakes at Cheebo in Hollywood, "but during the
week, I approach food as fuel."

The average 135-pound active woman requires roughly 2,000 calories per day, but Pompeo needs 3,000 to maintain her 100-pound weight. At the recommendation of her nutritionist, she eats brown rice with butter or vanilla soymilk every two hours just to keep up her energy. Pompeo was thin even as a child. The Italian Americans in her hometown used to call her Straciatella which roughly translates into "little rags" or "strings". Concerned about her inability to put on pounds, she's had "every test in the book" to rule out serious health problems, but they've all come back negative. The woman simply has a jackrabbit metabolism. "I am a true waif, which is a blessing because I can eat whatever I want, but it's also a curse because people never believe me. I get a lot of flack about being thin. But [maintaining my weight] is as big a struggle for me as it is for someone at the other end of the spectrum. I don't find it fair that anyone who is too thin is automatically considered anorexic."

Pompeo has taken an interest in how what she eats affects her well-being, so nutrition is now one of her hobbies. The other biggie: shopping. (When her business manager recently asked her why she was giving tens of thousands of dollars to a man named Jeffrey in New York City, Pompeo sheepishly explained that Jeffrey New York is a clothing store.) Pompeo always wanted to earn enough money -- as an actor, of ir that didn't work out, as an interior designer or restauranteur -- to travel and live comfortably. So now that she can, is she a shoe person? A bag person? "I am an everything person," she says with a grin. "I love clothes."

Perhaps she developed her penchant for all things stylish when living in Manhattan during hte mid-'90s. In 1995, Pompeo was bartending at the Soho Bar & Grill in New York City while "trying to figure out how to go about acting," when an agent approached her and asked her to audition for TV commercials. Within 24 hours, she had landed her first gig. She worked steadily for the next few years, playing small roles in forgettable projects. "It took me quite a long time to make it as an actress. I wasn't Gwyneth Paltrow, who won an Oscar at 26," she says. In 2002 Pompeo received raves for Moonlight Mile and also appeared in Catch Me If You Can. A year later, she costarred with Will Ferrel in Old School and then tested for an ill-fitting role as the head of the Secret Service on a failed ABC pilot. The network promised her another shot, and two days later, it sent her a script -- for Grey's Anatomy.

In one way, her life does resemble that of the intern she plays on Grey's Anatomy. She is constantly fighting exhaustion. "I sleep in the hospital beds on set between scenes whenever I can," Pompeo says. Her other energy-up secret:
She does Anusara yoga (a Hatha system that seeks to honor participants' individual abilities) and lifts free weights four times a week. She keeps mats and dumbbells in both her house and her trailer. "I'm pretty stressed out. I've got lines to memorize, reporters to talk to and a network to please, and yoga calms me down. It's the one time I don't have to think about anything except being good to myself." The weight lifting, she says, keeps up her energy. "It's funny. Patrick [Dempsey, her costar] is like that, too. If the two of us don't go to the gym, we get weak," she says. Plus, the weights give her the muscle definition she craves. "I have to work for every curve, but the upside to having no body fat is that I can see the results quickly."

Her motivation for staying fit and eating well is two-pronged. "Half is out of vanity," she says. The other half is to stay healthy because there's a history of cancer in her family. Pompeo's father has had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Pompeo herself had a recent scare when her dermaologist removed three suspicious moles. "There's a chance they'd turn into something, so my doctor removed them; that's why I'll see her every six months now." Dr. Meredith Grey would surely approve.
by Erin Bried

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Source: Self Magazine