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Chas comes clean: Chastity Bono shares the story of her 10-year battle with drugs, her trip through rehab, her happy new life and love, and her shape-shifting TV turn on Celebrity Fit Club.

Chastity Bono becomes a full-fledged reality TV star this month, so one can't help but wonder what sorts of tests she'll have to pass on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club. Will she, for instance, have to eat bugs? "Oh, God, no!" she laughs, showing the brilliant smile that makes her look most like her mom, uberdiva Cher. "But at this point, eating them would be a pleasure--depending on how they were cooked." Now she sounds like her dad, the late performer-politician-restaurateur Sonny Bono.

For the past few months Chas, as friends call her, has spent every other weekend being videotaped with a group of fellow celebs from TV, film, and music who, like her, want to firm up and shed pounds. Divided into two teams, they compete against each other in various physical feats, then dramatically get weighed to see which team lost the most poundage. Bono's team, which she captains, also consists of African-American rappers Bizarre and Young MC, plus gay wag Bruce Vilanch--who, appropriately, dubbed the group Ebony Flame. Bono and Vilanch are the first queer participants in three seasons of Fit Club; the host of the show--a comedian with a burs name: Ant--is also gay.

Between tapings, Bono has been exercising and watching what she eats--hence, the hungry intrigue with even the insect world. A few weeks before the show wraps, she sits down to chat in her new digs--a subtly charming Spanish-style house in West Hollywood, Calif.--and proudly announces that she's already lost 20 pounds, with hopes to drop five more by the final weigh-in. Having gotten to know her when I cowrote her 2002 memoir, The End of Innocence (Advocate Books), I can attest to an impressive change: She's not just thinner but seems lighter in spirit, and happier.

"My life is in a good place," she affirms. "I have a great new girlfriend, Jennifer, whose day job is with a small political consulting firm but is an actress and writer and generally creative person. And I've really, finally, turned a corner and been able to put the drug thing behind me--I'm a year clean and sober. I think part of doing this show was getting out there again and trying to get a second chance on everything."

Wait a minute: the drug thing? We'd been out of touch for a while, and I knew that Bono had struggled with prescription painkillers after the cancer death of her lover Joan Stephens, but I thought she was beyond that.

"There's a large chunk in my resume that's missing, from our book to now, that I basically filled in with OxyContin," she admits. "What triggered [the relapse] is that I was seeing a pain management doctor for endometriosis [an often excruciating uterine disorder] who was supposed to be good at working with addicts, but his answer to my pain was to put me on OxyContin. I have a very low tolerance for pain and a very high tolerance for painkillers--it's a terrible combination. I was able to keep it together for a while, and then I got worse addicted than I ever had been before. On the show they asked why I thought I'd gained weight, and the biggest answer is drug use. With the exception of a short abstinent period, I've been abusing drugs for 10 years. Certainly, the last thing on my mind was taking care of my body."

She went through a stint in rehab to kick-start her recovery and had surgery to finally correct the physical problems. Then VH1 approached her about the show. "The timing of it was just really good," she says. "I had done a lot of work on myself emotionally and was ready to tackle some physical stuff. I watched the show and made sure it wasn't too exploitive or too awful, found out who else was going to be on it [the other contestants include Tempestt Bledsoe, Kelly LeBrock, and Countess Vaughn], and decided to do it."

For some participants, reality TV seems like a desperate cry for attention. Since the moment she was born, however, Chas has had little problem garnering notice. And she has often had to fend off the unwanted eye of paparazzi and tabloids, especially in the years just before she came out as a lesbian. So reality TV for her has been more of a kick in the butt than a desperate need for the limelight.

"I'm 36 years old--it's kind of now or never to deal with this [the extra weight]," she says. "There's nothing like being on TV to really make you face it. And even more than the actual number part of the weight, those physical challenges are a trip. I go into every one thinking, OK, I can do this, and then I realize, Wow, physical activity when you're overweight is so much harder.

"The show has been an incredibly humbling experience," she continues. "First of all, anybody who's overweight is generally not happy about it, so to get on TV and have it in your face all the time takes a lot. I have tremendous respect for all the people on the show for that reason--I know what it's like to be constantly talking about yore Achilles' heel on TV."

Of course, being on the show will elevate her public profile again, and she's expecting that it might help get other projects in gear. It was announced in July 2004 that the Logo TV network was going to produce a coming-out show headlined by Chastity and Cher, but when the exec championing the series left the gay channel, the show died. Meanwhile, she developed a relationship with the Here gay TV network and hopes to see a film script she wrote get produced there: "It's about two old friends, a gay woman and a straight woman, both very high-profile in their own fields, and the gay one ends up in a heterosexual relationship and the straight one ends up in a lesbian relationship."

Bono says it's strange to find herself a reality TV participant, since she hates most of what she's seen on such shows. But she's media-savvy enough to know how to convey the impression of "realness" without being entirely real. "There are certainly things that are, if not scripted, at least set up," she divulges. "And there are often times when they have to do a take 2 of something." Like maybe they didn't catch her initial reaction to being told she'd have to run a race inside a giant inflatable hamster wheel. "So," she says, "you have to repeat the shot of 'Oh-my-gosh-it's-a-giant-inflatable-hamster-wheel!'"

There's that big smile. Even among moments of TV pretense, real life is good again.

Kort is author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro.
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Title Annotation:TELEVISION
Author:Kort, Michele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 31, 2006
Words:1126
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