Debra Messing Q&A: Fighting Through Food and Environmental Allergies
The Emmy-winning actor lives well despite multiple allergies.
Debra Messing didn’t rest on her laurels after starring in the hit sitcom Will & Grace. She got busy on NBC’s Smash and on the big screen’s Nothing Like the Holidays, The Women and other films. This working mom of a 10-year-old son (Roman) currently co-stars on Broadway in Outside Mullingar.
Apart from work, the busy actor devotes a great deal of time to charities, using her celebrity status to heighten social awareness. She’s traveled to Africa several times for humanitarian causes and recently helped raise $100 million for HIV prevention in Zimbabwe.
A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Messing became interested in acting as a child, performing in musical theater productions at school and at camp. She pursued her passion for acting at Brandeis University, where she majored in theater arts, and at New York University, where she earned a master’s in fine arts. Then came small bits in commercials, followed by brief appearances on TV shows like Seinfeld and NYPD Blue.
In 1998, Messing hit pay dirt when she was cast as Grace Adler in television’s Will & Grace. She won multiple awards, including an Emmy, while starring in the popular show, which ran for eight seasons and made her a household name. All the while, she was struggling with severe allergies that were sometimes debilitating. Here, the 45-year-old redhead talks about that experience with Living Without.
Q: You have a number of environmental allergies. Can you list them for us? ††
A: Dust and pollen, mold, mildew, flowers. I also have allergies to certain types of clothing—down, wool, cashmere.
Q: Have these impacted your day-to-day life?
I’ve had some very severe attacks. Overall, my allergies would take away from my feelings of self-confidence at work. I was always worrying that suddenly my eyes would start weeping or I’d be sneezy. I was afraid to plan and participate in things, worried that I’d have to pull out. There have been times when I couldn’t even take my son to the park and play baseball with him. After 15 minutes, I would have an attack. I tried so many relief medicines in the past. They either made me sleepy or edgy and they didn’t last very long. It was a big thing finding Zyrtec, which works 24 hours for me.
Q: What about when you’re filming or going on stage?
A: I always carry saline drops with me so that I can wash out my eyes if there’s a lot of pollen or other irritants in the air. On the set, I like to start the day with a big bowl of ice cubes and put in some aloe juice until it gets freezing cold. Then I saturate a washcloth and press it against my face. I do this five or six times. It’s not fun–it’s really cold. It instantly takes away all the puffiness and inflammation, including my eyelids, which is where I get really puffy. It gets everything back to neutral at the beginning of the day and helps me feel more confident. I know I’m starting the day looking the way I want to.
Q: Do you have any food allergies?
A: Yes. I’m allergic to mushrooms, chicken and all white fish. So I’ve cut out a bunch of foods from my diet. I stopped eating them when I was about 21, right after I had numerous allergy tests. I’m also lactose intolerant.
Q: How did the food allergies manifest?
A: I got very bad sore throats that everyone thought were strep throat or bronchial infections. As soon as I cut out all of the things that test results showed I was allergic to, it was like life began for me. It was incredible. When I stopped wearing wool and cashmere and I got rid of all the down pillows in the house, it was unbelievable how much better I felt.
Food like chicken is almost a staple in many households and at events.
Oh yeah. Up until I was 21, I ate chicken four times a week. It was a difficult thing to cut out of my diet and it still is. You go to any wedding or charity event and it’s chicken, chicken everywhere. And I can’t eat most fish. Like anyone with food allergies, I have to be mindful and responsible about my health while trying not to be too much of a burden to other people.
Q: Does your son Roman have any allergies or sensitivities?
A: I’ve worried about that. I’ve been really vigilant, watching him as he’s been growing up, particularly with dairy. There was a time when he was eating a lot of cheese and he ended up with stomachaches. Normally, I wouldn’t have been on it so quickly but given my history, I immediately called the pediatrician. She told me to keep him away from dairy for three weeks and see if he feels better. It turns out that he wasn’t reacting to it, that it was something else. But I am still watching him. So far, he’s ten and free from my genetics.
Q: What are some of your favorite foods?
A: Turkey breast, quinoa, cucumber—I like to make juice, so fresh cucumber-celery juice is always in the refrigerator—avocados, bananas, strawberries, blueberries.
Q: Over the years, you’ve worked on an assembly line making jewelry, you’ve catered events, you’ve done bit parts—all before becoming a household name. Now you’ve been behind the cameras as a producer. Do you feel like you keep reinventing yourself?
A: You know...I don’t think of it as reinventing myself. My goal has always been to really keep in touch with what my heart tells me I need to be doing, whether it be personally or creatively or professionally. I try to trust that and not so much what other people are saying.
When I first got out of graduate school, my goal was to work in every great regional theater in America. I went to Seattle and did a play, The Importance of Being Earnest, and was out of town for two months. I fell into a deep depression and realized I just cannot live out of a suitcase… I just cannot do this. I’m a homebody and I need roots. So I came back and told my agent that I was only going to go in for jobs that were in New York. He said, you realize that 99 percent of the jobs are out of New York. I said, "I know but I’ll wait."
We’re constantly evolving, especially when we take on different roles—wife, mother, trying on different hats within a profession. It all sort of inspires new things…at least with me. So I try to listen to that inner voice and not limit myself. That’s how I try to move through all of the changes that life presents me.
Celebrity correspondent Bonnie Siegler lives in California.