The Simpsons Star, Yeardley Smith, Talks Decades-Long Bulimia Battle, Inside The Simpsons Writers’ Room, Lady Gaga, Overcoming Perfectionism, How She Uses Her Emmy Award
Iconic voice actress Yeardley Smith joins host and entertainment journalist, Allison Kugel, for an extremely candid conversation on the latest episode of the Allison Interviews podcast, out today. For thirty-four years, millions of fans around the globe have been enjoying Yeardley’s portrayal of eight-year-old Lisa Simpson on primetime television’s longest-running series, The Simpsons. But behind the adorable voice of Lisa Simpson is a complex woman who has struggled with low self-esteem, body image issues, and bulimia for nearly all of her adult life. Now, at age 57, the Emmy-winning actress and voiceover icon opens up to Allison Kugel about the arduous journey with perfectionism that led to her struggles, and the coping tools she’s learned to feel healthier and happier in her own skin.
Yeardley also talks about what it’s really like in the writers’ room, her favorite celebrity guest stars (Lady Gaga was her favorite!), and the secret sauce that’s led to The Simpsons’ decades-long success. Yeardley also shares how she puts her Emmy award to use at home.
The following are excerpts from the latest episode of the Allison Interviews podcast with host and entertainment journalist, Allison Kugel. The full podcast episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify; and on YouTube.
On crashing The Simpsons writers’ room:
“I once went a few years ago to visit the writers’ room, just to see, because I admire them so much. There are always two writers’ rooms going at once. I asked if I could come and sit in and they said, ‘Yes, of course.’ I went and sat down, and I could hear them working before I got into the room. The door was closed, but I could hear laughter and lots of conversation. I walked in and everything just went [silent]. Everyone just gulped. I thought, ‘No, no, no. I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to admire you. I just want to see how you do your thing.’ I sat there for about ten minutes thinking, ‘Clearly, this is not going to work,’ so I respectfully excused myself. The only thing I will say is that the writers, themselves, have said that they’ve all worked out all of their own childhood angst through Lisa Simpson.”
On a lack of female and ethnically diverse writers on The Simpsons and how that’s changing:
“It is so interesting because most of [the writers] on our show are men. We now have several more female writers on staff, but for years, for the first twenty-plus years, we only had one female writer.”
“My speculation is that in a job like that, and certainly in Hollywood, it’s well known that you get a lot of jobs through your connections. So, if there was a writer who was really good and valuable to the show, they would say, ‘Hey, I know a dude and he works on this other show or he just came off of Letterman, or he came off of SNL.’ They would kind of pull from many of the same pools that the original writing staff had been formed from. I mean, in some ways it was intentional, but I’m happy that now at least they have made a concerted effort to get some fantastic female writers, and it makes a difference. It makes a difference to have writers from different cultures as well.”
Her thoughts on the decision to have the Simpsons characters never age:
“It was so smart. I knew right then that this was genius, because one of the conundrums when you are dealing with actual real children on a live-action show, is they grow up. Is the audience willing to grow up with them? Are they willing to make that transition through whatever those awkward stages are, depending on how young you got those kids? For The Simpsons to be frozen in time, I feel like part of the reason for the success of the show is that we remain frozen in time and it gives us this really solid platform, and this kind of constant, from which you comment on everything that is going on in the world and in current events. There is great comfort in that. So, I think The Simpsons never aging provides a familiarity that makes the show really successful.”
On the late Ray Liotta’s character, Morty, on The Simpsons:
“I’m always impressed when a celebrity can fit into our Simpsons world. We have a very specific sound. There is a subtle rhythm to the way conversations are held by the characters in the show. There have been some phenomenal actors, and they can’t [keep up] with our rhythm. It’s really quite funny. It’s quite sweet, really, if they do come and record with us. They’ve won Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, you name it. They get to us and they’re like, ‘Uh… what do I do?’ And we’re like, ‘You just do what you do!’ Sometimes the celebrity really sticks out like a sore thumb and you think, ‘Oh, they are not really part of Springfield, but it’s fun to hear them anyway.’ Ray Liotta was absolutely seamless.”
On recording a Simpsons episode with Lady Gaga:
“It was pretty amazing to meet Lady Gaga. That was pretty extraordinary. I did a record with her. She came to the studio and I got to stand next to her. She was so game and so willing. We do every scene four times, and then if the writer and producer still don’t have exactly what they want, we will pick up lines individually to complete that scene before moving on. It can feel tedious if that’s not your process. If you’re Lady Gaga and your schedule is packed from noon to night for the next three years, we’re probably not going to get you to come back, so we really need those four different takes. She was so gracious, kind, humble, and beautiful. I just so enjoyed that.”
On how “the pursuit of perfection” led to more than two decades of bulimia:
“The thing I have struggled with all my life, and it’s certainly better now, but there will be times in my life when I’m under a lot of stress and it will grab me by the throat again, is the pursuit of perfection. That is a thing I really struggle with, and it really shows up in my body image. I had an eating disorder for twenty-four years, from the time I was fourteen until I was thirty-nine. I’m fifty-seven now. I always say [joking], ‘Hey listen, I’m not a quitter.’ I went to an outpatient program at UCLA for thirteen months. We met eight hours a week and essentially it was group therapy for people who had eating disorders. It happened to be all-woman at the time, although that wasn’t the mandate. One of the things we had to do is eat a meal together, which is harrowing if you have an eating disorder. My particular predilection was bulimia. The other thing we had to do, which was also harrowing, was we had to do something social every week. We had to make a social commitment because eating disorders are incredibly isolating. You practice your disorder in private. It’s very ritualistic and very secretive.”
The fear that caused her to become bulimic:
“The fear is that you deserve nothing good. The fear is rooted in a deep shame of who you are, and how much you have not lived up to your expectations or the expectations of other people. It’s a fear that your body isn’t the shape and size that it should be, that you see in the magazines, and that I see in my industry. It is really a punishment in this twisted ironic way, that by binging and purging you feel like, ‘Listen to me. I have control over you.’ When in fact, what you’re doing is completely out of control.”
On her breaking point and getting help:
“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t turn forty and still be binging and puking my brains out, I can’t.’ So I sort of pulled up my socks and said, ‘Alright, I need some actual help. I’ve been telling myself I can do this on my own forever, and obviously, I can’t.’ That is when I went into that program and I got a bunch of tools. Then it was probably another two or three years before I really was not afraid of food. Now I feel like food is actually good. I’m not afraid of food. Although there are a couple of trigger foods that I really stay away from.”
On other kids commenting on her unusual voice when she was a kid, and being bullied:
“Oh yes, and it was not so kind. They would say, ‘You have a really funny, dumb voice. You have a really stupid voice. You have a really nasally voice.’ Then they would imitate you, so I think that really contributed to my notion that I didn’t necessarily consider my unusual voice to be such an asset, and that it could be the thing I hung my hat on. But I always say, ‘Who has the last laugh now?’
On how she puts her Emmy award to use at home:
“I used to use it as a doorstop. The fucking thing is heavy and it’s dangerous. It’s a great doorstop (laugh).”
About Journalist and Podcast Host Allison Kugel
Allison Kugel is a veteran entertainment journalist with more than three hundred long-form celebrity and newsmaker interviews published and syndicated, worldwide. She is an author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and host of the new podcast, Allison Interviews, where listeners can tune in to hear the full conversations behind Allison’s print interviews. Watch and embed the entire interview video with Yeardley Smith @YouTube. Listen to the audio podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Follow Allison Kugel on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonInterviews.com.