On a January day in 1996, at age 35, Carol Alt found herself on location in Venezuela with a young and up-and-coming model. The reason? A high-profile ‘Save the Rainforest’ campaign. One of the most famous faces in the fashion and beauty industry, she had graced over 700 magazine covers and appeared in over 50 movies.
But despite years of strict dieting, weight was starting to creep on and when she looked in the mirror, the woman staring back appeared alarmingly old and worn out. She had become accustomed to travelling with an assortment of over-the-counter medications in order to manage her many symptoms.
“I was on Afrin for sinus infections, Tums for indigestion, Sudafed for allergies, NyQuil to fall asleep and caffeine to wake up,” she tells me.
Carol was the headlining name for the second instalment of the Rainforest Campaign in Venezuela, but it soon became apparent she wasn’t the star of the show. Everyone had their eyes on an unknown 25-year old model, toned and fresh-faced.
“I watched her captivate the entire set with her energy and happiness,” she remembers. “I kept looking at this girl and thinking, ‘What happens between that and this? She’s firm, she looks good, she has energy and sparkle, joie de vivre. I used to have all of that. We’re only 10 years apart. What happened?’”
Carol was clearly not the only one asking this question. Her agent was quietly informed by those running the shoot that his client was “not in bathing suit condition.”
What to do? Alt was the most famous face at the booking and had to feature. Eventually the decision was taken to use just her face: they shot her standing behind rocks or in the sea. The humiliating experience over, she left Venezuela at the earliest opportunity, retreating to a relative’s house in Palm Springs where nobody could find her.
“I’m just like my father,” she says. “He always loved his job, and I always loved mine, but when he got ill he hid away and didn’t want to work. Here I was doing the same. I knew something was very wrong. I was falling apart.
“I decided, ‘There’s got to be a better way. If I’m like this at 35, what will I be like at 50?’ I got on my knees and prayed, ‘God, you brought me a little bit of celebrity and I haven’t even been able to use it for anything. I haven’t even bettered one life. Please give me that chance’”.
Carol not only discovered the key that would restore her to health and happiness: the raw food diet and lifestyle. She is now a leading advocate for it, having written a best-selling book on the subject with another one newly released.
“I want raw food to come to the average eater,” she says. “At 46 I feel so much better than at 35. My health is never an issue now. I’m never tired, I never have a headache, I’m never sick. It’s a miracle – an absolute miracle.”
When I went to interview Carol Alt in the summer of this year, I expected there to be a bevy of assistants and PR people presiding over the meeting, but in fact when I arrived at her office and apartment in the New York City district of Tribeca there was no one there but the interview subject herself.
I was expecting her not to look quite as good in person as she does in pictures, but in fact she looks better.
I arrived at the interview with a long list of questions, but quickly realised it wasn’t needed. Her response to my first lasted well over two hours. As she commented later, “I am so passionate about raw food that whenever anyone asks me, Pandora’s Box of information comes out.”
I was expecting to meet a supermodel who was superficially pleased that raw food had given her career extra longevity; one up on the competition. Instead I met somebody who had truly suffered through poor nutrition and who now suffered watching others go through the same, often frustrated at their refusal to make the changes she did.
While telling me about strangers who’d beaten cancer and other serious diagnoses as a result of reading her books, her eyes well up with tears. “I see too many people in pain. I give thanks every day that I’m not going through it anymore. Raw food hasn’t only changed my life; it literally saved my life.”
It is clear that Carol is as passionate about others’ health as she is about her own. She informs me that when friends come round she bans them from drinking tap water, telling them, “Not in my house! We drink clean, clear water I made myself.”
At the end of the interview she insists on fixing me food and a drink for my trek uptown and calls from the kitchen, “I’m putting your water in a glass bottle,” – a reference to the conversation we had had earlier about the dangers of storing liquids in plastic.
Although she still works as a model and actress, these days she spends much of her time sharing her health and nutrition knowledge with others. For example, the night before the interview she travelled to the home of a friend who was ill, spending hours there counselling and encouraging her. “I’m not a doctor and this is just my opinion – I always say that first thing out,” she says.
“But my life changed, and the only thing I changed was the food that went in my mouth. I thank God every day on my hands and knees not only that I got this information but that I was forced onto my knees so that I had to listen. Had I not, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m so grateful I was humbled to the point where I’d do whatever it took. So I’ve been compelled to talk about it. I couldn’t not do it. I made a promise 11 years ago.”
From feast to famine
Carol grew up in a little town on Long Island, the daughter of a New York firefighter. In her childhood there was no hint of the punishing dietary regime that was to rule her early adult years; in fact, she lived at the opposite extreme.
“I ate everything as a child,” she remembers. “Food was my entire life. I would gorge on the bread off the table before dinner came and then be too full to eat the rest of the meal. As a teenager, my friends and I would devour entire pizza pies, greasy tacos, burgers, French fries, sodas, pretzels, brownies covered in chocolate sauce, ice cream sundaes… We’d get sick on all this and not eat dinner.”
Her first jobs were all around food. At age 13 she worked in a bakery where the highlight of her day was being allowed to eat hot cinnamon buns straight from the oven. By age 17 she was working part time as a waitress.
One day a photographer dining in the restaurant approached her to tell her she should be a model. She was unimpressed; at the time she had her sights set on a prestigious military career. “Growing up in the Alt household it was all about brains, not looks,” she laughs.
But when she worked out that she could earn in a day of modelling what she took home in a month of waitressing, she saw it as a way to pay for her college tuition.
Before long she realised it was a career she wanted to pursue – despite the harshness of the industry. “At one early casting I was told, “You’re too fat, your hair looks like s*** and who the hell plucked your eyebrows?’” she remembers.
The grooming issues were easily taken care of, but before long the pressure to lose weight had led to an obsession with dieting that was to last the next 17 years of her life. “I lost the weight the only way I knew how. I stopped eating – literally – and I didn’t eat properly again until I was 35,” she says.
Pressure to be thin wasn’t the only obstacle to eating; there was also the relentless schedule of an international supermodel – six days a week, 16 to 20 hours a day. “At the time, I saw the impossibility of eating proper meals as a help,” she admits.
“But it’s amazing what happens to the body when you’re starving it. My skin became like plastic – make-up would slide off it. You can be slim and nourished, but I was starving and I looked like I was and acted like I was. Now, if I see two models next to each other, one of whom is thin and nourished and the other thin and starving to achieve that, I can tell which is which in an instant. It’s written in their skin, hair, nails and attitude.”
On the wall of the living room is a framed, poster-sized enlargement of a Sports Illustrated cover: Carol at age 22, wearing a swimsuit, 5’8 and a mere 115lb. The starvation regime served its intended purpose for a while but by her early thirties she was gaining weight and dealing with an alarming multitude of health problems.
The list included sinus infections (“If someone coughed into their hand and then extended it to me in greeting, I would shy away as I knew that their germs could infect me for weeks afterwards. So I started becoming a diva, not allowing anyone to come in my make-up room”), headaches (“I took aspirin constantly”) and indigestion (“I needed eight Tums a night, but told myself, ‘I’m the highest paid model in the world and an award-winning actress. Stress is par for the course, of course I have to put up with a few ailments’”).
She observes: “You can make excuses for everything that ails you and that’s exactly what I did. I was moody, uncomfortable and unhappy in my own skin. At that time, I was starting the day with a Scotch coffee with whipped cream – I needed the caffeine and sugar to get me going. At 11am I’d reach for nacho chips and of course, as this food had no nourishment, I would be hungry again an hour later!
“I’d have a turkey hero for lunch and pasta with tomato sauce for dinner – all tiny portions.” The tomato sauce and occasional garnishes of iceberg lettuce made up Carol’s entire intake of fruit and vegetables.
Fortunately, the rainforest shoot was to change the course of her life. She had hit rock bottom, and holed up in the house in Palm Springs she made her desperate plea for divine intervention.
Out of the blue her friend, Steven, called to share an amazing story. His girlfriend had been suffering from cancer and candida and doctors had wanted to cut her open and perform a hysterectomy and radical lymphectomy.
Steven knew of a holistic physician, Dr Timothy Brantley, and took her to see him. The doctor prescribed a mostly raw diet, juices, herbs and cleanses. A biopsy six months later came back clear.
“Without even knowing my situation Steve suggested I would be fascinated talking to Dr Brantley, telling me, ‘You won’t be able to talk to this doctor and eat the same way and you won’t be able to sit with people you love and watch them eat because you’ll know that they are poisoning themselves.’
“I was severely hypoglycaemic at the time so the idea of juicing and fasting – I don’t think so. I pretended to take down the number just to keep my friend happy. But after I hung up a voice inside told me, ‘This could be something – give it a chance.’ I’d been asking for help so how could I dismiss this? Miraculously I remembered the number.”
When she rang Dr Brantley, he didn’t ask how she was feeling or what was wrong with her. His first question was: “What do you eat?” On hearing the reply, he told her: “If you eat like that, I bet you have this, this and that problem…” and went on to reel off Carol’s extensive catalogue of ailments with alarming precision.
Soon after, she found herself sitting opposite Dr Brantley. “I’d already looked at who was pushing The Zone, who was pushing Atkins and other popular diet plans and I knew I didn’t want to look like them,” she says. “But the moment I saw Dr Brantley I said to myself: ‘I want what he has!’ He looked 22 but I could tell he must have been many years older because of the things he said. When he opened his mouth and words spilled out, every one of them was golden.
“As he started explaining what I had to eat and why I knew he was telling me the secrets of the universe. I ran to my car to grab my day book and started writing it all down. He told me I was the first person who’d done that but I didn’t want to miss a word he was saying. It hit me on a fundamental, deep level in my soul. I knew. It was a huge moment. I understood right then that there was no going back for me.
“He told me I had to eat. This was the first diet I’d followed where the instruction was, ‘EAT. But just be careful how you prepare what you eat.’
“As an adult I’d never eaten until I was full. The joy and sparkle came back into my life. I started to lose weight right away even though I was eating like a horse. My body was in deprivation mode before. That’s why it’s so common for people to hit a plateau when they diet: they’re severely malnourished and it’s the body’s survival mechanism kicking in.
“In two months I got to the point where I could fast. Earlier, when he’d told me, ‘I will rebuild your body and you’ll be able to fast,’ I was so hypoglycaemic I couldn’t believe it.”
Weight loss was just the beginning of the transformation. “My sinus problems went, I didn’t take Tums anymore, I fell asleep without NyQuil and I didn’t need coffee to wake up. No PMS. Fine lines and wrinkles vanished.
“Soon after I went raw, people who’d known me all my life were coming up to me and saying, ‘You look amazing.’ Also, people started being friendlier to me. Not just people who knew me but strangers in the street. I was so miserable before but now I was happy and I was projecting something much better.”
What initially seemed almost too good to be true turned out not to be. Twelve years on, Carol still enjoys exceptional levels of health and wellbeing. “From the moment I changed my food I’ve never had another sinus infection, never had trouble falling asleep or waking up, never suffered headaches, never taken Tums again – I function like a well-oiled machine.
“Pre-raw I was hungry and exhausted all the time, and doing the minimum I had to just to get through work. Now I am healthy, happy and satiated. I would love to do something to stop other models making the mistakes I did. When I think of the career I could have had…” her voice trails off.
It is a poignant moment, but Carol clearly does not dwell on the past too much. She reveals to me that a make-up artist recently told her she has better skin than most 27 year olds, adding: “When you hit 40, when you hit 50, you need an edge. Botox is not the answer. I’d like to grow old gracefully and that’s only possible if you’re healthy.
“When your immune system fails, your body doesn’t look after your hair, skin or nails; they are optional extras. Raw food pushes aging off into the future, but when I’m 55 I’ll get that little ‘something something’ if I need it. In fact, I’ll be first in line saying, ‘Give me the deluxe package!’” she jokes.
In an industry pervaded by artificially-extended youth, she is all too aware of the risks associated with cosmetic procedures. She recently wrote an article for a plastic surgery magazine, suggesting raw food as an alternative to going under the knife.
“So many people get plastic surgery but you never really know what the outcome will be,” she says. “Have eye surgery and your two eyes can turn out different. You can cut a nerve in a face lift. So many things can go wrong with plastic surgery. People die from liposuction all the time.
“I’d rather stay in shape through raw food. I will one day get old and die. But I’m pushing that off into the furthest future possible. I’m going to stay healthy, fit and fabulous as long as I can. I don’t want to just survive. I want to thrive.”
These days Carol is under the care of New York practitioner Nicholas Gonzalez, a medical doctor who also works as a homeopath.
“Without him, I couldn’t have achieved what I wanted to achieve,” she says. “I’m interested in the science behind how it all works but no matter how much research I do, no matter how much information I have, I’ll never be a doctor. It’s much easier if you have a guide. The body is very complicated. One thing I know is that it needs good food, but what’s good for one person may not be good for another.”
Does she eat exclusively raw food these days? “When I’m hungry at games [her boyfriend is the hockey player Alexei Yashin] I eat popcorn, but I’ll eat it with a lot of enzymes. Popcorn is something you cannot get raw. It’s my cheat. Know what your cheat is, what you can’t live without, and allow yourself to indulge once or twice a month.
“When I first went raw my cheat was corn chips. I was convinced I couldn’t live without them but now I can’t remember the last time I had one.”
She adds: “This is not about being 100% raw. It’s about keeping the bulk of what you eat raw. My doctor says if you eat 75 to 80% raw you can cure yourself of whatever ails you, and based on what I’ve seen and experienced that has proven to be absolutely true.
“Food has the ability to give us life or take life away. Cooked food is detrimental; it pulls nutrients out of the body. Half and half is neutral – it neither gives nor takes. Only all raw, or mostly raw, feeds you. If you’re not getting food containing enzymes, your body has to make them using valuable resources.
“There are only so many times you can go to the bank and make a withdrawal without putting a cheque in and not go bankrupt. So many people insist on the best quality cold-pressed olive oil. Why cook it though? Small changes can make all the difference. Put it on your food after cooking instead.”
What advice does she have for those who think it would be impossible to exist on only or mostly raw food? “Try things,” she says. “Everyone has different tastes. If you like making stuff, there is amazing stuff to make. If you don’t, and if you don’t have the right stores nearby, get on the freaking internet!”
Carol admits she has never been one to spend hours on food preparation. A typical New Yorker, she prefers to either dine out or pick up the phone and order in. But she went raw at a time when there was little available in the way of prepared foods, and remembers, “I lived the first five years of eating raw making my own foods – it was that easy! There’s something for everyone, but it might not be the first thing you try, so give it a chance.”
What does she have to say about the social stir this dietary choice can cause? “People are always staring at my food and asking me what I’m eating,” she replies. “So what? Do you have to be a sheep? I don’t get it. I like being different! I don’t want to be the same as everyone else.
“I tell people, ‘Try it for 30 days and the changes will be amazing’. I got that after three days. But many people don’t want to give up stuff that they love. There is more information available now than when I started out, but people don’t want to be told what to eat. There’s this attitude of: ‘If I get sick – if ‘lightning’ strikes me – I’ll deal with it then.’”
Like many whose lives have been transformed by going raw, Carol’s biggest challenge has been watching those around her continue to suffer needlessly. “Sometimes the people closest to you are the most threatened by the changes in you,” she observes.
“It’s a delicate thing. People’s food is sacred; their own decision. Everyone has to walk their own path. A lot of people don’t want to hear the information because it can threaten everything they believe to be true. Most people are not open to it. Like everyone else, I’ve experienced that in my circle.
“If I could prevent my friends and family from going through the pain of ill health I would lay in front of a moving railroad car. Some people appreciate my passion about this, some don’t. For some it’s because they don’t want to be told what to do, but these aren’t ‘my’ rules. I always preface what I say with the proviso that this is just my opinion but my opinion has served me very well.”
She adds: “At times I’ve had to say to a family member or close friend, ‘I’ve been really rather patient with you, but if I have to, I’ll put you over my shoulder and carry you to see my doctors.’ Fortunately, my mother was smart enough to look at me and say, ‘If it worked for her…’ She cut out wheat and her bronchitis went away. She had high blood pressure – she now no longer needs the pills.
“She tells me all the time, ‘I look at my friends…’ I know exactly what she means. They’re sick, tired, miserable, growing old, freaking out. Old age starts with a little something, then something else, then something else, then a waterfall of stuff ‘all of a sudden’. We are the accumulation of everything we do to our bodies. People are not brought up to know how powerful food is.”
Living in the raw
Alt’s apartment is a treasure trove of holistic health paraphernalia. Air ozonators – she later tells me she has two in her apartment running 24/7 – water filters, books, natural beauty care products, jugs of enzyme pills…
“Everything in here is about health,” she informs me, adding with a laugh: “Yes, I’m a cuckoo bird! I eat raw food, I drink only water I make myself, I breathe air that’s been filtered and ozonated, and everything I use, right down to toothpaste and dental floss, is as natural as possible. And I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been!”
Although she is often in the city when working, home is still on Long Island – a house shared with Alexei, who years ago switched to a very healthy high raw diet thanks to her subtle influence. “When we started dating, I didn’t say a word about my eating habits or my health,” she remembers.
“But he noticed what I ate and how well I was. At one time early on in the relationship, I was in Toronto shooting a series, working 18 hours a day, 22 on Fridays, and I’d fly to see him and get off the plane happy and full of energy. He saw the difference between me and other women and started wondering how I did that. Six months into the relationship he finally said, ‘I don’t get it! Explain this to me!’”
It’s easy to see why Carol calls raw food ‘the best kept secret in the world’. Although her enthusiasm hasn’t always rubbed off on those around her, it is not unusual for friends, family, and even friends of friends to approach her for advice when a health crisis hits.
“I’ll give my time and energy to anyone who asks; I’ll clear my schedule for them,” she says. “When people with health problems consult me, I say, ‘Go to a doctor who knows how to do this if this is the way you want to go. But remember, nobody cares about you or your health as much as you do. The only way is to educate yourself, let your ego fall and become willing to give up the things that are bad for you.’
“When someone calls me and I start imparting this information, they’re usually resistant at first. But if they start asking questions – if they become interested and then fascinated, like I did – once they have that, they have an engine that will propel them.
“The older I get and the more complaints I hear from others my age, the more thankful I become. I want to look and feel better at 50 than at 40. The only way to do that is through a diet that has that specific effect on your health. Most diets don’t even mention health; they’re solely about shrinking.”
A mischievous smile appears on her face as she adds: “I now watch VH1’s 101 Best Bodies, which is all about the efforts celebrities go to in order to stay slim, reclining on the couch with a tub of raw ice cream.”
Carol Alt has written three books on the raw diet and lifestyle: Eating in the Raw: a Beginner’s Guide to Getting Slimmer, Feeling Healthier and Looking Younger the Raw Food Way; The Raw 50: 10 Amazing Breakfasts, Lunches, Dinners, Snacks and Drinks for Your Raw Food Lifestyle; and Easy Sexy Raw: 130 Raw Food Recipes, Tools and Tips to Make You Feel Gorgeous and Satisfied.