The scene was standing room only inside Politics & Prose Bookstore Thursday afternoon as the swarm of patrons awaited MSNBC “Morning Joe” Co-hosts Mika Brzezinksi and Joe Scarborough. People stuffed themselves between the bookshelves. They were spread all over the store and in rows and rows of folding chairs, all filled. As uncomfortable as the setup was, no one budged. They were there to hear Mika discuss her new book, Obsessed, about diet and her lifetime struggle with food.
In recent days Mika has been going on TV and publicly revealing details about her weight. It’s awkward, as asking a woman her weight usually comes off with a big, fat thud. The way Mika responds to the question Joe asks is telling. As part of writing the book with one of her best friends, she agreed to gain weight while her friend had to lose 75 pounds. She has allegedly gained 20 pounds and gone up two dress sizes to a size 6, a fact that still makes her visibly uncomfortable. She knows she has to answer Joe’s question. But the answer is always vague. “I working on it, but I think 133 to 135,” she tells him at Politics & Prose, which quickly becomes a Ricki Lake-like talk show as female audience members approach the microphones and reveal their own tormenting issues with food.
A woman talks about how she eats pie, even frozen. Another admits she smoked and quit and wants to know how not to plow through a bag of potato chips. And still another, a woman who was once a Rockette and on Broadway, divulges that she, too, had eating disorders that included binging and purging.
It’s intense. But this is a safe place.
And the worship factor is sky high. This is a room jammed with people who are devoted to the show and wake up with them every morning. To these people Joe and Mika are like old friends.
Joe soon launches into shocking stories of Mika’s food issues. “If you were around Mika you’d think all she ate was leaves and nuts,” he said. But then there was the time at CBS “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer’s symposium when they were traveling by car and Mika was in the back seat devouring tins of Mexican enchiladas suitable for a family of five. “I think there’s a raccoon,” Joe says, mimicking the noises Mika was making as she slopped up the meal. When he looks, “Mika has enchiladas on her face and was licking up the foil. We caught the raccoon.”
It was funnier than it sounds. The audience erupted into laughter as Joe made the difficult subject matter easier, complete with imitations of Mika’s parents. The point they made over and over — Mika had a wonderfully colorful, fortunate, loving upbringing, but it wasn’t easy. “Mika is very undisciplined!” Joe shrieked in a high-pitched Czech accent, mimicking Mika’s mother. And later, he told the story of Mika’s father, Zbigniew, coming on the show and insulting him, saying, “You are stunningly superficial.” Joe remarked, “Son of a bitch!”
The audience ate it up (pun intended) and burst into laughter.
They discussed the pressures of Mika growing up in such a smart, accomplished family. Joe imitated how Mika’s mother once responded to a question about Mika, saying, “Hmmm, I got it. You know, Mika had the lowest SAT scores in the history of Williams College.”
At one point Joe analyzed Mika to her face, saying, “You always felt stupid in your family. Your dad is brilliant. You always said you felt inadequate. It [food] was your emotional release.”
Mika didn’t disagree. “In my family we had all the incredible opportunities I had growing up. I didn’t feel like I measured up.” She said food was the way she handled things and mentioned going to therapy while writing her book and being diagnosed with food disorders she didn’t know she had. She said it stressed her out so much that she nearly quit therapy.
Mika explained that she didn’t really tell her parents that she was writing a book on being obsessed about food because she feared they’d think it was “stunningly superficial.” By now they obviously know about the book. She remarked, “I’m scared to death.”
Mika also admitted that when her first child was born she thought more about her weight and how she was going to get back into her jeans than the baby. She called her eating issues “pervasive.”
But intermixed with the serious tales were hilarious anecdotes. Like the time Mika was leaning over a foreign leader wiping his crotch. She had spilled caviar on his trousers. The audience was roaring. Or the time that Mika’s mother challenged the Pope on birth control during a family dinner.
“Food is purposefully addictive,” Mika says, returning to the serious message at hand. “You can’t find a meal that doesn’t have an abundance of salt, sugar and fat.”
Midway through the talk an unplanned guest showed up. It was USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack, who was whisked to the dais with Joe and Mika. Like her, Vilsack has also struggled with food issues. He spoke of being in an orphanage and later being shamed about food.
There was lots of identifying in the audience that included audible grunts, gasps and sighs of relating all too well to what Mika was saying.
Mika tells the story of meeting with a network vice president, who took a look at her and said, “You have great, great credentials. Go drink some water, lose 10 pounds.” So she did. Six months later, she returned, lighter, and got the job. “You’re a model. You look amazing,” Mika said, recalling all the encouragement she received about her looks when she was a size 2. “It was almost as if I’d achieved something.”
At this point Joe and Mika are like a well-oiled comedy routine that really is something to watch. As Mika discusses the deadly food pyramid, Joe jokes that his food pyramid is salt, sugar and fat on the bottom and salts and oils as you go higher.
Ultimately Joe asks Mika the emotional question of the hour: “How are you doing now?”
She replies, “I will say I am happier. I am so much happier and I want to able to enjoy this incredible life I have.”
Audiences always love a happy ending.