By Luaine Lee
Scripps Howard News Service
PASADENA – Actress Catherine Bell was such a nerd as a kid that she actually programmed a computer game when she was in junior high school.
She was tall and skinny, wore glasses and hadn’t a clue how to apply makeup or arrange her hair until a girlfriend taught her in the 11th grade.
You’d never guess that today, looking at the tawny beauty in the green cotton sundress and the short, licorice-colored hair which is brushed off her face.
People first knew Bell as the spit-and-polish Marine Sarah MacKenzie who matched wits with Navy lawyer Harm Rabb on “JAG.” More recently she’s been the charming “good witch” on a run of Hallmark Channel movies, which will become a series next year.
Halloween will be graced again with her witch’s brew when she stars in the latest of the movies, “The Good Witch’s Wonder,” premiering on Oct. 25. While audiences may see her as these appealing characters, sees someone else.
“I was a straight-A student, good at math and biology and was going to be a doctor,” she says, seated in a black leather swivel chair in a hotel meeting room.
“I was the biggest geek. I know you hear this all the time, and you don’t believe it. But I was though, people made fun of me. I was the outcast,” she laughs.
The daughter of an Iranian mother and English father, Bell’s exotic looks overwhelmed her innate shyness enough for her to pose for her first commercial head-shot at 8 and try modeling in college.
Unsure about what she wanted to do, she dropped out of UCLA to pursue modeling, a decision that not only took her to Japan but to the brink.
“I hadn’t picked a major yet, was really partying more than I was going to school. The agency here set up a meeting with a Japanese agency. They told me to lose 10 pounds, which I did. I was about 15 pounds lighter than I am now, if you can believe that. And they told me to lose 10 pounds.”
It was in Japan that Bell watched the other models binge, purge and starve themselves into a size 2.
“All these models were anorexic or bulimic and that rubbed off after a while,” she confesses.
“People were showing you how to throw up. You’re taking diet pills. Everyone’s partying so you start drinking a lot, and drugs. A couple of years messed me up for a while,” she sighs, her dark eyes darting across the room. But trouble really gripped Bell when she came home.
“I gained a lot of weight. I was eating three Big Macs in one sitting because you can’t deprive yourself of food like that. You can’t get so obsessed about wanting to be so thin. Then all I wanted to do was eat. And when I had the chance, I would.
“It would start to get better, than I would fall back into the wrong crowd.” A friend suggested speed, crystal meth, as a way of controlling her weight.
“She showed me how. `You just do a little bit, so you don’t eat.’ At first I was happy. I had all this energy, cleaned my whole house, lost all this weight. But when it wears off, you’re so depressed. And you crash. And you just want to eat and don’t want to do anything, so then you have to do more. And it becomes such an ugly cycle . . . to where you’re doing more and more and more.”
It was through her acting teacher that Bell became acquainted with Scientology, which she credits today for helping her repossess her life.
“I didn’t think I would like acting because I used to be really shy. Once I tried it, I found it was such great way for me to express myself. I was so shy and timid — all of a sudden I was able to be a character who was bold. And it was hard at first. But it became a way for me to face my fears. I wanted to face my fears and move through them.”
She’s still hesitant to speak in front of crowds, she says. “In the beginning I thought I’d try this (acting) out. Maybe it’ll be a way for me to open up a little. It’s so much better than therapy because it’s like this way of confronting your own fears and doing things you don’t normally do. Like if you’re afraid to cry in front of people or yell or be this really mean, horrible character and do all this stuff, you learn to express various aspects of yourself.”
To her it’s a challenge. “If you don’t face your fears and do the things that scare you and challenge you, that’s the way to overcome them, I think. . . I still pick projects that are different and challenging so I can grow and learn and change as a person.