Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic in White Christmas?

White Christmas Vera Ellen Anorexic
Was Vera-Ellen anorexic in White Christmas (1954)? Here's what we know about Vera-Ellen's complicated relationship with food and body image.
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Vera-Ellen is arguably Classic Hollywood’s greatest all-around dancer.  Tap, jazz, ballet, acrobatics, Vera-Ellen did it all.

One of six dancers to partner with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on screen, Vera-Ellen’s ability to adapt to the style of her partner, while still holding her own, was unrivaled.  None of Vera’s contemporaries could quite match her versatility, grace, charisma, power, and energy on the dance floor.

Vera-Ellen anorexic White Christmas

Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic in White Christmas?

But Vera-Ellen’s talent is often overshadowed by questions about her, at times, seemingly emaciated figure.  In her later films and television appearances, Vera’s spare frame distracts from her beautiful dancing. 

Her alarmingly thin appearance, particularly in White Christmas, has fans perennially asking:

Was Vera-Ellen anorexic?

Vera-Ellen anorexic White Christmas

We will never definitively know. 

Vera-Ellen was never treated or observed by a medical professional for the disorder during her lifetime.  But analysis of Vera-Ellen’s life reveals a woman whose relationship with food and body image was complicated.  Hopefully, by presenting the facts, fans of Vera-Ellen, and of White Christmas in particular, can lay questions about her figure to rest, and instead focus on Vera-Ellen’s beautiful dancing.  

From the influence of her mother, to Vera-Ellen’s own words and documented habits, to the observations of her friends, family, and co-workers, here’s what we know about Vera-Ellen’s sometimes shockingly slender frame.

Vera-Ellen Mom
Vera-Ellen and her mother Alma in 1939.

The Influence of Vera-Ellen's Mother

Vera-Ellen’s mother, Alma Rohe, was perhaps the greatest influence in her daughter’s life.  Vera Ellen Rohe was born on February 16, 1921. The Ohio native was a small child: by age nine, Vera-Ellen was a full head shorter than her peers.  Alma believed that exercise would help strengthen her diminutive daughter, and enrolled Vera-Ellen in dance lessons.  It soon became apparent that young Vera was a natural.  As Vera-Ellen later remembered:

“I was called a bookish child.  Mother sent me to a ballet teacher in Cincinnati when I was nine years old…When I found out I liked to dance and people seemed to like to watch me, I was determined to go places.”

Vera-Ellen childhood
Vera-Ellen in 1931.

By age 12, the petite, adorably pudgy Vera was a star student at Hessler’s Dance Studio in Cincinnati, where young Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff—who’d one day become Doris Day—was a classmate.  Vera’s talent and skill were extraordinary, and her mother knew it.  But when the 12 year-old was selected to be chief majorette of her school’s band, Alma decided that Vera’s baby fat was unacceptable: Alma Rohe put her pre-teen daughter on an extreme diet.

Vera Ellen Childhood
12 year-old Vera-Ellen looks half her age as chief majorette at Norwood View Elementary, 1933.

The incredibly strict code of eating that young Vera was now expected to follow called for the avoidance of salt, bread, cereals, pasta, grapefruit, and lemon.  Foods Vera was permitted to consume included stewed fruit, overcooked lima beans, sour milk, and a cocktail of water, apple cider vinegar, and honey.

Vera-Ellen Hesslers Dance Studio
Vera-Ellen leads the dancers at Hesslers, 1936.

Alma's Special Diets

It was one of many diets that Alma put Vera-Ellen on throughout her pre-teen and teenage years.  A classmate at Norwood High School remembered that Mrs. Rohe was desperate to keep her daughter small, and insisted on feeding her pink bananas. 

Though it’s unclear why Alma believed a diet rich in pink bananas would accomplish this goal, the act is indicative of the extreme measures Alma was willing to implement in order to keep her daughter small and trim.

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Vera-Ellen Highschool
Vera-Ellen in ninth grade, 1935. Vera is front row, farthest to the right. Note the height difference between Vera and her classmates.

By the time Vera-Ellen entered 10th grade in 1936, she was near emaciated.  At age 16, she was four feet six inches tall and underweight, at 76 pounds.  Alma’s diets had achieved the desired effect.

Vera-Ellen young
Vera-Ellen in 1945.

Vera-Ellen's Body Image

The unhealthy emphasis Alma Rohe placed on being thin, and the extreme diets she prescribed her daughter at a young age, shaped Vera-Ellen’s eating habits and body image for the rest of her life.

As a glamorous Hollywood movie star, the pressure Vera-Ellen put on herself to be thin would grow stronger each year.  But in her early Broadway career and film work, Vera-Ellen maintained a healthy, and at times even plump, figure.

Vera-Ellen and Robert Hightower
Vera-Ellen with first husband Robert Hightower, 1943.

Vera-Ellen is "Plump" on Broadway

In 1936, 15 year-old Vera-Ellen and her mother left Ohio for Broadway.  Alma, it seemed, was just as set on a successful dancing career for her daughter as Vera was.

The two women lived together in New York until 1941, when Vera married fellow Broadway dancer, Robert Hightower.  With the marriage, twenty-year-0ld Vera lived in a home separate from her mother for the first time.  Photos of Vera during her marriage to Hightower show a young woman of a slim, but healthy size.  Actress Betty Garrett, who’d later star with Vera in 1949’s On the Town, saw Vera-Ellen perform in her fifth Broadway play, 1943’s The Connecticut Yankee. Garrett remembered how different the dancer on stage was from the dancer she’d work with six years later:

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Vera Ellen and Hightowers
Vera-Ellen dances with the Hightower brothers, Lewis (left) and husband Robert, during her Broadway years.

“I thought she was so adorable, this bouncy and joyous and slightly plump little person.  She wasn’t so pencil thin as she got later on.  She was wonderful in that show.”

Vera-Ellen young
Vera-Ellen circa 1946.

Broadway actor Jim Schlader was a neighbor of the Hightowers in 1944.  Similar to Garrett, Schlader recalled that, at the time, Vera-Ellen wasn’t overly slim.  Unlike most of the dancers Schlader encountered, Vera was:

“rounded out and very feminine, a really stunning woman with a fresh, beautiful look.”

Vera-Ellen and mom
Vera-Ellen fixes her mother Alma's hair, 1940.

Vera-Ellen Goes to Hollywood

It seems that, away from her mother’s constant presence, Vera-Ellen was comfortable allowing her body to attain and maintain a healthy weight.  Indeed, Vera maintained a healthy size until her husband went into the military service. 

By this time, the Hightower marriage was in trouble.  Divorce would follow in 1946, but in the meantime, Vera-Ellen and her mother left the Broadway stage for Hollywood movies.

A slim Vera-Ellen tap dances on her toes in her first Hollywood film, Wonder Man (1945).  Note the hearts on Vera’s costume.  Hearts were a lifelong passion.

By the time Vera-Ellen and her mother arrived in Hollywood to film 1945’s Wonder Man, Vera’s weight had dropped again.  Now at her full height of 5 feet 4 and one-half inches, Vera estimated that at the time she weighed 95 pounds: the stress of Broadway, coupled with her crumbling marriage, had taken a toll.  But once in California, it didn’t take long for Vera’s weight to rebound. 

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As Vera-Ellen shared shortly after arriving in Hollywood:

Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo
A curvaceous Vera-Ellen (left) with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), Vera's second film.

“I was so thin in New York, about 95 pounds.  Since coming to Hollywood I have gained to the point where I have to be on the careful side.  Picture work is easier on the nerves I guess than the stage.”

Vera-Ellen and Steve Cochran
Vera-Ellen and Steve Cochran in The Kid from Brooklyn (1946).

By her next film, 1946’s The Kid From Brooklyn, Vera had reached a curvaceous, healthy weight.  Vera maintained this size for her next two pictures, Three Little Girls in Blue (1946) and Carnival in Costa Rica (1947).  Watching the curvaceous Vera-Ellen in her early films, it’s hard to imagine the shockingly svelte star she’d become by 1954’s White Christmas.

Vera-Ellen young
Vera-Ellen with Celeste Holm and J. Carrol Nash in Carnival in Costa Rica (1947)
If you can get over the obnoxious costumes, watch a curvaceous Vera-Ellen dance in Three Little Girls in Blue (1946).
Watch the curvaceous Vera-Ellen dance in The Kid from Brooklyn (1946).

It wasn’t until Vera-Ellen signed with MGM in 1948 that her curvaceous figure began to disappear.

Vera-Ellen fudge
Vera-Ellen, still curvaceous in 1947's Carnival in Costa Rica, distributes her homemade fudge to the cast and crew.

Vera-Ellen is "Too Fat"

When Vera-Ellen signed with MGM, she was told in no uncertain terms to slim down.  In particular, the studio cruelly named Vera’s thighs as a “problem area.”  Fellow MGM star Debbie Reynolds remembered how brutal MGM was to Vera-Ellen about her body:

Vera-Ellen
Vera-Ellen in Three Little Girls in Blue (1946).

“Vera-Ellen was told that she was too fat, that her top thighs were too heavy.  No matter how she exercised, the fat remained.  Vera-Ellen was never fat, but she was insecure and wanted to please so she believed them which was the worst thing she could have done.  She cut back on her food intake.  After that she drake coffee all day and ate only a steak and a vegetable at night.”

Vera-Ellen Slaughter on 10th Ave.
The weight drips off. A newly slim Vera-Ellen was selected by Gene Kelly to dance 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue' with him in Words and Music (1948).

Vera-Ellen Loses Weight

When Gene Kelly selected Vera-Ellen to dance with him in the now classic Slaughter on Tenth Avenue sequence in the 1948 film, Words and Music, Vera was determined to be a success, and make her new studio happy.  During long hours of rehearsals, the weight seemed to drip off, and Vera’s costumes had to be taken in drastically.

Watch the newly slim Vera-Ellen dance ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ with Gene Kelly in Words and Music (1948).
Vera Ellen and Gene Kelly
Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly dance Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Despite the dramatic weight loss, Vera-Ellen’s size was not unhealthy.  She’d more or less maintain this slim, but not overly slim size in her next five films: Love Happy (1949), On the Town (1949),  Three Little Words (1950), Happy Go Lovely (1951), and The Belle of New York (1952).

Vera-Ellen On the Town
Vera-Ellen is slim and healthy in On the Town (1949). MGM would convince Vera that her legs were "fat."

Vera-Ellen's "Muscle Bound" Legs

Still, MGM’s weight loss demands made Vera-Ellen acutely aware of the size of her thighs.  Vera’s own words at the time indicate that MGM started, or at least exacerbated, a self-consciousness about her legs.  As Vera said in the late 1940s:

“I used to be skinny when I was working on the stage.  Then I gained weight after arriving here [Hollywood].  It must have been the California climate.  I’ve trimmed down since.  When I gain weight there is the threat that I may grow muscle bound in my legs and I won’t have that.  I’ve learned that the best prevention is to raise your feet to a high level whenever you’re not working.  Even when I go to a picture theater, I rest my feet in my escort’s lap.”

A healthily slim Vera-Ellen dances in On the Town (1949).

Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic: Strange Behaviors

Though Vera maintained a slim, healthy size from 1948-1952, friends and coworkers observed behavior that was alternately strange and alarming.

Debbie Reynolds remembered that Vera really did try to keep her feet elevated when not working.  As Debbie observed at the MGM hair salon:

“Vera-Ellen would be sitting with her legs up, but never with her feet crossed at the ankle because it hurt circulation.”

Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic in White Christmas
Vera-Ellen puts her legs up between scenes in White Christmas (1954).

Betty Garrett, Vera’s costar in Words and Music (1948) and On the Town (1949), remembered that Vera-Ellen seemed preoccupied with her weight: 

“She was darling sweet and dedicated and yet a strange gal.  She did little socialization and had an obsession about her weight.  When I knew her she was determined to lose weight and there was no necessity for her to diet.  She worked hard all day.  And she got so thin. 

I think now that she may have been suffering from anorexia.  She was obsessed with her bone structure and kept trying to change herself somehow.  She was different from the person I remember on the stage from Connecticut Yankee.”

Vera-Ellen Belle of New York
Costar Fred Astaire said Vera-Ellen wanted the sunken-cheek look in 1952's The Belle of New York.

"Your Bones are Showing"

Fred Astaire, who danced with Vera-Ellen in 1952’s The Belle of New York, also observed worrisome behavior in his costar.  According to the choreographer of The Belle of New York, Alex Romero, Astaire’s worry over Vera’s eating habits was so great, he spoke to the film’s producers about it.  Astaire confronted Vera with his concerns, telling her:

“Honey, you have to eat.  Your bones are showing.”

Astaire also noticed that Vera-Ellen seemed to have an obsession with her cheeks during filming:

“She was doing this (poking her cheeks in with her fingers) all day long.  She’d bend over to let the blood flow to her head.  She had certain ideas about how she wanted her face to look.  I thought she looked pretty good.”

Vera-Ellen the Belle of New York

Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic?

Gene Kelly shared that Vera-Ellen “always lost weight during a big production number because she drove herself relentlessly.” 

Choreographer David Lober, who danced with Vera in 1951’s Happy Go Lovely, seconded Kelly’s observations. According to Lober, despite her hard work at dance rehearsals, Vera-Ellen would not fuel her body with the food it needed:

“As you know she was a private type of individual, with several idiosyncrasies.  It was her habit to eat one soda cracker and drink coffee during the day.  Then she would eat at night.She was concerned about her legs appearing heavy…Between her willingness to work and self-destructive diet she ran herself into the ground.  Because of fatigue, one section of the dance took 26 takes; five or six are normally more than enough.”

The Belle of New York choreographer Alex Romero similarly observed the effects of Vera-Ellen’s caloric deficit on her ability to practice the film’s dances: according to Romero, lack of nourishment made Vera too weak to “propel herself up in Fred Astaire’s arms” for the lifts in their duets.

vera-ellen anorexic
Vera-Ellen's weight loss over her years at MGM is evident in these two photos.

Vera-Ellen Saran Wraps Her Legs

The most eccentric habit to manifest during Vera-Ellen’s MGM years was the practice of wrapping her legs in saran wrap.  She’d wrap her legs after performing, and before exercise and dance classes.  Vera-Ellen believed that the extra sweating caused by the saran wrap would help reduce the size of her legs.  She sought opportunities to exercise with her legs wrapped, and at one point became an avid lawn mower.  With her saran-wrapped legs,Vera-Ellen would volunteer to mow the lawns of her neighbors.

Vera-Ellen Anorexic
Vera-Ellen looked alarmingly thin onscreen for the first time in Call Me Madam (1953). Her director, and the fan magazines, took notice.

Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic: Call Me Madam

1953’s Call Me Madam was the first film in which Vera-Ellen appears unhealthily slim.  Some call her spare figure in the film emaciated.  Vera’s extreme weight loss before and during the picture may have been triggered by the disappointing failure of her previous film, 1952’s The Bell of New York.  It may also be that, after years of implementing the practices observed by her MGM peers, Vera’s beautiful face and body were beginning to show signs of strain.  Whatever the reason, the contrast between Vera-Ellen’s appearance in Call Me Madam and her earlier MGM films, is startling.

Vera-Ellen and Donald O’Connor were perfectly paired in Call Me Madam (1953).  But Vera-Ellen is unheathily slim in the film.
Vera-Ellen Anorexic

Call Me Madam director, Walter Lang, noticed a 10 pound weight loss in Vera-Ellen during dance rehearsals.  Lang attempted to help Vera gain weight by providing her with high caloric snacks on set. 

But Vera wished to maintain her now 100 pound figure.

Vera-Ellen

"As Light as Possible"

As her friend, producer A.C. Lyles remembered, by this time in her career, Vera-Ellen preferred to be as light as possible for her dance numbers:

“She was very careful about her diet and she always thought that she danced better when she was thinner.”

Vera’s second husband, Victor Rothschild, seconded Lyles’ observation:

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“She liked to be as light as possible when dancing.  Normally she weighed about 108 and when she danced she wanted to be at a lighter weight, under 100 pounds.”

Vera-Ellen anorexic

Vera’s desire to be as light as possible for her film musicals may have become an unhealthy goal. 

As Vera shared at the time of Call Me Madam:

“I work to keep my energy.  I can keep this [energy] up until sunrise….You don’t need fat for endurance.  It’s so nice to be thin.  My feet scarcely seem to touch the ground when I dance.”

Fan magazines also began taking note of Vera-Ellen’s slighter than ever frame.  As Screen Life offered,Vera’s quest for artistic perfection had caused her  “to lose too much weight.”

Vera-Ellen Anorexic White Christmas
Vera-Ellen was alarmingly thin once more in White Christmas (1954).

Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic in White Christmas?

While Vera-Ellen’s weight would rebound slightly for her next film, the 1953 non-musical Big Leaguer, by the time filming of White Christmas [aff. link] began in September of 1953, Vera-Ellen was once again alarmingly thin. 

There’s no record of Vera-Ellen’s exact weight during production of White Christmas.  But considering Vera’s frail appearance in the film, coupled with her preference to be as light as possible when dancing, it’s reasonable to estimate that Vera-Ellen weighed under 100 pounds during White Christmas filming. 

As Dorothy Manners of the Los Angeles Examiner wrote after viewing the film:

“Although she [Vera-Ellen] insists it’s delightful dancing when you’re light, some viewers of both Call Me Madam and White Christmas are inclined to believe she has carried slimness to the point of skinniness.”

Vera-Ellen anorexic White Christmas

Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic: Edith Head's Costumes

Fans of White Christmas offer strong opinions as to whether or not Vera-Ellen was anorexic during filming.  While it cannot be definitively said that Vera was anorexic at the time, her figure is shockingly slim in the film.

Rumors abound as to why Vera-Ellen’s neck and chest are covered throughout White Christmas.  It’s been claimed that White Christmas costume designer, Edith Head, kept Vera-Ellen’s neck and chest covered to hide Vera’s prematurely aging décolletage.

Considering Vera’s low weight at the time, it’s possible.

Vera-Ellen anorexic White Christmas
Vera-Ellen's upper body is extremely thin in White Christmas (1954). Note the size of her waist.

We do know that Edith Head was constantly making adjustments to Vera’s White Christmas wardrobe.  As Vera’s friend, producer A.C. Lyles, remembered:

“Vera-Ellen worked so hard on that picture [White Christmas] that as the pic progressed Edith had to revamp the wardrobe by continuing to take her costumes in because she lost a lot of weight.”

Vera-Ellen Anorexic White Christmas

Accentuating Assets, Hiding Flaws

Head’s primary goal as the costume designer on White Christmas was to make the stars, particularly the female stars, look their glamorous best.  Edith designed costumes that would flatter Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney; clothes that would accentuate their assets, and hide their flaws.  With Vera-Ellen being so slight during filming of White Christmas, Edith Head would have sought to highlight Vera’s legs—her healthiest-looking feature at the time, and to cover her upper body, which audiences may have found uncomfortably slim if left exposed.

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Vera-Ellen anorexic White Christmas
Vera-Ellen dances the Abraham number with John Brascia. Vera is noticeably thinner in this dance, supporting A.C. Lyles' claim that she lost even more weight during filming.

It’s possible, as some fans argue, that Vera’s high necklines in White Christmas are nothing more than evidence of her personal fashion preferences.

But it’s unlikely.

Verea-Ellen Victor Rothschild
Vera-Ellen with second husband, Victor Rothschild. Rothschild insisted that his wife disliked high collars.

Vera-Ellen did wear high necklines off-camera, but her second husband, Victor Rothschild, insisted that Vera never enjoyed wearing them.  As Rothschild put it:

“She was easy to live with apart from not liking high collars and liking to elevate her feet to improve circulation…”

Vera-Ellen anorexic White Christmas
Vera-Ellen puts her legs up between scenes in White Christmas (1954).

If Vera-Ellen disliked high necklines, it’s doubtful she chose to wear them in White Christmas out of fashion preference.

Vera-Ellen anorexic
Vera-Ellen maintained a healthier size before and after the filming of White Christmas (1954). On the left: Vera in Big Leauger (1953) circa the beginning of 1953. Right: Vera at the September 1954 premiere of A Star is Born (1954). White Christmas was filmed September-December of 1953.

Indeed, at the times in her life when Vera-Ellen maintained a healthier size, her neck and chest were often exposed, as they are in the 1953 film, Big Leaguer, and at the September 1954 premiere of A Star Is Born, about nine months after White Christmas filming wrapped.  As Vera-Ellen herself shared at the time,

I have gained few pounds since White Christmas.”

In both instances, Vera-Ellen is at a healthier size than she was White Christmas, and her décolletage does not look prematurely aged or overly thin. 

Vera-Ellen Anorexic
Vera-Ellen appeared alarmingly thin in her last feature film, Let's Be Happy (1957). This is the one costume in the film where Vera's chest is uncovered.

The End of Vera-Ellen's Career

After White Christmas, Vera-Ellen did not appear in another feature film for three years.  She returned to the big screen in 1957’s Let’s Be Happy.  In an interview following the completion of location filming, Vera-Ellen shared that she “felt great” when she weighed 96 pounds, but that her slight frame had resulted in a missed film opportunity:

“I am 5 feet 4 and I felt great at 96 pounds.  When I was dancing I was so light I enjoyed it.  Although I was told that I was too thin, I paid no attention to anyone.  Then I found out that I had lost a role I wanted very much because the producer preferred an actress with more curves.”

Her overly thin figure may have resulted in more missed opportunities, for Let’s Be Happy  was Vera-Ellen’s last film.  In the film, and the handful of television show appearances Vera made surrounding it, she is extremely thin, and her neck and chest are always at least partially covered.

Vera-Ellen was charming and cute in this May 1957 television appearance with Ray Bolger.  But it’s clear her thinness by this time was unhealthy.

Vera-Ellen retreated from public life after the tragic loss of her 3 month old daughter to SIDS in 1963.  After divorcing Victor Rothschild in 1966, it’s telling that, despite Alma Rohe’s pleadings, Vera-Ellen chose not to live with her mother again.

Vera-Ellen anorexic
Vera-Ellen in 1960.

Vera-Ellen's Last Years

Almost to the day she died, Vera-Ellen continued dancing, attending classes at Michel Panaieff’s prestigious ballet academy in Los Angeles.  Classmates remember her as a sweet, kind, emaciated woman who often wrapped her body in saran wrap before class.

Vera-Ellen last years
One of the last published photos of Vera-Ellen, circa the late 1960s-early 1970s.

At the time of her death from ovarian cancer in 1981, the 60 year-old Vera-Ellen weighed 75 pounds, the same as she’d weighed at age 16.

Debbie Reynolds believed that the extreme diet and exercise habits Vera-Ellen formed at MGM at least in part contributed to her early death.  According to Reynolds:

“That regimen [of coffee all day and only a steak and a vegetable at night] started Vera-Ellen on the road to deeper, more intractable psychological problems.  Her life eventually turned into a tragedy, and the diet killed her.”

Vera-Ellen anorexic
Vera-Ellen practicing for her last film, 1957's Let's Be Happy.

Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic?

Was Vera-Ellen anorexic?  Was Vera-Ellen anorexic during White Christmas?  We’ll never definitively know.

Vera-Ellen White Christmas

Vera-Ellen’s thin frame in White Christmas is impossible to ignore. 

But so is her extraordinary dancing. 

Whether taping a mile a minute in the ‘Choreography’ number, kicking her legs to unbelievable heights in ‘Mandy,’ dancing with passionate energy in the ‘Abraham’ number, or looking impossibly graceful in pink chiffon as she sweeps Danny Kaye off his feet, Vera-Ellen’s legacy from White Christmas should be her dancing. 

Let’s appreciate the struggles of the woman behind the slight figure, and remember Vera-Ellen for the dynamic, unrivaled dancer she was.

Vera-Ellen

Sources

Author’s Interview with Miriam Nelson, April 2017.

My Life Dancing with The Stars by Miriam Nelson. 

“Ten Pounds Gained Meant New Roles,” Oakland Tribune, June 2, 1957. 

The Man Who Made the Jailhouse Rock: Alex Romero, Hollywood Choreographer by Mark Knowles, 2013.

“Vera-Ellen’s Fruit Diet,” Panama City News-Herald, June 2, 1957. 

Vera-Ellen: The Magic and the Mystery by David Soren, 2013.

“Vera-Ellen,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 2, 1957.

62 Responses

    1. Thanks for reading Jack! Vera had such a lovely figure. It’s heartbreaking that Vera’s environment created complexes about her natural beauty.

  1. What an amazing lady, a wonderful dancer, and a good actress, too. My wife and I have recently watched two of her her early movies with Danny Kaye, “Wonder Man” and “The Kid From Brooklyn.” Her dancing is so amazing, and almost unbelievable! I told my wife “She is not only a great dancer, but also seems to be an excellent gymnast.” I had seen her previously in “White Christmas” and, as your article brought out, she looks so different only eight years later (in “White Christmas”) due to weight loss, blonde hair, etc. She was beautiful (a ‘girl next door’ beauty) and so athletic and healthy looking in her earlier movies, and it’s sad that she felt she had to adopt others (studios) standards of what they wanted her appearance to be. Thank you for your informative and caring website and tribute to this accomplished and fabulous woman. Sincerely, Jeff

    1. Thanks for reading Jeff, and for your kind words! It’s tragic to see Vera-Ellen’s transformation onscreen from athletic and healthy to shockingly thin. The standards of MGM (and her own mother) were so unhealthy.

      I agree, Vera’s talents extended beyond dance. Her acting and the acrobatics in her routines—she was fearless and loved heights!—are commendable, yet often overlooked. That’s great that you and your wife are enjoying Vera-Ellen’s early films! White Christmas is a wonderful classic, but Vera’s performances throughout her career are stellar, and should be enjoyed. Thanks again for reading Jeff!

  2. Vera-Ellen was the best dancer! She could do tap, ballet, jazz, etc.. Let’s remember her beauty and dancing skills.

    1. I agree Grace, Vera-Ellen’s talent and skill in every form of dance are unrivaled, and should be her legacy. Thanks for reading!

  3. I loved Vera’s dancing, she was amazing to watch and her Mandy dance is simply iconic. It was a lovely surprise to see the second to last picture, the black and white photo as it is in Princes Street Gardens with Edinburgh Castle in the background. I live in Edinburgh and never knew she’d been here. I hope she liked our city.

    1. Hi Judy, thanks for reading! I agree, Vera is spectacular in White Christmas, particularly in the Mandy sequence. And greetings to Edinburgh, I love your beautiful city! That lovely photo is from filming of Vera-Ellen’s last movie, Let’s Be Happy (1957), which was shot on location in Edinburgh. It’s a cute, typical 1950’s musical that’s worth a watch. Vera’s dancing, as always, elevates the film.

  4. Thank you for such a compassionate and informative article. Seeing a clip from White Christmas today I was reminded once again of Vera’s emaciated appearance in the movie and decided to finally do a search about it. How fortunate your’s was the article I found. Such complex relationships tied to food. First, her relationship with her mother, which reminded me a bit of Frances Farmer and her mother, though not nearly as toxic. Then the studio adds another layer of stress. Louie B. Meyer and his ilk were beyond evil in my opinion. . For an dedicated athlete to starve herself and still be able to perform as she did – just amazing, but at the same time so sad. I am going to track down her other movies (thanks for such a complete list), just to watch her dance. As you and others have stated that’s what we need to remember her for.

    1. Hi Robin,
      Thanks for your kind words, and for reading! I am so happy you found my article, too! That’s a great point, there are some very interesting parallels between Vera’s relationship with her mother, and Frances Farmer’s relationship with her mother. I agree, the fact that Vera’s dancing appeared so effortless, athletic, graceful, and energetic despite her restricted caloric intake is remarkable. I am so happy to hear that the movie listing was helpful! It’s so true that Vera’s dancing makes any film worth watching. Thanks again for reading Robin, and for commenting!

  5. White Christmas was always my favourite film as a child. (Still is, especially over the festive period) It is so easy to watch movies of our choice at any time nowadays. Back in the late 60’s/70’s, before even videos and DVDs, my Mam would frantically search the tv magazines to make sure my Christmas wouldn’t be ruined. It was imperative I could watch this movie in complete silence, absorbing every second of Vera Ellen dancing and loving the beautiful clothes she wore.

    Vera Ellen was so beautiful and a truly phenomenal dancer. So sad to know how brutally hard she was on herself due to the expectations of influential people in her life and career. Your article about her was beautifully written and very informative. Desperately sad about her only child too. Some of the photographs I hadn’t seen before and I will certainly be watching more of her movies. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Deborah,
      Thanks for reading! That’s so neat that White Christmas has been your favorite film since childhood, and that you appreciated Vera’s flawless dancing and beautiful wardrobe from a young age. I love that your mom was so diligent about making sure you could watch it over the holidays, which certainly required thoughtful planning before our now readily available streaming options!

      Thank you so much for your kind words about my article. Vera was so talented and beautiful, inside and out. It’s tragic that she endured so much pain in her career and personal life. Knowledge of her struggles off camera only adds to the beauty of her dancing and film legacy.

      Thanks again for your kind words Deborah, and for reading!

    1. Thanks for reading Ileen! Vera-Ellen is without a doubt one of the screen’s best dancers ever. It’s always a joy to watch her. Thanks for commenting!

  6. I always enjoy watching White Christmas. This year I am saddened by the weight loss and the obvious anorexia she had. Her mother messed her up and MGM made it worse.

    1. Hi Cynthia, I agree, there are times in White Christmas when Vera’s frame is so slight, your heart goes out to her. The influences of MGM and her mother had visibly damaging effects. Thanks for commenting!

  7. I’ve wanted to learn more about Vera for a while now, ever since watching White Christmas and being amazed at what a beautiful and strong dancer she was and, of course, her alarming weight. Thanks for working to write a great, in-depth, and descriptive piece about her life.

  8. Vera Ellen was the most remarkable dancer, and beautiful actresses.
    I was always jealous of her amazing figure.
    I never knew until now how much pressure she was under. Especially from her own mother. The studios at the time were relentless , look how they treated Judy Garland.
    How heart breaking, Vera went through this.
    She is one of my favorites.
    Thank you for the wonderful article.

    1. Thanks for reading Susan! It is absolutely heartbreaking what Vera-Ellen, Judy Garland, and others endured. The pressure to be thin and “camera ready” at all times was intense. Thanks again for reading Susan, and for commenting!

  9. My husband and I just finished watching White Christmas. What an amazing gymnast/dancer! But, yes, the reason I found your article is that I had to know if there was a problem with anorexia. Her leotard style costumes were actually baggy around her upper thighs and her waist was distracting. I want to learn more about her now. Thank you for this beautiful article revealing the human and sometimes tragic side of this talented woman.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Tamara, and for commenting! Appreciation for Vera’s amazing talent is made all the richer with knowledge of her behind the scenes dedication, hard work, and struggles. I’m so happy you found my article, thanks again for commenting!

  10. I was just watching White Christmas and was stunned by Vera-Ellen’s collosal talent, particularly her phenomenal dancing. You can’t take your eyes off her on the screen, even though she is surrounded by other huge stars.; her energy, Grace and dexterity are really mesmerising. But I couldn’t help but notice her thinness. It’s so sad she felt such pressure to confirm to unhealthy Hollywood standards about weight.
    I wanted to learn more about her and came across your wonderful article. It was sympathetic and beautifully written and I appreciated the film clips. Thank you so much for a great read!

    1. Thanks for reading Karen! I’m so happy you came across my article. You’re so right, Vera-Ellen is surrounded by extraordinary talent throughout White Christmas, yet when Vera is on the screen, particularly when she’s dancing, it’s near impossible to watch anyone else. It is so sad how greatly Vera-Ellen felt the pressure to be thin, and how this pressure affected her. Thanks again for reading Karen, and for your kind words!

  11. a wonderful performance in White Christmas and in On the town too. She was beautiful talented and gave so mych pleasure to the viewing audience. Her dancng and on screen chemistry with Danny Kaye is underestimated. I hope she didnt suffer but modern attitudes tell us she probably did. I feel for her.

    1. Thanks for reading Richard! I agree, Vera’s beauty and talent elevated every film she appeared in. It’s so sad to consider how she suffered off screen. Great point about Vera’s chemistry with Danny Kaye. It’s a significant reason why White Christmas remains such an enduring classic. Thanks for commenting Richard!

  12. I have watched White Christmas every year while getting ready for the holiday. I loved, loved, loved her tapping in Choreography. I made my mom put me in tap classes! Mothers have a strong influence on their daughters whether too much or too little attention, positive or negative. Relationships with food and self image during puberty affects the rest of their lives. Thank you for the article.

    1. Thank you for reading Larkspur! That’s great that Vera’s amazing tapping inspired you to start tap. She is phenomenal in the Choreography number! Very true, mothers have such an influence on their daughters, and can strongly impact food and self image relationships. Thanks again for reading, and for commenting!

  13. Even if she was 5’4 96 lbs well she was still Beautiful and could dance her butt off. My husband and I just watched the movie.

  14. Hi Shannon,
    This is a wonderful essay highlighting what could easily be a not-so-nice Telling of a true icon. I appreciate that you don’t disguise something that is way too obvious, yet maintain kindness and appreciation of the genius and hard work Vera-Ellen brought to the screen. I’m a gentleman of a certain age and sadly lost my performance career due to a similar issue. I’m not saddened by this, instead I am thankful for my time in the spotlight and that the legacy of those before me helped me through some rough times.

    Vera-Ellen seemed to know what she wanted from the beginning. She worked diligently to attain her successes. I believe it’s easy to blame parents, environment, the studios, but (though this may be an unpopular opinion) she had it in her head how she wanted to present herself. It couldn’t be easy to work all those many many hours and feel you needed to do more. I want to believe she was happy.

    To me, Vera-Ellen’s legacy is a diligent professional who showed that with hard work you can attain your dreams and leave behind a record of the most glorious dancing film has ever captured.

    Thank you and happy holidays..

    1. Hi Steven, your kind words about my article mean a lot, thank you so much for reading! And thank you for sharing your own experience with an issue similar to Vera-Ellen’s. Your positive attitude is inspiring. You make excellent points about Vera: she had a dream, knew what she wanted, and achieved it. And you put Vera-Ellen’s legacy to words perfectly. Thanks again for reading Steven, and for commenting!

  15. I appreciated this article. I was watching “”White Christmas” for the first time in many years and stopped mid-way to search whether Vera Ellen was anorexic. because she certainly appeared that way. The history with her mother and handlers explains so much. Her dancing took my breath away but I also felt concern.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, thanks for reading! Vera is alarmingly thin in White Christmas. I agree, her experiences working in the studio system and the influence of her mother really put Vera’s struggles into perspective. Such a beautiful dancer, but definitely a tragic story. Thanks for commenting Elizabeth!

  16. Thank you for such a well researched & written article on Vera-Ellen. My husband I were wondering how tall she was and came across this very informative and tragic story of her life. MGM sounds like a very cruel company to young women. As we watch White Christmas, I will think of this beauty & incredible dancer & say a little prayer.

    1. Thanks for reading Deborah! I am so happy you came across my article. The terrible things MGM said to Vera about her body, and how deeply these words influenced her, are tragic. I hope Vera knows how appreciated her beauty and incredible dancing remain today. Thanks again for reading Deborah, and for commenting!

  17. Thanks for this excellent article! I saw White Christmas for the first time today, and immediately noticed Vera’s abnormally thin waist, hips, and legs. I thought she must have been suffering from anorexia nervosa. As one who used to suffer myself, I believe I can easily spot another sufferer. Her comments included in this article about preferring to be thin and light when dancing really resonated with me since I used to dance and also loved how my body felt when extremely thin. I seemed to have boundless energy and liked comparing myself to a race horse. Her dancing is extraordinary. May we remember and honor her for that!

    1. Thanks for reading Jivani! I appreciate your insights, thank you so much for sharing. So true, Vera’s dancing is extraordinary, and should be honored and remembered. Thanks for your kind words, and for commenting!

  18. White Christmas is one of my all time favorites during the Christmas season. I too was curious as to whether or not Vera suffered from anorexia. She was an amazing dancer but her mother and her career seem to have taken a toll on her body. Gone way too soon, but she will always be remembered for her beauty and amazing talent.

    1. Thanks for commenting Brian! Vera’s struggles behind the scenes are as tragic as her dancing is beautiful. And you’re so right, she will always be remembered for her incomparable skill on the dance floor. Thank you for reading!

  19. Thank you for your informative article. I always had questions about her impossibly tiny waist. But this year, I watched the movie with my glasses on and was shocked to notice the split-second appearance of a shadow between her thigh and the fabric of her scant white costume during high kicks. As an advocate of “no shaming ever,” I am gratified today to see slow but steady efforts in the entertainment industry to be more inclusive of persons of all backgrounds, ages, abilities and shapes, and to encourage the appreciation of their challenges. If I were to be charitable, I’d hope most parents believe their criticism is in the best interest of their children. I hope that consciously or subconsciously, those parents are being influenced by those industry efforts. Thank

    1. Hi Connie, thanks for reading! I agree, I think there is greater awareness today of eating disorders and how influential our words can be in regards to body image. I too hope that parents and those in positions of influence will strive to be positive influences on young dancers today. Thanks for your comment Connie!

  20. I watch White Christmas every year as it’s my number one go to holiday movie and especially because I love watching all of Vera-Ellen dance sequences!! She was so talented. It’s hard to think about the private struggles she must have had to endure in such a demanding industry. I’ll still always be a fan of her dancing!!

    1. Hi Peggy! You’re so right, White Christmas is a must watch every year during the holidays. Vera’s private struggles are so tragic, but her timeless talent will always be appreciated. Thanks for commenting Peggy!

  21. Thank you for shining a light on the legacy she is and always will be. My heart mourns at the thought of the pressure she must have been under. My heart mourns more because unfortunately little has changed. I am 36 and I just adore White Christmas.

    1. Thanks for commenting Gina! Vera’s story is tragic. And you’re so right, the pressures she felt are still around today, influencing countless other young women and men. (I’m sure social media is no help.) Thanks for your kind words Gina, Vera’s legacy and beautiful dancing will not be forgotten.

  22. I only ‘discovered’ Vera-Ellen from watching White Christmas on TV recently in the UK. I did not know of her before that. Wow! What a dancer. I have been looking at all the videos on your website and can see the depth of her abilities as a dancer, and actress of course. Many thanks for bringing this wonderful dancer to our attention. I have already spread the word about her. May she not disappear into obscurity. So sad about her later life.
    Best regards Mike

    1. Hi Mike, I’m so happy to hear that you recently discovered Vera-Ellen! And I’m so glad you’re spreading the word about Vera’s amazing dancing. She’s a performer who deserves to be remembered. Thanks for reading Mike, and for commenting!

  23. It’s strange, I was concerned with her thinness but only really noticed it the past few years watching White Christmas and wondered to myself, “Was she anorexic?” I thought about Karen Carpenter, and decided to search “ Vera Ellen” and came across your wonderful, well written, article; so kind, and informative. Thank you!
    What a beautiful, talented, young woman. Tormented by how ‘Others’ thought she should look, and determined to live up to ‘their’ expectations. How careful we must be when dealing with, and speaking to our young people. We don’t realize how much our words affect them. Thank you, again.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words Marion! You’re so right, Karen Carpenter is another example of a beautiful, talented entertainer with a tragic behind-the-scenes story. Excellent point about the power of our words and the influence they can have on others, particularly young people. Vera’s story should inspire us to think carefully about the words we choose, and how they may be impacting others. Thanks for reading Marion, and thanks for your insightful comment!

  24. After my wife and I watched White Christmas today for the umpteenth time, I decided to look her up to gain some insight. Very tragic story. Thank you for an informative article.

    1. Thanks for reading Scott! The struggles behind Vera’s beautiful dancing are so tragic. Knowledge of her struggles definitely adds insight and a greater appreciation for the art she created on screen. Thanks for commenting!

  25. Great article and obviously we’ll researched. I frequently watch videos with ballerinas who are easily the size of Vera-Ellen at her smallest. If we are comparing her to a prima ballerina her statement regarding her preference to be at 100 pounds absolutely makes sense, I am not saying she didn’t have a unhealthy relationship with food, but dancer’s do prefer to be a certain size, and feel more capable of their craft when they aren’t carrying extra weight. Thanks again for highlighting this lovely lady.

    1. Thanks for commenting Kristina! Very true about dancers, particularly ballerinas, generally preferring to carry no extra weight. It’s tragic how easily warped the perception of what constitutes extra weight can be in the dance world. Thanks again for commenting Kristina, and for reading!

  26. Shannon, thank you for your respectful, compassionate and caring story of Vera-Ellen. We know more about anorexia now and the pressure of body image and parental influence… but in the 40’s & 50’s, so many women, & perhaps, men, were probably suffering without putting a name to their pain. I’m saddened that such a gifted dancer and actor’s talents and qualities were over shadowed with pain and pressure, other-imposed at first and then self-inflicted as learned beliefs and behavior. Your coverage of this sensitive topic and of Ms. Ellen is very well done. Thank you!

    1. Well said Diane. Vera’s struggles are made even more tragic by the fact that there was not much known about eating disorders at the time. There are still so many negative influences on body image today, but I hope the greater research and awareness we have now will help aid recovery, or prevent others from suffering as Vera did. Thanks for commenting Diane!

  27. Well, researched article. It really enjoyed it. Watching her dance is quite amazing. And she does seem to float. Thanks for writing this. I was very curious about her, and This gave me a tremendous amount of insight. Thanks, Carl.

    1. Thanks for reading Carl! Vera really does seem to float when she dances. Her skill is incomparable. Thanks for your kind words, and for commenting!

  28. Everytime I need a lift, I watch White Christmas. To watch Vera Ellen dance is pure perfection, combined with effortless magic. She was one of a kind. It’s so sad that even back then she had to conform with Hollywoods impossible standards, and feel she was less than what she was. Incredible talent , beauty and grace.

    1. Wonderfully said Lea. It’s heartbreaking to think about all that Vera-Ellen went through. Her talent and beauty are remarkable, and I’m sure she’d love the fact that we continue to get so much joy out of watching her incomparable dancing in White Christmas. Thanks for commenting!

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