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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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'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 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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“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.”
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 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.
As Vera-Ellen shared shortly after arriving in Hollywood:
“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.”
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.
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 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 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 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).
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'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.”
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.”
"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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
"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:
“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’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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…”
If Vera-Ellen disliked high necklines, it’s doubtful she chose to wear them in White Christmas out of fashion preference.
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.
The End of Vera-Ellen's Career
After White Christmas, Vera-Ellen made one more feature film, and performed in a handful of television shows. In each, 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'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.
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.”
Was Vera-Ellen Anorexic?
Was Vera-Ellen anorexic? Was Vera-Ellen anorexic during White Christmas? We’ll never definitively know.
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.
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.