Lisa Lampanelli Finds Her Inner Audrey Hepburn

Lisa Lampanelli tames her anger and brings awareness to eating disorders.

Posted May 03, 2018

For many people, Audrey Hepburn has always been the “Queen of Class.” Not only was she elegant and talented – she won an Oscar, Golden Globe and British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award– but also, Hepburn dedicated herself to philanthropy. She was perhaps most noted for her role with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and accepted the role of UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1988.

Photo by Dan Dion
Source: Photo by Dan Dion

Lisa Lampanelli’s father certainly was a Hepburn fan. “My father was a real gentleman. He was the guy with the handkerchief. He was the guy who never raised his voice. He was just a really mellow guy – artistic and everything,” Lampanelli told me. “And he always hated it when I cursed. He hated it when I chewed gum … He didn’t want you to be a ‘lady’ in a weird sense.

“But he liked Audrey Hepburn.”

Lisa Lampanelli has also earned the title of Queen: “Queen of Mean.” Her raucous celebrity roasts and insult-driven humor was inspired by Don Rickles – so much so that Lampanelli wrote a New York Times piece celebrating his life when Rickles died in April of this year.  Unfortunately, from Lampanelli’s perspective, her caustic personality onstage sometimes translated into anger offstage.

“I used to be a huge yeller … I had no bones about saying on a plane, ‘Go F yourself’ because you made me mad,” she said.

When her father passed away, Lampanelli decided to honor him by aspiring to be a bit more like Hepburn in her own way and work to control her anger and cursing. “When I’m not on stage, I’m going to really try and not use anger towards people,” Lampanelli explained. “I’m going to try and look in the mirror and say, ‘Dad would be proud that I spoke nicely when people pissed me off.’”

Initially, Lampanelli found that this transition was relatively easy. For the first two years that she aspired to be less angry, it seemed as though she had eliminated all anger and cursing from her social repertoire. 

“It’s probably been a couple of years since my dad died. And I was like, ‘Wow this is great, I can make all these changes. And it didn’t seem that hard to not be angry anymore, and not be upset and just let things roll off. Kind of walking on this honeymoon phase of life,” she said. “And I was finding it so easy. It was almost too easy. It was like this resolution. But it didn’t take effort. It was like, ‘Isn’t it funny that that woman gave me a dirty look and I didn’t even notice?’ I was skating along. It was a miracle. Which I know it wasn’t unless you’re Catholic and believe in the saints. I literally was like, it’s not happening … I don’t do that anymore.

“That’s not Lisa anymore.”

Lampanelli recently made a change on stage as well.  While still touring with the insult-driven comedy that’s been the mainstay of her performances, she has also dedicated herself to a cause – bringing attention to the devastating effects of struggling with an eating and weight disorder. Lampanelli has first-hand knowledge in this area, having struggled for years with binge eating and obesity and later undergoing gastric sleeve surgery to help manage her weight. Lampanelli’s recent play Stuffed, which recently completed its second season off Broadway, is a poignant look at women with a range of eating issues from not being able to gain weight, to not being able to lose weight, as well as compulsive binge eating, purging and dieting.

While the cause is noble, working on a play in which she is the writer, producer and one of the main actors can be frustrating.  And soon, Lampanelli found that her old habits were slowly coming back.

“I noticed recently when things started getting stressful with casting for the show, with press for the show, with wrangling every element for the new version of the play … my temper’s coming out again,” she said. “I started cursing more – not at anyone. But I was cursing in front of my nieces and nephews.”

Soon, Lampanelli recognized this as a phase in behavior change, the “honeymoon phase,” that Lampanelli called a “pink cloud.”

“I heard about this thing in AA where for the first couple of years, or the first couple of months, they may have this thing where they’re floating and they’re like, ‘I don’t need a drink’ like I don’t need to yell anymore. And then suddenly the rubber hits the road and you find these little bad things sneaking in,” Lampanelli explained. “Isn’t it interesting that you think old habits die, but they never do. And I was like, those were two years of sailing under this pink cloud.

“And now sustainable change is really hard.”

In order to re-commit herself to lasting change, Lampanelli had to re-focus her attention on why she wanted to control her temper and cursing in the first place.  And for her, the main reason was that she wanted to connect with people. And while her insult-driven comedy certainly connected her with her fans, she felt that it was less helpful in her personal life.

“I think it brought people closer to me if I didn’t curse. For instance, if I see you on a plane, and we’re sitting next to each other – I don’t know you yet. I don’t know if you’re cool with cursing. So for me to test you. I’d ask, ‘Where you going?  They’d say, ‘Vegas.’ I’d be like, ‘I’m going to Los Angeles – f*cking people there.’ Who knows if you’re the guy who minds? What if you’re the guy who says, ‘Well there’s no need to curse.’ So I think it brings people closer to you to not bring up that wall. To me, cursing was a wall … It alienates too many people from me,” Lampanelli described. “So I decided take the walls down. Be more vulnerable. It’s more vulnerable for me to say to you, ‘Well I don’t know about the people in LA’ versus, ‘F*cking people in LA.’ I want to connect. I’ve decided ever since I started writing the play, I’m not even a comedian. I’m not a playwright. I’m just a connector of myself with people. Why not connect without those walls?

“Without going, ‘Look at this f*cking asshole.’”

Lampanelli also recognized that her cursing and anger was a reflection of her feeling unworthy.  She saw slights or other stress involved in relationships as a reflection of her unworthiness, and she lashed out. And while working on Stuffed, typical difficulties associated with putting on a major production caused her anger to resurface. And she often felt the urge to control what others were doing – which was more difficult in a multi-person play as compared to stand-up comedy.

“Trust, control, anger – I think it might all come down to worthiness. If I were more famous, skinnier, prettier, more rich, they’d do a better job,” she explained. “Why can’t I do everything myself – because I’m the best. I can get everything done carefully and perfectly … I have a huge lack of trust … Until I gave these people enough room to do their job, I hated all of them. It’s me thinking everyone is terrible except me. And that’s from stand-up – doing everything myself.”

One shift Lampanelli made was recognizing that by getting angry at others because she felt unworthy, she was giving others power over her self-concept.  She needed to actively remind herself that her worthiness needed to come from within.

“I’m letting other people control my worthiness. I think we’re all born thinking we’re fine enough. I don’t think we’re born thinking we’re the greatest or the worst … All I mean is worthy of good things in life. I don’t mean riches or success. I mean just living a nice status quo life,” Lampanelli described. “I think worthiness for me is going to have to be all internal – me reminding myself that I’m fine how I am. If I get a bad review, I’m going to have to say ‘You’re OK the way you are.’ … I feel worthy when I can look in the mirror and say, ‘I didn’t yell at anybody today … I didn’t curse when I could have.’ I feel worthy of being in this world when I treat people nicely.”

More, Lampanelli recalled the lessons from her weight loss – nothing is easy. And the work needs to happen perpetually over time.

“Once you get the gastric sleeve surgery, you can eat only little tiny amounts. So for the first two years, I was like, ‘I do not care about nutrients, I don’t care about water. I don’t care about anything. For these two years, I’m going to eat whatever the F I want,” she said. “And I ate all sorts of crap … well, two years later I feel like crap. My hair is not where it should be – it’s too thin. I need vitamins.”

“So you start going, alright – now you’re going to start the real work.”

Interestingly, Lampanelli has found that she had something else in common with Hepburn – they are both introverts.  And Lampanelli found that by limiting her cursing to on stage and controlling her temper off stage, she achieved a good balance; she could let out her negative feelings in an adaptive way while performing, and be more peaceful off stage, having fewer draining conflicts that inevitably surfaced when she couldn’t control her temper.

“I’m more of an introvert than anyone would believe. My niece calls it being the most extraverted introvert on the planet because I have to be extraverted in my work. But in my life, I need my alone time, I’m quiet,” Lampanelli explained. “My best days are when I talk to no one. Not in an isolating way, but in a way where I’m like, ‘Wow I finally have a day to myself.’ I like those two things separate. It gets out of my system on stage. I can scream and yell about whatever it is. And then at home just talk normal.”

So far, Lampanelli feels like things are working out. She recalled an incident on a plane in which she was angry with a fellow passenger. 

“Sometimes when you’re on a plane, you don’t have the most fun in the bathroom. So, I’m in the bathroom and it was taking me a long time. And I’m forgiving of people who take a long time but I’m a little nervous, because I don’t want to make anybody wait – again, worthiness. I’m not even worthy to use a bathroom for more than 5 minutes,” she said. “You know how the light goes on? I hear the handle jiggle and I go, really – do I jiggle handles? But instead, I say, you’re just going to get yourself together, smile and not say anything. Well that would have been Lisa six months ago. I get out, and look at the woman, and I go, ‘Did you jiggle that handle.’ And she goes, ‘Yeah, I didn’t see the light.’ And I said, ‘Everybody sees the light … Maybe you’ll be in there one day having a hard time and you’ll see how it feels. So take care.”

But Lampanelli refocused and remembered her goals. “So I sat down and thought, she’s feeling totally misunderstood … This woman tried an f-ing handle. Who doesn’t do this stuff? So I said, you’ve got to go apologize. Years ago, I would have felt justified,” she recalled. “So I saw her in baggage claim and I went up to her. And I go, ‘I just have to say I’m so sorry for my behavior – it was out of line ... you did absolutely nothing wrong’ … There were tears coming down her face. She said, ‘That made my whole day.’

“We may have even hugged.”

But Lampanelli knows that having the life she wants – whether managing her weight or controlling her anger – is not a one shot deal. She continues to examine these issues both in her podcast Get Stuffed With Lisa Lampanelli and on her current  stand-up tour. And Lampanelli’s ready to take on these challenges every moment of every day.

“That’s just the beginning. The end product is never going to be the end. This is forever … You think you’re on this little pink cloud and it gets pulled out from under you and you go, ‘Oh, the food isn’t that easy,’” she said. “I wake up every day thinking my life is going to be working on my temper, my big mouth, my lousy language, my worthiness issues and my food. So what?

“Our whole life is a do over.”