In the Lifetime series Drop Dead Diva, Deb, a skinny, blond wannabe model, is killed in a car accident and convinces heaven’s gatekeeper to send her back to earth. But a mix-up ensues, and she re-emerges in the body of recently deceased Jane, a smart, plus-sized attorney (and Princeton alumna). Josh Berman ’91, creator and an executive producer of the show, which is now in its second season, spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.
What message are you trying to convey about body weight and beauty?
That beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and in order to be beautiful you have to be confident. What Jane discovers is an inner confidence that she never had when she was a size zero. But now as a plus-size lawyer, she actually has confidence. Beauty coming from within is not something you normally see in a TV show, especially in Hollywood, which can be so obsessed with body image and who’s gaining a pound here or there. … It’s a very different way to approach the legal genre and a different way of writing about women.
The show is about more than body weight — it follows Jane and her friends as they deal with relationships and work.
You’re absolutely right. A reviewer in this week’s National Enquirer … said Drop Dead Diva is the best legal fantasy drama since Ally McBeal, which also was created by a Princeton graduate, David Kelley [’79]. … I thought that was the best TV show ever made, and to have a reviewer compare me to Ally McBeal was the ultimate flattery without ever mentioning that the lead is a plus-size woman, which is ironic because Ally McBeal was about a woman who was a size zero.
Why did you want to make a show around women’s body and weight issues?
The answer is twofold. The first is I grew up in a family with a father who is a plastic surgeon, so issues of beauty were very prominent conversations around the dinner table. Hearing my parents talk about beauty and weight was just a part of everyday living. But more importantly, the character of Deb was inspired by my grandmother, whose name was also Deb. She was a 4-foot-11, pudgy Holocaust survivor who carried herself like she was a supermodel. And I thought, “How can I tell a story about this woman who was my role model and hero growing up that a network would want to air?” … That was the genesis of Drop Dead Diva.
How are your grandmother and the character Deb in Jane’s body similar?
If you looked at my grandmother you would think she would be passive. She was frail. She had one foot that was bigger than the other foot. She was overweight. She was short. So you would think that she was this passive punching bag but instead, having been the only survivor in her family, she almost had a sense of “I survived the Holocaust, what else can they throw at me?” So she had this tremendous confidence, which seems very much to me like Deb in Jane’s body. The character doesn’t look the part and neither did my grandmother. At the end of every episode you’ll see my company logo, which is a photograph of my grandparents at their wedding and then at their 40th anniversary. (See photos above.)
I read that your parents went to a weight-loss resort in Florida.
About once a year they go to a resort for two weeks where they go on a diet. And then they slowly put the weight back on. It’s an endless cycle that I see happen in my own family.
I also read that your parents wouldn’t let you eat cake, is that right?
My parents were really health conscious. From the ages of 8 to 11 my brothers and I were allowed to eat sugar only on our birthdays. So when birthdays came around, we would gorge ourselves on every possible piece of sugar we could find. The hardest part of that was going to [other people’s] birthday parties and not being able to eat cake. We followed [the rule of no sugar] until we finally all revolted. One day the three of us had had enough and that rule was gone. … My family had a weird relationship with food, which plays well in the series. I eat sugar especially when stressed. … There’s a scene in the pilot where Jane eats Cheez Whiz when she’s stressed out, and that’s very similar to me. When I get highly stressed, I’ll grab whatever I can.
I don’t normally think of a man being so conscious of food and body image.
When people think about weight, they think it is more of a female issue, but I think the reality is in 2010, whether men talk about it or not, they are equally obsessed with their bodies. You go to any gym, at least in L.A., and it’s still least 80 percent male. Men have different issues with their bodies, but there is a real self-consciousness.
Is part of your message in the show that people expect certain things from people based on looks and preconceived notions?
Yes. When I and other people as Princeton grads go into a job interview, people expect certain things from us simply because we went to Princeton, without knowing anything about us. And that extends even more so when someone walks in and they are overweight. People have preconceived notions of what an overweight person is, and I wanted to break those stereotypes with this show.
Why do you think viewers are connecting with the show?
Because all of us at one point or another have felt like the outsider, and Jane is consummate outsider. That theme is so relatable, that notion of identity — who we are, what makes us a person. Is it what we look like on the outside or is it how we see ourselves on the inside? Is it our actions that define us? Or is it our appearance that defines us? I think all those questions have resonated with the viewers. Those themes aren’t normally approached in a TV show.