Barbie Breaks Bad
Playwright addresses body image, tough childhoods and Barbie dolls
Gone are the days when performers and writers had to sit around, waiting to be discovered—at least, according to DeeDee Stewart (Grad ’02), who has carved out a career that allows her to pursue all her passions.
Stewart has been performing her whole life, working with body image issues for most of it and writing plays for 20 years. Rather than shedding one of these jobs to accommodate the others, she pursues them simultaneously, working as a wellness coach while writing and starring in the hilarious, one-woman show Dirty Barbie and Other Girlhood Tales.
Stewart received an MFA in playwriting from UVA and describes her relationship with theater as a “saving grace,” which provided her with a productive outlet for processing the “trauma and dysfunction” of her childhood. Stewart’s father died when she was 5, and her mother’s alcoholism often absented her from Stewart’s life. “When you have a lot of adults misbehaving around you, you grow up pretty quickly,” says Stewart, who says she began to experiment with alcohol in 6th grade.
Her education helped her discipline her intellect; she calls her professors “the people who pulled me up to be my best self.” But even while Stewart thrived academically, she felt like a failure when it came to her body. Weight-obsessed since she was a child, she yo-yo dieted for years. After graduate school, she took a job in the weight-loss industry and frequently was asked to give motivational talks. “One of the reasons I was an effective presenter,” she explains, “is because I was using a lot of my theater techniques.” During her talks, Stewart performed skits, invented characters and, perhaps most importantly, spoke honestly about her own struggles.
Eventually Stewart began to feel confined by the narrow focus of the weight-loss industry. “What [people] were really looking for was growth and movement in the way they felt about their bodies, a release from the desire to constantly lose weight,” she says. “I wanted to [do] in-depth work with body image, go beyond the idea of weight loss.” She started a business as a wellness coach and continues her public speaking engagements, while also providing individual coaching and free workshops for teenage girls in Charlottesville.
“We have talked about everything from meditation, strength training, de-cluttering your house, the impact of flour and sugar, how to strengthen your memory and many other topics,” says Kelly Greenstone, who has worked with Stewart during wellness classes at Crutchfield. “She brings a fresh perspective to any topic she presents. She’ll sometimes arrive to our meetings in character … When it comes down to it, many people connect to Denise because she is approachable, relatable and realistic. Denise simply shows us that there is a better way to go.”
While devoted to wellness work, Stewart has not abandoned her artistic pursuits. She transformed a blog that explored her childhood memories into a theater performance, thus Dirty Barbie was born. In it, Stewart plays herself at different ages while narrating the story between the scenes as her adult self.
Stewart emphasizes that Dirty Barbie, unlike her workshops, is not didactic in nature, although “it hits on some issues that are pretty universal.”
In a Cville Weekly review, Mary Burruss calls the play, “the adult version of an adolescent girl’s sleepover … The whole thing is raw and exposing, but so brilliantly spiced with hilarity that the audience is able to joyfully take the entire journey with Stewart without turning it into a pity-party.”
We witness the sadness of Stewart’s former body hatred—her child character throws a tantrum while slapping her stomach and calling herself “messy and fat”—but the play is also redemptive and showcases her current confidence. Stewart has performed the play in Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and plans to take it to the Edinburgh International Festival this summer.
For a few years, Stewart’s various occupations seemed to be competing. She found herself wondering: “Am I a wellness coach or do I want to do this show?” Her answer, she says, was finally: “Yes.”