Valerie Bertinelli strides purposefully toward the front desk of a Los Angeles hotel, where she's scheduled to speak at a fashion show the following morning. Her long auburn hair is feathered in a sassy shag, and she's wearing a short-sleeved, black mock turtleneck, formfitting flared jeans, and a pair of sky-high heels. She checks in, then says cheerfully, "I had a massage scheduled this evening, but I need to cancel it. I have to work out instead.… Oh, and which way is the restaurant? I'm starving!"
On this particular day Bertinelli is a month away from turning 50, and the view from behind her tortoiseshell reading glasses is none too shabby. The actress—still best known as Bonnie Franklin's TV daughter Barbara in the 1970s sitcom One Day at a Time—has just returned from ten days in Italy, where, on a romantic night in Florence, her boyfriend of nearly six years, businessman Tom Vitale, surprised her by proposing marriage.
"We'd talked about getting married," Bertinelli says, "but I was still shocked. It was sweet when he asked me, because he was so scared. I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' "
Bertinelli met Vitale, who runs a private equity fund, in 2004, when she was carrying 162 pounds on her petite, five-foot-four frame. In early 2007, after she'd ballooned to 172 pounds, she launched a very public weight-loss campaign with the Jenny Craig company, dropping more than 40 pounds. Not only has she kept the weight off, but her zest for exercise has led her to set increasingly challenging fitness goals. She completed the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon in April in 5 hours, 14 minutes, and she's planning to compete in a triathlon later this year. In between she'll be filming her new TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland, costarring Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, and Betty White. Oh, and then there's that wedding, scheduled for this fall. She's leaving the planning up to Vitale. "He already knows the different kinds of bells he wants to go off during the ceremony," she says.
Although details for the big day are a secret, one thing is clear: Bertinelli is enjoying every minute leading up to it. At the hotel restaurant, she orders a crab salad. As for the glass of Champagne she's sipping, she says, "It'll be out of my system by the time I get on the treadmill tonight." She shows off the Bodybugg device on her upper arm, which tracks calories she burns. Acknowledging that completing a marathon on the eve of her 50th birthday is no small feat, she sits back, laughs deeply, and says, "I've never been a big age person. I've got the lines. I'm aging. But so what? Now is the best time of my life. Oh, hell yeah! I hope it just gets better, because this is really fun."
Life was far less rosy back in 2001. That's when Bertinelli discovered that her husband of two decades, rocker Eddie Van Halen, had boarded a plane with their young son, Wolfie, while carrying a packet of cocaine in his wallet. Soon after, the couple separated. In 2003 Bertinelli was spending most of her time in Salt Lake City, filming her CBS series Touched by an Angel (co-starring Roma Downey and Della Reese). When 12-year-old Wolfie wasn't in school, he stayed with her in Utah, and she commuted to Los Angeles to visit him whenever the production schedule permitted. Still, the visits were never frequent enough, and she was lonely. Angel was on its way to cancellation that year, and Bertinelli's TV-movie options—a big part of her adult career—had dried up. As she often did in times of stress, she turned to food. Jalapeño-and-cheese poppers, to be exact: each night she'd come home from the set, heat up a dozen, and pour herself a vodka and cranberry juice.
"After Ed and I separated, I thought, 'I'll finish raising my son, and I'll go away, have about 40 cats, and just get nice and fat.' I thought I would be alone for the rest of my life, because I didn't want the responsibility. Relationships are too hard." (Bertinelli's divorce from Van Halen was finalized in 2007.) She can't recall exactly when she decided to take charge of her life. "I don't believe there's just one turning point," she says. "Things add up."
"Valerie is a very strong woman," says celebrity chef Rachael Ray, a close friend. "She pulled herself up from a tough place and came back swinging."
It helped immeasurably that along the way she met Vitale. She credits him with "breaking her open"—but says by then she was ready for a new love. "If my life wasn't starting to turn around, I couldn't have welcomed him into it."