After Karl Lagerfeld’s death on February 19, this essay is excerpted from Rebecca Harrington’s book I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting, published by Vintage in 2015.
Most people think of Karl Lagerfeld, the head designer for Chanel, as a whippet-thin man with a shock of white hair. This wasn’t always so. Though he has always had white hair (Karl loves the eighteenth century because everyone had white hair then), nineties Karl was far plumper and wore diaphanous jackets with a huge wooden fan around his neck. He looked rather jolly actually, or would have if the fan was not there.
With the new millennium on the horizon, however, Karl decided to lose a bunch of weight. He claims it was entirely for “superficial reasons.” Apparently Karl was seized with the desire to “dress differently [and] to wear clothes designed by [Dior Homme’s] Hedi Slimane.” However, he also realized that “these fashions… would require [him] to lose 80 pounds.” After devoting himself to a strict diet designed by weight-loss guru Dr. Jean-Claude Houdret, he lost all the weight within the year. This dramatic weight loss was so remarked upon in the fashion community that Lagerfeld wrote a book about it, entitled The Karl Lagerfeld Diet. It was a bestseller in France because how could it not be?
Karl Lagerfeld has a cat named Choupette that I have always liked (she knows how to use an iPad and she has two lady’s maids, one for day and one for night), so I wanted to attempt the Karl Lagerfeld diet as a way of congratulating her. Also, anything that involves losing eighty pounds in a year must be effective, at the very least.
I purchase Karl’s book and lug it home from the bookstore. The cover shows Karl in bootcut jeans he would probably glower at now, looking fiercely at the corner of the book jacket. He seems both mad and ready to diet, as am I.
After a particularly long period of contemplating the book’s cover, much the way a five-year-old Karl obsessively contemplated a painting of white-haired eighteenth-century aristocrats in his family’s home, I open the book. Inside there is a large picture of Lagerfeld’s diet doctor, Dr. Jean-Claude Houdret, who has a long Salvador Dalí-style mustache with curled ends. Dr. Houdret is the creator of the Spoonlight program — a French diet that advocates a mix of very expensive protein packets and meager bits of food. He actually wrote most of Karl’s diet book, it turns out. The book is written in a very high-literary style for a diet book, I must say. The conclusion is a meandering essay on the way a dandy functions in modern society. One would think the good doctor would know something about that because of his mustache.
Which is not to say that Karl had no hand in writing the book that bears his name; he did. Karl’s passages turn up occasionally, helpfully signed with his initials, KL. Karl is also interviewed at the beginning of the book by Ingrid Sischy, where he explains the genesis of his diet, and how he can’t even remember the man he was two years ago when he was fat, and that he’s so disciplined he’s not even tempted by any foods. Aside from the interview (which is very long and slightly repetitive), there are several essays on cosmetic surgery and skin care and personal anecdotes of a young and inexperienced medical professional by Dr. Salvador Dalí. Eventually, I find a brief description of the actual diet tucked in the middle of the book. There are several different diets the doctor prescribes — including a nine-hundred-calorie one that consists entirely of protein “sachets” and vegetables for the very severe weight-loss cases. I decide to pass on this as I have put myself through enough in the years I have lived. The middle version of the diet is Karl’s preferred diet anyway, an amalgam of lean proteins, vegetables, and more “protein sachets” clocking in at a whopping twelve hundred calories in a day. There are recipes in the back too, which all look very arcane and French.
Karl says that when you are on a diet, “You are a general and you have a single soldier in your army. You must give him instructions and he must carry them out. It may annoy him but he has no choice.” And thus I start the day with what Karl calls his “winter breakfast”: a piece of toast, an egg (not fried in any oil, because that would be too appetizing), some juice, yogurt, and a Diet Coke. It is the spartan meal of a prisoner but it does the job.
After this, I decide to call my mother. I freely admit my mother is less fun than Karl Lagerfeld’s mother. To wit — Karl Lagerfeld’s mother told Karl he had “exceptionally ugly” hands and that he should never smoke. She also told him that his stories were “so boring” because he was six and that even though he was almost blind “children with glasses are the ugliest thing in the world,” so she never bought him glasses. She was a great influence on Lagerfeld’s life.
After my call, I set about guzzling Diet Cokes. Lagerfeld drinks up to ten Diet Cokes a day, so I have to really set my mind to this task. After three in quick succession I get very jittery; after four I decide I’m so jittery I can’t eat lunch (protein sachet) or write or concentrate and just start pacing my room, which seems, all of a sudden, like a necessary activity. After my last Diet Coke, I give up and I go and watch the finale of The Bachelor. I rationalize this brainless but emotional activity because Karl is a rabid consumer of culture and has three hundred iPods. I have salmon with brussel sprouts for dinner and I am so utterly starving afterward, although I feel so jittery. After the show finishes, I end up staying up until 7:00 a.m. reading about what Choupette does on the iPad. (She’s a cat, so nothing.)
Today I get up rather later than usual. I oversleep because I was reading so late, which Karl would never do. Karl sleeps exactly seven hours a night no matter what time he goes to bed. However, Karl also reads under a canopy in a room overlooking the Louvre and wears a white night shirt based on seventeenth-century design he saw in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In penance, I decide to punish myself with Karl’s “summer breakfast,” which is even more barren than the “winter breakfast.” (What is the point of seasonal menus for breakfast and breakfast only? I don’t know.) It’s just the fruit and yogurt, basically. It is very hard not to have a second piece of toast, but Karl says, “The height of luxury is for me to have an extra slice of toast. It’s the most delicious thing in the world.” And now I agree with him.
For dinner, I make one of the dishes in the back of his diet book, “Veal with Plums,” but there are no plums at the grocery store, so I make it with prunes. This is less food. I am starving for extra calories, so I have a glass of red wine. Dr. Dalí recommends two of those a day. A young doctor’s notebook!
Karl Lagerfeld does not usually like to entertain (“Loneliness is a luxury for people like me,” he has said), but he does have a recipe for quail flambé, which I have never had before. And can a woman just eat quail by herself? Apparently yes, because although I buy two quails (for $17; Karl is another one with an insane food budget), no one wants to eat them even though I ask in a plaintive voice. I have finally pushed my friends to the limit of their endurance, and quail is the last straw. It seems fitting. Karl says, “You have to be a real bore like me for the diet to work. When you are that boring, you have to make twice the effort in wit and conversation in order to compensate.” But I really don’t have the strength for that type of display this evening anyway.
If I am going to have quail flambé solo, the rest of the meal has to be, in some essential way, equally grandiose. This is what it means to be a dandy in modern society. I decide to make myself a traditional French multicourse meal using recipes from the Lagerfeld diet book. The first course is French onion soup. The onions are cooked with no butter whatsoever (usually, according to other recipes I have seen, the onions are cooked in an entire stick of butter); however, you are allowed to have a little Gruyère and croutons. Butter’s absence makes the soup seem oddly flavorless, like onion soup I have had in a cafeteria. Still, it is not entirely off from the real thing.
Quail, however, is horrible. If you have never seen quail before (I hadn’t), they are emaciated birds with dinosaur claws. If someone had ever grasped a quail in front of me and yelled, “This quail is rabid!” I would’ve believed them. I marinate the quail in wine for several hours. After a while, I take the quail out of the wine and then douse it in Grand Marnier and then set it on fire (flambé it). I don’t have a match, so I light a paper towel on fire with the stove burner and then throw it on the quail. This works surprisingly well. The quail comes out tasting mostly of wine and burnt power towel, but also of tiny shards of quail meat. The thing about quail is that it has absolutely no meat on it. It’s only talons; that’s it. I practically attack it with my teeth and I barely make a dent. I even have protein powder for dessert, I’m so hungry.
I’m off the diet! I lost a couple of pounds and have managed to develop a sense of humor over the quail incident even though it was not funny at all at the time. As Karl says, “To follow a diet like this you have to have a sense of humor. Don’t take things too seriously, make fun of yourself, admit why you’re doing it. It’s a physical thing, that’s all. There’s no point in pretending it’s anything else.”
And that really is the gift of Karl. So many celebrities try to pretend that they are dieting because of nutrition when actually they are dieting because they want to fit into a certain shape of clothing. Karl does not stand for such hypocrisy and even eats quail while he does it. And Choupette eats at the table with him (her own food, not quail).
If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.