MARG HELGENBERGER INVESTIGATES HER LIFE’S SUCCESSES
By Bonnie Siegler
Keys. Check. Wallet, phone. Check, check. Don’t forget the contact lens solution, Chanel tinted lip gloss and breath spray. Essential items actress Marg Helgenberger never leaves her Santa Monica, California home without.
That’s a far cry from her TV character’s must-haves in her black bag of tricks. As Catherine Willows, the tough, smart, sassy single mom on CBS’s hit crime drama ‘CSI,’ who morphed from Las Vegas stripper to crime scene investigator of dead bodies, the striking examiner always has her potions, camera, latex gloves and other necessary items to determine body temp, amount of decay, extent of maggots and other clues on this whodunit.
“Catherine is a former exotic dancer…she’s a Vegas girl and is connected to the history of the town. I gravitate toward edgier material because it suits my nature,” says the stunning redhead.
And what nature would that be exactly? “Well,” she says with a twinkle in her eye, “I think bad girls are always more fun to play than good girls. I think complicated people are more fun to play than someone who falls into this stereotype of the good wife or supportive girlfriend. Everybody has multiple sides to them, including a dark side. I feel an affinity for people who have been through hardships but are able to keep going.” She quickly refers to her mother, who is a breast cancer survivor. “My mom has always looked on the bright side of life and I respect that type of person.”
Mary Margaret Helgenberger grew up in rural Nebraska taking odd jobs while attending school or over summer vacations: working in her father’s meat packing plant, toiling in the bean fields, graduating to corn fields. “I made some money in agriculture I guess,” she muses, “though not a lot.” Her corn fed good looks were a lock on Hollywood glamour. After learning the ropes on the daytime soap, ‘Ryan’s Hope,’ right out of Northwestern University, Marg established herself as the drug-addicted hooker, K.C., on TV’s ‘China Beach,’ in the late 80s, which earned her an Emmy. While doing the series, she met fellow actor, Alan Rosenberg, fell in love, married and had her only child, Hughie, named after her dad who died of multiple sclerosis when Marg was only 24. And Hollywood kept calling; George Clooney’s love interest in multi-episodes of ‘ER,’ the chemical exposure resident in ‘Erin Brockovich,’ Mrs. Brooks to Kevin Costner’s ‘Mr. Brooks,’ and even a sympathetic Patsy Ramsey in the TV movie, ‘Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.’
Marg’s poise, energy and determination have served her well. At 49, the 5’6: beauty is the envy of women half her age. “I think remaining open minded is very important for keeping a youthfulness about you,” she explains. “Retaining the ability to listen and not ducking out on belief. I continue to work on just reserving judgment about anything and anyone. I think it’s happier not only for you, but for the world, instead of attaching a judgment to everything,” including people in show biz. In a business where looks are your very livelihood, Marg doesn’t let the pressures of Hollywood’s ageism practices influence her personal or professional life. “I don’t really feel the pressure,” she says. “I certainly want to look the best I possibly can. I’ve always been a disciplined and motivated person; that’s part of my Midwestern values. But you have to work with what you’ve got and grow older gracefully. I don’t wear some of the clothes I wore 10 years ago, and certainly not the ones I wore 20 years ago, Even if I can still pull it off, it’s tacky.”
“Tacky” is definitely not a word anyone would associate with Helgenberger. In fact, given to self-description, the working mom sees herself on and off the screen as “loyal, hard working and I like to think of myself as fun.” In a city and business where many people are profoundly unhappy, Marg, fortunately, is not among them. During the recent writer’s strike, she looked to fine-tune her own solace and happiness by taking up the guitar, bonding with her four-month old shepherd mix puppy, Henry, and began meditating daily. And while everyone else in Hollywood was counting their pennies, Marg did just the opposite by undergoing some major home renovations, keeping eco-friendly designs in mind. “I’m really curious about solar panels to heat the pool and I’m considering putting up a clothesline in the backyard so I wouldn’t use the dryer as much.” She’s been an avid recycler for over 20 years, “even before they were picked up at your door. I would haul them to the recycling place in West Hollywood and separate into cans, bottles and paper. We also have a Lexus SUV hybrid.”
In her bright, airy kitchen, nutritional staples include yogurt, fresh berries, fresh papaya, sliced turkey, salad greens, cheeses, tuna salad, egg salad, “and lots of beverages.” Besides milk and orange juice, there are soft drinks and Crystal Geyser juicers. “I also have herbal teas on hand all the time, too.” On a typical morning, after her meditation, Marg will have a smoothie made with yogurt, rice milk and fresh fruit. “Lunch could be a tuna or turkey sandwich or a salad topped with one of those. Dinner depends on if I’m doing a night shoot for ‘CSI’ or eating at home.” But with this litany of healthy foods, don’t think Marg is a purist or food police. When it comes to her number one favorite meal, bring out the turkey and all the fixings. “I love a Thanksgiving meal with turkey, potatoes, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, squash… the caterers make this once a week and the show and I pile it on.” She supplements with a daily calcium multi-vitamin, vitamin B and fish oil. While Marg likes to have a handle on what goes into her body, Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies are always on hand. “I love those and Girl Scout thin mint cookies. I also love soul foods like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, but I don’t eat them much because of the high calories and cholesterol.”
Looking at Helgenberger’s well-toned body with curves in all the right places, it doesn’t seem she’s given a nanosecond to extra pounds. Yet she does, if not for personal reflection, but for job security, as well. “I have to say that what might be a hobby, but is part of the job too, is staying in shape. Usually, I work out with weights and do yoga at least two to three times a weeks. Yoga is also for peace of mind.” And while she admits her daily morning meditations help keep her motivated, energized and balanced, Marg adds, “I think just being in this business and being in the public eye is enough to keep you motivated and energized because you can’t let the ball drop for very long or relax, otherwise it all passes you by.” Helping her find peace of mind in a hectic world, Marg also enjoys reading a good book. “I started a book club several years ago and I’m hosting it this Sunday. I’m reading ‘Bowl of Cherries,’ by Millard Kaufman, and there’s no way I’ll finish the book because I’m only on the third chapter. But I think it’s great to surround yourself with great writing for pure intellectual enjoyment.” Other peaceful pastimes include “hanging out at the beach or just being in nature. They’re both stress relievers. Nice walks and appreciating nature, just taking it all in. And if I had an extra hour in my day, I’d get out my guitar, play it and sing songs that I’ve learned or want to learn.” She admits the kick-ass music on ‘CSI’ is pure enjoyment to her. “I like good rock’n’roll,” she says. “I float between the two rock stations on Sirius Radio – Stevie Van Zandt’s, Underground Garage and Left of Center, which is a variety of contemporary rock.”
‘CSI’ cameras are once again rolling, everyone’s back at work and “it’s awesome! We’re like family,” Marg is quick to point out, though, that she doesn’t take her good fortune for granted. “I think when you get into this business, you’re taking a risk, knowing that a job can be over at any time. ‘CSI’ is one of the few that’s had an incredibly long life. I never forget how fortunate I am. Maybe I have my own guardian angel. I’d like to think it’s my dad or my grandmother, his mother. It’s nice to know they’re watching out for me.”
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