Earning raves in Hollywood

Model's hard-to-get cookies win star status among elite

February 23, 2005|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This Sunday, you'll probably feel a bit jealous of the svelte figures of Hollywood's first ladies - Cate Blanchett, Annette Bening, Hilary Swank - as they swan along on the Kodak Theatre's red carpet before the 77th Annual Academy Awards. Admit it. Doesn't even the idea of a size 2 make you blue? If so, don't blame California dessert chef and plus-size model Whitney Dineen. She's doing her best to, well, even the scales.

"Americans are getting bigger and bigger, but actors are getting skinnier and skinnier. What's the reality here? I always say I'm trying to fatten up Hollywood one cookie at a time," she says, with a naughty chuckle.

Her secret weapons are freshly baked oatmeal-raisin cookies, coconut macaroons, lemon squares, toffee bars and creme caramels. These are far from exotic recipes, as she'll be the first to admit. However, in Los Angeles, where the body beautiful is sometimes the body bulimic, her desserts are considered sufficiently provocative that they've been featured on NBC-TV's celebrity show Extra. Some have gone so far as to call Dineen's confections "a cult."

Part of their allure, certainly, is that they are hard to get. Dineen has no business card or storefront. Instead, her customers - a who's-who of show business names that ranges from Kirstie Alley and Blythe Danner, to Steven Spielberg, Ron Meyer (president of Universal Studios) and David Geffen (co-owner of DreamWorks) - come to her through personal referrals.

"It's fun to be able to turn someone else on to something fantastic," says loyal customer Phil Rosenthal, executive producer and creator of CBS-TV's Everybody Loves Raymond. "There is a kind of boost to being able to say, `I found these cookies. I know a secret. You can't get these everywhere.' "

This month, Dineen is busy cooking dozens of baked goods that will be given away in a pre-Oscars hospitality suite, sponsored by plus-size clothier Lane Bryant, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Her sugar cookies for this occasion are shaped like a full-figured woman wearing an evening gown. She had to make the cookie cutter herself because in Hollywood, obviously, no such mold exists.

Dineen was smiling over this irony the other morning as she stood in the kitchen of her Pasadena, Calif., house, mixing together butter, heavy cream, sugar, cocoa powder and vanilla extract. She was making a fudge sauce and as she stirred up a dark, rich brew, her two cats, Snickers and Baby, scampered about at her feet. Dineen's actor-husband, Jimmy, was off making a delivery of cookies.

"I guess you could say this is genetic for me. I come from a long line of cooks, and grew up with a treasure-trove of good, old-fashioned American recipes that I got from my mom and grandma," she said. "I strap this on for inspiration." She then pointed to her plain white apron. It once belonged to her great-grandmother, who owned a bar outside of Pittsburgh called Mother's.

If her calories-be-damned style of cooking is somewhat nostalgic, so is Dineen's figure. A 6-foot-1-inch tall brunette who hovers between a size 14 and 16, she resembles a more wholesome Jane Russell.

Or, as her friend, public-relations guru Howard Bragman puts it: "Whitney is voluptuous. Very beautiful, gorgeous complexion, dark hair and creamy skin - like she popped out of Good Housekeeping, circa 1956." He adds: "And her persona is great, too. The reason Whitney's cookies have a cult following is that they are a religion without the proselytizing. The goods speak for themselves."

James Degus, Dineen's agent at United Talent Agency, agrees.

"It's not just that she is plus-size. What makes Whitney unique is that she is big, but doesn't have any issue about it," he said. "That's rare in this town."

Dineen, 36, grew up in Illinois, first, on the south side of Chicago, and then in a farming community called Gibson City in the state's center. Her father was president of a chain of savings and loan banks, and her mother frequently entertained his clients at home.

An early advocate of organic gardening, Dineen's mother, Libby Bohlen, was also a formidable canner and freezer, and famed for her ability to serve a fresh rhubarb pie in December that she'd squirreled away in July. (It's Bohlen's recipe for Luscious Lemon Bars that accompanies this story.)

"Mom fed people for any reason - happy, sad, didn't matter," she says. "Heaven forbid if someone died; you would gain so much weight from her cooking!"

As a child, though, she wasn't much interested in learning recipes. "I told my mom that when I grew up, I would be rich and have hired help."

Dineen studied art history at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where she met her husband. It was during this time that Dineen was approached by a casting agent about the possibility of being a model.

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