It’s Vanessa Williams’ lone day off from a rigorous 8-show-a-week schedule starring in Broadway’s The Trip to Bountiful, but she still woke up at the crack of dawn. Like many women, at any given time she’s juggling many balls in the air. So she knows firsthand how women often ignore their own health.
“We’re so used to taking care of everyone else,” she says. “So having severe fatigue or feeling lethargic, women often just think they’re tired or maybe coming down with the flu.”
The problem is that that run-over-by-a-truck feeling—as well as other flu-like symptoms like nausea, sweating and looking pale—is a major warning sign of heart attack in women. (The chest or arm pain we think of as indicating a heart attack is more common in men.)
So Williams, 50, has teamed with Bayer on the Handbags and Hearts campaign, to raise awareness about women’s symptoms and how they can protect themselves. We chatted with the actress about her personal connection to heart disease, her approach to health as she gets older, and the healthy snack she got all her castmates hooked on.
Spry: You’ve been raising awareness about heart disease for years. What made you take up the cause?
Vanessa Williams: We do not have good hearts in our family! On my dad’s side, his mom died of a heart attack at 53, and my mom’s mom died of a heart attack at 64. Heart health is one of those things I’ve been hyper aware of my whole life. So I thought it was the perfect opportunity to work with Bayer and launch a campaign about women’s heart health, called Handbags and Hearts. We don’t leave the house without our handbag, and we shouldn’t leave without aspirin, either. If you’re having any of those warning symptoms and you take an aspirin immediately—even if you feel like it’s not something serious—if it is a heart attack, the aspirin can help.
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Spry: Knowing your family history, have you made any lifestyle changes in the name of heart health as you’ve gotten older? Or have you always been pretty healthy?
VW: I don’t think my lifestyle has changed, really. I grew up dancing, and I’ve continued to work out almost every day. Cardio is really important to me to strengthen my heart. But I like to change it up—I get bored pretty easily. Right now I’m doing a mixed martial arts class, all kinds of boot camp stuff, a cardio kickboxing class. I have someone who comes to my house for yoga. And if I’m not doing that, I’m doing Zumba at Alvin Ailey’s studio. If I’m going over my lines for a job, I’ll do that on a treadmill.
I’ve never been out-of-control when it comes to eating. I do indulge in what I want, then take it to the gym afterwards. I don’t like to deprive myself, especially when I travel all over the world. I like to be adventuresome in terms of what I eat!
Spry: What’s the best healthy habit your parents instilled in you?
VW: My parents had a vegetable garden—a huge one every year with eggplant and zucchini. We’d sell vegetables in front of my house. Growing up, if we were traveling anywhere, we’d always stop at a fresh farmers market, or buy fresh corn on the side of the highway. If everything you serve your kids is fresh and homemade, your kids have a discerning palate, and they want the good things in life. My kids’ dad and I cook from scratch, so they know the difference.
Spry: What led you to launch a skincare line, ReVitalistic Skincare, on QVC last year?
VW: That came out of aging and being in front of the camera. People are always asking me, “What do you use?” So I thought, “Let me put together all the things in my routine.” I think it’s great for women who are aging, but also for my coworkers who are in their 20s. People love it because they see results.
Spry: What’s the most important aspect of skincare as you age?
VW: I think it changes all the time in terms of texture and moisture and fine lines. So it’s really about trying to stay ahead of the curve, staying on top of what your skin needs. Whether it needs more moisture because you’re on a plane and feel dehydrated, or you’re in a lot of humidity. What you need is always changing.
Spry: Do you have a favorite healthy snack?
VW: I’m obsessed with this brand of popcorn called Skinny Pop. I order it by the case; I have it in my dressing room, and snack on it in between acts. I put some out for the other cast members, and they ate through 6 bags in half an hour. I put some in Cicely Tyson’s dressing room, and now she loves it. It’s tasty, fresh and no-guilt snacking!