By Melissa Wiley
Life’s ironies are not lost on screenwriter, comedienne, actress, producer, director, and mother Nia Vardalos. After undergoing 10 years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, Vardalos adopted Manny, a blonde Lab whose empathic, playful nature eventually paved the way for another adoption: that of Vardalos and husband Ian Gomez’s daughter earlier this year. The brains and star power of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and My Life in Ruins has also partnered with Manny to drop the fat (but not the Greek). Speaking with the slimmed-down Vardalos, it is clear she is happy and energized—about her lovable pooch, her daughter, and adoption of both the human and animal kind.
How did Manny adapt to sharing you and your husband with your daughter?
I just think Manny is a very sweet soul. He’s just empathetic, and he’s really, really sweet and kind, and his life hasn’t been easy. We found him at a pound, and he was the ruler of the roost for so long, and then we brought our daughter into our world, and he was like, “Say what?” He definitely looked at her like, “How long are you staying?” with a thought bubble over his head. As soon as she went to bed, he was all over us. He was like, “It’s my time. It’s Manny time. It’s all about me.” It was pretty funny. Sometimes my husband and I will have a frozen yogurt or dessert or something, and he jumps onto the couch between us and would look at us like, “And … I’m a grown-up too. She’s in bed. Cough up the yogurt.”
How old is Manny?
We believe he’s 6 because when he came from the rescue we think he was 1 year old.
He’s a Lab?
Yes, he’s a blonde Lab.
Were you specifically looking for a Lab when you decided to adopt?
We had rented a house on the beach. And while I was coming to the end of the fertility wars, I was watching this woman every morning running with these two blonde Labs. They just looked so free and happy. And so the fertility doctor very soon after said to me, “I’m going to recommend something to you, and it’s going to just seem silly, but I’m going to recommend that you get a dog.”
How did you feel about that?
There was such a relief in it because I thought he was going to recommend yet another course of [fertility] treatment or something we hadn’t tried yet. And so when he said so not what I was expecting—for me it was out of left field—I thought, “How do I do that?” So that night I looked on Petfinder.com and put in our zip code and just picked “blonde Lab” because of what I had seen on the beach all summer. It’s the most amazing website, Petfinder.com, because there they were, tons of pictures of just these little eyes looking back at me like, “You can take care of me!” And so Manny was the first one we clicked on.
I just clicked on him to find out what the story was, and this woman—I think her website was called LoveForCanines—emailed me back and said that what I do is go around to all the rescues and scoop up dogs who are about to be put down, and I bring them home and look for loving homes for them. And he hadn’t been fixed. He had kennel cough. And she said that she was sorry, but she had to be really strict because she wanted this placement to stick. And I said OK. And she asked if one of us would be home all the time. “Do you have a fence? Do you have a gate?” She just really interviewed us. I felt the love that she felt for these dogs, and you could hear them barking in the background. And then she didn’t want any money. She said to just donate to the shelter that she found him from, which I thought was amazing. And then the next day she brought him over.
Were there any parallels in adopting a dog and then later adopting a daughter? Do you feel like Manny prepared you in any way?
Definitely, definitely, because the first nights of course he was skittish. He wasn’t sure about his surroundings. We just kept petting him and giving him love and speaking quietly to him. There were issues, like he would nip a little bit, and if you took his food from him, he’d growl. So it was all things about just making sure he felt secure. And then I started to feel this crazy love for him, like to the point where I thought it’s almost as if—it’s so silly—I felt that this is a dog whom I’ve clearly not given birth to, but I love him as if he’s come from my body. And that’s when we started to realize that we were healing emotionally, and we started to talk about adoption very quickly after Manny came into our lives—I’d say about six months afterward.
So the doctor was right?
Yeah. If he had said to me, “I think you should adopt a dog because I think it will heal you and then you will start thinking about adoption, it wouldn’t have happened. I think just him saying the simplest thing—and then whatever the outcome would be, the outcome would be—was just very wise on his part. I cared for Manny in the way one would care for a child. From trimming his nails to bathing him, it was very therapeutic.
I think the woman who asked us all of those questions was doing it for the right reasons, making sure someone hadn’t just gone through a breakup and wasn’t looking for some sort of solace and then would abandon a dog. She was really, really careful, and I appreciated that. And in answering her questions, it made me realize what was important. Ah, yes, someone has to be home all the time. You can’t just bring a dog into your house and bye, go out for dinner and go away for a while and leave the dog with somebody else. She just showed us that you have to be responsible right away.
Do you travel frequently?
We did, but once we had Manny in our lives, we didn’t travel for three years.
Was that a difficult adjustment?
No, we just didn’t want to leave him. We invited our family down here for Christmas, and we didn’t want to go anywhere. We just didn’t want to go anywhere that we couldn’t take him in the car.
Manny has helped you lose weight, correct?
When I shot My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I was very comfortable with my body, and it was only in the reviews that I learned just how audacious people could be when describing the female figure in terms of unappealing and unattractive, overweight, all those words that I just found highly amusing. I think they thought the title My Big Fat Greek Wedding was referring to me. And when I wrote the movie, there’s never any reference whatsoever to John Corbett saying to me, “You’re a big girl, but I love you.” It just doesn’t happen. So I just was just very surprised, but again it just kind of rolled off me.
What happened is, after we adopted Manny and I had stepped away from acting to grieve and I was just writing and very happily—pretty creatively happy—I had started an unhealthy pattern of eating. When I write, I tend to eat more, and plus I’m sitting for eight to sometimes 12 hours. So I had been avoiding doctors for quite a while for the obvious reason. And I have thyroid disease. I was diagnosed 10 years ago. So I finally went in to my thyroid doctor because he said, “I’m not renewing your prescription until you come in.” And he did a whole panel and said, “You have high blood sugar.” And because diabetes runs in my family, it was sort of a wakeup call to do something. At the same time, Manny, who sits at my feet while I write, had also gotten a little bit overweight, and the vet had said, “OK, you are loving this dog with food, and you need to feed him with love.” So we asked how much Manny had to lose, and he said at least six pounds. So my girlfriends and I were all lamenting our weight that summer, and at the time I was throwing the ball in the backyard trying to help Manny run it off, and we were all applauding, “Yay, Manny, yay!” And my girlfriend said, “I’d lose weight too if everyone applauded for me.” And I said, “OK, let’s do it. Let’s all take the Manny six-pound challenge.” Every time we’d get together, we’d eat healthier snacks. We’d put away the chips and put out vegetable sticks, for example. And we’d all tell each other on the weekends when we’d get together, “Hey, I exercised today. I went for a walk today. I did this today. I did that today.” And I would walk with Manny. And so we’d all applaud for each other.
So did everyone exercise with Manny?
No one else had a dog, so we’d take Manny to the beach. It was great exercise for our behinds and thighs, and we all lost weight with Manny.
Was the goal for everyone to lose six pounds then?
The goal for everyone was to get healthy. We stopped talking about the number. We actually didn’t even reveal weights to each other because we said we didn’t want to get obsessive about the number. We just wanted to feel better. The vet had said to me that you’ll actually know when Manny is feeling better when you see him running and not lumbering. And that was such a good lesson for all of us. When we feel better, we know that we’ve achieved our goal. The only reason that I came up with the number 40 [pounds] was because People magazine had asked me what is the exact number [of pounds I had lost] from My Big Fat Greek Wedding to now, and that’s when I realized it was indeed 40 pounds.
Have you noticed having more energy since losing the weight?
Yeah. Both Manny and I have a lot more energy. And it’s changed the way I write too, because now every two hours he’s gotten so conditioned to going for a walk as opposed to lying around for 8 hours that when I’m writing he puts his head in my lap like, “Let’s go.”
Does that make it harder to get into your work?
It’s better I think because my daughter is now in school. And I have in the morning a couple of chunks of time to write, and it has just made me write in a different way. It’s different because it’s made me more reflective because when you walk with a dog in a neighborhood or on the beach or anywhere, it makes me soak in what I’ve just written and then going on, so it is different. I do tend to write in a way, though, in which I don’t go back, even if I’ve soaked in what I’ve just written and then gone on. It just gets me to my next story point.
What are Manny’s advantages over a personal trainer?
When I did achieve a healthier goal and lowered my blood sugar, the thyroid doctor said, “When I told you a year ago that you had to lose weight, you stared at me for a full minute, and I was really scared.” The reason why I probably stared at him unblinking is because he just started to rattle off possibilities and things for me to do that did not compute, like hiring a nutritionist, hiring a personal trainer. I had just come out of this process of doctors and acupuncture and all the things that I tried to have a child that didn’t work, and I really didn’t want to go through another round of professionals telling me what to do. I knew—I think we all know instinctively—how to control our weight.
Have you taught Manny any Greek?
Yes. That’s how I’m teaching my daughter Greek. I speak in Greek to the dog in words that she knew, like “sit,” “lie down,” or “good boy.” So she started to repeat these things to the dog, and then I started to teach her more words just through that process. I taught her [the Greek words for] “tummy,” “ears,” all those things, by pointing them out on Manny and then her. It really, really worked. Food, everything. Words in Greek that I was trying to introduce to her I just taught her through Manny.
Do you feel like Manny helped to welcome your daughter into her new life?
Yeah. We had 14 hours’ notice when we became parents. It was a long process of routes that had fallen through. And then when we worked with American Foster Care, the social worker took my hand and said, “We have 129,000 kids legally free for adoption. You will be a mother very soon.” And even though I had been assured by so many professionals, both medical and lawyers, I for some reason believed this woman. And she was right. Nine months later we got the call, and our daughter walked in the door the next day. And she was brought by the social workers. They carried her from the car. And as she walked in the front yard, Manny walked up to her, and I went “Oh!” because I hadn’t even really thought how she is with dogs. And she looked at him, and he looked at her, and he licked her across the face and neck, and she giggled.
So is Manny warming up to your daughter?
We’ve learned definitely to divide our time, to give him Manny time. So he comes with us everywhere we go. So if I take her to the store, then he comes too. The other night I put her on her bike with the helmet and walked him. The three of us went for a walk around the neighborhood, and he seemed really satisfied with that, like “OK, OK, I’m all right with this.” Usually that’s his time, but he seemed OK that she was coming with us.
These gentle souls who are good with kids are available in rescues. We’ve had people say to us, “Ooh, a rescue. Didn’t you worry that he was abandoned for a reason?” There are so many misconceptions. He was completely housetrained. Yes, he nipped, but he lost that very quickly, within a month or two, and he’s absolutely great with our daughter.