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Women Who Inspire: Actress Susan Lucci

Last October, doctors told Susan Lucci she had a 90 percent blockage in the main artery leading her heart and a 75 percent blockage in a branch artery.  She was shocked. At 71, long devoted to a healthy diet and regular exercise, she thought she was in excellent health. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” she told the media.

It’s a cautionary tale. At the time, Lucci was in such good shape that Harper’s Bazaar called her as “hotter than ever” and Women’s Health wrote that she was a “fitness badass.” We had paid attention and asked for an interview with the Emmy Award-winning actress. Only after the interview did news of her emergency heart surgery break.

Outwardly, she appeared very healthy, with none of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Doctors attributed her condition, at least in part, to family history. Lucci’s father had arteriosclerosis and suffered a heart attack in his 40s. “You can be as healthy as you can be but it was my dad’s DNA and genetics that caused my issue. I was so lucky on so many levels,” Lucci says with relief. “If I was at home, like most women I would have just ignored the pain, thinking I was just doing too much and lay down. It was because I was in a boutique shopping with a manager who knew me well and insisted on driving me to the ER that my urgent condition could be treated.”

Lucci is 72 now and says she feels lucky to be alive. “I think it’s really up to us to make the best time of life as we can. My philosophy to aging is really just take it a day at a time,” she says. “I’m back to my normal life and doing that.” Here she tells us about the lifestyle that is now more important to her than ever.

For four decades you had to look television perfect. What kind of fitness routine did you follow through the years?

I didn’t start working out and doing Pilates until my mid-40s. I was living just a very day-to-day active lifestyle, raising my two children and with the busy schedule of All My Children. I certainly wasn’t sitting around sedentary. I played tennis in summer and skied and ice-skated in the winter (my husband’s from Austria). In my 40s I saw a New York Times article on who has a propensity for osteoporosis. Guess who? Small-boned people like me, and I wanted to guard against getting it. My mother was a nurse and all about prevention, and I knew I needed to start doing weight-bearing exercises and just happened to be reading about Pilates one day (I actually thought it was pronounced pie-lattes!). Then I made a good friend certified in Pilates and got hooked.

Susan Lucci doing Pilates

What do you love about Pilates?

After doing Pilates my body feels better from the stretching involved, the luxurious stretching and lengthening of muscles. I’ve found you really do get long lean muscles, and I love that benefit. I’m presently mostly using my Pilates PRO Chair that gives a cardio workout as well. It’s based on Joseph Pilates’ Wunda Chair [patented in 1931]. It helps you build confidence, and it’s playful. Pilates is just so playful. You do jumps like a ballerina, reverse crunches, and moves where you’re up in the air levitating, almost like doing circus tricks. I had two C-sections and my stomach is completely flat — I never thought I’d have flat abs. There’s also a wonderful mind connection to Pilates. I was someone who ate cheeseburgers and fries and tacos, and two weeks after starting Pilates, I didn’t crave them at all.

Do you follow any particular diet now?

I generally eat healthy by choice, not by any diet. I naturally evolved into eating the Mediterranean way, and I think that helps your body greatly. I was given the Super Foods book 10 years ago, and it supported my personal choices, like eating avocado and blueberries.

What about your beauty routine?

It’s all about skin care. I take very good care of my skin. It started in my 20s. I remember very clearly: I was 28, and it was a summer day. I was driving and I caught a glimpse of myself in my rearview mirror. I wasn’t wearing sunglasses and I was squinting, and I thought, This won’t lead to anything good! So I started with wearing sunglasses religiously and then moved to eye cream and moisturizer. I’m half Italian and have oily skin, which I was told would be a blessing down the road. I think it’s helped, but at the time it didn’t feel like it. So I’m very disciplined about taking my makeup off at night. I’m very gentle. No rubbing. I’ve learned that and a lot more from makeup artists. I’ve been lucky to have that in my life. I also have great dermatologists — every woman needs to find a great one.

Do you have favorite products?

I use Neutrogena makeup wipes and Cle de Peau Softening Cleansing Foam. Then I use a serum by Skin Medica. I let it sit a few minutes, then I use La Mer Eye Cream, padding in an upward motion. In the daytime I’ll use the soft cream from La Mer. I use wonderful neck and décolleté creams from Clarins and Guerlain. Maybe once a week I skip moisturizer. I think, maybe, if you don’t give your skin a rest it stops doing its natural thing.

Susan Lucci doing Pilates

After a lifetime focused on wellness, do you ever think, Oh, to hell with it! I’ll just let nature do its thing?

I’m never going to throw up my hands. Nature’s gonna win. Gravity’s gonna pull me down. But, in the meantime, I’m not giving up. And what I love about being a woman in modern times is that women are sharing what works and what they love with each other, which wasn’t the case years ago. So there’s really no need to despair. But after my heart episode, I want to tell all women to listen to what their bodies are telling them, because it’s better to overreact than underreact. We have long to-do lists, and we ourselves are rarely on the list or are at the very bottom. Please, put yourself on your to-do list and listen to your body.

Have you made any bigger changes as a result?

Not really. I gave myself just a week after the surgery to start my daily Pilates again — I still do it every day — and I keep eating my healthy Mediterranean way. But I’m more mindful of stress management, which is so very important for women and heart health. Now I’m looking for where there’s room for even small additional improvements. My husband quit sugar in his coffee after my heart episode. I’m doing less sugar in my coffee, but,” she says, laughing, “I just can’t seem to give up that last little bit.”

Photos: Courtesy of Susan Lucci

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