A healthy life of goals pursued

Nia Vardalos was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, into a big, boisterous clan with two Greek Canadian parents, two sisters, a brother and an exuberantly loving, close-knit extended family. Growing up, gatherings were frequent and loud, full of fun, food, storytelling and jokes. In her family, she has said, you got attention if you were funny and smart and had something to say, not for what you looked like. She credits their unconditional love for helping her grow up as a self-confident child and become a woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

With the foundation of healthy confidence instilled by her upbringing, Vardalos refuses to change who she is or to follow others’ ideals about how or who she should be and instead makes the choice to pursue success, health and happiness on her terms. For example, when training to be an actress, she was told there weren’t many roles for her “type” — so she joined the Second City comedy troupe and spent five years, as she says, “happily writing anything I wanted to play.”

When she later moved to Los Angeles to pursue an on-camera career, she says that “I was told that my being Greek was a problem and that I should hide my ethnicity, change my name, get a nose job, etc., because there weren’t any Greek roles.” Instead, inspired by her gregarious and loving family, she wrote a screenplay. Realizing she didn’t have an inside track to any movie studios or agents, Vardalos turned it into a solo stage piece and performed it in a theater rented with the last of her savings. The play caught the attention of Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, who produced her screenplay, starring Vardalos as the bride. The low-budget 2002 film is still the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. “There weren’t any Greek roles,” she explained, “So, I wrote the screenplay for My Big Fat Greek Wedding and created some.”

Happy, Hearty and Healthy

In the same vein, when it comes to health and wellness, Vardalos insists upon defining success for herself based on her own values, preferring to focus on being happy and healthy rather than weight and body size. As with many women, her weight can fluctuate, but she doesn’t worry about it. “I don’t think about weight, instead I focus on health,” she says. She loves to cook and throw dinner parties, and enjoys experimenting with new challenges like gluten-free recipes and her own homemade cashew butter (even though she broke her blender the first time she tried that one!). When it comes to stocking her pantry and fridge, she makes it a point to shop for fresh produce and other healthful foods. “I don’t mean I get up at 5 a.m. to catch my own fish in the ocean,” she clarifies, “I just try to buy fresh proteins, fruits and vegetables. I work, writing screenplays every day, and find that my thinking is more clear when I am eating well.”

Vardalos’ down-to-earth, unassuming attitude is refreshing in the show business world. When asked about her advice for a healthy life, she jokes, “I try very hard to never offer advice except to advise people to not take advice from an actress. I don’t have a ‘secret’ to a healthy lifestyle and don’t believe there is one. What works for me to maintain energy throughout my day is something I once observed in my toddler daughter. She ate every two hours, so I do that too. I eat. Often. It’s possibly why I smile so much. Like many people, when I have time, I exercise and take a multi-vitamin when I remember.”

Vardalos says physical activity helps her with her writing. “I don’t exercise for body control, I do it to clear my head and figure out what to write next,” she explains. “My focus is less on the body and more on the brain. Walking is the answer to most of my daily issues with my screenwriting. If I can’t figure out what to write in a script, I will go for a walk, have coffee with girlfriends or go grocery shopping.”

She also credits her high energy level to the amount of water she drinks: “As soon as I wake up, I drink a full 8-ounce glass of water, and throughout the day I will drink a full glass of water every hour.”

Motherhood and Balance

In 2013 Vardalos authored a New York Times bestselling book, Instant Mom, which shares her story of struggling with infertility and adopting her daughter, in hopes of helping other prospective parents navigate the sometimes bewildering process of adopting a child and even figuring out whether to become a parent. The book describes how life changing and transformational becoming a mother was for her, but she understands that each woman’s life is unique and is a fierce advocate for women supporting each other nonjudgmentally no matter what road they decide to take. “My focus is to empower people to make the life choice that works for them,” she insists. “I searched for motherhood, this was my choice, but a life without children is also valid and complete. I applaud all women.”

With her career continuing at full steam, including her renowned recent off-Broadway stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-seller Tiny Beautiful Things, Vardalos counts on her health and high energy to juggle all the demands of her busy life. Like any working parent, Vardalos has had her share of non-stop days, lost sleep and harrowing moments of trying to keep it all together. She and her husband are both actors, and scheduling work and family time can be a challenge. Through it all, they keep their sense of humor and perspective.

“I believe aiming for daily balance is the key for all people, but it is impossible to achieve so I hope people don’t think someone else’s life is any more amazing than theirs,” said Vardalos. “Please don’t believe the photoshopped people present on social media, none of it is real, we all have problems and issues.”

Many Facets to Health

Even with her busy lifestyle, Vardalos believes that part of a truly healthy and successful life is giving back and makes it a point to volunteer her time for numerous charities. “I believe we are each a thread in the fabric of society – that we must take care of each other. I mentor new screenwriters because I believe a creative outlet is valuable for all, and I also help people who are choosing to adopt, by personal counseling, connecting them to social workers and by donating all proceeds from my book.”

Your Best Self

Vardalos credits both audacity and tenacity for her success, which came about because she wouldn’t take no for an answer but instead charted her own course. Since writing and acting in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, she has gone on to achieve great success in movies and TV and on stage, following her own inner guidance to show her the way. She is passionate about supporting others, especially women, in developing their own material and following their own creative voices. Vardalos believes wholeheartedly in the wisdom and fulfillment found in listening to yourself and choosing your own direction, whether that is in the acting field or any other endeavor.

“If you have the desire to be the best baker, scientist, musician, then please go for that goal,” she said. “Even if you don’t make it as a ballerina, firefighter, surgeon … the life experiences you get to live on that path will make you a better person.”

From a young age Vardalos loved the theater. “I was that annoying loud child who never stopped singing all the roles in show tunes,” she shared. “I felt lucky to grow up in a city that had ballet, theater, musicals and more. I had access to creativity and saved every cent I had for cast albums from a place that I had never seen: Broadway.” She has boldly and happily followed that natural passion and designed a life meant for her, rather than trying to mold herself to fit others’ expectations.

“I was not born into a show business family and yet, I believed I could have a career in the industry. I was raised by my parents to be optimistic and think, ‘why not me?’ We are each the sum total of our dreams,” she shared, “without them, we don’t exist. There are realities we must face, from working to parenting to paying our rent, but I hope we continue to reach for more, try new things, and above all, dream.”

When asked what she’d like readers to learn from her story, Vardalos said, “If there is anything in this article that inspires you to write, paint or dance, I hope you will. I believe a ‘healthy life’ means one of goals pursued whether they are achieved or not. I hope I can pass this message on and on and on.”

Tweet @niavardalos and @hlmsmag about her #SamsClubMag story.

Jodi Marsh is the executive editor for Healthy Living Made Simple.