She may have been born a princess, but Catherine Oxenberg learned humility at an early age.
The daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia has always been rebellious, mixing her blueblood with red-blooded American independence. She did what was least expected when she left her childhood of private boarding schools and academic pursuits at Columbia to be an actress.
Many people remember her from “Dynasty,” or “Acapulco H.E.A.T.,” or the film “The Omega Code.” But none of those fabricated narratives is as interesting as her real life.
Now the public will get a close-up view of that on Monday at 8 p.m. when Lifetime premieres “I Married a Princess” (cable channel 51 in Spokane, 30 in Coeur d’Alene).
The reality show follows Oxenberg and her actor-husband, Casper Van Dien, through their hectic lives with their five “blended” children.
Oxenberg has a 14-year-old daughter from an earlier relationship; Van Dien has a boy and a girl, 11 and 8, from his earlier marriage; and they have two girls, 3 and 1, together.
Mixing the families has been one of the most difficult things in her life, says Oxenberg, who draws admiring glances as she seats herself at a side table in a restaurant here.
Dressed in a jade-green skirt, low-cut white jersey blouse and red-and-white cowboy boots, Oxenberg looks like royalty with a twist. And her life has been just that.
Sexually abused by a family member (not her parents) when she was a child, Oxenberg developed a severe eating disorder which afflicted her from high school until the mid-‘90s.
“I had to do a lot of therapy and not just conventional therapy,” she says in her slightly British accent. “It was the hardest thing for me to overcome.
“I tried every single therapeutic technique and process known to man to conquer this. And everything from doing ropes courses in Oklahoma in the middle of winter in a 6-foot blizzard by myself, flinging myself off 50-foot poles. Believe me, I’ve done everything.
“I realize that I have been so self-destructive in my life in so many different ways and I couldn’t understand why. It didn’t make sense. It took me years and years to really heal that in myself. And it’s given me the courage to really help other people.”
The gentle and genteel Oxenberg was brought up to be the perfect little princess.
“That’s what I rebelled against,” she says. “That was very much the case for both my mother’s and my father’s generation. And I’m sure that throwing up and trying to maintain an appropriate body image was very important because when I started to gain weight – when I was 16 in high school – I remember my parents teased me religiously, which was their way of handling it.
“At my top weight in high school I weighed probably 10 pounds more than I weigh now. So we’re not talking about an obese person – a chunky, pubescent teenager.
“Most girls go through that chubby stage. For me it wasn’t really allowed at all. I didn’t perceive that it was allowed because I couldn’t handle the criticism. So I did whatever it took to try to not be teased about being heavy.”
When boys began to notice her, instead of turning her head, it frightened her. One way to protect herself was to gain weight.
Becoming an actress was another form of rebellion. It began when she met, through her mother, an important magazine editor who suddenly thrust her in a 10-page spread in Vogue when she was only 18.
A weeklong marriage to famous producer Robert Evans was part of her childhood insurgency, a mistake that was soon annulled. But Oxenberg considers that serendipitous.
“I’ve done some crazy things in my life and I would say that’s one of the craziest, but I would never have met Casper if I hadn’t married him (Evans),” she says.
“I was offered a script when we were on our ‘honeymoon’ that I wouldn’t have been offered otherwise. And when I did that film the agent of my co-star was the one who offered me the film I did with Casper.
“Convoluted as Fate may be, we should’ve met in an easier way because he and I have the same agent,” she laughs.
Refreshingly honest, Oxenberg met Van Dien (who is seven years her junior) on the film “The Collectors.”
“I had to play somebody who’s more like a Roseanne Barr character, a tough, corrupt, New Orleans cop,” she says. “I was not meant to be cast. But I had a strange feeling I was supposed to do this film. And I really pushed for this character, even though I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’
“When I met Casper it was like a lightning bolt, immediate recognition.”
It still is. Inspired by the show “The Osbournes,” Oxenberg and Van Dien are determined to live a true life in front of the invading cameras. She says she refuses to permit producers to heighten situations or foment crises.
“When you’re dealing with a real family who has a dynamic already you just want to trust that to happen and not interfere,” she says.
At 43, Oxenberg has conquered several hurdles from her past. Becoming a mother completed the change.
“It turned me into a real human being,” she nods. “I don’t think I understood unconditional love before I had children. So it gave me depth, opened my heart and totally humbled me to the divine in me, which was a process I could not control intellectually.”
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