As masks, hand sanitizer, isolation and immense uncertainty were becoming the country's new normal, the My Big Fat Fabulous Life star was simultaneously grappling with a more personal catastrophe: Her fiancé Chase Severino was expecting a baby with another woman.
In May, Chase broke the news to fans in an Instagram post, revealing that he was going to become a father in the fall and that their engagement was no more. As she put it to her Instagram followers, "After experiencing a lot of ups and downs and still living apart, Chase reconnected with a woman with whom he has had a long history. Chase recently told me this information and the fact that it had resulted in a pregnancy." It was sour and shocking information for followers who had celebrated with Whitney in December 2019 when she revealed Chase's Parisian proposal, declaring herself "quite possibly the happiest woman alive."
Fast forward mere months later and Whitney was in isolation, confined to her home in the midst of the pandemic with mom Barbara Thore—affectionately known to viewers as Babs—when the news struck. "At the beginning of quarantine, I was taking care of my mom," she explained in an exclusive interview with E! News. "She was with me and I found out about everything that happened with Chase during quarantine, so it was really hard to deal with that without being able to, I feel like, cope in ways that I normally would have. I wasn't able to see friends or get out of my house or, you know, do anything."
With guests—and filming for the show—temporarily barred, Whitney learned that Chase was set to become a dad through a phone call. "He was begging me to meet up with him, which I wasn't going to do, obviously not only for myself, but for my mom," she explained. "I found out about it over the phone...There's not a good way to find out about that."
Put plainly, she continued, "It sucked. I was glad that I had my mom with me because otherwise I would have been totally alone, but it was pretty sh--ty."
Eventually, the two did come face-to-face, as is teased in the show's season eight trailer. "That was really hard for me to decide whether to do or not," she explained. "The whole thing was bizarre—just to have to get that kind of information...when you can't be face-to-face with somebody...and then when we did meet up, it was a lot of stress just in general around the whole thing and it wasn't a normal meet up."
For starters, she elaborated, "It was outside, wearing masks. It was just bizarre. It's just like the Twilight Zone—all of it is."
While the season seven finale left off with the happy, newly engaged couple in the City of Light, Whitney told E! News, "I kind of felt that things were not going great over the holidays."
"I do a fan cruise every November," she recalled. "He came, but he almost didn't come because he was starting to work at this bar and then the bar continued to be the reason that he was still in Wilmington and had not moved to Charlotte [N.C.], so I was, like, not really super happy with the way things were going."
Then, she traveled to Europe without Chase in December 2019. "Things were pretty tense I would say around that time," she described, "so it was around that time that he had got this woman pregnant."
Now, more than a year after he dropped to his knee at the Eiffel Tower, the last signs of their former romance can be found in cordial social media likes. "I spoke to him not too long ago and I try to be kind of supportive I guess online," she said. "I feel bad because it's hard when something this personal and private plays out in public and people are really awful to him online, which I really don't like. I actually, I hate it. I feel bad for him, so right now the extent of our communication is me liking his Instagram posts—that's it."
Should something arise that required addressing, "he would speak to me," Whitney clarified, "but we're not in communication."
Meanwhile, everyone in her life has been supportive, including of course, mom and dad. "My parents really liked him. Obviously, they're really disappointed for me, but I think they stayed pretty just, like, stable through the whole thing, I just think so that maybe I could feel some kind of stability," she recalled. "They weren't losing their tempers or cussing or anything like that...I think they were just kind of quiet, just disappointment in the way that it turned out."
Despite the stoicism, she knows they remain concerned. "They haven't said this," she continued, "but obviously I think that they're probably, you know, they worry about me like settling down, finding happiness while they're still on the Earth, so I'm sure that they're not too happy that I had to start over...They're no closer to grandchildren or anything like that, so it kind of sucks for them as well."
While she's been able to lean on those closest in her life, online critics claiming her relationship with Chase was fake haven't made matters any easier. "It's really disheartening to me that every relationship I've ever been in that's been public, people have said this. This is nothing new," she pointed out. "I read about myself online all the time. People actually say that my friends are paid actors or that nobody could really like me, so obviously they must be getting a big benefit from it."
Whitney notices the speculation ramps up more so around her romantic relationships with men. "It's not surprising. I think it's just sad. I think it's a sad reflection on the fact that people think that fat women can't be loved or that they have a feeling that this person is too attractive or this person's too good for her or why would they want her?" she said. "To me, it just speaks about how people view fat women."
It's all the more concerning for Whitney when the conjecture is sparked by a person approaching her as a fan, like when someone asked for a picture with her at an airport and then added to speculation online the romance was bogus because she and Chase weren't sitting together on a plane returning from France and had allegedly not interacted. "As a person in the public, it makes you feel really unsafe and it makes you feel really disappointed in people," Whitney said in response. "It makes you feel like your boundaries are being crossed...If they want to force me to say it—no, Chase didn't sit next to me on the plane because I have two seats. That's why. Because I need two seats to be comfortable on a transatlantic flight."
While Chase is out of the picture, her longtime friend—and again-roommate—Buddy Bell remains a constant in her life, a platonic one. "He has been the best friend to me. He has waited on me hand and foot. He has done everything for me and he's also seen me naked for hours every single day and we're still not dating, so I'm gonna go with we're just gonna be friends," she clarified.
Recalling how he picked her up from the hospital during the pandemic and stayed with her after she was struggling with panic attacks, Whitney reiterated, "He's been the most wonderful person to me. I could never repay him, literally, for the rest of my life. I don't know what I would have done without him. He's been so wonderful."
While their friendship lives on, 2020 has undoubtedly been a year of unexpected change for Whitney. However, with time comes the chance to mend. "I had months where I just cried every single day and it was awful," she shared, "but I am coming out on the other side now, so that's the positive."
Now, as a new season of the show debuts on Nov. 10, the 36-year-old is approaching her sixth year of sharing her story on television and making an impact in the process. While Whitney acknowledges important moments have happened in body positivity and inclusivity from the time of the show's 2015 premiere to now, there's still plenty of ground to cover.
"As a person of my size, you know, Ashley Graham who's beautiful and wonderful, but her being on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit doesn't do anything for me," she said. "That doesn't help people respect people in bodies like mine."
"It's good we're seeing some steps in some kind of direction," she continued. "I would love to see the focus taken off sexualizing women for their curves, which is I feel like the direction that we're headed in."
As Whitney pointed out, the acceptance is still specific and limited. "Now, we can recognize like, 'Oh, certain women of a certain size can still be sexy,' and yes of course that's true, but that doesn't feel like progress to me," she told E! News. "We're talking about size 14/16 models with perfect proportions. We're not talking about super fat people like me and people bigger than me, fat people in disabled bodies and things like that, so it's a long road. We're still fighting for gay rights and trans rights and all this kind of stuff, so I have no illusions that we slap a model on a magazine and we're done here."
Despite the ways the movement has become commodified and co-opted, "it's still a move in the right direction," Whitney said, "which is important, so I just think that we have a lot more to do than people would think because I'm concerned about like anti-discrimination laws, I'm concerned about doctors treating fat people's illnesses and not just their fatness."
Still, the visibility that she has garnered with the show is not lost on Whitney.
"At the end of the day, I just think if the only thing that this accomplishes is that someone anywhere in the world—because the show airs on every continent except for Antarctica—so, if someone can turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and see representation," she said, "if that's all it accomplished, then that would make me feel like I've done something very meaningful, so this show is a great vehicle for that."
"For me to kind of put a woman of my size in the cultural zeitgeist," Whitney continued, "is something that I never thought would happen and I'm eternally grateful for and will want to continue to do for as long as I can."
A new season of My Big Fat Fabulous Life airs Tuesdays at 8/9c on TLC.
(This story was originally published on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 at 8:30 a.m. PST)