Imagine for a moment being only 26 years old with your whole life ahead of you and hearing these words: You have terminal cancer. You have only months to live.
This is what happened to Christina Pirello. When doctors gave her little reason for hope because of the advanced stage of her leukemia, she decided to take a trip to Italy. What happened instead is nothing short of miraculous. She changed her diet.
Christina was introduced to Robert Pirello (who eventually became her husband) who in turn introduced her to a new way of eating, including whole, unprocessed food. After a little over a year of her new healthy lifestyle, her doctors were now the ones in shock. Her cancer was gone.
She not only adapted her own lifestyle but also honed her expertise in cooking whole foods so she could share this way of eating with others. Today, Christina is an Emmy-award winning host of the show, Christina Cooks. She’s also the author of several cookbooks including the bestselling Cooking the Whole Foods Way, which was recently named the “Healthiest Cookbook of the Decade” by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Christina certainly is one busy woman. She contributes regularly to The Huffington Post and is a featured columnist for several magazines including Natural Health and Vegetarian Times. She also founded with her husband The Christina Pirello Health Education Initiative in 2008. This organization connects with kids both in schools and on TV to help them learn to make healthier choices.
However, when I talked with Christina she was so personable it was as if I was talking to an old friend. She was both funny and energetic as we talked about a favorite topic of mine, names. We’re both vegan and I could have spent all day talking with her about recipes, benefits of vegan food, animal issues, etc, but we didn’t have all day. We were content to put everything else aside, and for the moment talk about names, what they mean, the impact they have on a life, and how to live up to one. Below are the excerpts of my chat with Christina. I hope you enjoy it!
Name Interview With Christina Pirello:
Hi Christina. Let’s start by talking about your name.
Great! You want to know how I got my name?
Yes – absolutely!
I was born three days before Christmas and my mother, who is Italian, was trying to decide on my name. I’m half Italian and half Irish so my maiden name was Hayes. Because I was due so close to Christmas my mom came up with the name “Holly.” But my mom’s dad, my grandfather, said that she couldn’t name me Holly because he said Holly Hayes sounded like a name for a stripper.
So, next, my mom considered the name Noelle, and again my grandfather vetoed it. That’s when he came up with the name Christina. He told my mother that I would be the best gift she ever gave him and it was true. My grandfather and I were very close up until when he died when I was in my early 20’s. He was one of my favorite people and a huge influence on my life.
What did you think of your name as a child?
I hated my name when I was young because no one else had it. No one else was named Christina. We used to watch Romper Room when I was a kid and the teacher, would call out the names of the kids. She would use a mirror to find the kids and call their names. She would see my brother, Tommy, and call out his name. And she would see my sister, Helen, and call out her name. But she would never see me.
One day I asked my brother why she would see him and call his name and my sister and call her name but she would never call on me and he said, “Oh, you don’t know?” And I said, “Know what?” He responded that the mirror can’t see adopted kids. I was shocked to say the least! So, there were some things that I didn’t like about my childhood. I thought I was an adopted kid (I wasn’t) and my name was always a source of stress for me.
Have you ever had a nickname? Chrissy? Chris?
No one in my family ever shortened my name. They always called me Christina. When I was very young and my younger brother was still little he would call me Tia. But once he learned to speak, he called me Christina. We didn’t shorten names in our house.
My mother gave us names that she loved to say. I think she said mine the most. I was the one she yelled at a lot, but I was also the one that had the most to do. I remember the most common thing I heard said when I was young was “It was my sons who were supposed to torture me like this!” She would say things like “Sit here until I get back” and my brother would just sit there. I had too much curiosity pulling at me. It was as if I was thinking, “What? Do you mean sit in this one place?”
Have you ever changed your name?
No. Well, I mean, I changed my name when I got married. My last name was Hayes and my husband’s name was Pirello. I just think his name sounded more interesting. Christina Pirello had a nice sound to it. The thing is, our family is very Italian, even though we’re half Irish. Even my father who was Irish acted more like an Italian. So when I got married I realized that having an Italian last name worked well for me.
What do you think of your name now as an adult?
I really like my name. I think I just needed to grow into it.
You have a cooking show called Christina Cooks. Do people think your last name is Cooks?
It happens all the time! People will say, “How would you like this set, Mrs. Cooks?” I think to myself, “Are they talking to me?” and then I realize what’s happening; that they’ve confused my last name with the show.
Is Pirello an Italian last name?
It’s Sicilian. Someone in Robert’s family did the genealogy and determined that Robert’s family goes back to Greece when the name was Pirellos. When they came to Sicily they dropped the “s” and when they came to the States someone in the family started spelling it differently.
It’s interesting that your perspective on your name changed over time. What do you like about your name now?
I love my name. It has music to it. I even like that it’s unique; that you don’t hear it every day. I really had to grow into it. When I was a kid I used to make lists of the names I would select if I could change my name. I used to love the name, Juliet.
But now I really like Christina. I think it’s a very feminine, beautiful name. A lot of people ask me where it comes from. My mother had a very unique name. Her name was Tonia. Not Antonia, just Tonia. It’s such an unusual name. It came from a relative in Naples. I always used to wish she had named me that.
A name creates an energy that works with the rest of you to create who you are, how you feel, and how you look.
I agree – Tonia is a beautiful name. What about your sister? Does she like her name?
My sister is the fourth Helen in the family. My mother’s mother was Elena, a derivative of Helen. My mother’s sister is also Elena. They all decided to go by Helen. My sister was the same. She always went by Helen Hayes. She didn’t like the name so I encouraged her to change it. She thought it was too weird to change her name. Her real name actually was Elena but she went by Helen because she thought it was a more Americanized version. It’s typical of people with ethnic names to change their name when coming here. My grandfather who named me was named Gerardo, but he changed to Jerry when he came to the States. That’s the same reason my sister went by Helen. But she did finally decide a few years ago to go by her real name, Elena.
That’s similar to Barack Obama’s name story. He went by the same nickname as his dad, Barry, but decided he wanted to use his real name, Obama. He didn’t have to make any legal changes, but it did require people learning to refer to him differently.
Yes, that is what my sister went through. I think she’s happier with the name Elena.
Christina is so close to Christine. Do people mispronounce your name sometimes?
Yes. Sometimes people call me Christine. I usually correct them when they do that. When I was young and extremely shy I would never correct people. Something happened to me in high school and I got a little braver. That’s when I started correcting people. Now I have to do that on TV. It feels weird, correcting people on TV.
Can we talk about The Christina Pirello Health Education Initiative? It must be a very important organization for you to put your name on it!
I’ve been volunteering in inner-city schools for the last 10 years and I would come home and rant for days. I would tell my husband, “I can’t believe how they feed these kids!” About three years ago my husband said, “Why don’t we start a nonprofit and try to make some changes?” I thought to myself that would be fun. Of course, the first hurdle was setting up the 501c3. I was dreading that, but the IRS was actually very helpful. And we had a great attorney too. They were all just so nice to us throughout the process. They would say things like, “Are you sure you want the language in your application to read this way?” Maybe there was something to the name Christina that they liked!
We got the 501c3 about a year and a half ago. In this economic environment, raising money to make huge systematic changes about the way food is prepared and delivered in public schools is hard. We have worked a lot in Philadelphia schools. We go in and teach the kids about healthy snacks. We also work with the kids to grow gardens so they can see vegetables grow for themselves. Now we’re producing a children’s show called “I Play With My Food” with a corresponding program where we go into the schools. It also includes a website that schools and teachers and kids can use to help this generation that is in so much trouble with their health. Experts are actually predicting that this generation may be the first one to have a shorter lifespan than their parents! The goal of this program is to help them know that they have more healthy options.
You say in your book, Glow, that beauty isn’t limited to surface appearance. It’s the total sum of being. Do you think a person’s name can be part of that being?
I think a person’s name can work for or against them, in their own estimation of who they are and how the world perceives them. People who love their names and feel that they fit them seem to be more comfortable in their skin overall…other people find power in their names. So yes, a name creates an energy that works with the rest of you to create who you are, how you feel, and how you look.
Christina Pirello faced a crucial struggle early on in her life. She took that struggle and turned it into a lifetime of opportunities to help herself and countless others lead more healthy lives. What an amazing accomplishment in and of itself! On top of that, Christina has written five books including:
- Cooking the Whole Foods Way
- Cook Your Way to the Life You Want
- Glow, A Prescription for Radiant Health and Beauty
- Christina Cooks: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Whole Foods But Were Afraid to Ask
- This Crazy Vegan Life.
She’s now working on her sixth book, I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Eat it Anymore. The title alone has me intrigued, but we have to wait a little while to read that one because it’s not going to be published until May 2011. Something to look forward to! In the meantime, you can check out the Christina Cooks Facebook Page to get updates.
A big thank you to Christina for her time in talking with me and sharing more stories about her wonderful life, including the name Christina that she has grown into quite beautifully!