Irreverent and informative, Alissa Bigelow turned raising high a glass of wine into her signature gesture during episodes of “In the Kitchen,” her much-loved cooking show of several years ago.
There was always something to celebrate as she saluted stray details about audience participants seated around a horseshoe bar a few feet from her smile. As skillful with wordplay as she was with a paring knife, she left no pun unzinged, and risqué food innuendo was a staple. “Hey, here’s to little pickles,” she grinned on one show, toasting a man in her audience and, nominally, a garnish for a dish.
“She was the size of a 12-year-old kid and had that essence of a child, coupled with all that energy,” said Jesse Winder, founder of the Karma Yoga studios. Ms. Bigelow found her calling and a measure of peace there while teaching yoga the past couple of years.
“Alissa was so overwhelmingly loving as a person that everyone had the same response,” Winder added. “Everybody who ever met her immediately questioned if she was actually real. I’ve never met anybody who willingly gave love so freely.”
Ms. Bigelow, who behind the effervescence struggled with mental illness that had led to hospitalization, was found Oct. 5 in her Back Bay apartment, where she had taken her life, her family said. She was 38 and on the cusp of managing a new Karma Yoga studio that was to open on Newbury Street.
Marriage had prompted her to settle in Boston, where she received a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University. Although initially she worked at NESN as a video editor and features producer, “she wanted to be in front of the camera,” said her mother, Mary Ann Smego of Chicago. “She didn’t want to be in a dark room, editing.”
For a while, Ms. Bigelow’s ambitions were fulfilled by “In the Kitchen,” a Web-based program for which a broadcast pilot was taped. Online videos showcase how her love of food was exceeded only by her obvious pleasure of sharing with the audience the joy she seemed to take in every single moment.
“But it was hard work to get up in front of all those people,” her mother said. “She had to improvise and entertain them for an hour or two hours.”
A few years ago “things started to fall apart slowly,” said her father, Dr. Douglas Smego, a physician. Ms. Bigelow could not get out of bed, eventually was hospitalized, and her marriage ended.
She had begun studying yoga in her early 20s, “and we said: ‘Why don’t you do yoga? We think it would be really good for you,’ ” her mother said. “She started working at a few studios, and, lo and behold, she got a following.”
Ms. Bigelow, who had stayed with her parents while ill, returned to Boston and taught at Karma Yoga in Allston, Harvard Square, and the South End studios before preparing to manage the Newbury Street studio.
“The influence she had on her students’ lives is what any yoga teacher would dream of,” Winder said. “She touched those people’s lives and gave them compassion and inspiration.”
Some of life’s details still seemed beyond her grasp, including arriving anywhere at the appointed hour. Ms. Bigelow “had gone so far as to buy this ridiculously huge timer for her yoga class so she could at least end on time,” Winder recalled.
During classes, however, “she was very giving of her life and sharing of her experiences,” he said. “Sharing her vulnerability really inspired her students. Alissa was going to be one of the rising stars in Boston, and she deserved it all.”
Alissa Ann Smego was born in Livingston, N.J., and lived in New York City and Louisville, Ky., before moving with her family to Darien, Conn., where she graduated from high school in 1993.
“She was the happiest child in the world,” her mother said. “Everything came easy to her. And with her smile, she was always the center of attention.”
Ms. Bigelow “was magical from the day she was born,” her father said. “She had that inner glow, and people wanted to be around her, even when she was a little girl.”
In turn, she wanted to be around others. As a child in Manhattan, “she knew all the bag ladies on our block,” her father said. In high school, she coached skiing for the Special Olympics.
After a year at Vanderbilt University, Ms. Bigelow moved to California to try acting. “She got a national commercial right away,” her mother said. From 1994 through 1999, as Alissa Ann Smego, she acted in commercials and had walk-on roles in television shows such as “Picket Fences,” “Boy Meets World,” and “Chicago Hope.”
Ms. Bigelow finished her bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Southern California. She married Edward Bigelow IV of Boston in 2002, and seven years ago their daughter, Olivia, was born.
“Then the last few years were a very difficult time,” Ms. Bigelow’s father said, “and it wasn’t her at all.”
Mental illness, he added, “is an epidemic in our country, and it’s flying under the radar, and there’s nobody who’s really paying attention. If we think that medical care is in a shambles, medical care of mental illness is in a true shambles.”
At Karma Yoga, where 70 people showed up Oct. 13 at the Allston studio on short notice to celebrate Ms. Bigelow’s life, “we’re doing everything we can to carry on her spirit,” Winder said. “She would try to find a way to be good to you in your life and was really sincere. I’ve been in this town a long time, and that’s a treasure. She was the real deal with a kind heart.”
And Ms. Bigelow’s daughter, he added, was the center of her world.
“I can’t tell you how many times she shared these amazing stories about her daughter,” Winder said. “I think of her daughter becoming an adult and reading this. She should know her mother loved her more than everything. She was always on her mind and in her heart.”
In addition to her daughter, mother, father, and former husband, Ms. Bigelow leaves her sister, Amy of Chicago; her brother, Raymond of Cincinnati; and her boyfriend, Johnny McDonough of Wellesley.
A funeral Mass will be said at 1 p.m. Nov. 8 in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
Ms. Bigelow was alone when she died, except for two rescue cats to whom she had offered a foster home. When it came to helping others, whether people or animals, “she could never say no,” her mother said.
“The sorrow and pain caught her at that moment and took the life of someone who really had no reason to be leaving,” Winder said.
“Find the strength & fearlessness to Forgive yourself . . . then may you be able to forgive others,” she posted on her Facebook page on Sept. 20.
Left behind online, for family and her friends, are the photos and videos of the smile she used to brighten every encounter, and the memories of her charm that enthralled many from when she was a baby.
At Ms. Bigelow’s first birthday party, her father recalled, she held a napkin in her tiny hand and dabbed crumbs and frosting from her mouth after every bite.
“We don’t have a single photo of her crying or frowning,” he said. “In every single photo, she was smiling. And that was her.”