(Note: I’ve changed the names and location to protect privacy)
When Charise called me after finding my website, I thought she’d want me to make a video of her wedding or kid’s recital or the usual kind of job people like her want. “I want to be on ‘The Biggest Loser’”, she said. That was very different. I’m familiar with NBC’s show where contestants try to win by losing the most weight. It’s my wife’s favorite show. While I’m not nearly as enthusiastic, I’ll admit I can’t think of too many TV shows that actually help people, garner decent ratings (it’s NBC’s top-rated show at #35 on Nielsen), and make the network a bunch of money at a time when they’re seriously hurting (worst viewership of the major networks). We talked money and I took the job.
Charise met me at the door. For someone who’s obese (5’2″, 215 lbs.), she’s energetic, outgoing, pretty, and seemingly happy. Her husband, Justin, was also there though “he works all the time while I stay home and home-school” her three kids, all under the age of seven. I sit them down on the couch for the interview that. That’s when it gets interesting.
I was trying to ease up to the ugly childhood, horrifying teenage years, and disappointing marriage stories that not only produce eating disorders but memorable reality show performances. But Charise wasted no time. In about thirty seconds, she had recounted her meth-addict mother who “shut her up with food” then abandoned Charise when she was eleven. She lived with her alcoholic uncle and dying grandmother then was befriended in junior high by another girl in a similarly awful home life. They were BFFs until Charise’s friend died of cancer shortly after they graduated from high school.
Charise met Justin, they married, and in no time had three kids. While it seems idyllic (it did to Charise), she soon found herself stressed-out, depressed, and as she did when she was young, eating to soothe herself. Justin, who’s actually a fit, healthy, construction contractor, said he didn’t want to tell Charise to change her situation because it would just “put more pressure on her”. The difference in their eating habits was as dramatic as that of a parakeet and a T-Rex.
“The Biggest Loser” audition instructions say to show the applicant’s self-destructive eating habits. This sounds akin to asking someone who’s suicidal to show us their gun. But Charise was happy to share her favorite and most “disgusting” eating habit: emptying an entire package of Double Stuff Oreo cookies into a big bowl, pouring milk on them, and eating them like cereal. She was right. I almost gagged. I may never eat another Oreo.
While that was heartbreaking enough, there was also the obligatory shot of Charise trying on her old high school dance and cheerleading outfits. It’s at this point I start thinking this is a terrible, exploitative sideshow with real victims dancing like trained chimps. But Charise wants to do it. She wants to be on the show. So she does it. We’ve just transitioned from disgusting to pathetic.
By the time it was over, I think I was more emotionally drained than Charise. I sure wasn’t hungry. I’m sitting down to edit the piece now so she can take it to the casting call here in Salt Lake next week. I really want her to get on the show. But I’m less afraid of her not making it than I am of what’s going to happen if she doesn’t (a very big likelihood). The promise of institutional intervention i.e. church, hospitals, schools is attractive. But if you don’t have the strength to change your own life, can a network TV show do it? I hope Charise finds out. Soon.