I was recently contacted by a former Biggest Loser contestant about helping him to write a book about his experiences with the show. The project didn’t move forward but while we were discussing things, he’d talk quite freely about what went on behind the scenes. There are plenty of Biggest Loser secrets alright. A lot of it was not surprising; some of it was even worse than I’d imagined.
There are few realities to keep in mind.
- Ratings are what’s important. Not anybody’s health, not “changing lives.” Ratings, pitching sponsors, and selling the Biggest Loser brand are what matter. Biggest Loser is the most merchandised television show of all time.
- Drama gets ratings. Producers want conflict and intensity between the contestants. Anyone can be sacrificed for network ratings.
- Everything is planned; nothing is left to chance. There’s nothing real about reality shows.
- Extreme weight loss and “big numbers” are what producers want. Viewers want to see the most dramatic, unbelievable transformation. Health doesn’t factor in.
- Contestants are ultimately motivated by big cash prizes and getting their 15 minutes of reality show fame while avoiding being seen as a failure on national television.
When applicants are being interviewed for the show, producers want to find people who have some kind of tragedy or misfortune in their past. They’re looking for what they can use to make it sound like a person has some “reason” why they made themselves fat. The ideal contestant has something they can overcome, something broken that will be “fixed” when they lose weight and become whole again with all credit going to the trainers. The producers choose a combination of people they can pit against each other; contestants will start to compete among themselves for who has the worst tragedy to overcome. While contestants are on the Ranch, cameras are EVERYWHERE of course. Each person is watched constantly by psychologists who determine how they will be manipulated. Trainers are told what to say to contestants to provoke the desired response. Contestants who don’t respond how the producers want are considered a problem and targeted for more intense manipulation.
Producers pick favorites who they will want to win. Contestants are given extensive DNA testing to determine who has the greatest potential to lose a lot of weight. Producers choose a favorite and tell that person they think they could win if they work hard enough. No pressure there! They’ve wanted women to win because the viewership is largely female and women spend the most money on weight loss products and services. They’ve also wanted a Black grand prize winner and in a recent season tried to groom a particular contestant but the weigh ins didn’t work out.
Before they are flown out to Los Angeles, contestants are told to take pictures and make videos of themselves eating their favorite foods, preferably in some gluttonous, face-stuffing manner while mugging for the camera.
Contestants are not allowed to tell their employers why they want time off. This is to prevent the media from finding out who the contestants are before NBC introduces them on the show. Revealing anything to anybody about the show can get a contestant kicked off before they even leave home. A lot of alternates are chosen and are also brought to California in case a first-string contestant is dropped. All those extra people are sent home once production begins.
Contestants are sequestered from each other when they’re brought out to California and before production starts. While they’re being transported wherever they need to go, it’s not unusual that they’ll be taken to a fast food restaurant and encouraged to eat. They’re all out there for a few weeks before the show actually begins. Like inmates in a prison, they devise secret ways of communicating with each other.
Contestants are paid a stipend for being on the show so their basic expenses back home can be covered.
Deliberately trying to get the contestants to throw up or generally break down during the first work out of a new season has become a show staple. Because people love to see fatties getting their asses kicked. It’s a fan favorite!
The Biggest Loser gym is a production set. There isn’t even any running water. Contestants have to leave the set to go use a bathroom at another location.
Dolvett Quince was a wannabe actor who had some celebrity training clients prior to joining the show. He’s most often used as the dramatic foil to break down contestants and get them crying.
The weigh ins are deceptive in many ways. It’s become a badly-kept secret that the weigh ins are rarely one week apart. The amount of time between “official” weigh ins can vary but the show is carefully edited to make it appear that just one week has passed. What you see on TV is all an act. The contestants are weighed under extremely controlled conditions off camera. Most people choose to be weighed completely naked. If a quarter million dollars is on the line, they’re not going to risk the ounce a pair of undies might add. They are tested for their level of hydration to be sure no one is attempting to cheat by dehydrating themselves. If dehydration is suspected, a contestant will be required to drink water before getting on the scale. Conversely, there’s no accounting for women in menstruation. Female contestants can be at a great disadvantage but there’s nothing in place to account for the possible effects of their monthly periods. I’d expect it’s very possible after a couple of months, many women on Biggest Loser aren’t menstruating normally anyway.
Show doctor Robert Huizenga, former team physician for the Los Angeles Raiders, told contestants that the extreme and rapid weight loss they experience during the show can cause their brains to shrink. Oh great.
The contestants are allowed to cover their bodies as a reward as the season progresses. Initially, they’re required to remove their tee shirts for weigh ins so that their fat rolls can be on display while they’re at their heaviest.
Medical emergencies are only shown when it looks like the contestant is suffering from the weaknesses and poor health of their fat body. There’s a story that when a contestant experienced a medical issue during the night when only a skeleton crew is on the set, show personnel refused to call an ambulance because media trucks were outside. Fellow contestants helped the person out.
The show has featured celebrities from entertainment and sports. A sports figure contestant was allowed to leave the Ranch for visits with his wife. There’s a story that he was caught eating candy bars and junk food when he was away and given the choice of leaving the show on his own or being exposed for what he ate.
After the show ends, producers have their favorites they stay in touch with and include in future shows and Biggest Loser events. Some people never get a call. It’s been my personal observation that local Chicago grand prize winner Michael Ventrella has been ignored by the show for unknown reasons. Despite having been the heaviest contestant to win, he was never featured on any follow up shows.
Former contestants have a private Facebook group. There are about 300 alums by now. When someone stops participating in the group, it’s generally assumed that person has started gaining weight back.
I tried researching as many former Biggest Loser contestants as I could find online. Many try to use their Biggest Loser notoriety in some way by writing books, offering fitness and weight loss consulting, or just using their name to promote some kind of business venture. There are lot of dormant websites, aging blog posts, and dead links out there. Several former contestants start some kind of non-profit organization; I couldn’t find one that’s lasted.
Season 5 winner Ali Vincent was the first woman to win and the show’s favorite daughter. She has gone on to have her own television show on the Live Well Network.
One of the more successful former contestants I found was Pete Thomas, at home winner of season two. Pete has established himself in corporate wellness, wisely focusing on the trucking industry. His website indicates he continues to maintain a full schedule of speaking and public appearances.
Tara Costa of season seven was an interesting case. She won EVERY challenge on the show only to lose the grand prize to the then-oldest ever winner. After the show, she started doing the rounds of IronMan competitions and races. She landed back in the news when she was sued by a sponsor who claimed she’d gained weight in breach of their contract. She’s now a teacher and moderately active on social media. In current photos, she looks quite trim.
While the former contestant who contacted me doesn’t live in Chicago, we’ve got our share of winners and former contestants. Season 14 winner Danni Allen recently opened a yoga studio and shills for Larabar. Jerry and Estella Hayes, the oldest couple to appear on the show, are reportedly working as trainers at the Biggest Loser Resort out in the Chicago suburbs. Dan Evans of nearby Frankfort IL used his Biggest Loser fame to release a country music album and continues to tour. He’s a frequent participant at Biggest Loser Run/Walk events.
Other Chicagoans have gone back to the careers they had before they took a detour into reality television. Attorney Bobby Saleem got headlines for coming out on the show, prompting trainer Bob Harper to admit what everyone already knew. Teacher and at-home winner Bernie Salazar completed his Masters in Education and published a children’s book. He got some press for a kid’s fitness company that didn’t seem to get off the ground. Tanya Winfield was the COO of a Chicago fried chicken chain and now heads up her own consulting firm.
Biggest Loser may be dying a slow death as NBC attempts to hang on to the centerpiece of the show’s merchandising empire. As of this season’s move to Thursday nights, the show is consistently the big ratings loser with Shonda Rhimes dramas on ABC running neck and neck to football on CBS. It’s a general consensus that the bizarre season 13 mutiny broke the show for good. The current “Glory Days” season stretches the idea of “former athletes” with many contestants having just high school backgrounds in athletics or cheerleading. The most recognizable name was eliminated on the first week but two NFL players are still in the running.
As for the former Biggest Loser who contacted me? If he can figure out how to parlay a few forgettable reality show episodes into his 15 minutes, good luck to him.