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Driving to Malibu from West Hollywood one recent foggy afternoon, I had a nagging thought: Can I lose 10 pounds in the next 45 minutes? Okay, maybe that wasn't my only thought, but I was about to meet Jillian Michaels. And seriously, anyone above a size 8 would have a moment of panic in her presence. As the spitfire trainer on NBC's The Biggest Loser -- the bad cop to Bob Harper's good guy -- Michaels makes the show worth watching, but in the same way you get hooked on a really good soap opera: It seems she doesn't so much coach as berate people into shape. She snarls, she curses, she screams; her entire tiny body sags with disappointment when a contestant under her care gives in to temptation. But the audience adores her, because she is also a hugger and a crier and the contestants' most insane champion. Beyond all the reality-TV showmanship, Michaels seems to give a damn.
And she really does. No kidding.
Michaels and her dog, Seven, greet me at the door of her cozy beachside cottage. She is barefoot; oversize yoga sweats are swimming on her 5-foot-2, size-2 frame. She is not snarling. She is, in fact, warm, and her wide jade eyes watch me solicitously as I sample the coffee and coconut milk she has poured. "This coconut milk is super-good for you," she says. "No antibiotics and more vitamin D than regular milk! What do you think?" It is, of course, nothing like regular milk, though it's a lot tastier than soy. I tell her so and she seems pleased -- maybe she has a new convert?
Because that's what Jillian Michaels wants: converts to health and well-being, but not for the sake of looking cute in a dress. Yes, her growing empire does seem to be about weight loss. She has a best-selling book (Master Your Metabolism) and two new books (The Master Your Metabolism Cookbook and The Master Your Metabolism Calorie Counter) are coming out in April. There are exercise DVDs and a Wii game and a line of weight-loss supplements. But being television's most notable foe of flab was never her goal. "It's so funny I've become this fitness guru, because for me it's never been about fitness," Michaels says. "Getting in shape is just a means to an end. It's like if you said to a contractor, 'How much do you love your toolbox?' He'd be like, 'Um, well I'm passionate about building beautiful houses, and to do that I need these tools.' Well, I'm passionate about helping people rebuild their lives. When someone feels strong physically they feel strong in every aspect of their existence. If they have endurance and achieve in the gym, then I can redefine their entire self-image. I can wipe away years of negativity."
Wiping away negativity is something that Michaels knows more than a little about. She grew up an only child in Tarzana, California, and was, says her mother, Jo Ann McKarus, "exactly who she is now: intense, stubborn, loving. When Jillian walked into a room, you knew she was in the room. She was a pistol."
Michaels has talked frequently about being an overweight teenager -- at 13 years old she tipped the scales at 175 pounds -- but it was far more than that. She was angry. "I lived on junk food. I had no direction," Michaels explains. "Once I punched a hole in our wall. Another time I stole a car." While her mother was naturally thin, Michaels's father, a personal-injury lawyer, was overweight and didn't, she says, know how to communicate with her. "We sort of bonded over food," she says. "When he was alone with me and we had nothing to say to each other, it would be like, 'Let's eat a pizza!'"
McKarus, a psychotherapist, recalls this period of her child's life all too well. "I was in the midst of a divorce -- not nasty but nevertheless miserable, and here was this poor girl watching her family come apart," she says. Michaels had never been an avid athlete, but her mother knew her daughter needed a physical outlet. "She needed to feel empowered." A man McKarus was dating at the time had nephews who were into martial arts -- and Michaels was interested. McKarus enrolled her in classes and the classes changed her life.
Before her stint on The Biggest Loser Michaels held a series of jobs: bartending ("at 17, with a fake ID") while attending California State University, Northridge; then, after graduation, she joined ICM as an agent -- a job she hated. Later she started working as a fitness trainer and eventually opened her own gym, Sky Sport & Spa, with Jackie Warner (who went on to star in a reality series as well, Bravo's Work Out).
But it was the early lessons she learned at the martial arts studio that shaped Michaels profoundly -- particularly in the way she uses fear as a tactic. Critics have asked whether Michaels' cursing and carrying on with contestants is, strictly speaking, necessary. This is how she explains it:
"There was this time when my parents were going through some s--- and I was sparring with my instructor, and he kept kicking me. I thought he'd stop if I cried, but the more I cried, the harder he kicked. And he was like, 'I don't give a f---, if you don't fight your way out of this corner I will kill you.' And so I fought my way out of the corner."
And this, Michaels believes, is the approach that's necessary for people who have been making excuses for their behavior all their lives, who have a "negative dialogue" going on in their heads with respect to the things they think they can't do. "You can circumvent the negative thinking with fear," Michaels says. "Just the way a mother can lift a car off a child -- it's like, fear makes you live in the moment. Sometimes I need to intimidate a person, and then they do what I ask, and when they see they can be successful it is the most amazing experience for them. I can use the techniques they have used to program themselves for destruction and program them for success."
That's exactly what Michelle Aguilar, the Season 6 winner, says Michaels did for her. "When I wanted to quit in week five, she wasn't all, 'There's the door; it's my way or the highway.' She knew I'd had a problem with women supporting me. I thought if I messed up, they'd leave," she says. "So instead she was like, 'I'll support you no matter what you decide but I want you to stay.' It was her attitude, not just her training techniques, that made all the difference."
While Michaels (and the contestants) defends her strategies, she hates being defined by them; in real life she is not, as she puts it, "Crazy Yelly Girl." "The Biggest Loser is like a funhouse mirror. I've loved the show and the platform it has given me, but still, it is the nature of reality TV to manipulate," she says. "You never see what's going on in its entirety. For every 10 minutes we're on the show, acting like insane people, there are a hundred hours of training you don't see. The stretching, the icing. Nobody wants to watch that."
Michaels is not only concerned about the overblown drama but about the contestants themselves. They are, of course, screened and under medical supervision. But when I mention that I'm sure at some point something horrible will happen, she looks at me grimly. "You're the fifth person to say that to me this week. And you're not wrong. The contestants keep getting bigger and bigger."
The producers of the show do not disagree. "We all worry," says executive producer Todd A. Nelson. "You're setting yourself up for failure if you don't." On the other hand, Nelson believes that every year they learn more about how to monitor and manage the medical conditions of the heaviest contestants, "and this allows us to fine-tune the process and reach out to a heavier population."
Still, last season two people told to run a mile on their first day wound up in a hospital with heat exhaustion. And the season before that a woman who wasn't prepared ran a half marathon and got a stress fracture. "As the trainers we have no say over the challenges," says Michaels. "We worry about them, too."
One thing Michaels does not worry about is going back to her former chubby self. Cheerfully she gives me a tour of her refrigerator and cupboards, quick to point out that she is no fan of deprivation: Everything is organic, but there is dark chocolate, wine, Peanut Butter Newman-O's. When she's not working she's doing something active, like kickboxing.
And what does she think of the Time magazine cover story that said exercise won't necessarily help you lose weight? "That's the dumbest thing ever," she says. "I've taken 100 pounds off someone in seven weeks -- you think that's just diet?" Exercise accelerates weight loss, Michaels adds, but a person can eat his or her way through the exercise. "Look, it's simple math," she says. "You run, you burn 500 calories; you eat a slice of pizza, you're f---ed."
For those of us who are dubious about the power of people to make great changes in their lives, meeting Michaels is, genuinely, inspirational. She has transformed her body, which, she says, has transformed her mind. And she has made peace with her family: She and her mother are close, and while she is estranged from her father, she is still grateful that he gave her an "ambitious, aggressive, larger-than-life persona" -- not to mention her abiding love of horses and fast cars (she has a Ferrari). Michaels rejected the status quo in other ways, too. Unhappy about her tough-love image on The Biggest Loser, she complained long and loud. She wanted a more positive way to help people reach their goals. And so in addition to Loser she'll be filming a new NBC show, Losing It with Jillian, in the spring. This time she'll be a life coach who moves into people's houses and fixes their various problems -- a premise that will allow her to be "not just this one-dimensional screamer."
As her star rises it makes me wonder about the status of her romantic life. In the past she has complained about being unlucky in love. Is that still the case? "Let's just say I believe in healthy love. If I fall in love with a woman, that's awesome. If I fall in love with a man, that's awesome. As long as you fall in love...it's like organic food. I only eat healthy food, and I only want healthy love!" Whoever it is for Michaels, they should know what they're getting: one smart cookie.
Treat the real problem.
Weight gain is a manifestation of other issues, not the problem itself. So losing weight can also provide an opportunity for self-exploration. If you don't look at the root of the problem, the weight will come back. Get into therapy. Ask for help.
You can lose weight a hundred different ways, but if you want to keep it off you have to do something you can maintain for the rest of your life. Eating healthily and exercising moderately is key; yo-yo dieting messes with your metabolism.
Put yourself first.
It's the norm for women to skip doctors' appointments, miss sleep, stop working out. This MO never works because we get so run down we have nothing to offer. Put some of your needs first and you'll be a better role model for your kids.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2010.