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Jillian Michaels is smiling serenely as she sits on a deck at the Malibu Pier, one of her favorite spots to recharge. It's a classic California scene, and Michaels, 38, is the quintessential California girl in a white T-shirt, khakis, and flip-flops.
She begins telling me about her morning with her usual barely-take-a-breath delivery ("I was starting to smell, so I had to go get Botox in my armpits because I don't like aluminum in there, and...") until I absentmindedly reach for a pack of artificial sweetener to put in my iced coffee. She abruptly stops and narrows her eyes. "Don't touch that!" she yells, as I jump. "Don't inhale within a foot of it!" She grabs a sugar packet and flaps it. "That's 14 calories! That won't kill you!" She points to my artificial sweetener. "That will kill you."
Yes, the former star of The Biggest Loser is still a drill it comes to maters of health. But in most other respects, this is a brand-new Jillian. It has been a year of professional change for her. Last winter she joined the daytime talk show The Doctors only to leave a few months later. ("It was like a relationship that's perfect on paper," she says, "but you're actually not compatible.")
Now she has scaled back with a lower-key wellness show on YouTube in anticipation of a life-changing event: After two years of nerve-racking ups and downs in her quest to adopt a child, she has finally realized her dream of becoming a mom. She recently brought home her new 2-year-old daughter, Lukensia, from Haiti. To top that off, Michael's partner, Heidi Rhoades, recently gave birth to their son, Phoenix. Michaels, who even before her children's arrival had her Malibu home baby proofed and had "like, 50 parenting and adoption books" piled on her bedside table, is so excited she's about to burst. "I can't wait -- just to be this guide, helping these little people through life," she says. As passionate as ever, but with a new, surprisingly softer side, Michaels shares the details of her journey to motherhood.
What was it about your daughter that first grabbed your heart?
I've been to Haiti on and off since I was 27. I met her a year ago on a trip visiting orphanages for All Blessings International, an organization I work with. I was visiting this one orphanage and the next thing I knew she jumped into my arms. She just grabbed me and clung to me and I immediately felt something. I was like, "Oh my God, this is my daughter." I asked people what was going on with her, and they're like, "She's placed already, she's going to a family in Germany." And I said, "I don't think so, I don't think that's meant to be." They thought I was insane. Then last October I got an e-mail from the woman who ran the orphanage that said: "She's available, you can be her mom if you want." Granted, it's not that easy -- you have to go through the process. But that's what happened, and I do think there's a certain amount of fate involved. Life has a way of working out the way it's meant to.
What is your daughter like?
Actually, she's incredibly shy. This was a very good orphanage, but my daughter had a hard time in that environment. It was overwhelming for her. But when she started to visit with me she would come alive and laugh and play. She's clever and adventurous, but it's kind of heartbreaking, because you have to understand she had been there since she was 9 or 10 months old. She's now 2 and the only time she had left the orphanage [prior to the adoption] was when I would take her to the Haitian guesthouse where I stayed nearby. So this was a kid who had never seen the ocean, a swimming pool or a dog. She had never been to a park or a zoo or on a swing set. So she was just running around the yard of this guesthouse, picking up pebbles from gravel on the road. She had never seen gravel before. Pebbles were like gems to her.
Did you bond pretty quickly? Were you nervous about that at first?
I was nervous the first time I stayed with her because you don't have a nanny, you don't have someone with you, it's you at the guesthouse and they show you where the food is and say, "Good luck, here's your kid!" You're there 24/7, there's no handing the kid off to take a shower, so I was sort of thrown into the fire. And she doesn't speak English, obviously, and her Creole is not great because the babies don't get a ton of time with people speaking directly to them, so we would use hand gestures and eye contact, and it was like we had this understanding. It was great because we came through it and I was like, "You know what, kid? We're going to be okay."
Even though the adoption is official, is there a part of you that is still on edge?
I go in and out of panic. You just have this fear that, What if she gets a diaper rash, or the flu? What if she learns how to climb out of her crib? She just turned 2, so I got a toddler bed, but then I'm like, What if she falls out of the toddler bed? So then I bought pillows to lay on the floor next to the bed.
That's typical behavior for a first-time parent.
Yeah. Parents tell me that with the first kid you run into the bedroom with every peep, but by the time you have a third one, she's hanging off your hip upside down as you vacuum.
What kept you going through the emotional ups and downs of this adoption process?
I've had years to put this in place. I left The Biggest Loser thinking an adoption would happen in 2011, but it didn't. You know, you either have the calling to adopt or you don't. I just think I'm meant to raise this little human, that she's meant to be my daughter.
Tell us about Phoenix. What's his little personality like? How is he already different from Lu?
He is the calm one. Patient. She is a firebrand.
What makes him so magical?
Besides everything? He seems, even as a newborn, to sense the energy in the house and temper the mood. If his sister is crying he seems to know and stays calm. He only cries when she's not. It's amazing to me. He also loves to be held. He never wants to be put down, which we are cherishing as we're told that doesn't last long.
What excites you most about motherhood?
Being able to see the world through a young pair of eyes. Everything is new to them -- to see things from a different perspective is a gift.
What terrifies you the most?
I'm afraid my limitations will hurt them in some way. Can I grow enough? Can I evolve fast enough to make sure I don't screw them up? With adopted kids or kids in general they tell you it's going to be trying, that they're not going to say, "Thanks for feeding me and giving me a house." This kid is not there to appreciate you, you know? In fact, you might have gone through hell and high water to put them through school and to support them and give them this great life and then they're going to become a teenager and turn around and give you the finger. Oh my God, that's the day I'm worried about. [Laughs.] But we've all done that. We've all done that to our parents.
Your mother, Jo Ann McKarus, was also a single mom. What was that like for you growing up?
My mom has been a role model for me. She went back to school to become a psychoanalyst. And she always did what she wanted. If she wanted to go to the gym, she'd leave me with the housekeeper. Instead of feeling neglected, I saw a woman who took care of herself and it was a good example for me.
Has anyone been negative about your decision to adopt as a single mom?
Ann Coulter. I met [the conservative commentator] during the first segment I ever did on The Doctors. She said I was a selfish narcissist for wanting to adopt as a single parent -- that a child who grows up without a father is greatly disadvantaged. I'm a brawler, so when she said that I was like...come here, I'll knock you out. I completely appreciate the importance of fathers but millions of children are without loving homes. I think a child is lucky with one parent who truly loves her.
How do you plan on juggling motherhood with work? Right now you've got your podcast, Daily Dose with Jillian Michaels, which also airs on YouTube.
It's nice because everything I do now, even things I'm working on for next year like a possible cable or primetime show, they're things I can mostly do from home. The DVDs and video games, I can shoot those in a matter of days. My plan is to lay low for a while.
Do you have any secret goals?
When I'm 50 or 60 I want to start a nonprofit. I guess because of the adoption and learning so much about Haiti, I'd like to help come up with a way to prevent malaria. Of course, my biggest goal is to be a good parent. I'm taking time this year to bond with my children -- and just be a mom.