Jillian Michaels: The Queen of Lean
Jillian's Personal Story
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."