What’s it like to be a contestant on The Biggest Loser?

What’s it like to be a contestant on The Biggest Loser?

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Since its debut in 2004, NBC’s The Biggest Loser has inspired tens of thousands of people—including about 100 contestants—to lose weight. It’s also inspired all manner of speculation about the show’s behind-the-scenes happenings. How do contestants lose so much weight in about six months, and what’s life like on the ranch when the cameras aren’t rolling?
Philadelphia DJ Nicole Michalik knows. She was a contestant on the fourth season of the show, and now hosts the weekly Biggest Loser podcast on the TV Talk network. She spent weeks eating healthy and working out for hours on end. She’s kept in touch with her trainer, Bob Harper, and other contestants from the show, and while she didn’t win her season, she has no illusions about the show and its fairy tales of transformation. The A.V. Club talked to Michalik about the contestants’ food and workouts, as well as whether The Biggest Loser is a realistic portrayal of weight loss. 

The A.V. Club: How did you get on The Biggest Loser?

Nicole Michalik: I got cast because I was overweight my entire life, but I was a ham and always liked to talk and entertain. 

I never watched the show before, but I was sitting on my couch, probably just finishing an order of mozzarella cheese fries, and I actually turned it on. It was season two and right at the end, it says, “Do you think you have what it takes to be on season three of The Biggest Loser?” And I’m like, “You know what, I’m fat, I’m a ham, I’m competitive, I definitely think I can do this.” 

So, I did an audition tape. At that time I was working part-time as an on-air DJ, and I was working full-time as a receptionist. I did a whole thing about how I work all the time and I’m trying to make it full-time in radio. And I want my own show so, between working these jobs, what do I do? I go to the menu drawer. I had this drawer in my house that had all different kinds of menus from Philly. There was a place that delivered burritos, so I did that whole thing and then I’m like, “To prove to you I’m going to do it, I’m going to run up the Rocky steps.” Halfway through, I started pretending I couldn’t go and started crawling. I was like, “Please, Biggest Loser. Help me make it to the top,” and got down on my hands and knees. Then, I sent it with very Philly-centric items: Tastykakes, soft pretzels, and take out menus. I was like, “I surrender these to you, Biggest Loser. Please pick me.” 

Fast-forward to about a month later, I got an email saying that they need more information. So I sent them more pictures and a little bit more information. Then I never heard anything. I knew I was supposed to be on the show, but I just forgot about it and kept eating mozzarella cheese fries. In February of 2007, I was just sitting on my couch, watching something on TiVo and I got a phone call. They said, “Is this Nicole? Congratulations, you're a semi-finalist for season four of The Biggest Loser.” I never reapplied; they just kept all my information and used me for the next season. 

So they’re like, “You have to drive to Norfolk, Virginia, or Columbus, Ohio to do an on-camera interview.” So my two best friends and I drove to Norfolk, and we stayed at the DoubleTree, which means we got free cookies. And I did this two-hour, on-camera interview with two of the casting directors. Then for the next six weeks, every day was like, “Send pictures of when you were at the prom, send pictures of when you were 8. Do you know how to swim? Do you have any tattoos?” It was a million questions and a million phone interviews, and that went on for about six weeks. And this was before smart phones, so my poor mom and dad had to go to CVS to scan pictures and send them in. They really make you jump through a lot of hoops, because I think they want to see how bad you want it. 

Then it was a Friday night—I remember it felt so poetic, because I was at the Cheeseburger In Paradise restaurant—and I got the phone call. “Congratulations, you're a finalist.” They fly 32 people to L.A. and you’re sequestered for a week. You’re locked away in this hotel room and the casting people have your key. We met with the executives, we went to the doctor, and we had to do a photo shoot. One day you would see somebody and the next day you wouldn’t, because producers were weeding everyone out. That was a weeklong process of every kind of interview and test you could imagine. Then they pulled us in a room and said, “Congratulations, you are season four of The Biggest Loser. Your life will forever be defined as before The Biggest Loser and after.” And I remember thinking to myself, “Who do these assholes think they are? My life is not going to be defined by a reality show.” But they were a 150 percent right. I always say, “Oh my God, that’s when I was fat,” or, “Oh my God, that was before the show.” That’s totally how I define: before and after. 

Anyway, then I had to run down to my hotel room and call my parents, call my best friends, and email my boss. I said, “I have no idea when I’ll talk to you,” and then they came knocking at my door and I had to hand over like my wallet, my ID, my cell phone, my computer and that was it. The next day we started shooting episode one.

AVC: So it just starts right away? You can’t go home and eat a whole cake? 

NM: Nope. They don’t tell you anything that’s going on. You’re locked in this hotel room, and I thought they were going to watch us so I started eating healthy that week. I didn’t even eat poorly, because I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t committed. It turns out that I probably should have, because the higher your weight when you start, the better. But I was so nervous that I actually ended up losing five pounds just being in the hotel room, because I was afraid to eat. 

Then it [starts] right away. You go to sleep, and the next day you wake up and you’re in a van. They took us to the Mojave Desert, and we shot episode one. 

AVC: Do you have a sense of what producers were looking for when they picked you over someone else? 

NM: I think it’s a combination of things. We spent an entire day getting medical tests. A lot of people aren’t actually physically fit to be able to do it. We worked out six to seven hours a day. Even though we were fat, we still had to be healthy and there were some people that just weren’t healthy enough. 

They also typecast every season. You have the mom who wants to be a better mom, and you have the dad who lost his father to alcoholism and doesn't want to be the same kind of dad. I was the single girl who wanted to lose weight so I can come home and slut it up around Philly. I was the typical single girl that was living in the city and working on her career and just wanted to be hot, basically. My whole thing was that I wanted to wear skinny jeans. 

AVC: What’s a normal day of shooting like? 

NM: It depends. Out of seven days, usually five days were shooting days, and two days were dark days, which meant there was no crew there, but we still worked out. 

My season was season four, so it was a while ago and before the show got insanely popular. Bob was my trainer, and we saw him every single day. Even the days the cameras weren’t there, he would still come over, or we would go to his house or go for manicures and pedicures or we’d go to the movies. They made us live a semi-normal life even though we had no computers, no cell phones, no televisions, nothing. 

For instance, if it was a challenge day, we would wake up and work out on our own and then the cameras would be there and we’d probably shoot for like two hours, then we would go do the challenge. The cameras weren’t there 24/7. They were only there for a certain amount of time. 

The day before weigh in was our last-chance workout. So that’s when we would get up at 6 a.m. and work out for two hours. Then we would go eat. Then we’d work out for another two hours and do on-camera interviews. Then we’d work out for another two hours, so it was always broken up like that. 

AVC: Was Bob your only trainer? 

NM: Bob was my only trainer, yeah. 

AVC: You can’t even listen to the radio when you’re working out, right?

NM: On dark days when they weren't shooting, Bob would bring this really big Bose speaker and he and Jillian [Michaels] would switch back and forth. We’d all be in the gym together even though Bob, Jillian, and Kim [Lyons] would train us individually, and they would switch the songs. 

We did have iPods and music when the cameras weren’t there. But when the cameras were actually on us, we just had to get our asses kicked with no music, which was miserable. 

AVC: How do the off days work? 

NM: We shot in Camarillo, which is about 60 miles north of L.A., so the trainers live pretty far away. On dark days the production crew would drive us down into actual L.A. and we would take a spin class at Crunch or we'd go to Barry’s Bootcamp or we’d hike Runyon Canyon. We would go to Whole Foods. We would eat salad at Whole Foods—we couldn’t actually eat anything—but we were allowed to still exist a little bit. We were always with a production crew, and we always had a babysitter. Somebody was always with us, because they needed to know where we were at all times. 

AVC: And they would pay for your lunches and your movies? 

NM: Exactly. They would have a credit card, or they would be expensed. The first month we were there we had no contact with the outside world. Then, after a month, we started getting letters from home—actual, physical letters. But it wasn’t until we were there for two and a half months that we finally got phone calls. 

AVC: That’s extreme. 

NM: I didn't care. I was 26, and I was having such a good time. I couldn’t have cared less. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I’d call my mom and dad, and I would talk to them for six minutes. I’d rotate and call a best friend every week, but you couldn’t say anything, because there was somebody sitting right next to you. So no one really knew what was going on. “I’m good, I’m fine, I’m losing weight. Okay, cool, see you, love you.” I couldn’t have cared less, but people that are married and have kids and stuff, it was a lot harder on them. 

AVC: Why did you think it was fun? It sounds like a grind. 

NM: It sounds crazy, but I loved every minute that I was there. I loved the people that I was there with. I made such good friends. I’m going to London with my friend Hollie [Self] who I met on the show. I was just with her in San Francisco two weeks ago. You have this really strange bond that you can’t explain—everyone’s in the same situation. 

And when you're in L.A., there’s nothing to worry about. All you have to do is eat, sleep, and work out. I was overweight my whole life, and I never knew why. The fact that I was getting stronger and healthier and having fun and hanging out in L.A. and not having anything to worry about, that was great. It did suck and you were sore, but your mind is the strongest muscle in your body and when you have nothing else to worry about except working out, it’s easy to do. It sounds ridiculous, because it is hard, but in the grand scheme of things, you don’t have work, you don’t have family, you don’t have another commitment. All you have to do is eat really good food that’s provided for you and work out. 

It’s funny now, watching the show, because you see people complaining and stuff, and I think, “You’re all pussies. I did it.” There was never one second that I ever thought, “I want to go home.” I made it to the week before finals and when I got voted off, I was devastated. I did not want to go home. 

AVC: Do they actually send you home? You don’t get sequestered like on other reality shows? 

NM: Yeah. You actually go home. 

Last-chance workout was on Sunday and then we weighed in on Monday. I fell below the yellow line with Julie [Haden], who was on the black team, and there were more black team members than blue team members, so I knew that they were going to vote me off. I had a whole day to cry and give my goodbyes, because there was a whole day until the actual vote off.
They don’t do that any more now; you fall below and you’re gone. 

AVC: Are the “weeks” on the show actual, seven-day weeks?

NM: It depends. We went to Jamaica for our trip, so it was ten days between weigh-ins there instead of seven. It just depends on the production schedule. Some weeks would be as little as five days and some would be two weeks long. 

AVC: When you watch the show, contestants are always making their own food. Is that realistic? 

NM: We really did make it. 

We had a production assistant; we would give them a list of groceries and they would just buy whatever we wanted. Now, clearly, it was all really healthy stuff, but we could have had organic filet mignon everyday if we wanted it. I didn’t really eat healthy stuff before the show, so I never knew what kind of fish I liked. Doing the show, I found out I really liked Chilean sea bass. After I got voted off, I came home and went to the grocery store and I'm like, “I’ll have eight pieces of Chilean sea bass.” And the guy was like, “Are you sure?” It was $84. I had no concept of how expensive the food was. 

In the beginning, the trainers decided what they wanted in the fridge and the freezer. And we were like, “That’s good,” or, “That’s gross.” Eventually [we] figured out what we liked and what we didn’t. And they would buy us that. 

AVC: Were you working with a nutritionist?

NM: There is a nutritionist, but the majority of what we did was through our trainers. Bob was obviously really versed in what was going on. We always kept it around 1,500 calories for women, and then we would try to have one cheat day, which was funny, because a cheat day was a burger with Ezekiel Bread and extra lean ground beef. It was never a real cheat day. Although Bob did bring us pizza and we did have Pinkberry, but we weren't allowed chocolate, we could only have fruit. We were always very, very, very careful of what we were allowed to eat. 

AVC: Was it your responsibility to stay on your diet? If you wanted to have two steaks one night, could you do it?

NM: If you wanted to overeat on healthy food, that was okay, but there were consequences. Here’s an example: They had marinades on the show. You didn't want to have a lot of salt obviously, because then you're retaining water and at the end of the day it was about weight loss. So if you eat too much salt, you’ll retain a bunch of water and your number will be higher on the scale. This guy Bryan [Washington], who was on the red team, marinated this chicken. He cooked it and was like, “Who wants a piece?” It was so delicious and we’re like, “Why is it so good?” Well, it was soaked in a marinade that had a super-high sodium level. Now, in real life, that’s not a big deal, unless you have high blood pressure or salt is an issue. For the average person who is trying to lose weight, it’s okay if something is a little bit high in salt content. But for us on the show, because it was so about how much weight you’re going to lose per week, you never wanted that to happen. 

AVC: I’ve heard that some contestants go to extremes for the finale weigh-in. Like, they’ll only eat asparagus because it’s a diuretic. Have you heard, or did you see, anything like that?

NM: I think why I was as successful as I was is because I never went to extremes. I had to go back to work when I came off the show. I was in L.A. from April to August, and then from August to December you train for the finale. I worked full-time during that period. I worked out like an hour and a half to two hours a day and I was super, super, super careful about what I’d eat. I would try not to go out to dinner as much, and I was really strict, but I didn't do the Master Cleanse, or I didn't eat just asparagus.

But there are definitely people who have done that to try to win the show, because at that point you have money on the line so it becomes about winning the money rather than the weight loss. That’s why a lot of people gain so much weight back, because they go to drastic extremes to lose that weight. At the end of the day, it’s a competition reality show, so some people kind of go crazy about it, but my experience on the show wasn't drastic. 

We would make quinoa and ground turkey and have low-sodium marinara sauce and that’s what we would eat for lunch or dinner. Or we would have a big salad with tuna and hard-boiled eggs. We were in such a controlled environment that there weren’t other elements that would make you eat anything worse.

AVC: It never smelled like French fries, for example.

NM: Exactly. I'm trying to lose 30 pounds right now and it’s hard, because I’ll go to dinner with my friends who are a size eight and never work out and eat French fries and they are so much thinner than I am, but I have to say no to the fries. I’m going to get a piece of chicken and steamed broccoli, and it blows. But you have to accept that it’s your reality. 

AVC: Is there a therapist on the show? Some people definitely have issues behind why they’ve gained weight.

NM: That's actually a good point. I never knew why I was overweight before I went on the show. I had amazing parents and I always had friends. I was never bullied, which I was obviously very grateful for. So when I went on the show and I was losing four pounds a week, five pounds a week, where everyone else was losing eight, nine pounds a week, Bob was like, “Are you eating cupcakes in the middle of the night?” He took me to Dr. H[uizenga] who’s the medical doctor on the show, and he told me I have hypothyroidism. With a hyperthyroid and genetics, you're kind of screwed. I have to work out harder and eat less than everyone else, but that’s the hand I was dealt. 

That’s where it clicked for me. This is my issue. I was never the person who ate a bag of Doritos or would eat a box of Oreos in one sitting. That just wasn’t me. I would eat shitty food, but I didn’t get how hard it was until now. I was fortunate that I was able to figure that out. There are people that have emotional eating problems. Maybe they lost a parent or they were abused. My season, there was Dr. Hogan, a psychiatrist who was available, but it was only if you wanted to see him. I do think that they should stress that a little bit more. Maybe they have in past seasons, but for my season they didn't. 

AVC: You were gone from April until August, and you couldn’t tell your job when you were coming back. How did that go over? 

NM: My full-time job at the time was super, super excited for me. We had a temp in and I just told people I was going on a work trip for two weeks. And then my part-time job at the radio station at the time, which is now my full-time job, they were just like, “Oh my God, this is great. Good luck.” I was very, very, very lucky that I had a really supportive job. Jobs, I should say. They kind of knew the deal. 

AVC: Did you get a stipend from the show? 

NM: Yeah. They paid us $100 a day. After the fact, I did find out that two of the guys on my seasons negotiated for higher stipends, because they had families and they were the providers, but for me, that was awesome. I didn't spend any money at all. I paid off my credit card bill. 

[The stipend] could be more now. I’m not really sure. 

AVC: Do you have a sense of how many ex-contestants stay with the lifestyle?

NM: I should write an article or do a podcast about it. It is difficult if you’ve been obese. I was 308 at my heaviest, and I didn’t know anything about the lifestyle. Now I eat nitrate-free turkey bacon and organic eggs for breakfast, and I've got my pulled-pork in my Crock-Pot with my paleo coleslaw for lunch that I bring to work. But for somebody who’s so obese whose fat cells have just been there forever, it’s really difficult to stay so thin. For me to stay at my finale weight, I would literally have to work out two hours a day and basically eat chicken and vegetables. 

It’s funny we’re having this call. I had a breakdown yesterday, because I gained 12 pounds in a year. I went to my endocrinologist yesterday and I’m like, “This does not make sense. It’s not normal.” I was No. 1 on the Flywheel board twice last week, but I’m 50 pounds heavier than these skinny bitches in the class. So it really is a mindfuck when you live the lifestyle, but your body doesn’t look that same way. 

AVC: You’re probably in much better shape than you were, though.

NM: Oh, God yeah. These two girls I train with are really thin, but my stamina is a lot stronger than theirs. They may be able to hold their plank longer or run faster than me, but I have really good stamina. 

People seem to forget that there’s a difference between being skinny and being healthy. You can be really thin and eat fat-free cheese and fat-free cupcakes. Or you can be heavier and eat organic coconut oil and kale and quinoa. It’s higher in calories, but it’s healthier. Just because you’re eating organic and healthy, it doesn’t mean necessarily you’re going to be super thin, because you’re still eating real food, but you’re not putting all that crap in your body. 

AVC: One big criticism of the show is that it’s extreme, almost to an extent that it’s unhealthy. How do you respond to that? 

NM: Well, I always say the irony of it being called a reality show is that it’s anything but reality. It’s the complete opposite. You’re locked away; you have no outside stimulants.  

Listen, I know how hard it is. I try to eat super healthy, I’m super aware of nutrition, I work out three to four times a week, and I have a hard time trying to even maintain or lose weight. If I didn't have the show, I would have never lost that weight. I just wouldn't have. I was completely ignorant to what it took. They say that ignorance is bliss. The way that I look at food is so different now. I used to scarf down Wendy’s and not think anything of it. Now I’m just like, “Oh my God, I'm never going to be able to fit in my jeans if I eat that.” So, yeah, it is an extreme, but I don't think that I would have been able to be successful otherwise. 

AVC: You’ve also had plastic surgery since you left the show. 

NM: I got a bio-lift and tummy tuck. A lot of people who were thin and then gained weight don't need it, but I was overweight my whole life and I just kept getting heavier. I didn’t lose weight until I was 26. I just kept getting heavier and heavier. So I got a bio-lift and a tummy tuck, then I got an arm lift and I got my boobs done, which was like my favorite thing ever, because I was the only fat girl with no boobs. It was really weird. You go into a plus-size store and most fat clothes have really big chests because the people are well endowed. I am so not well endowed. 

Something that would screw you up is that when I lost all this weight, my body still looked like a deflated balloon. I looked the same, but I lost all this weight, so I never felt hot. Even though I’ve put more weight on, it’s distributed differently now; it just looks different. 

AVC: Has The Biggest Loser changed the way you spend money? Trainers and Chilean sea bass aren’t cheap. 

NM: There’s Flywheel and Flybarre and Soulcycle class, and then I have my trainer twice a week and then I go to hip-hop twice a week. You would think with the amount of freaking money I spend on exercise, that I would look like Gisele [Bündchen]. 

So yeah, I do spend money differently. But, like I said, if I didn’t do any of this, I would gain the weight back. I’m sure there are people that get fat by eating Wendy’s and they lost the weight and they’re fine. You read those success stories in Shape magazine. “I just stopped drinking soda and eating white bread and the weight fell off.” Unfortunately I don’t have that luxury. 

When I’m really having a bad day, I’ll think, “You know what? I have amazing hair, I have great parents, I love my job.” Everyone has their thing, and unfortunately this is mine until someone develops a shot that can insert Mila Kunis’ metabolism into my body. I just feel that if I’m going to commit to being healthy all the time, I have to spend money on it. And if I’m spending money on it, I have to do it. 

AVC: Do you still watch the show? Are you still in touch with Bob?

NM: I do a podcast every week where I watch the show and then talk about it. It's kind of cool because I can give listeners an insider tip that only somebody who was on the show would know. 

And I love keeping in touch with people. I’m really close with Hollie. We’re the same age, and we're both single and constantly trying to lose 30 pounds and find a husband. So we’re really close. And Julie who was also on the show with us, the three of us will text message. We’ll do group texts at least once a day. We’re always in contact. 

I’m really good friends with Bob’s assistant. She was a production assistant on the show. And I was in L.A. and saw Bob just for a hot minute and he came over and gave me a hug and a kiss and stuff. We’ll tweet and send an email from here to there. But it’s like a teacher. I can love my freshman-year teacher, but sophomore year, you move on. You still keep in touch, but like you’re not super BFFs. People really get attached to their trainers. At the end of the day, the trainers are there to help you, but it’s still their job. They have to disconnect at some point, because the new season starts. So that is definitely a point where people have a hard time and they get angry. Like, “How come Jillian didn’t call me back,” or “I don't talk to Bob anymore.” But you had your moment with them. If you send them an email or if you see them, they’re going to be excited to see you, but we’re not part of their lives. There have been over 100 contestants at this point. But a lot of people have a really hard time, because they feel, “They changed my life, they need to be there for me.” 

We have an alumni Facebook group, and that’s a really great way for everyone to kind of vent and talk about how they’re feeling. People post their weight and they’re not ashamed of it and people give them advice. That’s a good tool. 

At the end of the day, The Biggest Loser is a TV show. You have to move on to the next season, and you have to move on to the new thing. A lot of contestants feel like “Oh, no one cares about me.” You were on a TV show. You have to take it with a grain of salt. I never took it that seriously. I was there to lose weight and it worked, and I made some amazing friends and memories in the process.

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