A thousand happy, expressive, stylish, friendly people flocked to a Northeast Philadelphia fitness center last weekend dreaming of a chance to compete for a dubious-at-best title.
They drove for hours and waited in line overnight for a brief opportunity to demonstrate their charisma to a Hollywood casting agent, all with the common hope of one day becoming known as The Biggest Loser.
Such is the power of reality television — and a $250,000 cash prize — to lure otherwise private folks into airing their deepest, most profound inner conflicts for the world to see.
“I’m just kind of fed up with how I’m living my life,” said Anna Fox of Mechanicsville, Md.
Fox showed up for the casting call at Planet Fitness on Roosevelt Boulevard wearing a black sequined vest, a Kiss T-shirt (the heavy metal rock band, not the elevator music radio station), a flowing black skirt and bright red lipstick.
“They wanted to see our personality and this is me,” said the 24-year-old. “I’m classic rock and punk and I wanted to show it.”
She also has a weight problem, which is one of the main reasons she made the trek to Philly on July 14.
The Biggest Loser is one of the most enduring so-called reality shows on network TV. Overweight contestants compete to see who can lose the most weight, relative to their body mass index, while also completing a series of physical and mental challenges, with the overall winner earning the $250,000 cash prize. About 20 contestants start the season, with the field shrinking week by week until one winner remains.
NBC debuted the program in 2004. In 2008, the network began broadcasting two “series” or competitions per year. Season 13 ran for 17 weeks and concluded on May 1. Producers are now searching for new contestants.
Filming for Season 14 will begin in September and last four-and-a-half months, according to Casting Director Ian Young. Weekly broadcasts are to kick off in January.
Producers will conduct 13 casting calls throughout the country. Last weekend’s local event was the only one planned for the East Coast, so it attracted hopefuls from Washington, D.C, to Bristol, Conn., and beyond.
About 900 people pre-registered online. The casting crew planned to select about 30 for private follow-up on-camera interviews that also were held last week.
“We look for the most deserving, and that’s such a wide-open term,” Young said. “It depends on the people, their struggle with the weight and why they’re losing the weight.”
The rain didn’t appear to deter many as hundreds of men and women and their many supporters stood in line for hours, clustering into chutes in the Red Lion Plaza parking lot.
Terra Legette, 38, of Levittown, Bucks County, avoided the crowd by arriving at 9:30 p.m. the previous night, camping under a folding canopy at the front door of the 24-hour workout gym. She was first in line. Her mom, Anita, provided the emotional support.
“She forced me here,” Terra said.
“It was on the Internet and as soon as I saw it, I said, ‘Let’s go,’” Anita said.
“We knew it would be crowded. This is not a game,” Terra said. “I want to lose 240 pounds.”
At 5-feet-11, Terra weighs about 440 pounds. She’s a single mother of three, with 8-year-old twins and a 4-year-old. She knows she’s allowed her weight to get out of hand.
“All my life, I’ve been chubby,” she said. “(That was) before the kids. I think I got comfortable in a relationship — that’s what it was. Then the kids came. It wasn’t their fault. It was me being lazy and not eating right.”
All the while, she’s been a fan of The Biggest Loser.
“We love the show,” she said. “The best part is the last chance workout. That’s when they do all the exercise to lose weight before they get on the scale. Then you see the weight come off.”
The show actually promotes a holistic approach to weight loss and health among its contestants.
“The change is incredible, not just physically. They change emotionally as well,” Young, the casting director, said.
Contestants are coached on exercise and nutrition and motivating themselves to keep the weight off if and when they lose it.
“They narrow (the field) down to the final two or three, then (contestants) go home and continue to lose weight,” Young said.
The survivors then return to the studio for a final weigh-in. Winners are determined not by total weight lost, but by weight lost with respect to variables like height and starting weight.
Americans seem to identify with contestants en masse.
“I think you see a lot of real people who are struggling with stuff,” Young said. “These people are dealing with real issues. Even if it isn’t your issue, you can identify with them. You want to cheer them and see them succeed.”
Fox is one of those people. In addition to her unhealthy eating and exercise habits, she says she’s coping with other self-destructive addictions. She’s hoping to lose about 250 pounds. That would leave her at about 180 or 200 pounds on her 5-foot-11 frame.
“I’m in the process of a recovery and to fully recover, I have to be happier,” she said. “At this point, I think I can’t do it myself. And from what I’ve seen, The Biggest Loser really works.”
As a youth, Fox was a model of fitness. Then about five years ago, at age 19, things changed.
“I played sports all my life. I played softball and basketball in college,” she said.
She attended Washington Adventist College near Silver Spring, Md., on an athletic scholarship. Then she stopped playing and working out. But she kept eating like an athlete.
“I started gaining weight when I stopped sports,” she said. “I think just coming out here and putting myself out here shows that I’m ready for change. If I make the show, I would want to help a lot of people who are dealing with the same thing.
“If I have to get in front of America in a sports bra and Spandex, I’ll do it.” ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org