'Loser' contestant still battles weight

March 28, 2009 

Kai Zwierstra's house smells like brownies, and she's on edge.

She baked them as a reward for her husband, who had been dieting because of a weigh-in for his military job. Now they sit uncut in a pan on the stove-top in her kitchen, framed in yellow light.

They would be stressing her out less if she weren't a former reality television star who lost 118 pounds on national TV about two years ago, or if she hadn't gained some of the weight back because she had a baby in October, or if the baby weight were melting off the way it does with movie stars, or even if she had eaten a taco salad minus the taco shell for dinner last night.

But this is a bad day. The day before, feeling stressed, she ate comfort food. A bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, parcelled out at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And now the house is a minefield of guilt and defeat. The brownies. The closet with the favorite pair of jeans that don't fit. The bathroom where the scale sits ready to measure her worth.

Zwierstra, who was Kai Hibbard when she competed on the third season of "The Biggest Loser," came closer than any other woman at the time to winning the reality weight loss competition, taking home a second prize of $50,000 in late 2006. With cameras following her every move, she lost almost half her body weight over seven months of grueling exercise and dieting and in the end stood before America in a black size 8 cocktail dress. People across the country -- waitresses in Maine, teachers in Anchorage, her own sister -- lost weight along with her. They called her an inspiration.

But now, in reality stardom's after-light, it seems getting skinny on national television didn't melt away her problems. Instead, it magnified a volatile all-consuming cycle with food and exercise she doubts will ever go away.

"I am absolutely the wrong person to ask about what a normal attitude is toward weight," she says, standing in front of her closet, holding that perfect pair of jeans.

WEIGHING IN

The last time the country saw Zwierstra, she was wearing spandex pants and a sports bra, standing on a giant scale in Los Angeles.

That was after she'd crashed though a giant image of her fat self, like a football player at homecoming, her new body poured into the cocktail dress, her face a chiseled version of the one she had a year before when she made a tape and sent it to NBC.

The "Biggest Loser" theme song played, asking, "What have you done today to make you feel proud?" Then came the video montage of her larger self, rolls of fat exposed, lumbering on a treadmill, wiping tears from her eyes, saying, "I'm tired of not living my life because I'm too fat."

This was the finale, the big moment when she and two other contestants, both men, had their final weigh-in, to see who would win the $250,000 grand prize.

On camera, Zwierstra seemed giddy and brash, interrupting host Caroline Rhea, hollering at her friends in the audience, tipsy on her 3-inch heels. Secretly, she was woozy, having dehydrated herself by avoiding liquids, baking in a sauna and fasting for days to skim off those last few pounds.

The studio audience went wild as the cameras panned in. Zwierstra stepped on the scale. Rhea hollered, "Your current weight is ..."

The scale heightened the tension: Beep. Beep. Beep.

144 pounds!

She'd lost 45 percent of her body weight.

But it wasn't enough.

In the end Erik Chopin, a New York deli owner, took home the big check, losing more than 200 pounds from a starting weight that topped 400.

In January he appeared on Oprah to describe how he'd gained half of it back.

FAT FRIEND

On the morning she decided to apply for "The Biggest Loser," Zwierstra woke up hung over.

It was New Year's Day 2006. Her life was going well. She'd graduated from UAA, applied to law schools and been accepted to almost all of them. The University of Maine offered a full scholarship. But her body didn't fit her image of success.

Raised by a weight-obsessed mother and a heavy father who yo-yo dieted, she had food issues that started early. The family moved every few years, but food stayed constant. Comfort was a salad bowl filled with Cheerios. By the time she was 9, she weighted 145 pounds. She and her mother went on Weight Watchers together.

The cycle of gaining and losing continued into her 20s. In late 2005, she'd been an aerobics instructor, getting her certification at 200 pounds. But once she quit aerobics, her eating habits -- dinners of foot-long subs and pints of Ben & Jerry's -- packed on another 65 pounds.

New Year's Eve, out with friends at a bar, she had an epiphany. Her scale said 262 pounds. She was 5-foot-5.

"I'm looking around and I'm like, 'Oh, s---, I'm the fat friend,' " she said.

The next day she sent a tape to NBC. And a few weeks later, a call came from L.A.

SURREALITY

In 2006, "The Biggest Loser" was just a drop in a sea of reality shows capitalizing on Americans' hunger for dramatized self-improvement. On any given channel at any given time, rooms were being made over, breasts augmented, junkies confronted, teeth bleached, closets purged, children disciplined, basements cleaned, tummies tucked, houses rebuilt, and rides pimped. Hundreds of normal people signed their privacy away to armies of producers in the hope of improving their lives.

But, as Zwierstra quickly learned, producers are interested in something else: good television. That means emotion, surprise and drama, the more outrageous the better.

Weeks after the phone call, she and the other contestants found themselves settled in at "The Ranch," where they lived for three months.

"While you're there, you don't realize the ramifications it's going to have," she said. "You're just kind of at fat camp with a bunch of people you just met."

Filming a season of shows meant a lot of hours in a van, waiting for scenes to get set up. There were boot-camp days of working out, lined up on treadmills with her teammates, sweat-soaked runs up California hills, the buff trainer, Kim Lyons, yelling not to slow down, people stumbling out of the frame to vomit. After a while she got used to the constant presence of cameras.

Less attention was paid to diet, though there were plenty of product placements. Like the day they did a segment on drinking milk as part of a weight-loss plan

"That was sponsored by the dairy board," she said. "The minute the cameras shut off, my trainer was like, 'Spit it out.' "

And then there were the ugly "eliminations," when contestants voted to send people off the ranch.

She wasn't allowed contact with family or friends for six weeks, and later calls were "chaperoned." Letters from family had portions blacked out because producers didn't want her to get emotional over news from home unless they could catch it on camera.

The philosophy of the show -- to radically change diets and exercise patterns of obese people -- seemed to have a hidden message about her character, Zwierstra said. It seemed to say that weakness made people fat. If they just had discipline, if they weren't lazy, they could be thin.

"(That) absolutely coincides with the way the world thinks about fat people," she said. "It's how fat people think about fat people. We negate all the accomplishments we have in our lives because we don't fit into a size 8."

The deeper Zwierstra got into the competition, the more real life started to fade. The daily math of calories in, calories out became an obsession.

HURDLES

'Ready to overcome your obstacles?" Rhea hollers.

It's Zwierstra's first episode. Contestants have to scale a series of padded walls set up across a highway bridge. The walls, they are told, represent obstacles between them and slimness.

Music rolls over the sound of their heavy breathing. The strain on their knees is almost audible as they thud to the first wall. They haul each other over the barrier, providing plenty of unflattering shots of spandex-wrapped thighs. Zwierstra's team crashes through the Styrofoam barrier first and everyone bursts into tears.

"Biggest Loser" creates an artificial world where people make a full-time job out of losing weight in an environment created to support them, said Ellen Halverson, a psychiatrist with Providence Behavioral Medicine.

The show doesn't address the root behaviors that lead people to overeat, she said. Because of that, it may be hard for contestants to maintain their weight in the real world. They may try to stay on a routine, but old emotional eating habits die hard.

"People can't just white-knuckle it forever; they tend to go back to those patterns," she said.

The show's executive producer, Mark Koops, said "The Biggest Loser" was not meant to be a panacea for weight loss. It was meant to push people to confront bad behaviors and learn how to change. Contestants volunteer for the show because they want results. And if they work hard, they get them.

"They don't come on 'The Biggest Loser' because they are 350 pounds and happy," he said.

Contestants leave knowing how to eat better and to exercise. For some that's enough to change their lives. Many also confront emotional issues that lead them to overeat, even if counselling isn't part of the show's plan, he said. About half keep the weight off, he said.

Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, sees it differently. Compulsive overeating is a disease, she said, with deep psychological roots. The show makes a spectacle of people's pain.

"Can you imagine doing that with cancer -- whose tumor is going to disappear faster?" she said. "My chemo versus your chemo?"

PRESSURE

On a shelf in Zwierstra's closet there's tape she made of herself during the show but never shared with producers. Contestants spend three months at The Ranch, then go home where they are supposed to lose weight on their own for four months, keeping track of their feelings in a video diary.

During those months Zwierstra stayed at a friend's house in New Hampshire. She couldn't hold a job because her workouts took so much time, so she borrowed money from her parents, hoping to pay them back when she won.

On the tape, she appears in her living room wearing a sports bra, shorts and a pink tiara. It's the day after her birthday, she says, not that anyone would know because she couldn't eat cake. She's punchy. Her eyelids droop. She's so tired, she keeps saying, but she's only put in two hours at the gym so far today.

She's consumed with writing everything down: Monday: One hour kick-boxing. Five-mile run. Hour of Stairmaster. Hour on the elliptical. Tuesday: Hour of Stairmaster. Five-mile run. Hour of yoga. Another five-mile run. Hour of yoga. She's a size 12, but she keeps putting on size 10 pants and feeling horrible.

"I'm so afraid to disappoint everybody," she confides. "I don't want anybody to think that I wasted it. That I wasted this opportunity."

Around this time, she flew back to Alaska to shoot an "at home" segment. Cameras followed her to Platinum Jaxx and after they were gone she went to the Last Frontier Bar, where she met Jacob Zwierstra, an Elmendorf airman who would become her husband.

LOSING IT

Zwierstra stands in her bathroom, staring at the scale, but she doesn't get on.

"I can get up and look in the mirror and feel like I look good, like I look thin for me, whatever that means, or I look in shape; then I can get on that scale and not like the number I see on that scale and feel like crap about myself for the whole day," she said.

Her head is full of numbers. There's 125, her dream weight; 163, the weight she "stabilized" at after the show. Her sister's weight: 138. There's 10, the number of minutes it used to take her to run a mile. There's another number, too, one she isn't talking about right now. Her current weight, post pregnancy, post Doritos -- less than when she went on the show, but more than she'd like.

"You feel like you can't do anything right," she says, staring into her closet, her voice tight. "You feel like you can't get back to where you were."

Toward the end of the show, with her final weigh-in looming, the desire to be thinner swallowed her. She cut back her eating even more: lettuce, tuna and turkey burgers. Sometimes after she ate, she'd make herself throw up.

Shin splints crippled her, but she stuck to her gym routine.

Contestants are allowed "free days," when they can take a break and eat what they want. Zwierstra avoided them until one day when she decided to have a cookie, a Pepperidge Farm Snickerdoodle. Soon she'd eaten the whole bag, washed down with a quart of milk.

So she swallowed a box of Ex-Lax.

Her hair thinned. Jacob started hiding the scale.

Finally her family forced her to go to the doctor, and to a trainer who cut her workouts to 45 minutes twice a day and improved her diet. She still remembers the first real meal she let herself eat: egg white omelet and oatmeal with Splenda. It took her an hour, sitting in a booth at Jackie's Place. Jacob sat with her.

"I cried the whole damn time," she said.

MAGIC NUMBER

Zwierstra's 5-month-old son is also named Jacob, but she calls him "Porkchop." He's small and quiet with wide slate-blue eyes. She has a habit of talking to him like he's a tiny adult.

Big Jacob proposed 12 days after the end of the show. They were married in a friend's living room. She leveled off, weight-wise, for months before she got pregnant. She stayed on a diet, and ran regularly.

When she got pregnant, the power of her hunger petrified her. She would eat, and then run hard.

The doctor told her to tone down her work-outs but she kept them up, and that caused bleeding. Soon she was confined to bed. She felt sick all the time. She ate what she could keep down. Crackers. Bread. Sugar.

Now she carries some of the leftover baby weight through her new life. She's studying social work. She could have stayed in L.A. and tried to capitalize on her "Biggest Loser" status, but she wanted to go back to normal. Jacob is joining the Coast Guard and they'll be moving. The Eagle River house her prize money helped buy is on the market.

Now and then, when she's at Wal-Mart, arms loaded with diapers and formula, she feels a stranger's stare. When people recognize her, they always want to know what she weighs. She says she doesn't mind. It was her choice to make her body public property.

"People with shame don't usually go on reality TV, do they, Porkchop?" she says, nuzzling Jacob, who breaks into a gummy grin.

Being heavy again makes her attractive for diet product endorsements, which pay well. It's the process of weight loss that marketers want. Those "before" and "after" pictures inspire consumers. But tying diet and exercise to a paycheck adds pressure, she says.

"I'm not only basing my emotional worth on what I weigh, I'm basing my financial worth on it," she says.

She could get another kind of job. She has two undergraduate degrees. But endorsements are lucrative, and she has $100,000 in student loans to repay.

If she had no debt, she might move somewhere small where no one recognized her, erase her MySpace page, try to disappear.

"I'd go off the radar," she says.

After lunch, she puts on her running shoes, loads Jacob into the stroller and heads out into the neighborhood. She'll walk an hour, maybe more. She's starting at the beginning again, chasing that magic number on the scale.


Find Julia O'Malley online at adn.com/contact/jomalley or call 257-4591.

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