Hefty is 'in' and drawing ratings

Alison Sweeney , host of "The Biggest Loser," above, and Mo'Nique, whose 2005 "Fat Chance" pioneered the trend.
Alison Sweeney , host of "The Biggest Loser," above, and Mo'Nique, whose 2005 "Fat Chance" pioneered the trend.

"Loser" is one of a pack of winners. Even Oprah has gained a few.

Posted: August 25, 2009

Have a sandwich, Twiggy. In fact, go ahead and down a 6-foot sub. With cheese. Fat is suddenly fabulous, at least on TV, a realm once thought to be the exclusive playground for stick figures.

Drop Dead Diva, a dramedy about a rail-thin model reincarnated as a plump lawyer, is scoring the highest ratings for a new Lifetime series since Army Wives debuted in 2007.

Dance Your Ass Off, in which contestants shake their girth thing to wild applause, is the heftiest hit in Oxygen's history

Ruby, which chronicles the adventures of 500-pound Ruby Gettinger, is responsible for the Style Network's highest numbers.

This spring, The Biggest Loser continued to eat into American Idol's ratings, providing NBC its best Tuesday night viewership in four years.

Susan Boyle, the Scot with the build and artistry of Julia Child, dreamed the dream on Britain's Got Talent.

Heck, even Oprah Winfrey parked her "fat wagon" in the cooler and put back on a few comfort pounds.

So why this appetite for fuller-figured personalities?

"I don't know," said Luke Conley, the 330-pound real-estate developer who gets to play bachelor to 20 plus-size women on Fox's More to Love. "Maybe they just have wider angles on their cameras now so they can fit me on the screen."

More likely, it has something to do with the fact that the Big & Beautiful will no longer be ignored. According to a study by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, adult obesity rates increased in 23 states last year and nearly one-third of all children in 30 states are considered overweight. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey believes that nearly two-thirds of all American adults should be spending less time at McDonald's and more time at the salad bar.

The country's struggle with weight issues is a big reason Loser has been one of the few bright spots in NBC's struggling lineup.

"I think it embraces a concern and a worry that keeps a lot of Americans awake at night," said Paul Telegdy, who oversees the network's reality programming. "There's this epidemic of obesity that the show deals with using exceptional delicacy, in a way that's uniquely engaging."

Seeing real-life people struggle with their expanding waistlines is certainly more relatable than, say, geniuses tracking down mass murderers or ├╝bergeeks who have more than a molecule of a shot with the hot blonde across the hall.

"It strikes at the heart of the human spirit," said Loser host Alison Sweeney, a soap-opera star who has had her own public battle with weight. "You see people being able to overcome this obstacle that seems insurmountable. Miracles can happen."

For many of these TV celebrities, it's a miracle just to be on TV.

Mo'Nique, a successful standup comic, helped set the table in 2005 with Mo'Nique's Fat Chance, a cable series that encouraged plus-size women to feel comfortable in their own skins.

"I just think that it was time for us to stop feeling like we were committing a sin or we were doing something wrong just because we had a double belly or our arms flapped a little," she said. "It was time for us to get out there and say, 'We are beautiful, too.' "

Mo'Nique said it helps that more programming decisions are being made by executives who are working mothers, a demographic that's particularly sensitive about weight. (Studies show that 80 percent of moms are dissatisfied with their physical appearance.)

"I would say to people in a meeting, 'Hey, sister, what size are you?' and she'd say, 'Oh, I'm an 18,' " Mo'Nique said. "I would answer, 'Well if you are watching TV, don't you want to see someone who looks like you so that you can feel good about yourself?' That's how Fat Chance happened."

There may be new opportunities, but plus-sized people can be hesitant about stepping into the spotlight, worried that they'll end up being a punchline rather than a player. After all, that's what they often deal with in real life.

"I can walk into a place and people are staring at me and laughing or making these noises that are just really bad," said Gettinger, who once weighed more than 700 pounds. "I can't let them get in my head, because if I do that, then I'd never go out of my house."

Some scholars even cringe at the names of shows. They may be cute, but they can also be hurtful.

"I have a real problem with the title The Biggest Loser," said Mary Story, a professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "When you think about the double meanings it can have, I don't think it's very respectful. People who are overweight already deal with enough social discrimination."

After hearing the title More to Love, Conley said he and most of the female contestants were concerned about how they would be captured on camera.

"It seemed like everyone had to be talked into it for the same reason," said Conley, who got the gig after answering an online ad. "As I got to know the producers more, I realized it was a legitimate show that had a desire to see two people make a sincere connection."

The female participants were even more wary, Conley said, especially those who had never been out on a date or kissed a suitor. Bathing-suit parties were particularly daunting.

"If I had to, I would have thrown on a Speedo and jumped in to make them feel more comfortable," he said. "They definitely got into those suits. I was really proud of them."

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