On the screen, a heavyset blond woman is breaking down, reduced to tears in mid workout by the tremendous amount of weight she still must burn off to keep pace on NBC's blockbuster weight loss competition The Biggest Loser.
And as the scene plays out on the 46-inch television dominating her cozy living room in Pinellas County, Kai Hibbard can barely stand to watch. Because each image serves as a searing reminder of her own time in the game, when Hibbard earned second place on the show in 2006.
By the time she'd reached the competition's end, her hair was falling out and her family had pushed her to see a therapist to regain a healthier attitude about food. She'd been through months of dehydration for optimum loss before the show's trademark weigh-in sessions, eating less than 1,000 calories each day while working out an average of five to eight hours daily — dropping to 144 pounds from a starting weight of 262.
And even though she agreed to watch the show's March 16 episode with a reporter in her apartment, every scene only brought flashbacks to her own struggles — like a combat survivor fumbling with post-traumatic stress.
"The show is painful to watch," said Hibbard, 31, who hadn't yet seen a Biggest Loser episode beyond her own season, which is occasionally rebroadcast on the Bravo cable channel. "I would get so sick to my stomach and cry that I had to turn it off."
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Now living in northern Pinellas County with her 17-month-old son, Jacob, and husband, Jake — they all moved here from Maine in September — Hibbard still gets recognized from her Biggest Loser life.
It's the curse of reality TV fame: enough notoriety that fans feel entitled to stop you anywhere but not enough money to get some distance.
Hibbard laughed while recalling one trip to the grocery store two weeks after Jacob was born, her hair sticking up everywhere and eyes bleary from lack of sleep. After having her son, Hibbard weighs in at about 167 pounds ("It doesn't look the way it used to," she said).
"A woman walks up to me and just says, point blank, 'My God, what happened to you?' " Hibbard said. "Harsh."
These days, Hibbard is developing notoriety of a different sort — as a past contestant willing to talk openly about the behind-the-scenes turmoil during her time on the show.
• When she stepped on the scale for the infamous weigh-in segment — where those who lose the least weight are vulnerable to getting voted off the program — she was not actually being weighed. Competitors were actually weighed earlier in the day, off camera, though they were not told their weight until the on-camera segment.
• She and other contestants severely dehydrated themselves before the off-camera weigh-ins, stopping fluid intake the previous day and working out in heavy clothing hours before, in ways not shown on camera.
• Though viewers may have the impression contestants are weighed and ejected every seven days, Hibbard said there could be longer intervals, with breaks as long as 14 days between a few weigh-ins (an executive producer said he could not recall a break that long, though production issues might lead to an eight- or nine-day span). This could lead viewers to assume participants lost large amounts of weight in a week's time.
• Weigh-in segments were filmed two or three times to get different camera angles. So a contestant who was surprised by his or her weight loss when it was first revealed on camera would have to re-create that expression one or two more times.
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In one promotional segment, she touted drinking milk, but was told to spit it out once the cameras stopped filming. Hibbard said contestants were not allowed to drink milk during her season (a trainer who worked on the show noted she objected to contestants drinking whole milk, which was used during the segment for its appearance).
When Hibbard competed, NBC aired only one cycle of the show each TV season, giving contestants three months to train at the Biggest Loser ranch in Simi Valley, Calif., before heading home to work out for four months leading to the show's finale.
Exercising at home proved toughest for Hibbard, who said she struggled with the hair loss and a tanking immune system while producers egged her on with tales of how well rival and eventual winner Erik Chopin was doing. When Hibbard told her problems to trainer Kim Lyons, now off the show, Lyons was initially sympathetic.
But then Hibbard got a cell phone voice mail from the trainer, who had talked to producers; the contestant suspected they were eager for a woman to win the show's third edition after previous seasons produced two male winners. "I'm supposed to tell you to suck it up and get your a-- back on the treadmill," an apologetic Lyons told her.
Contacted by e-mail, Lyons wrote that she couldn't remember the conversation, but acknowledged that she did "morally struggle … regarding some of the health implications" of the show.
She also confirmed Hibbard's tales of dehydration, writing that she once saw a black trash bag sticking out from under one competitor's sweat shirt during a workout. "I was shocked, mad, and as the new trainer, totally disappointed," wrote Lyons, who also criticized producers for not showing how contestants regularly struggle with bursitis, stress fractures and torn muscles.
"(Dehydration) results in big numbers on the scale," added the trainer. "Of course, producers love big numbers on the scale; it adds to shock value and that leads to higher ratings. That is reality TV and America feeds on it. It is sick."
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At the ranch, Hibbard found that an odd form of groupthink emerged as contestants pushed themselves to high levels of exercise and low calorie consumption, even while the show was giving out quality nutritional advice and inspiring millions of viewers.
She felt the show was treating contestants as if they were lazy and stupid for getting so large, and teaching the cast to crash diet and exercise their weight off while advocating more moderate techniques to the public.
"Pam Smith, (a contestant) from my season said it best: 'The show inspired millions, but at the sacrifice of the 14 contestants,' " said Hibbard, who won $50,000 in prize money by placing second. "People would come to me literally sobbing because they couldn't lose as much weight as we did in a week. But it's not real, it's TV."
One of the show's past winners and an executive producer disputed Hibbard's most extreme accounts, saying the show now tests to ensure participants aren't dehydrating themselves before weigh-ins.
"Everything we did was within arm's length of a doctor," said Bill Germanakos, who won the show's fourth cycle in 2007 and now maintains a career as a health and wellness spokesman. "These doctors don't allow us to dehydrate or get into sweat boxes or wear rubber suits. It's a completely different show now."
Executive producer Mark Koops could not remember a time when 14 days passed between weigh-in segments, saying contestants are ultimately responsible for how hard they push themselves and that producers must boil many days of experiences down to one hour of television each week.
"Our process today is far more advanced that it was in season three. We advocate doing this the right way," Koops said. "No one should think the results on the ranch are something they can do themselves. …(Contestants) are removed from the pressures of (life). … They have a very dedicated, pristine setup. Their jobs are to dedicate themselves to saving their lives."
Hibbard acknowledged that conditions and procedures could have changed since she competed.
But Biggest Loser is also one of NBC's highest-rated shows, with an ancillary merchandising and licensing business that the New York Times estimated last year would generate $100 million. And the contract signed by participants outlines penalties ranging from $100,000 to $1 million for certain breaches.
So with all this pressure to play nice, why is Hibbard talking about tough times from four years ago?
Because she once turned down an interview request from the ABC newsmagazine 20/20, amid concerns about getting sued. Before long, she regretted walking away from a chance to be honest with the world.
"I feel like I've got some moral responsibility as part of the problem to be part of the solution," she said. "Even though it looks like magic on TV and nobody likes it when you kill Santa Claus."
Ex-Biggest Loser trainer Lyons noted it can be difficult for contestants to adjust after the show ends. "The toughest part … is realizing that they aren't famous, didn't make millions and life goes on just as it did before the show," the trainer wrote in an e-mail. "The show does portray unrealistic and unsafe expectations for people at home, but … you can choose to be inspired to do what you can at home, or (be) bitter because you aren't in the spotlight."
Now in graduate school, Hibbard is considering changing her focus from social work to diet and nutrition. She's endorsing a supplement company called Livea and is about to start a part-time job at a bay area gym as a personal trainer.
"I know I've got PTSD from this show," she said. "If I had it to do over, I'd walk out of the stage and (say) 'Eat it … I'm going home. Fifty grand is not worth my soul.' "
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See The Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.