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Eating their hearts out

They met at Brenda's house Tuesday at dawn. Each wearing a new outfit. Sizes 8, 8 and 6, thank you very much.

Amy was sporting a blueberry-striped blouse. A small. Finally. Kim's cherry sweater showed off her newfound curves. And Brenda _ just look at Brenda!

They carried cameras and weigh-in cards, "before" photos and sugarless candy. Brenda brought her new cookbook, hoping to get an autograph.

The left St. Petersburg in her Isuzu Rodeo at 7:40 a.m., an hour before school would start. But these teachers weren't heading to class. They had taken the day off, using one of the four precious personal days they'll get all year.

"Oh, I can't wait," Amy squealed, bouncing in the back seat. "Do you think we'll get to talk to her?"

Cafeteria duty

At Bay Point Elementary in St. Petersburg, Amy ("Miss Vail") teaches kindergarten. Her friend Brenda ("Ms. Denbigh") has a second-grade class across the hall. Kim ("Mrs. Dennison") teaches third grade upstairs.

The women all joined Weight Watchers last year, and started bonding during lunch break. In Brenda's cramped office, over a round table beside the Xerox machine, they share vegetable soup and chicken Caesar salad. They swap one-pot recipes and help each other count points.

They've seen Amy trade her "frumpy teacher jumpers" for trim capris. They've cheered Kim as she dropped down to her high school weight. They watched six dress sizes slip off Brenda.

Among them, they've lost nearly 80 pounds. That's two whole second-graders.

"We're drinking our water. Going to the gym. And I have my rock," Amy said. She keeps a rainbow marble in her pocket, to remind her: "Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels."

And hardly anything feels as good as taking a day off from school to hang out with royalty.

Sarah Ferguson is 44. She has two teenage daughters. She's divorced from Prince Andrew, but she's still the Duchess of York. She has been Weight Watchers' spokeswoman for seven years. She's a lifetime member, meaning she's held her goal weight.

Every year, she spends six weeks on the road, showing off Her Royal Slimness by headlining Super Meetings. She's been to Florida four times. Tuesday was her second visit to Tampa.

When someone asked the teachers why it was so important for them to meet her, they couldn't really say. They came to get inspired. To bask in the presence of an almost-princess. To see the once-disgraced duchess come back and show everyone she could be a success.

And skinny.

"It's just a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet royalty," Amy gushed. "I mean, royalty. A real duchess."

Amy is 28. She has a boyfriend named Eric and a dachshund puppy named Presley. She's 5 foot 1 and weighs 138 pounds. Like so many girls, her waistline got away from her in college. She never dropped her freshman 15 (or 20).

In the past few months, while her friends have been losing inches and gaining compliments, Amy has shed only 5 pounds. She wants to lose another 18. She dreams of wearing a bikini by summer.

"I have it hardest, with kindergarten," she complained. "My kids make marshmallow snowmen and count Fruit Loops for math. They bring birthday cupcakes, enough for everyone. And they're too little to go into the cafeteria by themselves. They can't reach the food. So I have to take them in there every day, past the yeast rolls and those chocolate chip cookies."

Kim and Brenda's students are old enough to navigate the lunch line by themselves. They don't have to confront fierce temptations such as Pizza Friday.

"No wonder they're doing so much better than me."

Hungry for a front-row seat

Traffic was terrible on the way to Tampa. As the sun crawled from the bay, Brenda inched her Isuzu across the Howard Frankland Bridge. The teachers talked about their weekends, their husbands, their breakfasts.

"I only poured a splash of skim milk across my bran cereal this morning," Amy bragged. "I could've had a whole cup. But I was saving points for lunch."

"Where are we going for lunch?" Kim asked. "I'm hungry already."

When they pulled into the parking lot of the A La Carte Pavilion, Brenda suggested they run to the front door. "I need my cardio," she said.

The auditorium wouldn't open for at least a half-hour, but already the lobby was packed. The teachers signed in, made Magic Marker name tags, then milled around the white-clothed tables, examining Clinique packs, flipping through fliers. One sheet was filled front and back with times of Weight Watchers meetings: every day of the week, at 28 locations across Tampa Bay.

"They're expecting 700 people for this," Amy said. "We better go get in line to get seats."

The event was free, open to anyone. The line started in a side room and snaked across the lobby. Women, mostly, young mothers and middle-aged executives; supermodellike divas in rhinestone suits; supersized matrons wrapped in yards of not-so-slimming black. Shapely 40-somethings strutting in strappy heels; gray-haired grandmoms pushing aluminum walkers. Folks had made pilgrimages from Atlanta and Alabama, from as far south as Naples.

They all expected the duchess to take center stage.

Appetizers

While the women waited, workers threaded through the crowd, armed with clipboards and broad smiles. "Don't we look lovely today. Welcome, welcome!" a well-made-up Weight Watchers staffer cooed over Amy's shoulder.

"What's your question for the duchess?"

The teachers had been waiting for this. They were hoping to ask her themselves. Oh well.

"How did she do it?" Amy wanted to know.

"What keeps her going, now that she's lost all the weight?" Brenda asked.

"How does she do it on the road?" Kim said. "And can we get her autograph?"

"I brought my cookbook," Brenda said.

"I brought my bookmark," Amy said, displaying it like a trophy. "I got a gold star."

Like college football players whose achievements earn stickers on their helmets, Weight Watchers members earn stars with 5! on them _ one star for every 5 pounds they lose. They line them up on paper bookmarks to remind themselves how far they've come.

They all have their own tricks, little ways of stringing themselves along.

Brenda keeps a scale in her living room so she'll have to pass it on the way to the fridge. Kim wears a pearl bracelet with a silver heart charm. She moves the heart each time she eats: one pearl for every point. Amy emptied her cafeteria account so she wouldn't be tempted, not even on Pizza Friday.

At 9:22 a.m., the double doors to the auditorium began to part. The crowd pushed forward. "They're opening! They're opening!" Amy cried.

Brenda clutched Kim's sweater, grabbed Amy by the arm. "Run!" she said, surging ahead of the tide. "Run, run, run, run!"

They found seats in the fourth row, stage left. Amy sat on the aisle, right by the runway.

"Let's get our picture with her," Brenda offered. "Us and the duchess."

Slices of life

The auditorium smelled like hair spray and Jean Nate. The stage was swathed in white curtains, opened slightly in the center, framing a small screen. On the screen, a blue slide asked: "What's Being Thin Worth?"

At 9:45, Dixie Lee Shaw strutted on stage to field answers.

"Hey everybody! Are we happy to be here?" she cheered into her clip-on microphone. "Well, we have some fabulous door prizes here for you today. And we've got some really exciting stuff going on. And I hear there are some people out in this audience who have lost more than 100 pounds."

Ooohs and aaahs wafted over the aisles.

The teachers perched on the edges of their metal seats. They weren't really listening to Dixie. They were busy scanning the side doors for the duchess.

"I hear she's really funny," Kim said.

"I heard she's down-to-earth, not like the rest of those royals," Brenda said.

They heard testimonials. A man named Joe, from Sarasota, had lost 101 pounds. "I was so big I was getting in my way," he said.

Sissy Lusk from Naples lost 214 pounds. "She's one-third of herself," Dixie said. "She's barely a size 6 now. And she looks fabulous. Just look at her." As the petite blond pranced across the stage in her new body, the audience rose to applaud her.

"Now, before we bring the duchess out, I'd like to show you all her "before' picture," Dixie said. A round face flashed on the screen, a broad smile above a polka-dot jacket; thick legs sticking out from a polka-dot skirt.

The lovely, cultured voice of a British woman flowed through the speakers: "Weight demons haunted me," it was saying. The crowd fell silent. The stage lights clicked off. "I ballooned to 220 pounds."

Suddenly, a spotlight shone near the back. Roy Orbison's throaty voice began to fill the pavilion. "Pretty woman, walking down the street, pretty woman . . ."

Icing on the cake

She wore a double-breasted blazer, soft and light silver, like a cloud; matching slacks, with the trendy drop-waist; a powder-pink silk blouse opened slightly at her throat. She clicked down the runway in black heels, stepping lightly, twirling for the cameras. Her thick auburn hair blanketed her black.

"You all have read about all the mistakes I've made, I'm sure," Sarah Ferguson said, striding onto the stage. "So I don't need to tell you about them. Let's just get to the point . . .

"I was fat, frumpy Fergie. I believed every single word the press wrote about me. My self-confidence was shot. I was worthless to myself and my daughters. I stand up here today, just the same as anyone else. I've got a weight problem."

She told them they were all in this together. Like ducks flying in formation, they have to support each other on this migration. She told them she still sees herself as heavy, still has trouble accepting compliments.

"But your stories are all so much more inspiring," she said. "You people have all changed your lives, even if you're only beginning. Now let's hear from some more of you."

A veritable smorgasbord

As she sat down, the teachers turned to each other. Was that it? Was it over?

Without autographs? Or photos? Or questions from the audience? "What did we come for anyway?" Amy asked. "Is that all?"

Stein Mart put on a fashion show, using Weight Watchers success stories as models. A half-dozen happily fit people paraded across the stage. A woman named Luz Feliu, 38, lost 98.2 pounds after she got onto an airplane and couldn't buckle the seat belt. They showed her "before" picture on the screen. Now she slinked onto the stage in a miniskirt, a silk flower sprouting jauntily from her hennaed hair.

"That's her?" Brenda asked, incredulous.

"No way," Kim said. Tears trickled through her mascara. "Look at her! Would you look at her?"

"I'm looking," Amy said. "Would you pass me a tissue?"

Luz, the Duchess of Pinellas Park.

Points

They didn't discuss the duchess on the way home. They didn't have to.

They talked about shopping, new outfits they wanted, sizes 6, 6 and 4, thank you, very much.

They zipped their camera cases. Slipped their weight cards back into their wallets. Brenda put her unsigned cookbook on the floor of the Isuzu.

They pulled out of the parking lot three hours after they had arrived.

"Could you believe that Luz?" Brenda asked, steering over the bridge, toward St. Petersburg.

"Amazing," Kim said.

Amy peered between the front seats. She smiled at her friends. Then she asked the question they'd all been pondering: "What's for lunch?"

Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or degregorysptimes.com.

Kim Dennison, with her husband, before she started Weight Watchers. The third-grade teacher is now at her high school weight.

Brenda Denbigh before Weight Watchers. The second-grade teacher has dropped six dress sizes and keeps a scale in her living room so she'll have to pass it on the way to the fridge.

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