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Before and after: Ventrella lost over half of his body weight to win The Biggest Loser.
Over its ten seasons, The Biggest Loser franchise has been a gold mine for NBC and the trainers on the show. Jillian Michaels now has an online diet program and a line of nutritional supplements, and she stars in her own spinoff, Losing It. NBC has created Biggest Loser–themed cruises and two Biggest Loser fitness resorts, where weight-loss-minded vacationers can undergo intensive workouts like those they see on the show.
But the rewards don’t seem to trickle down to the winning contestants. For example, Ventrella’s struggle to cash in on his fleeting fame is a far cry from what happens to winners of some other reality shows. First place on American Idol usually turns into a recording contract. Taking top honors in the Top Chef competition helped the Chicagoan Stephanie Izard find investors for her hot new West Loop restaurant, Girl & the Goat.
But participants on The Biggest Loser face particular problems. One is that every season brings a new group of contestants who often break the weight-loss records of their predecessors. “We obviously have decreasing returns because of clutter,” says Christie Nordhielm, a former Chicago advertising executive and now a marketing professor at the University of Michigan. “They aren’t as unique anymore.”
More than that, Nordhielm says, winners of weight-loss shows aren’t really demonstrating any talent. “What skill was there?” she asks. “It’s probably with the trainers. [Ventrella] is not the expert, he is basically the subject. He is a testimonial for the people on the show who advised him.”
Richard Laermer, veteran public relations man and author of the forthcoming book How to Fame, has another theory about why folks like Ventrella have trouble staying in the spotlight. “Contestants on The Biggest Loser are famous for being fat. You can’t translate that into a talk show or a mall tour or a hit single. You can’t make a living being a former fat person. That’s like being a former comedian.”
It probably doesn’t help Ventrella’s prospects that some of the Biggest Loser winners become fat again—for example, the season 3 winner, Erik Chopin, regained almost all the 214 pounds he lost.
With Chopin lingering as an object lesson, Ventrella is pushing ahead. He is working on a cookbook with his mom that will feature healthier versions of traditional Italian dishes. As a solo author, he has a book in the works on low-cal international plates, such as sashimi. He has also created a low-fat barbecue sauce and says his spicy peanut sauce is to die for. Could a line of Ventrella sauces be in the offing? Even if it is, the chance of his products muscling their way into the hypercompetitive world of grocery shelf space is slim.
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J. D. Roth, the executive producer of The Biggest Loser, says his winners may not maintain their celebrity as easily as the winners of performance-based reality shows, but he points to several who have managed well.
Ali Vincent, a hairstylist who became the first female winner, has been hired as a spokeswoman for the show and its weight-loss protein powder. She also has hit the motivational-speaking circuit. Michael Morelli, a finalist in season 7, and his dad, Ron, are featured in TV ads for Jennie-O turkey. Michelle Aguilar, the show’s second female winner, is making appearances at health-related expos around the country. “If you’re plucked out of your little town and the next thing, you’re traveling the country as a motivational speaker, that’s big,” says Roth. “You can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”
No matter what happens, Ventrella says, the Biggest Loser experience helped him sort out some personal priorities. “I started paying more attention to my needs rather than my wants. I want a convertible, but what I need is a car that works. I want a relationship with a girlfriend, but I need to keep relationships with family and friends strong. I want a cheeseburger with grilled onions. I need a salad with chicken or shrimp.”
As the holiday eating season approaches, Ventrella will be recovering in Los Angeles from a body-lift operation in early November to remove as much as 30 pounds of excess skin. His surgeon wants him to walk five miles a day to promote the healing process, which is easier to do in L.A. than Chicago, Ventrella says. He plans to make an appearance on the live finale of The Biggest Loser in December and then return to Chicago after the holidays.
He isn’t living the celebrity lifestyle. He is renting a condo at his own expense and cooking his meals at home. “It’s costing so much money every day to be out here,” he says. “I still drive my 2004 Honda. I haven’t bought any clothes for myself. Yesterday, it was $300 in produce and lean meat at the grocery store, and I’m just one person.”
Still, his situation could turn around quickly. “Maybe Subway will call me,” he muses.
Photography: Trae Patton/© NBC Universal Inc.