Last spring, when Michael Ventrella, a finalist on NBC’s hit reality show The Biggest Loser, stepped on the giant scale that would weigh him like a prize head of cattle, he did so with a certain swagger. He took off his white sweatband, twirled it around his finger, and flung it to the studio audience as if it were a garter. To win, the 31-year-old Bartlett man needed to weigh less than 269 pounds, almost half his starting weight of 526 pounds. The numbers on the scale flipped wildly back and forth, then stopped at 262. Fountains of multicolored confetti exploded, and Ventrella was smothered in hugs from family members and his celebrity trainers. He raised his arms in triumph. He’d won $250,000, and he believed his life had changed for the better.
In some ways, it had. He started running marathons. Women asked him out. At a recent breast cancer marathon, his new physique attracted wolf whistles from female admirers. His Facebook page has more than 5,500 fans.
But aside from the ego boost and the excitement of fitting into pants with a 38-inch waist, Ventrella hasn’t found a way to capitalize on his celebrity. His prize money is long gone, half to the taxman and the rest to paying off his student loans, credit cards, and truck loan. “I have no money coming in and a lot of money going out. That scares me to death,” he says.
Ventrella is basically broke, and though he spent the fall in Los Angeles, he’s officially still living at home with his parents. He has no health insurance. Most of his time is spent attending promotional events for The Biggest Loser, a Survivor-type show in which contestants are sequestered for 18 weeks on a ranch, work out for eight hours or more a day, and are ranked by percentage of weight lost. At weekly weigh-ins, the two contestants who have lost the least weight are vulnerable to being voted off.
As the most recent winner, Ventrella isn’t on NBC’s payroll, although he is spending much of his time promoting the show. It’s part of the contract he signed as a contestant; he receives only a modest per diem rate, plus expenses. Sometimes the network argues over paying his parking.
“It’s been good and bad,” he says. “The good part is I’m living, not only with my body but with my life. A year ago, I’d be trapped in a basement bedroom, jamming out on my computer.”
And the bad part? Well, it turns out that in the weight-loss world, reality kicks in when the reality show ends.
On a late summer day, Ventrella, sporting a red bandanna around his forehead and wearing a Superman T-shirt, sips a glass of water in Marino’s Pizzeria & Italian Cafe in west suburban Wood Dale. It’s a cozy spot where he and his cousin used to hang out when they were kids. (His uncle and the restaurant’s owner are partners in a construction company.) No doubt the generous portions at Marino’s—along with the Italian home cooking of Ventrella’s mother, Maria—played a role in his relentless weight gain over the years.
The menu offers fried calamari with fries. A heaping serving of homemade ravioli in vodka sauce can be augmented with meatballs, sausage, or chicken, and the Saturday special is Cheesy Beef, a sandwich on garlic bread—served with fries on the side, of course. But today, Ventrella sticks with water only.
Even aside from the bountiful meals, nature, it seems, stacked the deck against him from the start. Born at 12 pounds, Ventrella doubled his weight in the first month. By the time he was 13, his waist was the same size it is today. But his growing heft wasn’t all negative. He made the football team at Glenbard North High School and became a standout lineman. After high school, he attended the College of DuPage and then transferred to Columbia College Chicago, where he majored in marketing. Later, he began working as a DJ and spent six years performing at Medusa, a nightclub in Elgin.
The work contributed to his ongoing weight gain. Surrounded by booze and bar snacks while he jammed, he regularly chowed down on fast food on his way home in the early-morning hours.
Ventrella knows that maintaining his relatively svelte physique is critical if he is going to turn his Biggest Loser status into cash. After four months, he has regained more than 20 pounds, but he says he isn’t as focused on keeping his weight down as he is on building muscle. “My objective is different now. I’m bodybuilding. It’s inevitable I’m going to be gaining weight,” he says. “The one thing that does terrify me is not being able to support myself or support the ability to go out and help people.”
It’s not that Ventrella hasn’t tried to turn his 15 minutes of fame into a living. He has scouted for an agent, asking the Biggest Loser trainers, Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper, for recommendations. But West Coast agents weren’t interested in him, and the agents who have sought him out are sharks, he says. For now, his agent is his mom, who appeared on the show with him and lost almost 120 pounds.
Given Ventrella’s transformation, he briefly thought about going on tour as a paid inspirational speaker, but most of the groups that invite him to speak are nonprofits, such as Children’s Memorial Hospital, and Ventrella doesn’t feel comfortable charging them for his appearance.
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.
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.
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