At 2 a.m. on Saturday, the first people started lining up, and by 6 p.m., nearly 1,000 people had woven through the D.C. Convention Center line: Families picnicking on the ground, women cheering, a man in a karate uniform, a biker chick in leather, an IRS agent, a former Miss Puerto Rico. The only common theme was that all were at least 100 pounds overweight and all dreamed of gaining a contestant spot on The Biggest Loser, an NBC reality television show that challenges overweight contestants to shed pounds through diet and exercise.
For the first time ever, The Biggest Loser included D.C. as a casting-call stop on its cross-country search for Season 10 contestants. Amanda Giles, standing at the front of the line, had driven two hours from Delaware that morning to turn in her application and have her one to three minute interview with a casting director. “I would have flown in from California if I had to,” Giles said.
The same sentiment was echoed among most Loser hopefuls. Only one person interviewed even mentioned the $250,000 winnings as incentive. The prize is given to the contestant who loses the largest percentage of weight. Season 8 winner Danny lost 55.58% of his original weight—239 pounds. (Interestingly, of the 25 countries that produce the show, only in the Arab world is the title The Biggest Winner.)
Casting director Jodi Thomas said producers expected 300 people at the D.C. casting-call and planned to cap the line at 500 if necessary, though by day’s end they’d allowed double that number. Groups of 10 potential contestants sat at a table answering quick-fire questions like, “Why do you want to be on the show?”; “What are common misconceptions about overweight people?” and “Why should we choose you?” Thomas said she was looking for people with “inner strength, courage, and personality.” She was particularly impressed by the government agency employees she met. “These are charismatic people, out there saving the U.S., but unable to save themselves,” Thomas said.
Others saw the show as a life-raft, “Everyone in my family is overweight and dies young,” said one man in his casting interview. “I need this opportunity to break the tradition.” Nobody in line said they would ever consider trying out for another reality show. “Maybe America’s Next Top Model,” Melissa Woburn of McLean, Va. said with a smile.
The casting-call served also as a support group. People in line traded contact information to keep in touch later. In an interview room, one young woman said, “I’ve been a big girl all my life, and I’m done being a big girl.” The room erupted in cheers.
While producers did not acknowledge why they’d added D.C. as a casting stop this year, according to the D.C. Department of Health, the District has the highest obesity rates for children (23%) and women (37%) in the U.S. On a national level, Michelle Obama unveiled her “Let’s Move” program last month aimed at ending childhood obesity in one generation. Obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years.
Each conversation with a potential contestant revealed the intertwined issues of America’s domestic policy—including health care, education, veterans’ affairs, and even gay rights. “We’re working the inter-racial, lesbian, parents angle,” said Lisa Kennedy, waiting in line with her partner and daughter. The pair have gained 270 pounds combined across their 15 years together.
Newlyweds David and Janeese Galloway had an especially compelling story. He, a veteran who disarmed bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq, started overeating to combat stress; Janeese wants a family, but is afraid to pass along unhealthy habits. “For many, it’s an economic issue,” Janeese Galloway said. “You shouldn’t be able to buy a double-cheeseburger for $1 when a salad costs $10.”
Over the weekend, 30-40 D.C.-area residents found out they would be moving to the second round, a longer on-camera interview with producers. In total, Thomas said, 12 contestants will be chosen from around the country for The Biggest Loser: Season 10.