Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
You know how certain people can eat whatever they want and never gain a pound? I’m not one of them. I never was. I was a chubby kid. My dad is overweight, and I think I inherited my “fat gene” from him. We had a strained relationship and often bonded over food. When we were alone and had nothing to say to each other, it would be, like, “Let’s go eat burritos!”
My mother is naturally thin, but she didn’t know much about nutrition, so my diet consisted primarily of processed garbage like microwave mac ‘n’ cheese, or baloney on white bread with mayo, and Cheetos.
I grew up in Los Angeles. My parents got divorced when I was twelve years old and the upheaval took a heavy emotional toll on me. As I shuttled back and forth between their two homes, food became a great source of comfort. It was something stable that I could always look forward to. I was an only child until I was fifteen and a half, so I was lonely a lot. When I was having a tough day, I would think, I’m going to order a large Domino’s pizza, sit on the roof, and eat the whole thing by myself.
By the time I was thirteen, I was approximately five feet tall and tipped the scale at 175 pounds. I had a nose the size of a softball (which I’ve since had fixed), a unibrow (had that fixed too!), braces, and acne. I was tormented at school. Kids made horse and cow sounds when I walked by and wrote nasty things on my locker. Once, I was surrounded by a group of kids and bullied about my weight, the size of my nose, and the fact that I was gay—which I didn’t even know at the time. Things got so bad that my mom pulled me out of that school and enrolled me in another one for eighth grade. My new school wasn’t much of an improvement. I ate lunch with my teacher in her classroom every day because it was such hell on the schoolyard. I felt helpless and began acting out. I skipped classes and my grades plummeted. I started shoplifting. I was destructive at home and unruly.
Although I was in therapy, my mom felt I also needed a physical outlet. When I was thirteen, she enrolled me in a martial-arts class. I would show up and do my best, but I didn’t really take the message to heart—I often showed up with a bag of chips and a soda in my hands. One day my instructor gave me an ultimatum. He said, “Don’t waste my time. If you are not going to take this seriously, get out.” It was a real wake-up call. I started to focus and began taking better care of myself. I was in an environment where people were supportive, and I admired the way they lived. They were ambitious, and their bodies were their temples. I wanted to be like them. To a large extent, you become the company you keep.
A major turning point occurred when I was just fourteen and took my second-degree blue belt test. I broke two boards with a side kick and was beyond proud. I wasn’t better looking or even thinner at this point, but when I showed up for school the next day, I carried myself differently. I valued and respected myself. No one ever picked on me again. From then on, not only did I take my martial arts more seriously, but I also realized that when you feel strong physically it transcends into other facets of your life.
When I was seventeen, I graduated high school and my father threw me out of the house. He was domineering and our relationship had grown increasingly combative. My dad was wealthy, but he always made it clear to me that what we had was his, not mine. I ended up crashing in a studio apartment with a friend. My mother helped me pay rent until I was eighteen. For the most part, I’ve been supporting myself ever since. I enrolled at California State University, Northridge but dropped out after a year and a half. I’ve always had severe ADHD and was never a good student.
Around this time, I stumbled into training. I was at the gym, practicing for my black belt, when someone approached and asked if I was a trainer. I was, like, “How much does it pay?” I began to train during the day and bartend at night—yes, of course I blew fire and flipped bottles. Soon I was making more than $100,000 a year and loving life. Both jobs were really fun and social. I thought that someday I would open up a bar or a gym—or both—and continue to be happy for the rest of my life. I didn’t know there was another goal.
But when I was twenty-three, I started dating someone in the entertainment industry and things changed. He was a thirty-year-old Ivy League graduate and he hung out with a group of friends who all had similar credentials. All of a sudden, I felt judged for being a trainer and bartender. What I had thought was the coolest career ever suddenly wasn’t cool at all. I started to become ashamed of myself and I decided to switch careers.
I got a job as an assistant at a big talent agency. It took me several years, but I worked my way up the ladder and became an agent. I finally had a grown-up job with some clout, but I was miserable. I did not like my boss and I was hardly making enough money to pay my bills. I kept thinking, This sucks, but I guess it’s what I’m supposed to do. I didn’t know any better.
My boss wasn’t the greatest guy and he had done something unethical. Since I had been his assistant, I knew about it and got pressured by another agent to disclose my information. In the end, the agency used the info to leverage my boss into renegotiating his contract, and I was fired.
So there I was at age twenty-seven without a clue as to what I was going to do with my life and feeling like I had just wasted four years of it. It was an extremely tough time. I literally could not get off the couch for months. It was so bad my mother thought I needed to be on antidepressants so I took Zoloft for about four months (and I am not into medication). I was so numbed out that it was only when my car got towed and I found this to be hilarious that I knew I needed to get off of it.
Eventually, after an exhausting job search that turned up nothing, a friend of mine who was running a sports medicine facility suggested I work for her as a physical therapy aid and trainer. At first, I found the notion humiliating—it would be taking a huge step backward on my career path—but I had to pay my bills so I didn’t really have a choice. The interesting thing is that I soon found myself waking up in the morning looking forward to work. I adored my clients and really cared about how they progressed. One day I got a call from a very overweight woman I had been working with. She tearfully said, “I felt my hip bone for the first time in eight years and I just wanted to thank you.” I started to cry hysterically. At that moment I realized, This is what I’m supposed to do. I’m where I’m meant to be. I loved my life again.
For me, what I do is not about fitness. It’s about helping people rebuild their lives. Fitness is just the tool I use to empower them. By helping people feel healthy, strong, and capable, I’m able to redefine their entire self-image and transform years of negativity. I’m able to do for them what martial arts did for me years ago.
I eventually decided to open my own sports medicine facility with the help of some of my clients who became angel investors. I had a podiatrist, a chiropractor, and a physical therapist all working for me, but I also worked under and learned from them. This was an incredibly happy time in my life. I was in charge of my own destiny and doing what I loved. This went on until I was about thirty when I was selected to be a trainer on the reality TV show The Biggest Loser.
An agent I had become friends with while working at ICM had heard about the show and recommended that they hire me. So, as it turned out, my stint in the entertainment industry wasn’t a waste of time after all!
The rest is history. I’ve been able to use my visibility from the show to develop a brand name for myself and build a health and wellness empire that includes New York Times best-selling books, fitness DVDs, video games, clothing, apps, websites, and more.
But not every venture I’ve embarked on since The Biggest Loser has been a success. In 2010, for example, I did my own reality TV show called Losing It with Jillian. I would live with an overweight family for a week and change their eating and exercise habits. After six weeks on their own, I would return to see how they progressed. The show failed. We were giving people who were three to four hundred pounds six weeks to lose weight. Even if they lost fifty pounds, they still looked almost exactly the same. I kind of knew this would be a problem before I even signed on, but I did the show because others thought I should and because I was afraid that I might never get another comparable opportunity.
I believe that every failure, disaster, and heartbreak has a silver lining. Losing It was a professional disaster, but I got two great things out of it. First, I learned this simple but important lesson: If your gut tells you something’s wrong, don’t do it. And, second, I discovered the joy of parenting. One of the families I lived with had a nine-year-old girl I really bonded with. Spending time with her made me realize for the first time that I wanted kids of my own. I now have two children and am more fulfilled than ever.
In every business and in every facet of life there are “gatekeepers.” Gatekeepers are people who decide whether or not you get past them to do what you want to do. If they won’t let you pass via the traditional route, your job is to get around them in whatever way you can. For example, if you want to sell a product and can’t get a retailer to take it, sell it yourself on the Internet. If you have a message you want to get across but can’t get your own TV show, put your material on YouTube or iTunes. Play by your own set of rules and defeat the naysayers and gatekeepers by forging your own path to success. The only way you are ever going to get where you want is to keep moving in that direction. I think Gloria Steinem said it best: “Whatever it is that you want to do, just do it.”
No one likes to feel vulnerable, and I’m no exception, but the reality is that you can only know as much depth, happiness, and success in your life as you can know vulnerability. If you don’t ask out a girl or a guy on a date, you won’t get rejected, but you won’t fall in love either. If you don’t apply for the job, then you won’t get the position you want. If you don’t try to start your own business, then you’ll never be the entrepreneur you always dreamed of being.