Jillian Michaels’ Tough Love

UPDATED: April 5, 2010
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2010

With the TV volume turned down, the woman in tank top and sweatpants seems diminutive. She’s in a gym, hands on hips. You can sense her intensity, talking a mile a minute at the grossly overweight man struggling on the treadmill next to her.

Turn up the sound, and she grows larger than life. “Keep moving! Don’t you dare stop now! Last chance workout!” she shouts at the man as he gasps for breath, his sweat-streamed face contorted with pain.

Meet Jillian Michaels, co-star trainer on NBC’s The Biggest Loser, best-selling author, and star of fitness DVDs and interactive video games. Michaels is the face of 21st-century fitness. She’s tough. She tells it like it is. She gets results.

And here’s the kicker: She really cares.

“I don’t do things for the sake of television, for the sake of hype,” says Michaels, 36. “I do them because I have a greater meaning behind my agenda, and that is to improve the lives of my contestants. So what might look mean or what might look crazy or what might look scandalous all has a deeper purpose for the greater good of my contestant.”

In her first book, Winning by Losing: Drop the Weight, Change Your Life, Michaels outlines her basic approach: “self,” “science” and “sweat.” And it’s the former that separates Michaels from her predecessors and equips her to stare down the nation’s mounting obesity epidemic: She views self-destructive behaviors like overeating as symptoms of underlying esteem issues. By confronting and dealing with that emotional baggage, Michaels helps contestants break out of their ruts and build happier, healthier lives. Anyone who’s seen The Biggest Loser knows that tears are common—and indicators of powerful change.

Walking Her Talk These success stories, widely broadcast through her eight seasons on The Biggest Loser, have served as a platform for Michaels to launch her one-woman wellness brand. Her books include the best-selling Master Your Metabolism and two books this spring, The Master Your Metabolism Cookbook and The Master Your Metabolism Calorie Counter. Her DVDs include the hits 30-Day Shred and No More Trouble Zones. The fact that Michaels stars in not one but two of the latest interactive fitness video games (“Jillian Michaels’ Fitness Ultimatum 2010” and “The Biggest Loser”) is a testament to the trainer’s mainstream appeal. Up next, as the ninth season of The Biggest Loser draws to a close, Michaels will be debuting her own spinoff program, Losing It with Jillian, in early summer.

Many of these projects have been created through Empowered Media LLC, the wellness company Michaels formed in 2008 with business partner and CEO Giancarlo Chersich. Its motto is simple: “Inspired by Jillian, empowered by YOU!”

And Michaels doesn’t take for granted the intimate role of coach, mentor, confidante and therapist that contestants, clients and fans invite her to occupy in their lives. “I’m very lucky to be in this position,” she says. “And I try to be as responsible as possible with the power and the influence that it does provide.”

Perhaps one of the strongest tools in Michaels’ motivational arsenal is the fact that she also walked that long, hard road herself. As a teenager, Michaels was about 50 pounds overweight. Dealing with the psychological and emotional ramifications of her parents’ divorce, she masked her anger, overeating in private and hanging with the wrong crowd. Michaels’ mother suggested she try martial arts to channel her simmering internal energy into something positive.

“It became so much more than just that physical outlet for frustration,” Michaels recalls. “It became a means to rebuild my self-image and, therefore, my life.” But she didn’t embrace the ancient art completely at first. She remembers one day when her instructor chided her for eating a bag of chips—and questioned her commitment to the practice and to her overall wellness.

Fighting out of the Corner “He said, ‘Either you get with the program and invest in yourself as much as I’m investing in you, or this is a waste of my time.’ So he sort of gave me that rock-bottom moment, hit with the ultimatum…. I took a little time to think and process this, and I came back into my martial arts studio fully committed. And that’s really when I developed my understanding of fitness and health as the platform the rest of your life sits on. That when you’re strong physically, you’re strong in every factor of your life.”

Michaels still draws upon experiences from those early days when she’s working with contestants and clients today. One technique she uses, stemming from an experience with an instructor when she was around 13, provides insight into her tough approach. She explains that while she and her instructor were sparring, he gave her a sharp kick to the stomach that knocked the wind out of her.

“And you think automatically that he’s gonna stop, and then you’d be able to recover, and you can be dramatic, and act like the victim,” she remembers. “And he was like, ‘Get up. If you don’t get up and fight out of that corner, I’m gonna keep kicking you.’ And he did. He was pounding on me. And so I realized that if I behave like a victim, life was going to treat me like a victim—and I was going to create that reality.”

Fighting the pain and struggling to breathe, the young Michaels did, indeed, fight her way out of that corner—and she emerged with a new lease on life.

“So one of the things that I do with the people I work with is I make them fight their way out of the corner,” she says. “I don’t allow them to be victims, because if they’re victims, they’re not in control of their own destiny.”

Seeing Doorways to Opportunity At 17, Michaels became a trainer, but she shifted gears about five years later to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. She worked her way up from jobs in the mailroom and as an assistant in hope of becoming a motion picture packaging agent. Then, she was fired. “And I was like, ‘This is not in the plans,’ ” she says.

Michaels knew she could return to fitness training, but she resisted at first. “I thought of training as going backward in the world. But I opened myself up to the opportunities that came my way, and I pursued them with passion and intensity. And when you do that and you stay open, then you allow those opportunities to manifest in the ways that they’re meant to.”

She encourages others to embrace those scary, uncertain moments that could provide doorways to new opportunities. You’re less likely to see those possibilities, she says, “when you cling to the past or you hold on too tightly to the idea of what you think life should be or what you think you must have. The key is to take that action and put that energy in the world and then stay open. It’s not about surrendering. It’s not about quitting. It’s about staying open. It’s about planting those seeds and seeing what grows, how it crops up and where.”

As it turns out, the seeds Michaels had planted bore fruit when she was asked to coach the red team on the debut season of The Biggest Loser in 2004. She helped the final winner, Ryan, drop 122 pounds— nearly 37 percent of his body weight—in nine weeks.

Such results can only be achieved if a goal is first established, Michaels says. “Having a goal gives you a direction in life. If you don’t have a goal, it’s like getting in a car and not having a destination. You’re spinning your wheels, and you’ll go nowhere. The key to having a goal is having it be definable, having it be realistic.”

The Root of Self-Destructiveness Michaels enjoys breaking down big, long-term goals into manageable chunks. She calls the technique a “goal pyramid.”

“At the top is your long-term goal,” she says. “Then that would break down into monthly goals, and then into weekly goals, daily goals, immediate goals. So this way you create a road map for success that you can follow so you’re not just looking at this thing that seems insurmountable and unachievable.”

As the first-ever Biggest Loser, Ryan won $250,000, but Michaels says establishing the real “why” behind the goal—something even more meaningful than a big payday—is the key to ongoing motivation.

“If you have a why to live for, you can tolerate and endure anyhow,” she says. “If it’s, Why do you want to lose weight? ‘Well, I want to see my grandchildren graduate from high school.’ All right. That’s worth broccoli and treadmill, right? It’s looking inside and your true passion is and letting that be your motivation.”

She also dedicates a considerable amount of time and effort to finding issues are keeping people from moving forward with their goals.

“Underneath every self-destructive behavior is a self-esteem issue. End of conversation,” Michaels says. “Those are symptoms of a deeper and understanding the root of your self-esteem issues will help you rectify symptom. Obesity is never because somebody wanted an extra margarita their vacation. It’s about some sort of, ‘I was never good enough,’ ‘I was worthy,’ ‘I’m afraid that if I do embrace life, I won’t have the ability to or succeed.’ And until you get to the root of the problem, you’ll never be remedy the symptom. That’s why self-exploration and self-awareness is a fi rst step when it comes to achieving any goal.”

A Thirst for Knowledge Michaels attributes her ability to target self-destructive behaviors to her experience training clients and her years of experience with being in therapy and mother who is a therapist.

“I have the ability to see what their patterns are,” she says. “And then I it so we can work through the issue. And then I’ll ask a few leading questions we can get to the root of where it comes from to help them understand the that issue, and then learn techniques and recovery behaviors to manage it everyday life so that it doesn’t destroy their ultimate goals.”

In addition to trainer, life coach, TV star and author, Michaels added businesswoman” to her already-crowded résumé in 2008 with the founding Empowered Media. Her partner in that venture, Chersich, comes from background at Tommy Hilfiger, where he saw the $100 million company grow $2 billion empire by the time he left.

He says Michaels’ aptitude for business springs from her undying for what she does: “She’s a perfectionist. She wants the best and won’t settle anything less than the best.”

Chersich also credits her thirst for knowledge—reading all of the medical journals to stay up to date—for keeping Michaels open to change.

“She’ll take constructive criticism, and she’ll address it,” he says. “And if she can learn and adapt, she’ll learn and adapt. She’s fluid. She’s not stuck in her ways.”

Indeed, Michaels is a huge proponent of education, no matter what one’s ultimate goal may be. “If there’s something that you’re passionate about that you want to do, educate yourself about people who have achieved it; educate yourself about what it takes to achieve that goal. Because when you’re educated and informed, you’re able to make powerful choices that effect change—and effect change quickly,” she says.

Taking Responsibility And when she doesn’t have the knowledge or skill in a particular area, Michaels isn’t afraid to recruit those who do. “Make sure you’ve got somebody who knows what you don’t know. Make sure that you’ve got people who are the best at what they do,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to let people outshine you. When you surround yourself with greatness, it makes you that much greater.”

At the end of the day—which, for Michaels, often entails 18 hours of work—it’s about making your goal a priority and working toward it in any way possible: “Time management is extremely hard. It is about making the time. When you can’t get to the gym always—OK, eat healthy that day. That you can control. If you’re traveling, and there’s not healthy food around, go for a walk. It’s not about being perfect all the time. That’s an impossibility. It is about making efforts where you can, and there’s no effort too small. Those little things make all the difference in your life.”

Again, with Michaels, it always seems to boil down to control and accountability. Whether you’re controlling your metabolism and your weight or controlling your happiness and your destiny, the key is being accountable for your own life.

“If you are not taking responsibility for the state of your life, you are a victim. Even when something bad happens to you—because bad things happen—you have the ability to control your reactions and how you view it,” she says. “Do you see failure as validation that you’re worthless, or do you see failure as an entry point for learning so you grow stronger and wiser and better? And do you see failure as an integral part of success? Taking ownership of the state of your life, you’re empowering yourself to change it in any way that you choose.”

Visit JillianMichaels.com for a look at her next project, Losing It with Jillian.