A biggest loser becomes a winner – inside and out

Julie Hadden cannot wait to see the cherry blossoms for the first time.

Ever since her family moved to Macon last summer, she has heard about them, read about them and even written about them in the blog she does for Guideposts magazine.

She is looking forward to coming face-to-face with their beauty. She and her husband, Mike, have been amazed at the Bradford pears now blooming. That alone has been almost enough to take their breath away.

They soon will be moving into a neighborhood where the density of Yoshino cherry trees is as high as anywhere on the planet. Macon has a different terrain than their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., where they had always lived.

Mike worked in public relations and communications for the city of Jacksonville. Last summer, he joined the staff at Mabel White Memorial Baptist Church, where he and Julie were reunited with Senior Pastor Lee Sheppard, who had been at First Baptist in Jacksonville.

Their sons, 10-year-old Noah and 3-year-old Jaxon, got to see snow for the first time in January. A few cherry blossoms are already starting to appear. In a few weeks, the air will be rich with pink snowflakes.

Even though this is her new life in a new place, Julie has some experience at shedding old skin.

Four years ago this month, she was on the brink of being cast for Season 4 of the reality TV show, “The Biggest Loser.”

She had grown up a chubby little girl whose mother was concerned enough to take her to a Weight Watchers meeting when she was 8. She chewed her way to teenage obesity and learned to hide behind her misery with self-deprecating humor. People would tell her she “had such a pretty face, if only ...”

She never got asked to the prom. At 5-foot-2, she grew out more than up. In Sunday School and church, she was taught the tenets of discipline and self-control.

“The Bible says your body is supposed to be a temple,” she said. “Mine was more like a fairground.”

She married Mike 12 years ago. They named their son, Noah, and she lived with the fear her weight could sink any boat -- or ark – she tried to climb aboard.

She attempted nearly every diet fad out there, more than two dozen of them. She even weighed in on the Cabbage Soup Diet, which claimed she could lose 7 pounds in 10 days. “But who wants to eat cabbage soup for the rest of their life?” she asked.

Julie found herself fraught with insecurities and ashamed of her physical appearance. She would wait in the car while Mike went on a “scout” mission. He would check and make sure there was nobody inside a store she might know.

As her weight began to top out at 218 pounds, Mike said they began “praying for a miracle.” A friend told Julie about a local casting call for “The Biggest Loser.” Imagine that. A reality show searching for large people in Jacksonville, the largest city in land area (757.7 square miles) in the continental U.S.

Julie had become a fan of the show with Mike, who encouraged her to audition despite the long odds.

“Who would believe my stay-at-home wife would be picked when 250,000 people auditioned?” he said. There was a better chance of the St. Johns River freezing over in the middle of the summer.

But the show’s producers recognized her qualities. She began to advance through the layers of competition. When NBC-TV summoned her to California for a final interview, this is what she told the panel: “I’m tired of being this way. I’m tired of looking like I’m headed to a funeral every day, with all the black I wear. I’m tired of waiting until nightfall, when no one’s around to see me, to play outside with my son. I’m tired of worrying about whether I’ll live to see my son grow up, or whether I’ll sit by my husband in a rocking chair when I’m 80, or whether I’ll even make it to 40 years. I’m tired of being fat.”

Even after she was selected to be one of the 18 contestants, the odds were almost insurmountable. She felt almost tiny compared to some of the other wide bodies. One male contestant weighed more than 400 pounds. The heaviest woman outweighed her by 80 pounds.

Statistically, there was less of a chance of Julie being able to shed as much weight or as much of a percentage of weight.

“I felt like David in a room full of Goliaths,” she said.

Under the intense training of Jillian Michaels, they broke her down mentally and physically and then built her back. “It was cruel but necessary,” said Julie.

She and the others were sequestered for months while the series was being filmed, documenting their private struggles to be broadcast in the public arena.

Back home, Mike was under contract and could only tell immediate family members of Julie’s whereabouts. The neighborhood gossip was that the couple had separated. When Mike would answer that his wife was away on business, some grew even more suspicious. How could she be on a business trip when she didn’t even have a job?

Mike did tell Noah, though, even though he was 6. It was a secret he trusted his young son could keep. “He had seen her so unhappy,” said Mike.

After eight months, Julie came home. She had lost 97 pounds and more than 44 percent of her body fat, no doubt much of it in sweat and tears. She finished runner-up on the show. At the time, it was the highest-ever finish for a female. (Three women have since won in the program’s 10 seasons.)

She lost by a mere 8 pounds. She won a $50,000 prize and a new car. “And I got my life back,” she said. “My son could wrap his arms around me.”

When she returned to Jacksonville, some of her friends almost didn’t recognize her. When the episodes began airing, she became a local celebrity.

“At the grocery store, people would look in my buggy to see what I was buying,” she said. “We would go to restaurants and they would ask the waitress what I had ordered.”

A whirlwind followed. She appeared on Oprah, Larry King and other national TV programs. In April 2008, she was invited to the White House. She wrote a book called “Fat Chance: Losing the Weight, Gaining My Worth.”

She now speaks to groups all over the country, preaching about self-esteem and having realistic expectations for weight loss. Most of her audiences are women. She challenges them to “move more and eat less.”

She looked out during one speech and noticed a woman weeping. “She recognized a lot of herself in me,” Julie said.

Another book may be on the way, too. It will focus on worthiness. She plans to call it “Worth the Weight.” It’s not about counting calories, either.

“Not everybody’s weight is on the outside,” she said. “We all carry different weights.”

One of the chapters of her “Fat Chance” book is titled: “Eight Pounds I’m Glad I Gained.” After having son Noah, Julie was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a medical condition contributing to female infertility often brought about by obesity.

After she returned a winner from “The Biggest Loser,” she and Mike adopted a newborn baby. They named him Jaxon, which means “God has been gracious.”

When they brought Jaxon home from the hospital, he weighed the same amount she lost by on the show -- 8 pounds.

Sometimes it does seem like a dream. At least if she reaches to pinch herself to see if it’s all real, there’s not as much skin to press between her fingers.

She may just go out and run another half-marathon.

Bring on the cherry blossoms.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.