Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
A little departure from our regular fare this Friday, the Worker Bee and I definitely had fun with this one. We’ve shared our thoughts on the Biggest Loser in weeks past. Now we show you what the future of weight-loss television could look like if it continues heading in the direction it’s in…
“Oh, here’s a good one. It’s called the Pound-O-Meter,” Joe Gideon chuckles and holds up a device that looks suspiciously like a bathroom scale. “It’s a bathroom scale. But we trademarked the term ‘Pound-O-Meter,’ hoping it would become synonymous with weight loss. “Want to measure your weight, American consumer? You’ll need a bathroom Pound-O-Meter! You can still find them at discount stores and outlet malls. I think I make thirteen cents every time one is sold.” Joe Gideon is 73, fairly trim for his age, with more salt in his hair than pepper. He sits at a soda-crate desk on a folding chair in a cramped office in the back of a cramped gym in Philadelphia. His desk is cluttered with diet pills, weight loss toothpaste, aerobic rubber headbands, eyelid-fat calipers, chocolate inhalers, and an array of other health products, all bearing his name or likeness. Fourteen years ago, this man ran one of the largest televised health franchises in the nation.
Gideon is more commonly known as “The Belly Whisperer.” For almost two decades he was the host of America’s most popular health reality show. Gideon started out as a health advice DJ on a small radio station in South Philadelphia. At publicity events, Gideon would stand on a platform and whisper health advice directly onto people’s naked stomachs. Belly whispering is more than a gimmick for this man, it’s a passion, “Nothing works better than good advice delivered directly to the flesh,” says Gideon, “My advice is nothing revolutionary. I’ll tell you what I say. I say, ‘Don’t eat sugar. Eat more veggies. Stop with the sodas. If you can’t pronounce the first five ingredients, toss it out. Don’t eat sugar. Don’t eat sugar.’ That sort of thing. It’s not a mystical technique, I believe people are more open, more vulnerable and ready to listen when someone is right up on their belly.”
Gideon’s popularity landed him a two year contract whispering to bellies on national television. “Season one was so good,” says Gideon, “So simple. It was all about the message, and the message was right.” But the ratings weren’t. Belly Whisperer wasn’t anywhere near the #1 slot when it first aired in 2012. Biggest Loser: Cat Edition was the current weight loss TV powerhouse, a show where contestants were paired with obese cats for team weight loss challenges, the perfect program for the pet lover trying to lose weight. Comparatively, Gideon’s whispering just wasn’t attracting any attention.
Enter Barrett Shamefries, one of reality television’s most powerful players. He earned the nickname “80% Shamefries” for his dogmatic view that any show will be more successful with “80% more tears.” Barrett was brought in to revamp season two of the floundering show. He brought the tears by adding high endurance challenges to each episode, and within months the show was popular enough to attract major advertisers.
By season three the advertising had swelled so much that the show was extended from a half hour to an hour, with the second half of the show devoted to new Belly Whisperer brand health products. Car companies even jumped on the band wagon with new models like the Nissan Slimline, the Volkswagon Skinny, and the Toyota Thin which notably added weights and rubber bands to the steering wheel to provide a workout while driving.
Gideon still drives a Toyota Thin, which he claims is a fine, smooth ride despite the steering problems. When asked about the other archaic health products, Gideon shrugs, “Hey, I sold my name to most of these brands. I wouldn’t want to look like a hypocrite, would I?”
As the brands multiplied and the competitive aspect of the show increased, the actual belly whispering took a back seat.
“By season four the words I whispered to the belly weren’t even recorded. My whispers became a thing of magic, of mystery. People would guess at what I was whispering. [The whispers] were a big secret. Like Victoria’s Secret I suppose. Except more people were fascinated with my plain-faced overweight people than Victoria’s drop-dead gorgeous super models. You’d have to find a psychiatrist to explain that one to me.”
“Shadenfreude,” explains psychiatrist Ellen Brick, “It’s a German word that translates roughly to ‘happiness at the misfortune of others.’ Though I don’t know why there isn’t an American version of the word as we’ve sure harnessed it as a commodity.” Brick, who became a household name after testifying in the Mayla Jones case, believes most modern reality television programs are essentially different methods of tapping into the American public’s need for shadenfreude. “Belly Whisperer wasn’t even the number one offender. “SPAC!” comes pretty close to shadenfreude in pure form.” SPAC! (Sad People Alone Crying) is Fox’s #1 reality series, currently in its 18th season. Brick is neither surprised nor upset at the show’s popularity. After all, FOX is the same network that created the less popular series “The Tank,” in which contestants were locked in an abandoned Russian space station training vessel and rationed 300 calories of acai berries a day until they either lost 200lbs or forgot their own names.
Shadenfreude or no, Belly Whisperer raked in a 23 market share for season five.
In season six, Shamefries hired fitness guru Natalica (no last name) to play bitter to Gideon’s sweet. “We had a good cop, bad cop routine our viewers really loved,” says Gideon, “Natalica would knock the contestants down a notch, and I would bring them back up. Though we had to let her go in season seven after she attempted to stab a contestant with a fork. Other than that, the show was easy money.”
Then David Mosley became a contestant.
“The man tried to eat a live horse on one of our ‘Wild West’ themed episodes. The show’s horse wranglers had to tranquilize him.” Gideon shakes his head and grimaces.
Dave Mosely, or “Crazy Dave” as the public came to call him, was so popular, Shamefries brought him back as a contestant three years in a row. Mosely would publicly gorge himself for months before the show’s production date simply to have more weight to lose once the contest began.
Barrett Shamefries, who rarely speaks in public, will gladly discuss his favorite contestant. “They loved him! The viewers, the advertisers, everyone tuned in to find out if Dave could outshock us all with something new. Fistfights with contestants, public bulimia, using vodka and hair gel as a diuretic, the ratings were through the roof, both before and after the amputation.”
Shamefries is referring to the live season 13 finale in which Mosley amputated his own arm to beat the final competitor on the pound-o-meter. “We had to change the rules for the next season, loss of appendage being immediate grounds for disqualification. But we didn’t tell the public, so people tuned in just to find out if another nut case would saw off an arm to win. Dave was a blessing.”
Gideon doesn’t agree, “I remember thinking how the amputation was a first sign that the content of the show had departed from its original intent. I can’t believe it took 13 years and human mutilation for me to pick up on the changes. But the ratings didn’t quit and neither did we. Even after the first person died.”
On April 8th, 2027, Mayla Jones died on live national television.
Shamefries shows true remorse when discussing Jones. “It is unfortunate. What happened to that girl.” Shamefries lights and finishes a cigarette before continuing, “You know, there’s no magic number. There’s no definitive measurement we can all agree on, no exact calculable amount of time a person can live without eating. For some people it may be weeks, for others months, for some even longer. Didn’t Ghandi go three years without eating? Anyway. We all assumed Mayla could last from March to May without food. It is truly sad that she could not.”
Jones death became known as Maylagate, and the resulting televised civil trial received higher Nielson ratings than any other televised event of the decade.
Mayla Jones’ family sued Gideon and Shamefries for the entire value of the Belly Whisperer franchise, an estimated value of 1.7 trillion dollars. The case dragged out for months. To everyone’s amazement, Shamefries and Gideon continued to produce episodes of The Belly Whisperer through the duration of the trial.
Shamefries becomes bullish when discussing trial details. “Absolute malarkey,” he puffs, “Mayla signed a statement claiming she was in perfect health and had complete control over all her decisions and actions during the show duration. She chose to compete in the ‘Starve for your Life’ challenge, and she lost. Her death was unfortunate, but completely legal and allowed.”
Shamefries paces quickly as he opens up about the case, “And we won! We didn’t pay a single dime, but of course that was inconsequential because of all the negative publicity the trial generated. And then the “Frozen Fourteen” happened five days after the verdict, which just poured salt on the wound.” Shamefries is referring to the fourteen Belly Whisperer contestants who perished in an avalanche during the “Climb Everest or Die” challenge of that season’s competition. “But that was not our fault,” claims Shamefries, “Those contestants would have died whether they were fat or thin. That was just a freak accident of nature. Nobody could have foreseen it.”
Shamefries and Gideon won that civil case as well, but public opinion was so poor by that point that Congress rushed out a law declaring citizens to be incapable of judging their own health, nullifying previously-signed reality show statements and opening the floodgates for hundreds of new law suits. “Some fork-stabbing victim sued us and won,” says Shamefries, “Gideon lost most of his money to the guy. Fortunately, I had transferred my assets to a Cayman Island account before the suit was settled, and I now live comfortably outside the US border.” Shamefries seems content with his current status, happy to have exited the reality TV scene before America switched to the current popular health solution of over-the-counter-anti-diabetes pills (guaranteed to reduce risk of Type 2 diabetes by at least 4%)
While most people these days take the pill, some still opt for old fashioned diet and exercise. For those people, Gideon runs a small gym in South Philadelphia. A year’s membership- including weekly consultations- costs less than Gideon used to charge people by the hour for his famous whispering. Surprisingly, Gideon looks younger and healthier today than he did the last three seasons of Belly Whisperer, though he claims he hasn’t changed his eating or fitness habits in over 30 years.
“Sometimes I wish I could go back to a time when people were still entertained by karaoke competitions, and the fattest things on TV were reruns of bad Eddie Murphy movies.“ Gideon pauses to take a puff on his chocolate inhaler. “I don’t regret my decisions. I still believe in the same ideology of health. I just wish I had spread the message in a different way.”
Gideon still belly whispers the clients that come to his gym; simple, sweet messages about cutting back sugar and eating more vegetables. But his whispers are no longer heard by a nation and there are 80% fewer tears.
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