NEW YORK – On a Tuesday night in April, Jillian Michaels, the fitness guru, sat down on a table at the Borders store in Columbus Circle and kicked off shiny beige Christian Louboutin pumps, revealing a blue pedicure. She was faced by a snaking line of hundreds, mostly women and teenage girls (but also a few potbellied men) clutching her sixth book, “Unlimited: How to Build an Exceptional Life.” Periodically, a giddy squeal would erupt form the crowd.
The devotees, some of whom waited four hours to get their copies signed, approached Michaels tentatively, as if she might give them the kind of dressing-down she’s perfected as a confrontational trainer on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”
A few did get a tongue-lashing. “Do I smell cigarette smoke on you?” Michaels asked Lori Gorman, a retail manager who had taken a bus in from Attleboro, Massachusetts. “No,” Gorman lied. Michaels narrowed her eyes. “Yeah,” Gorman, 47, admitted, skittish as a teenager.
“Quit!” Michaels barked, also using an expletive, examples of which are littered throughout “Unlimited.”
Some making the pilgrimage, newly slender, were carrying Before-Jillian pictures in which they were unrecognizable. Cynthia Eyler, 40, who home-schools three of her four children in Westchester, Pennsylvania, used to tell them, “Don’t catch on fire, because Mom doesn’t run!”
After tracking her calories and workouts at the weight-loss site jillianmichaels.com, after her first 5K race and after 52 kilograms had been shed, Eyler showed her idol a photo of the old her. “I want to thank you for changing my life,” she said nervously.
Michaels’ life is changing, too. In May, in a move at least two years in the making, she left “The Biggest Loser” – and her beloved comrade, Bob Harper – to pursue her dream of becoming a household name in health and wellness instead of just “America’s toughest trainer.”
It didn’t take long for another network to make its move. This fall, Michaels will become the fifth host, and the only nonphysician, on the CBS daytime show “The Doctors.” She will also be a special correspondent on CBS’ “Dr. Phil,” where one assignment will be to help teenage runaways face their demons.
The groundwork for the star trainer’s departure from “The Biggest Loser” was laid in part by her business partner Giancarlo Chersich, a former licensing agent who founded Empowered Media, a company to develop her brand, with her in 2008.
Chersich – or G, as Michaels calls him – whose previous clients include Daisy Fuentes and Randy Jackson, saw in her an opportunity to build a one-name, down-to-earth wellness guru akin to what Oprah did for lifestyle or Martha did for home. “You can give me a grain of sand and I can build a sand castle, that’s what I do,” he said.
The two – he’s cool-headed, she’s impulsive, a trait she said she gets from her estranged father, a personal-injury lawyer – have built a formidable fan base by emphasizing her softer, empathetic side. Michaels’ free “Losing It With Jillian” newsletter unflaggingly prods her 2.2 million subscribers not to sell themselves short, and it gives them diet tips and summarizes medical studies. On Facebook, she’ll scold her roughly 915,000 friends if she thinks they are disrespectful, as on May 9 after they criticized an old picture of a slender Rosie O’Donnell in a spiked revealing getup that Michaels had posted.
Jillian Inc. has had considerable successes and failures. Michaels, 37, has written six books (four made the New York Times best-seller list); has a performance and lifestyle clothing line with K-Swiss (a second batch is due in October); and has a dozen workout DVDs, including “30 Day Shred,” the best-selling fitness DVD title of the last decade, according to Nielsen VideoScan. After so many seasons on “The Biggest Loser” emphasizing diet, unholy sweating and emotional work, Ms. Michaels lost credibility when she endorsed quick-fix dietary supplements to lose weight. At least four times last year, she was sued over supplements. Michaels now wants to market a line of healthy-but-tasty snacks and breakfast foods. To that end, on May 25, the Empowered Media team, including Michaels, Chersich and Raymond Cole, the chief operating officer, had dinner at the Soho House in West Hollywood, California, with Denis Ring, the chief executive of Bode International, who is a creator of the 365 Everyday Value line, which emphasizes natural and organic ingredients, for Whole Foods. “You’ve got the chops to have your own brand,” Ring told her.
Michaels, who has invested in PopChips and the So Delicious line, explained her goal. “I can’t ask Americans to eat chicken and broccoli all day,” she said, dressed in jeans, a gray T-shirt and a plaid flat cap to hide her roots. “It’s un-American. I need to be able to give them American brands that won’t kill them.” By that, she meant convenient foods without hormones, chemicals or preservatives like butylated hydroxytoluene. Not diet food, she said, but real food made convenient, like frozen steel-cut oatmeal that’s easily microwaveable.
A former glutton for “diet” food who was an overweight teenager (she grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles mostly with her mother, a psychotherapist), she now adheres to the author Michael Pollan’s creed, which she readily recited: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Mention McDonald’s in passing, and she might threaten that, if you eat there, she’ll cut your heart open “with a spoon” to display the ensuing damage.
Michaels’ outspokenness is indulged by her acolytes, because she seems to really care. “If she was just a drill-sergeant yeller, she would get monotonous,” Dr. Phil said. “There’s a genuine caring behind her. It matters to her that you do better.”