'More to Love' and Others Reveal TV's Appetite for Plus-Size Personalities

By Neal Justin
Star Tribune
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Have a sandwich, Twiggy. In fact, go ahead and down a six-foot sub. Fat is suddenly fabulous, at least on TV.

"Drop Dead Diva," a dramedy about a rail-thin model reincarnated as a plump lawyer, is scoring the highest ratings for a new Lifetime series since "Army Wives" debuted in 2007. "Dance Your [Expletive] Off," in which contestants shake their girth thing to wild applause, is the biggest hit in Oxygen's history. And there's "Ruby," which chronicles the adventures of 500-pound Ruby Gettinger; the show is responsible for the Style Network's highest numbers.

This past spring, "The Biggest Loser" continued to eat into "American Idol's" ratings, providing NBC its best Tuesday-night viewership in four years. Susan Boyle, the Scot with the build and artistry of Julia Child, dreamed the dream on "Britain's Got Talent."

So why this appetite for fuller-figured personalities?

"I don't know," said Luke Conley, the 330-pound real estate developer who gets to play bachelor to 20 plus-size women on Fox's "More to Love." "Maybe they just have wider angles on their cameras now so they can fit me on the screen."

More likely, it has something to do with the fact that the big and beautiful will no longer be ignored. According to a study by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, adult obesity rates increased in 23 states last year, and nearly one-third of all children in 30 states are considered overweight.

The country's struggle with weight issues is a big reason "Loser" has been one of the few bright spots in NBC's struggling lineup.

"I think it embraces a concern and a worry that keeps a lot of Americans awake at night," said Paul Telegdy, who oversees the network's reality programming. "There's this epidemic of obesity that the show deals with using exceptional delicacy, in a way that's uniquely engaging." Seeing real-life people struggle with their expanding waistlines is certainly more relatable than, say, geniuses tracking down mass murderers.

"It strikes at the heart of the human spirit," said "Loser" host Alison Sweeney, a soap-opera star who has had her own public battle with weight. "You see people being able to overcome this obstacle that seems insurmountable. Miracles can happen."

Some scholars cringe at the names of shows. The titles might be cute, but they can also be hurtful.

"I have a real problem with the title 'The Biggest Loser,' " said Mary Story, a professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "When you think about the double meanings it can have, I don't think it's very respectful. People who are overweight already deal with enough social discrimination." After hearing the title "More to Love," Conley said he and most of the female contestants were concerned about how they would be captured on camera.

"It seemed like everyone had to be talked into it for the same reason," said Conley, who got the gig after answering an online ad. "As I got to know the producers more, I realized it was a legitimate show that had a desire to see two people make a sincere connection." The female participants were even more wary, Conley said, especially those who had never been out on a date or kissed a suitor. Bathing-suit parties were particularly daunting.

"If I had to, I would have thrown on a Speedo and jumped in to make them feel more comfortable," he said. "They definitely got into those suits. I was really proud of them."

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