Through Thick and Thin : Dick Gregory Has a Weight-Loss Plan That's Highly Controversial, but His Faithful Clients See It as a Last, Best Hope

Times Staff Writer

Their day begins at 6 a.m. and ends with lights-out at 9 p.m. They cannot drive cars or watch television in their rooms. Instead, they spend hours pacing the white beaches here, their world limited by the edge of the aquamarine water and the yellow lines on the paved parking lot outside their hotel.

They are captives in paradise, this group of obese men and women who dwell in this small resort town.

They have come from across the country, gone into self-exile and willingly put their lives in the hands of an unlikely keeper-caretaker: Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist who has been dogged by controversy for decades.

He has campaigned for civil rights, bitterly opposed the Vietnam War and played the club- and lecture-circuit, spinning conspiracy theories about everything from drugs to the Kennedy assassination. He has participated in periodic fasts and ultra-marathons and studied nutrition on his own, even developing his own Slim-Safe Bahamian liquid diet formula.

But he's been on another mission in recent years, taking on the Herculean task of trying to save America's health by freeing our addictions to smoking, drugs, alcohol and food.

To prove it can be done, he has brought his "fat folks," as he calls them, to this Florida town, some weighing more than 500 pounds and on the brink of self-destruction when they began his program.

Agree to Be Trotted Out

Most are here on scholarship, with Gregory picking up the tab for them to participate in his weight-loss program. It's a trade-off: They lose weight, following his rules, and agree to be trotted out for television appearances and interviews with reporters.

In time, his clients have become media darlings, appearing on "Donahue" and showing up in the tabloids' pages. Camera crews visit regularly to chronicle their weight loss. Strangers on the beach even greet them by name.

The program is far from perfect; Gregory and the clients readily admit that. It lacks traditional medical expertise, with no doctor on staff, only a local physician on call. And until recently, the program employed a psychotherapist only part time to help what clearly are troubled people.

But his clients are willing to overlook these shortcomings. Most figure if they hadn't met Gregory when they did, they'd be dead by now.

"When I first met him, it was at a lecture, and he (angered) a lot of people," says 31-year-old Mike Parteleno, who, at slightly less than 500 pounds, and down from more than 1,000, is the heaviest of the group. "He talked about the CIA, about dope, about blacks killing themselves with food, and a lot of people got up and walked out. But I wanted to see him. I was in the back of the auditorium. And he came busting through the crowd and hugged me.

"It was like your first kiss--you remember your first kiss, don't you?" Parteleno asks. "Here was a man who knew me from no one. And he said, 'I can take you down to 190 if you're willing to work hard.' I knew right then and there. I went to work the next day and gave notice."

Ginger Oldham, one of 17 clients who pay $1,000 a week for the program, says she tried for years to hook up with Gregory. She finally joined his program a few weeks ago when space became available.

"He is probably one of the greatest men on the planet," she states simply. "I've watched him from the time I was a child during the civil rights movement. I knew the integrity of him was God-driven. Whatever he had plans for, he had to have some kind of spiritual insight behind it. He wasn't out to make money, fame or fortune. It was because society needs this and he could help."

On this day, weeks before the tourist onslaught, the beach is fairly deserted, save for a few early morning walkers.

Gregory, 56, sits farther away in one of the hotel's gazebos, gazing across the dunes. Dressed in a Bahamian Diet sweat shirt bedecked with gold epaulets, he looks like the zany commander of some madcap crew.

He is aware of the media circus he has orchestrated. He knows that reporters want to interview his heaviest clients. He knows that America likes to hear how much food they once ate, how fat they were, what they would do to get food.

He knows it is a freak show.

"Yeah," he says, "but that's what you want. Right now it's a freak show and it would be a freak show if they weren't going to lose weight. When they get down (to their goal weight), then that's their bargaining chip. It's going to be awesome."

His thin frame and gaunt face belie the fact that Gregory once ate his way to 350 pounds, chain smoked and drank a fifth of Scotch a day until he was converted to the ways of good health.

"They're getting a little bit more fun now," he says of the clients as he shifts in his chair. "Before they couldn't move. When we first got 'em they couldn't walk. We'd just sit around all day baby sitting for them. . . . And then you start seeing life coming back in them. That life has such a force.

"I've learned a lot from these people," he adds, the admiration clear in his voice. "There's a God force inside of you that gives you a will to live."

The powerful style he employs in his lectures--a cross between an evangelical preacher and a borscht-belt comedian--is absent in one-on-one discussion. Sometimes Gregory speaks so softly his voice is drowned out by the sound of the wind.

He is in the midst of a rare visit here. Usually a visit from a reporter is the only thing that tears him away from a business trip or a stay at his home, a farm in Plymouth, Mass. He spends most of his time in Ft. Walton Beach seeing friends or negotiating business deals, including his latest, trying to buy a cruise ship he wants to turn into a floating health resort.

He keeps his distance from the clients, who always call him "Mr. Gregory."

"When they're really depressed they hate me," he says. "I'm the warden. I'm the owner of this jail. I stay away from them. If I was here in the morning, they'd jump out of bed. But I want them to do it. And I don't want them to go home with an attitude. But they trust me."

Gregory puts his trust in his staff, which includes three full-time nutritionists, a full-time psychotherapist, a yoga and breathing instructor and four counselors. He'll tell you he's no businessman, but he's savvy enough to know to hire top people to run his company.

He saves his energies for ideas: big ideas, little ideas, ideas about future companies, about saving the world from refined sugars and saturated animal fats.

He wants to make nutrition glamorous, as smoking once was. He wants to find a town and make it the nutrition capital of the world. He wants to go into the bottled water business, to persuade a candy company to make a "clean" candy bar, to have the President create a cabinet post for nutrition and physical fitness, to open a facility for chefs to learn how to cook low-cholesterol foods.

He wants to turn the Beachmark Inn into a spa where guests can come for a week, lose weight and learn about nutrition and stress management. The ideas thread together in an intricate pattern that only Gregory understands.

Reaching out to the black community is another priority. "Because of all the publicity I've gotten," Gregory says, "they're going to have to listen. The effect this has had on the black community is incredible. I go to conferences and people hide their plates from you. . . . "My problem has always been that we should not do this for ourselves. Everything we do we should look at in terms of millions of people who can't afford it."

Many have come to this Gulf Coast retreat because of Walter Hudson, the New Yorker who was probably the heaviest human alive at 1,200 plus pounds. He had been house-bound for 17 years, coming into public view when he wedged himself in a doorway. Gregory helped Hudson shed 400 pounds before they parted amicably.

The intense media attention paid to Hudson's plight caused thousands to plead with Gregory, he says, for the same help--obese people who were prisoners in their homes, desperate for a way out.

To some, he gave advice and recommended his diet formula. For a select dozen, Gregory did more: He promised them that if they were willing to work he would help them lose weight.

That was June, 1988; his original dozen have been whittled to a handful, some achieving their goal weight, others dropping out of the program altogether. They've been joined recently by 15 new clients, not all of them obese.

They all live in the beachfront hotel Gregory bought for several million dollars last November. His core clients have gone from a dismal facility in Newark, N.J., to New York's Penta Hotel to another Florida hotel, finally landing in this small resort town.

Helping the obese came long after Gregory had set his sights on feeding the hungry.

"I put formulas together for world hunger," he explains. "I went to Ethiopia, and it dawned on me that you can tell a starving, malnourished person because they've got a bloated belly and a bald head. And I realized that if you come through any American airport and see businessmen running through with bloated bellies and bald heads, that's malnutrition, too.

"I'm probably the only person out there," he says, "that has a fraud on the market. The Bahamian Diet, that's a nutritional formula. But wouldn't nobody take it. So I called it a weight-loss formula and I changed the chemical compounds around."

Not Everyone Thrilled

Though it had booming sales of $2.5 million last year, not everyone is thrilled with Gregory's diet formula, a powder that's mixed with fruit juice and taken in place of meals. The diet, which supplies fewer than 1,000 calories (taken three times a day), carries a disclaimer urging users to consult a physician.

But Dr. Victor Herbert, a lawyer and chief of hematology and nutrition at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, has deep reservations about it.

He says very low-calorie diets "are dangerous and they should never be sold directly to the public. They should only be given after people have been objectively evaluated by health professionals. . . ."

Others see Gregory in a kinder light.

"I commend him for his work with obesity, and also for the exposure he's given the problem," says Dr. Frank D. Rohter, director of the Institute of Exercise Physiology and Health at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

". . . I can rationalize a bit of his lack of scientific background, for the fact that he's giving (nutrition) good exposure," Rohter says, adding his caution that dieters--especially the obese--must consult health professionals before embarking on a weight-loss program. He adds that being an MD is no guarantee a professional is a nutrition or physiology expert.

Gregory is aware he's considered by some in the medical community to be a fraud, a quack. But he shrugs it off and says he's optimistic now that a few are coming around.

He insists his formula is safe, proven by his own fasts and the successful weight loss of his clients. (In addition to the Bahamian formula, they eat two meals a day of fruit and one of salad.)

Run Without Physicians

He wanted his Florida program run without physicians to prove that people could lose weight and cure related maladies solely through proper nutrition.

"The interesting thing about all this," he says, "is that all of (my clients') sicknesses are being repaired. Because the universe meant for you to heal yourself. How do you do that? (You) stop doing what you were doing. People with high blood pressure, diabetes--those are conditions brought about by life style. If you change the life style, those conditions will leave.

"These people have a physical hurt," he adds. "They are physically hurting. Once they see that changing, they start caring about the way they look. See, you have a two-pronged problem--a physical and a mental. And most people would like to deal with the mental first, for some reason. To me, it's like, if you're in a mental hospital and the hospital catches on fire and you've got third-degree burns, don't bring me no psychiatrist!"

There is trouble in paradise this day. Gregory is unhappy with the current status of the program, which includes daily walks, meetings and prayers and a nutrition lecture. There have been too few clients showing up for exercise, too many clandestine runs for forbidden food.

"I'm just really fixing to close it down now," he says, peeved. "I know they cheat. At 3 a.m., they call the pizza people. They're heroes to the town, and people will do things for celebrities. But I'm going to clamp down on them.

"We're the wardens," he says. "And if you're not careful, the staff will treat them like inmates. They'll strike back and they'll hate you, but then they'll love you."

Gregory sees pleasant surprises here, too, like the two clients outside playing shuffleboard. "They can't stand each other," he says, shaking his head and laughing to himself. "And look at them now."

He is aware of jealousies sparked by news crews and talk shows that request interviews of only a few members of his group. "When the TV crews come," he says, "they want the biggest ones. But I tell them, 'If you all fell dead, it would make the show.' So that's one show. Don't get all carried away and make believe somebody's doing you a favor."

Other things change when the media are around: Many more clients are up at 6 a.m. to stretch and walk the beach; more take part in daily exercise; the food is arranged more attractively. There is even talk of clients stuffing their pockets with heavy objects on weigh day so their losses the next week will seem greater.

It is unfair, of course, to think that these people could be without moods, bad days and frustrations in their self-imposed exile. Sometimes they take it out on each other or the staff; meetings erupt in tears or shouting.

But there is also tremendous support when clients share weight loss goals on the dreaded weigh day.

Jonita Mitchell proudly jumps up in front of the group during a "community meeting" and tugs the seams of her baggy jeans. "These used to be tight on me!" says the 16-year-old, who has already suffered two heart attacks.

During a walk on the beach, Mickey Steidl talks about the countless diets he's been on over the years, losing sometimes 100 pounds, only to gain it all back--and then some.

"The thing about it is," he says, "we just stay in our houses and don't bother anybody. If we were out on the streets mugging people for food, there would be programs to help us."

Parteleno observes: "I tried to lose weight for my parents, my grandparents, my family, my friends, and this time I had to do it for myself. My friends, they were pretty good in one respect, but they watched me kill myself with food. They really didn't see the inside. All I wanted was someone to help me. Someone to tell me, 'Stop. You're killing yourself.'

"But I can't blame them, I was feeding myself. There was an emptiness that I had that food fulfilled the void."

When his charges leave paradise, Gregory knows life will be even tougher in the "real world." Dealing with food may be the least of their worries. For that, Gregory plans sessions on dealing with family members who once provided food out of love; eating in restaurants; and coping with dinner parties. His program already includes "pretty night," when clients dress up and throw a party in the hotel bar--where they are served fruit juice, of course.

"But the biggest problem," he confides, "is that they will become authorities (on weight loss). That's what we have to get them ready for.

"They do a fantastic job because what I do is transform them into performers," he says. ". . . But I just feel that they've got an awesome responsibility, more so than they might be able to handle. . . ."

Parteleno, who has confronted it countless times, knows he will forever be asked the question, "What do you do about losing weight?"

"The first thing I tell them," he replies, is that "you've got to want to do it yourself; you can't do it for anyone else . . . (The publicity) needs doing. For every one of me, there's a hundred sitting in a room watching TV who won't come out. And it's a good feeling when you're on a talk show reaching out to people. Mr. Gregory's told me that I'm stubborn. I may be hurting, but I won't give up."

Gregory's determination runs deep in group members like Parteleno, who says: "When I get out, I want to help as many people as I can. If my phone rings at 2:30 a.m. and it's somebody who's got a couple of pounds of lunch meat and cheese, my goal is to be able to help them, because someone went out of their way to help me.

"Mr. Gregory is always for a cause," he adds. "And if he asked me to jump from the third story into a vat of pudding because it would prove something about weight loss and nutrition, I'd do it."

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