A ‘Biggest Loser’ challenge to just lighten up

LOSS EQUALS GAIN: Subway will pay Sorrells $1,000 for every pound she loses before the show’s Season 9 finale.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The alarm goes off Monday through Friday at 5:20 a.m. Shay Sorrells is out the door of her Newport Beach apartment by 5:40 a.m. -- with a piece of fruit and a handful of almonds to fuel her through an hourlong kettlebell workout followed by an hour on the treadmill. She’ll head to work, and then it’s back to the gym for her second workout session of the day. It can last up to four hours.

When Season 9 of “The Biggest Loser” begins Tuesday night on NBC, Sorrells won’t be part of the cast. But she will still be part of the competition -- and just might be the most envied dieter in America.

She’s getting paid to lose weight.

Viewers fell in love with Sorrells when she showed up for Season 8 of “The Biggest Loser” weighing 476 pounds, making her the largest contestant ever, man or woman. Her story was heart-wrenching: Neglected as a little girl by a drug-addicted mother, she bounced between foster care and extended family. She became a social worker who helped repair other broken families but could do little more than eat over her own personal pain.

Sorrells, 30, never had a shot at winning the weight-loss competition. But she showed up at the finale 170 pounds lighter and determined to lose about 100 more. That’s when trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels issued a new challenge: Subway, one of the show’s sponsors, will pay Sorrells $1,000 for every pound she loses before the Season 9 finale in May. She’ll basically write her own check.

“It was mind-blowing enough to hear Bob say that my story inspired millions,” Sorrells said. “As a social worker, that’s my goal. And then I heard him say '$1,000 a pound.’ And I thought, ‘Did I hear that right?’ ”

“The Biggest Loser,” meanwhile, keeps getting bigger and bigger. Here’s what viewers can expect this season:

Sorrells no longer holds the record for largest contestant ever. Michael Ventrella, 30, of Chicago weighs in at 526 pounds. And he will be joined by a set of 30-year-old twins, James and John Crutchfield, whose combined weight is nearly half a ton: They weigh 485 and 484 pounds.

The numbers were shocking even to the show’s trainers. “How can this keep going? Where is it going to end?” Harper said when shooting began. “But the reality is that this is the face of America. We are an obese nation, and these contestants reflect that.”

The show’s medical expert, Dr. Robert Huizenga, said there will be more “wake-up” calls this season than before, because this is what he calls the “sickest” group of contestants the show has seen. One theme will be “Know Your Number,” a reference to a blood test and medical history analysis that uses a complex matrix of data to predict disease and life expectancy. In other words, the test will tell contestants their risk for obesity-related illnesses including diabetes and heart disease -- and how diet and exercise can reverse it.

The show has partnered with the makers of the BioSignia Inc. test, which will also be made available to the public. But is the average citizen ready for this bit of “The Biggest Loser” at home? Dr. H, as he is known, said yes. “We are trying to take risk and put it into words that will make a great impact,” he said. “We’re trying to make it a personal, individual number and show people what they can do about it.”