Jillian Michaels is widely known as an outspoken “tough love” personal trainer, television personality, entrepreneur, and author of multiple best-selling books.
And, while her extraordinary dedication to fitness and helping others create sustainable, healthy, and fulfilled lives is what has propelled her to stratospheric fame, what many may not know is the primary driver that led to this career path—being ruthlessly bullied and tormented about her weight by childhood classmates.
During these formative years, she entered the world of martial arts to build her strength so she could better protect herself from these sometimes-physical attacks. She quickly progressed through the ranks, and as her skills improved, so did her self-confidence.
“Practicing martial arts, of course, helped me to lose weight and get stronger. More importantly, it increased my self-esteem, changed my self-image and gave me a better sense of self-worth. Perhaps, not surprisingly, as my confidence grew, the bullying stopped.”
Becoming an expert in martial arts, combined with additional challenges faced during her early teenage years, provided her with the inner fortitude to persevere—an invaluable component of her personality that would ultimately become an integral part of her unique ability to help transform the lives of others.
At 13, Jillian’s parents were navigating a horrible divorce. Struggling at school, unhappy with her weight, and dealing with the inner demons that were beginning to whisper about the “wrongness” of being gay, she recalls a specific sparring session at her dojo when her karate teacher side-kicked her into the corner of the studio, knocking the wind out of her.
“I started to cry. I tapped out. ‘You knocked the wind out of me!’
“And he kicked me again! I was like, ‘Wait, what are you doing?!’ And I’ll never forget it… he said, ‘So help me God, if you do not fight your way out of this corner, I will break your ribs.’
“I thought, ‘Oh my God!!’
“But then it dawned on me—I remember saying to myself, ‘You can cry all you want, and you can play the victim card as much as you want, but you’ll die on that cross in this corner.’ So, I did what I needed to do and fought my way out.”
Jillian credits this experience with teaching her the difference between empathizing with someone who is being pushed to his or her personal brink and moving him through his pain, versus sympathizing with someone in a way that allows him to give up—thereby providing false messaging and the validation of one’s darkest fears and insecurities.
“When you have that ‘Oh you poor thing … you’ve had enough’ type perspective, you’re basically telling that person that she is weak. A victim. Incapable. That day in the dojo, my teacher taught me that you can empathize with someone while teaching her to believe she is capable. At once, it was like, ‘I get it—it sucks not being able to breathe right now! But I am capable of this and will accept nothing less.’ What I learned is that, when you take a stand for people and help them shift into the vision of who they can be, you guide them to become a more powerful version of themselves. You have the chance to see who a person really is, even when she can’t see it for herself.”
Though today, it’s hard to imagine Jillian pursuing a different career path, it took many years for her to realize that fitness lit a fire in her soul. As she was training for her black belt as a teenager, she admittedly “fell into” training others.
Still, she says, “It didn’t click. When I felt strong physically, I was empowered. I was more resilient in all facets of my life. However, I never considered fitness or martial arts to be something I would do for a living.”
At 24, Jillian chose to leave martial arts in favor of getting a “real” job. She became a junior agent at a talent agency and recalls “never being more unhappy or making less money.”
Three long years later, she left—a decision that would set the trajectory for her now-famous professional life.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, what am I going to do? What am I going to do with my life?’ I fell back into training to pay the bills, working in a sports medicine facility as a physical therapy aid.”
There, Jillian learned how to guide clients in the rehabilitation of their injuries. Graduating to personal trainer, she began growing the practice, largely via referrals. “I was waking up happy every day again,” she said… and that’s when the seed of entrepreneurship bloomed—deciding to open her own facility.
She partnered with another personal trainer and both sold everything they had and maxed out their credit cards to pursue their shared dream. Some of their existing clients invested in the facility as well as Jillian’s mom. Skysport & Spa—a Beverly Hills penthouse fitness facility offering chiropractic physical therapy, massage, and personal training—was born.
Shortly thereafter, Jillian, via referral, was hired as a personal trainer on what ultimately became one of the most popular reality television shows of all time, The Biggest Loser. Known as the “toughest trainer” in the history of the show for her hard-hitting coaching style, some have compared her to a drill instructor who pushes her clients past the point of exhaustion.
Like most in the spotlight, she has her fair share of fans and critics. She has even been accused of “fat-shaming” and being “fat-phobic,” to which Jillian responds: “I get it. People only see through their own lens—through what is in their heart and head. Take someone from the Body Positivity Movement. She may have no idea what I’m actually saying, which is hey… there’s no shame in this. You have felt marginalized for such a long time. I understand how painful it has been for you, and you’re absolutely right… no one should judge you based on your body. But, while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and everybody has worth, value, and merit, health is a matter of science. I advocate for embracing your health and accepting simple scientific facts.”
For every person who considers Jillian a “monster,” you’ll find many more who consider her to be a hero. Jillian says neither is accurate.
With 40,000 Americans dying from obesity-related health issues every month and a “Googleplex” of studies detailing how deadly this disease really is, Jillian has no expectations when it comes to “convincing” people who refuse to see these issues for what they are.
“There’s no money in my message,” she said. “I’m fighting for the souls in the middle. It’s about being brave enough to be real. I care enough about people that I speak my truth and am authentic in my message—I have to move beyond what people think of me.”
Jillian’s mission is simple—to empower people through health and wellness. Viewing health as an entry point to rebuilding one’s self-image, self-worth, and self-esteem, she stands by the fact that, when people feel stronger physically, they feel stronger and are more resilient in other facets of life, too.
“It’s about contributing to one human at a time. 85% of those who lose a large amount of weight will put it back on. It’s the same with any addiction. You quit smoking; you start again. You stop drinking; you start again. These habits, emotions, thought patterns, and behaviors exist as a means for psychological survival—they’re in our psyche. That’s why one small victory is really massive success. It’s not easy for people to change. Contributing in any way to someone’s journey or transformation in a positive manner is an honor. That’s my measurement of ‘success.’”
Enter podcasting—another measure of Jillian’s accomplishments.
More than ten years ago, Jillian hosted a two-hour radio show every Sunday morning. Although it was very popular, she eventually burned out on committing to going live week after week, deciding to end the show after an extended, successful run.
Eventually, she missed it enough to reconsider… as did the countless listeners who wrote to her asking for her to get back on the air. When her business partner brought up the idea of podcasting, she was immediately interested.
“I approached my producer from the radio show about it. So, we went to a studio and just started talking. I didn’t have any idea how we’d get listeners if we launched a podcast. We basically adopted Kevin Costner’s message in Field of Dreams—‘If you build it, they will come.’ And they did. We even got an award from Apple for the show. I can honestly say that podcasting is 100% a pure passion project.”
The allure of podcasting, Jillian shared, is that “Podcasts allow you to have a direct connection with your audience. There are no gatekeepers or people manipulating you or what you say or do. There’s no click bait. It’s very pure. Whatever is in your heart can come right out of your mouth. It’s an extremely authentic medium, and anyone can do it. Plus, podcasts are now being turned into major television shows and motion pictures. Some are even bigger than major news channels. Look at Joe Rogan, for example. Millions listen to that show month in and month out. You want to be heard around the world? Say it on The Joe Rogan Experience.”
True to her “give-it-to-you-straight nature,” Jillian spoke to the power of the podcast in terms of creating personal transformation:
“There are no more excuses for achieving your desired goals,” she said. “Podcasting makes information and education accessible to you no matter what changes you want to make. Whether it’s learning how to meditate, work out more effectively, or speak a new language, these free resources are literally at your fingertips. So, utilize them.”
Few can argue that Jillian achieves tremendous results for her clients. Her success can be attributed to a combination of “ambition, resilience, dumb luck, and effort,” she said… and perhaps most importantly, her honesty:
“I’m just not afraid to say what most people are afraid to say. I will not lie because it’s popular. It’s not honorable to spare feelings when something is costing lives and solutions are at hand. Yes, there’s a way to say and do it that may be less direct than the path I take, but the truth is still the truth, especially when it comes to your health.”
Robert Frost famously said that it is in traversing the path less traveled that “made all the difference.” Fortunately, for millions across the globe, Jillian has been willing to forge, and stay true to, her singular path.