When Ruben Studdard won American Idol in 2003, few could have imagined ten years later he would compete again in another primetime reality show.
Not even the singer himself.
A second time around however, and the stakes have changed. When the Grammy-nominated artist debuts on The Biggest Loser Tuesday, he faces not a dream, but a bitter truth: his declining health.
Studdard steps foot on the show as the heaviest cast member, a borderline diabetic weighing 462 pounds and suffering from sleep apnea and high blood pressure.
Should he come out on top, he would be the first person ever to win two primetime reality TV shows.
“I never came on the show with the thought of actually winning, I just wanted to change my life,” the 35-year-old tells theGrio. “It’s easier in our society now to make unhealthy choices than it is to make healthy choices. For me, coming on this show, especially after this is over, it’s given me perspective. I love myself enough to take time to make better choices.”
No man is an island
While Studdard did not seek out the show – the producers approached him with an invitation – he says joining the 15th season of The Biggest Loser prompted him to evaluate the way he appreciated his life.
He attributes his excessive weight gain to a focus on career over self, and knows the only one to blame for his obesity is the latter.
Still, he’s quickly learning about the communal trap of personal negligence.
“A lot of times you think you live on an island,” he explains. “That’s what coming on the show has shown me. I’m not the only person which that is an issue for. Everybody is busy in their own way, whether it’s running behind children or having a career life.”
Studdard’s participation on the popular series is not his first attempt at managing his weight, though undoubtedly it’s the most high profile of his efforts.
In 2006, he lost nearly 100 pounds when he embraced a vegetarian lifestyle and went on a 1,200-1,500-calorie diet through a weight management center at Duke University.
But the pounds came back and then some, and the singer admits he lacked the maturity he has now to maintain good health.
“Just like education is wasted when you don’t use it, I think a lot of life experiences are wasted on just the ignorance of youth and your ability to feel like there is no real mortality,” the artist points out. “The older we get, those youthful inhibitions and abilities to keep going without making smart choices go away because you clearly understand that life is something that’s precious.”
He continues, “The difference with me now is that I’m a lot older than I was when I was having people tell me that it’s important to get healthy. I think now it’s something that I want to do for myself.”
Don’t blame McDonald’s
Studdard’s understanding of his own plight comes with a deeper perception of how society functions in relationship to food and nourishment.
Yes, he knows he’s responsible for his decisions and their repercussions, but stepping outside normalcy and looking through a window offered a new vantage on obesity in America.
“It’s not McDonald’s fault that people are fat and like their food,” Studdard says, “I mean, it’s good. At some point, I think what the show gives all of us an opportunity to do is to start taking responsibility for ourselves and not blaming anyone but ourselves for where we are. To say it’s Pizza Hut’s fault that I’m 462 pounds, that’s a lie. It’s my fault that I didn’t take the time out to make better choices for myself. Coming on the ranch gives you the opportunity to just take a minute out. Especially for me, because I’m used to having people cater to me.”
Along with the 14 other contestants shacked up at a California Ranch, Studdard’s journey consists of not only counting calories, but learning to cook, exercise, and formulate a daily lifestyle that can be mimicked when he returns to the real world.
Not typically much of a chef, Studdard says he loves to cook and the experience has taught him to reconsider his meals.
“At the ranch, every day you have to cook,” he describes. “We have to pay closer attention to the things we put in our mouth. That’s something I most definitely over the years have not been doing…You really get an opportunity to see how far you’ve left yourself go.”
Questioning the star treatment
Under the leadership of trainer Dolvett Quince, who spent two weeks convincing the singer to participate, Studdard adds a star element to the series, something that hasn’t been a factor previously and which could be cause for complaint.
Some argue it’s unfair to allow celebrities on a show meant to help those without the financial or social support system fame would presumably allot.
Executive producer Lisa Hennessy feels otherwise.
“He needs to be there,” she says on a conference call with media. “We choose people for many different reasons. By Ruben having a celebrity fan base, you think about all the people he will inspire. He will pay it forward.”
Quince suggests Studdard’s celebrity status doesn’t make him that dissimilar to other contestants, and could even prove a greater challenge.
“The average person can sometimes walk into a scenario where they’re ready,” Quince notes. “They’re like, ‘I have nothing to lose, let me go.’ But a celebrity who has a lot of responsibilities on a daily basis may have to be humble from the respect of trusting this process.”
Learning how to find ‘Ruben time’
Despite what luxuries he may have, Studdard says he could not have grasped the poor state of his health until he agreed to join the show.
He’s been working nonstop for four years on tour with David Foster, who will produce the artist’s forthcoming sixth album for Universal’s Verve label.
In fact, Studdard didn’t even get one last “piece of cake” before embarking on his fitness imperative, flying directly from a concert to the ranch where he’s remained since June.
His dedication seems more than apparent, and he’s already considering how he will impart his newfound convictions into regular rituals.
“I’m going to have to give every day of my life some Ruben time…Get up every day and give myself the two hours I need to keep myself together before I get into the music stuff,” he notes.
“Coming on the show was more of an eye-opener for me than daily life because you could walk around and be heavy and feel healthy and be unhealthy at the same time,” he acknowledges. “I believe there was a reason why I got asked to be a part of the show and there was a reason why I accepted and there was a reason why I am on this journey right now. And I’m thankful that God gave me a second chance.”
Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia