Al Roker On Being 'The Jolly Fat Person'
This segment was originally broadcast on Jan. 28, 2013.
Al Roker, the veteran weatherman on NBC's Today show, endured years of indignities as an obese teenager and throughout his television career. Then, in 2002, he had bariatric surgery and lost more than 100 pounds. But deciding to have the procedure, which is potentially life-threatening, wasn't easy — and neither was keeping the weight off afterward.
Roker chronicles the experience in a new book, Never Goin' Back: Winning the Weight-Loss Battle for Good. He tells NPR's Michel Martin that he had an especially difficult time in high school when Bill Cosby developed the Fat Albert character for television. "I'm black, I'm fat, my name is Albert. It was the embodiment of who I had become." It contributed to a lot of teasing from his classmates. Roker says he dealt with it by using humor and acting as the "jolly fat person" to deflect the teasing.
Despite his obesity, Roker went on to pursue a television career. During one of his first jobs in Washington, D.C., he received a call from the man who would become his mentor. The man had a thick Southern accent. He said to Roker, "This is Willard Scott, and I am outside your studio. I'd like to take you to dinner." Roker writes in the book that Scott gave him advice about navigating a media career as a larger man. "So what if they think you're funny because you're fat — you're the one laughing, all the way to the bank!"
Eventually, the weight became no laughing matter. Roker says it was like a third person in his marriage. His slim wife, Deborah Roberts of ABC News, urged him to lose weight. But he didn't consider drastic measures until his dying father asked him to promise to lose weight.
A decade after undergoing bariatric surgery and sticking to a fairly rigid diet, Roker currently weighs around 200 pounds — a far cry from when he topped the scales at 340. He still enjoys some of his favorite high-fat foods, but now he only needs a few bites. Roker also does things he couldn't when he was obese — from zip-lining to simply bending over to tie his own shoes.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, let's see - born in England, daughter of immigrants, raised in Scotland, medical student, becomes one of the top musical acts in the U.K. We'll hear about the unlikely journey of breakout star Emeli Sande. She will join us for a reprise of her special performance and conversation that we had with her recently right here in our Washington D.C. studios. That's coming up.
But first, you know how they say never judge a book by its cover? Well, now we hear from someone you probably think you know. You've certainly seen him just about every day for the last 15 years - NBC's "Today Show" weatherman, Al Roker.
But, while you may have witnessed his fluctuating weight - he once topped the scales at 340 pounds - today he's a fit 200. But behind the numbers and the jovial fun, fat-guy veneer was an intense struggle, one that included numerous failed diets, pleas from his wife and a promise his father demanded from his deathbed.
Al Roker details those moments in a remarkably candid new book. It's called "Never Goin' Back: Winning the Weight Loss Battle for Good." I spoke with him recently and I began our conversation by asking why he went public with his weight loss struggles.
AL ROKER: Well, it seems, for some reason in the last few years, people are really curious about my weight loss and what I've done to keep it off. Whenever I'm, you know, at a public appearance or anything like that, that's usually one of the first questions, right before what time do you get up every morning?
So, you know, I thought, so many people struggle with their weight. You know, I don't want anybody to think, OK. I read this book and I'm going to lose 100 pounds. That's not the case. It's really more of a memoir seen through the prism of weight loss and somebody who's struggled with weight all their life.
MARTIN: That is one of the questions I had that you answered in the book, which is that you say that you battled with weight your entire life, but you also say in the book that it really kind of hit you at age 15 when Bill Cosby developed the Fat Albert character. And I'm not going to take you through that again. I'm not going to - I'll spare you hearing, hey, hey, hey again.
ROKER: No, no. But - well...
MARTIN: But you describe just the terribleness of it. Why was it so bad?
ROKER: Well, I'm black, I'm fat. My name's Albert. It was the embodiment of who I had become. I mean at, you know, 15 years old, I'm a sophomore in high school and here's this character. And it started as a special on - it was a Thursday night on NBC, and I remember thinking, maybe, somehow, nobody I know saw this.
And I get to school and walk into the cafeteria and it's a chorus of, hey, hey, hey. You know, and it's like, oh, OK. But, you know, you're in high school, so you've got to kind of, you know, put on a false front and - hey, yeah, isn't that funny? Yeah.
Oh, God. So, you know, it was even then that, you know, you're kind of confronted with it, but you use humor or whatever, you know, again, the jolly fat person to kind of, you know, deflect.
MARTIN: If you could just describe for people who've never lived through it, never struggled with their weight, what do you think is like the worst thing about it?
ROKER: I don't know if it's any one worst thing. It's a series of little indignities. You know, getting on a plane and worrying that the seatbelt isn't going to fit. Or that, if it doesn't fit and you kind of, you know, discreetly whisper it to the flight attendant that you need an extender.
And they go rummaging around for it and then they, you know, get on the intercom and ask the flight attendant in the back to bring up an extender and then she hands it to that flight attendant. Well, everybody pretty much knows what's going on.
Or just, you know - I mean, look, I've got kids. From my oldest, who's now 25, but you know, the heartbreak of not being able to get on a ride with her because, you know, the restraining bar won't close on the roller coaster, or whatever ride it is you're going on. You know, it's those little things that, you know, you're like, oh.
Or just the terror of realizing you left, say, some clothing home on a trip. Now, you have to try and find, you know, a pair of pants, let's say, which you can't go to the Gap or any place like that. I mean, now, ironically, today, you can go to Old Navy and they're carrying pants up to size 50, which I think is more of, you know, a commentary on, or the reality of America's new weight gain.
MARTIN: You know, you have a whole chapter in the book titled "The Indignities of Being Fat" and people would actually watch what you eat and ask, are you supposed to eat that?
ROKER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. They feel quite emboldened and quite free about pointing out things to you, you know, where they just feel the freedom. And I also feel that, you know, fat is the last bastion of political incorrectness. You know, you want to get a cheap laugh in a sitcom or movie, put a fat person in and have them do something or have something happen to them,
And it's, oh, ho, ho. Look at the fat person struggle. Oh, isn't that great?
MARTIN: But you say though - in the book, you said you wanted to - like when people would say are you supposed to be eating that? And you'd say you'd want to reply, are you supposed to be rude?
ROKER: Yeah. Exactly.
MARTIN: Well, why didn't you?
ROKER: Well, you know what? Because when you're, you know, your whole persona is that of somebody, you know, who is fun and funny and, you know, people, you know, then it's oh, well, that Al Roker. You know, oh, my gosh, what a jerk.
Although now I will admit I do feel a little more emboldened. About a week and a half ago, a couple of weeks ago, a guy comes up - and I get this all the time now, which I don't think people realize what they're saying. They go, you know, I thought you were funnier when you were fatter. You know, and I said yeah, and I thought you were smarter before you opened your mouth.
MARTIN: Ooh. OK.
ROKER: But, you know, people say the darndest things, as Art Linkletter once said.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, our guest is Al Roker. That is a name and a face that you surely know, weatherman for "The Today Show." He chronicles his more than 100-pound weight loss in a new book. It's called "Never Goin' Back: Winning the Weight-Loss Battle for Good." You know, you write about how you had bariatric surgery.
MARTIN: Which basically reduced your stomach to the size of an egg. And I just want to make it clear, as you make it clear in the book, that you're not recommending this.
MARTIN: You are - just like you don't recommend diets or weight loss programs because, as you point out, you know, this is very personal, an individual thing. But, I do want to ask why you were so secretive about it. I mean, you say you didn't tell even your co-workers about it until a few months after the procedure and then only because one of the tabloids was about to reveal this. What was that about?
ROKER: Well, it was about a lifelong struggle with my weight and trying different diets and failing. And in my mind I felt pretty confident that I was going to lose this weight but, I mean, this was the - after this there's no other options. I mean you're - when you do bariatric surgery, you're pretty much - I mean you've run the gamut.
And my fear was that it was going to come back or wouldn't take or something would happen and I would just, besides being fat again, then I would look really stupid and just be an abject failure. And so I thought, if I don't tell anybody, then maybe nobody will notice and I'll just lose the weight and then I can kind of reveal that I've lost this weight.
You know, that was the only flaw in my whole plan, that I hadn't thought about the fact that actually, I am going to lose a lot of weight and it's going to be pretty rapid and in being on TV, a few people might notice. So it just was a poorly thought-out plan.
MARTIN: Did you feel that in a way it would seem like a failure, like the easy way out and that people would judge you for it?
ROKER: I get people asking that all the time. Or saying that, you know, well, you lost weight but it was a cheat. You know, you took the - and I'm thinking let's see, somebody goes in and makes holes where there aren't, rearranges your insides. You now have to take massive multivitamins and supplements because your body can't absorb or it doesn't get what it needs from the food.
You know, there's a one in 200 chance of dying from either the surgery or complications therein. There can be chronic complications from this and I refuse to ever endorse this. I mean, I've turned down six-figure checks from organizations to represent them and I won't do it, because - forget about all this other stuff.
The last thing I want is somebody to come up to me and say to me, you know what, my mother or my father, my brother, sister, wife, husband had the gastric bypass because you recommended it and they died. I just don't want that on my conscience. I can't deal with that. So, you know, I won't recommend it.
And, you know, look, any good surgeon - and there are a lot of them have popped up to do this - do you know there's no board certification for bariatric surgery. If you're a surgeon and you can get a hospital to give you space, and a lot of them now don't even do it in a hospital, they do it in an in-suite, you know, although they need to have it really done in a hospital, but you can be a bariatric surgeon.
MARTIN: You know, this is the other thing I think was kind of surprising to me to read in the book is the hateration when you do lose the weight.
ROKER: Yup. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: I mean on the one hand you have, you talk about the indignities - the large and small indignities - of having excess weight. But then when you do lose the weight, the hateration of people really don't seem to be happy for you.
ROKER: Well, here's the deal. I talk about saboteurs who either, you know, unconsciously or consciously want - don't like what you've done. Part of the problem, I had low self-esteem. My self-esteem was because of the weight - not just because of the weight, but that was one of the symptoms of it. And, you know, so you, you know, you have a different persona in a sense.
Once you lose the weight, you know, there's a certain self-confidence, a certain self-esteem. You feel better and people may not be able to deal with that person. They were used to the other person, the person who, you know, was kind of ashamed of themselves and wasn't happy with themselves.
You know, and all of a sudden here you are a different person, or if not different you're certainly - there are parts of you that are more positive, more self-assured, more self-confident and people, I think, have problems dealing with that. Or all of a sudden they're not the best-looking person in the room, you know?
MARTIN: You write - you have some very interesting reflections on weight and how it kind of affects you and affects how you are perceived. And you, for example, you write: Was I heavy because I was shy, or was I painfully shy and became heavy as a way to help insulate myself? My weight gave me a barrier that somehow made me feel safe, because I desperately feared rejection.
I played the it's-not-my-fault-I'm-fat card a lot as a way of justifying any type of failure. And you said I don't think my weight held me back professionally but I can't help but wonder, if I did this well being fat, how much better could I have done if I had been fit?
But you also, I think this is to your credit, talk about the fact that thank God you're not a woman because there's a terrible double standard in our industry that would never have allowed a 340-pound woman to do the news.
ROKER: Absolutely not. And...
MARTIN: Was it hard? Was it hard to write that? Was it hard to come to grips with that?
ROKER: No. Because I've always felt it. I really have. I mean, you look around on the dial and it's rare to see a very heavy woman on TV. There was that anchorwoman recently who - I think she was in Michigan. I can't remember exactly where, but, you know, some viewer wrote, you know, a really disparaging letter to her or email. And she...
MARTIN: Yeah. You're not a good role model. That's what she said. Mm-hmm.
ROKER: Exactly. And she answered back on the air. You know, I think that - and look, I have nothing to kick about. I have a terrific job. I have a beautiful wife, three great kids. So people have said well, what more do you want? What more could you have achieved? And the answer is I don't know. Would I have been president of the United States? No. But I don't know what I would have done.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of the president of the United States.
MARTIN: Recently, you were in Washington for the Inauguration.
ROKER: Mm-hmm. Yes.
MARTIN: And a couple of your moments have been repeated since as one of the highlights of the day. This is you when you were trying to get Vice President Joe Biden to come over and say hello. Here's you trying to make that happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION CEREMONY)
ROKER: Mr. Vice President? Mr. Vice President? Mr. Vice President? Mr. Vice President? Hey, how you doing? Come on. Come say...
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Come on.
ROKER: Come on.
ROKER: They won't let you. Come on. Yes. Yes!
I got a handshake from Vice President Joe Biden. That's not so bad.
MARTIN: Yeah. You got a handshake from Vice President Joe Biden. You got a thumbs-up from the president.
ROKER: Yes. Yeah.
MARTIN: Why are we so happy about this? I mean...
ROKER: You know what? I think because and - look, I don't live in Washington. I don't, I mean, you know what? We forget I think in this country it's the president of the United States. And guess what? It could've been Barack Obama.
It could've been George Bush. I wouldn't have cared. It's the president of the United States who is saying hello to you, who is responding to you. And here's the vice president. He was just - you could see the joy, him walking, he was walking backwards waving to the crowd.
MARTIN: Oh yeah.
ROKER: You know?
ROKER: I mean you love this guy. I think people responded to the sheer joy of it. And look, I'm a kid from Queens. The president of the United States acknowledged me. The vice president came over and shook my hand and it was on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Day, you know? It was all I could do to stop from crying, thinking about my parents, about what they would've thought about that.
So you know, so, you know, it, I think it's - it means a lot.
MARTIN: Hmm. Well, thank you for thinking that through with me.
Now I have to go to my therapist. That was hard.
MARTIN: Exactly. How do you feel now that you put all this out there? How do you feel now that you put it all out there?
ROKER: You know, I feel pretty good about it. I, yeah, I've been going to these book signings and it's really humbling to, you know, have people come up and they feel this connection. They feel like, OK, finally somebody gets it, somebody understands.
Because look, unless you suffer from a weight issue - I'm married to somebody - my wife, Deborah Roberts, I mean she's, you know, she's been a size four for most of her adult life. She runs. She's healthy. It was an issue in our marriage.
You know, she could not understand why I could not just push away from the table, shut my mouth and get up and run or exercise. And that's - and it's you. I mean there's - you can't blame anybody else. There's nobody else to blame. It's you. And once you've decided to do this and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now that I'm where I am, you know what? I like the way I look and I like being able to go buy clothes. And I like the idea that I can go into the Gap or Target. Just to annoy my 14-year-old, I bought shorts, cargo shorts at Abercrombie and Fitch. Even though she said you are not buying those. I said oh, yes, I am. And guess what? I'm wearing them out of the store. So what are you going to do?
MARTIN: Another good reason to lose weight: annoy your teenagers.
ROKER: Give back to them what they give to you.
MARTIN: Al Roker is the weatherman and feature anchor for NBC's "Today Show." His latest book is called "Never Goin' Back: Winning the Weight-Loss Battle for Good." And he was kind enough to stop by our studios in New York City.
Al Roker, thank you so much for joining us.
ROKER: Michel, thank you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.