Dr. Phil Is a Softie

The TV shrink’s weird fat-fighting crusade.

A soft spot for the tubby?

On Tuesday’s edition of Dr. Phil’s “Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge,” the show’s 13 participants—as well as the studio audience and at least one TV critic—got punk’d. For the past two weeks, the setup has been perfect. Dr. Phil recruits 13 overweight Americans, promises to spend a year helping them shed pounds and transform their lives, and then announces there’s a twist: Five will be eliminated. For the contestants, the news is devastating. “If I’m not one of the eight, then someone has signed a death sentence for me,” says one woman. Even Dr. Phil’s slavish studio audience can’t suppress a groan of disapproval. “You bleeding hearts,” he says, staring them down with a mixture of weariness and mild contempt. Then, in a taped segment that shows him alone with the contestants, Dr. Phil pulls the rug out. “[This] has been one of the longest weeks of my life,” he says in a soft, tender drawl. “Because there is no point at which I wanted to come in and tell somebody they didn’t make it. My decision is that there is not anybody here who is not worthy of being here. I’m changing the game, and I’m not sending anybody home!” The participants rush Dr. Phil, who is suddenly swarmed with plus-sized love. Back in the studio, the good doctor wears a scoundrel’s smile. “And I called you bleeding hearts,” he says.

Watching at home, I am relieved, then disappointed, then amazed that a daytime talk show can make me feel anything at all. On the surface, the “Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge” is little more than an elaborate promotional tie-in for Dr. Phil McGraw’s new book, The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom. But cynicism aside, it’s also an ambitious social experiment and public health crusade. “I want to start a movement,” declares Dr. Phil, and given the success his former boss Oprah Winfrey had using television to encourage people to read, you get the feeling he might actually pull it off. Given the collective misery of the 13 participants—not to mention the 38.8 million Americans who are obese—you actually want him to.

That is, if things don’t get too weird. At first the “Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge” shows promise because it’s everything daytime television is not. Unlike the typical parade of obese exhibitionists (“You’re Too Fat To Wear That!”), Dr. Phil balances voyeurism with genuine help. Instead of promising a quick and easy solution, he gives the participants 10 months of access to dietitians, personal trainers, and career counselors, and he tops it off with the personal assurance that he is going kick their butts if they aren’t getting sufficiently real.

Unfortunately, he also messes with their heads. After being chosen from more than 7,000 audition tapes, Dr. Phil spirits the 13 away to a Get Real House in Beverly Hills, where they are subjected to the familiar tricks and traps of reality TV. Some of it is harmless stuff, like when the early risers get a star tour of Hollywood while the sleepyheads are stuck doing chores. Other stunts smack of sabotage, like when the contestants discover a pantry stocked with their absolute favorite junk foods. Knowing there are cameras everywhere, the participants resist temptation but still feel hurt. “What are y’all trying to do to us?” says Angela. 

People who already don’t like Dr. Phil will no doubt find this infuriating, as they will his tough-love approach to the problem of obesity. He’s certainly not for relativists. “Obesity is a disease of choice,” he says in a tone of voice that leaves no room for argument. At the Get Real House, Dr. Phil sits down for one-on-one sessions with the participants, asking them hard questions and accepting nothing less than what he believes is the truth. “Why are you so fat?” is a common opening salvo, and while the participants grope for an answer, Dr. Phil gives them his poker face. “You’re as phony as a $3 bill,” he says to AnnMarie, whom he faults for covering her emotional pain with a jovial, social mask. Some questions are almost unanswerable, such as when he asks one woman, “When did you decide to give up and be the fat girl?”

The contestants respond to these sessions with a surprising amount of gratitude, but then again, they have decided that this is what they need. Which is why I was a little disappointed when Dr. Phil went back on his promise to eliminate five participants. Considering how fragile some of them are, I’m glad no one went home, but I can’t help but feel that Dr. Phil also let them down. As a man who talks a lot about the roles we play in life, he surely understands that if you’re going to cast yourself as a straight shooter, then you have to shoot straight. Dr. Phil may have done the right thing by keeping everyone, but I wonder if in the coming year, the Vince Lombardi routine will lose its effectiveness now that’s he’s outed himself as an old softie. Because the only thing harder than staying trim and fit is maintaining an image as a hard-liner. As the participants in the weight loss challenge will testify, it’s surprisingly easy to let yourself go.