article

02.05.09

Turning Pounds Into Dollars

Jessica Simpson may be unfairly mocked for her “weight battle,” but she only stands to gain from it financially. Jo Piazza explains why bulking up can be a celebrity career saver and expand one’s bottom line.

There's no reason to feel sorry for Jessica Simpson these days. Yes, America is buzzing about those unflattering photos of her at a Florida chili cookoff where her belly is made all the more prominent by the unfortunate fashion decision of high-waisted mom jeans. And yes, more than a few media outlets have taken the liberty of calling her a "fat cow" and a "woman in a weight crisis." That wouldn't make anyone feel warm and cozy about themselves. But if Jess plays her cards right, there is no reason she can't turn fat cow into cash cow. There is a long list of celebrities—Oprah, Kirstie Alley, Valerie Bertinelli—who have turned weight gain into an economic boon.

Obama dryly commented on Jessica being "in a weight battle, apparently." When Barack weighs in on Weight-Gate, you know you've stolen the national agenda.

After packing on what looks like 15 pounds in the past couple of months, Jessica Simpson is something she has never really been before—relevant and in the middle of the zeitgeist. According to USA Today's Heat Index, which measures celebrities' media exposure, Jessica is No. 1 on the website's list for the first time, as a result of her fuller figure. The New York Post may have published an editorial cartoon mocking Simpson's weight gain, and the ladies on The View have come to her defense, giving her as much chat time last week as they gave First Lady Michelle Obama. And most amazingly, in a pre-Super Bowl interview with President Obama, Matt Lauer pointed out that the new president was taken out of Us Weekly's cover shot of his wife and daughters in order to make room for last week's hot topic, Simpson's jeans. Obama dryly commented back on Jessica being "in a weight battle, apparently." When Barack weighs in on Weight-Gate, you know you've stolen the national agenda.

Let's look at the figures. America's obsession with fat has helped to fuel a $40 billion diet industry that churns out diet supplements, self-help books, weight-management programs and fitness centers. And at the heart of the industry is the celebrity endorsement, which can be worth anywhere between $500,000 to $5 million a year for high-profile celebs like Kirstie Alley and Marie Osmond. So rather than hibernating while she tries to drop back down to a size zero, Jessica Simpson could actually boost her career.

Oprah Winfrey pioneered the trend of boldfaced names oversharing back in 1988, when on her talk show, dressed in size 10 skinny jeans, she wheeled a wagon loaded with fat onto her stage to represent her 67-pound weight loss. Celebrities have since realized that being open about their weight struggles can translate pound for pound into easy cash. It was at that moment that Oprah's fans became personally invested in the talk-show host's struggle with her weight and with Oprah herself. While her openness about weight fluctuation certainly isn't the secret of all her success, it has at least been a contributing factor in the building of what is now her $2.7 billion net worth and her massive media empire.

Since that 1988 stunt, Oprah has been smart about knowing when to capitalize on her audience's captivation with her struggle with size. Most recently, just as the magazine market began to tank in the fourth quarter of last year, Oprah found a way to bulk up her readership—she revisited the weight issue.

The January issue of O magazine, which hit stands in mid-December, featured two Oprahs on the cover. The formerly svelte Oprah from 2005 and Oprah in 2008, having again reached the 200-pound mark. Inside the magazine, Oprah admitted that she was frustrated and mad at herself for "falling off the wagon." The January issue sold 1.1 million copies on the newsstand, making it the best-selling issue in three years, according to its publisher Hearst.

When Oprah launched her Best Life Week series of television shows (in which she candidly discussed her weight gain and how she planned to manage it) in January, ratings skyrocketed, making it the best-rated week of shows all season. Those numbers, for the magazine and for the television show, will translate into higher advertising dollars in coming quarters, say ratings analysts.

With the Oprah Effect in full force, celebrities are now able to convert pounds to dollars—the more weight, the better the onslaught of offers from diet companies looking to slim you down and the plunk the new, improved you in front of the millions of overweight Americans salivating for a quick fix to their own dieting woes. One of the first to make a splash as a celebrity endorser was the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, who made more than $3 million a year pushing the Weight Watchers diet systems for 11 years, starting in 1996 after she was labeled "the Duchess of Pork" by the British press.

Just this week, NutriSystem signed former Go-Go's front-woman Belinda Carlisle to be its newest spokeswoman, joining a long list of endorsers such as Tori Spelling, Dan Marino, and Don Shula. While NutriSystem declines to reveal how much it pays their celebrity diet guinea pigs, industry experts reveal that in 2008 packages for celebrity spokespeople ranged from $1 million to $5 million a year, with incentives, and have whispered that the Carlisle deal was around the $1 million range.

"A celebrity diet spokesperson signs on with a goal," one manager who helps celebrities land lucrative endorsement deals said. "They will get paid a flat rate to start out with and as they reach their diet goals each three or six months they get bonuses. If they stop losing, they are in breach of contract and the company can say see you later."

That is reportedly what happened to Kirstie Alley, who was named Jenny Craig's spokeswoman (her reps won’t disclose the amount) in 2005 and cultivated that image through her own reality show Fat Actress for Showtime. But after dropping 75 pounds, Alley started to gain the weight back in 2007 and was mysteriously dropped from Jenny Craig's roster. But all isn't lost for the former Cheers star: According to the Associated Press, she plans to capitalize on her battle yet again and launch her own diet program later this year.

Replacing Alley was actress Valerie Bertinelli (who prefers to call herself a weight activist). After signing with Jenny, Bertinelli was able to sell her book, Losing ItAnd Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time for a high six-figure advance. The book culminates with her positive Jenny Craig experience, an obvious boost for the company, which pays Bertinelli in the high six figures. "It's so funny," Bertinelli has said. "If you say you're fat, all of a sudden people like you! I've never had so many people be so kind and wonderful." And that is the trickle-down effect of a celebrity endorsement for a weight-loss company—more work. There is a definite change in a celebrity's marginal utility from an unexpected weight gain or loss. In economics terms, an increase in value that can't be measured in dollars. In the case of a celebrity, it can be determined as the increase of their star power.

Bertinelli, after years of obscurity, is now enjoying a comeback, including the TV movie True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet, a guest spot on Boston Legal, and offers for her own talk show. She is even rumored to be walking the runway later this month at New York's fashion week.

Celebrity publicist Howard Bragman, author of Where's My 15 Minutes?, says you just can't buy the kind of new attention that comes with a massive weight loss. One of his clients, former talk-show host Ricki Lake, emerged from a half-decade of obscurity when she dropped 120 pounds and 20 dress sizes last year. "When Ricki lost the weight, we got three cover offers in one week from the big weekly magazines, so having that kind of a dramatic change can be a significant publicity get," Bragman said.

Among the weight-loss companies contacted for this article, including Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem, three admitted they would be delighted to have Simpson as a celebrity endorser, but no company has signed her yet. And now is definitely the time for her to capitalize on her newfound relevance.

"The economic impact of coming clean and talking about your weight struggles is so beyond the endorsement deal you get," explained People magazine Senior Editor Galina Espinoza. "This is a great moment for Jessica if she chooses to embrace it and be willing to go out there and admit that she is human and has frailties. From our perspective, Jessica Simpson has never been more popular and more sympathetic in the eyes of Americans.”

And admitting her personal flaws is nothing new for Simpson. In addition to candidly televising her marriage to Nick Lachey, she was one of the first celebrities to hop on the endorsement bandwagon for acne treatment Proactiv, which was reportedly paying her $3 million a year to talk about her struggles with adult acne. So all Jess has to do now to get a piece of this massive diet industry financial pie is well, pick up the fork and keep on eating it.

Johanna Piazza wrote the Full Disclosure column for the New York Daily News. She has contributed to The New York Times, Glamour, Blender, and is a regular contributor to CNN.