First there was Jared. Then came Clay, a South Carolina firefighter with an agonizingly catchy jingle.
After the now fallen Jared Fogle catapulted to fame in 1999, Subway aired two commercials featuring Clay Henry, a strapping fireman who lost 130 pounds by eating sandwiches. Today this lesser-known footlong-munching folk hero is all but forgotten.
Like Jared, Henry traversed the country showing off his fat pants and preaching the Subway gospel. His cheesy theme song warbled: “He’s a fireman and a Jared fan from Subway. He got real big on burgers and fries. Now he’s down to a smaller size. Gets his might from his Veggie Delite…” In a second commercial, Henry appeared as irked as TV viewers when children and passersby followed him, singing the tune.
“What does it say about our culture that everybody knows who you are?” Chris Rose, a Times-Picayune columnist, asked Henry during a February 2003 motivational stop.
“It says that people like catchy songs,” Henry replied, adding, “As far as the pop culture icon thing, I never would have imagined in a million years any of this.”
Henry, then 27, admitted that people often did burst into song upon spotting him on airplanes and in restaurants.
“This is your 15 minutes,” Rose said.
“This is my 15 minutes,” Henry told him. “I mean, people always say, ‘What about the commercial and the song?’ But the huge thing is, some people lose sight of the fact that I changed my life, for a positive thing, and they can do it, too.”
It’s unclear why Subway decided to stick with the creepy, nondescript Fogle over the hunky Southern fireman. The chain eatery’s execs might be asking themselves the same question after last week’s news that Fogle is facing federal child porn charges.
Even more shocking, authorities claim Russell Taylor, the director of Fogle’s children’s charity, supplied the ex-spokesman with kiddie porn.
In the early aughts, the fever surrounding Jared ushered in a slew of television ads featuring everyday people. One bygone spot from 2002 introduced New Orleans twins Herman and Sherman Smith, who reportedly shed 100 pounds each. “Sherman and I were on our way to 500 pounds,” Herman said in the commercial. “It was a wakeup call. We needed to do something about this. We decided to go on a diet. For seven months, we ate nothing but Subway.”
The brothers, who became known as “the Subway twins,” appeared on Oprah and Montel Williams to espouse a healthy lifestyle. Ten years after their ad, they were teaching fitness classes to inspire others, their Facebook page shows.
But while Subway was capitalizing on the common man in 2002 and ’03, Henry acknowledged to the Associated Press that Fogle was “still the big dog.”
Fogle’s tale of losing 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches reportedly spurred larger numbers of people to contact the sandwich chain. Henry, then a college student and volunteer firefighter for the Irmo Fire District in Columbia, S.C., was one of them.
The 6-foot-2 Henry topped the scale at 330 pounds, and when he started volunteering at the fire department at age 18, there weren’t uniforms large enough to fit him, his boss once said. Henry said Fogle’s weight loss prompted him swap fast food for footlongs.
“He stuck out so bad,” Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld told a local reporter after the “Henry, Clay Henry” ads infiltrated the American consciousness.
Co-workers reportedly pushed Henry to write an email to Subway in late 2000, and the company contacted him months later. His commercial appeared around Christmas 2001 but didn’t come without controversy. Connecticut firefighters blasted Subway for releasing the spot just months after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Retired Danbury firefighter Brian Sullivan told the Hartford Courant the ad was bad timing and “a poor portrayal of firefighters.”
“Before Sept. 11, I wouldn’t have liked it. After Sept. 11, I hate it,” Sullivan fumed.
“There are still bodies at the World Trade Center. I couldn’t believe it,” he added. “How would someone who just lost somebody look at this?”
In response, a Subway spokeswoman conceded the promo was “campy and corny” but said it had been tested on “hundreds” of consumers in New York and beyond. “In fact,” she said, “consumers felt that it was a nice gesture to feature firefighters in this manner.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and Henry is a loan officer and mortgage planning specialist, according to his website. The only trace of his Subway chops appears on his LinkedIn profile, where he lists a “national spokesperson” gig from 2001 to 2004.
This isn’t to say the Internet has completely forgotten about Henry. One Twitter user recently declared: “With Jared from Subway going to prison, It’s time for Clay Henry to rise to power. #WeWantClayHenry.”
Henry did not return messages left by The Daily Beast.
Sherman Smith, now 35, said he and his brother have settled into jobs at a local Honda dealership. The 5-foot-8 identical twins have also crept up to 240 pounds from 175.
Subway learned about the duo in 2002, around the time they approached Oprah Winfrey with their diet testimonial: They entered Subway twice daily for seven months and emerged slim. “We wanted to get the world to know what we did. We were once over 300 pounds,” Smith told The Daily Beast.
“We enjoyed our 15 minutes [of fame], and after it was over, we went back to our lives,” he said.
Smith said he had originally planned on cooking his own meals but discovered it was more convenient to use the restaurant’s nutrition cards to build 700-calorie sandwiches.
He stopped short of saying he was inspired by Fogle’s transformation from a colossal 425 pounds to a slimmed-down 180.
“The main thing was…we went to Subway because we forgot our lunch at home,” Smith said. “We thought, ‘If [Jared] can do it, we can do it.’”
The one-time sandwich peddler said he met Fogle only a few times while working for Subway from 2003 to 2005. He said he never sensed anything off about the weight-loss star. “The guy seemed to be cool to us,” Smith said. “No need to think…about what he was doing behind our backs.”
A decade after the Subway Twins ad, Smith said people still recognize the brothers—a testament to the star power created just by eating a sandwich.
“When I was at work yesterday, a lady called and said, ‘Are you guys the guys who lost weight eating Subway?’ She said ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s really you!’ It’s been so long for us. We almost kind of keep it on the down low.”
“If you want advice from us, we’re glad to give that,” Smith added. “But the celebrity and fame, we’re not trying to look for it again. We like a low-key lifestyle.”