The reality TV star and fitness guru reclaims gay slurs, thanks Madonna and discusses showing her fans a new side
The “shred” will put you through the sweat fires of hell, but despite her extreme workouts, Jillian Michaels wants you to know she is no monster. To set the record, ahem, straight, the out fitness guru is opening the doors to her very “normal,” sometimes-emotional, not-at-all-what-you-thought life during E!’s Just Jillian, where she laughs (you read that right) and… cries?!
You heard that right. Jillian Michaels — the Butt Kicker from The Biggest Loser — cries actual human tears.
As if that revelation wasn’t enough, there were many more made during this recent chat with Michaels, who talked about her reputation being “destroyed” by The Biggest Loser, why she uses the word “fag” and how, after a long road to self-acceptance, Madonna empowered her to confront her sexuality.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: After watching Just Jillian, a lot of people will be surprised to find out that you’re not who they thought you were. Jillian Michaels: Very much so, yeah. Here’s what I love about it: Everyone is like, why would you do this? And they have these preconceived notions about reality shows and all this drama and “It’s all fake and it’s all mean spirited,” and that’s not at all why I wanted to open up my life. I feel like the comedy of errors as we go about our daily routine is quite enjoyable. And everybody has the same struggles, right? Whether it’s in their work, marriage, family, parenting, as a friend, you go on this journey where you laugh and you cry, and hopefully you learn something with the characters on the show. For me, in my career, it’s always been “Jillian’s the fitness guru,” but the bigger conversation is using fitness as a tool to help somebody build a better life.
Was being out on TV — with a family, even: your partner, Heidi Rhoades, and your two children — something you ever imagined for yourself? I’m sort of in that very pivotal generation, right? I’m on the younger end of Gen-X, and for me, growing up gay was not cool. Gay was gross. Gay was despicable. People said the word “faggot.” People said “dyke” — I heard that a lot in high school. And it was very scary. I have watched as a people and as a country and a culture over the course of my teenage-into-adulthood life and I do still think there is a tremendous amount of homophobia that exists. And I’ve never been out there with my gay flag; I wanted to take an approach of, “Hey, I don’t need to win you over and I don’t need to fight with you and I don’t want to combat you.” But what I do hope is that people observe me, observe my family, and go, “Oh my god, this isn’t at all what I thought it was. This is actually pretty similar to my family; they’re going through things that my family goes through.” And that’s always been my approach. I don’t need to make these big statements. I’m just going to live my life and my truth and hopefully as you observe that it will become a little more — and I have so much trouble with this word — normalized for people who don’t perceive it as the norm.
I was struck by the use of “queer” in the show. Some people who are older than us hear queer and still find it offensive, whereas our generations have embraced the term as being all-encompassing of any sexual orientation that isn’t straight. Where do you stand on labels? Do you have a preference? What’s interesting is, I take a very African-American-using-the- N-word approach with those terms. I’ve claimed them all. I use “homo” and joke about it. I use “dyke” and joke about it. My gay male friends and I use “fag” and joke about it. We’ve taken them all back and made them our own.
What we’ve tried to do is take some of the venom out of the terms by reclaiming them — and I hate to draw this reference — but in the same way the black community has taken back the N-word. We don’t allow them to harm us or hurt us and there could be a whole psychology about why we do, but we all do. It’s like, I own these words, they’re my words, and I’ve suffered enough to be able to take them on and wear them with pride, so to speak. None of those words actually have any venom in them for me anymore and I don’t really care who’s swinging them at me — it doesn’t mean anything to me. People can judge it but that’s just something that I’ve done; it is what it is.
What is the biggest misconception about you? God, I mean, it’s the obvious. And I hate the obvious and I think it’s cliché, but I think people never really understood The Biggest Loser. The Biggest Loser was a life-or-death intervention that existed on a ticking clock on top of which you would see 45 minutes of a television show which is shot over 10 days and so you never saw what I was doing, why I was doing it, what else I was doing, the end result of what I was doing. The intentions were never displayed and it was far more entertaining to have a good guy and a bad guy, and I think some people really saw through that and that’s great; some people did not and that’s that.
But what is kind of cool about this show is you see just me — the good, the bad, the ugly. I’m a very real person. So, for those who have idealized me, they’ll be disappointed; for those who’ve hated me all these years, I think they’ll be surprised.
Do you regret doing The Biggest Loser? Good question. There’s this Latin quote that I heard and it summarizes the show perfectly: “That which nourishes me also destroys me.” I’m super grateful for the platform I was given. Obviously I owe everything to that diving board, that jumping-off point. But there does come a point where you definitely overstay your welcome, where something starts to become more limiting, it starts to do more harm than it does good, and that was definitely a source of frustration for me. I don’t think it’s a secret — I have been vocal about it — but to say that I’m not grateful for the opportunity and for all it’s done for me would be obtuse, absurd and obnoxious, but I’m not gonna lie and say it didn’t also cost me a host of problems on the back end.
Now, I’m hoping this show is really just my best foot forward and the thing is, I am sarcastic and I am obnoxious but I’m also loving and I’m also passionate and I’m also caring and I’m all those things. At least now if people hate me, they’ll hate me for a legitimate reason! At least they’ll hate me for a reason that’s real.
And unless those tears are CGI, you cry. Quite a bit, in fact. Actual human tears, I think. [Laughs] No, no, no. It’s just tear-gas shit they sprayed at me during the interviews.
You’ve been called a bully to overweight people and I know that must be hard to hear for somebody who was bullied. What does that feel like? It’s a shame. For somebody who comes to an environment where they’re literally committing suicide with food, let’s cut the shit. Some of them are 400 or 500 pounds, they’re killing themselves with food and the amount of time they have left is five or 10 years — if they’re lucky, 15. It’s suicide with food. In some cases I would have a week with one of these people, so I will try everything under the sun, but if I can’t do it with hugs, love and kisses, then I’m gonna do what it takes. What people should really pay attention to is, I was less concerned with being likable than getting done what I needed to get done.
So this goes back to the whole “I didn’t know Jillian Michaels was sensitive” thing, but you’re a fan of Tori Amos, which we discover in the first episode. That is some deep sensitivity. What kind of influence did she and her music have on you? And what Tori song got you through your teen years? God, so many of them. I was very much that kind of bullied emo kid. And a lot of teenagers go through that emo phase and it manifests in different incarnations for every generation, but in some of those darker moments during that very kind of impressionable and pivotal part of my life, her music was something I could really relate to, especially “Cornflake Girl.” She’s sort of the outcast, and that whole song was, to me, about being an outcast, being on the outside. Or “Silent All These Years” where she finally finds her voice. And it took me a long time. As much as I’m very outspoken now, I wasn’t always so. I didn’t always have that inner sense of strength and authenticity and passion. I was extremely shut down and shamed — and geez, there are so many. “Past the Mission.” I could go on and on. “China.” Literally on and on.
When did you find your voice? It was a series of things… it was a process. Basically it was a combination of getting involved in martial arts and having these small successes within martial arts, which empowered me to start taking steps in my personal life, in my relationships, in my professional life, and then, honestly, when it comes to accepting my sexuality — I didn’t even know I was [gay] until later in life. I mean, I realized I was bisexual at about 18 but I didn’t even realize I was gay until into my 20s.
I think what helped that, and I know this sounds ridiculous, but Madonna and her “Justify My Love” video made a really big difference for my generation because [being gay] wasn’t something that was disgusting and gross — just something that became cool overnight, thanks to Madonna. That allowed me to feel less ashamed — it became almost cool to explore it — and, unfortunately or fortunately, that exploration was not just an exploration, it wasn’t just me experimenting. It turns out that was what was going on with me throughout all my teenage years. I really didn’t know. I really thought something was wrong with me. I didn’t know that I liked women, but I knew I didn’t like men. I knew when I was a kid I didn’t want to be physical with my boyfriends. Didn’t wanna make out with them. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
Then when I became 18 and I was kissed by a girl, like a Katy Perry song, I shit you not, I was like, “Oh my god, this is what’s been going on all these years.” The light bulb went off in me and I’m like, “I’ve been fucking gay this whole time,” and I, honest to god, was in such deep denial that I had no idea until that moment.
Thanks Madonna! Honestly, you’re absolutely right.
Are you gonna get married on this show? Are we gonna see that? You gotta watch! Have to watch. That’s all I’m gonna say. And here’s the thing, because another journalist who’s gay was like, “Don’t you think that you’re disrespecting the right we all fought for?” And here’s my answer: We fought for the right to choose and so therefore it’s my choice to say, you know, I’ve had some bad experiences with marriage.
How do you feel about comments like that? The reality is that gay rights is the civil rights movement of today, right? Women have fought for rights. The African-American community has fought for rights. Every minority has fought for rights. This really is our moment for the gay community — the LGBT-whatever, put all the letters in there. With that said, Malcolm X didn’t like Martin Luther King; there’s always a lot of kind of inciting as progress is being made as to how we need to go about making that progress, so I think being a public gay figure, there’s always a lot of criticism about what I say, what I didn’t say, how I did it, how I didn’t do it. If I live my life to make all these people happy, that’s obviously an impossibility — can’t please everybody all the time — so I live my life in my truth. I hope it’s enough. I hope that it’s enough for me and for my family, and that’s really all I can do.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 22, 2016.