EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 21, 2013

Where losing is winning

Peabody native postponed wedding to compete on 'Biggest Loser' show


---- — PEABODY — So, why go on national television and advertise the fact you’ve eaten yourself to a weight of 356 pounds?

Matt Hooper, 38, a Peabody High graduate now living in Georgetown, remembers thinking it through, building the motivation to sign on as a contestant for NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”

“I want to go skydiving,” he thought. “I want to take off my shirt at the beach. I can’t go to Fenway Park because I can’t fit in the seats.” Friends get together for a run or to play soccer. He isn’t even invited.

He wasn’t fat as a kid, says Hooper, who is 6 feet tall. But after studying marketing at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, he found himself working for a home improvement store, putting in 11- and 12-hour days, eating on the run, relying on fast food, never getting any exercise.

“I was too tired to work out,” he says.

And as the years passed, the weight began to accumulate.

Sitting with fiancee Bethany Wright, who also grew up in Peabody, only a short time before their scheduled July 2013 wedding, the couple decided that Hooper should apply to appear on the show in which dramatically overweight people compete to lose pounds. And after a lengthy interview process that started on the phone and online, he was accepted.

Still, going through with it was no easy matter.

“It was a big step,” he recalls. “It was hard to swallow my pride.” He was familiar, however, with the show and another local success story, Marbleheader Neil Tajwani, who wasn’t the ultimate winner, but who nevertheless achieved life-changing weight loss during his run in 2007. That helped inspire him.

For Hooper, however, agreeing to appear on “Biggest Loser” was a difficult step for another reason. Signing meant postponing his wedding, as contestants can be gone for weeks while the show is filming. In fact, he suspects his willingness to postpone the wedding might be one reason he was chosen.

His guests’ plane tickets would have to be returned, hotel rooms canceled. Even now, Hooper has regrets about the postponement. “Guilt,” he says.

The wedding has been rescheduled to spring, however, and he’s received lots of support from friends and relatives.

For that matter, the wedding itself was a major motivator for Hooper.

“You think about how you’re going to look,” he says. He tried to see himself through the eyes of Wright, whom he describes as “out of my league hot,” and figured, “I was presenting her with the worst physical version of myself. ... That was the breaking point.”

Hooper headed west to compete for a prize of $250,000. In fact, the program is already in the can. It premiered last Tuesday (NBC, 8 to 9 p.m.).

Hooper talks to the press only over the phone. He can’t talk, even obliquely, about the results of the competition. The precautions are designed to heighten viewer interest in the results of the contest and how much weight Hooper dropped.

But it’s pretty obvious he won something. You only have to hear the tone of his voice.

Not surprisingly, he went on the program resolving that, win or lose, his life was going to change. He speaks well of the staff of trainers and his fellow contestants.

“Everybody is there for the same thing,” Hooper says. The program lacks the backbiting so common to most reality entertainment, he says.

“When somebody loses 20 pounds on the scale and we clap for that person, that’s a legitimate clap. And that carries over to the producers and staff,” he says.

The experience, in many ways, wasn’t what he expected.

“Everyone said it’s 90 percent mental. I thought that was kind of a joke,” he says, “but it is 90 percent mental. ... You have to be committed to this process.” Contact with the outside, even with his fiancee, was deliberately limited, which was tough. The sore muscles and hunger pains went away, but missing Wright and his family, including mom Gretchen Hanson in Peabody — that never went away.

“But once you make a decision to do something like this, there’s no turning back,” he adds.

These days, Hooper’s adjustments include carefully planning each day. Food portions have been cut. He’s astonished that what he used to think of as a workout can barely pass now for a warmup.

“I can run a 5K in 30 minutes,” he says.

He does whatever he can to keep active — even washing dishes by hand.

“My mind-set is different,” he says.

His soon-to-be bride has adjusted to the new Hooper, too, he says. She’s even begun yoga classes. Exercise has become a social thing.

And the couple that now runs together, he says, stays together.