When Olivia Ward, Hannah Curlee’s sister, approached her about going on NBC TV’s “The Biggest Loser” as a team, Hannah was aghast. She had seen a few episodes and vowed never to watch again. “I saw the trainers yelling at the people, and I thought it was demeaning,” says Hannah. But as the saying goes: Never say never. Flash forward to May 24, 2011, and there’s Hannah on stage, beaming, as her big sister was declared the grand-prize winner for the hit show’s 11th season, and she was declared runner-up.
“It was unbelievable. It was a real blessing, and it was something I thought never could happen,” says Hannah, 32, who had not only disliked the show but also had no faith that she would ever get on it, or that she would drop 120 pounds.
The story begins a year earlier when Hannah, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, received a phone call from her sister in Chicago. The 11th season was to be themed around “couples,” and the casting director came across Olivia’s Facebook page and thought that she and her sister might be perfect. “They invited Olivia to a casting call in Chicago, and she bought me a plane ticket and bribed me into coming,” Hannah recalls.
Casting calls attract thousands throughout the country and, like the other contestants, the sisters paid their own way. A four-month selection process followed, including interviews, essays and psychological evaluations. The sisters even had to submit a homemade video. “It was a crazy and long process. But through it all, I was realizing that this was something I really needed to do, and, when we were picked, I was finally ready,” said Hannah.
In all reality, Hannah had spent years ashamed of her size. A high school homecoming queen and competitive athlete, Hannah did not grow up heavy, but a fall down a flight of stairs at the age of 20 resulted in back surgery. “I was in bed for a month. I started eating and never stopped. I was 40 pounds overweight, then 60 and then over a hundred. I was out of control,” she recalls.
Having never watched a full season of “The Biggest Loser”, Hannah had no idea what she was in for the day that she and her sister arrived at the King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas, California.
“You leave your job, you leave your family, you have no cell phone, no computers, and you hear no news. They keep you completely secluded because they want you to focus on yourself. It’s very hard and emotionally challenging,” she recalls. It was also mortifying. At the show’s start, Hannah weighed 248 pounds and, she says, “I didn’t even go to my high school reunion because I didn’t want my friends to see how much weight I’d gained and, all of the sudden, there I was, wearing a sports bra and hot pants, stepping on the scale in front of millions of people in 27 countries.”
That was the start of a grueling seven-month regimen that included dieting, rigorous workouts, physical challenges and temptations, like being faced with shelves filled with your favorite foods.
The key, though, was the emotional support the sisters got from trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, says Hannah. “They really took hold of us and they saw that we were open to changing. Olivia and I had been on diets before, but what was missing was the emotional support. Once I had that, the weight started falling off,” Hannah recalls. Now, post-“The Biggest Loser,” Hannah weighs in at 128 pounds, and her sister, Olivia, who weighs 132 pounds, is down from her pre-show high of 261.
“Our lives are 100 percent different. We’ve done red carpet stuff and we’ve posed in our bathing suits and we’re busier than ever,” Hannah says. She and her sister are constantly on the go, appearing on TV, gracing the covers of magazines like “Fitness,” and the sisters also blog. Hannah also appears on behalf of H2U, a national employee wellness company. Recently, she made stops at Rio Grande Regional Hospital in McAllen, Texas, and the Regional Medical Center in Brownsville, Texas.
It is appearing at programs like these that Hannah loves best because she gets to reach out one-to-one and use her newfound celebrity to inspire people. As she puts it, “Being on ‘The Biggest Loser’ was like winning the lottery, but you don’t have to go on a TV show to lose weight. I really believe that you have the tools to change your destiny. It’s all right there in your hands.”
HANNAH CURLEE’S TOP 3 WEIGHT LOSS TIPS
1. EAT WHOLE FOODS.
I thought ‘Lean Cuisine’ dinners and 100-calorie packs of snacks were keeping me healthy, but on the show I learned that eating whole foods, including fruits and vegetables grown without preservatives, makes a big difference.
2. PRACTICE PORTION CONTROL.
I carry a tiny food scale with me wherever I go to track my calories. I also track all my exercise. I monitor everything, and this is what keeps me accountable.
3. SMALL CHANGES ADD UP.
Stop dieting and stop taking pills. Weight loss is meant to be a lifelong process. You can start small. For instance, get off soda for the first week, and, for the second, eat a healthy breakfast and so on. If you can’t keep up the changes you make for life, it’s not going to work.
By Charlotte Libov