I think I have the most inspiring job in television. As the host of the hit reality show The Biggest Loser I get to meet people every day who make amazing transformations in their lives, achieving goals that they once might not have dreamed were possible.
Through diet, exercise, hard work and dedication, they lose hundreds of pounds and reverse unhealthy habits that stretch back years. There’s one winner at the end of each season—the person who has lost the highest percentage of body weight—but all of the contestants are winners in their own way.
I get to know them pretty well, on and off the camera, and we talk a lot. I’m not a nutritionist or personal trainer, but I’ve had my own struggles with weight.
I often share with contestants what made a difference for me—not only with weight loss and developing a healthy body image, but also with becoming a successful actress (I’ve played Sami Brady on the soap opera Days of our Lives for 17 years now and guest-starred on many primetime series) and being a good mom.
Here’s what it takes to reach your goals, to make the changes you want to make to be a better you.
1. Be committed.
There was a contestant named Jesse. At his final weigh-in before he went home, he swore he’d never be over 300 pounds again. I stepped up on the scale with him. “You promise?” I asked. I looked him in the eye and made him shake my hand.
I figured if he was making a pledge to someone he knew instead of a huge studio audience of mostly strangers, that would motivate him to stick to it when things got tough later and he wanted to give up. Commitment to a goal is everything.
Some people are bitten by the acting bug. I think I was born with it! My mom is a concert and studio violinist, so she understood my passion for performing. As long as I wanted to act, she was happy to take me to auditions, although she wasn’t at all a pushy stage mom.
There’s a lot of waiting around, and Mom and I would play hangman or this game of telling a story sentence by sentence. She’d say something like, “The prince rode a black stallion to the castle” and I would have to come up with the next sentence. A fun way to pass the time and it really developed my imagination.
I got my first job at age four, a TV commercial for Kodak. Bundled up in a red snowsuit, I climbed on a sled with an actor playing my dad and slid down a mountain of snow. Except the mountain was in the back lot of a Hollywood studio and the snow was rapidly melting in 103-degree sunshine.
It was exhausting, spending the whole day pretending to freeze when you’re sweating to death. But I absolutely loved it!
I knew acting was what I wanted to do. That meant hard work, that meant rejection (you hear “no” a lot more often than you hear “yes” in this business), but I was committed to it.
I took classes, went on countless auditions, appeared in 60 commercials. I got small parts in plays and TV shows and progressed to bigger roles. In 1993, at age 16, I joined Days as Sami—a dream role, because she’s the kind of character you can’t stop thinking about or trying to figure out.
2. Be willing to learn from your mistakes.
Change is hard, and you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to have setbacks.
The contestants on The Biggest Loser go through some grueling challenges. I’m the host but I’m also their biggest encourager, their number one fan. If they’ve had a setback, I want them to find the lesson, the silver lining in it.
Let me tell you about one of the most embarrassing moments in my acting career. I was 10. I got cast in a production of Horton Foote’s play The Traveling Lady. It was a long run and I got confident in my role. Overconfident.
At one performance I was backstage in my dressing room, paying no attention to what was going on, and I suddenly heard my name called.
The actress playing my mother had been calling for me, onstage, for what must have been 30 or 40 seconds, an agonizing delay. The whole play came to a creaking halt because of me.
I dashed onstage and we went through our scene, pretty awkwardly too. At the end, as usual, we walked out to the lobby. This time, though, the actress gave me a tongue-lashing. “Don’t you ever do that again!” she said. “You have to pay attention to everything that’s going on when you’re in a play.”
I felt terrible, but I’m glad now I made that mistake. I learned an important lesson, one that made me a better actress and, actually, a better person.
Any successful production—whether it’s a play or a TV show—takes teamwork, and each person on that team has to give their best. No slacking off or zoning out…the others on your team deserve more respect than that.
To this day, whatever job I’m doing, I make sure I’m 100 percent present. Look at every setback as a chance to grow.
3. Be yourself.
I’ve never had a lean, angular body, and for years I was told by casting directors that if I truly wanted to succeed in this business, I needed to lose weight.
“Can I give you some advice? You should take off ten or fifteen pounds,” they’d say. Or they’d turn me down for a role saying, “You’re too fat for the part.” The sad thing is, I started to believe them. I got fixated on becoming a size 0 waif.
I tried all kinds of fad diets…no sugar, no carbs, fruit only, no food after 5 p.m. I joined the crowds at trendy gyms. I’d get on the scale and glare at the needle as if I could will it to move.
I felt so bad about myself that one day I asked an executive producer at Days of our Lives about my weight. “Do you think I need to live at the gym when I’m not on the set? What should I do? Should I get liposuction?”
“Ali, I think you look great,” he said. “I want you to do whatever’s best for you.”
It was incredible to hear that someone I respected accepted me as I was. I actually did lose some weight after that conversation, but it happened through healthy eating, not starvation, through exercise I liked rather than the workout of the moment.
I had to learn to trust who I was and what was good about me before I could become a better me.
4. Be balanced.
Today I’m a working mom with two kids (Ben, five, and Megan, one) and two jobs. When it comes to parenting I’m in the trenches. I’m dealing with middle-of-the-night feedings and diaper changes and spit-up and just trying to get a little sleep.
As I say in my new book, The Mommy Diet, I couldn’t do it all without keeping some balance in my life.
I had a great role model—my mom. She really found a way to juggle a fulfilling career and raising three kids. I have two brothers, one older and one younger, and we were busy kids with lots of activities, but Mom always had time for each of us. I never felt rushed when I was with her.
Now I remind myself of what she used to say: “Take it one day at a time.” I think having children helps you keep your perspective. You can’t get obsessed with any one thing in your life because you’re reminded every day of what’s most important—the people you love.
Which brings me to my wonderful husband, Dave. He really helps me stay grounded. He’s in law enforcement (he’s a California Highway Patrol officer). While he’s proud of me, he’s not starstruck or particularly impressed with what’s going on in Hollywood.
It’s great to come home from the set and just be with Dave, play with our kids and our dogs, and live a completely non-show-business life.
5. Be prepared.
Opportunities will come, but you’ve got to be ready. Study, practice, visualize and pray…so when an opportunity arises, you can grab it with both hands!
I loved horseback riding as a girl. When Mom and I were looking for a horse, we met one named Apparition who had a dimple the size of a thumbprint in his neck. A woman at the stable told us, “That’s his angel thumbprint.”
Once Mom and I heard that, we knew he had to be ours. Apparition and I competed in horse shows. There’d be eight jumps in a course and you’d go through each in a certain way. I trained a lot.
Then, the day of a competition, I’d do something my mom taught me: I’d walk through the course in my mind, visualizing everything I was going to do—how I’d trot in the ring, how I’d sit up straight, how I’d take a jump. By the time I did the course for real I’d already had a full dress rehearsal in my head.
I still do that. If I have something important coming up, I go through it in my head and picture the outcome. It’s like when I pray for my children—I visualize the dreams I have for them and trust them to God.
I find that if you think positively about what lies ahead, it often comes to pass. There are always hurdles in life, like those jumps I used to take on my horse. Picture yourself going over them, leaping from one challenge to the next, and you’ll see, you can accomplish anything.