Audition day, July 14. Outside the Planet Fitness Center in Philadelphia, the family and friends of Robert McFarland started a chant:
“Team Robert! Team Robert!”
In a wave, strangers—some of whom had brought their own relatives to audition—remembered meeting the personable red-head on line earlier that day, and they joined in the chant. By the time McFarland emerged from building following his audition, he was greeted by a swarm of well-wishers, all cheering his name.
“Team Robert! Team Robert!”
“Words can’t describe how awesome I felt,” McFarland, 43, says, adding that some people even asked for his autograph. “I felt like a rock star.”
But this was no American Idol. Instead, McFarland was auditioning for the 14th season of NBC’s The Biggest Loser. At 5-9, McFarland’s weight had reached almost 500 pounds.
“I was 486 pounds at the time we made my (audition) tape,” McFarland says. The number—and his size—scared his friends and family, who held an intervention to persuade him to try out for the show.
McFarland says he grew up heavy, a combination of genetics and a “pretty screwed up childhood” which led him to turn to food for comfort. He grew up in the Thorofare section of West Deptford, and recalls being turned away from a ride at Six Flags Great Adventure while visiting there with friends as a kid.
“It made me conscious that I was heavy, and it bummed me out, but I probably turned around and got something to eat,” he says. “I take responsibility for being in this situation.”
He says he’s been on every diet, and even lost 80 pounds doing the Atkins diet in 2001.
“But I always put the weight right back on again,” McFarland says. “This time, I need to do it right. It’s time for me to be nice to Robert.”
This revelation first came from his friend, Debbie Thompson, who had a premonition that frightened her. She and some other friends—including McFarland—are planning a trip to Key West in September.
“Debbie had a premonition that this would be my last trip,” McFarland says.
Scared into action, Thompson went to McFarland’s family and friends and shared the vision. Together, they planned an intervention.
“They invited me into the house, told me to sit down and not to talk until I heard what they had to say,” McFarland remembers.
Then each one spilled out their feeling for the friend, uncle and brother who they described as “lighting up a room when he entered.”
“My heart was so touched by the attention. I guess I didn’t realize how much I meant to their lives, and how much I wanted to stay involved in those lives.”
He decided to attend the Biggest Loser open call in Philadelphia, as his friend Gina Friars suggested.
"She wrote a beautiful letter nominating me. It really made me think," he said.
Then he saw a video his niece, Paige Ingling, made as part of the audition process. One scene show McFarland taking the regiment of medicines he needs on a daily basis to counteract the hypertension, type 2 diabetes and other physical ramifications of his weight.
Another shows him explaining the “big guy” chair and other modifications provided by his employer at his workplace. Interspersed throughout are testimonials from his family and friends, each telling the viewer how much McFarland means to them.
In one striking scene, McFarland watches a tape of himself walking.
“It was eye-opening. I never saw myself walk before,” he recalls. “I looked at myself struggling, and how I looked, and thought I want to try to fix this.”
Which is how McFarland ended up fifth in line outside The Planet Fitness facility the day before the interviews.
“I slept out and made friends with the others in line. Everyone was really encouraging. Someone in line even told me, 'Oh, they’ll love you with that red hair.' And the show’s sound guy came out and interviewed me, then retaped it because someone was in my light,” he recalls.
All the attention from the staff and crowd made McFarland feel really positive about his chances for being selected—even though the number of those waiting to audition swelled to over a thousand, he estimates.
Those who auditioned were told some could receive the call that very night, while others may not hear until the end of August. The decision is still out on McFarland, and his family and friends are distributing the video in the hopes it will get renewed attention from the show’s producers.
And, to McFarland’s surprise, those who have seen it are being inspired themselves, and reaching out online to thank him.
“I am truly loved, by the people around me and those who haven’t met me,” he says. “The intervention slapped me in the face, but brought me to this place. The people who have seen the video have been overwhelming with their support and love.”
Though he hasn’t received the phone call yet, McFarland’s not sitting around waiting. “I’m not putting my life on hold any more,” he says.
The experience has inspired him to start losing weight—and living in an all-new way. “I’m actually eating kale now,” he jokes, adding, “And it’s not bad.”
He signed up for Weight Watchers and has been making changes in the way he eats.
“Portion control is a big change,” he says. “Now if I order a veal parm, I eat half and take the rest home for another meal. I have sandwiches on wraps instead of cheesesteaks. And I drink a lot of water.”
“My head is finally in the game,” he says.
He’s also booked that trip to Key West—“My first plane trip!” he enthuses—and is even looking ahead to the next one.
“I was really touched by William Close, who played his earth harp on America’s Got Talent. I’d like to go to Las Vegas to see him play,” he says.
Although he still hopes to land a spot in the Loser cast, McFarland is philosophical about the whole experience. “If I don’t get this, it means someone else needed it more than me.”
With his friends and family and support he’s receiving online, McFarland believes he has already received just what he needed for this particular journey.