Brandi Mallory was a precocious 9-year-old, a regular on the pageant circuit when her weight started to creep up.
The more weight she put on, the more she ate. By age 12, she weighed more than 250 pounds. The weight gain continued well into her 20s. Then one of her sorority sisters died of a massive heart attack in early 2012.
She was 29 like Mallory. She was also overweight like Mallory.
“That scared me,” Mallory said recently. “When my sorority sister passed, I started to live in fear about when my time would come.”
The Atlanta resident had weighed 366 pounds for most of her life, but it wasn’t until then that she even thought of losing the weight.
“I didn’t know what to do or where to start,” she said. “I just knew I needed to get moving.”
When a friend volunteered to help, Mallory took her up on the offer. Three or four times a week, they ran around Grant Park or hiked Stone Mountain. And even though her diet didn’t change that much, some of the weight started to come off.
That summer, Mallory applied for a spot on NBC’s reality TV show “The Biggest Loser” but didn’t make the cut.
The show, however, passed her information on to the producers of ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss,” which is chronicling Mallory’s story in Tuesday night’s episode.
“I received a call from the casting coordinators inviting me to come to the casting call in Atlanta,” Mallory recalled. “I prayed about it but I thought I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”
After the casting call, producers invited her back for an interview. In July 2013, they called to let her know she’d been selected as a finalist on the show.
“When I saw Chris and he told me he chose me for a transformation of a lifetime, I broke down crying,” Mallory said. “I cried the whole year.”
Chris Powell is the trainer and transformation specialist of the ABC reality show.
Unlike “The Biggest Loser,” “Extreme Weight Loss,” which airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, is not a competition. Each episode follows the story of an obese person like Mallory who is determined to lose weight. The drama lies in whether the participant can rise to the challenge. Not all of them succeed.
A growing reliance on food
Mallory’s weight gain began, she said, at age 9, the first time in nearly seven years that she hadn’t come out on top in a beauty pageant.
“That had never happened to me before,” she said.
It happened again the next year at age 10. Each time she got a participation trophy.
Comment cards from the judges were crushing: “She’s a beautiful child but she needs to lose weight.”
The world that Mallory believed adored her had turned its back on her. Before long, even adoring teachers and classmates would do the same.
“I don’t think this is something I want to continue,” she told her mom.
And she never did again. To deal with the rejection, she ate.
“My mom is Italian and my dad is from the South, so food was very important to my family,” she said. “If I were unhappy about something, my mom offered me food to make me feel better.”
And even when she didn’t, Mallory said she’d forage the family’s refrigerator, always stocked with leftovers.
“I’d sneak eat,” she said.
When Powell told her she was a food addict, Mallory said, it all made sense.
“I started looking at things differently,” she said. “I realized that food wasn’t meant for taste or comfort. It was fuel.”
Losing weight, gaining control
By the time she arrived at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Health and Wellness Center last summer, Mallory had managed to lose 37 pounds on her own.
Over the next next three months and under Powell’s powerful glare, she would learn to change her approach to diet and exercise with the help of a MyFitnessPal app to keep track of food intake and exercise activity.
Mallory lost 74 more pounds.
“I’d ditched a whole lot of what I used to hang out with,” she said, her eyes dancing for joy. “My mom and dad didn’t recognize me when I came back.”
By then, Mallory had nine months to go to complete the challenge.
“It was hard going from this bubble to reality, back to working, back to your friends and old habits when you’re trying to change mentally, emotionally and physically,” Mallory said.
But the 30-year-old makeup artist persevered.
As she practiced what she’d learned at the Colorado boot camp, she committed to weighing herself every day just so she knew where she was. Because she loves meat, she decided to eliminate that from her diet.
“I never want it to control me,” she said. “I want to control it. I did the same thing with soda.”
When the urge comes, Mallory said, she spikes sparkling water with peach Crystal Light.
“Right now I’m practicing a vegetarian lifestyle,” she said.
It appears to be working. Mallory now weighs 178 pounds, 151 pounds lighter than she was when she began her work with “Extreme Weight Loss.” Her only challenge now is to maintain the weight loss and find a way to have the excess skin removed from her body.
“After taking on this year, and believing in myself in a way that I never did before, I believe I’ve reached the point where I no longer care what others think of me,” she said. “What matters most is what I think and, of course, what God thinks of me.”
“Extreme Weight Loss”
8 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC; episodes are later available online at abc.go.com.