Peoria man on "Biggest Loser"

SCOTT HILYARD

Now it can be told. Jerry Lisenby is a big loser.

Lisenby, 62, of Peoria is one of 18 contestants on the fourth season of the NBC television program "The Big Loser," a reality show where obese participants compete to lose the highest percentage of their weight. The show, already taped but for the last one or two live installments to be broadcast in December, debuts Sept. 11. Winner gets $250,000, a fresh boost of self-esteem and a new waistline.

"Right now, no one knows who will win the money until December," Lisenby said.

A lifelong athlete, Lisenby retired from the Peoria Fire Department after 21 years in 1991 at a fighting 215 pounds. A decade later he was pushing 300.

"I’d gotten a little lazy and a little heavy. Life was good on an expense account," said Lisenby, who shared his struggle with weight loss with a regional audience as a member of a panel of local residents the Journal Star chronicled in a series of articles in 2004. "Salad or steak? I’d take the steak, and while you’re at it why not throw a lobster along with it."

His daughter Megan, a fan of the show, knew that producers were interviewing potential contestants in Des Moines, Iowa, in January and encouraged her father to go. He did. In a Santa Claus suit.

"I wanted to stand out and I do a lot of Santa Claus in December for charity," Lisenby said. "I used to have to stuff a pillow in my suit for my belly. I got to where I didn’t need a pillow any more."

Of the more than 2,500 people interviewed in Des Moines, only Lisenby was selected for the show. He was picked after submitting to a second round of interviews, a taped 90-minute monologue and a 15-minute DVD recap of his life.

"I have no idea why they picked me," he said.

We do. For one, Lisenby is a novelty as the oldest Big Loser contestant by 20 years, and at 300 pounds was one of the lighter ones in the show’s history.

"They generally go with the 400, 500 pounders," he said.

He is gregarious, funny, candid, blunt and handsome with a shock of silver hair. Besides his two-decade stint as a firefighter, he owned a Peoria Ace Hardware store for 20 years, served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay with wife Lynne a few years ago, and is a disaster volunteer for the American Red Cross. He and Lynne are training to bicycle across the country next summer.

"The Big Loser" is using a new format for the new season. The contestants are living together and are monitored by microphone and video camera 24 hours a day, like "Big Brother" or "Survivor" contestants. The group votes a contestant off the show at the end of each program. Lisenby didn’t want to go public with details of his stay, but did add, sort of cryptically, that "with a group of fat, insecure people, things happen."

NBC announced the names of the new season’s contestants on Monday. Lisenby is on the show’s Web site and was singled out as one of five standouts in an article in the Aug. 13 edition of Star magazine, "First Look at the Loser."

Lynne is less star-struck about her husband’s television fame, and more enthused that the show sparked a lifestyle change.

"I’m just glad that now he’s on the right track," she said.

Oddly enough, Peoria already has one Big Loser winner. The Senti family of Peoria Heights, who manage the Maid-Rite restaurant in the Metro Centre, won "The Biggest Loser Special Edition: the Little Italy Family vs. The 1950s Diner Family" in 2006. Lisenby said it was a coincidence.

"No one mentioned the Peoria connection the whole time I was there," he said.

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or shilyard@pjstar.com.