Most parents would never drop the F-bomb in front of their children. No, not that F-bomb but the other one. Fat.
However, most children aren't Emery Jackson, the outspoken 16-year-old heroine at the heart of Ken Baker's latest book How I Got Skinny, Famous and Fell Madly in Love. Her life is a constant barrage of F-bombs: fat, fame, family and the pursuit of fortune.
The book follows Emery as she's unwittingly thrust into the spotlight when her cash-strapped family manages to get her on a reality TV show. The gimmick: lose fifty pounds in fifty days and win a million dollars. What follows is a classic tale of self-discovery and an insightful exploration of that modern day phenomenon known as reality TV.
SF Weekly caught up with Ken Baker to discuss his latest book, the pressures of Hollywood and perhaps a celebrity or two. Here's a hint: Miley Cyrus and Martin Luther King, Jr.
How obsessed are you with reality TV?
It's kinda funny because I'm obsessed with it more in an intellectual way. Like I don't get emotionally involved with reality shows. That's a lie because I get emotionally involved to the point where if someone is really annoying me I'll be like, "Oh my god. Just go away." I can't stand it anymore. It needs to stop. I'm over it. Like Tori & Dean, so I get emotionally involved that way.
I just find it really fascinating because I think back to when I was working at People Magazine in the mid to late 90s and this show Survivor started that was gimmicky. Then another reality show or two popped up that were getting really good ratings and everyone was like, "Ah, yeah, it can't really last." But we all know what happened. It took off. I think it's had a lot longer of a lifespan than most people thought, even reality TV producers themselves.
I think the era that we're getting into right now is an interesting one in the sense that it's really becoming a trainwreck medium. It's the rare reality TV show that works that isn't just completely exploitative and trying to show the worst, ugliest side of humanity.
Your new book explores our obsession with weight and fame. What interests you about those two issues?
Whenever you're going to write something, if it's going to have truth to it, it has to come from some place within you that is very authentic and genuine. I'm someone who's had this very complex journey of a relationship with my own body going back to the fact that I have a pituitary disorder that I still take medication for. I have a partial benign tumor still in my head from a pituitary tumor that I had that was mostly removed in the 90s, but that had been causing me to have a whole bunch of problems. I couldn't produce enough testosterone to build muscle. My metabolism was slowed down. My sex drive was shot. I was secreting a female hormone called prolactin. It had messed up my body in so many ways.
Now all of sudden I'm cured. I get the tumor taken out, but when you go through an experience like that, 'cause I had it from my teens to my late 20s and didn't know, my body was betraying itself. The first line of the book about that experience called Man Made is, "My body is at war with itself." Think about that. The main character in this [new] book, Emery Jackson, her body is at war with itself. Without giving too much away, we learn, in very much the same way that I learned that my body had this alien invader inside that I didn't know about, she has a similar challenge that she faces.
How conscious are you of your own weight?
It's funny. I woke up this morning and I had that thought, "Ugh. I feel fat." Who hasn't had that thought? In the moment it's very real but there's nothing really objectively true about that. I'm a fairly self-confident person. I'm OK with my appearance. I'm not trying to be an underwear model. I like to take care of myself and be healthy but certainly if you're on television it's something you think about probably more than the average person. It brings that issue into focus for me and I feel like it gives me some credibility to write about that even though I'm a man writing about a young woman's experience.
Is there more pressure these days for men to be thin?
There is pressure on men to look good and take care of themselves and there's a lot more objectification of men's bodies by women and other men than there was in the past because that's where our culture is going with this obsession on the aesthetic.
Hollywood is a dream factory and a place where fantasy is constructed. Very few people fantasize about being heavier. Hollywood in a lot of ways is blamed for promoting a certain look, which they do, but they don't often get viewed as reflecting the impulses that we all have.
Have you considered a movie adaptation?
My vision is more of a television series like Modern Family but more of a meta concept about a reality TV family. That's more how I see it and it's a way to get into a lot of the issues that are raised in the book. I think that's on the bucket list for this year is try to figure out if there's something there.
Do you have anyone in mind to play Emery?
It's an interesting thing. Someone asked me, "If they made a movie out of How I Got Skinny who would play Emery?" It was a real statement on Hollywood that I can't think of any obese female celebrities of that age to play her. It would take a celebrity who's more of an average weight to put on weight in order to get into character. That answers so many questions there about what the norm is in Hollywood. It would have to be someone really outspoken and with a big personality and someone who's opinionated and can really deliver a funny line but who also has a range of emotions and can be very real. I'd love to see Miley Cyrus. This would be her Oscar role. Miley, if you're reading this, the role is yours.
We're sure Miley Cyrus subscribes to the SF Weekly feed. Of all the public figures currently out there, whose reality program would you tune into?
Without a doubt, Brad and Angelina. They're fascinating celebrities to me because they're two of the most famous people in the world. Arguably they are the most famous couple in the world and we think we know a lot about them but we really have no clue. In fact, just yesterday I found out that he owns a vineyard and he's doing it outside the south of France. This is his passion and it's been going on for years. We had no idea and so it really makes you realize that celebrities only show us what they really want us to see.
What about historical figures from the past? Whose reality show would you watch?
That's a really good question. I want to give you a good answer 'cause that's a good question. This is so random and it just came to mind. Martin Luther King. I don't know why that came to mind other than I just feel like he was such a significant social figure from the pre-reality TV era. I wonder what he would've been like if he had a docu-series following all of what he was doing. Would that have changed our perception of him in history? With reality TV you see a 360 view of someone. I'd be fascinated to see that.
What would we see if you had a reality show? Let's call it Keeping Up wit the Baker.
You'd see me driving in my car to the E! Studio a lot. You'd see me at the ice rink watching my kids play hockey a lot. You'd see me tucked away in coffee shops writing in my laptop. You'd see me destressing at the gym on the elliptical and you'd see me going for long walks in the middle of the day. So it'd be boring.
It sounds like ratings gold.