It had been no secret to the denizens of Las Vegas. But in early April, Strip headliner Penn Jillette revealed to the world via an article in People that he’d lost 105 pounds. In photos, he appeared gaunt and happy. The illusionist who was once all face was now suddenly all features (with some extra neck skin). He had the serene yet frenetic look of a castaway recently rescued from a desert island.
Of course, the People story went viral, for one simple reason: Americans love a weight-loss transformation, especially when a celebrity is involved. There’s something about a stark “before and after” photo that appeals to our can-do, frontier spirit. Having long ago achieved Manifest Destiny, all that’s left to conquer is ourselves—to map and tame our vociferous (and equally American) appetites.
While we might not have cowboys or pioneers anymore, we do have Penn Jillette. The outspoken atheist libertarian who achieved fame and fortune in the unlikely fields of comedy/magic/juggling keeps the American mythos going. At 6-foot-7 and topping out at 330 pounds, Jillette had always been a giant, a modern-day Paul Bunyan. So when he turned his famous discipline and drive to the problem that plagues us all, his solution was equally mythic. It was also cloaked in some of the same showman’s secrecy that protects magic tricks.
During the course of his dramatic weight loss, which began December 9 and ended March 5 (his 60th birthday), Jillette was tight-lipped. If a fan or even a friend noticed—and many did—he’d reply, to their embarrassment, “I have a touch of Ebola.”
Las Vegas improv comedian Matt Donnelly was among those out of the loop, even though he co-stars on Jillette’s podcast Penn’s Sunday School, along with juggler Michael Goudeau, who joined Jillette in the body transformation experience. At 6-foot-1 and 303 pounds, Donnelly was trying to lose weight because of dangerously high blood pressure. But the going was slow—after 18 months, he had dropped just 26 pounds. Meanwhile, the fat was just melting off his colleagues. Having heard one too many Ebola quips, Donnelly dared not ask for an explanation. “Penn Jillette and Michael Goudeau started shrinking before my very eyes,” Donnelly explains on his own podcast, Matt & Mattingly’s Ice Cream Social. “I quickly became the heaviest member of Penn’s Sunday School.”
Jillette and Goudeau were employing the “don’t talk about Fight Club” rule for a reason. “Everybody has diet advice,” Goudeau says. “Everybody’s got a reason why you shouldn’t be doing it this way, or you should do it the other way.” Of course, there’s another way to gauge a diet’s efficacy. “Being 55 pounds lighter makes a difference when you hop off a 6-foot-tall unicycle on two fake hips,” Goudeau says. Since losing the weight, he often forgets he’s had both hips replaced.
In the People article, which was infinitely reflected and refracted across the fun-house mirrors of the Internet, Jillette revealed that he ate 1,000 calories a day at the start. The number was a guesstimate, because his plan did not involve calorie counting. But, as predicted, his revelation released the hounds of the Internet: The diet is too drastic, too dangerous, too unsustainable. How can he get enough nutrients? And why wasn’t he doing it under a doctor’s supervision?
Jillette is no idiot. “I’m successful. I have a lot of money,” he says. “Before I did anything, of course I called my doctor. I didn’t just call my doctor. I called my doctors.”
Indeed, in many ways, celebrities are just like us: Here was a man who was suffering from the effects of a poor diet. He felt like crap after every meal, had seasonal allergies and eczema, and would get sick often. He’d ration his trips upstairs because the climb was such a slog. He popped pain relievers before every show. And the arthritis in his fingers was getting so bad, he was afraid he’d have to stop doing card tricks. Just like many of us, these maladies had become Jillette’s normal. “I thought blood pressure was a jive-ass thing, and I thought being fat was no problem,” he says.
The wake-up call came when he went to the hospital for high blood pressure, despite being on eight medications. Doctors advised getting a stomach sleeve. “What I heard was, ‘You now have license to be crazy.’ Because if in six months they’re going to cut you open and put something in you so you eat less, if it’s that serious, then you can go crazy.”
Jillette likes to keep a diaspora of smart, eccentric friends—scientists, inventors, tinkerers. Former NASA biophysicist Ray Cronise is one such friend. Right before Thanksgiving, Cronise happened to be passing through town, returning to his home in Huntsville, Alabama, following six weeks of “self-experimentation” in California. Now a sort of freelance mad scientist and unofficial fitness guru who found some fame with the idea that “mild cold stress” will accelerate weight loss, Cronise discussed his recent “uneventful” two-week water fast with Jillette.
Intrigued, Jillette asked Cronise to help him slim down. “Penn and I decided to do this just really on a lark,” says Goudeau, who once wrote a book titled Extreme Pancakes: 23 Pancake Masterpieces Worth Waking Up For. “We didn’t really know much about Ray’s science, but we knew that Penn was sick and I was overweight. We would just try this, and then it worked—really quickly and easily. Ray is a nut and we’ve known him forever, but it turns out he’s right about food.”
Jillette and Cronise—whom friends jokingly dubbed “Cray Ray”—are vague about the details. It’s partly because they both are writing books about the process, partly because Cronise says he is still beta testing the techniques and partly because it can’t be reduced to a catchphrase. “Everyone just wants the food list, and that’s the problem,” Cronise says. “This isn’t a food-list challenge; it’s [about] an attitude and a much larger commitment.”
The devotees have come to call themselves “Cronuts,” but Cronise insists his plan is not a “crazy fad diet.” Instead, he wants to mend our “fundamentally broken” relationship with food, which stems from “socially driven chronic overnutrition.” Basically, his premise is we human animals are not equipped to deal with unlimited calories; we’re always bulking up to survive a winter that never comes. Cronise recommends following Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. Think copious vegetables and beans, scant oil and no animal products. And, believe it or not, no exercise until the goal weight is achieved.
For Jillette, the plan started with two weeks of eating only potatoes, which seems to have been more of a magician’s performance-art stunt than a dietary recommendation for anybody else. “If you’re taking serious medical advice from a juggler, you’re out of your mind,” Jillette says. “Use me as, ‘Wow, that fat fuck lost a lot of weight; maybe I can, too.’”
For what it’s worth, Jillette does not have a personal chef, although his wife, Emily, does a lot of his cooking (she’s lost weight, too). His two biggest expenses have been a WiFi-connected Withings scale and a blood-pressure monitor (about $200 total). His only real rich-person indulgence is he eats about five containers of fresh blueberries and blackberries for breakfast. (“Raspberries will fuck you,” he says, “because they mold so quickly.”) For flavor, Jillette adds cocoa powder and cayenne pepper. The rest of his daily diet consists of vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts and apple-cider vinegar for salad dressing.
“I do very well with absolutes,” Jillette says. “It’s very easy for me to have never had a drink of alcohol in my life, to never have smoked marijuana. Very difficult for me to be a reasonable user. The way I’m eating now is the way a child would diet. It’s petulant. I have very hard, fast rules, and I follow them and my blood pressure goes down.”
Whatever it is, it’s working. Jillette is glowing, and since the People photo shoot, his skin has tightened up a bit. Although he wants to make one thing clear: “I did not do it for vanity. I was fine with how I looked before. I liked being a monolith. I happen to like the way I look now more. It changed the show tremendously. I used to stand. … I now move a lot more; I almost jog in place.”
Early this year, Jillette approached Donnelly and asked him if he wanted in on the weight-loss secret. Donnelly broke down and cried, then dove in headfirst. In 90 days (February 19 to May 19), he lost 74 pounds.
“In [Penn’s Sunday School], the three of us have lost 240 pounds,” Goudeau says. “We laughed that if we were the four musketeers, we would’ve lost one of the musketeers and the girl.”
But how do they keep from relapse? Jillette allows himself one “rare and appropriate” indulgent meal every two weeks. Donnelly takes a different approach. “Anytime I think about how I’d love that bacon cheeseburger, I get pissed.” This from the man who once proudly wore a T-shirt that looks like a bacon tuxedo. “I have all these bacon gifts,” he says. “It’s almost embarrassing that I defined myself by the food I was going to eat myself to death with.”
By early June, Donnelly, 37, looked suave in his new suit as he did improv during a performance of The Bucket Show at Art Square Theatre with his partner Paul Mattingly. A fan of Chris Farley and all of America’s beloved funny fat guys, Donnelly has had to alter his humor to match his sleek new physique. “I can’t play a victim as easily,” says Donnelly, who is down to 199 pounds, with a new goal of 190. “When you’re a fat guy, you can play the rube.”
Gleaning Cronise’s advice from his podcast partner, Mattingly himself has dropped 40 pounds. The weight loss has rippled out to wives, children, friends and fans. When Donnelly posted his “before and after” photos on his own Facebook page, he got more likes than for the recent birth of his second son. People have been reaching out for help ever since.
Jillette has received similar requests, yet he insists he’s not some kind of weight-loss messiah. “I’m not a leader of a movement,” he says. “I have no desire for people to lose weight the way I lost it. But I do feel a proselytizing spirit. And bam, for 30 years, I didn’t feel as good as I could have. I’m 60 years old, and I feel better than I ever remember feeling.”
A&E editor Cindi Reed talks Penn Jillette on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.