Sherry Johnston was relieved when she did not get a callback after her audition for Season 8 of The Biggest Loser. "I was off the hook," she says.
But her daughter, Ashley, had also tried out, and was asked to audition further, first for Season 8, then for Season 9, as Sherry now recalls with amusement. "They told her, ‘We're still interested. Can you bring a family member with you?' She called me, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, who are we going to ask?' I mean, we do have some other family members, not to insult anyone. I weighed about 220 pounds, 5' 1", but I was still being deceived by the mirror. Ashley made a few calls, the answers were, ‘I don't think so.' So I started to get the idea, ‘Lord, you're gonna make me do this, aren't you?'"
The two went on more callbacks. Sherry remembers Ashley, who really, really wanted to get on the show, trying to prove that her mom really was overweight. "She'd point and pull me a little, ‘See, she's kind of fat!' They were like, ‘Yeah, we can see it.' I think we were the only two who couldn't."
So began Johnston's eight months and counting as a contestant. In September, Sherry and Ashley went to The Biggest Loser ranch as part of the "couples" competition. For Sherry, it was the first time in 11 years she'd focused on her weight—since her husband died. An administrative assistant for Freedom in Christ Ministries, Sherry had met Ken Johnston when she was going to Bible School in Cleveland, Tenn. They were happily married and had two children, Cyndie, 15, and Ashley, 14, when he was diagnosed with melanoma cancer. For the first 14 months, he battled and the cancer went away. Then, a second cancer cropped up.
"That was such an intense time in all our lives," Sherry says. "Our focus was on the cure, and then when there was no cure..."
Sherry had put on some weight before Ken's sickness. "We used to laugh and we both said I'd always fit in my wedding dress, and he'd fit in his dress blues he wore to our wedding. Well, neither one of use kept our promise. But during his illness, I was so consumed, I wouldn't know when I forgot to eat. Eating was not the focus."
Then Ken died. "And I pretty much fell off the face of the Earth," says Sherry. "I didn't go out or get dressed for at least four months. I lost 40 pounds and was looking all thin."
Then she remembered a joke Ken used to make. "Before he got sick, he'd joke that I'd lose that weight right quick if he was gone, and go out and find someone else. I looked at myself, and that joke became a, ‘That's not true! I would never do that.' And I made a point after that to eat, to make sure I gained weight. I didn't want anyone to think I was that skinny person, out looking for someone."
At The Biggest Loser ranch, Sherry had the most trouble with the physical "challenges" on the show; winning one would grant someone "immunity" from being eliminated in a given week. "I'd been a cheerleader one year in high school," she says, "but that was about it. At the start, the show's doctor told me I had the least muscle of any of us!"
She also fought long-standing love affairs with salt and sugar. "Every new ingredient they'd bring in for us to cook with, I'd be like, ‘Hmm, how can I make a candy bar out of this?" she says.
Her biggest obstacle, though, was emotional. "This life had just gotten to be so normal for me: When you're overweight, you don't realize how bad you feel," she says. "But on the ranch, all I could think was how hard Ken had fought to save his life. All the things he did—we did. And I realized the life I'd been letting slip through my fingers because I just didn't care."
Sherry lasted the first eight weeks of taping, losing about 55 pounds before being voted off.
Then she returned to Knoxville in the hope of winning a separate, $100,000 prize for the dismissed contestant who loses the most weight from home.
By the finale, win or lose, Sherry plans to once again fit into her wedding dress. "I'm thinking a little bit of heaven might open up, and he'll see it," she says. "I kept my end of the deal."