NEW YORK — On a Tuesday night in April, Jillian Michaels, the fitness guru, sat down on a table at the Borders store in Columbus Circle and kicked off shiny beige Christian Louboutin pumps, revealing a blue pedicure. She was faced by a snaking line of hundreds, mostly women and teenage girls (but also a few potbellied men) clutching her sixth book, "Unlimited: How to Build an Exceptional Life." Periodically, a giddy squeal would erupt form the crowd.
The devotees, some of whom waited four hours to get their copies signed, approached Michaels tentatively, as if she might give them the kind of dressing-down she's perfected as a confrontational trainer on NBC's "The Biggest Loser."
A few did get a tongue-lashing. "Do I smell cigarette smoke on you?" Michaels asked Lori Gorman, a retail manager who had taken a bus in from Attleboro, Mass.
"No," Gorman lied. Michaels narrowed her eyes. "Yeah," Gorman, 47, admitted, skittish as a teenager.
"Quit!" Michaels barked, also using an expletive, examples of which are littered throughout "Unlimited."
But more often, Michaels, in ripped jeans and a black boyfriend blazer over a blouse, was disarmingly chummy. She raised an arm to signal that fans could come in for a hug. Most did and lingered, whispering over her shoulder their tales of woe and transformation. Baby bump on display, Amy Lanzilotta, 31, from New York, told Michaels she plans to name her daughter Jillian because she was inspired by her "emotional strength."
Some making the pilgrimage, newly slender, were carrying Before-Jillian pictures in which they were unrecognizable. Cynthia Eyler, 40, who home-schools three of her four children in Westchester, Pa., used to tell them, "Don't catch on fire, because Mom doesn't run!"
After tracking her calories and workouts at the weight-loss site jillianmichaels.com, after her first 5K race and after 93 pounds had been shed, Eyler showed her idol a photo of the old her. "I want to thank you for changing my life," she said nervously.
Michaels' life is changing, too. Last month, in a move at least two years in the making, she left "The Biggest Loser" — and her beloved comrade, Bob Harper — to pursue her dream of becoming a household name in health and wellness instead of just "America's toughest trainer." (There are only so many times one can utter the catchphrase "Unless you faint, puke or die, keep walking!") Of reported tension with producers of "The Biggest Loser" after she announced her departure via Twitter in December, Michaels said, "It's like a boyfriend you break up with that feels scorned."
It didn't take long for another network to make its move. This fall, Michaels will become the fifth host, and the only nonphysician, on the CBS daytime show "The Doctors." She will also be a special correspondent on CBS' "Dr. Phil," where one assignment will be to help teenage runaways face their demons.
She is relishing the transition. "Prime time is sizzle," not about education, she said, adding, "In daytime, you can entertain, but you can get information across a broad platform that allows people to attain any goal, any dream."
Jay McGraw, an executive producer of "The Doctors," thinks of her role as that of a super consumer. "She asks the questions that get the answers we all want," he said.
It's not out of the question that Michaels might someday have her own show, though the finance guru Suze Orman, a mentor and a friend, has advised her not to go down that road yet. "Sometimes you think you're ready to climb Mount Everest because you ran a marathon," Orman said in a phone interview. But transforming "Biggest Loser" contestants is "a very different skill than sitting there five days a week trying to touch people's souls."
She added of Michaels: "She's not as great as she thinks she is, but she absolutely will be."
The groundwork for the star trainer's departure from "The Biggest Loser" was laid in part by her business partner Giancarlo Chersich, a former licensing agent who founded Empowered Media, a company to develop her brand, with her in 2008. During a hike up Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles, Chersich explained how the company came to be. First, he said, she had to agree to a few conditions, namely no sex tapes or DWI charges. "I don't like drama," he said.
Chersich — or G, as Michaels calls him — whose previous clients include Daisy Fuentes and Randy Jackson, saw in her an opportunity to build a one-name, down-to-earth wellness guru akin to what Oprah did for lifestyle or Martha did for home. "You can give me a grain of sand and I can build a sand castle, that's what I do," he said.
The two — he's cool-headed, she's impulsive, a trait she said she gets from her estranged father, a personal-injury lawyer — have built a formidable fan base by emphasizing her softer, empathetic side. Michaels' free "Losing It With Jillian" newsletter unflaggingly prods her 2.2 million subscribers not to sell themselves short, and it gives them diet tips and summarizes medical studies. On Facebook, she'll scold her roughly 915,000 friends if she thinks they are disrespectful, as on May 9 after they criticized an old picture of a slender Rosie O'Donnell in a spiked revealing getup that Michaels had posted. They also scold her, as when she implored fans to "grill instead of fry!" on Memorial Day but failed to praise troops. (She apologized, and recently went on a USO tour in the Middle East.)
Jillian Inc. has had considerable success and some glaring failures. Michaels, 37, has written six books (four made The New York Times best-seller list); has a performance and lifestyle clothing line with K-Swiss (a second batch is due in October); and has a dozen workout DVDs, including "30 Day Shred," the best-selling fitness DVD title of the last decade, according to Nielsen VideoScan.
In the last three years, NordicTrack has introduced at-home incline trainers (uphill-walking machines that start at $1,099) that can access nearly 600 workouts during which Michaels encourages lonely users.
"Jillian and the incline" were the reasons "we had a velocity of sales during a recession," said Colleen Logan, the vice president for marketing at ICON Health and Fitness, which makes NordicTrack.
However, in the rush to meet the deadline, "The Master Your Metabolism Cookbook" (Crown Archetype, 2010) by Michaels was published without pictures. And NBC's "Losing It With Jillian" dispatched her to "reboot" the lives of unhealthy families, but was not renewed after eight episodes. "The show didn't work," she said. "They were cutting it before you knew the ending because of the time frame."
After so many seasons on "The Biggest Loser" emphasizing diet, unholy sweating and emotional work, Michaels lost credibility when she endorsed quick-fix dietary supplements to lose weight. At least four times last year, she was sued over supplements. One suit alleged that some of the products' ingredients, like Chinese rhubarb, were dangerous, and that she fraudulently conspired to hide it. She has refused to settle these suits, as advised by Dr. Phil, another mentor, who she said told her, "This is a stick-up!" and "Fight every one of these and the line at the Jillian window is going to get shorter." (Three suits have been dismissed; one is continuing).
Undaunted, Michaels wants to market a line of healthy-but-tasty snacks and breakfast foods. To that end, on May 25, the Empowered Media team, including Michaels, Chersich and Raymond Cole, the chief operating officer, had dinner at the Soho House in West Hollywood, Calif., with Denis Ring, the chief executive of Bode International, who is a creator of the 365 Everyday Value line, which emphasizes natural and organic ingredients, for Whole Foods. "You've got the chops to have your own brand," Ring told her.
Michaels, who has invested in PopChips and the So Delicious line, explained her goal. "I can't ask Americans to eat chicken and broccoli all day," she said. "It's un-American. I need to be able to give them American brands that won't kill them." By that, she meant convenient foods without hormones, chemicals or preservatives like butylated hydroxytoluene. Not diet food, she said, but real food made convenient, like frozen steel-cut oatmeal that's easily microwaveable.
Ring suggested it could also be done with protein-rich quinoa. "Ohhhh, you can do it with quiiiiiinoa," Michaels said. "That would be heaven!"
A former glutton for "diet" food who was an overweight teenager (she grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles mostly with her mother, a psychotherapist), she now adheres to the author Michael Pollan's creed, which she readily recited: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Mention McDonald's in passing, and she might threaten that, if you eat there, she'll cut your heart open "with a spoon" to display the ensuing damage.
That said, there was a glint of mischief in her eye when she shared that Andrew Scher, an executive producer for "The Doctors," sent a $300 tequila and Fat Witch brownies to her Manhattan hotel in May when her new gigs were announced.
What distinguishes Michaels from other TV trainers, perhaps, is her ability to bond with strangers. Lanzilotta keeps her picture on her fridge to curb snacking. Michaels' no-excuses mentality also resonated with Cyndi Roberts, 31, of Plainville, Conn., encouraging her not only to lose 75 pounds, but also to become a yogi.
Michaels' outspokenness is indulged by her acolytes, because she seems to really care. "If she was just a drill-sergeant yeller, she would get monotonous," Dr. Phil said. "There's a genuine caring behind her. It matters to her that you do better."
That Michaels is a wisecracking pinup who does not demonize the obese doesn't hurt either. She writes in "Unlimited" that fat "implies zero about your value as a person in this world."
Asked whether it's odd to have strangers approach her and say she has changed their lives, she said, as if speaking to a fan: "Up until two minutes ago I didn't know who you were and didn't care. It's important to take credit for your accomplishments."
Sometimes, Michaels seems uniquely unaware of how such harsh words undercut her brand. Last year, she told Women's Health magazine, referring to pregnancy, "I can't handle doing that to my body." This alarmed her main demographic, women 18 to 50, and spurred news outlets to say that she thinks pregnancy ruins bodies. Michaels later explained that she has health conditions that make it nearly impossible to become pregnant. In the coming year, she hopes to adopt a child from the Congo as a single parent. She has dated both men and women, but right now, said her publicist, Ashley Sandberg, "She is not in a relationship that needs to be spoken about."
However, Michaels is not always so reticent; she made a startling admission over beet salad at another meal at Soho House, after it was suggested that once she became a mother, she might wake up at 5 a.m. to follow one of her workouts. She admitted that she tried to do one of her DVDs once: "I couldn't get through 15 minutes of it."