The New Fat Cats

Screw diet and exercise—some guys get ahead by throwing their weight around.

Ron Lawson wasn’t always fat. When the director of accounting at a Chicago manufacturer started working as a CPA in 1989, he was a willowy six feet three inches tall and 160 pounds. But after 16 years of spending 70-hour workweeks in the company of spreadsheets—chugging Cokes and inhaling cheeseburgers as he crunched numbers late into the night—he noticed his pants had become as snug as Mick Jagger’s, but without the attractive results. “I’d been getting them let out for two years, but they pinched anyway,“ he says. “I had to buy six new suits.“

This development might have sent a lesser man into the arms of SlimFast shakes and celery sticks. But Lawson, now 42, is not interested in doing penance for too many Double-Doubles from In-N-Out Burger. He’s proud of his 40-inch waist. Not only that, he considers it an asset—clients have told him that he’s intimidating when he walks into a room.

“You don’t want to go into a closing meeting with a guy my size and have a confrontation,“ says Lawson, who weighs 240 pounds. “My bad opinion doesn’t bode well for a company.“

So he enjoys every bite of his power lunches (and breakfasts and dinners), be they double cheeseburgers, chocolate-chip bagels, or peanut M&M’s (“Having some now!“ he writes in an e-mail). And he doesn’t give a thought to changing.

“I could become a vegetarian, but I’m not going to do that,“ he says. “I’d rather enjoy my life.“

Lawson is part of a group of accomplished men who are fat and proud of it—portly strivers for whom a little girth is as much a sign of success as is a corner office. In a weight-obsessed nation that now seems more mobilized to fight the war on fat than the one on terror, the number of such husky mavericks is small. Far more common are those sinewy type A’s running for their lives on treadmills between conference calls. Still, there is no shortage of supersize success stories, even in fields that put a premium on body image: Witness Elf director Jon Favreau, 38, whose weight was once reported at 270 pounds; former PayPal board member Reid Hoffman, 37, who cashed out when eBay bought the company for $1.5 billion in 2002 but hasn’t lost his double chin; Trent Lott’s former deputy chief of staff John Green, 33, a Washington lobbyist whose gut is as large as he is influential; Sopranos actor James Gandolfini, 44; puffed-up rocker Ben Gibbard, 29, lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie; Chasing Amy actor Ethan Suplee, 29, who has been steadily slimming down from his onetime 449-pound mass; and, of course, the succulently named Meat Loaf, 58.

Ed Lavandera, a 32-year-old CNN correspondent who has reported on the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia and the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, also fits the XXL mold. He declined to give his exact weight but says, “It dawned on me recently that I could go head-to-head with Shaquille O’Neal.“ (The basketball star weighs 325 pounds.) “Unfortunately,“ Lavandera says, “I can’t jump very well.“ Lavandera was a solid six feet, 200 pounds in 1995 when he went to work at a CBS affiliate in Midland, Texas. A steady infusion of quesadillas at a Mexican take-out joint a block from the station led to a 15-pound gain that year—and every year since. But in spite of his expanding onscreen presence, CNN hired him in 2001 to cover the Southwest region. Since then, Lavandera’s quesadilla runs have been replaced—as he races from story to story—by visits to hotel waffle bars and airport grab-and-go stands.

“I’m very happy with who I am right now,“ he says. “My weight is not what I measure my self-worth by.“

But in an industry where even jolly Al Roker has had bariatric surgery, surely the suits at CNN must have pulled Lavandera aside for a chat about his appearance? Not so, he says. “I’ve been very fortunate—and people might be amazed by this—but I’ve never had a director at CNN who’s said, ‘You need to do something about your weight.’“ When asked whether this was true, a spokeswoman for CNN declined to comment. The only problem his bulk might pose is if he had to do a fly-over scene and was too heavy to ride in the helicopter. Lavandera has considered asking the cameramen to shoot him from a less fattening angle, but for the most part, he limits his pre-camera prep to making sure his hair is not sticking up and his shirt is buttoned.

Being fat was not always seen as a shameful thing. Until the end of the 19th century, a big belly was a sign of a big wallet—J.P. Morgan and Howard Taft accentuated their busting guts with too-tight vests and heavy gold-watch fobs. As the industrial revolution peaked, however, food became cheaper and lost its association with affluence, and gorging on it simply meant you had no willpower. “If someone was fat, they were seen as too weak to control their appetite,“ says Dr. Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who is writing a book on the politics of obesity. But no one thought fat was necessarily bad for you until after World War II, when a Metropolitan Life insurance agent published a study saying fat people have shorter life expectancies than slim ones.

Since then, weight has been a class punch line, more a problem for the boulder-assed hoi polloi lining up at Wendy’s than for the gourmands fighting for a reservation at Per Se in New York, where a prix fixe five-course tasting costs $175. Of course, money doesn’t protect the privileged from having to poke more holes in their belts. According to a University of Iowa study, the prevalence of obesity is growing three times as fast among Americans who make $60,000 or more a year as it is among poorer people. It makes sense when you consider that a desk-bound yuppie spends most of his 60-hour workweek in a cushy Aeron chair, nourished by venti Frappuccinos and Philly cheese steaks delivered right to his cubicle. Add to that an extended commute and the trend, once again, toward eating out (where you’re more likely to indulge in duck pâté than you would at home) and you can see why big shots are getting bigger.

Apparently, extra weight doesn’t affect earning potential. A New York University study found that fat men can make at least as much money as skinny men. In some cases, a blasé attitude toward body image may even give you an edge—a workout routine won’t distract you from turning your memos in on time.

Sacrificing professional ambition for killer abs is a career strategy that makes about as much sense to English professor Thomas H. Benton as calling in sick three days a week. He says his time is better spent writing his next book about American literature than jogging around the small liberal-arts college campus in Michigan where he works. Benton, 37, who asked to be identified by the pen name he uses for his column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has gained 40 pounds since he was a graduate student at Harvard in 2000. Back then, he couldn’t afford a car and had to walk to campus, lugging piles of books, which helped keep his weight down. Now he takes the car to work, often via the drive-thru lane at McDonald’s. And he has research assistants fetching his books. He also has children, a circumstance that provides myriad opportunities to nosh. “If they leave food out on the counter, I eat it,“ he says. “I’ve become a walking Disposall.“

Benton, who expects to earn tenure in six months (only one in five newly hired instructors ever makes it to the tenure track), credits his 230-pound frame with helping him keep a packed lecture hall at rapt attention. “Size has this authoritative dimension,“ says Benton, who teaches in untucked polos (he says he’d look bad in a tucked-in shirt with a tie) and khakis. “If you are good at what you do, it’s not an impediment.“

Fat-assed self-satisfaction, of course, flies in the face of the country’s $46 billion diet industry, which equates success with thinness and suggests you can continually re-sculpt a fat you into an ab-blasting ber-earner. “Because this is America, we have this Horatio Alger notion about weight,“ says Paul Campos, author of The Diet Myth. “We think you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be thin.“ But not everyone wants to be able to see his ribs.

Lawson, the Chicago accountant, actually does exercise regularly. He has run eight marathons—spurred on by his wife’s taunts that he’s “not a runner“—with the pleasing result of having never lost any significant weight from the effort. (He competes in the Clydesdale division, racing’s equivalent of a Big & Tall store.) And Lavandera typically runs only when he has to chase someone for an interview. Still, even an extra-large success like him sometimes hears the call of good health, so much so that he has started biking, and, after his family’s two-year campaign to get him on Weight Watchers, has finally signed up. That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it. “The idea of going to a gym isn’t something that excites me all that much,“ he says.

Being surrounded by hundreds of naked, Greek-god-like figures isn’t enough to make Evan Goldstein hit the free weights either. The operations manager of a New York mannequin factory, he doesn’t bother to suck in his 42-inch gut when he walks by all those plastic examples of anatomical perfection, who are each six feet four inches tall with adolescently tiny waists. “They’re in better shape than me,“ he says. “But it doesn’t bother me, because they’re all the same. I’m different because I’m bigger.“ Maybe a bit too big. The 30-year-old MIT graduate was recently told by his doctor that he was dangerously close to being eligible for stomach stapling. “That scared me,“ says Goldstein. But not enough to send him to a spin class. “If I’m in the mood for fries,“ he says, “I’m going to get me some fries.“ And, while he’s at it, maybe talk his boss (who’s bigger than he is) into giving him a big fat raise.

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