FT. WALTON BEACH, Fla. — Their day begins at 6 a.m. and ends with lights-out at 9 p.m. They cannot drive cars or watch television in their rooms. Instead, they spend hours pacing the white beaches here, their world limited by the edge of the aquamarine water and the yellow lines on the paved parking lot outside their hotel.
They are captives in paradise, this group of obese men and women who dwell in this small resort town.
They have come from across the country, gone into self-exile and willingly put their lives in the hands of an unlikely keeper-caretaker: Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist who has been dogged by controversy for decades.
He has campaigned for civil rights, bitterly opposed the Vietnam War and played the club- and lecture-circuit, spinning conspiracy theories about everything from drugs to the Kennedy assassination. He has participated in periodic fasts and ultra-marathons and studied nutrition on his own, even developing his own Slim-Safe Bahamian liquid diet formula.
But he's been on another mission in recent years, taking on the Herculean task of trying to save America's health by freeing our addictions to smoking, drugs, alcohol and food.
To prove it can be done, he has brought his "fat folks," as he calls them, to this Florida town, some weighing more than 500 pounds and on the brink of self-destruction when they began his program.
Agree to Be Trotted Out
Most are here on scholarship, with Gregory picking up the tab for them to participate in his weight-loss program. It's a trade-off: They lose weight, following his rules, and agree to be trotted out for television appearances and interviews with reporters.
In time, his clients have become media darlings, appearing on "Donahue" and showing up in the tabloids' pages. Camera crews visit regularly to chronicle their weight loss. Strangers on the beach even greet them by name.
The program is far from perfect; Gregory and the clients readily admit that. It lacks traditional medical expertise, with no doctor on staff, only a local physician on call. And until recently, the program employed a psychotherapist only part time to help what clearly are troubled people.
But his clients are willing to overlook these shortcomings. Most figure if they hadn't met Gregory when they did, they'd be dead by now.
"When I first met him, it was at a lecture, and he (angered) a lot of people," says 31-year-old Mike Parteleno, who, at slightly less than 500 pounds, and down from more than 1,000, is the heaviest of the group. "He talked about the CIA, about dope, about blacks killing themselves with food, and a lot of people got up and walked out. But I wanted to see him. I was in the back of the auditorium. And he came busting through the crowd and hugged me.
"It was like your first kiss--you remember your first kiss, don't you?" Parteleno asks. "Here was a man who knew me from no one. And he said, 'I can take you down to 190 if you're willing to work hard.' I knew right then and there. I went to work the next day and gave notice."
Ginger Oldham, one of 17 clients who pay $1,000 a week for the program, says she tried for years to hook up with Gregory. She finally joined his program a few weeks ago when space became available.
"He is probably one of the greatest men on the planet," she states simply. "I've watched him from the time I was a child during the civil rights movement. I knew the integrity of him was God-driven. Whatever he had plans for, he had to have some kind of spiritual insight behind it. He wasn't out to make money, fame or fortune. It was because society needs this and he could help."
On this day, weeks before the tourist onslaught, the beach is fairly deserted, save for a few early morning walkers.
Gregory, 56, sits farther away in one of the hotel's gazebos, gazing across the dunes. Dressed in a Bahamian Diet sweat shirt bedecked with gold epaulets, he looks like the zany commander of some madcap crew.
He is aware of the media circus he has orchestrated. He knows that reporters want to interview his heaviest clients. He knows that America likes to hear how much food they once ate, how fat they were, what they would do to get food.
He knows it is a freak show.
"Yeah," he says, "but that's what you want. Right now it's a freak show and it would be a freak show if they weren't going to lose weight. When they get down (to their goal weight), then that's their bargaining chip. It's going to be awesome."
His thin frame and gaunt face belie the fact that Gregory once ate his way to 350 pounds, chain smoked and drank a fifth of Scotch a day until he was converted to the ways of good health.
"They're getting a little bit more fun now," he says of the clients as he shifts in his chair. "Before they couldn't move. When we first got 'em they couldn't walk. We'd just sit around all day baby sitting for them. . . . And then you start seeing life coming back in them. That life has such a force.