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Hungry Girl feeds dieting women's interests

Lisa Lillien's quirky, savvy daily e-mail blast of low-calorie recipes and product reviews has attracted legions of followers.

July 22, 2009|Rene Lynch

Lisa Lillien considers the bowl of cocktail wieners simmered in a quick-fix barbecue sauce as if she were appraising a fine wine.

First, she swirls -- to evaluate the richness. Then, she sniffs. Tasting a spoonful of the sauce, she nods approvingly. Then comes the moment of truth: She bites into a wiener. Wrinkles up her nose. And pronounces it awful.

"The sauce is incredible," she says. "But the dogs are rubbery."

Standing in the middle of her Woodland Hills test kitchen, wearing jeans and a hot-pink track suit jacket, Lillien, 43, might not look like she leads one of the most rabid, devoted and willing-to-spend-money armies out there.

That would be women on a diet.

But Lillien is the creator of Hungry Girl, that bouncy cartoon character that dispenses calorie-saving recipes, health and diet tips and tell-it-like-it-is product reviews in a daily e-mail blast. Lillien started in early 2004 with roughly 70 subscribers -- all of them friends and family. Today, there are more than 750,000 subscribers, and Hungry Girl is on track to have a million by year's end.

With the traffic has come success. Among the website's regular advertisers are Weight Watchers and Dreyer's light ice cream line. Her first book, "Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies for Guilt-Free Eating in the Real World," came out last year and shipped more than 600,000 copies. Her straight talk about calories helped drive her second book "Hungry Girl: 200 under 200" -- 200 recipes that clock in at less than 200 calories per serving -- to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times' bestseller list earlier this year. "There is no case of 'second-book-itis' here," said Matthew Shear, senior vice president and publisher of St. Martin's Press. "The second book is selling slightly better than the first."

She has two more books on the horizon, a TV project in the works and an endorsement deal with General Mills' FiberOne line. (They inked a deal after learning that Hungry Girl pulverizes the cereal and uses it to add crunch to seemingly everything, whether the coating on faux-fried chicken dishes or the crust on low-cal cheesecakes.)

All told, Hungry Girl is a business that makes well over $2 million a year.

Lillien has been brainstorming with personal advisors who want her to seize this critical moment. They'd like to see her relinquish the time-consuming, hands-on control of the daily e-mail that is at the heart of her empire and instead focus on money makers such as subscription-fee-based diet plans, or expanding the advertising base.

Instead, Lillien has another plan: Taking on nutrition labels.

She wants the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on packaging that misstates -- or, more likely, understates -- the number of calories and nutrients contained within. She also wants labels to more accurately reflect the calories in real-life serving sizes, something likely to shock consumers.

Lillien recently told readers -- mainly women but also some men -- she plans to take food items to a lab for analysis to see how their calorie counts compare with the labels. She asked them to recommend products for scrutiny. Within a few hours, she says she had 400.

"People really want this information," Lillien says. "And I'm like their crazy friend who will actually go and figure this out."

Lillien's e-mail blasts are wrapped in a sherbet-meets-Miami color scheme and a peppy, punny, OMG-writing style punctuated by lots of CAPS and exclamation points.

It's a carefree, bestest girlfriend style that she honed over a career that began with the Long Island native's first job out of college: editor in chief for Tutti Frutti, a Tiger Beat kind of teen celebrity magazine. She later moved into TV, working as executive producer for TV Land Online and director of convergence development at Nickelodeon Online.

Alongside her career successes, Lillien found herself constantly struggling with an extra 20 or so pounds. Then, in 2002, "I just said 'Enough!' " She lost the weight by walking on her treadmill, cleaning up her diet and taking a long, hard look at trigger foods -- like potato chips -- that always seemed to send her diet into a tailspin. She also played mad scientist in the kitchen, concocting low-cal snacks and substitutes for foods that always gave her trouble.

When she began sharing her results with family and friends, they demanded more.

"I knew I was on to something," she says.

She decided to quit her job and see if she could turn Hungry Girl into a business. "I told my husband, 'If after a year, this is just an expensive hobby, I will go back to work.' " (Her husband, Dan Schneider, created and executive produces the 2-year-old Nickelodeon hit "iCarly," and the couple live in Encino.)

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