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A body larger than life

As a comic, Billi Gordon used his girth to get laughs. Now it's imprisoning him, but he plans a breakout.

October 14, 2009|Carla Hall

Billi Gordon is 6 feet 1 and weighed 701 pounds when he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center last month. Offering directions to his room, he couldn't resist adding, "I will be the large black man in the hospital bed."

For most of his adult life, he has been that large black man, never denying his girth, using it to disarm and entertain, creating a theatrical comedy career -- in drag -- before pursuing research in neuroscience.

"Do you know how hard it is to go from being a legendary diva to being a brain doctor?" he asked.

Though Gordon, 55, has not ignored his size, for years he denied its consequences. Then his body stopped letting him do so.

As he sat on his bed, even a hospital gown that fell below his knees could not hide the mysterious mass that has been growing for several years from his upper right thigh. It now spreads between his legs, almost to his feet. It is a saddlebag of skin, smooth in places, dimpled in others.

"Otherwise, I have beautiful legs," he said.

As Gordon has widened, his life has narrowed. By the end of the summer, he couldn't fit into his red Mustang convertible. Scrubs were the only street clothes he could wear. He was too heavy even for weight-loss surgery.

He has been in and out of the hospital since late spring. His longest stay began in mid-August and lasted a month. Two days after he was released in September, he buckled at the knees and fell to the floor from the weight of the growth. He was sent back to Cedars.

"I think when he couldn't get up and when he couldn't walk, that was the first time I heard fear in his voice," said his cardiologist, Walter Kerwin.

--

Gordon's size makes everything more complicated -- even diagnosing his ailments. Whether the growth was a cancerous tumor (unlikely) or a glut of swollen soft tissue caused by poor lymphatic flow (probable), Gordon needed an MRI. But no MRI machine at Cedars -- or any other hospital his doctors could locate -- would hold him. The maximum weight limit of the largest MRI machine is 550 pounds.

Gordon and his medical team speculated that the Los Angeles Zoo might have one big enough. (It doesn't. Urban myth, says the zoo's chief vet.)

But before anyone found out for certain, Gordon took action. He began dieting -- not so much to fit into an MRI machine as to prepare for the likelihood of high-risk surgeries to remove the mass.

After a lifetime of diets and a diet pill disaster, after seeing his weight drop into the 300s and soar close to 1,000, Gordon opted for an 1,800-calorie-a-day, mostly liquid protein diet, aided by the diuretic Lasix.

He had finally reached a point where he could no longer co-opt his obesity for cleverness, for a TV role, for a funny book. He had become imprisoned by it.

"About this growth on my leg -- I'm grateful I have it," he said recently. "And I'll tell you why. Because it has taught me humility, and it's taught me gratitude for things I otherwise took for granted -- sitting in my car or walking down the street."

Gordon can outline in meticulous detail all the factors that he believes have played a part in his weight struggle -- a thyroid problem, stress, depression, a bad reaction to beta blockers, even the fact that his late mother was bipolar. "Bipolar disorder in the next generation appears as a metabolic disorder where people go from being hyperkinetic to being overly sedentary," Gordon said.

Sometimes the problem was just too much food. "I went through a depression and gained 200 pounds," he said of a six-month period earlier this year. "Have I made some bad food choices? I wish I had a dollar for every one I made. I could buy an MRI machine."

But apathy, he insists, is not among his problems: "Do you honestly think if I could do anything about this, I wouldn't?"

Gordon invites people to laugh at his jokes about his size. But he bristles if others are irreverent about him. He can leverage his presence -- physical and theatrical -- to intimidate, casting a withering glance at anyone he suspects of disrespect. He delights in recounting his first meeting with Kerwin, his now-beloved cardiologist.

"Mr. Gordon . . . " the cardiologist began.

"It's Dr. Gordon," corrected his soon-to-be patient.

One day a cheerful volunteer stopped by his hospital room. As he left, he turned to one of Gordon's visitors. "I have magazines," the volunteer said. "Maybe you can pick some out for her later."

Her?

Gordon smirked. "Happens all the time, honey."

--

He once made a nice living off his feminine features. With his soft face and bosomy chest, he slipped easily into drag, posing for humorous greeting cards and playing loud-talking, imperious women for comic relief.

In drag, he had a small role in an episode of "Married With Children" and appeared in the Eddie Murphy comedy "Coming to America." As a writer, he penned an episode of the late-'80s sitcom "227" and several humor books. ("Eat This Book: The Last Diet Book" featured Gordon on the cover in a black strapless dress, with one hand on a cocked hip.)

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