A box of chickens: That’s how E!’s Just Jillian, a documentary series following Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michael’s home and business life, was born.
“My partner Heidi had ordered these fucking chickens from mypetchicken.com—in the goddamn mail, okay! And they show up at the post office.” Jillian tells this to me in a loud Pasadena hotel bar, but her voice is animated and easily carries over the cacophony of alcohol and conversation.
“She’s like, Oh, I’ve got to take Phoenix to school. And you know what, honey? I gave them your cell. I’m like, You gave my fucking personal phone number out? My personal cell phone? And she’s like, They don’t know it’s you!”
“So guess who goes to the post office to pick up the chickens in a box? And she tells me there are six chickens, but there were only five fuckin’ chickens,” Jillian says. “So now, I’m there for an hour trying to find out if there was a sixth fucking chicken that escaped.”
Whatever happened to that sixth chicken, it’s in some ways responsible for eight episodes of reality television. Jillian continues, “I’m telling my lawyer this whole story, and he’s like, Jill, you need a show. And I was like, No, there’s nothing to be gained from this, Kevin. Nothing good can come from it.”
Showing fans—and businesses—another side of Jillian
The series is, quite honestly, just fun: it feels like a throwback to the early days of Flipping Out, before the show started dragging in a fall guy for each season, before fame or TV production or both pushed viewers farther and farther away from reality.
There are moments of light frivolity, and moments of deep emotion, and the combination works well. Sure, there are moments that feel performative or camera-friendly, but it doesn’t come across as artificial at all. The show is produced by Studio Lambert, which brings its usual high quality and attention to detail.
Jillian told me that she thought, “If this could be done right, it could be a lot of fun,” and by that, she meant: “authenticity.”
Those who reacted negatively to the idea of her doing a reality show, she said, were responding to the reality shows that don’t do reality. “When you think of a reality show, what are you thinking? If you’re thinking scripted, fake, dramatic, it’s not that at all,” Jillian said. “Reality to me is that it’s real—this is my real friends and family, this is my real life. I love my friends and family. I would be happy to share them with the word; I love everything we go through. I love my life and the ups and downs, and I share it anyway. To me it’s like, Why not?”
The show, she told me, is “all about the comedy of errors that exist as we go about our everyday lives—trying to be the best co-worker, the best parent, the best friend, the best daughter, et cetera—and the absurdity in the minutiae of everyday lives.”
The everyday lives of Jillian and her chicken-ordering partner, Heidi, include small children, and I asked about whether Jillian was concerned about having them be on camera. “They’re very used to it. They get followed around by paparazzi, for better or for worse. It doesn’t bother them,” she said. “They’ve been on the cover of People magazine; these are kids that have been on set their entire lives. It’s not new to them.”
In other words: This wasn’t a new decision to have her kids live in public.
And while she said “they’re not on the show that much,” she also admitted, “Kids do steal the scenes. What they bring to the show is what they bring to our lives: innocence, joy, effervescence, insanity, humor. Honestly, I just think they’re the best part of the show.”
There are some significant kid-centered moments that the show has included, such as this one:
Producers and cameras crews were given “as much access as we could give them,” Jillian said, which means for some moments in their lives, such as parent-techer conferences or tonsil removal, “you see the aftermath,” not the event itself.
Still, that left the show with far too much content and too little time. “That’s the grueling part of it, to be honest with you. You get 60 hours of footage, and you only get 45 minutes. This is a gross term, but this is what our editors’ say: It’s like killing babies. We only have time for this or this. … You only have time for so much.”
One thing that does get a lot of time are sit-down interviews, but in a shift from most other series, those are conducted in pairs: Jillian with Heidi, Jillian with her business partner and manager, Giancarlo Chersich, et cetera. Hearing them recount and comment on moments in their lives with someone there to build on their recollection or challenge their version of events is really interesting. (More shows should do this; some, like Big Brother or MTV’s series, have gotten mileage out of this for years.)
Jillian credits the show’s production company’s president, Studio Lambert’s Greg Goldman, with the idea for this show’s dual interviews. She called him “a bit of a savant” and, after saying “please print this!,” said, “this animal is the only guy that I would ever do this show with. It was his idea. He’s such a fucking animal! … He’s a lunatic, but he’s also a genius.”
Jillian is not only a partner and mother, but she is also a brand, a one-woman product-producing machine, and in the show and in real life, she’s honest about this being a way to extend her brand.
Giancarlo told me, “The show definitely gives us the ability to let a fan to see a completely different side of her, and really separate and remove the preconceived notions they had of her through the character on Biggest Loser.” That means, he said, that “we don’t have to have to have that fight when we walk into a room: no, she doesn’t yell all the time, no, she’s not this.”
That perception of Jillian came from The Biggest Loser, which Jillian quit three different times.
I asked if she had a conflicted relationship with the NBC series, and she said, “That which nourishes me also destroys me. That show gave me this unbelievable platform. But then, you get to the point where you’re bumping up the walls of the box, and it’s like, No no no—this is your lane. No no no—you’re the villain. No no no—this is how it’s going to go. And that’s challenging for me. It gave me this great start but it also provided this massive limitation. And I am a control freak, and I could control nothing—nothing! Not one thing!” But she ended by saying, “I couldn’t be more grateful for that opportunity.”
Networks other than NBC have continued to try different weight loss shows, but Jillian told me, “That stuff’s not working on TV. People need a break from the genre. They really do. That’s okay; something takes a break and then it comes back strong. And that’s what I think needs to happen.”
That is definitely true of Jillian herself: she took a break from TV and came back strong with a show that I hope comes back for another season.