Obituary: Jean Nidetch
The 'FFH' (formerly fat housewife) who founded Weight Watchers International
Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30
Jean Nidetch, who died recently aged 91, was a one-time 15-stone New York housewife who turned her own weight problem into a multi-million dollar business as the founder of Weight Watchers.
She described herself as an "FFH" - Formerly Fat Housewife - and had tried every fad diet there was. But whatever weight she lost she soon piled back on - with interest - after gorging on the stash of chocolate marshmallow cookies which she kept hidden in a laundry basket.
"I was a fat housewife married to an overweight bus driver raising two very overweight kids with a fat group of friends and an overweight poodle," she recalled later.
In 1961, she was more than 15 stone and with a 44 in waist when she ran into a neighbour who told her how marvellous she was looking.
"I was feeling very good about the compliment," she recalled, "and then she said: 'When are you due?' I didn't know how to answer her because I wasn't pregnant."
She had not realised how fat she looked, since she avoided full-length mirrors.
Jean Nidetch decided to enlist on a diet programme run by the New York City Board of Health in Manhattan, where further humiliation awaited her: "There was the thin girl at the desk, and I asked where the group was. And she said: 'You want the obesity clinic.' I had never heard the word obese before. It shocked me. I said: 'I guess I do.'"
Sitting in the back row with her arms folded resentfully, Jean Nidetch was prepared to be unimpressed by the pencil-thin nutritionist who took the stage, until the woman revealed that the photograph of the fat woman propped up next to her was of herself before she had lost weight.
She gave the participants a diet that recommended, among other things, that they consume fish several times a week, as well as eat two slices of bread and drink two glasses of skimmed milk a day and only try to lose a pound or two a week.
"The more I listened, the more I thought: 'This makes sense'," Jean recalled.
She followed the plan up to a point, but could not stop herself having the occasional cookie binge and found that she was not losing weight as fast as she should.
Feeling that it might help if she could share her struggles with others in the same predicament, she invited six "fat friends" to her Queens apartment to talk. Within a few months, she had 40 people queuing up to join the group she called Jean's Fats' Club. They chipped in and bought a weighing machine and, within a year, she had to move the weekly meetings from her flat to the basement of her apartment block.
By October 1962 she had reached her goal of losing 72 lbs and, at 5 ft 7 in, weighed a trim 10 stone. The following year she teamed up with a businessman called Al Lippert, who had joined her group and had been impressed by her flair as a motivational speaker. He suggested that they go into business together.
They rented space above a New York cinema and transformed Jean's Fats' Club into Weight Watchers International. At her first meeting she was mobbed by a huge crowd of people all wanting to pay their $3 entrance fee to hear her. To meet the demand she addressed eight sessions in a row.
Business boomed and, within four years, Weight Watchers had established more than 200 branches around the world, licensed to 100 franchisees who paid a modest fee for the right to represent the brand, but remitted 10pc of annual gross profits to the founders. They also sold a range of trademarked foods and diet and exercise videos.
By the time they sold the enterprise to Heinz for $71m in 1978, Weight Watchers had a global reach.
"In Israel, the Jews and Arabs sit together at our classes," Jean Nidetch said in 1993, "and, you know, they don't hate each other at all. They're just interested in what they ate for breakfast."
Jean Evelyn Slutsky was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12 1923, the daughter of a cab driver and a manicurist. Her bad eating habits were established early: "Whenever I cried, my mother gave me something to eat," she wrote in her memoir The Story of Weight Watchers (2010, written with Joan Rattner Heilman).
"Whenever I had a fight with the little girl next door, or it was raining and I couldn't go out, or I wasn't invited to a birthday party, my mother gave me a piece of candy to make me feel better."
After leaving school she worked for the US Internal Revenue Service before marrying Marty Nidetch in 1947. Their courtship, she recalled, mainly consisted of eating and, by the time she waddled to the altar in a size 18 dress, they knew every restaurant in Queens where they could get a free dessert with their meal.
The Nidetches had three children, but her husband could not cope with the elegant, self-confident, platinum-blonde butterfly that emerged from the dowdy, rotund chrysalis, and they divorced in 1971.
After selling Weight Watchers, Jean Nidetch continued to work for the company as its public face and consultant. She moved to Las Vegas, where she played poker and supported philanthropic causes. When she retired in 1997, at the age of 74, she selected the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, to replace her as the company's official spokesperson in America. Later she moved to South Florida.
In 1975 she embarked on a second marriage to an Italian bass player , but it lasted only a few months. With her first husband Jean Nidetch - who died on April 29 - she had three sons, of whom one survives her, one having died in infancy and another in 2006.