Q+A: Bob Harper
The Biggest Loser trainer discusses his ever-expanding collection of tattoos, what it’s like working with the First Lady, and who—or what—is to blame for the obesity epidemic.
While his clients shed pounds, Bob Harper gained tattoos. The fitness guru is the long-standing star of NBC’s weight loss competition show, The Biggest Loser; he’s been there for 14 seasons of the American version, and three of the Australian. He is also a growing media mogul who has released three books and numerous DVDs, writes a blog, and has talk-show aspirations for the future. Harper, who grew up on a cattle farm outside of Nashville, TN, spent a couple of years living in that music-driven city before relocating to Los Angeles more than two decades ago. It was there that he cultivated his fervor for fitness and helping people achieve their goals.
The vibrant TV personality also loves his ink. He has fully sleeved arms and a back piece, and he is itching to get more. Harper got his first tattoo around age 21—a back piece featuring a rose with a Chinese symbol that he later covered over with a sugar skull—and has accumulated much more since then. Here, he shares his body of work.
Inked: The 14th season of The Biggest Loser had three contestants who were children. Why do you think the childhood obesity epidemic has gotten so out of hand?
Bob Harper: I think that the fast-food nation that we live in has destroyed the American diet. The highly processed foods that are so cheap and easily accessible contribute to that, but I also think when it comes to children, it’s this sedentary lifestyle. Kids now spend up to six hours a day in front of some sort of computer device. They’re not going out and being kids anymore. The one thing that I really try to stress upon the kids that I work with—because I also work with the First Lady on her “Let’s Move” initiative—is that you want them to eat healthier and to eat their vegetables, but also you want to get kids to be more active. If you get kids away from their computers and their televisions and get them outside being more active, then you have more room when it comes to what they are eating.
What about genetics playing a role?
I say bullshit. Does genetics play a part? Yeah, it plays a small part, but I think that people want to use that as their excuse. “It’s in my blood, everyone in my family is like that.” Most everyone in my family is overweight, so I could use that same excuse. No, you’ve got to be able to work with what you’ve got and not hide behind that excuse.
Did your family history influence your decision to become more fit and to become a trainer?
I don’t think that particularly influenced me as much as wanting to work with people one-on-one and help them achieve their goals.
And you’re known for pushing people. For example, you had that infamous blowout with contestant Joelle Gwynn four years ago, where you really roared at her. What is it that turns you into “Drill Sergeant Bob”?
For me, you have a whole group of people that are in there and have all sacrificed being away from their families, friends, all their comfort zones. When you’re working with a whole team and one person on the team is really holding themselves back, you get frustrated. At that moment, I was just so frustrated because I knew that she was capable of more. With any contestant, their past holds them back. They’re unsure of what they’re doing, so they want to go back to that safety zone, and it’s up to me to push them as hard as I can push them to break them out of their comfort zone. It gets scary for them and frustrating for me because I know it’s all going to work out, [but] you just have to trust me.
Do you ever worry that you’re pushing somebody too hard and bullying them rather than simply motivating them?
No, because I know that my intentions are always good. I never come from a place of bullying or come from a place of breaking down as much as I’m trying to lift up. I know who I am. I know what my objective always is, so I never doubt that.
What were you like as a kid?
I wasn’t really popular. I was the average little kid. I wasn’t into sports much. I couldn’t be into sports because I always had to work on the farm where I grew up. So during the summer, when kids were going on vacations, I had to work on the farm, and after school I always had to get back home. I never could get involved in extracurricular activities and hang out with kids the way that everyone else did at school.
It was a cattle farm, right?
Knowing how important it is to limit things like red meat, how do you view it now? God, I just really think about how good the cattle had it on the farm that I grew up on. Talk about the original grass-fed, organically grown cattle. That’s what it was like back then. It wasn’t this big factory farm. It was kind of what you saw in old Walt Disney movies. It was a real simple life.
Were you overweight as a child?
No, I was just your average thin kid.
What has it been like working with Michelle Obama on her “Let’s Move” initiative to battle childhood obesity?
The coolest thing in the world. This woman gets it. People always talk about how they’re too busy and never have time to work out. You know what? If the First Lady can find time to work out practically every single day and still manage to eat right, why can’t you? This woman is as busy as I’ve ever seen a person, and she manages to balance it. Her pas- sion and compassion for working with childhood obesity is just so great.
When you have some downtime, what do you like to do?
I’m a photographer. I just spent a week in Paris. I went by myself and did a bunch of photography because that’s what I love to do. If I’m not working or working out, I’m behind my camera.
What kind of photos do you like to take?
I’m more of a street photographer. I really like to get the feeling and mood of what’s on the street.
You’ve been a trainer on The Biggest Loser for all 14 seasons. Do you have any plans to open your own gym or do something else eventually?
I’m working on my next book right now, but it would be nice to throw my hat into the daytime talk show world. I like that world, so that’s something I’m playing around with right now. We’ll see what happens.
What kind of ink do you have on your arms?
My arms are all pretty much Traditional. I go to Smith Street Tattoo Parlour in Brooklyn. I think Bert Krak is one of the best in the business, and the other three guys there—Eli Quinters, Steve Boltz, and Daniel Santoro—have all tattooed me. This place is all about Traditional style. They first started with a clipper ship on my arm, and then from there it went to the gypsy head and then an eagle. If it’s pretty much a Traditional tattoo, it’s on my arm somewhere.
People usually have stories behind their tattoos. What are yours?
I’ve had so many people ask me that, and it’s anticlimactic because there are no real stories behind them. I have always just loved tattoos. As a little kid seeing tattoos, I always knew that I was going to have them. As I got older, I wanted to have my arms completely sleeved. I want to get my hands and knuckles tattooed, but because of my work right now that’s the one thing that I’ve got to hold off on. But when it comes to the meaning behind them, there isn’t any other than just my love for Traditional tattoos.
You have a sugar skull on your back. What’s on your right arm?
On my right arm, I’ve got a couple of skulls. I’ve got a gypsy head on my elbow. That’s where my clipper ship is, and I have an anchor that says “West Coast” on it. I’ve got this little dude who’s kind of behind an eight ball; I really like him, he’s pretty cool. And right in my ditch I have the word “Lucky” tattooed. If there’s one thing that’s meant anything throughout the years, I’ve been pretty lucky in my life, so I wanted that word tattooed because on my left arm I also have my last name—it’s like “Lucky Harper” on there. I also have this really cool cross that says “Faith” on it because with the people that I’ve worked with throughout the years, I’ve always told them that they’ve got to have faith in themselves. They have to dig into that place where they feel like they can’t go anymore, and that’s what’s will get them to keep going.
What about your left arm?
My left arm has one of my favorite tattoos: it’s a panther’s head right up on my forearm. Eli did that, and it’s pretty tough. I love it. It’s one of those things that every time I see it in a picture I get pretty psyched about it. I also have a tiger head that Steve Boltz did that I really, really love. one of my old tattoos that I got a million years ago is the Virgin Guadalupe, and that’s the one that kind of doesn’t go. All the filler that I have throughout my arms are the stars and dots, so it all kind of blends in. I got another skull on my left arm that I really dig. In my ditch I have my last name written. I have a really cool spider inside my arm, and my left elbow is where I have my spider web.
Do you think you’re going to get more ink as you get older?
It’s funny because I always said that as soon as my arms were done I was going to be done, but now it seems like I’m really thinking about moving on to my chest. I obviously love tattoos, but the older I get, the more I hate the feeling of it. It’s not the best feeling in the entire world. People are always asking me Where does it hurt the most? It hurts the most wherever I’m getting tattooed at the moment.