TYSONS CORNER, Va. - Jared Fogle was so fat that he couldn't fit through doorways. He couldn't squeeze into car seats. And he chose college classes by testing classroom seats to see if could maneuver his 425-pound frame into them.
"My whole life was about planning ahead to avoid embarrassing situations," says Fogle, in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY on the 15th anniversary of his famous Subway diet. Fogle ate his way to fame with the "Jared Diet" by shedding 245 pounds in about a year. "It was exhausting."
In a nation obsessed with all things skinny, Fogle epitomizes every dieter's dream: keeping the weight off. Long before there was The Biggest Loser or a Jillian Michaels or an HCG Diet, there was Jared, who is sometimes known as "The Subway Guy." Fogle is no less a franchise to Subway than Ronald McDonald is to McDonald's - but without the face paint.
"Jared gave Subway the health halo before any of us even knew the term," says Robin Lee Allen, executive editor at the trade publication Nation's Restaurant News. "Nobody else has struck on a Jared."
The question after 15 wildly profitable years is this: Who has benefited the most from the relationship that has utterly changed the way a fast-food joint can market itself: Subway or Fogle? What's more: Just how much more positive health spin can Subway possibly squeeze out of Jared?
"It's an elegant dance," says Robert Thompson, pop culture professor at Syracuse University. "But like a bird that sits on a hippo's back and picks off the insects - the hippo gets rid of the bugs and the bird gets dinner."
Even with the $200 billion fast-food industry embroiled in a market share melee, Subway's growth has exploded during Fogle's 15 years with the privately held company that does not publicly disclose or discuss its income or revenue. Subway more than tripled its U.S. sales to $11.5 billion in 2011, from about $3.1 billion in 1998, the year before Fogle started with them, estimates Nation's Restaurant News. Subway now has more than 38,000 stores in 100 countries, and has more locations in the U.S. and globally than McDonald's.
Fogle has become a mini-empire, starring in more than 300 Subway TV commercials; writing one autobiographical book and considering a second book aimed at children; emerging as a motivational speaker who pulls in $5,000 to $10,000 for personal appearances while amassing a net worth that may exceed $15 million, estimates celebritynetworth.com.
"Subway generated the perception that it's a healthy place to eat through Jared, and it stuck," says restaurant researcher Malcolm Knapp. "That's a very powerful tool. You don't hear people saying that they can eat healthy at McDonald's."
Not that they can't. McDonald's has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into vastly improving the nutritionals of its menu - and it even puts real fruit in its Happy Meals and whole-grain oats in its oatmeal. But Subway appears to have something more relevant to a generation of nutrition-conscious consumers: a health halo in the form of a bespectacled guy who is one part nerd and one part superman.
"Jared is a hero," says Jo Ann Hattner, a nutrition consultant with Stanford University Medical School and author. "He's not a cartoon character. He's real."
Now Fogle, 35, who ranks among the most famous former fat-man celebrities of all time, seems to be making a middle-age resurgence. He showed up last week on NBC's Biggest Loser to announce that this season's winner will be featured along with him in a Subway commercial this fall. Subway is looking into the promotion of a Jared dinner meal later this year - perhaps featuring the foot-long veggie Fogle used to eat nightly while on his famous diet. And earlier this month, Fogle appeared in his first Super Bowl spot as part of a year-long congratulatory campaign from Subway that will feature all of Subway's top athletes, including Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
This from a guy who, while a freshman at Indiana University, painfully recalls downing 15 cans of full-sugar soda (Mountain Dew was his favorite) and consuming 10,000 calories per day. This included frequent trips to McDonald's where he'd push down several orders of Double Quarter Pounders with cheese, super-size fries and soft drinks, and a couple of apple pies for dessert.
"Chairs would bend when I'd sit in them," he painfully recalls, when he tipped the scales at more than 425 pounds. That's roughly the weight of an adult bear.
Fogle says the hardest part of all hasn't been losing the weight, but keeping it off. And when he puts on more than 20 pounds - as he did a few years ago - Subway comes knocking at his door and not-so-subtly reminds him to lose the poundage. Reason: Jared has been a gold mine for Subway.
"If I had to guess," says Tony Pace, who is Subway's marketing chief. "I'd say one-third to one-half of Subway's growth (over the past 15 years) is because of Jared."
Just for perspective, the other half, he says, comes from one of the most successful fast-food promotions of all time: the $5 foot-long. (To stir up traditionally slow February business, Subway is offering many of its 12-inch subs at a bargain $5 this month.)
But not everyone loves Jared. The gossip sheets were relentless three years ago, when Fogle put on weight. And some YouTube parodies of Fogle have been merciless - one even showing an impersonator having sex in the back of a car while eating a Subway sandwich.
There's even some question about just how likable he is. Fogle's Q-Score rating, in terms of "likability," is a downright lousy 8%, which is less than half the "average" likability Q-Score of 17%.
Even then, folks are far more familiar with Jared than most celebs, with his "familiarity" score at 61% which is about twice the average 28%. "He certainly has a presence," says Henry Schafer, executive vice president of The Q Scores Co., "but not a strong emotional connection."
Just don't tell that to Jared's fans - who are many.
USA TODAY observed the "Jared Effect" for several hours on Presidents Day at a Subway store inside the bustling Tysons Corner mall, where dozens of hungry, lunchtime shoppers instantly segued from shock - to giddiness - at the mere sight of Fogle.
"Oh my God," utters Nancy Kerman, a mother and resident of Springfield, Va., who, along with her 13-year-old son, Shane, steps into the Subway for lunch. "That's actually Jared."
She urges her son to stand next to Jared so that she can capture a photo of the two on her cellphone. "He's a big Subway fan because of Jared," she says of her son.
Shane is initially shy about mugging for the photo, but wants it badly enough that he stands next to Jared for a brief moment and half-smiles. "That's going on my screensaver," he tells a reporter.
Fogle is next approached by Hector Acevedo of Alexandria, Va., who asks him to sign the wrapper of the Club Sandwich he's just purchased. Fogle signs it with this bit of advice that also happens to be Subway's slogan: "Eat Fresh."
"I've had people ask me to sign their bread," Fogle says. He pretty much accommodates any request - as long as it's nothing naughty.
Acevedo confides that he lost 110 pounds - partially inspired by Fogle. "I used to weigh 300 pounds," says Acevedo, who now looks svelte. "Once you see Jared, you figure if he kept the weight off, you can, too."
An extra-eager Jared fan interrupts the interview by tapping a reporter on the shoulder, handing him her cellphone and asking him to snap a photo of her with Jared.
"Jared's inspired people to eat healthy - that's why I'm here," explains Sheryl White, a speech therapist from Fairfax, Va., who points to the Subway salad she's just finished. She takes a moment to admire the photo on her cell, then explains that it will go up on the "Wall of Fame" in her basement that her husband has, until now, filled with photos of himself meeting famous athletes.
"Now I'm going to make the wall, too," she laughs.
Yes, Jared qualifies as an athlete. After all, he ran the New York City Marathon back in 2010 in five hours, 13 minutes and 28 seconds. Subway encouraged him to train for and run the race after he'd put on about 20 pounds the previous year.
"I don't get emotional much," says Fogle. "But I was crying when I crossed the finish line."
This from a guy who, as a college student, took a 45-minute bus ride around campus to avoid walking to a classroom five minutes from his dorm.
Fast-forward to 2013: Subway now underwrites Fogle's gym membership and has linked up Fogle with a personal trainer who works with him three days a week. It's in Subway's best interest, after all, for Fogle to keep the weight off.
It's not been easy, Fogle says.
By third grade, he was video game addict, interested in nothing else at all except eating lots and lots of junk food.
The reality of his eating disorder hit him when he was a 20-year-old college junior, and he lost his ability to sleep normally. He suffered sleep apnea, a sleeping disorder that constantly awoke him during the night because the fat around his neck was obstructing his windpipe.
He was so tired from a lack of sleep that he fell asleep at the wheel one day and woke up with his car off the road in a grassy ditch. That convinced him to try something drastic. In spring of 1998, he walked into the Subway store in his apartment building and read their nutritional information. He decided, cold turkey, to cut his daily calorie consumption from 10,000 to 2,000.
His solution: a 6-inch turkey sub with no cheese, no mayo, veggies and spicy mustard along with a bag of Baked Lay's for lunch (about 600 calories) and a veggie, foot-long sub and Baked Lay's for dinner (about 800 calories). With each meal he'd have either a Diet Coke or bottled water. And virtually no snacking in between.
"Deep inside I always knew that I would change my life," he says. "That's what kept me going."
He never tired of the Subway food, he says. "You can eat at Subway and not be bored by trying different combos," he says. And the results quickly showed. Three months after he started his diet, he lost 94 pounds. When he drove to Indianapolis to see his parents, they were in shock. His father, who is a family physician, advised Fogle to combine exercise with the diet. He did. He even tore up his campus bus pass and started to walk to all of his classes.
Within about year, Fogle was down to 190 pounds. "People passed me on campus and had no idea who I was," he says. "I felt wonderful."
Fogle was "discovered" by Subway's regional Chicago ad agency shortly after a front page story about dramatic weight loss - including before-and-after photos - appeared in the student newspaper at Indiana University.
Soon, he was appearing in regional, then national, Subway spots. Now, he's an institution.
Wherever he goes, Fogle still carts along with him the dreaded pair of Levi's jeans with the 58-inch waistline that remain a physical and emotional reminder of how bad things were. He never puts the pants in checked baggage on flights but always puts them in his carry-on. When he pulls them out during motivational speeches, the audience inevitably oooohs and ahhhhs. Fogle carries the gigantic jeans in a canvas bag, and when he arrives back at his house, he keeps them, he jokes, "in a secure, undisclosed location."
Kind of like The Colonel's secret recipe. If not, perhaps, its opposite.
Another 15 years from now, says Subway's Pace, Fogle could still be part of Subway's marketing mix. "As long as he keeps the weight off, it will resonate a long, long time," he says.
These days, Fogle eats only two or three times a week at Subway. When he does, he brings along a special card created for him that has since been passed along to some other Subway celebs - a Subway Black Card that permits him to eat for free.
He only splurges once in a great while, and that might be on a filet mignon. And he never, ever goes to buffets. "There's too many bad memories of what I did to myself," he says.
As far as who has done the most for whom, well, Subway's Pace is certain that Jared has done more for Subway. "His value to the brand is inestimable," he says.
But Fogle believes otherwise. His measuring stick is his own life. He remarried several years ago and along with his wife, Katie, has an 16-month-old son, Brady.
Katie says that being married to Jared has forced her to become an accomplished photographer. "Sometimes, it's like an endless stream of strangers are asking me to take their picture with him," she says.
Fogle always obliges. But, he concedes, he doesn't fully get it. His full-time job is being himself. He flies first class. He stays in five-star hotels. He gets driven around in limos. And all he did was lose some weight. Nearly a decade ago, he created The Jared Foundation, a non-profit charity whose sole mission is to eliminate childhood obesity.
Truth be told, Fogle's a very shy and private fellow. He mostly avoids social media and doesn't have a personal Facebook page or Twitter handle - except those relating to his foundation. He owns no fancy vacation homes. He owns but one car - an Infiniti. And he abhors the Hollywood scene - opting to live in the Indianapolis area, near where he was born.
Sometimes Fogle asks himself the simplest of questions: What if?
What if, that is, he'd never walked into that Subway 15 years ago and started Day One of his diet?
"This brand saved my life," Fogle says, his voice slightly cracking and the tiniest sign of mist in his eyes. "If I hadn't found Subway, I don't think I'd be alive."
Jared Fogle's Six Diet Tips:
1) Watch portion sizes carefully.
2) Eat lots of fruit and veggies.
3) Drink lots of water. (He drinks six bottles daily.)
4) Exercise every day.
5) Ask for all sauces & dresses on the side - and put them on yourself, sparingly.
6) Don't let a bad day, or week, or month change your diet plans.
Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY