Jillian Smith once weighed over 400 pounds. She felt depressed, demotivated and picked up unhealthy eating habits as a coping mechanism.
Now, almost 200 pounds lighter, she is promoting the phrase, “Your health is your wealth.”
The 46-year-old was born and raised in Fanny Village, Point Fortin. She’s known in the borough for hosting and promoting events and for her involvement in culture and the arts.
In 2014, after she had her blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked at a health fair during Point Fortin Borough Day festivities, a colleague became concerned about her health because of the results.
Speaking with WMN at her Lake View home, Smith said, “There's this lady called Aunty Jean and she got scared. She told me, ‘We can't afford to lose you now. We need you in Point Fortin.’”
It had been on her mind for a while, but she had not taken any serious action. It took what she described as “harsh” words from a family member for her to begin making a real effort.
“My brother said, ‘I think you need to lose some weight. Seriously, you need to lose some weight,’ and I started to feel so bad. I felt like the earth could have opened up and taken me in. I felt terrible, I couldn't believe he said it to me."
She immediately called fitness instructor and personal trainer Dane Paul and they met the next day at 5.30 am to begin a workout routine. She said Paul motivated her throughout the workout, which really helped.
“That morning we worked out really hard, and when I woke up the next day I said I was not going back. I was in so much pain – my feet, my back. I was holding the walls at home to go downstairs.
"But the next morning I went and faced it again, I couldn't believe it.”
Exercising soon became part of her daily routine. She also began going to nightly aerobics sessions, which she thoroughly enjoyed.
“I love aerobics, so once there's music I am fine. Every night, I was looking forward to it. The team was motivating.”
She ran on mornings, worked out with Paul and did Zumba, among other activities.
In addition, she began making changes to her diet, which she said played a major role in her weight loss. She recalled struggling with healthy eating in the past.
“My fridge was my enemy. When you're depressed at night, you feel to eat all kinds of things. I would go to the fridge, eat and lie down. Sweets, sodas – then I got a reality check and I said, 'I need to take care of myself.'”
Paul and her close friend, soca star Fay-Ann Lyons-Alvarez, helped with dieting tips (Lyons-Alvarez runs a fitness brand, AzaFit). Smith stopped eating sugar, flour and rice, among other things.
She said she often got negative comments before the weight loss, which included name calling.
"As a big girl, you know you have challenges. You go in a taxi, a driver would say you have to pay for two seats. I used to feel bad in that sense. You could see other people were uncomfortable.
"I couldn't see my neck. My face was so fat that when I went for my licence, the man was like, 'Open your eyes,' and I said 'But my eyes are open.' Then he said not to smile because my eyes became even more closed..."
She had frequent back pain because of the excess weight, which made it difficult for her to get out of bed. She also had to ask for extensions on plane seatbelts.
She recalled overcoming the challenge of facing an audience while hosting an event at Skinner Park for the first time during Carnival celebrations – one of the scariest moments of her life.
“That San Fernando crowd can either make you or break you. People would say, 'Once you make it past Skinner Park, you are good.'
"I was walking towards the audience and I could hear the crowd chanting ‘Roly-poly!’
"I said 'Jillian, think,' and my first words were, 'I'm not a roly poly, I'm just fluffy,' and the crowd just stopped and then you heard a roar, they started clapping and cheering, then I introduced myself.”
In 2016, on her first attempt, she completed the Point Fortin Borough Day marathon from Guapo to Point Fortin. Lynette "Granny" Luces, known for running long-distance races throughout TT and the world, also ran. Smith finished before Luces, which she did not think was possible.
"I finally saw her in front of me near Harriman Park. I said she was not going to beat me, I told myself I could do it. I passed her by Egypt (Primary) School and I felt like a burden came off my shoulder."
Smith documented her weight loss journey on Facebook, with friends and family encouraging and motivating her in the comments. Many, including strangers, were very impressed when she posted her before and after pictures. She now weighs 255 pounds.
A woman from Nigeria once messaged her for weight loss tips as she feared her unhealthy habits would prevent her from seeing her daughter grow up.
"You never know who you may touch out there. I know there are a lot of women who are fighting to lose weight, don't know how to start. But it is a mind thing. People were messaging me and calling me.”
But in the midst of encouragement, there was also some discouragement.
"One morning, I was running and a neighbour said to me, 'I think you need to stop now. You're getting too small, and people will think you're sick.'
"I was hurt, I went home and cried. So long I wanted to lose weight, and somebody said something like that.
“Then a guy living in the US said to me, 'When you lost weight, I was devastated and mad because I like big girls.'
"First it was ‘You too big, where you going with all this size?' and now you decided you're going to lose weight for health's sake and people just say things like that."
She recalled hosting an event and when she went on stage the audience began saying they wanted the “big girl” they were used to, and not her. Her manager had to go tell the crowd she was on a fitness journey and explain that it was the same person.
She said her journey is not over yet and that she will remain consistent, as she believes achieving fitness is not only about reaching your preferred or desired size, but is a lifestyle change. She hopes to inspire others to do the same.