When America first met Irene Alvarado on the popular weight-loss TV show 'The Biggest Loser,' she was among the walking wounded.
Alvarado, 26 and a student at Portland State and alumni of LaSalle High, went to the Biggest Loser Ranch with her mother Ana. Both weighed a staggering 255 pounds.
Six months later, the nation saw her minus 116 pounds on "The Bigger Loser" season 11 finale Tuesday, as she transformed herself into a beautiful, confident woman. Finishing third behind sisters Olivia Ward and Hannah Curlee, she now weighs 139 pounds; her mother, eliminated after the first week, lost 109 pounds on her own.
Fellow Portland residents Jesse Wornum and his son Arthur were eliminated earlier on the show. Arthur, the largest contestant ever at 507 pounds, weighed in at 344 - 302 pounds less than his one-time high of 646. Jesse lost 83 pounds.
The Tribune caught up with Irene between workouts and a hair appointment to discuss her experiences on the show:
Portland Tribune: Looking back at everything, can you even put into words how much you've accomplished?
Alvarado: Oh, man. I have definitely changed as a person. It's not only been a physical transformation. It's been an emotional and spiritual transformation for me as well. I always had confidence that I would do well. I just didn't think I would do this well. I definitely surprised myself.
Tribune: So the changes weren't all physical?
Alvarado: A huge part of it was just tapping into the emotional part. Especially when you're doing something so intense. It's more than just weight loss. I really was able to see how every aspect of my being went into my weight loss.
Tribune: When you see pictures of the person you were before you went on the show, do you even recognize her?
Alvarado: I don't. There were a couple of times, especially after the makeover (episode), I was running to the bathroom to grab something and I would glance in the mirror and think, 'Oh, my God, that looks like my cousin.' I'm slowly kind of getting used to what I look like.
Tribune: You were heavy most of your life. But, in the year and a half before you went to the ranch you put on 90 pounds. What happened?
Alvarado: I had a few deaths in my family this last year. My father was really sick and dying and I hadn't talked to him since I was 15. And I was also going through a protection order with an uncle who was stalking me. I was just diving in this hole. I didn't want to deal with it. I was drowning toward the end. And I was a busy, busy student. I was living at the library 12 hours a day, not moving, reading and writing papers all day. I didn't really have to feel or think about what was going on in my personal life when I was focusing on school. I just got lost in it.
Tribune: With you, your mom and Arthur and Jesse, there were four Portlanders on 'The Biggest Loser.' Is there something about the Rose City that makes it easy to gain weight here?
Alvarado: I've lost 70 pounds before in my life. You can be very active in Portland. It's also very easy to blame the weather, or blame other things that are going on in your life. Now I definitely want to do more active things in Portland. Portland is a great place to do all the things. It's just making that conscious decision and not making excuses.
Tribune: What was it like working out with trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels?
Alvarado: I loved being on the ranch. Working with Bob and Jillian I learned from the best. I loved the environment on the ranch and working out with Bob and Jillian.
Tribune: Is there anything about the show that might surprise viewers at home?
Alvarado: When the cameras are not there, that's when we have our funniest, most fun moments. I wouldn't say that it's staged, it is real. For me, I'm different on camera than when I'm not. I'm just able to be more myself when cameras are not there.
Tribune: While you were on the Biggest Loser ranch, you were separated from your boyfriend for a long time. How hard was it to sustain that relationship?
Alvarado: Being away from Jason, it was really hard initially because he was such a huge support for me during this last year and a half. At the same time, dealing with a lot of my personal things on my own, I was really able to see how strong I was. I love him dearly and he is not only my boyfriend, he is my best friend. In the end, it makes our relationship stronger because we were both able to see who we've become individually.
Tribune: How is it going to feel sitting in class at Portland State after being on national TV all year?
Alvarado: I really miss school. I'm just really looking forward to having a more fulfilled life and being happier but, also going back to doing what I love doing, which was school.
Tribune: What would you tell someone who is overweight and does not have the ability to go to the Biggest Loser ranch?
Alvarado: You need a support system. One thing I've learned is you really can't do it alone. Surrounding yourself with people who are in the same position and are working toward the same goals, that sets you up for success.