The moment of truth came in February '01, when she was flying home from a business trip with a colleague. Cristy Pauley, then 30, tried to fasten her seatbelt, but it wouldn't span her 297-lb. girth. "My coworker said, 'You can get an extender belt,' " she remembers. "I was mortified."
Nearly three years later, though, she's soaring: 162 lbs. lighter, the Atlanta CIGNA computer technician has finished her business degree, divorced and happily remarried. At 5'6", the size-6 McAdams (down from size 26) is a dynamo: "She amazes me," says her mom, Nancy Genzy. "She knows what she wants and goes for it."
Cristy's weight problem began in her late 20s, when the pounds piled on because of stress and long hours on the job. By the time she walked into a Weight Watchers office near her home in Duluth, Ga., in April 2001, she had no idea how much work was ahead of her. "You stop looking at scales," she says. "When they told me what I weighed, I nearly fell over."
In the beginning McAdams stuck to the plan, with Weight Watchers snacks and shakes and low-calorie meals she made herself; as she gained confidence, she began to eat in restaurants. After dropping the first 50 lbs., she added exercise—rising at 4 a.m. every day to work out with weights and exercise videos in her living room.
Wed to businessman Tony McAdams since last October, Cristy's already looking ahead: "I definitely have baby fever. In five years I'll be a mommy—probably with a 3-year-old and one on the way." In the meantime, she says, "I love my life. I feel like I've won the lottery."
Then: 297 lbs.
Now: 135 lbs.
How: Weight Watchers
Bonus: Found true love
Marcy and Pat Jolly
The Jollys have had their ups and downs: At their 1996 wedding Marcy weighed 300 lbs; Pat was a chunky 220. Hundreds of double-size Whataburgers later, Pat had hit 232 lbs. and Marcy was 338. And in May 2001, Pat, an electrician, went to an Arlington, Texas, emergency room, suffering from dizziness and high blood pressure. Says Marcy, now 35: "We knew we needed to do something." At Weight Watchers the two learned to trade fatty snacks for healthy, high-fiber meals. "We cleaned out the house and got rid of all the junk," says Pat.
Nearly three years later they feel exuberant: Marcy, 510" and once a size 6X-plus, wears size 10; Pat, 35, is 54 lbs. lighter, and his blood pressure is normal. Marcy (an accounts coordinator at a credit union) works out three days a week, and both can jump for an hour at a time on the trampoline at Pat's brother's house.
But what they're really savoring is triumphing together. "We've been through skinny times and heavy times and really heavy times," says Marcy. "Now we're here, and it's so much fun."
Then: 338 lbs. (Marcy)
232 lbs. (Pat)
Now: 183 lbs. (Marcy)
178 lbs. (Pat)
Wakeup call: Pat's health problems
Since her before-and-after photos were featured on PEOPLE's Half Their Size cover last year, Begg—once 189 lbs.—has lost 15 more lbs., snared a new job and landed a leading role in a production of Fiddler on the Roof. A toned 139 lbs. last January, the 5'6" Begg (who had shed 50 lbs. on a diet supervised by a nutritionist) now weighs 124. "I didn't plan on losing more weight, but I'm very busy: I eat frequent small meals, play tennis three times a week and practice ballroom dancing several times a week." Now director of new business for Market Experts in Silver Spring, Md., the married Begg, 36, hit the stage in October as Tevye's wife Golde at the Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre in Wood-bridge, Va., six evenings a week. (The three-month run ended on Dec. 31.) Begg says she still feels like a star, even offstage: At a family party on Christmas Eve, she wore a jazzy black miniskirt in size 4. When her mother objected because "I'm getting older," Begg says, laughing, "I told her, 'It took me this long to get this way. I'm going to wear minis as long as I can.' "
At her 1998 wedding: 189 lbs.
On PEOPLE's Jan. 13,2003, cover: 139 lbs.
Now: 124 lbs.
"I'm an emotional eater," admits Smith, 31. "When I was sad or angry, I'd comfort myself with food." But as the 5'6" East Canton, Ohio, mom edged up from 125 lbs. (her 1991 wedding weight) to 241 after the 1995 birth of her second son, she found that pizza and chocolate were ultimately more destructive than comforting. The added weight meant she couldn't join her boys and husband, Troy, 34, a construction worker, in any physical activity. This sedentary life dampened her general outlook. "She wasn't the go-getter she was raised to be," says Smith's mom, Deborah Mohr. "Her self-esteem suffered." So did her health. At 29, she had high blood pres- sure and high cholesterol and faced 30 worrying that she might not see her kids grow up. "I wanted to stick around," says Smith, who went to a local branch of Physicians Weight Loss Centers, which had helped Mohr lose 40 lbs. Of the four plans the program offers, Smith chose the high-fiber/low-fat diet. She bought their protein snacks (bars, shakes) but cooked meals herself, based on their portion sizes. "When you start measuring," says Smith, "it's eye-opening. I used to consume probably four times as much food as I needed." The revelation didn't make those first weeks any easier—Smith often felt hungry eating only 3 ozs. of meat and a half cup of strawberries for dinner. For exercise, she joined her mother on three-to-four-mile walks several days a week. And when she needed comfort, she replaced pizza with prayer. "I'd talk the problem out and pray a lot," says Smith who, after seven months away, returned to her old church. "People I knew were introducing themselves," she marvels. Now maintaining at 140 lbs., she has a new goal: graduating from nursing school in June. "I'd never have the courage without first losing the weight," says Smith, who, when she's not studying, can be found playing with her kids. "They love to joke around now about how they can lift me up."
Then: 241 lbs.
Now: 140 lbs.
How: Physicians Weight Loss Centers, walking daily
Motivation: Turning 30
A skinny kid in Miami who could eat anything—including her Cuban family's specialty, fried bananas—and not gain an ounce, Canino was shocked to discover that as an adult she had put on 80 lbs. during her first pregnancy and couldn't easily lose them after the birth of son Nikko, now 16. She went to Jenny Craig in 1988 and hit 115 lbs., but after the birth of her second son, Andrew, two years later, she again ballooned to 184. Using the now-banned drug combination fen-phen helped, but without the pills, back came the weight. By the time her third son, Ryan, was born in 1994, she was carrying 174 lbs. on her 5'2" frame. "I got lazy," says Canino, now 39 and living with her kids and husband Hector, also 39, a seafood distributor, in a Los Angeles suburb. "I concentrated on my children and I lost myself."
As a result her self-image suffered. She skipped a friend's wedding rather than be seen in plus-size formal wear. "I knew I wouldn't look good," she says. "I stayed home and cried." Plus, as Canino got heavier, her shapely little sister, actress Eva Mendes (Stuck on You), was becoming famous. "I've never been envious of Eva," says Canino. But she would see her sister in magazines and think, "I used to look this good. What happened to me?"
Her health deteriorated too. Her knees and back often ached so much in the morning she literally had to crawl to the bathroom. And in September '01 she was diagnosed with pseudotumor cerebri, a condition common to obese women that results in migraines, vomiting and, in rare instances, blindness from pressure on the optic nerve. "That scared me into losing weight," says Canino, who soon signed up at Lindora, a program characterized by a low-carb diet, lots of lettuce, daily weigh-ins and vitamin B12 shots administered by a nurse. She paid $1,200 for the first 10 weeks and found the plan initially difficult for a woman who "loved Big Macs with fries, pies and cheesecake." She learned to replace those with salads at the drive-thru and to curb bread, rice and pasta, all of which were forbidden in the plan's first stage. But shedding weight motivated her. She dropped 10 lbs in two weeks and started exercising, first walking, then jogging, then circuit training at a Curves gym.
In eight months she met her goal of 125 lbs., lost the pseudotumor symptoms and gained a new wardrobe filled with size sixes. "I knew she would lose the weight," says Mendes, who recently spent the holidays with her sister's family. "It was so inspiring." Canino has inspired husband Hector too. His reaction? "Wow! There's my wife who looks 20 years old again! Let's get down to it! Now, I've got to stay on my toes and stay in shape."
Then: 204 lbs.
Now: 129 lbs.
Motivation: Weight-induced headaches and vision problems
The trouble started on the 1999 honeymoon. Though his new bride didn't mind the extra pounds Grey carried on his 6' frame, she learned on their first night together that his weight made his snoring sound like a lawn mower. Grey solved the problem—sleep apnea, which can cause heart failure as well as snoring—with a doctor-ordered machine to keep his airways open. Still, "going to bed and hooking myself up," says Grey, 38, a Fort Worth, Texas, business analyst, wasn't exactly romantic.
Job stress had led him to eat fast food on the run and to skip exercise, which caused his weight to rise from 220 to 325 in five years. His waist expanded from 36 in. to 52 in., and his marriage suffered. Though he and Angela, 39, a dental assistant, would still shop together, says Grey, "it's embarrassing when your wife is 5'7", 120 lbs., and has to carry all the groceries." His response made the situation worse: "I turned to eating and watching TV."
In February 2003, he walked into a Jenny Craig and joined that day. "I've never had anybody stay on the program so steadfastly," says Craig's Mary Painter. Eating six small packaged meals a day, he began dropping an average of 4.5 lbs. a week for five months. Now at 205, he cooks Craig's recipes. A competitive swimmer in college (despite being chubby since childhood), Grey started doing laps daily in a community pool in April '03. "I could see him falling back in love with the sport," says fellow swimmer Bob Carter. Grey has also rekindled another love. Now, he says, "Angela can hug me."
Then: 325 lbs.
Now: 205 lbs.
How: Jenny Craig and swimming
Motivation: To get back in the pool
When her son Michael was little, Zonfrillo, now 39, refused to take him to the beach. A diet dropout, she had ballooned to 358 lbs. by April 1998.
That month, Zonfrillo (an office manager in Providence) was eating pie at her desk when she thought, "What am I doing?" Dialing the weight-loss program at a local hospital, "I felt like it was my last resort," she says.
Her junk food gave way to five nutrition-packed shakes a day (800 calories total). After 5 months, she'd shed 108 lbs. Now 159, Zonfrillo, 5'3", is hoping to reach her ideal weight of 140 and is working with a trainer. A proud Michael, 17, recently hugged her and said, "Mom, the best part is that now I can get my arms around you."
Then: 358 lbs.
Now: 159 lbs.
How: A hospital-supervised program What she's learned: "Until you're ready, it's not going to happen."