From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
American Idol judge Randy Jackson has had plenty of memorable moments since he decided to reclaim his life by stitching shut 95 percent of his stomach. Around Thanksgiving, when he was down more than 65 lbs., he visited an L.A. grocery store where he's been shopping for more than a year and got a blank stare from his usual cashier. "Man, he didn't believe it was me," says Jackson. "He wanted me to pull out my driver's license." And on Jan. 12 he walked onto the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show to the cheers of an audience amazed by the sight of a heavyweight who'd shed 100 lbs. since July. But for Jackson's wife, Erika, the most thrilling moment was last month, when, for the first time in their eight-year marriage, she gave him a hug. "A real hug," she says with a grin. "I could actually clasp my hands around his back. It was so cool."

And then some. Dropping from 329 to 229 lbs., losing 12 in. off the waist (to 36 in.) and going down five shirt sizes (from 4XL to L), Jackson, 47, is the latest high-profile patient to reap dramatic results from the last-resort gastric-bypass surgery that transformed celebs including Today's Al Roker and singer Carnie Wilson. And despite the drawbacks—including vomiting any food he doesn't chew to a puree—the veteran producer calls the surgery "the best thing I have ever done."

Not, he notes, that he wasn't happy with his old life—and girth. Striking a note of joviality on Idol—a much-needed balance between Simon Cowell's nasty and Paula Abdul's nice—Jackson liked to refer to himself as "pleasantly large," often joked about a career modeling Speedo swim-suits and laughed off a disgruntled contestant who dissed him last year as "fat." ("No kidding? Are you sure?" he later quipped.) At the time, Abdul observed that her pal (who has worked with such stars as Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Elton John) was "comfortable in his own skin."

No doubt, but at 5'11" and 329 lbs. he was also in danger. Already suffering from sleep apnea (an often weight-related disorder that can cause people to stop breathing for fleeting intervals), Jackson was diagnosed six years ago with type 2 diabetes. His doctor's message: Lose weight.

After a lifetime of trying "every [diet] on the planet," as he told Oprah, including a liquid diet supplemented by "B 12 [vitamin] shots in the butt," Jackson finally turned last year to Dr. Mal Fobi, who had done gastric-bypass surgery on a close friend as well as on Erika's mother. Medical director of the Center for Surgical Treatment of Obesity in Hawaiian Gardens, Calif., near L.A., Fobi pegged Jackson as a good candidate. "Randy did the surgery not for vanity but because his quality of life was going down," he explains.

Jackson agreed. Still, pondering the risks—including a mortality rate of 1 in 200 nationwide—he and Erika slept little the night before his surgery. In his room at the clinic, "I told him, 'You can walk out of here right now and nobody will say anything about it,'" recalls Erika, 33. "I was scared of him not waking up from surgery. He goes, 'No, I'm gonna go through with it. I'm gonna be okay.'"

He was. Instead of the more invasive standard gastric-bypass procedure, Jackson opted for laparoscopic bypass surgery; in a three-hour operation on July 10, Fobi reduced his stomach's capacity to about 20 cc—a few peanuts, say—and placed a ring around the newly created stomach pouch to prevent stretching. Three days later Jackson was back at his five-bedroom home in Tarzana, sipping chicken broth and comforting his kids—Jordan, 6, Zoe, 8, and Taylor, 14 (his daughter with first wife Elizabeth Jackson). Their biggest worry: "Did it hurt?" (The answer: a bit, for a week or so.)

By the end of August, Jackson's life began returning to normal—new normal, that is. He worked on Carey's Charm-Bracelet Tour, traveling with her to Japan. He went to Manhattan for auditions for Idol's third season (which starts Jan. 19) and, with Erika, he vacationed in Hawaii. Through it all, he ate no more than 1,000 calories a day—mostly protein shakes and vegetables—and worked up to an hour or so of cardio each day. By early September he had lost 52 lbs., and by the end of October he had dropped another 15 lbs.

Along the way, he discovered that gastric bypass would mean "a complete life change. Forever." That meant bidding farewell to many of the foods he grew up with in Baton Rouge. These days he can't stomach pasta or bread, peanut butter (too dry), turkey (too stringy), steak ("I'd be chewing for hours!") or even avocados. "And I loved avocado," he says wistfully. Still, he says, "I figure I was a big fat guy for a long time. I've eaten so much of everything, I don't need to eat any of it again." And as he sees it, limiting himself to little more than a forkful of stuffing on Thanksgiving is a small price for a new life. "I feel great," he says, extolling the pleasures of simply being able to buy clothes off the rack. "I was dressing fly before, but now I have so many more choices." But the real plus, he says, is that "I sleep much better. I have more energy. It's not about becoming sexy or skinny," he adds quickly. "It's about health."

Still, it's been a long haul, and no one would begrudge the man a moment of vanity—not even the irascible Simon. "He's like, 'My God, this is ghastly. Why are you losing all this weight?' But he's kidding," says Jackson. "He says I look good." Jackson seconds the vote. As he says, "Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and say, 'Damn, he sure is fine!'"

LOST AT LAST

Gastric-bypass success stories

Jennifer Serrano, 27
Lost: 145 lbs.

A patient coordinator for Atlanta bariatric surgeon Titus Duncan, Jennifer Serrano is one of his success stories: 310 lbs. and a size 30 when he performed her bypass in May 2002, she now weighs 165 and wears a size 10. "I never liked myself," says Serrano. But these days, "I can say I look good."

Heavy since she was 14, Serrano had hit bottom at 25. After two babies, she'd packed on 160 lbs. and had borderline diabetes. Her internist told her, "Lose weight or you won't live 10 years," she recalls.

Hitting the Internet, Serrano learned about gastric bypass and found Dr. Duncan. Her postop period was tough. Living on broth and water, she "cried for two months." But soon she was shedding weight. Now Serrano spends 12 hours a week at the gym, her husband has lost 32 lbs. because the family eats better, and daughter Stephanie, 7, is delighted. "I see her smile," Stephanie says of her mom, "and she looks beautiful."

The Akin Family
Lost: 418 lbs.

For Debi Akin and her husband, Zvika, life before gastric bypass "was a life of no's" says Debi, who topped out at 350 lbs. "We couldn't go to the movies—couldn't fit in the seats. No school meetings—couldn't fit in the children's chairs." The "no" that changed their lives came in 1997, when the Akins were asked to leave a plane because the airline had no seat belt to fit Debi. "We were so humiliated," she recalls.

One year later Debi, now 49, checked into Alvarado Hospital, down the road from D.Z. Akin's, the San Diego deli she and Zvika, 48, run with son Neal, 23, to have gastric-bypass surgery. Zvika, who weighed 370, followed her example in May 2001, and in June 2002 so did Neal (total cost: approximately $90,000, of which insurance paid about $60,000). All three are thrilled with their results. "It was fun to give up my subscription to Big and Tall," says Zvika, now a trim 220. "I don't recognize my hands and arms," says Debi, now 205. Neal, who went from 328 lbs. to 205, says he has "discovered doggy bags"—and love. Admits girlfriend Vanessa Cherry: "Before, I probably would have seen his body, moved on and missed this wonderful person. I'm so glad I didn't miss him because of the way he looked."

Eric Decker, 18
Lost: 195 lbs.

Eric Decker began dieting when he was 11 and the target of schoolyard taunts. With his mom, Karen, who also struggled to keep off the pounds, the 190-lb. sixth-grader attended Weight Watchers meetings near their former home in Detroit but "fell off the wagon all the time," he recalls, with snacks like "four or five eclairs."

Cut to September 2002. Weighing in at 385, the aspiring performer faced the music: "I knew I was never gonna get famous looking fat," he says. Inspired by the story of Carnie Wilson, who dropped 150 lbs. after her 1999 gastric bypass, the 17-year-old set his heart on surgery. On Jan. 14, 2003, at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Dr. Victor Garcia did the job—reducing Decker's stomach to the size of an egg. The following day Decker underwent emergency surgery to repair his stomach, which leaked bile. Lying in the ICU, "I was saying to myself, 'Why didn't I just get on the treadmill?'" he recalls.

Now 190 lbs., the 5'10" Decker sees things differently. Able to sleep without feeling suffocated and thrilled "to have a neck," he works out at the YMCA in Hartsville, S.C., where he is a musical-theater major at Coker College. Three small meals and a snack satisfy his hunger, and though he will have to take vitamins and monthly B 12 shots for the rest of his life, he's not complaining. "I have a picture of what I used to look like, and people don't realize it's me," he says. "I'm ready for my close-up now."

Pacing Herself

Candy Bradshaw, 46
Lost: 100 lbs.

Tired of carrying nearly 300 lbs. on her 5-ft. frame, Candy Bradshaw, now 46, decided to offer her body to science—specifically, to Boston's Tufts-New England Medical Center for a clinical trial of a new, less invasive weight-loss procedure, the gastric pacer. A modified heart pacemaker, the device was implanted under the skin in her abdomen in March 1999. With the pacer sending electric impulses to the stomach, the personnel trainer began to feel full when she ate half a sandwich. Along with a healthier diet, it helped her shed 100 lbs. in two years.

How does the pacer signal the stomach that it's full? Researchers aren't certain yet, but the device is performing well in trials and could hit the market by 2006.

Karen Schneider, Michelle Green and Mike Neill Reported by: Maureen Harrington in San Diego, Katherine Ehrich and Debbie Seaman in New York City, Kimberly Brown in Atlanta, Linda Trischitta in Hartsville, S.C., Jeff Truesdell in Orlando and Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Katherine Ehrich,
  • Debbie Seaman,
  • Kimberly Brown,
  • Linda Trischitta,
  • Jeff Truesdell,
  • Alexis Chiu.