updated 11/03/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/03/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST
"Going to a new school is hard enough," says Schmidt, 15. "But as a 230-lb. girl it's that much harder. Plus, I'd never been a 230-lb. girl before."
When she woke up on Sept. 25, Schmidt was her usual 129 lbs. A 5'7" athlete who played field hockey and softball at her private school in New York City, she was used to being among the fittest girls in any crowd. Now wearing a fat suit and latex makeup, she would be among the heaviest. Schmidt agreed to wear the disguise for Fat Like Me: How to Win the Weight War, an ABC News special about childhood obesity airing Oct. 27, and with tiny cameras hidden in her backpack and glasses, to record the reactions of her new peers.
Fat Like Me producer Jessica Stedman Guff, a friend of Schmidt's mother, Wendy, a private investigator, tapped Ali for the job. Guff, 43, had watched behind-the-scenes footage on the Shallow Hal DVD and heard Gwyneth Paltrow relate how poorly she was treated when she ventured off the set in her fat suit. Says Guff: "I thought, 'Fat people are fair game—it's the last socially acceptable form of discrimination.' " She contacted Shallow Hal makeup artist Tony Gardner, who took on the project to chronicle the way society treats the overweight.
Wearing her new look to school, says Schmidt, "I told myself it was just a costume, but I felt miserable." If the boys were rude to her face, the girls were, by their silence, just as bad. In biology class her two lab partners, says Schmidt, "didn't make eye contact more than once." When another girl did talk to her, a third girl avoided them both because, she later told PEOPLE, "I didn't want to put myself in the position of having to talk to Ali."
"Every second," Ali says, "I wanted to take off the suit and say, 'Ha ha! I got you!' I'd think how I'd come back the next day as myself, and they'd be the ones who looked like idiots."
The next morning she got her wish. "This is Ali," said the biology teacher (who, like all the staff, was in on the setup), introducing a slim girl no one recognized. "She was here yesterday." The reaction: gasps all around.
Many students were contrite. Others, like one 16-year-old boy who laughed when Schmidt knocked over a tray in the cafeteria, were not. "Her butt was so big," he says. "It was funny."
Debbie Seaman in New York City