by Danielle Cantor
Liz Josefsberg walked into a Weight Watchers meeting looking to get healthy; 10 years later she was a health, wellness, and weight-loss expert co-hosting Dr. Oz. Best known for helping actress and musician Jennifer Hudson lose weight and transform her life, Josefsberg partly credits her own experience as a musical theater actress – she earned a master's degree in opera from the Manhattan School of Music and performed as Cosette in Les Miserables on the Broadway National Tour – with her success. After struggling with her weight for decades, Josefsberg joined Weight Watchers as a client, took a job as a meeting receptionist, and worked her way up the ladder to become the company’s director of brand advocacy. The experience and expertise she accumulated along the way led her to launch her own consulting firm in 2013. Today she creates weight loss programs for corporate and high-profile individual clients and consults with companies bringing technology-enabled weight loss and health devices to market. Josefsberg is the author of Weight Watchers’ “Success Handbook” and “Find Your Fingerprint.” Her book Target 100: The World’s Simplest Weight Loss Program in 6 Easy Steps was published in 2017; now she is expanding that book into a digital platform where users can access live and on-demand meetings.
What kind of role has Judaism played in your life?
I was raised Protestant, but all my life I was drawn to Judaism. Then I met my husband – who is Jewish, but there was no pressure to convert – and we were living in New York when 9-11 happened, it shook me in a way that drove me toward Judaism. I converted when I was 31. And as we were getting ready for my son's bar mitzvah this year, the rabbi looked at me and said, "Wait – you've never been called up to the bimah. This is actually your bat mitzvah, too."
Who are some people who have shaped you as a leader, either by setting a good example, or even a bad one?
Working in corporate America was mostly where I got to see great examples of what to do and what not to do. Ann Sardini, who was CFO of Weight Watchers when I was working there, has been an incredible leadership mentor for me. She's been so thoughtful, bringing together the best people, a great memory for everything, smart as heck... She taught me a lot. On the other hand, there were plenty of people at Weight Watchers who were put into leadership positions but, because they didn’t have enough confidence, they would take other people down to make themselves look good. I learned a lot watching that; I always want to lift people up to be their best, rather than be fearful or jealous of them. What I recognized over time is that leadership is really born out of respect. You have to respect yourself and have integrity – which I think is seriously lacking for so many leaders.
Tell me about your weight loss journey.
My identity from a really young age was shaped by the idea that I had a weight problem. I don't know if it was actually a weight issue or if it was just being a child from the Midwest, but by 12 or 13 years old, my parents had enrolled me in a diet center. I was always 20 to 30 pounds overweight, but I was repeatedly doing very harsh, limiting, extreme diets, and over-exercising – very all-or-nothing – and I was up and down 30, sometimes 40 pounds, over and over again. As you can imagine, as a professional actress, that was a really tough place to be, because you're under the gun all the time to look your best… and I just did not. It really affected my career and my confidence.
I expect you use that experience in your work with clients every day.
I think that's the most important part of who I am: I can actually relate. If you look around in the weight loss world, 95% of the people who are helping people lose weight have never had a weight issue themselves. So it's really hard for them to understand what it feels like, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to carry weight and not to feel in control and to feel less-than all the time.
How did you wind up building a career at Weight Watchers?
I left acting when I was about 30 and gained a lot of weight, because once I was finally free of the constant scrutiny, I decided, "I'm just going to eat whatever I want." I went to Weight Watchers – at that point, I'd done every other diet – and it really changed my life. In the Weight Watchers meetings I heard that I wasn't that different than everyone else. I wasn't crazy, and I wasn't a bad person. I got a job there while I was transitioning out of acting: First as the receptionist, then as a leader, and eventually I became the top leader in New York City, leading 17 meetings a week. Then I was hired to help build the Weight Watchers website when it was just starting in 2003.
The CEO of WeightWatchers.com needed to lose 40 pounds, so I became his leader, and he and I just clicked. After he became the CEO of Weight Watchers International, he said to me, "Liz, we really need to change our brand strategy. Celebrities are always coming our way, but they can't go to the meetings. Since you helped me, why don't you go help them the same way. Private sessions, one-on-one." So I developed this black ops-level Weight Watchers that no one knew about. I was flying around the country taking care of Jennifer Hudson, Jessica Simpson, Charles Barkley, Katie Couric, all these celebrities. It was even my job to meet celebrities just to see if they were ready to be a long-lasting Weight Watchers ambassador or if they were just hoping to get paid to lose weight. Eventually I started appearing on national TV – especially with Jennifer Hudson. She got so much media attention when she lost weight, and she doesn't love to sit in interviews, so she often had me come with her. That launched a television career where I co-hosted Dr. Oz for a season. I went to Weight Watchers to lose weight and ended up working with celebrities and appearing on national television.
What motivated you to leave Weight Watchers after you’d achieved so much success there?
After 11 years with the company, I hit a ceiling where there wasn't much else for me to do there. At one point a colleague told me that I couldn't take an opportunity because I was "just a Weight Watchers expert, not a weight-loss expert." It wasn’t a kind thing to say, but I realized she was right; I had only ever worked for Weight Watchers. So six years ago I started my own consulting company, working everywhere and on anything involved in weight loss while I went back to school and became a personal trainer, and then got a nutrition exercise specialty. If I could relieve one person of the pain that I went through, my life would make sense – and the more I knew, the better I could help people. After traveling around the world, building my business, and gaining so much perspective, I wrote my book, Target 100. And now, I run groups out of my home, I work with high-end private clients on weight loss coaching, and I still consult for companies all over the world.
What separates Target 100 from all the other weight loss books and plans out there?
It's not just about food; there's hydration, movement, exercise, sleep, and stress. Those are the pillars of my plan. If you don't deal with all six of those things on a weight loss program, it's not going to stick. With this book I wanted to pull back the curtain on what lasting weight loss looks like, because no one's talking about it. They're just slapping a food program on you – which makes zero sense when you look at how intricate and difficult weight loss is. I started investigating behavior modification and aimed to write a book that moms would feel good giving to their daughters because it was loving, truthful, and connected.
What is your role in and your stance on the body positivity movement that's happening now?
I'm thrilled with it. During my childhood, you only saw one body shape on TV and in magazines. That made every single one of us who looked different feel less-than. We come in all shapes and sizes, and not just one is beautiful! I do think it can go too far – you've got to think about being healthy – but no one should be ashamed of the shape of their body, and it's good for girls to be able to separate being good from being thin. I sometimes wonder what I could have accomplished without all the mental junk around body image.
Do you see body size keeping people, especially women, out of leadership positions?
I just see being a woman keeping us out of leadership positions. That's why I decided to start my own company and hire other women. Recently I was being considered for the CEO position in a major wellness company, and instead they hired a man who had never done any work in this industry. That's outrageous. Nobody realizes that the board of Weight Watchers is about 90% men – and men who've never struggled with their weight. We still have so far to go as women being considered for roles that we could knock out of the park, especially for businesses with a customer base of 80% to 85% women.
What advice do you most often give to women who seek out your expertise?
First, spend on yourself – time and money. Women are often so exhausted after doing everything for everyone else that they've got nothing left for themselves, so they turn to food. The majority of my coaching for women is retraining them to take a seat at the table. Second, remove guilt and shame from the weight loss process and move toward gratitude. Guilt and shame actually activate the reward center in our brains – which makes us go back and make more of the wrong food choices. But gratitude releases serotonin, which gives us all the feelings that we were seeking from food. And third, learn to speak positively to yourself and silence your inner critic. The mean girl that lives inside all of us is there out of fear, and she's just keeping us stuck.