February 25, 2008 12:00 PM

It was eight years ago that Ron Lester finally snapped. He was filming a scene for his television series Popular that required him to get into a limo—only at 508 lbs., the actor couldn’t fit. The crew had to rip out the front seat to make room for him, but even then Lester’s stomach was so huge it got pinned behind the steering wheel, leaving him stuck. “I just broke down and started crying,” recalls Lester, now 37. “It was humiliating.”

And the last straw. In December 2000 Lester set out to reclaim his body by undergoing gastric bypass surgery—followed by 17 plastic surgeries over three years to remove excess skin. Today, he is literally a new man. Two inches shorter because he lost so much fat from the top of his head and the bottoms of his feet (see box), the 5’10” Lester weighs a healthy 193 lbs. and says that, for the first time, “I’m very content.”

He’d be even more so if Hollywood embraced his weight-loss success. At more than 500 lbs., Lester—who is best known for playing Varsity Blues’ lovable lineman Billy Bob—was sent out to play what he calls “the funny fat guy. Jobs would come down to me and maybe two other guys.” Now his auditions are dramatically different: “I’m going out for the guy-next-door roles—and I’m one of 500,000 lookalikes!”

Still, Lester has no regrets. Overweight since age 10 (“Food was my drug,” says the Georgia-bred actor), he spent his teens on and off diets, and even checked into an eating disorders clinic at one point. But nothing worked, and as he got older he had incentive to keep the weight on: His hefty size led him to Hollywood—and roles in films like Good Burger and Not Another Teen Movie—after being spotted at age 23 for a local commercial. “I had gotten used to being fat, so I wasn’t thinking, ‘This sucks,'” says Lester. “I figured being fat was my destiny.”

It felt that way even after his gastric procedure, in which his stomach was reduced to a quarter of its size. After getting down to 220 lbs. in early 2002, Lester began dating again. But when one girlfriend saw his sagging skin—”My body was like a deflated balloon,” he explains—she ended their relationship. Says Lester: “I almost committed suicide because I lost all this weight and I still can’t get the girl? It was like, I can’t win for winning.”

His saving grace was his mom, MaryEllen, whom he calls “my best friend.” (His dad died from a heart attack in ’93.) She connected her son with Atlanta-based plastic surgeon Keith Jeffords, who painstakingly reconstructed Lester’s body over the next three years. “Under all that skin,” says Jeffords, who performed 17 surgeries on Lester, “there was a good-looking guy!”

One that he is just now introducing to Hollywood, after spending the last two years caring for his mom, who battled ovarian cancer before her death last summer. “If I hadn’t lost the weight, I wouldn’t have been alive to take care of her,” he says, starting to cry. “It was a blessing.”

Now back acting in L.A., Lester lives with his girlfriend of 10 months, Kate Williamon, 32, a triathlete, who has introduced him to the pleasures of hiking and spinach salads. “We have a deal: I cook; he cleans the kitchen,” she says. It’s one that he’s happy to make. “I have this new energy and this whole new outlook,” says Lester. “I get a second chance.”

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