A new day dawns for Today's Al Roker, who speaks candidly about the gastric bypass surgery that transformed his life

By Michelle Tauber
November 18, 2002 12:00 PM

Recently, Saturday shoppers at Richards, an upscale clothing store in Greenwich, Conn., saw an unusual sight: Today colleagues Matt Lauer and Al Roker hopping around the store with a retail-inspired giddiness that would make the Sex and the City gals proud. “At one point Matt looks over and goes, ‘Look at that! Al’s got no butt!'” Roker recalls of the shopping spree, which was prompted by his new, l00-lbs.-lighter frame. Nor did the formerly 320-lb. weatherman have any properly fitting clothes. “For the fall, down to underwear, I had to buy all new stuff,” he says. “They rushed three suits, a sports coat and a pair of slacks to me that same day because I had nothing to wear to go on air. Nothing!” Adds Lauer: “He was like a kid in a candy store.”

Roker, a passionate foodie who once ate Quarter Pounders in pairs and Krispy Kreme doughnuts by the half-dozen, delights in his downsized new body. After a lifetime of failed diets, obesity-related health problems and more Fat Albert jokes than he cares to remember, the 5’8″ NBC broadcaster took a drastic step last March, undergoing gastric bypass surgery. The result: He has lost a third of his body weight in eight months, going from a 56″ jacket and 54″ slacks to a 46″ jacket and 40″ slacks. “The weight just started dropping like water,” says Roker, 48, speaking in depth for the first time about the high-risk surgery, while relaxing at the four-story Manhattan brownstone he shares with wife Deborah Roberts, 42, and kids Leila, 4, and Nicholas, 4 months. After the operation, which reduced Roker’s stomach from the size of a deflated football to an egg, “every time I turned to him in the morning to ask about the weather, he just looked better and better and better,” says Katie Couric. The new look even fooled Roberts one morning. “I truly passed the TV set,” she says, “and did not recognize my own husband.”

The dramatic weight loss also has elicited less positive feedback, especially from fans who equate Roker’s on-air mirth with his former girth. “I had a person say to me in the gym, ‘Hey, you don’t want to lose too much weight, ’cause that’s who you are—you’re the funny, fat weather guy!'” Roker says. “No, that’s not who I am. I think I’m funny. I know I’m fat. But I don’t think I’m funny because I’m fat. The two are mutually exclusive.”

Then again, Roker and his well-known love of food—he even wrote a cookbook this year about barbecuing—have long gone together like mashed potatoes and gravy. “Here’s how much Al loves to eat: He would call me from Today at 7:30 in the morning and then ask me what I’d like to do for dinner,” says Roberts. “It’s 7:30 in the morning!” Adds friend Meredith White, a former 20/20 producer: “Al likes everything that’s associated with food—the history of it, the cooking, the restaurant business.”

These days Roker still enjoys his favorite foods—but in far, far smaller portions. “I can’t have more than a scoop of ice cream or two or three french fries,” he says. “And I feel full so much quicker.”

For that he can credit his gastric bypass. “Essentially, I make the stomach really small,” says Roker’s surgeon Dr. Marina Kurian, by dividing it into two distinct compartments, each closed off by a row of staples. Food is allowed to enter only the smaller, egg-size compartment. The larger section is “still a stomach, but it’s just hanging out. It doesn’t see any food,” says Dr. Kurian. “I also bypass a part of the small intestine.” Doing so ensures that the body absorbs fewer calories and nutrients from whatever food is consumed, further reducing a patient’s weight. So Roker must take an assortment of vitamin and mineral supplements each day.

Coupled with a workout regimen that involves a combination of cardio, weights and strength training five days a week, Roker is savoring the joys of his newfound agility. “I can carry Nicholas up the stairs without any problems,” he says. “I can give Leila a piggyback ride.” (Roker shares custody of daughter Courtney, 15, with his ex-wife Alice; the couple divorced in 1994.) Previously plagued with aching knees and breathing difficulties, he says his presurgery life was filled with daily denials. “It’s taking me 10 minutes to get up four flights of stairs, but that’s normal, isn’t it?” he recalls saying to himself. Meanwhile, the added pounds were putting a strain on his marriage to Roberts, a correspondent for ABC’s 20/20 whom he wed in 1995. “Al’s weight has been a source of tension for years,” she says. “I was deeply concerned about his health. I nagged him mercilessly. I would just glare when he’d take that next piece of bread or order dessert.”

In 1999 Roberts interviewed singer Carnie Wilson, whose frankness about her own gastric bypass surgery put a famous face on the procedure. “When I came home after doing the interview with Carnie, I just casually mentioned it to Al,” she recalls. His response? “He shut me down right away,” she says. To Roker, the surgery seemed like “such an admission of failure,” he says. “You think people will look at you like, ‘You weak son of a pup.'”

But when Roberts revisited the subject two years later, “a lightbulb went off in Al’s head,” she says. For Roker, the realization was spurred in large part by a promise he had made to his father, Al Sr., just before he died at 69 of lung cancer in October 2001. “He said, ‘Listen, we both know I’m not going to be here for my grandkids,’ ” recalls Roker. “‘You have to be there for your children. Promise me you’re going to lose weight.’ And I thought, ‘You know? I’ve got to do this.'”

By December 2001 Roker was researching gastric bypass surgery. It was not a decision he took lightly. “I thought, ‘This is nuts,'” he says of the procedure, serious surgery that has been performed for more than 20 years but still carries a sobering l-in-200 fatality rate. Consequently, the increasingly popular operation—the number of gastric bypasses done annually in the U.S. has doubled, from approximately 40,000 to 80,000, since 2000—is only performed on patients who are at least 100 lbs. overweight, a category that includes about 5 percent of the U.S. population. (Reversal of the bypass is rarely done and entails “a much greater magnitude of risk,” says Dr. Kurian.)

Despite the dangers, Roker ultimately decided that surgery was his only option—especially after having tried all the popular diets. “I’ve done ’em all,” he says. “I did Atkins, Scarsdale, the Beverly Hills diet, the pineapple diet, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutri/System, Sugar Busters!, the Carbohydrate Addict’s diet. But because they are diets, you cannot stay on them forever.”

It is a lesson he learned early on. Although he was a premature baby, weighing 4 lbs. 10 oz. at birth, “at a certain point I just started eating and never stopped,” says Roker, the oldest of six children raised in Queens by Al Sr., a bus driver, and Isabel, 68, a homemaker. He attributes part of his girth to his family’s heritage. “We’re from the Caribbean,” he says. “We’re stocky, we’re low to the ground. We’re built to survive hurricanes.”

That sort of quick-with-a-quip jokiness became his hallmark, even as a kid. “He was fun,” recalls sister Alisa, 41, now a registered nurse. “I don’t think any of us ever saw him as really fat. It was just him.”

For the most part, Roker took a similarly laid-back view of his weight—until the late ’60s, when Bill Cosby introduced Fat Albert in his stand-up act. “From that moment on, my life was living hell on earth,” says Roker. “I’d walk into the schoolyard and I’d hear, ‘Hey, hey, hey!'”

College only worsened his battle of the bulge. Arriving at State University of New York at Oswego in 1972, “you get to the dorm and there’s just unlimited food,” he recalls. By his sophomore year he had ballooned to nearly 300 lbs.

Over time, food had become “a coping mechanism,” he says. “‘I’m upset about something, I’m gonna eat. I’m feeling good, I’m gonna eat!'” Ultimately, he says, he realized that “this is no different than alcoholism or chemical dependency. It’s a disease. And you know what? If you had heart disease and you had a bypass, nobody would think anything of it. Well, this isn’t that different.”

Still, with his surgery scheduled for March 2002, Roker chose to keep it a secret from his Today colleagues and even his own mother and siblings. “This is such a drastic step,” he says, “that I knew they would just freak. I told everybody at work I was having a gall bladder operation.” Everybody except Ann Curry and her husband, Brian, close friends whom Roker and Roberts confided in over dinner two weeks before the surgery. Though she was anxious for him, “he needed to do something,” says Curry.

As the surgery date neared, Roker indulged in one last culinary hurrah. In Utah for the Winter Olympics, “I’m thinking, ‘What the hell? I’m gonna have me a party,'” he says. “I’m having Häagen-Dazs, steaks, onion rings. I was like a whale with plankton—just open your mouth and inhale. By the time I got back I was 320 lbs.”

The night before the surgery, which cost $55,000 and was covered by Roker’s insurance, “Al was nervous, and so was I,” says Roberts. Arriving at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital at 7 the next morning, he recalls, “Deborah started asking a bunch of questions, and I’m thinking, ‘Let’s go! Let’s move it along.'”

The procedure, which took just an hour and 40 minutes to complete, involved making a series of small incisions, including one through the navel. Surgeons then inserted long tubular instruments into the upper abdomen, along with a pencil-like camera lens called a laparoscope, which projected images onto a TV screen in the O.R.

Recovering in the hospital after the operation (which was taped for a Dateline report, to air Nov. 12 on NBC), “I remember thinking, ‘This doesn’t hurt that bad,'” says Roker. “It’s kind of like getting punched in the gut.” One change, however, was instantly noticeable: “All of a sudden, I just wasn’t hungry,” he says. Three days later he was back at home, and by the fifth day he was nibbling at his first bites of solid food. “I scrambled an egg and ate maybe a quarter of it,” he says. For the first few months, “I went from consuming maybe 3,000 calories a day to 300 calories a day.”

His weight loss wasn’t immediately apparent to his Today colleagues once Roker returned to work 10 days into post-op. But a month later, “when he got to about the 50-lb. mark, it was, ‘Wow! Al really looks good!'” recalls Couric. Roker divulged the secret of his leaner new look only gradually. First he and Roberts explained the surgical procedure to Lauer and his wife, Annette, over dinner. The next week Roker told Couric. “I am just thrilled that he has gotten to a really healthy weight,” she says.

His surgeon would like to see it drop to between 160 and 180 lbs. Might he gain any back? “With time, the stomach pouch does get bigger,” says Dr. Kurian, “so he is able to eat more. That is why after 6 to 12 months, patients really have to be on a regimen of healthy eating and exercise.” These days Roker sticks to a strictly portion-controlled diet. Eating too much, especially of high-fat, high-sugar foods, can result in a condition known as “dumping syndrome,” in which gastric bypass patients may experience dizziness, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Roker learned his lesson the hard way. Called upon to do a barbecue segment in his first week back on the job, “I took a couple of bites of these ribs, and while it was going down, I thought, ‘That was a bad move,'” he says. “We got off the air, and I just kind of sidled off to the bathroom.”

Now careful about what he eats, Roker says he has no plans to undergo surgery to remove excess skin (as Carnie Wilson did). “I’ve got flab, but I’m hesitant to do anything,” he says. He also admits that it has sometimes been difficult to accept his new body image. “I look at the mirror and think, ‘I’m down from four chins to two,'” he says. “I don’t see that big of a difference.” Yet a recent visit to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in New York City helped open his eyes. Coming face-to-face with his wax double, which was molded when he weighed 285 lbs., “it’s the first time I thought, ‘Ooh, wow,'” he recalls. “I could really notice it.” Reflecting upon his heavier former self, he says, “It’s done. I’m never going back.”

Michelle Tauber

Mark Dagostino in New York City