By Jason Lynch
September 29, 2003 12:00 PM

When Bob Guiney—affectionately known to Bachelorette viewers as “Fat Bob”—arrived to tape ABC’s fourth Bachelor this summer, something was missing. About 36 lbs. “I was saying, ‘Eat more pizza,’ ” says Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss, laughing. “I was trying to feed him Fun-yuns and Cheetos the whole time. He’d have nothing of it.”

After recovering from a knee injury and a 2002 operation on his Achilles tendon to repair damage from a softball mishap, the 6’3½” Guiney, 32, returned to the gym with a vengeance, knocking his weight from 235 to 199. But even without the extra pounds, the former “Fat Bob” is living large as the new Bachelor, which premieres Sept. 24. “I’m really excited,” says Bachelorette‘s, Trista Rehn, who eliminated the Detroit mortgage broker last winter before ultimately choosing Vail, Colo., fireman Ryan Sutter. “He’ll be the most relatable, funny and popular of the bachelors to date.”

He’s already won the public’s heart. After Guiney was announced as Bachelor No. 4 in May, ABC received 15,000 applications from female hopefuls, four times the usual response. “In the first show, as the limos are rolling up, the women are literally screaming,” says Fleiss. “A lot of them were convinced he was the man of their dreams.”

Guiney wasn’t so certain. He was approached about The Bachelor gig soon after The Bachelorette ended in February, but says he was scared of entering into another relationship so soon after his 2002 divorce. Once he committed, though, Guiney took his duties seriously with the 25 wooing women. “The first night I asked him what he thought,” says host Chris Harrison. “He didn’t say, ‘This girl is hot.’ He’d tell me, ‘Girl A is great because her parents are from here, and she had to overcome this.’ He immediately got a lot deeper with them.”

Guiney’s knack for connecting with the opposite sex dates back to his childhood in Riverview, Mich. (dad Robert is a retired police lieutenant, mom Nora runs a small publishing company). “Even then, girls thought he was cute,” says longtime pal Kevin Donathan. “It had a lot to do with his charm and personality.” In 1989 Guiney used those attributes to win Mr. Riverview, a high school male’ beauty contest. “He sang Elvis and wooed the judges,” says Donathan. “Ifs like he was born for this.”

Perhaps, but the 1993 Michigan State University graduate had to hit bottom before finding his calling. Last fall, still reeling from the demise of his 2½-year first marriage, “he was a man trying to find his place in life again,” says sister Dee Dee DeMare, 35, who works in her mom’s publishing company. Depressed and relatively immobile after his surgery, he agreed to appear on The Bachelorette after his assistants nominated him on the sly. The show, says Rehn, “maybe did something to lift his spirits.”

So did the ensuing public response, which included more than 12,000 fan e-mails. He appeared on Oprah five times and wrote an autobiography, What a Difference a Year Makes, due out Nov. 10. And things are about to get even better. Guiney told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY he is “pleased as punch” with The Bachelor‘s outcome and is adjusting to the show’s typically intense media glare with relative ease. “It’s comical: I don’t have to be on my best behavior,” he says, “because I was literally on my worst behavior when I did the show, and people responded so nicely to it.”

Jason Lynch

Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles