Shock Therapy

This August, talk-show psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw arrived in Elgin promising to tape a year’s worth of shows that would make the Central Texas town “a shining example on the American landscape.” Then the first episode aired—and suddenly it’s the host who has all the issues.

IT SEEMS EVERYBODY IN ELGIN is keeping tabs on what Jim Dunaway is eating these days. Wherever the 49-year-old city manager goes to dine—whether it’s a sit-down restaurant or a busy to-go joint—his neighbors are watching him with an air of suspicion. Dunaway is not a vegan, nor is he even a vegetarian. By Elgin standards, he says, his dining habits have been normal his entire life. But since August, when television talk-show therapist Dr. Phil McGraw set up shop in town, Dunaway’s dietary regimen has become the topic of conversation from Austin to Iowa.

Dunaway isn’t the only Elginite being watched. To demonstrate the impact that his eponymous weight-loss plan and self-help philosophies could have on a whole town, Dr. Phil and his staff are trying to get everyone in Elgin involved. They’ve held a fitness rally attended by more than one hundred residents, organized citywide exercise programs, and facilitated nutrition support groups. Dr. Phil himself talked some local restaurants into serving healthy meals; he even persuaded the 3-H Cattle Company to introduce some recipes from his Ultimate Weight Solution Cookbook. But to give his audience something to focus on, Dr. Phil needed some role models, and so he selected seven overweight Elginites to follow throughout the television season. Two of the volunteers were Dunaway, the 300-pound city manager, and Jeff Jackson, the 312-pound owner of one of the only gyms in town. Each was given a nutritionist and a trainer. And there were carrots, of course. When Jackson and Dunaway finally appeared on the show in Los Angeles before a national audience in October, Dr. Phil announced that he had a surprise: He gave Jackson three new machines for his gym worth a total of $20,000. “And I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Dr. Phil. “You two big old country boys drop fifty pounds apiece and we’ll make sure  you get some more equipment.”

There were also conditions. This being a town project, Dr. Phil created an assignment for the rest of Elgin: If locals noticed Dunaway—who admitted to a weakness for greasy foods—eating something unhealthy at a restaurant, they were instructed to throw away his plate and send Dr. Phil the bill. And when he wasn’t exercising, they were told to ask him why. Sure enough, when Dunaway got back home, strangers were checking in with him to make sure he wasn’t cheating. Once, a local runner even called him up at 6:30 a.m. and chided him for not exercising that morning, singing into the phone, “Dr. Phil says, ‘Where aaaare youuuuu ’”

The day I met Dunaway at his office, a stranger had just stopped him on the street after he’d picked up a take-out order for lunch. “What’d you get?”

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...