ONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — The man who boasts of changing the face of diabetes spreads his arms out wide, like the Christ the Redeemer statue, but in neon orange shorts and bare feet. He looks earnestly into the rolling camera.
“Welcome to ‘Reversed,’” he intones. Seated behind him are four of his disciples: Americans with type 2 diabetes who’ve flown to this tropical beach town to participate in a reality TV show marketed as a momentous opportunity to restore their health. Over eight days, they’ll learn to exercise and eat right and bare their struggles in cathartic therapy sessions.
Their host, Charles Mattocks, is a smooth-talking, fast-moving entrepreneur, who has leveraged his family fame (his uncle was Bob Marley) and his own medical history (he uses diet and exercise, not insulin, to manage his diabetes) to set himself up as a guru to diabetics everywhere.
In an age where nearly 1 in 10 Americans has diabetes, a disease that can bring a lifetime of painful complications, patients are often desperate for miraculous turnarounds — and there’s a booming trade in supplements, diets, and self-help books that promise answers. Now, there’s a TV show, too.
But “Reversed” is unlikely to prove anyone’s salvation.
The show, which will begin airing next month on cable, is at once a vehicle for Mattocks to proselytize his gospel of self-help, a marketing gambit by a pharma company that’s running out of money, and a season-long advertisement for a luxury getaway at the sparkling resort where it was filmed.
The carefully choreographed, relentlessly upbeat atmosphere cultivated under the Jamaican sun feels, well, unreal. Back at home, the show’s stars — like the viewers expected to tune in — don’t have in-house chefs to cook them healthy meals or mentors to guide them through yoga lessons.
Instead, they’re grappling with the stubborn realities and compounding challenges so common in patients with chronic disease: deteriorating vision, nerve damage in their feet, congestive heart failure, hypertension, high body fat, the inability to work and even to walk. Just before the show, one of the participants lost her home; two others, a married couple, had been relying on food banks because they hadn’t been able to afford to go to a grocery store for months.
Mattocks, the show’s executive producer and creator, said he originally imagined “Reversed” as “‘The Biggest Loser’ meets diabetes” — a reference to the long-running weight-loss competition on NBC.
But the participants on “Reversed” aren’t competing. Judging from the two days of filming that STAT observed, the show has more in common with the reality TV tradition of putting a bunch of strangers in a house together and seeing what happens. Call it The Real World: Diabetes, featuring burned kale chips, frowned-on cigarette breaks, and one participant’s dramatic decision to quit the show. (“I don’t think he was coming here for the right reasons at all,” Mattocks told STAT, borrowing the ultimate reality TV insult.)
So it went for the week of filming, as Mattocks put his cast members through a quirky array of activities: There were massages, just steps from the glittering Caribbean. Trust exercises featuring blindfolds, a basketball, and a banana. Lessons about natural remedies and medicinal plants on a day trip to a nearby farm.
The camera operators scurried on instinct toward any hint of drama or tears. And they didn’t always abide by the show’s lessons for good health: At lunch one day, for instance, the diabetics ate seasoned vegetables and sipped water while some crew members chowed on hamburgers and swigged from plastic bottles of Ting, a sugary citrus soda popular in the Caribbean.
The debut 10-episode season airs this summer on Discovery Life, a cable channel that specializes in medical programming starring real people, like “The Boy With No Brain” and “Untold Stories of the ER.” Last year it drew an average of 88,000 viewers a night during prime time, according to Valeria Almada, a spokeswoman for the channel. That ranks around 97th among networks, by one recent estimate of viewership.
The show’s primary sponsor is MannKind, an insulin manufacturer that’s in bad financial shape. Neither the show nor the company would say how much the sponsorship cost, but MannKind will get advertising spots for its struggling insulin inhaler, Afrezza, during commercial breaks and perhaps a brief mention of the product on the show itself.
Dangling the hope of reversing diabetes
Mattocks makes a point of telling STAT that he’s not promising anyone they can “reverse” their diabetes. But he has, in the past, said exactly that.
And one of the sponsors of his show expressly promised that, too — on camera. The company, OneCare, makes software to help patients manage their diabetes. And in exchange for his $6,000 sponsorship, CEO Gary Austin got to film a segment on set in Jamaica in which he explains to the cast members how his product works — and tells them it will help them vanquish diabetes. “It’s possible,” he told them. “You can reverse it.”
Three of the patients Mattocks recruited for the show are convinced. “I truly believe that within the next year I will no longer be called a diabetic,” said Lisa Campbell, cheerful and effortlessly expressive in her Southern drawl.
“I truly believe that within the next year I will no longer be called a diabetic.”
Lisa Campbell, cast member
At 54, she has a litany of health complaints so severe, they forced her into retirement from her career as an elementary school teacher four years ago. Her right foot is swollen and her ankle deteriorated from complications of diabetic nerve damage, known as neuropathy. Her vision is so blurred by retinopathy that she recently went blind for four months. To get around her home near Atlanta, she juggles between a wheelchair, walker, and cane.
Her 49-year-old husband, Roger, who joined her on set, has also been ravaged by diabetes: His left leg was amputated a few inches below the knee in 2015 and shortly before the filming, he’d been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He’d also developed a wound on his stump, but didn’t tell his doctor because he suspected he’d get hospitalized and have to skip the trip, his first ever out of the country. He refused to miss it.
For patients with such advanced conditions, the hope of vanquishing disease is often an unrealistic one. And critics worry “Reversed” will add fuel to a flourishing cottage industry premised on the idea that diabetes can be reversed.
“You can manage it. You can control it. You can’t reverse it. All this talk about reversing diabetes is a huge load of BS,” said David Kliff, who has type 1 diabetes and publishes the newsletter Diabetic Investor.
To be sure, diabetics, like everyone else, can only benefit from a healthy diet and exercise. But there’s no cure for diabetes. Type 1 diabetics can’t quit their medicine, ever. And it’s extremely difficult for type 2 diabetics to do so, barring bariatric surgery. More than 2,200 such patients went on an intense diet and exercise regimen for a study published in 2012; after one year, only 11.5 percent were able to get off their medicine or get their blood sugar levels down to a certain threshold. After four years, just 7 percent were still there.
“The whole ‘reversed’ idea is: run screaming from the meds,” said Amy Tenderich, a vocal patient advocate with type 1 diabetes. She worries “that it might send the wrong message — that if you continue to need medication or have to go on insulin, that you have failed.”
Rick Phillips, a blogger with type 1 diabetes, shares that concern. He wrote in a blog post that he saw the TV show’s title as an affront, the latest in a line of rhetoric that blames diabetics for their own disease. He cited recent comments from White House budget director Mick Mulvaney suggesting that American taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for the health care of “the person who sits home … drinks sugary drinks, and doesn’t exercise, and eats poorly, and gets diabetes.”
Mattocks did not take kindly to Phillips’s critique of his show. Instead, he jumped on Twitter to call Phillips “irrelevant” and a “clown.” He added: “Go be miserable some other place.”
Mattocks insists that his show demonstrates it’s possible to slow the progress of the disease by reversing the way patients live their lives. He brought a handful of experts onto the set to dispense tips about healthy habits, like how to read nutritional labels on breakfast cereal and how to tell if blood sugar levels are in a safe range.
He also sought to effectively scare his stars straight. Cast members were taken on a day trip to a dialysis center and a diabetes clinic in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, where they gaped at local patients in the advanced stages of diabetes.
“You can manage it. You can control it. You can’t reverse it. All this talk about reversing diabetes is a huge load of BS.”
David Kliff, publisher, Diabetic Investor
Then there was the scene filmed on Day 6: Participants had to put on baggy jeans, a long belt, and a big checkered shirt using only one hand — a challenge meant to show them what daily life is like for patients who’ve lost limbs due to complications from advanced diabetes.
“Roll sound. And action!”
Margie Rivera, a bubbly grandmother from Tampa, Fla., went first, though she hardly needed the exercise to introduce her to the debilitating effects of diabetes. She lost her job as a dialysis technician a year ago after diabetic retinopathy eroded her vision. Just before filming began, another blow: She and her husband lost the house they had been renting with intent to buy.
Now, Rivera, 53, used her teeth to get the big shirt on. The pants went on easily enough until she struggled to lace the belt through the belt loops. “God, this is hard,” she murmured.
Next up was Jerome Hughes, a 43-year-old former retail manager from Atlanta who’s quick to crack jokes. He had the bright idea of lacing the belt through the pants before putting them on. But he struggled mightily to get the bulky denim up over his black high-top shoes. As he grew more and more frustrated, Mattocks put a supportive arm over his shoulder and stepped in to help. Hughes struggled some more with the shirt, never getting it fully on, until Mattocks marched him away from the cameras. Both of their faces were creased with emotion.
“Everyone on this show has been reversed,” Mattocks later told STAT. “Mentally, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually in a sense.”
The gospel according to Charles Mattocks
Mattocks, 46, is the opposite of what you’d expect Bob Marley to be like. Tightly wound and usually multitasking, Mattocks buzzes around his set, always intentional and in control. He talks in real life in much the same way he does on camera: in a quiet and soothing voice, peppering his speech with phrases like “healing” and “journey” and “changing lives.”
Mattocks only met his famous uncle twice, in brief encounters as a child. But the reggae legend has been his inspiration “to make a difference in this world,” he said.
He started out as a rapper and actor, then turned to cooking, branding himself as “The Poor Chef” demonstrating healthy meals that could be made for just $7.
Mattocks was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at age 38. His doctor gave him no guidance about lifestyle changes, he said. But on his own, he was determined to turn his health around. He stopped bulking up in the gym. He started walking, and then running. He stayed away from fried foods. He lost about 20 pounds in 2 1/2 months.
Mattocks never went on insulin, and spent just nine months on metformin before his doctor advised him he could stop, he said.
That led to yet another career pivot: He became an evangelist for managing diabetes.
To that end, he vouched for an energy supplement aimed at diabetics. He wrote a children’s book about a furry diabetic bear named Charlie B. Marley. At one point, he even created a sugar-free chocolate bar infused with coconut oil — and called it the Charles Bar.
Mattocks, who lives in Tampa, was careful when he talked to STAT about his journey: He made clear that he has not reversed his own diabetes but simply has it under control. But he’s been much more aggressive about dangling the promise of reversal in other public outreach.
“What if I told you that you could reverse your diabetes?” he wrote in a 2015 op-ed.
And in the trailer for his documentary “The Diabetic You”: “We did it,” he says, “We proved that diet and exercise, lifestyle changes, you can reverse diabetes.” Then he breaks down with emotion, hand over his eyes, as the screen turns to black.
His swaggering confidence in his ability to tame a chronic disease comes across especially clearly in the recently released first issue of his new Reversed Magazine for diabetics. He’s listed as chief editor.
It’s in large part a tribute to himself, an Oprah magazine with lower production standards and more self-flattery.
Mattocks poses on the cover wearing a cowboy hat, bandanna, and a big-buckled belt. The tagline: “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Under that: “Charles Mattocks changes the face of diabetes.” An article inside says “we must admire Charles Mattocks.”
Burned kale chips, cigarettes, and a telltale bottle of soda
There were no auditions for “Reversed.” Mattocks picked the five stars of his show by plucking out old friends and friends of friends — with an eye toward appealing to a broad audience. (“She’s going to be great for the Latin American community,” he said of Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico.)
In the spirit of marriage boot camp reality shows, the producers put the Campbells on camera together as much as possible. They’re a match of opposites — Lisa lively and talkative; Roger, quiet and concise — and that dynamic was on display during on-camera therapy sessions, trust exercises, and cooking scenes.
With cameras rolling and the on-set dietician murmuring encouragement, the couple tore kale into strips, sprinkled on some olive oil, and gently massaged the oil into the leaves during one such scene. Lisa chattered happily about how much she loves preparing kale chips. Roger, who used to manage a paint store before his worsening health put him on disability, dutifully lowered the pan layered with kale strips into the oven.
(“That was acting. I made them just for the camera. I do not like them,” he later confessed to STAT.)
The crew moved on to the next shoot — helping Rivera prepare healthy ice cream made from frozen strawberries and bananas.
Then a producer jumped in. They’d forgotten about the kale chips!
Sure enough, they were burning in the oven. Much of the batch was charred to a crisp.
The setting was undeniably gorgeous: Most of the show was filmed in a 14-bedroom villa nestled in lush green hills, with a glistening turquoise swimming pool out back — and, far below, the ocean.
Still, the filming wasn’t always easy for the Campbells. After Lisa took a tumble walking up an outdoor ramp, she mostly stuck to a wheelchair on set. For his part, Roger had experienced an alarming low blood sugar episode on Day 2 of filming. He was often claustrophobic and felt too hot to sleep. And he needed frequent breaks to smoke. (Mattocks and the others gently chastised him about his cigarettes but never asked him to stop.)
Despite it all, both he and Lisa made it to the show’s “graduation” ceremony in the nearby resort town of Negril, where they donned black caps and gowns to accept certificates of accomplishment.
Just before the cameras started rolling, a crew member spotted a problem: a telltale green bottle of Ting, resting on a ledge. “Get that soda out of the shot!” he bellowed.
Back home, weight loss and optimism
Mattocks is betting big on “Reversed.” He’s funding the project in part with his own savings, though he wouldn’t specify how much. The show’s total budget is “very low,” he said. “It’s more of a work of love, you know what I’m saying?”
To help pay the bills, Mattocks secured a few sponsors, including the struggling pharma company MannKind.
It was an unusual fit, given that Mattocks has long been a self-described “outspoken critic” of drug companies and their advertising. And, indeed, despite the sponsorship, the vibe on the “Reversed” set was markedly anti-pharmaceutical. For a few days of filming, Mattocks brought in a health coach (a doctor who doubles as a naturopath and uses his website to sell supplements) to work with the cast members.
“Everyone on this show has been reversed — mentally, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually in a sense.”
Charles Mattocks, executive producer
The diabetic stars of the show spoke in often bitter terms about their distaste for the drug industry — and their desire to get off drugs for good.
“We are naturally getting ourselves weaned off of this insulin,” Lisa Campbell confidently told STAT.
In phone interviews nearly two months after returning home, three of the participants said they were on their way to reversing their diabetes. (Hughes, for his part, said he thought in terms of reversing his mindset.) They raved about their double-digit weight loss, their new diets packed with vegetables, and their reduced need for insulin. They were undaunted by the long odds they face in their quest to restore their health, saying that the mentoring they got on the show would give them an edge.
Even Roger Campbell, who hasn’t managed to cut all of his unhealthy habits, speaks with pride about his progress. Sure, he’s still smoking cigarettes, but he’s down to half a pack a day, compared to a full pack a day before filming. And, yes, he hasn’t given up soda completely, but he’s replaced his bottle of Diet Coke every other day with a Coke Zero once a week. He credits those and other changes with cutting in half his use of insulin.
“I actually feel like I am reversing my diabetes,” Roger Campbell said. “I hope to eradicate it completely.”
Yet many of the challenges that shape their lives are unchanged: Roger Campbell’s congestive heart failure makes it hard for him to do much exercise. Lisa Campbell still struggles to see clearly and cooks her (newly healthy) breakfasts from her wheelchair. And money is still painfully tight. The couple remains reliant on food banks, where fresh produce can be limited.
Now on sale: tickets to the ‘Reversed’ retreat
Mattocks’s team recently released an pathos-heavy trailer for “Reversed,” which debuts at 7 p.m. on July 18.
There’s Rivera honing her arm muscles by stretching a resistance band. Hughes meditates, his eyes closed and hands clasped. Lisa Campbell splashes in the swimming pool. Gloved hands clean the open wound on Roger Campbell’s leg stump. The cast member who quit walks out the front door.
“Five lives came for HOPE,” banner text reads. “Five lives will NEVER be the same.”
Mattocks is already planning a second season. Another producer said they’re thinking about setting it in Latin America this time. “Especially if next season we have a bigger budget and a bigger crew and a different location, I think we can rival any show out there,” Mattocks mused.
In the meantime, he’s begun marketing a new offering: a diabetes getaway, branded as the “Reversed retreat,” in the Jamaican resort house where the show was filmed.
For a week in September (just before the season finale of “Reversed”), instructors will be on hand to guide vacationers through the many of the same exercises the cast carried out for the cameras: early morning yoga. A juicing workshop. Group meditation.
The cost: up to $4,000 for the week, for those who spring for a private suite.
Airfare is not included.