BORN SURVIVOR: Rosemary Conley pictured exclusively at Stapleford Park Country House Hotel, Leics
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: being told by the doctors that your sick child is unlikely to reach his 10th birthday. But that’s what my people, Oswald and Celia, were warned about after years of ill health saw me confined for months to a children’s hospital. It was a shock when I discovered it several years later. But from an early age, growing up in Leicestershire, I faced some serious challenges. As a toddler, my eczema was so bad that I had to wear pajamas with socks sewn into my arms so I couldn’t scratch myself raw. When I was two years old, I developed asthma.
Believing the fresh air and travel would help, my grandmother paid for me to go to South Africa with my mother to visit her cousin. During the trip we stopped in Madeira, where I spent all of my £2 holiday money on a beautiful walkie-talkie doll. While we were in Cape Town, a relative visited her daughter who admired my doll, so I sold it to her for £2.50. She was thrilled and so was I – to get feedback on my second Mike Rosemary on Australia, inset above, the weight of her investment in the dog; a harbinger of my entrepreneurial nature.
But my health did not improve, and at age eight I spent several months in hospital. After the doctor’s grim prognosis, my mother did everything she could to help save my life. She even took me to healers.
Years later, a leading respiratory specialist explained that my lungs were underdeveloped and damaged from whooping cough and pneumonia.
If I hadn’t followed the career path and lifestyle that I have, he said, my life today would be a very different story. It seems ironic that such a beleaguered kid turned into a successful fitness instructor – evidence, I believe, of a divine sense of humor.
School got exhausting and I left a week before my 15th birthday and enrolled in secretarial school. My health improved and for the first time I felt normal. I started dating at 15 and a young man caught my eye at our local church’s youth club. His name was Phil Conley. All the girls loved Phil. Our relationship blossomed and at 18 we got engaged.
For some reason, I took out a life insurance policy and had a medical exam. It would change my life. The doctor did various tests but when he left the room I saw that he had written that I was “well covered”. I read those words as “bold”. I had never worried about my weight, but from that moment I became aware of my size.
Rosemary, two years old
After going through ups and downs, including the breakdown of our engagement, Phil and I were married in 1968.
Our first house was an HLM apartment on the 11th floor. To save money, we built our own furniture.
The writing ‘well read it as a body conscious moment’ A neighbor introduced me to a new Cordon Bleu part-work magazine and I worked on my cooking skills. The more accomplished I became, the more the pounds began to pile on.
Eventually we moved into our first home in the village of Thurnby in Leicestershire. But our previous breakup had left scars and I ate for comfort, developing a bad relationship with food.
I ingested and then starved myself as I struggled to keep my weight in check: sitting at work in my secretarial job with a packet of buttered fig buns and a half pound of butter, scraping the biscuits along block of butter and eating it.
The older I got, the more unhappy I was – and the more comfort I ate. It was a vicious cycle of self-destruction.
I will never forget how unhappy and desperate I felt. That’s why I’m so empathetic to people struggling to lose weight. I joined Weight Watchers weighing 9th.
After several weeks I was only a pound away from my 8th grade goal weight, but over Easter I fell off the rails and gained back all the weight I had lost, and more.
DEVOTED: Rosemary with her “miracle” daughter Dawn in 1975
I was getting more and more depressed, eating ice cream, cooking chocolate, whatever I could get my hands on. Standing in front of the mirror, I said to myself: “You fat pig!”
I promised to stop. But before I knew it, I was downstairs eating my third slice of heavily buttered toast with marmalade! Before long I was 10st 7lb and was a size 14 even though I was just 5ft 2in tall. I hated myself. I couldn’t see my toes because of my belly.
The more I tried to lose weight, the more I gained. Then one day, a friend’s girlfriend noticed me crying and said, “You would look so beautiful if you lost weight. Those words triggered something in me.
So I joined another slimming club called Silhouette, with a diet based on a daily intake of 1,000 calories. By 6 p.m., I would be hungry, having eaten all my daily calories. Once again I fell off the cart and broke down.
Eventually, in a moment of revelation, I decided to create my own diet – based on a more generous 1,400 calorie daily allowance. Surprisingly, and gradually, the weight started to come down.
I stopped snacking, ate three meals a day and rarely drank alcohol. As a leaner body began to emerge, my confidence and self-esteem also increased. I felt liberated. As a result, I started my own slimming class and invited a few friends and neighbors over on Monday nights for a weigh-in. It was wonderful to see their transformation.
DON’T MISS PART TWO: The Diet Book That Made Me A Star Only In Tomorrow’s Sunday Express
I had found my calling. In 1972, I left my job as a secretary to devote myself to my Slimming and Wellness Club – or SAGG. Later I opened the first SAGG center in Leicester and quickly ran over 30 lessons a week.
In early 1975, I started feeling tired and nauseous, and my doctor suggested a pregnancy test. I had lost a fallopian tube a few years earlier and Phil and I had agreed that we would never be able to have children.
But when I called for the result, the receptionist said, “You’re having a baby!”
Our beautiful daughter Dawn was in perfect health, had a mop of black hair like her father and was an adorable baby.
I was a busy mother, and by 1980 my professional life had begun to develop in all sorts of exciting ways. I did regular radio slots and submitted my dieters’ success stories to women’s magazines.
This caught the attention of IPC Magazines, who bought my SAGG clubs and wanted me to network nationally. Classes took off and over time we launched them all over the country. But as the company grew, Phil and I grew apart, and in 1982 we decided to go our separate ways. When Dawn was still young, I wrote a book about weight loss. Eat Yourself Slim was released in 1983 and sold around 60,000 copies – way more than I expected.
A few months after Phil and I separated, I was introduced to a man named John. He was charming and we dated for a few months but I had a sixth sense that something was wrong.
One night, working late and alone in my office, young people broke in and stole my purse and keys. I called the police and later John but got a whispered response and no rt. tn assistance or comfort. It wasn’t until later that I found out he was in another relationship.
TASTE OF SUCCESS: Rosemary with her second husband Mike in Bondi Beach, Australia, in 1988
The straw that broke the camel’s back was my decision to get a guard dog. I bought an eight week old German Shepherd and named her Nikki. John disapproved so, faced with the choice of him or the dog, I quickly ended our relationship.
During the spring holiday of 1983, I went pony trekking with some friends. Among our group was a gorgeous guy called Mike. We seemed to click. He was only 23 and I was 36, but neither of us cared.
But while I had found a new love, in 1985 a deep economic recession hit slimming courses, which did not turn out to be as profitable as IPC had hoped. We had 600 classes led by about 300 women, but IPC decided we would be better off with just 130 classes. I had the task of visiting groups of teachers to announce the news. A group was almost ready to lynch me. With all the stress, things started to go wrong at home. Mike used to work in the shoe business but wasn’t happy with his job and mine was falling apart.
At Christmas 1985 the clubs were disbanded and I closed the operation. Mike and I broke off our engagement.
In the New Year, unable to sit still, I moved my private lessons to the Holiday Inn hotel in Leicester. Then suddenly, at the end of February, I fell ill. I couldn’t stop throwing up and kept passing out.
I called for help from Mike and he rushed over and stayed with me until an ambulance arrived. I was diagnosed with gallstones and the surgeon told me I was either having my gallbladder removed or avoiding surgery by following a very low fat diet. I chose the latter.
Through thick and thin
While in hospital, I saw an advertisement for a Christian book called Power For Living, promoted by pop singer Cliff Richard. At this chaotic stage of my life, I felt I needed divine intervention.
I had been raised to go to church on Sundays and attended Sunday school throughout my childhood, but somehow the Church’s mode of worship… england at the time seemed so ritualistic and impersonal. When the book arrived, I felt like it was speaking to me in everyday language that I could understand, and suddenly everything made sense.
My life has been a disaster: a broken marriage, a closed business, a failed relationship, no job, poor health and probably the need to sell my house – a total mess.
Back home, I knelt by my bed and prayed from the book. I fell asleep feeling like a whole new person? 20 years younger, confident about my future and extremely relieved that someone else is now in charge of my life.
A few days later, Mike called out of the blue and admitted that he missed me. I had to admit that I had missed him too. A few months later he also became a Christian and we were married on July 26, 1986 at the Loughborough Register Office.
Things were changing for the better again. Suddenly my life was taking flight – spiritually, emotionally and financially.
*Edited extract from Through Thick And Thin by Rosemary Conley (SPCK, £19.99), published August 18.