CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Weary of being stuck with what they call the false label of America's unhealthiest city, Huntington residents are offering a wary welcome to a celebrity TV chef who hopes to help them shape up.
Jamie Oliver is starring in a reality TV show slated to be broadcast next year on ABC. In his native Britain, Oliver has done shows focused on improving school lunch meals and other dietary matters with an aim toward getting people eating healthier and living better.
Oliver came to Huntington last month and the show is taping in West Virginia's second-largest city throughout the fall. Months before it airs, though, the show has opened still-fresh wounds from an Associated Press story last year that used federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data to proclaim the five-county Huntington metropolitan area the country's fattest and unhealthiest.
"The quick, sexy way to promote the show is, 'We're here to save the fattest town in the world,"' said Doug Sheils, director of marketing and public relations at Cabell Huntington Hospital. "That's going to be a label we can't shake for a long time."
Sheils noted that the AP analysis, which drew the attention of Oliver's production company to the area, was based on data for five counties, including counties in Ohio and Kentucky. But it's Huntington that gets stuck with a designation Sheils says it doesn't deserve.
"One of the ways we improve the health of our community is to recruit outstanding physicians from not only around the country, but around the world," he said. "I'm worried that if we get pinned with that label, it's going to be harder for us to recruit physicians and their families to come here."
Oliver and others working on the show have taken pains to say those fears are understandable but unwarranted.
Those conversations haven't made residents unfriendly to the crew working on the show, according to executive producer Craig Armstrong.
The show, which will finish in Huntington in mid-November, should allay fears of a negative stereotype, Armstrong said.
"I know we're here in one community, but in my mind this is really about America," he said Thursday. "When this show airs, I believe people will fully get it and understand its value."
Those words echoed comments Oliver made at a public meeting held in city hall last month, when the celebrity chef said his aim wasn't to attack anyone.
Shortly after that, though, local media outlets ran stories about comments Oliver made to the British Sky News service in which he said residents he'd met with lacked information about healthy eating and cooking from scratch.
That set off a round of formal and informal meetings around the city, in which residents fretted that they would again be the poster child for problems like obesity and lack of exercise.
Cabell-Huntington Health Department Director Dr. Harry Tweel said he was worried that Oliver's show would focus on the negative and not on the efforts to improve residents' health that came before and after the AP story.
Part of the sensitivity, Tweel said, comes from the perception that people in the region weren't aware of the serious health problems many residents here face.
"People are just anxious about getting a fair shake," he said.
Like others, Tweel is optimistic the show can have benefits for the region by drawing attention to healthier lifestyles.
Obesity and related illnesses like diabetes are so common in West Virginia that the extent of the problem has been easy to ignore, said state Delegate Don Perdue, who represents part of the area covered by the CDC statistics.
"All the years of statistics don't strike home as much as the threat of a national TV audience getting this perception about Huntington," said Perdue, who is chairman of the House of Delegates Health and Human Resources committee.
Even so, Perdue is worried about the show.
"If it's accurate and not positive, that's our fault," the Wayne County Democrat said. "If it's inaccurate and negative, that's their fault."
Until the show airs, though, all residents can do is wait and hope for the best.
"If Jamie's coming into town to help make these positive changes, obviously he has to start with something that's not so positive," said Tyson Compton, president of the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"We realize it's Hollywood and it's all about hype and hoopla and creating interest, but we hope this can put some of the positive things we've done in the national spotlight," he said.