It was all brute strength and no room for compassion.
Now 7 seasons on he’s one of the show’s key storytellers, driven to tears as he learns about the struggles of contestants.
But it comes at a price. As a recognised TV face, his personal life has also been thrust into the spotlight.
As he tells TV Tonight, his Biggest Loser role after 10 years with Special Forces in the military was a big change, which has evolved on and off screen.
“It’s a big change personally and professionally. Coming from the military where you are very closed in what you discuss. It’s just the nature of it and the way you live your life. I saw life, work and profession that you’re either in or you’re out. So I brought that military side of me into my civilian life,” he explains.
“I was very pointy-edge and one dimensional. But over the years I’ve grown to fit into society a little more. All the rough edges have smoothed off so there’s more dimension to me personally.
“So that’s what you’ve seen in the past few seasons and this one as well. Otherwise you just get the same old Commando in sunglasses, regardless of whether it’s the middle of the day or night, arms crossed and saying two words. Everyone gets sick of me in 5 seconds.”
The Commando brand was a natural extension of his military years, but much of it developed by default.
“I was standing at the gates of the old White House in my first season with a flare and I said ‘Reckon I wear my sunnies?’ So I put them on and the lead cameraman said ‘That looks pretty cool.’ So bang, they stuck!” he recalls.
“It just evolved with the character. The character has gone from being stern and direct to showing a little more empathy.
“But I’ve always been that person. Otherwise how could you be a trainer?”
Now Willis is so popular with kids he makes regular appearances at Slimefest and when not shooting Loser he runs a cross-fit gym and fitness camps.
“The kids love The Commando and that’s a fortunate thing for the brand that’s been created. They look up to The Commando,” he smiles.
For the ninth season of Loser the trainers, which also includes Shannan Ponton and partner Michelle Bridges, tackle the Victorian regional community of Ararat. As they look to turn it into one of the fattest to fittest communities in Australia there’s a fine line about the terminology. Either way it’s a big ask.
“We get hammered on it. It’s ‘one of the most obese towns in Australia,'” he insists.
“I don’t even like saying ‘fattest.’
“It’s challenging enough with individuals in the Biggest Loser house, let alone people who remain in the town with all the choices, whether they are good or bad.”
14 locals are transferred from Ararat to the show’s official residence in Sydney. While the show returns several times to the Victorian community, there are also plans to ensure those left behind have new fitness options.
“The townsfolk remained in town but they walked and exercised and did challenges and paid it forward. There were so many intricacies and working parts.”
As reality television the show is not without criticism. Its methodology is frequently questioned about whether it uses shock tactics, exploitation, short-term weight loss and is really just turning it on for the cameras.
Indeed, if it is so genuine about wanting to help people change their lives, why is it resorting to eliminations at all? Willis points to the show’s format.
“You have to remind yourself of the bigger picture that it’s a means to an end. We’re looking for the person who has got what it takes to be the Biggest Loser for that season. But the other one is removing the label of Ararat being one of the most obese towns in Australia,” he insists.
“But unfortunately people have to be eliminated.
“It’s been a topic for debate, but Biggest Loser has helped to change so many people’s lives. For people to be presented with the opportunity to be on the show, you ask a lot of them but it’s life changing.”
The show is also not without its fair share of dramatic tools. Filming in Ararat took place in winter, but has a summer playout on TEN.
“It was so cold. They were trying to make out it was warmer than it was and I was wearing a vest and they said ‘We still want to see your arms’ and I was freezing!” he laughs.
Trainers are also given little information from producers for key scenes, in order to capture on-screen reactions. Willis says he and Ponton were told the basic concept before filming the first episode, but hearing it explained by host Hayley Lewis it became far more daunting.
“They give us little snippets of information but they don’t fill us in on the bigger picture because they want natural reactions from us. They catch us out plenty of times telling us to wait in the Green Room until they need us.”
I’m keen also to learn about the show’s all-important scales. Every week contestants stand on these and their weight loss fluctuates on the screen (including higher than the final figure). If it’s all to build the showbiz drama, what’s the problem in acknowledging it is a prop and contestants are pre-weighed off-camera by producers?
On this question Willis is coy.
“All the contestants, to my knowledge, are all weighed at the same time of day on the same set of scales. What they do from there is part of the production,” he concedes.
“It needs to be measurable, observable, repeatable because at the end of the day some contestants could say they’re ripped off, (saying) ‘I weighed myself here and it’s different there.’
“We can’t go giving too much away!”
I’m also advised personal questions are off limits, no doubt as a result of a tough year of headlines over his relationship with co-star, Michelle Bridges. But Willis is comfortable to talk about the media scrutiny.
“I guess it comes with the territory, an evolution of growing with the show and coming on in a greater capacity. The more you’re known out there in the world the more people want to know about you. It creates headlines and gives people the opportunity to write stories and sell magazines.
“I understand all that stuff,” he admits.
“But it has been difficult. It gets hard coming from the background I’ve come from. But the hardest thing is when my children get dragged into it. They haven’t asked for any of that kind of stuff.
“It can get pretty full on and in your face. I feel like I’m in a movie sometimes. There’s paparazzi in 3 cars following you around.
“You find yourself locked in your house and you think, ‘Man, look what’s happening?’ You’re feeling like you have to close yourself up to remove yourself from being scrutinised constantly.
“I guess if you’re honest with yourself and what it is that you’re doing then you don’t really have anything to hide.”
For now he is focussed on the playout of Biggest Loser’s new season and plans to launch an online fitness course mid-year. As Bridges has demonstrated, there’s big business in the fitness world, even though it comes from a genuine place. It’s part of the reason Willis left the army in the first place.
“You can be the hard-arse Commando and have that persona but deep down inside you want to help people live a better quality of life.”
The Biggest Loser airs 7:30pm tonight and continues Sunday, Monday and Tuesday next week on TEN.