Blues, Barbecues, and Tattoos: An Exclusive Interview with Ron Lester

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You probably don’t know Lester’s story, how the man who once donned his infamous jersey weighing in at over 500 pounds lost the extra weight through a turbulent personal journey. Most of you probably know Ron Lester, the Hollywood actor best known for his role as Billy Bob in the movie, Varsity Blues. You may have even seen Lester around town at such places as Heritage Tattoo, Huckleberry Holler, and Gilmer footballs games, as the Bobcats made their run to the state playoffs this year. However, you probably don’t know Lester’s story, how the man who once donned his infamous jersey weighing in at over 500 pounds lost the extra weight through a turbulent personal journey. In an exclusive interview, FYN had the opportunity to sit down with Lester and learn what it was like for the actor to lose all his weight, learn what’s next for Lester professionally, but most of all to hear his journey from Blues to tattoos.

For many, Lester is known only as the lovable character Billy Bob, the classic overweight and rowdy football player in the 1999 movie Varsity Blues. Yet most people don’t know the story of Lester, a Kennesaw, Georgia native, who made his break into acting and later Hollywood because of his mother, Mary Ellen Lester.

Taking advice from his mother Mary Ellen, Lester appeared in a TV commercial in the early 1990s sponsoring the cleaning product 409. The opportunity eventually led to such roles as Spatch in 1997’s Good Burger and later as a recurring role on several TV series, such as Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy All That and the popular cult series Freaks and Geeks.

However, it was Lester’s role in Varsity Blues and his famous portrayal of Billy Bob that crowned him with notoriety. Blues almost wasn’t the classic football movie that we all know and love.

“Originally, they were going to take Friday Night Lights from the book and make this movie and they couldn’t get the rights to Friday Nights Lights,”

Lester said,

“So they were like you know what? We are still going to do a football movie, so they just came up with Varsity Blues.”

Lester says “Blues” was also a sleeper hit, explaining that it cleared the way for movies like Friday Night Lights and Any Given Sunday.

“It’s all real hits; It’s real,”

Lester says.

The football scenes in the movie were not all that Lester recalled as real. When asked how a specific scene in Varsity Blues – an attempted suicide scene where his character says,

“Too Fat- Too Slow-Too Dumb Billy Bob”

– reflected his own life, Lester admitted his suicide attempt shortly before his success in Hollywood.

“In 1990, before I moved out to LA, my sister Linda died, and when she died it devastated me. I took a loaded 45 single shot Blackhawk Ruger and put it to my head and pulled the trigger…It didn’t go off; it was dud,”

Lester recalled

“I took that moment and those feelings and the pain that I had, and my sister dying, and all the emotional trauma of going through a suicide attempt like that and gave it to my character,”

he said. After filming the scene, the film’s director, Brian Robbins, had tears rolling down his face.

Following the success of Blues, Lester found success in other roles, first by spoofing his character of Billy Bob playing Reggie Ray in 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie, and then on the WB sitcom Popular. It was on the set of Popular when Lester first thought he should do something about his weight.

Recalling a scene where his character was too big to fit behind a steering wheel, Lester said it was then he decided to undergo an experimental gastric bypass surgery. The first surgery, known as a Duodenal Switch, involved the removal of three fourths of Lester’s stomach. During surgery he flat lined, nearly losing his life.

“The strain of whatever you’re (sic) going through was just too much for my heart,”

he recalled.

Six months later he had gastric bypass surgery, where doctors rerouted his intestines.

“At the time, it was still experimental and having both done at one time was not normal,”

Lester said of the surgeries.

The actor’s transformation from 508 to 159 pounds, though, was not easy. Because of the amount of excess skin left over and a struggle with painkillers, Lester experienced another suicide attempt after his girlfriend broke up with him because of the excess skin. A phone call from his mother the morning after his second suicide attempt, telling him of an appointment with Dr. Keith Jeffers a plastic surgeon in Atlanta, changed his life. A series of 17 plastic surgeries removing the excess skin followed.

Yet, blues struck again for the actor in 2007, when he was forced to quit a recurring role on CSI: New York, in order to care for his mother who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. He lost his mother to the disease on March 28, 2007.

After the death of his mother, the star then turned to different roles, deciding to help out with 2010’s The Fat Boy Chronicles, a story about a bullied overweight middle schooler dealing with obesity. In the film Lester paid tribute to Dr. Keith Jeffers by playing Dr. Jeffords, the doctor who examines the obese boy. Lester admitted to FYN that having the surgery had changed his life, causing him to take different roles, but was happy to help with the cause.

So how did Ron end up in Ellijay?

Following a serious golf cart accident after a movie shoot in Iowa, Lester was left with a fractured neck, two broken ribs, two vertical breaks in his right leg and a broken left arm. After hearing the news and that Lester was alone in the hospital, his friend Roger Kuykendall flew out to Iowa and offered for Lester to stay at his home in Buford, GA. To show his gratitude, Lester then offered to help Kuykendall with his barbeque business, telling FYN it was the least he could do. Kuykendall’s company travels across Georgia at various barbecue events, festivals, and attractions throughout the year.

While working with Kuykendall at Huckleberry Holler during the Apple Festival, Lester was introduced to TJ McArthur, lead singer of North Georgia punk rock band Last Act Standing. McArthur told Lester of a local tattoo parlor, Heritage Tattoo. This lead to Lester’s decision to get a tattoo at Heritage. The tattoo honored his father, Leonard Lester, and his side of the family with a family crest of the Macalister clan.

When asked what it was like tattooing a celebrity, Hugh Fowler, part-owner of Heritage Tattoo who tattooed Lester, says it was no different than tattooing any other person and requires the same amount of focus as any tattoo. However, when asked if Lester’s weight loss had any effect on the process, Fowler mentioned that it was tougher because Lester’s skin had stretched out so much it had lost some of its elasticity.

This won’t discourage Lester from getting any more tattoos, though; just last week he announced he was the new poster child of the Tattoo Role Modelz Family of Georgia, a tattoo foundation based out of Los Angles, California.

Looking to the future, Lester still has plans for his film career, mentioning a NASCAR-themed project with a working title of Racing Dreams. Yet, he doesn’t plan on letting this get in the way of what’s really important, his friends, as he plans to continue helping out Kuykendall at events, such as the Kansas City Barbeque Society Professional BBQ Cook Off, Smoking Up the Campground in Calhoun, GA to be held November 30th-December 1st. It’s safe to say things are looking up for Lester as he has barbequed his blues and traded them for tattoos.

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