Metabolife founder tells his side of story
By Jamie Reno
Reviewed May 2009
The Metabolife Story: The Rape of Cinderella
By Michael Ellis
To learn more about this book, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.
Every now and then a book comes along that shakes you, wakes you, excites you and teaches you something you know will stay with you. "The Metabolife Story: The Rape of Cinderella" accomplishes all of that, and more. A work of non-fiction that reads like a great American novel, "The Metabolife Story" is an unexpectedly well-written and ridiculously entertaining book. Part Joseph Wambaugh (nail-bitingly suspenseful), part John Updike (cynically smart), part F. Scott Fitzgerald (hopeful and eloquent) and part Hunter Thompson (offbeat and outrageously funny), "The Metabolife Story" is a find. Pardon the bromide, but once I started in, I could not put this book down.
Cutting across a broad canvas of genres thriller, business book, exposé, health book, political treatise, autobiography, and more "The Metabolife Story" tells the sordid, complicated tale of the immensely popular herbal supplement that at its peak in the late 1990s was the most popular diet pill in the world. Deftly written in confessional, no-holds-barred style by Michael Ellis, the company's controversial co-founder and former CEO, "The Metabolife Story" chronicles the rapid rise of his weight-loss empire from a single storefront in San Diego to a billion-dollar concern, and describes in harrowing detail the company's equally quick demise at the hands of the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies.
Foreshadowing the intensity and brutal honesty that would follow, the book's two-page prologue left my jaw dangling and heart racing. "Make no mistake; I'm a bad, bad person," Ellis starts. "I have a dark, dark history. I'm the kind of man with a death on his hands. The kind of man with a history of illegal drug activity. And the kind of man who refuses to apologize or even take blame for anything he's ever done."
You'll wonder where the author could possibly go from there. But keep reading. Allow him to take you on this journey inside a company's rise and fall and inside a complex, fascinating man's psyche.
As the book takes shape, Ellis, who reportedly finished the manuscript while still in prison, reveals himself as a study in contradictions. Brilliant but suspicious, compassionate but judgmental, and by turns contrite and unapologetic, he is a modern-day Jay Gatsby who lived the American dream and nightmare. Climbing from nothing to great wealth with an evidently deep-seeded compulsion to succeed, and then losing virtually everything, Ellis has spent much of his adult life with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove although to whom is not entirely clear. But as I read the book, the Gatsby parallels just kept revisiting my head. Like Gatsby, Ellis projects an aura of mystery and controversy; like Gatsby, Ellis is fiercely loyal, and an idealist of a sort; and like Gatsby, Ellis appears much kinder and more conscientious than people outside his circle could ever know or would ever suspect.
By the end of this book actually, by somewhere in the middle I began to feel like Gatsby's neighbor, Nick Carraway, the objective observer who watches the rich and notorious Gatsby from afar, reluctantly befriends him, and ultimately becomes his greatest ally and defender. The book has undeniable redemption value for Ellis, but he clearly didn't write it to seek anyone's favor or approval or beg for forgiveness. He lays it all out here: the good, bad and ugly of his life. He's made some big mistakes and admits to a number of them in the book, including his decision to get involved with an old friend's drug dealing. Near the end of the book, he even questions whether he is a good guy, a bad guy or something in between. He isn't sure, and you may not be either, but on every page Ellis reveals himself, intentionally or not, as flawed but honest, ambitious but introspective, combative but likable, and very human traits that the media doesn't typically ascribe to him.
The conventional wisdom is that Ellis is a megalomaniacal monster who sold a dangerous product. Whatever you think of Ellis public enemy or hero he makes a very strong case here that Metabolife was indeed safe when used as directed and that it, and he, got a historically bad rap from the feds, who hounded him for a decade. Despite his naked ambition, Ellis generally tried to do right thing while running his company. Contrary to popular belief, he was adamant about putting a warning label on his product, and he actually sought meetings with the FDA and wanted to set standards for the supplement industry, but FDA officials never agreed to see him.
Despite the book's somewhat dark tone, there is plenty of humor. Ellis has an uncanny ability to smile in the face of adversity and crack jokes while the walls crumble around him. And there are happy moments, like the joyful, innocent times he spent with his young family and even the early days at Metabolife, where, for a while at least, Ellis was sitting on top of the world. Metabolife was a cultural phenomenon, a sensation that millions of Americans insisted was the long-awaited weight-loss cure they had been seeking. Ellis was making an absolute fortune and living high on the hog. But Metabolife's remarkably swift ascension drew the relentless scrutiny of the pharmaceutical behemoths whose own weight-loss products would suffer by comparison. According to Ellis, the FDA, with the help of the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service, set out to take down Metabolife and Ellis by any means necessary, ruthlessly harassing Ellis, his family (even his kids) and his employees, making outrageous accusations that ultimately proved false, destroying lives in the process, and even possibly contributing to the tragic suicide of one Metabolife executive, which Ellis describes in heart-wrenching detail in the book.
It may all sound like the untenable conspiracy theories of a crooked, reeling CEO if it weren't for the fact that Ellis documents and supports each one of his charges and even offers a very compelling argument that federal agents tampered with evidence in their zealous pursuit. The book, which is Ellis' story as much as it is Metabolife's, never gets to the root of his motivations and ambitions, what really makes him tick. But there are clues. His love and respect for his father and effort to make his dad proud of him is one of the great motivators in his life.
Ellis describes how he created Metabolife and built the company with a unique, maverick grassroots marketing style, and how he rallied support from high-ranking elected government officials, law-enforcement agencies and leading experts in the health industry who still maintain their support of the safety of ephedra and Ellis' innocence. The narrative revolves around Metabolife's primary and most controversial ingredient, ephedra, which the FDA claimed was a danger to the public's general health and banned it from all herbal products. Yet as Ellis writes, the FDA still allows this allegedly toxic herb to be sold in over-the-counter pharmaceutical products. Ellis suggests in the book that dozens of over-the-counter products still on the market today contain almost three times as much ephedra as Metabolife, and insists there was no reason to pull one of the most successful weight-loss aids in history out of the hands of Americans.
If the FDA truly cared about people's health and seriously thought ephedra products were hurting or even killing people, why indeed would the government agency give companies 60 days to allow them to sell their existing stock of ephedra-based products, instead of banning it immediately, and why do they still allow drug companies to sell weight-loss products with ephedra to this day? These are just two of the many troubling questions the book raises. Ellis clearly won't stop asking these questions even though his fight to save Metabolife cost him his marriage, his business and, almost, his life. In one of the book's rawest and most disturbing passages, Ellis writes about how he planned to kill himself and how, at the very last second, his love for his kids prevented him from carrying out his plan.
Storytelling at its finest, "The Metabolife Story" is Ellis' first book, but he already possesses a mature author's knack not only for self-analysis but for summing up other people, both physically and psychologically. His three-dimensional descriptions of all the players in the Metabolife story, from his employees to his public relations team to the lawyers and government agents who were bent on destroying him and his company, are stunningly astute and laugh-out-loud funny. Whatever you think of Ellis, who eventually spent six months in prison on charges that resulted from the FDA's own lack of regulatory and reporting policy with regards to the herbal supplement industry, you will not be able to stop reading this book once you start. And you may walk away from it with a very different view of the man, and his company.