It was just two years ago that Ken Butler was lying in a hotel bed, scrolling through his phone, looking for a reality television show cast to join — a tub of Häagen-Dazs dulce de leche ice cream nestled under his flabby arm.
"I saw an ad for a show that said, 'We are looking for fat and depressed people,' " said the North Philly-born Butler. "And I thought to myself, well, I'm definitely fat and depressed."
So he filled out the online application, emailed it in, and the next day producers from E! Revenge Body with Khloé Kardashian called him.
On Sunday night, the premiere episode of the second season of the show featured Butler's dramatic 12-week, 50-pound weight loss. We watched Butler drink gallons of water, knock back wheat grass shots, eat salads without dressing, and suffer through push-ups and crunches under the tutelage of celebrity trainer Corey Calliet, the man behind actor Michael B. Jordan's amazing abs.
Not only did Butler slim down from a chunky 242 to a lean, mean 192 pounds, he used the connections and money from the show — he won't say how much — to launch a fashion magazine and lifestyle website. After the episode ran, Butler's website, www.kenbutlerworld.com, got 455,000 hits. He will launch a 50-plus-page glossy magazine this month, and is still trying to work out distribution deals.
"This is my dream come true," said Butler, 29. "I had no idea I could come this far."
Producers liked Butler so much he filmed scenes for Keeping Up with the Kardashians and sat for a visit with Tyler Henry of Hollywood Medium. He's keeping his fingers crossed that those scenes aren't left on the cutting room floor.
You can't help but be psyched about Butler's potential success. When I met him, he was draped in a black-and-gold velvet, duster-length blazer as though channeling his inner André Leon Talley. His face is round and youthful like Magic Johnson's fashionista son E.J. Johnson, but with more chiseled features, a la Tyson Beckford.
But when one's life is as hard as Butler's has been, it's only fair that he gets to define his own blessings.
Born Kenyada Kitchen, Butler spent most of his childhood caring for his mother, Dora Butler, who was bedridden with lupus, bronchitis, and arthritis. By the time Butler was 14, he was in the foster system. During his high school years, he lived with a family in Bensalem and went to Bensalem High School. He fell in love with fashion and began designing women's wear. After high school, he did a stint at the Art Institute of Philadelphia before graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2012 with a degree in fashion design.
The next year, he moved back to Philadelphia and took a string of retail jobs — including a gig at Bala Cynwyd's Saks Fifth Avenue — and started a fashion blog under the name Ken (a shortened version of Kenyada) and his mother's maiden name, Butler.
He couldn't afford designer clothes, but he wanted to create an image of himself for his blog. So he took pictures of himself wearing Balmain, Alexander Wang, Gucci, and other high-end brands in department store dressing rooms. He posted the pictures on his blog, as though he were living that life.
"It was all an illusion," Butler said.
There were times, however, when Butler threw caution to the wind and would buy himself a designer this or that on a charge card. When the time came to pay the bill, he'd write the credit card company a check he knew would bounce.
The government called that fraud.
In 2013, Butler was charged with writing bad checks and theft by deception. His birth mom, with whom he maintained a relationship, emptied her savings to bail him out of jail. She died later that year.
"I thought my life was over," Butler said. "I was in retail. I thought there was no coming back from this."
Fast-forward to winter 2016. Butler was homeless and staying with his friend Marcus Brazil, a hairstylist who works on the set of Bravo's Vanderpump Rules. Brazil and his friend went for a night on the town, but Butler decided to stay behind in the Palm Springs Hotel, where he submitted that fateful application.
Producers were ready to bring Butler on immediately and start filming for the first season until they did background check and found an outstanding warrant for an unpaid debt from his first arrest.
"I had to go home and turn myself in," Butler said. "I spent the next year working doubles at Sweetgreen in Ardmore and sleeping on my friend's couch, but I paid off my debt."
Last year, the Revenge Body producers called back. This time, he was ready. He spent 12 weeks working out, eating right, and delving into why he ate the way he did. By July, he was able to wear designer clothes — he wore head-to-toe Balmain during his weight-loss reveal — and could be photographed from any angle.
"This show and this journey is about being vulnerable and exposing yourself," said Wil Ontiveros, a producer at E! who was also a Revenge Body contestant during the first season. "Part of the reason why Ken was on the premiere episode is because his story was so compelling. We knew it would draw people."
In the six months since he filmed the show and returned to real life, Butler has been able to keep the weight off. He is serious about portion control. He abstains from alcohol and drinks at least a gallon of water a day.
"You either eat your calories or drink your calories," Butler told me, laughing.
At the end of each episode of Revenge Body, the participants bring on someone in their lives who made them feel less-than when they were heavier. Butler did not bring on a person, because, as he so poignantly said in the show: He wanted revenge on his life.