Among friends, competitive eater Suzanne "Suzilla" French is known for extreme behavior. Whatever she does, she does big, be it eating or drinking, showing her love for country or pro-football.
She's the fourth-ranked competitive eater in the world - the kind of person who parties hard on Flag Day and decks her Facebook profile picture with the New Orleans Saints' logo. The last time I saw her, before she left Atlanta for her hometown of Houston, was in the back of a stretch limo that she'd rented for a mutual friend's birthday. I joined them after they'd spent the day at Medieval Times - a gorge-fest in its own right. Bottles of booze spilled forth as the car flew around town, making stops at bars where French knew everyone. I can't remember how it ended.
For its new extreme eating special, Discovery's Planet Green channel capitalized on her "girl-next-door consumes gargantuan portions of food" shtick. "Suzilla: The Mouth That Roars" follows the 28-year-old as she takes on men at least twice her size in eating competitions in some of the country's greasiest spoons and short-order eateries.
She took a few minutes out of her day job as a contract lawyer for an oilfield services company to talk about how she manages to not look like a competitive eater and the two kinds of food she refuses to eat.
Suzilla: The competition part - because it's me versus another guy, and I'm a girl that can eat a lot.
EG: How did you get the nickname Suzilla?
Suzilla: An old friend used to call me Su-nami because I was always such a whirlwind. So when I started eating, my brother thought it would be neat if I was like Shaq and had a bunch of nicknames. So he came up with Suzilla and a variety of others. Suzilla stuck because it’s the most intimidating.
EG: How did you get started in competitive eating?
Suzilla: My car broke down when I was working as a tax attorney in Atlanta [in 2009]. It broke down around the time my student loan came up, so I had to pay $800 for the car. Corndogorama and was being held so I thought okay, that's where I'll get the money. It worked.
EG: What's the biggest misconception about competitive eating?
Suzilla: That the bigger you are, the more you can eat when really it’s people that are super skinny that can eat a lot because their stomachs expand.
EG: What's the most difficult food to eat?
Suzilla: The hardest thing to eat is anything covered in sugar because it gives you the worst hangover. It dehydrates and takes all the moisture out of your body.
EG: What's the most you've eaten in one sitting?
Suzilla: In one sitting I actually ate the pie in the sky in Alpharetta, Georgia with a buddy. I ate the majority of it, about 8 to 12 slices. It had pepperoni, sausage, ham, hamburger, it was just completely filled with meat and cheese.
EG: What's your favorite food?
Suzilla: I love McDonald's, I love a double cheeseburger, and Olive Garden because they have the never ending pasta bowl. And it's super healthy.
EG: How do you maintain your "compact frame," to quote the New York Times?
Suzilla: I run, run, run, run, run. I probably work out an hour in the morning and then an hour to two hours a night so I run seven to 14 miles a day, plus sit-ups and push-ups. I don't really like weights.
EG: What's the biggest challenge you've ever faced in the competitive eating realm?
Suzilla: The Big Fat Fatty was the only one I couldn't finish. I went out to L.A. by the UCLA campus, there's a sandwich shop there run by three guys, they have this one massive sandwich that they came up with at the end of a cleanse, it's like their wet dream of a sandwich. It has everything.
They say it can feed ten people and if you finish it they'll name a sandwich after you, but you have to do it in 40 minutes, and all I could think was, there's no way I could chew this much in 40 minutes.
EG: What's a regular day's worth of meals for you?
Suzilla: In real life, pretty normal. I had granola for breakfast, green chili and corn bisque soup and chicken salad wrap for lunch, and for dinner I'll probably have pasta because I'm lazy.
EG: What advice would you give to an aspiring competitive eater?
Suzilla: Make sure you have a good workout plan in place because when you eat eight pounds of food you tend to gain eight pounds.
EG: How do people generally react to you as a female at eating competitions?
Suzilla: They don’t know what to expect, which is really good for the competition because no one pays attention to the girl. So I just get to win the money. But it’s always a look of doubt.
EG: Does a huge appetite run in the family?
Suzilla: I think it might because my dad took used to take my brother and me to a place where they had a fried chicken buffet called Hartz's and my mom would never go because she thought it was disgusting.
EG: What does your family make of all this?
Suzilla: My brother is so proud [laughs]. I feel I've like done really great things in life, I ran a marathon, went to law school, the London School of Economics, and this is the thing that he’s most proud of. And then my mom and dad are just like, don’t quit your day job.
EG: Among people who know you, is this kind of outsized eating out of character for you?
Suzilla: No, they expect me to do absolutely ridiculous things. It's just my personality, I always like do thing out of the box and toe the line.
EG: What are your hopes for the show?
Suzilla: It was super-fun to do. It could continue but I don't know how likely it is. I have no expectations, it was just fun to do. It's every little's girl dream, to eat for money.
EG: Is there anything you won't eat?
Suzilla: Watermelon Jolly Ranchers and grapefruits. I got grapefruit juice in my eye when I was nine. I've never fully recovered. Watermelon Jolly Ranchers are the worst and smell awful.