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The power of 'YOU' Bestselling diet doctor Michael Roizen answers the challenge posed by his French teacher at Nichols in 1959.

You can catch him on "Oprah," or splashed across the pages of glossy magazines.

But if you really want to know how a kid from Buffalo named Michael Roizen went from delivering the morning Courier-Express to taking the country by storm as its No. 1 diet doc -- for proof, see the current best-seller lists -- look no further than a French classroom in the Nichols School, circa 1959.

Roizen was a freshman then, just 13. His teacher was a Mr. Albert Sutter, an inspiring intellect who influenced 37 years' worth of Nichols students -- and who didn't mince words when assessing the abilities of his charges.

Sutter told Roizen and his parents that if young Michael worked hard -- if he really strained -- he might make Honor Roll by his junior year.

"Well," said Roizen, recalling that moment, "in my family then, education was No. 1 in their minds. I made it the very next semester -- I worked really hard and I made it."

The kicker, of course, was Sutter's reaction.

"I ran in, overjoyed, to tell him I had made it." Roizen pauses for a beat and laughs. "And his response was, 'Have we lowered our standards that much?' "

Still, the moment hit Roizen like the proverbial lightning bolt -- because it made him realize that he could overcome people's expectations of him, and become a success on his own terms.

"That's my main goal," said Roizen, 61, from Cleveland, where he works at the Cleveland Clinic and lives with his wife, Dr. Nancy Roizen, a developmental pediatrician. "To overcome people's perceptions of me -- to do things people say I can't do."

To be blunt, Roizen seems to have done nothing else lately.

Look at his track record:

* He's sitting on several current bestseller lists with his latest health book, "YOU: On a Diet," which has been his biggest sales success to date.

* He's become a broadcast media darling and one of Oprah Winfrey's favorite doctors. Just as Winfrey's promoted Bob Greene as a physical trainer during on-air appearances, she's turned the spotlight frequently on Roizen and his writing partner, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a New York City surgeon. Oprah calls them, chummily, the "YOU Docs."

* He's built a brand-name empire out of his "YOU" and "RealAge" books, which seek to make health and diet knowledge accessible and user-friendly.

Not bad for a kid who used to pass the time in Grover Cleveland Park in Amherst, throwing snowballs at the cars traveling on Main Street.

"It feels great," said Roizen, of his career now. "It's what I was made to do."

>Heavy on humor

Roizen's books and public appearances follow a trademark pattern: He and Oz seek to make health, diet, and medical information easy for regular people to understand and absorb.

They use lots of humor in their explanations and exhortations. They'll gladly pull out life-sized props to illustrate the workings of the human body. They'll answer any question on Oprah's show -- including many about bodily emissions and digestion issues -- with wide smiles.

And their books are generously sprinkled with jokes, drawings and cartoons.

The cartoons -- which have been snickered at by some skeptics -- were Oz's idea, said Roizen, who loves them. "That was a brilliant idea, to get the cartoons in there -- visual is how people learn," he said.

The books have their critics, as diet books always do. But many health professionals take a moderate view of them, since the doctors are not advocating a radical eating plan.

It's more simple nutrition and medical knowledge presented in a fresh way, said Maria Haas, who teaches nutrition at D'Youville College.

"(Roizen) has sound reasoning. He doesn't go to too much of extremes," said Haas. "This is a lifestyle plan."

And though Haas calls herself a skeptic about popular diets -- "Every year a big new diet book comes out," she said -- she thinks that Roizen's impact might last longer than average, because of his work's accessibility and mainstream approach.

"Anything that goes too much to extremes, you're not going to have success with," she said. "I think it's easier to break it off into manageable bites. (Roizen) doesn't force you to clean out your cupboards, for you to go to one extreme or another."

The pattern of success started with Roizen's 1999 New York Times No. 1 best-seller, "RealAge: Are You As Young as You Can Be," which spawned the "real age" trend of calculating a person's "real" health age, as opposed to their chronological age. (A "RealAge" company and Web site soon followed, in partnership with Roizen, who went on to publish bestselling "RealAge" diet books, cookbook, and workout books.)

Then, after teaming with Oz, Roizen developed the "YOU" line of books, beginning with "YOU: The Smart Patient" and "YOU: The Owners Manual." Both hit the New York Times best-seller lists.

Now, with "YOU: On a Diet" flying off bookstore shelves and a new title, "YOU Turn," in the works -- the latter will be focused on Baby Boomers' health issues -- Roizen said their pattern has proven its effectiveness.

They use an average-guy, lighthearted tone as a conscious choice, he said, in their effort to make seemingly daunting medical and diet knowledge user-friendly.

He chalks up some of his success with this approach to the lessons he learned watching his father, Manus Roizen, a Buffalo advertising man who founded his own agency and did work for Sattler's department store, among other businesses.

"That's what makes people read it," said Roizen, who earned his medical degree at the University of California at San Francisco. "You can write the same material we have, in textbook form, and even doctors wouldn't read it."

>A recognizable face

Life has changed for Roizen since the "RealAge" and "YOU" books came out -- even though he does get back to Buffalo frequently, and still roots for the Bills.

"When I walk in the street in New York now, I get stopped two or three times a block," he said. "When I walk through O'Hare (airport), I get stopped. At the Cleveland Clinic, I can't walk from my office to the parking lot without getting stopped."

Of course, being that kind of a guy, Roizen also sees the flip side to his success.

"The privilege I get by having this visibility is, anyone will talk to me, and I get to learn. That's the joy. And the visibility gives me the opportunity to help people out. That's a privilege, not just a responsibility."

One person who's appreciative of, but perhaps not surprised by, Roizen's success as a health guru to the nation is his old French teacher -- none other than "Mister Sutter," now 92, retired after a long tenure at Nichols and living in Buffalo.

Sutter is as blunt as he ever was about his former student -- "He's very short. He's possibly the shortest student I ever had," he recalls of Roizen at one point -- but he's also very interested in Roizen's progress.

"He was in the Honors class, very interested," said Sutter, who headed the department of modern foreign languages at Nichols for many years. "He was very diligent, hard-working and intelligent. But mostly I remember him for his evenness of temper. He was always upbeat -- and teachers like that. Things did not get him down."

That's true. And that, in a way, has been the secret to Roizen's success in medicine and publishing. He'll take criticism as a challenge, Roizen admits, and keep at it until he's found a way through a problem.

Take sports. In high school, even though he's small in stature, Roizen played basketball with a passion. When he got to varsity level, he grew a bit discouraged -- "I wasn't sure I could even lift the water bucket," he recalled.

But then one day he spied a squash court at school. Interested, he watched a match. And he realized: That, he could excel at.

"I said, that's the game for me. You can be down and out and still win the game," said Roizen.

He got so good at squash that he played competitively in college, then captained the U.S. squash team at the Pan-American Games in 1984.

Today? Yep. Of course. He still plays. You had to ask?




You on a Diet

By Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D.

Simon & Schuster, $25

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