Body & Fitness

The Wellington woman who lost 61kg for Lionel Ritchie

''Lionel was my inspiration. I had the perfect gold, glittery dress that I wanted to wear and even though I couldn’t do it up when I bought it, I said, 'I’m going to get into that dress for Lionel.'''

We all have different reasons for wanting to lose weight. For some it’s to fit into a dream wedding dress, for others it’s shedding unwanted kilos gained over winter.

But after years of battling the bulge, it’s taken an up-close encounter with her childhood idol Lionel Richie for one Wellington woman to shrink to half her size!

It’s hard to believe a concert ticket could prove so life-changing, but forking out $1000 to meet the international hitmaker was all the motivation educationalist Leah Saunders needed to start an impressive 19-month weight-loss journey that has seen her drop seven dress sizes and lose 61kg without going under the knife!

After such a marathon effort, the mum-of-two has declared she is done with losing any more weight, going from 127.3kg down to a trim 66.3kg!

Before at 127.3kg

But she explains that it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the chance to meet the artist she once shed bucketloads of tears over, when a previous outdoor concert he was headlining was cancelled.

Smiles the svelte 43-year-old, “Lionel was my inspiration. I had the perfect gold, glittery dress that I wanted to wear and even though I couldn’t do it up when I bought it, I said, ‘I’m going to get into that dress for Lionel.’

“In three months, I lost 15kg. It was motivational to see that zip come further up each time I tried it on. By the time Lionel came, I could zip it up perfectly.”

By then, she’d gone from size 22 down to size 18, but decided to push on. Over the next 15 months, she ended up losing nearly half her original weight through following the no-carb Keto diet.

And as the scales tipped backwards, she made sure there were little gifts along the way to reward her efforts.

To mark dropping 40kg, Leah had her first tattoo inked onto her wrist featuring the musical notes to her favourite Lionel Richie song, “Truly”, and the letters LR, which are her initials and a nod to the man who helped her get there.

She says the “Hello” singer had always played a major part in her life – and confesses to writing him a letter when she was at primary school suggesting they wed.

“My earliest memory of Lionel was sitting down with my Nannie when I was young,” she recalls. “She used to listen to ‘All Night Long’ on her little 45 record player.

I don’t even know what the obsession was. My mum went into record shops and got me a life-sized poster of the Dancing on the Ceiling album, and I used to follow him and listen to his music. Whenever I could go to a concert of his, I did.”

Now that she’s a svelte 66.3kg, Leah’s old pants have been retired.

It included the 2009 Mission Concert that left her in floods of tears when it was washed out.

“I balled my eyes out the whole way home,” she regales. “I must have drunk a whole bottle of wine mourning that we weren’t going to see Lionel.”

But it was a far happier day when she had the chance to meet the crooner in person and sit in the front row directly under his microphone at his Christchurch concert nearly a decade later.

“As soon as I saw him, I hugged him and said, ‘When I was nine, I wrote you a letter asking you to marry me!’ He was like, ‘Oh, that’s great,'” beams Leah, who sunuggled in for a treasured snap with the star before he took the stage.

Leah admits up until that point, she had a very unhealthy relationship with food.

“I switched from living to eat to eating to live,” she explains.

“Before that, everything was about food. I know food is a big part of life because you eat three times a day, but I was always thinking about food. I didn’t even realise what I was doing half the time because it’s just something I reached for. I’m sure a lot of people know what that’s like.”

Preferring sausage rolls and pies over sweets, Leah ditched all carbohydrates, cutting out bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and anything else that grew under ground.

Sugar was also off the menu. “For the first couple of months, I turned to clean eating,” she says. “While I didn’t make any Keto recipes, I ate normal food but swapped out all the carbs for fat.

“If I had chicken, I’d add vegetables and a creamy fatty sauce because you’ve got to have high fat for Keto to work. Your body switches from having carbs for energy to using fat for energy. Your body goes into ketosis.”

Leah’s American idol! Cuddling up to Lionel before his Kiwi concert.

While Leah has held on to the glitzy number she bought for Lionel, the trained primary school teacher loves going into her wardrobe every day and plucking out something that looks great without the self-loathing and agonising critiques that had plagued her dressing routine for years.

“Now I feel a lot better and it takes me a lot less time to get ready,” she gushes.

To mark the end of her triumphant weight loss, Leah travelled to Thailand to have a tummy tuck and arm lift to get rid of the saggy excess skin.

“It’s my reward,” she says. “I’ve worked so hard. I’ve never been at the end of my weight-loss journey before. This will bring closure.”

Example of a keto day

“I usually fast until around 10-10.30am each day and try not to eat past 7pm”


Bulletproof coffee (black coffee blitzed with butter and coconut oil) – like a coconut latte


Seed crackers with avocado, cheese, cream cheese and salami


Steak with garlic butter, stir-fried cauliflower, courgette and broccoli with a cream and parmesan cheese sauce


Keto rocky road, almonds, pork rinds

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