Jillian Michaels is used to barking orders and having them followed. But right now, she's being ignored. She's trying everything — even cooing and high-pitched baby talk — to persuade Buzz to stand still for the camera.

But Buzz wants a "cookie" — and he wants it now.

The massive chocolate-brown draft horse that stands 17 hands high — Michaels can barely peer over his back — will ultimately win this war of wills that is playing out at a photo shoot. TV's "toughest" trainer, it seems, has a softer side after all.

That's a side they'll see more of as Michaels — who became a star thanks to her no-holds-barred approach to whipping contestants into shape alongside fellow trainer Bob Harper on NBC's "The Biggest Loser" — steps center stage and attempts to balance an entire show on her sculpted shoulders.

"Losing It with Jillian" debuts Tuesday, also on NBC. Each week, she'll arrive on the front step of a family on the verge of collapse for reasons that are only partly due to weight and diet, and everything to do with hiding from life's tragedies, setbacks and crushing disappointments.

"It's really about looking at the root of unhappiness in people's lives," Michaels said as she took a patio seat on a recent Sunday morning outside the Los Angeles-area stables that Buzz calls home. "It's about rebooting your life. This is almost like a 'behind-the-scenes of 'Biggest Loser.'"

The journey, though, doesn't just belong to the farming family facing financial disaster or a child being bullied in school or the husband and wife who never once talked about their son who lived but a month and a day and was so sick that his father never cradled him.

Michaels said she has been the one transformed by the experience. For one, she's cleaning house: She's selling or donating the luxe items she no longer needs or uses. She said that spending time with families across America as they struggle to make ends meet was humbling.

"I look at stuff like this now, and I'm disgusted by it," she said, waving at the posh black sports car that she rolled up in.

For another, the families on "Losing It" have triggered painful childhood issues for Michaels. A latchkey kid raised in an L.A. suburb, she was just hitting her teen years when her parents' divorce turned nasty. She turned to food to soothe herself: Standing about 2 inches shorter than she is now (5-foot-2), and about 60 pounds heavier, she was an aimless youth looking for trouble and finding it until she was "saved" by martial arts and fitness.

"I have all these unresolved issues, and this show just kicks it all up," said Michaels, 36. "I'm like, 'I gotta go back into therapy after this.' I don't think I have cried so much in my entire life. You'll see it. Every week I am just hysterical, crying."

She is also finding that the spotlight — which has its upside given that she runs a one-woman fitness empire that includes bestselling books, a new cookbook, a fitness cruise, an online fitness subscription program, a new K-Swiss clothing line and more — also comes with a bite. She's been sued over her supplement line and kicked up a media firestorm when she was portrayed in a women's magazine as not wanting to get pregnant because it would ruin her body. Needless to say, it rained criticism, with even radio talk-show host Laura Schlessinger taking aim.

Michaels says she was misquoted: She said hormonal and health issues might mean that she "can't physically handle" bearing children of her own and that she's thought about adopting. She said she was especially devastated by the criticism because she has spent a career telling women that they should resist media images of beauty and fight to become the healthiest, fittest person they can be.

"I was just crushed," she said. "They didn't even give me the benefit of the doubt and say, 'Hey, that doesn't sound like Jillian, what was the context?'"

Her new show was originally conceived as taking "The Biggest Loser" to Middle America. But she quickly realized that the chosen families were quite well versed in what they should eat and what they should do for fitness. They just weren't doing it.

"That's when we realized the show wasn't about calories and crunches," she said. "And that's when it became a life-makeover show."

That is not to say there won't be yelling and torturous gym sessions. Viewers will finally get to see "the method behind those crazy moments" that make for great TV but are actually, she says, just a fraction of her interaction with "Biggest Loser."

The gym, she says, is merely her tool to crack people open. Exhaust someone physically and mentally and it's that much easier to get them to address emotional issues.

Once she's identified the problem — "the 'why' of it all, what's holding you back, why are you turning to food, why aren't you accomplishing what you want to accomplish, what is it that you do want to accomplish" – the rest, she said, becomes easy.

"If you have a 'why' to live for," she added. "You can tolerate any 'how.'"

rene.lynch@latimes.com