Last month, the Broadway community hosted its 23rd Annual Easter Bonnet Competition to raise funds for AIDS research. One of the celebrity performers was 71-year-old Jane Fonda clad in 1980s-era workout togs. Even though Ms. Jane was not all she appeared to be during her home video heyday, she inspired us to salute some other famous exercise gurus in her honor.
1. Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda had a checkered career once she entered the public eye. She worked as a fashion model before landing her first film role. She gained the reputation as a "sex symbol" after co-starring in the sci-fi spoof Barbarella, and then she used her celebrity to support North Vietnam during that controversial war. Scrambling to get her career back in gear after a barrage of negative press, she worked in a series of "relevant" films, including The China Syndrome. Fonda fractured her foot during the filming, which not only delayed the production, but also curtailed the regular ballet routines she used to keep fit. She discovered the world of aerobic exercise, and soon became its leading proponent.
Her initial Jane Fonda's Workout video sold an unprecedented 17 million copies (mind you, this was at a time when VCRs still retailed for close to $1,000 and were considered a luxury item). Fonda would confess, years after a dozen different versions of her workout had been marketed, that her enviable figure was not strictly due to "feeling the burn" "“ she had suffered from bulimia during that time and had also undergone cosmetic surgery.
2. Richard Simmons
Milton Teagle "Richard" Simmons was always chunky as a child; when he graduated from high school he weighed 268 lbs. Nevertheless, he'd achieved a small bit of TV success, mostly as the "before" model in yogurt commercials and as a model for "chubby" jeans. When he was warned by a doctor about the medical complications of being overweight he went on an extreme starvation diet, shedding 112 lbs. in three months. As a result, he lost a lot of hair (and later underwent transplants) and his skin sagged (nip and tuck time). But he also decided that there were probably thousands of people just like him who needed to exercise regularly, but were too intimated by the Danskin-clad hardbodies who frequented most commercial gyms. In 1975 he opened Ruffage and the Anatomy Asylum in Beverly Hills, a combination health food restaurant/exercise studio. And while today the fey, cloying Richard Simmons is easy pickings for talk show hosts and stand-up comics, there is no denying that he has encouraged hundreds of thousands of non-Jane Fonda types to get up off of the sofa for the first time and sweat along with him.
3. Debbie Drake
Who was the first woman to don a leotard and host an exercise show on television? Even though it was way back in 1961, the concept wasn't very different than it is today: attractive woman wears a form-fitting outfit and stretches sinuously on camera. Debbie Drake was a blonde, leggy Texan whose 15-minute program, Passport to Beauty, aired at 7:30AM in most markets, and she was popular enough to get housewives to do calisthenics with her at that hour. Her trademark was a long-sleeved leotard with a small white collar, which gave it a touch of modesty.
Drake was a shrewd businesswoman who used a three-pronged attack to capture the exercise market: in addition to her TV show, she published books and released record albums. Her strategy to encourage women to buy her products: "How to keep your husband by way of perfecting your figure." Speaking of figures, Debbie's measured 38 _-22-36, which she emphasized by having her bosom cinched up to her neck during her workout routine.
4. Jack LaLanne
Younger TV viewers may only know him as an infomercial huckster, but Jack LaLanne first gained fame via his TV exercise show that ran for 34 years. LaLanne opened his first gym in 1936, where he encouraged weight training for both men and women and also developed the first leg extension machine. He practiced what he preached; throughout his life he emphasized the importance of eating natural foods ("if man made it, don't eat it") as well as both aerobic and weight-bearing exercises. Some of his exercises may look goofy today (such as this face routine in the videos below), but on the other hand, today's 94-year-old Jack has a face that looks like 30-year-old Jack.
5. Denise Austin
Denise (Katnich) Austin earned a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Arizona, where she graduated from in 1979 with a degree in exercise physiology. After graduation she started teaching aerobics classes in the L.A. area and was eventually hired to co-host Jack LaLanne's TV show. In 1982 she was offered her own TV fitness show, and her career took off from there. It certainly didn't hurt that she'd married sports attorney Jeff Austin, who also happened to be the brother of tennis pro Tracy Austin. Once fame came knocking at her door, she had an expert in the family ready to advise and guide her.
6. Cynthia Kereluk
Once a part of Lifetime TV's regular morning line-up, Cynthia Kereluk's soft voice was a soothing counterpoint to Denise Austin's raspy growl. Kereluk had a college degree in education (she taught kindergarten before pursuing a career in fitness), and was Miss Canada in 1984. From 1985 until 2000, she hosted the Everyday Workout which was seen in TV markets around the world. Cynthia recently married her long-time love Paul Rodgers, formerly the frontman of Free and Bad Company.
I'm not so naÃ¯ve to think that all viewers that tune in to exercise shows are doing so strictly for the cardio benefits. After my 70-something father suffered a heart attack, he was instructed by his doctor to engage in daily aerobic activity. To Dad that meant tuning in to a variety of exercise programs and critiquing them from his La-Z-Boy. ("This show is nothing but old broads, no one wants to see that"¦") So "˜fess up "“ which exercise shows do you recall, either because you actually worked out to them, or because you liked the way their leotards rode up"¦?