When Susan Powter Tried to Stop the Diet Insanity

The infomercial landscape of the 1990s held particular appeal for people looking to pursue self-improvement. Richard Simmons advocated for Deal-a-Meal, a trading card-based diet regimen; Tony Little swore he could whip people into cardiovascular shape with his Gazelle; Chuck Norris promised that the Total Gym and its resistance bands would build muscle.

All of these marketing campaigns were successful to varying degrees, but none reached the heights of a crew-cut, bleached-blonde pitchwoman who insisted that losing weight and raising your self-esteem were not a condition of buying expensive equipment or starving yourself. It was a matter of making smart food choices, minimizing fat intake, and sticking to a moderate exercise routine.

The woman was Susan Powter. In 1993 alone, she sold more than $50 million dollars’ worth of simplified, common-sense advice to an audience that was ready to take a minimalist approach to wellness.

"If you can't pronounce it," she told followers, "don't eat it."

 
 

Like many gurus before her, Powter’s ascension was preceded by considerable challenges in her personal life. Born in Sydney, Australia on December 22, 1957, Powter's family moved to the United States when she was 10 years old. In 1980, her family relocated to Dallas, which is where—one year later—she met and fell “madly in love” with Nic Villareal. The couple married in 1982 and had two sons. But "the marriage was wrong from the start," Powter told People in 1994. "He was young, and we were too different from each other." In 1986, the couple separated. Powter turned to food to help alleviate her stress, estimating she went from 130 to 260 pounds.

Diets and workout routines were not helpful. Powter once said she rented a Jane Fonda Workout tape and found it impenetrable. Instead, she walked, ate only when hungry, cut out sugar and processed foods, and eventually slimmed down to 114 pounds. After her mother passed away in 1988, Powter used the $250,000 inheritance she received to open a Dallas fitness studio that she dubbed the Wellness Center.

By that time, Powter had adopted her soon-to-be-signature closely-cropped hairstyle, and her energy—which one journalist described as being not unlike a “human air raid”—was distinctive. She proselytized to women in supermarket aisles, counseling them on healthier food choices.

In 1990, Powter approached Dallas publicity representative Rusty Robertson with a request for help getting more members into her gym. Robertson, who understood what it took to get the public’s attention, was immediately struck by Powter’s charisma. She booked Powter on radio shows and for lectures and facilitated a book contract with Simon & Schuster. To summarize Powter’s candid approach to weight loss, one that dispensed with calorie counting and constant use of a scale, Robertson used the umbrella term of "Stop the Insanity."

By 1993, the pair had organized an infomercial (shot partially in Robertson’s home) that spoke to an audience stretching far beyond the Dallas area. For $79.80, respondents would get a Stop the Insanity package that included five audio tapes, an exercise video, recipes, a guide to fat content in various foods, and a plastic skin-fold caliper that made rough estimates of body fat percentages. Roughly 200,000 of the kits were sold within the first two weeks of the infomercial’s airing. From there, Powter moved 15,000 of them a week. Devotees could supplement this counseling with a paperback book, Pocket Powter, as well as the main Stop the Insanity title, which paid Powter an initial advance of $400,000.

“You gotta give [infomercial producer] USA Direct credit,” Powter said in 1994. “They had chutzpah. They must have been biting their nails when I went out there in front of a live audience—a bald woman wearing a cut-off T-shirt, and no script. Our infomercials are the only ones that are not scripted. And our audiences are not paid to go 'ohh, ahh.' They're not paid at all. Other companies that we had approached to do our infomercials wanted to change me. They found me too aggressive. Typical male interpretation."

Fueled by a desire to help dieters cut through the noise, Powter advocated a simple approach. “Fat makes you fat,” she insisted, dismissing strategies involving food diaries or convoluted exercise programs. In person, she communicated with a kind of gastronomic evangelism, insisting women needed to be fit and healthy in order to combat the patriarchy. The press made frequent mention of how she had effectively conquered her own personal imbalance of power, with first husband Villareal sharing a two-family duplex with Powter and her second husband, musician Lincoln Apeland.

One part Richard Simmons and one part Betty Friedan, Powter seemed poised to segue from infomercial star to feminist wellness guide. Then she simply disappeared.

 
 

As is often the case with rapid fortune, Powter had problems delegating whose pockets deserved to be filled. She spent a good portion of the late 1990s in a legal battle with former business partner Gerald Frankel, whom she had met at her exercise studio, for rights to her name and the “Stop the Insanity” trademark. ("Susan wants it all," Frankel told reporters in 1995, insisting the deal had been equitable.) The two fought in court for years. While she managed to win her identity, it came at the expense of a personal bankruptcy.

Powter turned down sitcom offers and film roles, preferring to direct her energy toward wellness issues. She didn't want her message to be filtered, which didn't always sit well with radio and television producers, so her talk shows disappeared. Powter largely dropped out of the public eye from 1998 to 2008, resurfacing only when she felt her messages of self-empowerment could be delivered, undiluted, via the internet.

Today, her website seems to be only sporadically updated. The 60-year-old Powter's public appearances are infrequent. Her admonition to reduce fat intake has since been supplanted by advocates of low-carb and high-protein menus, along with strenuous workouts. But for a number of people, Powter was able to cut out the white noise of fad diets and gimmicky machines to create a simple message: Eat less, move more, and the rest takes care of itself.

A Timeless History of the Swatch Watch

Jeff Schear, Getty Images for Swatch
Jeff Schear, Getty Images for Swatch

A curious sight surrounded retail watch counters in the 1980s and early 1990s. The crowds that gathered as salespeople put new Swatch watches out for purchase resembled something out of the Cabbage Patch Kid craze of just a few years earlier. Shoppers would jostle one another in the hopes of scoring one of the $30 plastic timepieces, which came in a variety of colors and designs. The demand was such that sellers often set a one-watch-per-customer limit.

That’s where the odd behavior came in. Customers would buy a Swatch, leave, then return—this time in a different set of clothes or even a wig in an effort to overcome the allocation and buy a second or third Swatch. The watches were the fashion equivalent of Beanie Babies, though even that craze didn’t quite reach the heights of needing a disguise. Limited-edition Swatches were coveted by collectors who had failed in their pursuit at the retail level and paid thousands for them on the aftermarket. The accessories simultaneously became a fashion statement and an artistic canvas.

More importantly, they also became the savior of the Swiss watch industry, which had been on the verge of collapse.

A person models a Swatch watch on their wrist
Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images for Soho House Chicago

To understand the unique appeal of Swatch, it helps to size up the landscape of the timepiece category in the late 1970s. Swiss watches, long considered the gold standard of timepieces, were being outpaced by quartz-powered digital imports from Japan that were cheap to produce and cheap to sell. Faced with the choice of buying a quality watch for a premium price or opting for a bargain digital model, an increasing number of consumers were choosing the imports. Business was down, factories were closing, and jobs were being lost.

Fortunately, a number of things were happening that would prove to offer salvation for the Swiss. ETA SA, a company that made watches and was headed up by Ernst Thomke, had recently invested in an injection-molding machine at the behest of engineer Elmar Mock. Mock, along with his colleague Jacque Muller, spent 15 months crafting a plastic prototype watch that was one piece and welded together. The significance of a sealed unit was that it economized the entire process, turning watches from handcrafted units to models that could be produced by automation. The watches required just 51 parts instead of the 91 pieces typical of most models at the time. In this way, Thomke, Mock, and Muller had produced a timepiece that was both durable and inexpensive.

The issue was why someone might opt for a Swatch watch over a digital Japanese model. Thomke knew that the idea of a “Swiss watch” still held wide appeal in the same way someone might opt for a real Chicago deep-dish pizza over an imitator’s version. Along with Nicholas Hayek, who later became CEO of the Swatch Group, Thomke believed he had cracked the code for a Swiss watch renaissance. He released the first Swatch in Zurich in March of 1983.

But the manufacturing process that allowed Swatches to come in at a reasonable price was also a problem. Automating the process meant the watches and bands were almost always identical in size and shape. If the watch’s general appearance couldn’t be changed, how could it stand out?

A selection of Swatch watches are seen on display
Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

The answer was in the design. The Swatch name came from a contraction of two words: secondary watch. The idea was that a watch could be analogous to a necktie or other fashion accessory. No one owned just one tie, scarf, or pair of dress shoes. They typically had a rotation. Thomke and Hayek didn't believe a watch should be any different.

At the behest of marketing consultant Franz Sprecher, Swatches were soon flooding stores in an assortment of colors and with different designs on the face of the timepiece itself. They could be coordinated for different outfits or occasions, a practice that became known as “watch wardrobing." Someone who bought a red Swatch for summer lounging might opt for a black Swatch as part of their professional attire. The watches retailed for $30 to $40 apiece, so buying more than one was financially feasible.

That was the concept, anyway. Some U.S. retail stores received their Swatch inventory and didn’t know what to make of what was—on the surface—a cheap plastic watch. Neither did their customers.

What Swatch needed was a marketing plan. That largely fell into the hands of marketing consultant Max Imgruth, who was named president of the company’s American division. Swatch saw their sales rise from $3 million in 1984 to $105 million in 1985. Thanks to an effective advertising campaign and more eclectic color choices, public perception of Swatches put them firmly in the fashion category.

A selection of Swatch watches designed by artist Keith Haring are seen on display
Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

The approach opened up a new market, one Thomke, Hayek, and their colleagues had not quite anticipated: Collectors were rabid about Swatches.

To keep their biannual collections of 22 to 24 watch releases fresh, Swatch began recruiting a number of collaborators to design extremely unique offerings. In 1984, they enlisted artist Kiki Picasso to design a series. The following year, Keith Haring designed his own collection. In a kind of prelude to the sneaker design phenomenon of the 1990s and beyond, these collaborators put their own distinctive stamps on the Swatches, which acted as a kind of canvas for their artistic expression.

Between third-party designers and contributions from Swatch’s Milan, Italy, design team, collectors couldn’t get enough. There was the Swatchetables line, which imagined the Swatches in a series of food-related motifs—a red-hot chili pepper Swatch, a cucumber Swatch, and a bacon-strap and egg-faced Swatch. The entire set sold for $300 and only at select food markets, quickly shooting up to $2400 in the secondary market. (Like all aftermarket Swatches, they needed to be kept in their plastic retail case in order to realize their full value.) Some resellers bought up stock in New York, then resold them for three times the price in Italy.

The 1985 “Jellyfish” model was transparent. The 1989 “Dadali” had a face with Roman numerals that appeared to be melting off the face and onto the strap. Swatches came with cuffs to honor Mozart or adorned with synthetic fur. There were Mother’s Day editions and editions celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Some of the straps were scented.

A selection of Swatch watches are seen on display
Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

The possibilities were endless, and so was the consumer appetite. (Except for yellow straps, which traditionally sold poorly.) Collectors camped out for Swatches at retailers or hundreds of Swatch-exclusive stores around the country. Affluent collectors dispatched employees to different retailers in the hopes of finding a limited-edition watch for retail price. If they failed, some had no problem paying thousands of dollars at auction. A Kiki Picasso Swatch, one of a very limited 121 pieces total, sold for $28,000 in 1992.

Though no one wears disguises to acquire Swatch watches anymore, the company is still issuing new releases. And while the company has seen a decline in sales over the years—the rise of smartwatches like the Apple Watch and Fitbit continue to eat into their marketing share—affection for the brand is unlikely to disappear entirely anytime soon. In 2015, one of the world’s largest collections of Swatches—5800 pieces—went up for sale, and ultimately fetched $6 million.

The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of the Fanny Pack

Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella
Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella

Back in 1954, Sports Illustrated ran an advertisement for a leather pouch that was touted as an ideal accessory for cross-country skiers who wanted to hold their lunch and ski wax. Hikers, equestrians, and bicyclists could also benefit from this waist-mounted sack, which was a bit like a backpack situated on the hips.

The “fanny pack” sold for $10 ($95 today). For the next several decades, it remained popular among recreational enthusiasts traveling by bike, on foot, or across trails where hands could be kept free and a large piece of travel luggage was unnecessary. From there, it morphed into a fashion statement, marketed by Gucci and Nike for decorative and utilitarian purposes in the 1980s and '90s, before becoming an ironic hipster joke. Even the name—fanny pack—suggests mirth. But the concept of carrying goods on top of your buttocks was never meant to be a joking matter.

A man sports a ski outfit with a fanny pack in 1969
McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mankind has looked to belt-mounted storage solutions for centuries. Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy found preserved in a glacier in 1991, had a leather satchel that held a sharpened piece of bone and flint-stone tools. Subsequent civilizations adopted the premise, with Victorian and Edwardian women toting chatelaine purses made of silk or velvet.

The 20th-century obsession with the fanny pack seemingly began on the ski slopes in Europe in the 1960s and '70s. Known as bauchtasche, or stomach bags, in Switzerland, skiers traveling away from the base lodge who wanted to keep certain items—food, money, a map, flares, and occasionally alcohol—within arm's reach wore them proudly. Photographers also found them useful when hiking or traveling outdoors and climbing through obstacles, as they reduced the risk of an expensive camera or lens being dropped or damaged.

Their migration into fashion and the general public happened in the 1980s, due to what Fashion Fads Through American History author Jennifer Grayer Moore dubbed the rise of “athleisure.” This trend saw apparel and accessories typically relegated to sports or exercise—think leggings, track suits, and gym shorts—entering day-to-day use. With them came the fanny pack, a useful depository for keys, wallets, drinks, and other items. They were especially popular among tourists, who could stash travel accessories like cameras and souvenirs without burdening themselves with luggage.

In the late 1980s, fashion took notice. High-end labels like Chanel manufactured premium fanny packs, often with the more dignified name of belt bag. Sporting one was considered cool, as evidenced by their presence in popular culture. The Fresh Prince, Will Smith, wore one. Members of New Kids on the Block were seen with them. Nothing, it seemed, could dissuade people from feeling pragmatic and hip by sporting an oversized pocket on their waist, which they typically pulled to the front.

A model sports a fanny pack, also known as a belt bag, across her shoulder
Hannah Peters, Getty Images

Like most trends, overexposure proved fatal. Fanny packs were everywhere, given out by marketing departments of major brands like Miller Beer and at sports arenas and stadiums. Plastered with corporate logos, they became too crassly commercial for style purposes and too pervasive. By the end of the 1990s, wearing a fanny pack was no longer cool. It was an act that invited mockery and disdain.

The pack, of course, has retained its appeal among outdoor enthusiasts, and lately has been experiencing a resurgence in style circles, with designer labels like Louis Vuitton and Valentino offering high-end pouches. Many are now being modified or worn across the torso like a bandolier (like so), an adaptation prized by skateboarders who want something to hold their goods without hindering movement.

In 2018, fanny packs were credited with a surge in overall accessories sales, posting double-digit gains in merchandise. The fanny pack may have had its day as an accessory of mass appeal, but it’s not likely to completely disappear anytime soon.

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