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.

Good Fortune: The Story of Miss Cleo's $1 Billion Psychic Empire

The woman sat behind a table, tarot cards in front of her, a turban wrapped tightly around her head. In Jamaican-accented patois, she invited viewers to benefit from her gift of second sight. “Call me now,” Miss Cleo said, and she would reveal all.

Mostly, respondents wanted to know if a lover was cheating on them, though there was no limit to Miss Cleo's divinity. No question was too profound. She could speak with as much wisdom about concerns over financial choices as she could sibling rivalries. Her only challenge was time: Miss Cleo could connect with only a fraction of the people looking for her spiritual guidance, leaving callers in the hands of other (potentially psychically-unqualified) operators.

Still, Miss Cleo became synonymous with psychic phenomena, a way to consult with a medium without getting off your living room couch. From 1997 to 2002, she was a virtually inescapable presence on television—the embodiment of a carnival stereotype that annoyed native Jamaicans, who bristled at her exaggerated accent. It was nonetheless effective: Roughly 6 million calls came in to Miss Cleo over a three-year period, with $1 billion in telephone charges assessed.

Not long after, the companies behind Miss Cleo would be forced to give half of that back amidst charges that they had misled consumers. Despite being a cog in the machine, Miss Cleo herself was vilified. Of the $24 million her hotline raked in monthly, she claimed to have earned just 24 cents a minute, or approximately $15 an hour.

Most people didn’t know she was born in Los Angeles, not in Jamaica; that her real name was Youree Dell Harris; and that her late-night infomercial promising psychic assistance was little more than performance art.

 

Harris may have been raised in California, but Miss Cleo was born in Seattle. While living in Washington in the 1990s, Harris tried her hand at playwrighting, authoring a play titled For Women Only under the name Ree Perris, which she performed at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. In it, Harris wrote and portrayed a Jamaican woman named Cleo, a clear predecessor to the character that would later pop up in television ads.

After producing three plays, Harris left Seattle amid allegations that she had taken grant money from the Langston Hughes Advisory Council, leaving some of the cast and crew unpaid. (Harris later said she left Seattle due to wanting to distance herself from a bad relationship. She told colleagues she had bone cancer and was leaving the area but that they would be paid at a later date.) She ended up in Florida, where she responded to an ad seeking telephone operators. Harris taped a commercial in character as Cleo—the hotline added the “Miss”—for $1750 and then agreed to monitor a phone line for a set wage. Operators made between 14 and 24 cents a minute, she later said, and she was on the higher end.

Psychic premonitions can be difficult to validate, though Harris never claimed to be a medium. In her own words, she was from a “family of spooky people” and was well-versed in voodoo thanks to study under a Haitian teacher. The Psychic Readers Network and Access Resource Services, a set of sister companies that used workers sourced by a third party for their hotlines, recoiled at the word voodoo and declared her a psychic instead.

If Harris was the genuine article, many of her peers were not. As subcontractors who were not employed by the Psychic Readers Network or Access directly, some responded to ads for “phone actors” and claimed they were given a script from which to work. (Access later denied that operators used a script.) The objective, former "psychics" alleged, was to keep callers on the line for at least 15 minutes. Some customers, who were paying $4.99 a minute for their psychic readings, received phone bills of $300 or more.

When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began responding to complaints in 2002, it was not because Harris was portraying a character or because she may have not been demonstrably psychic. It was because the Psychic Readers Network and Access were accused of deceptive advertising. Miss Cleo would urge viewers to call a toll-free 800 number, where operators would then refer them to a paid 900 line to reach a psychic. Miss Cleo also pledged that the first three minutes were free. That was true, though those first three minutes were largely spent on hold.

When people began to dispute their phone charges, Psychic Readers Network and Access were alleged to have referred accounts to collection agencies. Even if a telephone carrier like AT&T canceled the charges, customers would still find themselves subject to harassment over unpaid debt.

Individual states like Missouri and Florida sued or fined the companies, but it was the FTC that created the largest storm cloud. Of the $1 billion earned through the hotline, $500 million remained uncollected from stubborn or delinquent consumers. In a complaint and subsequent settlement, the FTC ordered those debts canceled and imposed a $5 million fine on the companies. Psychic Readers Network and Access did not admit to any wrongdoing.

As for Miss Cleo: Harris was only briefly named in the Florida lawsuit before she was dropped from it; the FTC acknowledged that spokespersons couldn’t be held liable for violations. But the association was enough, and newspaper reporters couldn’t resist the low-hanging fruit. Most headlines were a variation of, “Bet Miss Cleo didn’t see this one coming.”

 

Outed as a faux-Jamaican and with her Seattle past further damaging her reputation, Harris faded from the airwaves. Her fame, however, was persistent. She recorded a voice for a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City game for a character that strongly resembled her onscreen psychic. Private psychic sessions were also in demand, with Harris charging anywhere from $75 to $250 per person. Her Haitian-inspired powers of deduction, she said, were genuine.

Eventually, enough time passed for Miss Cleo to become a source of nostalgia. In 2014, General Mills hired her to endorse French Toast Crunch, a popular cereal from the 1990s that was returning to shelves. Following both the Grand Theft Auto and General Mills deals, Psychic Readers Network cried foul, initiating litigation claiming that the Miss Cleo character was their intellectual property and that Harris's use was a trademark and copyright violation. General Mills immediately pulled the ads. (The argument against Rockstar Games, which produced Grand Theft Auto, was late in coming: Psychic Readers Network brought the case in 2017, 15 years after the game’s original release. The lawsuit is ongoing.)

Unfortunately, Harris’s continued use of the image would shortly become irrelevant. She died in 2016 at age 53 following a bout with cancer. Obituaries identified her as “Miss Cleo” and related her longtime frustration at being associated with the FTC lawsuit. “According to some articles, I’m still in jail,” she told Vice in 2014. Instead, she was where she had always been: Behind a table, listening, and revealing all.

When 'Courage' Caused Controversy for Dan Rather

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

In early 1981, Dan Rather was profiled by a number of media outlets as he prepared to take over as news anchor of CBS Evening News that March. The venerable news program had been headlined by Walter Cronkite for the previous 19 years, with Cronkite typically signing off each broadcast by telling viewers, “And that’s the way it is.”

Speaking to journalists, Rather didn’t give any indication if or when he might adopt his own signature closing statement, a tradition in news exemplified by Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow (“Good night and good luck”), and Charles Osgood (“See you on the radio”), among others. But in one October 1981 interview, Rather did mention that one of his favorite words was courage.

“[Ernest] Hemingway thought that courage was grace under pressure,” Rather told The Boston Globe. “When it comes to courage, I have not been put to the test.”

Just five years later, Rather would find himself the focus of a situation that, while not necessarily requiring courageousness, tested his resolve in the face of public ridicule. It started when he concluded a summer newscast with a pithy send-off that was part self-help advice, part personal message, and somewhat confusing.

“And that’s the CBS Evening News for this summer-ending Labor Day,” he said. “Dan Rather reporting from New York.”

Rather paused, then added, “Courage. Good night.”

That an innocuous, two-syllable word like courage could cause such a stir is attributable in part to the landscape of the news media of the 1980s. In addition to newspapers, Americans got their information primarily from the three major networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Fox, which launched in 1986, didn’t offer primetime news programming; CNN, which debuted in 1980 and pioneered the 24-hour news cycle, didn’t hit its hard news stride until the 1990s (it was regularly referred to as the Chicken Noodle Network during its first decade on the air). As a result, the networks placed great emphasis on the approach and style of their news programming.

Contrasted against his counterparts—Tom Brokaw at NBC and Peter Jennings at ABC—Rather was considered a stern presence on television. The Rather “stare,” as one television critic put it, defied viewers to question the veracity of each report. Management urged Rather to lighten his tone, first by getting him to wear V-neck sweaters, then by interjecting misplaced quips into his reports. (“Ready, set, Gorbachev!” Rather declared before one segment on the then-Soviet Union leader.)

Still, an emphasis on human interest stories and audience loyalty kept the CBS Evening News on top of the ratings during the first few years of Rather’s tenure. The broadcast finished first among the three news programs for 200 straight weeks.

Then, in the summer of 1986, it fell behind. In the mercurial world of news, there was no one specific reason. Brokaw, whose program took the lead, was well-liked; but Rather bristled at suggestions of adopting a lighter tone and was adamant about returning to harder news.

When he came back from an August vacation in time for the Labor Day broadcast on September 1, 1986, he had decided to take a new approach to concluding the broadcast. “Courage” was added before Rather told viewers to have a good night. To some, it was peculiar. To media observers, it was a sharp departure from the kind of objectivity expected of journalists. Was Rather advising viewers to grow a backbone? Was he dismayed at the state of affairs? Others used it as fodder for comic takes in editorials.

Attempts to parse his use of the word went unaided by Rather himself, who cautioned people not to read into it. “Don’t overanalyze it,” he said. “There’s no deep, hidden meaning.” It was just a salutation he had used with friends for years and one that also happened to be one of his father’s favorite words. Rather used it to sign off on some of his radio broadcasts in the 1970s.

“If feels right to me and I think the audience will be comfortable with it,” he said.

CBS executives tried to talk him out of it. “I’m the only one who likes it,” Rather said of the internal response. Howard Stringer, a CBS Evening News producer who had just been named president of the CBS news division, said it was Rather’s “right” to close the broadcast however he liked, but stopped short of endorsing the habit.

Rather did it on Tuesday of that week, and again on Wednesday, but with a twist: Following a Bill Moyers report on the Texas-Mexico border, Rather said coraje, the Spanish word for courage. When that was met with derision, he labeled it an “ill-advised lark.”

Ultimately, Rather's sign off experiment was short-lived. It ended that Friday, with the anchor again wishing “courage” on his viewers. The following Monday, it was back to business as usual, with reports claiming that executives were finally able to convince the broadcaster to abandon his closing statement. September ended with the CBS Evening News again trailing the NBC Nightly News by one-half a ratings point.

Rather had the last word—of sorts—when he ended his tenure as the CBS Evening News anchor in March 2005. For his final broadcast, he looked into the camera and made one final statement. “And to each of you, courage,” he said.

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