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How Jane Fonda's Workout Conquered the World

Jane Fonda, Oscar-winning actress and daughter of Hollywood royalty Henry Fonda, could not believe what was being suggested. Yes, she told Mid-Vid owner Stuart Karl, she had written a best-selling workout book. Yes, she was going to produce a record album to accompany it. Yes, she was a believer in fitness, even though many gyms of the late 1970s had been dominated by men.

No, she would not star in a workout video. At 44, she had been nominated for an Oscar an astonishing three times in four years, winning for 1978’s Coming Home. (It would join her first, for 1971’s Klute.) It’s not that videocassettes were beneath her; it’s that she barely knew what they were.

But Karl was persistent. He kept calling and spouting foreign terminology like home video and sell-through. Fonda began listening, but not because Karl was convincing. She decided to produce a cassette titled Jane Fonda’s Workout for her own highly personal reasons. Seventeen million tapes later, she wound up reinventing two massive consumer industries, ushering in new fashion trends, and becoming the first two-time Academy Award winner to endorse a treadmill.   

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The phenomenon that was Jane Fonda’s Workout involved a lot of moving parts. The fitness and aerobic craze that gripped the country in the 1980s created unprecedented demand for physical education. Men wanted to beef up; women, increasingly comfortable working out, wanted to slim down. Simultaneously, home video was trying to become a permanent installation in households, but consumers were less enthused about buying VCRs than they were about gym memberships. The rental market was still developing, and even film buffs balked at paying upwards of $120 for a copy of Star Wars.

That’s where Stuart Karl came in. As founder of Karl Home Video, Karl saw a huge opportunity to create a market between the highly commercial Hollywood films and the lurid under-the-counter world of pornography. Mid-Vid, a line of home improvement tapes, CPR instruction, and other special interest titles, “filled the gap between Jaws and Deep Throat,” he said.

One day, Karl and his wife, Debbie, were walking around New York City when they noticed a store that had a display of Fonda’s workout book in the window. Debbie mused that it would be nice to work out at home and not have to deal with gym crowds.

The wheels in Karl’s mind started turning. He phoned the campaign office of Thomas Hayden, Fonda’s then-husband and a career politician, to try and reach her to talk about the book—and, he added, maybe discuss politics, since they all happened to share similar views.

Fonda was willing to chat about both, although fitness had increasingly become part of her private and public identities. According to her autobiography, My Life So Far, a problematic habit of binging on food and then purging became unsustainable. A more pragmatic approach was exercise, though she had recently suffered a setback: breaking her foot on the set of The China Syndrome. Forced to abandon her ballet routines, she came across a class in Century City, Calif., run by a woman named Leni Cazden, a smoker who valued long-duration exercise to burn calories. Teaming with Cazden, she opened Jane and Leni’s Workout in Beverly Hills in 1979. Two thousand people passed through the studio each week; Fonda herself taught several classes.

The success of the gym led her to writing Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, which spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and may have become a permanent fixture if not for the paper creating a separate “How-To” category. Despite a prosperous acting career—or possibly because of it—Fonda was becoming synonymous with women’s fitness.

Home video, however, was appealing for only one reason: money. Not for herself, but for her husband’s “New Left” political rallying organization, the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), which required a steady stream of funds to continue operations. Fonda was already donating proceeds from her film premieres, but they could always use more.

Karl was not the only one with the idea of a Fonda tape, but he might have been the most persistent. In 1982, she agreed. Karl Home Video partnered with RCA and $50,000 was made available for production costs for what would become Jane Fonda’s Workout. (Contrary to the title, it was actually Leni’s workout: Fonda’s partner created the routine seen in the first video.) The actress used teachers and students from her gym to form a group for filming, which she led while standing barefoot; the production built its own set after realizing her actual gym mirrors would make it impossible to film. Fonda tried to lead while not sounding out of breath, and had to remind herself to say “left” when she wanted the viewer to go right. Because the footage was shot in 25-minute increments, another “take” meant another entire aerobics session—up to four in a row.

She left the rest up to Karl. While VCRs were getting more popular, she didn’t even know anyone who owned one; a typical sales success story at the time might be 25,000 cassettes. While Fonda was hopeful, she was not confident this would be anything more than a footnote in her career. The tape was slated for release the week of May 22, 1982.

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As it turns out, Debbie Karl’s desire to work out in the privacy of home was one shared by millions of American women. Initially priced at $59.95, Jane Fonda’s Workout started slowly, moving just 3000 copies in its first month. As word of mouth spread, the tape sold over 200,000 units in a year—more than Paramount’s Star Trek II. Karl had solved the puzzle of VHS sell-through: Produce a tape that consumers would practically be forced to watch over and over again.

While VCRs were slowly creeping into American households, the same wasn’t exactly true of cassettes. Many households used them for recording purposes—enough to cause shortages of blank tapes—and had minimal interest in commercial offerings. But Fonda’s cassettes were snatched up by fans who proceeded to gorge themselves on an ever-larger library. New music and new movements followed in Workout Challenge before moving to specialty offerings like Pregnancy, Birth and Recovery. The Workouts also opened up a cascade of me-too releases, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Marie Osmond, but nothing topped Fonda’s innovation: In 1985, three of her tapes occupied Billboard’s top ten videocassette sales chart. The original had been there for 145 weeks.

Fonda enlisted a cardiologist and physiologist to make sure her routines were reasonably safe for general audiences. But “Doing Jane,” as the routine became known, was about more than just a cardio session. Fonda’s outfit of tights and leg warmers—which she had appropriated from her days in ballet—became fitness fashion trends. Women spoke of having increased confidence and self-esteem. Fonda got letters from fans who did the workouts in Guatemalan mud huts and from oppressed office workers who told their bosses to stuff it.

Fonda opened two more workout studios, but they were blips compared to the fitness industry explosion as a whole. By the mid-1980s, close to 20 million people were involved in aerobics. All kinds of equipment, exercise programs, and infomercials began appealing to the stay-at-home enthusiast. (Fonda herself promoted a self-propelling treadmill.) Her tapes grew along with the home video market: Before her debut, less than 10 percent of households had the machines. By 1985, 30 percent were equipped, a number that wasn’t thought to be achievable until the end of the decade. Fonda’s success had poured millions into the CED—and many millions more into what would become a billion-dollar industry.

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With her 16th video release in 1992, Fonda announced her retirement from acting. (Stanley and Iris, released in 1990, would be her last film until 2005.) The tapes continued sporadically throughout the 1990s—Jane Fonda’s Yoga and Step and Stretch were attempts to reinvigorate the brand—but cable television was offering fit bodies to mimic at no charge, and eventually, Jane Fonda-branded sweat slowed to a trickle.

In all, Fonda released more than two dozen workouts on both VHS and DVD; her last, Prime Time, arrived in 2010, when she was 72 years old. Despite being an unqualified success and the biggest non-theatrical brand to ever hit home video, she did pause more than once to consider whether she was becoming more well-known for pelvic tilts than her acting.

“I’d never play an exercise instructor in a movie,” she once told Billboard. “And I never go on TV in a leotard.”

Additional Sources: My Life So Far; “Strategic Maneuvering and Mass-Market Dynamics: The Triumph of VHS Over Beta”; Billboard.

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