The Bess Show in Town : Former Aerobics Star Dances to the Big Screen by Exercising Options

Times Staff Writer

About five years ago, Bess Motta was watching Tom Snyder on television. He was running a tape of a syndicated aerobics show called "Aerobicize." Motta watched the slim, trim women moving gracefully on stage and became depressed about her own acting career, which was not going well. Thirty pounds overweight, she knew she was eating herself into show business oblivion.

"When I went to bed that night, tears trickled down my face," she said. "I thought, 'Those were the most beautiful women doing the most fantastic piece of art. I can never be like that.' "

The next morning, Motta joined the Brentwood Fitness Center. What happened next will undoubtedly inspire pudgies everywhere. Within a few months, Motta not only shed her excess weight, she was teaching 16 aerobics classes a week. Within two years, she was slimmer, trimmer and more famous than those beautiful Aerobicize girls--perhaps the best-known personality in aerobics behind Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons.

"All this is kind of a psychic thing, like I made it happen," Motta said, marveling at the strange turn of events that has changed her life.

Although high-energy teachers with a seemingly endless supply of perkiness have become a cliche on the aerobics scene, Motta was breaking new ground in the early '80s when she combined hot rock music with her bubbly personality and jazz-dance background. It was a style that no doubt influenced countless hundreds of instructors when Motta became the star of "The 20-Minute Workout," television's most successful aerobics show.

In 1982, Ron Harris, producer of the show, had heard about the whirling dervish instructor in Brentwood and attended one of Motta's classes. Immediately afterward, he offered her a job as one of the three dancers on the show as well as the choreographer. Produced for two years, "The 20-Minute Workout" was seen in 120 markets in the United States and Canada and is still in syndication. In Los Angeles, the show ran on KTLA.

"I still get fan mail from fitness fanatics even though we haven't done a show for two years," Motta said. "They'll say things like, 'You were wearing a pink leotard and you winked at the camera.' We did 100 shows but people remember things like that. Amazing."

As a student at Taft High 10 years ago, Motta was voted class clown and perhaps considered least likely to wind up as a magazine cover girl. "I wasn't a fat kid with warts but I was plump and I wasn't sexy," she said. But when Motta and "The 20-Minute Workout" became synonymous, she was transformed into a sexy pinup on the covers of seemingly every fitness magazine in the Western Hemisphere.

There's robust Bess Motta on Vegetarian Times, exuberant Bess Motta on Fit, sultry Bess Motta on WorkOut, athletic Bess Motta on Home Gym & Fitness. She lifts weights on the cover of Trim and Fit, promising a "fame and fitness workout" to its readers. Diet & Exercise magazine displays her taut body in a skimpy leotard and blares in big blue type: "Exclusive!! Bess Motta--Go Lean & Mean with Her Newest Trimmers."

Motta, of course, no longer sheds a tear for herself. "The 20-Minute Workout," she said, "was the meatiest aerobics gig possible. It was hot and glamorous and was on the air just when the video craze started. People went nuts over it. I attribute whatever confidence and edge I have to that show."

Although her connection with "The 20-Minute Workout" still brings her endorsements for products like aerobics shoes and tanning lotion, and enabled her to buy a three-bedroom house in Encino, Motta decided not to perpetuate her aerobics image with a Fonda-like videotape. "I had a million opportunities to make a tape," she said, "but I did not want to be Bess Motta, aerobics legend."

At the moment, she is working on becoming Bess Motta, screen legend. She had a small role in Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator"--"I was terminated," she said--and a bigger part in the upcoming "You Talkin' to Me?" She recently returned from the Philippines, where she spent a month starring in an action-adventure called "No Witnesses."

Filming the movie was an adventure itself. She was in Manila during the recent political unrest, she said, "and there were mobs all over the place." Her hotel, she said, bore no resemblance to the Beverly Wilshire. Filming was done in a steamy jungle.

"I'd get up early and go to sleep late," she said. "I'd be in the jungle all day, so I couldn't work out. It drove me nuts."

Although staying in shape is still important to her, Motta has learned to control her passion for fitness. When she taught at the Brentwood Fitness Center, she was "obsessive" about working out, she said, "and aerobics was the most important thing in the world to me. I didn't diet to get pretty or skinny or sexy. I thought of my body as a machine, and I only cared about eating things that would allow me to work out three to five hours a day."

Teaching aerobics enabled Motta to pay the rent and take her mind off acting. Although she had starred in a musical in England for six months in 1980, Hollywood ignored her when she returned to her hometown. Aerobics became therapeutic.

"I started thinking of myself as an athlete," she said, "and my athletic life style allowed me to let go of acting for a while. It took the pressure off."

It also enabled Motta to test her theory. "I call it the Watermelon Seed Principle," she said. "The harder you squeeze, the farther it's going to fly across the room. The same applies to acting. If you want something really bad, it won't happen. As soon as I forgot about my movie career, it really picked up."

She hopes the principle will work with her real love, singing. "That's what I'm really going after," said Motta, a rock 'n' roller who once performed with Bess and the Lost Boys. "I'd trade everything to be a singer. It's in my soul."

In the meantime, however, "I'll do whatever comes along, and that's usually pretty cool."

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