THE CULT OF THE L.A. BODY : In the Land of the Obsessed : Los Angeles Is the Mecca for the Cult of the Body. How Far Can the Fanaticism Go?

Paddy Calistro writes the Looks column for this magazine

I'D KILL MYSELF IF I didn't have a perfect body," says a San Fernando Valley real estate broker, who spends about $50,000 a year to maintain her looks. The 50 grand goes to her personal trainer, nutritionist, masseuse, suntan parlor, facialist, hair stylist and manicurist. And it doesn't count her plastic surgery. That adds $10,000 the year she had a face lift, $2,500 last year to have the fat suctioned out of her thighs and $5,000 the year before toaugment her breasts and alter her nose. Cher, she says, is her idol.

THERE ARE PEOPLE IN Southern California who don't exercise, people who overdose on junk food and those whose noses aren't perfect. Yes, there are even some fat people. But try to convince the rest of the world. Outsiders may call Los Angeles laid back, unsophisticated, even flaky, but they never say its people are out of shape. To everyone who isn't from here, this is the home of the body obsessed, the mecca for the body worshiper. And for good reason.

Jane Fonda lives here. So does Arnold Schwarzenegger. The exercise video was born here. So was the personal-trainer industry. Likewise the Pritikin diet. More plastic surgeons practice here than in any other place in America. And the sun almost always shines.

It's the rare trend in beauty and fitness that hasn't begun in Southern California. And those that didn't burgeoned here before moving into the mainstream. "Los Angeles is a testing ground in many ways. It's where the rest of America can experiment with their desires without risk," explains Dr. Mark Goulston, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. "If it works in California, the others are willing to take a chance. If it flops, they can say, 'We told you so.' "

Climate plays a big part in the region's body-beautiful image. "Because of year-round good weather, people expose their bodies more," Goulston says. "They're motivated to stay fit, to look young, to be attractive. So, young, beautiful people are equated with Southern Californians. And then, of course, there's Hollywood."

The image of the L.A. body has been reshaped since the days when Gold's Gym was a hole in the wall on 2nd Street in Santa Monica, before Joe Weider was a fitness empire and when Muscle Beach was for serious weight trainers. In those days, bulging biceps belonged on the Charles Atlas circuit, and only the rare woman considered pumping iron. As far as Hollywood was concerned, the ultimate male bodies belonged to the lean likes of Cary Grant and Clark Gable. Women were round, firm and fully packed, a la Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. All America emulated the bodies of screen stars.

In the late '50s, New York fashion magazines--not Hollywood--started dictating body trends. The Southern California look took a back seat to such models as Suzy Parker and, later, Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy. Then L.A. model agent Nina Blanchard discovered Alhambra-born Cheryl Tiegs, sent her to New York to work with Eileen Ford, and the fresh-faced California blonde with curves became America's ideal. Tiegs' slim, slightly turned-up nose became the plastic surgeon's prototype and her figure the new paragon. Sports Illustrated enshrined her in three swimsuit issues. Then Christie Brinkley carried on the tradition. California beach bodies both: lithe, athletic and innocently voluptuous.

When Jane Fonda appeared in a bikini in the 1977 film "California Suite," Hollywood was again defining the perfect body. And it didn't belong to an 18-year-old. In those pre-Workout days, Fonda was whittling her figure at Gilda Marx's exercise studio in a Century City penthouse. Marx and her team of instructors introduced the actress to the concept of aerobics. At the same time, Southern California-based Jacki Sorensen, who created Aerobic Dancing classes, and Judi Sheppard Missett, the Carlsbad-based developer of Jazzercise, used franchise classes in high school gyms and Y's to teach Middle America that it was possible to have fun while working up a sweat. But it took Fonda to create the sensation and her body to create the motivation. It obviously worked. As Fonda herself points out, "Aerobic dance alone has become the largest organized fitness effort in our country. There are more adults taking part regularly in aerobic dance programs than there are high school students participating in interscholastic athletics."

Perhaps another Hollywood star--Phyllis Diller--deserves the same kind of credit for bringing the face lift out of the closet in the 1960s. She proved to Mrs. America that there was an acceptable way to escape wrinkles. Eventually even First Lady Betty Ford would discuss her face lift in public. By 1986 an estimated 591,000 elective cosmetic surgeries were being performed annually by board-certified plastic surgeons. And a survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times last fall indicates that at least 20% of the women in Los Angeles County have considered plastic surgery.

Today there are as many plastic surgeons practicing in Southern California as in any single state. It's a big business, no longer just the refuge of older women. "Without a doubt, cosmetic surgery is increasingly popular among people conscious of their appearance," says Dr. Dan S. Smith, president of the California Society of Plastic Surgeons. In fact, according to a CSPS survey, most of the Californians who elect to have cosmetic surgery are younger than 40 years old. And many of these men and women are requesting face lifts and eyelid surgery, procedures often associated with people over 40. The same survey reveals that, in California, the most commonly performed cosmetic surgeries are breast enlargement, eyelid work, face lifts and suction lipectomy or fat suctioning. (See story, Page 8.)

In the world view, L.A. bodies are fed perfectly, too. No junk. No caffeine. And above all, no fat. "Thanks to the Pritikin diet, America sees Southern California as a fat-free society," says Michael Greenwald, whose Los Angeles marketing and public relations firm serves many fitness-related clients.

While the reality is different--witness the massive number of high-fat, fast-food restaurants in the Los Angeles basin--"spa cuisine," "California cuisine" and a proliferation of nutritionists and health-food stores feed the image. "Because of the nutritional information that comes from Southern California, there is national awareness that fat intake must be reduced," says Dan Isaacson, a personal trainer who travels the country as fitness expert for "Good Morning America." "And people are always asking me, 'What's happening next in Southern California?' "

That's the question that international marketing and advertising executives are asking. They want to know what the L.A. body is up to. As psychiatrist Goulston says, "There's something compelling about Southern California and the physical feats Southern Californians can achieve. Tradition-ridden folks in other parts of the country are living vicariously through people here. Southern Californians have-- or get --the body everyone else wants, no matter what it takes."

Hair and makeup by Jeanne Townsend / Celestine Cloutier; styling by Polly Hoyt / Celestine Cloutier

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