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Body Building : Joe Weider’s Iron Grip on an Empire

Times Staff Writer

From the moment he built his first crude barbells out of parts found in a junkyard more than 50 years ago, Joe Weider dreamed of power.

He was 13, rail-thin, living in a gang-infested Montreal ghetto. Beaten up more than once, he feared traveling from one neighborhood to the next. Lifting weights, he hoped, would change all that.

But Weider did not stop at building his biceps. Body building swept him up, he recalls now, “like a religious fervor.” At 17, armed with $7 and a mimeograph machine, he launched an instructional magazine. He began selling weight-training devices and dietary supplements aimed at packing on muscle. He organized muscle-building contests in cities across the United States and Europe.

2,000 Employees

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In time, Weider built a publishing and sales empire that boasts 2,000 employees worldwide and gross revenues of more than $250 million a year. Today, in the relatively small, little-known world of body building, Weider is an unchallenged Goliath. He is credited with turning a forgotten pastime into a global subculture. He is the sport’s most daring salesman, its top star maker and its most relentless self-promoter--a fiery, controversial figure who dominates the body building scene like a zealous Greek god.

His ego is herculean: A single recent issue of Weider’s Muscle & Fitness magazine contains at least 80 photos or likenesses of Weider--mostly on advertised Weider products--and more than 110 mentions of Weider’s name.

At 67, Weider claims credit for producing every muscle-building champion of the last 40 years. And yet his business tactics have brought a string of lawsuits from rival entrepreneurs and body building stars. He has been accused of running the sport as a monopoly and he has been the target of false-advertising suits by both the Federal Trade Commission and the state of California.

Known in Soviet Union

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“He can argue up and down and scream and get very emotional,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Weider protege. “But the fact of the matter is, he has helped millions of people. When I was in the Soviet Union shooting ‘Red Heat,’ people were asking in Red Square about Joe Weider.”

It was Weider who discovered Schwarzenegger 22 years ago at a body building contest in Europe. Weider brought him to America, paid for Schwarzenegger’s first apartment in Santa Monica, gave him a car, a weekly $100 allowance and splashed the youngster’s triumphs across the covers of his magazines.

Later, he would do much the same with another young unknown from New York--Lou Ferrigno, who would go on to stardom as television’s “The Incredible Hulk.”

Weider’s empire, riding the crest of the fitness boom, is expanding more quickly these days than ever before. His headquarters in Woodland Hills, which once housed a core group of about 20 employees, is being overhauled to handle the 150 workers who now run the four privately held Weider companies--magazine publishing, equipment sales, health-food sales and product licensing.

Weider’s flagship magazine, Muscle & Fitness, just surpassed 600,000 in monthly circulation, a sevenfold increase in 10 years. Foreign-language editions are now sold in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan.

In recent years, Weider has unveiled three newer publications--Men’s Fitness, Flex, and Shape (a magazine for women)--and he is planning to launch another later this year. He is also dabbling with health clubs in Hawaii and experimenting with licensing the Weider name for apparel. A contract has just been announced to distribute 500,000 Russian-language Weider fitness instruction books in the Soviet Union.

“I knew . . . that sooner or later people would recognize that the human body is the highest form of art,” Weider said. “We were building champions, we were beginning to run shows all over. Arnold came on the scene; Lou Ferrigno came on the scene. These guys were bigger than life. . . . Bit by bit, it began to catch on.”

Despite the expanding fitness market, Weider has stayed far ahead of his rivals in body building, keeping a tight hold on the daily fortunes of his companies. At his best he can be charming, even inspirational.

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“I like him. I think he’s a decent human being,” said one former champion, Leroy Colbert, who credited Weider with opening the sport to blacks and other minorities. "(But) I was always surprised that Joe lived to the ripe old age he has, because I knew people who hated him with a vengeance!”

Weider’s antagonists complain that he reneges on promises, haggles over business deals and takes credit that others deserve--all charges he vehemently denies. He has portrayed himself as the Jesus Christ, the Mahatma Gandhi and the Karl Marx of his field. His fascination with world leaders is reflected at his lavish Mediterranean-style mansion in Hancock Park, where he collects artwork and original letters of men like Washington, Lincoln, Einstein and Freud.

He has studied the tactics of others who could inspire the masses, including Churchill, Moses, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler.

“I wanted to know, for example, how Hitler was able to manipulate the world and bring such destruction on Western civilization,” Weider said in an interview, talking in his distinctive twang. The sound of that voice--which Schwarzenegger and nearly every other close associate enjoy imitating--was described by one acquaintance as a “Russian-Jewish-French-Canadian twang with a Lawrence Welk echo.”

Weider’s prominence in body building has been preserved in part by the obscurity of the sport. As one competitor noted, newspaper sports pages do not cover body building, so the editorial voice of the sport and its primary source of news are Weider’s magazines--publications that unabashedly exalt Joe Weider and hustle his wide range of barbells, amino acid tablets and other products.

“He is the Hertz and there is no Avis,” said John Balik, publisher of Santa Monica-based Ironman magazine, a small rival with 80,000 circulation.

Weider’s magazines showcase stars who typically are under contract to endorse Weider products. The same magazines also devote pages to major body building contests sanctioned by the International Federation of Body-Builders, a Montreal-based organization that Weider co-founded in 1946.

Like Weider’s own companies, the IFBB has grown dramatically over the years. It now sanctions hundreds of amateur and professional body building contests each year in 136 member countries.

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Today’s major competitions, such as the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic in Columbus, Ohio, in March, or the annual Mr. Olympia contest in November, attract thousands of spectators to civic halls or local arenas.

From its inception, the IFBB has been run by a single president: Joe Weider’s younger brother, Ben.

Polished and diplomatic, a collector of Napoleon memorabilia (even a lock of hair), Ben Weider refers to Joe as his idol. The two talk every week on the phone and claim they have never argued in the 43 years they have stood astride the sport. Ben Weider not only oversees the sport’s administrative chores--including a current effort to get body building into the Olympic Games--he also handles the sale of Joe Weider products internationally.

Critics say the overlapping roles of the brothers present clear conflicts of interest: A star body builder who wishes to appear in Joe Weider’s magazines dares not endorse rival products. To incur Weider’s wrath, detractors claim, is to risk turning the sport’s entire political structure against you.

“You’re looking at a dictatorship,” commented George Snyder, an archrival who publishes Philadelphia-based Body & Fitness magazine, which claims a circulation of 140,000. “It has the veneer of being a sport when it’s really a commercialized industry.”

Weider vigorously denies such accusations. Today’s body builders can and do appear in rival magazines and advertisements, he said. And Ben Weider continues to run the organization at the behest of member nations, who vote overwhelmingly to reelect him every four years.

“I don’t tell him what to do and he doesn’t tell me what to do,” Joe Weider said of his brother.

Still, controversy has plagued the Weider organization like a recurring spasm. One typical lawsuit, settled out of court several years ago, involved a former Mr. Universe, Kalman Szkalak, who accused Weider of violating an endorsement agreement and later, in cooperation with his brother, causing Szkalak to be blackballed from the sport.

Szkalak claimed that Weider tried to pay him less than the trifle $250 a week that his contract called for, and that Weider also tried to apply the endorsement to products that were not a part of the agreement. His career ended after he tried to protest the tactics, Szkalak charged.

Weider denies the accusations, claiming that Szkalak was not in shape to pose for pictures that were a part of the contract. Weider said he agreed to settle the suit only after Szkalak took his pregnant wife into court. “He was real hostile,” Weider said. “Nobody liked him.”

The case was typical of the many small battles Weider has waged over the years.

“He has soured people from coast to coast,” said Body & Fitness publisher Snyder, who fought the Weiders over the rights to the Ms. Olympia contest for women, which Snyder initiated in 1980. Against his protest, the IFBB took control of the event a few years after it began.

Detractors make a frequent target of Weider’s legendary hubris. His nickname, “The Master Blaster,” is said to allude to the energy and power of a rocket launch. On the publisher’s page of his magazines, where Weider is often pictured along with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Lauren Hutton, the nickname is a part of the byline: “By Joe Weider, The Master Blaster, Trainer of Champions since 1936.”

Instructional articles refer to the “Weider Principles” of training, techniques that Weider acknowledges he has collected from a pantheon of body building stars. Weider’s wife, Betty, a former model, has a column, “Body By Betty,” which seems to reinforce the notion that all body building knowledge is a gift to the world from the Weiders.

“He would talk to various champions about how to train and he would come up with ideas,” observed Rick Wayne, a former Mr. Universe and former editor for Weider. “And he called it the ‘Weider Research Clinic,’ ”

But there is no denying Weider’s marketing prowess. The combined circulation of his four magazines--now about 1.7 million a month--is the product of his keen sense of the market and long hours spent in the office. He still writes advertising copy, checks the photographs for the magazines, and plots sales strategies and new product lines.

Today’s ambitious body builder can spend considerable sums on Weider’s line of dietary supplements alone.

Hefty Prices

For example, a bottled supply of 405 “BIG Chewables"--tablets containing protein, carbohydrates, enzymes, minerals and vitamins--was priced recently in one sporting goods store at $7.99. The consumer was urged by the label to “take up to 27 tablets at a time, 3 or 4 times daily.” The buyer also was urged to take the tablets in conjunction with sugar-free “BIG Powder,” a protein drink mix that was displayed on the same shelf, for $9.99.

Nutritionists say such products are generally useless for athletes who eat a normal diet.

“Protein supplements, amino acid supplements--that’s totally a rip-off,” said Wayne Bidlack, a pharmacology and nutrition specialist at USC. “The average intake of protein for an adult male is probably about 99 grams a day and the (recommended daily allowance) is 56. If you take anything on top of that, the body just throws it away.”

Weider disagrees with the experts, saying that at one time even vitamins were dismissed by medical science; the athlete in training needs more than average daily allowances, he claims.

“He’s a hell of an entrepreneur,” said former Olympic hammer-thrower George Frenn, who sued Weider several years ago in a dispute over a magazine article. “The guy will sell you your own suit.”

Weider’s interest in body building goes back to his childhood, in a Jewish ghetto where his father struggled for a living as a factory worker. The frail youngster saw the powerful figures in weightlifting magazines and it stirred his ambition.

“All I knew was, I wanted to get stronger because I was weak . . . and wanted to be a little macho,” Weider recalled.

Weider was forced to quit school at age 12 to get a job, first as a grocery delivery boy and later as a short-order cook. But he became more and more obsessed by muscle building. When he tried to start his first magazine, at 17, his mother tried to discourage him, going so far as throwing away his ink supplies, Weider recalled.

Then one day she visited a so-called fortuneteller.

“This fortuneteller told her, you have three sons . . . and described everybody,” Weider said. “She said, ‘You have one son, he’s about 18, he’s slim . . .’ and she described me. She said, ‘You should leave him be free to do what he wants because he is going to be successful and you’ll be proud of him.’ ”

The 5-foot-11 Weider became a moderately successful body builder, able at one point to bench-press 400 pounds. But he found greater success as a teacher and promoter. He appreciates the aesthetics of the sport and seems perplexed by others who do not.

“People go to a dog show,” he said. “Why? To look at the most perfect dog. They go to a cat show . . . they go to a horse show: ‘Oh, look at these horses. Look how they prance. Look at the proud head. Look at the tail.’

“They make such a big deal out of the animals, and what is the human body? We believe we’re God’s greatest creations, so why should the body be ugly?”

When Weider got started, body building contests generally were held after amateur weightlifting meets, commencing sometimes at midnight. Weider battled to bring body building into prominence, creating separate competitions and signing up stars. He operated out of New York and New Jersey, developing a reputation as a gifted motivator who was notoriously tight with a buck, former employee Colbert said.

Colbert said he once became so enraged with Weider during an argument over an airline fare that he punched his own hand through a window. But today Colbert considers himself a devoted fan; he recalls Weider as endlessly fascinating, a caring person who seemed to delight in psychological games.

He liked to assign employees to use their own cars for company errands, instructing them to look for unexpired parking meters, Colbert remembered. Invariably, he said, Weider left the table at restaurants just before the check arrived.

“I remember Joe told me once, he stays up nights trying to figure out how to beat the next guy,” Colbert said. “While they’re sleeping, he’s thinking.”

Weider’s supporters are quick to come to his defense, citing his impoverished background and his huge contributions to the sport.

Photographer Art Zeller said it is senseless to accuse Weider, as some lawsuits have, of exploiting his stars by paying too little or abusing their endorsements. After all, Weider was the first man, and for years the only man, ever to pay body builders anything.

“Because of him, a lot of people are able to make a living in the sport they love,” Zeller said. “He’s taken unknowns and made them stars. He’s raised the sport of body building from nothing to quite a big enterprise worldwide.”

In his enthusiasm, Weider sometimes promises things he cannot, or does not, deliver--such as appearances on a magazine cover, associates said. But, according to Schwarzenegger, such slights are never intentional; Weider simply forgets or for some reason changes his mind. “I’ve screamed at him . . . but I understand it,” the actor said. “He is not the kind of guy who would do something intentionally to hurt someone.”

Schwarzenegger recalled living in his small Santa Monica apartment after coming to America, a virtual nobody. Weider would show up and take him to art auctions and galleries. At the time Weider had a West Coast office and was preparing to move to California permanently, so he visited and taught Schwarzenegger about real estate and business. He once looked at Schwarzenegger’s bare walls and lent him three of his favorite paintings.

“Five years later, I tried to give them back,” Schwarzenegger said. “He said, ‘No, they’re yours.’ ”

Ferrigno came west at Weider’s request to train for the Mr. Olympia contest in 1976. He said Weider unselfishly encouraged him to audition for “The Incredible Hulk,” a series that ran five years and prevented him from competing in the contest.

The series, as it turned out, ended Ferrigno’s body building career, but not his friendship with Weider.

“If I had a choice of a father, I wish he could have been my father,” Ferrigno said. “He made me feel I should be strong-minded, that whatever I wanted I could achieve. He was always in my corner, and he always will be.”

Weider’s many battles have continued since he moved permanently to California in 1972. His “5-Minute Body Shaper,” a device that promised “amazing” one-week weight losses “without dieting,” was the target of a false-advertising suit brought by the state in 1974. By Weider’s definition, “without dieting” meant you could eat anything you wanted--as long as you ate 20% less of it. The ads were changed.

Weider reached a $400,000 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in 1985 after he was charged with making false claims about the muscle-building powers of his “Anabolic Mega-Pak” and “Dynamic Life Essence” pills. He admitted no wrongdoing and still doesn’t, despite the insistence by some nutritional specialists that the amino acid supplements are useless to anyone eating a normal diet.

The latest suit against Weider was filed last month by a New York-based company that claims it was illegally prevented from advertising in Weider’s magazines, which the company described as vital to survival in the marketplace. Weider laughed, declining to comment on the suit. “But I’m flattered,” he said.

Many years ago, Weider commissioned a bronze statue of himself that still rests in his offices, its arms rippling, its head held high. The artwork also appears on his product labels and in his magazines as a symbol of strength and inspiration.

Today, Weider acknowledges that the muscles of the torso were actually modeled after those of Robby Robinson, one of his body building proteges. But the proud profile remains Weider’s--a man sure of his mission, sure of his place in the world, no matter what the critics may say.

“You think anybody says negative things about Jesus? About Moses?” Weider asked. “You get a lot of atheists and devil worshipers that hate God. Why should I be loved by everybody?”


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