Elvis Has Just Entered the Building
Whenever Billy Blanks retells his life’s drama, its major actors--even the federal government--are sufficiently comfortable to address him as just “Billy.”
There, at the humble origins in Phoenix of what would later become his Tae Bo Aerobics workout, is the actress Catherine Bach, meeting Blanks at a fund-raiser for American Indians and telling him: “Billy, I think you should move to California.” Which he did, in 1989. Not long after, an unnamed big-wheel producer leaves Blanks’ original workout space (his Reseda garage), only to return later, saying: “Billy, you should open a studio. You’d be successful.” During the attempt to trademark his workout (it was then called Kaerobics), the government calls Blanks, saying: “Billy, we’re sorry, but some other guy trademarked that name two days ago.”
It’s just as well. It’s difficult to imagine a workout named Kaerobics catching on in the same way as has Tae Bo, Blanks’ second name choice for the phenomenally successful aerobic workout that combines various martial arts movements. Tae Bo now reverberates in the mind like other profitable trademarks: Claritin, Teflon, Xerox. Blanks didn’t just step out from behind the StairMaster, of course; he’d been building up his own gym business in the San Fernando Valley for years. But since its release in August, 1998, the Tae Bo video workout has sold more than 5 million copies, and Blanks’ business manager, Jeffrey Greenfield, says his client has signed a deal with Bantam Books worth a reported $1.5 million. He was even being courted by Mike Ovitz’s agency, AMG Entertainment. No doubt, when Ovitz reached Blanks at his Ventura Boulevard studio, he called him Billy, too.
Blanks’ sudden trans-global popularity--even Parisians cry his name when he walks their streets--is difficult to fathom when you first meet him. Looking almost otherworldly, with his shaved head and serene gaze and extreme reliance on gym-oriented, non-natural clothing fibers, Blanks still comes off as, well, ordinary. In interviews, he can be distant and defensive. He is one of those successful men who says, “It’s not about the money,” but he seems to have settled comfortably into financial accomplishment, driving Vipers and Durangos, handing out presents like music studios to his children, and donating heavily to his church, the Crenshaw Christian Center.
So how did a guy with a workout studio in the Valley get to be, with all due respect to James Cameron, king of the world?
The major actors in Blanks’ life drama these days--there seem to be millions of them and they are all excitable fans--feel very, very comfortable around him. (You can bet they all call him Billy.) There was the man in Arkansas who felt so comfortable near Blanks that he licked him. Inside Blanks’ entourage, this is known as the “Arkansas licking incident,” as in: “Have you heard of the Arkansas licking incident?”
His fans feel comfortable enough to cry in front of him in restaurants, or hand him cellulars with screaming wives on the other end, or just finger his eggplant-size biceps, then run home and tell relatives that they touched him. A group of firefighters ripped the shirt off his back once because they had to own it. In fact, so many people were ripping the shirt off his back--in restaurants, in airports, on live TV appearances--that Blanks finally hired his own bodyguard, Trevor.
Now, wherever Blanks goes--whether it’s as a guest trainer in Miami for Super Bowl weekend, or working out with Arnold or Magic, or throwing out the first ball at the Royals’ season opener this year, or leading hundreds of coeds through Tae Bo at UCLA, or helping Oprah get into shape--Trevor goes. Sometimes, as a dodge, Trevor hands out shirts. It’s hard to imagine that people ever felt this way--drawn? mesmerized? obsessed?--over any of the ponytailed, screaming workout kings who show up on infomercials at 3 in the morning.
Recently, about 150 women in lycra outfits were attempting to wind their way onto the workout floor for Blanks’ 5 p.m. class in Encino, directed by handsome men who were busy monitoring traffic flow, collecting entrance cards and addressing the crowd as “O-right, People.” The whole scene, which repeats itself as many as 10 times a day, had the feel of a Red Cross relief operation about to burst. When you work out at Billy Blanks’ gym, you are surrounded by hand-painted signs imploring belief: “God Is Good,” “Let Brotherly Love Continue,” “Walk by Faith--Not by Sight,” “Faith Without Works Is Dead,” and the brain-jumble, “You’re Snared by the Words of Your Mouth.” It made for a confusing panorama that afternoon.
Blanks’ typical client, a white woman between the ages of 25 and 35 with a really great hair stylist, does not look like a churchgoer. She looks like a Jamba Juice-goer. How does all the faith and brotherly love and word-snaring fit into this woman’s life?
Attempts have been made to explain Blanks’ soaring popularity: His high-action videos have translated exercise to a distracted generation raised on video games and Jerry Bruckheimer movies; his empowerment talks coupled with stun kicks speak to women who identify with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; his bald head is cute.
“I think this is more like Elvis,” says Blanks’ personal assistant, Julieann Hartman. “When Billy went on Rosie and met her Chub Club, those women started shaking as if Elvis had just entered the building.” It’s an interesting analogy. The devout thousands who still descend on Graceland every August to mark the King’s death prove one thing: Behind all the hip-shaking and mane-tossing and burning-love, there was something spiritual, even sacred, in Elvis’ pop aura. The ritualistic sobbing and swooning of the 1950s have turned into solemn candlelight vigils outside Graceland; in a fallen world, his fans connect to a yearning for something higher.
Everyone close to Blanks (and Blanks himself) connect his success to something higher. “I believe he’s become successful because he’s learned to line everything up according to the word of God,” says his 25-year-old daughter, Shellie. “I truly believe in my heart God has a path for him--and that path is on the level of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.” Blanks is celebrated by his clients not as an ab-master, but as a truth-teller, a humble man, a life-changer with presence who can look into others and see their weaknesses, and a man whose message is unconditionally delivered to rich and poor alike.
“There was a rich lady in the Bahamas,” recalls a Blanks assistant, and “wherever she went--her facials, her mineral wraps--people told her she looked great because of her money. But she was a mess, and Billy was honest with her about that because he doesn’t care how much money people have.” Why does this story sound like an update from the New Testament? “Billy got the strength of two men when he’s on the road, " a tall man explains fervently inside the Encino gym, as if recalling his witness to a miracle. “I seen him teach an 11:30 and a 12:30 back to back.”
Road tales like these, of fans crying to Blanks, confessing to Blanks, touching Blanks (“The grabbing and the snatching and everyone wanting to touch him has got to stop,” says Blanks’ sister Irene), are Elvis road tales. Behind all the hip-shaking and head-tossing and burning abs, fans describe a man of the Lycra cloth.
So what does Blanks’ success mean?
After the endless aerobic workouts, the countless hours spent on the StairMaster, the untold thousands dropped at the juice bar, the fascination with “tone” and “flex” and the memorization of obscure muscle groups, it could be that, for the last 20 years, the average gym-goer was looking for something else and never knew it. Rock and roll was never just about the beat, yet for two decades, aerobics videos have been just that. And that can leave a spandex-clad aerobicizer feeling a little lonely at the end of the day. Maybe all they really wanted was a hug.
Or something else.
After his workouts, Blanks sits like a prophet, answering the questions of about 100 women who rest cross-legged or crawl forward on hands and knees to hear his words. Generally, those questions run something like this: “Billy, what do you mean when you say you can be petite in a space and still be strong with a will, too?” You never hear about the Latisumus dorsai in these talks. You hear about “will” and “strength” and “belief” and “perseverance” and, finally, “God.”
Like Deepak Chopra, Blanks is connecting health to something higher, tapping into a lost herd of souls wandering aimlessly from Bally’s to the Fitness Depot. The knock on this crowd was always, “It’s all about bodies.” Blanks’ success is realizing that it’s not just all about bodies; it’s about people confused that
it’s all about bodies. And that success has led to swarming numbers of
Tae Bo rip-offs, and an equal amount of lawyer-generated cease-and-desist letters. (Blanks may be worrying about the wrong competition. It’s a slew of Christian aerobics videos that he should be on the lookout for.)
Think of Blanks as a fundamentalist preacher of sorts, given to catch phrases such as “Life’s a blessing” that bowl over people around him. “I’ll be having a terrible day,” says Hartman, “and Billy will say, ‘Well, life’s a blessing,’ and I’ll just feel so much better afterward.” Simple, but that’s the draw of the fundamentalist, even in the gym. Blanks’ daughter Shellie connects Tae Bo to spiritual conversion. “We had a woman who was Muslim and another who was Jewish, and after working out in the gym, they both became Christians. For a lot of people who feel bad, this workout fills a void in their lives.”
With success comes controversy. There is the pending lawsuit from boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, who claims his name was used by Monea, the marketer of the video, without permission to promote Tae Bo. And there is the FDA investigation into the Ohio-based marketers of Tae Bo who were promoting a barbecue grill lighter as a cure for arthritis and menstrual cramps. No doubt, some days Blanks wishes he could go back in time, to when he was just a trainer for Sinbad and Shaq and other single-name celebrities. Anyone close to Blanks, however, can tell you the Bible predicted his bad press.
“The Bible says as soon as you start doing good,” says Blanks’ son, Billy Jr., “people are going to try to pull you down. But he doesn’t care.”
Neither did Elvis.