Santa shapes up

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Stein is a Times staff writer.

You know you’re not in the North Pole anymore when you come face to face with Santa Claus . . . and he’s a ripped hunk.

You’re probably in Los Angeles -- at the Beverly Center, to be precise. For six years, the upscale mall near West Hollywood has wooed shoppers with the prospect of getting up close and personal with Hunky Santa, in which Santa is a young, muscled dude with bulging biceps and abs as flat as a gingerbread cookie. (Hunky’s stints are Friday through Sunday evenings, when he performs hourly with the Candy Cane Dancers, plus greets and has photos taken with shoppers. “Classic” Santa -- bearded and tubby -- is there during the week).

This year, Eli Wilhide was chosen to depict the jolly guy. The 31-year-old, 6-foot-1, 185-pound Angeleno sports a shaved chest and flawless tan, and on a recent busy weekend, he was practically mobbed by men, women and children who wanted to kiss him, shake his hand, have their picture taken with him or all of the above. His attire is Kris Kringle-meets-Chippendales: red velvet pants, black boots, a red velvet hat and a long, open, fur-trimmed red velvet coat -- sleeveless, of course, the better to show off those biceps.


Wilhide majored in kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Maryland, toured with motivational guru Anthony Robbins for 3 1/2 years as a speaker, and is now pursuing acting. This gig is more than a chance to press the flesh -- he chats with kids about their eating and exercise habits. “If I can make somebody feel better about what they put in their body and help them live longer and have more energy,” he says, “that’s great.”

We sat down with Wilhide recently during a break at the mall to find out just what it takes to pull off Hunky Santa.


Hunky Santa doesn’t look like this by eating cookies and sitting around watching elves make toys. What’s your workout routine?

When I want to build muscle and get in top shape, I’ll start with 10 to 20 minutes of cardio in the morning. I like to jump rope, because it’s so easy and I can do it anywhere. Then I’ll eat a breakfast of egg whites, oatmeal and berries, run some errands, and then I’m off to the gym, and I’ll be there for about two to three hours. I’ll do about a half-hour of cardio, an hour to an hour and a half of weights, and then I’ll do more cardio and stretching.

For cardio, I’ll mix it up and do the treadmill, or my favorite, the bike. For weights, I’ll do heavy weight and low reps. I pretty much do free weights -- that’s what I’m used to, and I feel like I’m doing work. When I want to get lean, I’ll try to keep my heart rate up while doing weights. In between sets, instead of sitting and resting, I’ll do lunges without any weight. I try to keep my heart rate at about 150, which is my maximum fat-burning zone. It’s pretty tough. It’s not something I just started doing, I’ve worked up to it.


What’s your routine when you want to maintain what you have, and not build?

I’ll do a half-hour of cardio and a half-hour of weights and mix it up. Sometimes I’ll do weights first, to keep my body guessing. I use more of a bodybuilder’s technique of doing one muscle group per day, as opposed to doing everything. I’ll also do walking lunges in between sets. It’s amazing how quickly the body tightens up doing that. When you do lower-body exercises, it actually works your whole body because you have to move. It also gives you strength in your core.


I’ll do a lot of body-resistance exercises, like squats without any weight, push-ups, pull-ups using a pull-up bar, and planks.


Speaking of the core, what do you do for your abs?

I’ll lie on the Swiss [stability] ball and stretch all the way back, which releases some of the pressure off my lower back. Then I’ll do 15 crunches on one side and the other to get the obliques, and really try to squeeze the lower abs while I’m doing that. Then I’ll do [crunches] for the middle abs, and also lower-ab exercises like hanging knee raises or [standing] knee raises.


Have fitness and nutrition always been important to you?

In high school, I played football and track -- I threw the discus. I was good at football, but I injured my knee my senior year and I couldn’t play in college. I played rugby in college. When I was 2, my dad was in a car accident and has been in a wheelchair ever since. But he’s won over 100 medals and trophies for bench-press and bodybuilding competitions. When I was growing up, we worked out together, lifted weights, watched “Pumping Iron” together. He’s a real macho-type dude, and I wanted to be just like him. He taught me how to work out and eat right. He’s 61, and he still works out seven days a week. He used to make those concoctions in a blender -- he made one that had liver and spinach and V8 juice in it. I was probably 4 or 5 years old. I really wanted to keep that thing down, but I couldn’t do it.


So your diet these days probably doesn’t consist of liver shakes, then?

Right after I work out, I try to have something right away, usually a protein shake with whey protein, and a piece of fruit. I try to eat every two to three hours, and my staple meal is chicken and broccoli. When I know I have to go somewhere, I’ll put some oatmeal with protein powder and berries in a container with an ice pack and snack on that. Basically, I try to eat a lean meat source and vegetables and brown rice -- six small meals a day.


Do you ever cheat?

My favorite cheat food is ice cream. I also eat a lot of fruit, and I love pineapple, and that will take care of the cravings. That, or nonfat yogurt with berries in it. I don’t really cut out anything. I’ll eat cookies, I’ll drink in moderation. We had a birthday party the other day and I had four cupcakes.


You are incredibly disciplined.

Before I go to sleep I put my jogging shoes by the bed. As soon as I wake up, my shoes go on and I’m out the door. Before I even have time to think about what I have to do that day, my feet are already moving. Once you get outside, it’s easier to get into that groove.



How do kids react when they see Hunky Santa?

When they’re confused, I tell them this is what Santa does when he’s not eating milk and cookies. I’m healthy Santa.




Comparing the Clauses

Traditional Santa versus Hunky Santa: How do they match up?

Traditional Santa: Gets asked for PlayStations and Barbie dolls.

Hunky Santa: Gets asked for killer pecs.

Traditional Santa: Sports organ-damaging visceral fat around the midsection.

Hunky Santa: Has six-pack abs and a body fat percentage below 8%.

Traditional Santa: Has cocoa with the elves.

Hunky Santa: Can bench-press elves.

Traditional Santa: Asks children if they’ve been naughty or nice.

Hunky Santa: Asks children if they eat fast food or healthful complex carbs.

Traditional Santa: Snacks on cookies.

Hunky Santa: Sticks to lean proteins and vegetables while occasionally indulging in cupcakes, which he burns off in three-hour workout sessions.

-- Jeannine Stein