SUSAN SNYDER, 41, sits in an old patio chair and madly scribbles notes as she watches two actresses run through a play she is directing at the Burbage Theater on Sawtelle Avenue. Her face is drawn and she looks tired from the 12- to 14-hour days she has been logging in her role as producer and director of the play "Messages" by John Ford Noonan. She frequently dabs at her nose with a ragged white tissue, a sign her allergies are acting up. She is wearing an old, baggy brown sweater, black stretch pants and well-worn Reeboks. She is thin, pale and intense.
Four years ago Snyder was a sinewy, sexy, iron-pumping actress. Her goal was to obtain the perfect body--the lean, firm, subtly muscular appearance Snyder calls "that California look." Approaching 40, she hoped that exercise would put the aging process on hold. Her obsession ruled her life--until two years ago, when she burned out on barbells and dropped out of the Los Angeles fitness scene.
According to studies, it's a fact of the fitness revolution that fully half of those who begin an exercise program abandon the activity within six months of their first workout, leaving Exercycles untouched and health-club memberships unused. However, Snyder's story is special because it was her workouts that gave her the confidence to take control of her life and the courage to change her career. She changed her life by changing her shape. Once the transition was complete, she no longer needed the perfect body.
In 1979, Snyder moved from New York to Los Angeles with her husband and 6-year-old son. In New York, she had worked primarily as a stage actress, including a part in the long-running off-Broadway production of the Lanford Wilson play, "The Hot L Baltimore." In Los Angeles, her goal was to find parts in film and television. But Snyder, 5 feet, 7 inches, 118 pounds, found that she was just one more thin, blond actress. She did perform in episodic television, but the roles were small and unsatisfying. "The two 'Hs,' hookers and housewives, are big on TV," Snyder observes.
Like so many New York transplants, she loved the fact a person can enjoy the sun year round in California. She also realized that L.A. directors and producers are a lot more body conscious than those in New York. "I thought I might get more work if I worked out," she says. Roller-skating, because she could do it outside, became her first California fitness experience. Every day she would skate on the Venice boardwalk for at least an hour. After a few months of skating, including a serious crash into a chain-link fence, Snyder wasn't happy with the results. So, at 35, she took a significant step toward achieving the California body. She joined Gold's Gym, a Venice training center that is aptly nicknamed "the mecca of body building."
"I had been eating at the Rose Cafe (near Gold's Gym). I would see these women and they had no fat on them. They were totally in shape. I could skate from here to Santa Barbara and back and still not be in shape," says Snyder. "I put my roller skates over my shoulder and went to Gold's."
Gold's Gym is training home to some of the world's best and biggest body builders. Muscle superstars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno train there alongside Mr. T and Hulk Hogan. Even the unknowns at Gold's are awesome and intimidating as they strain, red-faced and roaring, against huge stacks of iron weights. On a busy day the place looks and sounds like a factory--a muscle factory.
Snyder says she was intimidated the first few times she trained at Gold's, especially because only a handful of women lifted weights there in 1981. (Today about 30% of the 3,000 members are female.) One of those women was Reggie Bennett, a competitive body builder whom Snyder hired for $40 a week to be her personal trainer. Bennett says she and Snyder trained at Gold's together two hours a day, five days a week, for four months. Bennett taught Snyder the science of body building, including "split-training"--one of body building's commandments. Snyder "split" her body, training her arms, chest and back one day, her buttocks and legs the next. Before long, Snyder was immersed in the world of squats, reverse tricep press downs and dips. Her goal was to shape her body, not build massive muscles, and in a few weeks she saw results. Bennett says she noticed that Snyder was changing psychologically as well as physically. "She changed her body a lot. But what it did more is that it made her more self-confident. She cared more about herself."