SANTA BARBARA — The familiar voice on the answering machine is surprisingly friendly.
"Hello, this is Jane Fonda. Thank you for calling the Laurel Springs Retreat. I'm sorry that no one is available to speak with you at the moment, but I'm very pleased you called."
Then why is it that, while making the drive to Santa Barbara, winding around the Santa Ynez Mountains and passing through the rustic gate of her ranch, you feel like a trespasser? What if, like Rupert Pupkin in the movie "The King of Comedy," you've only imagined this personal invitation onto her property? When is someone going to scream, "Go away. Get lost. Scram !"?
But that won't happen. Not if you're one of the three to six people willing to pay $2,500 for the weeklong privilege of, if not actually rubbing shoulders with the 51-year-old Goddess of Good Health, then eating her recipes, hiking her trails and following her fitness-for-life philosophy as a guest at what could be the most exclusive spa in the world--her 160-acre home here.
Sure, these days stars seem eager for entrepreneurship, owning as they do everything from restaurants (Tom Selleck) and clubs (Billy Idol) to even hairdressing salons (Mickey Rourke). And the undisputed queen of them all is Fonda, who with her best-selling workout videos, books and Beverly Hills studio, has made a bundle from her businesses.
But nearly all celebrities would draw the line at any venture that interfered with their personal privacy. Why didn't Fonda?
"I didn't do the retreat because I wanted to get rich off it," she states firmly. "I knew that if people could receive information about exercise and nutrition in the personal way that I have, then their commitment to their health would be changed forever. And by taking people out of their environment and putting them in a very intense and private situation, which is also extremely peaceful and individualized, the experience is even more profound.
"So I thought, 'I have this house. I have this ranch. Why don't I try to make it available to other people?' "
And why not also fund some social causes and get a tax write-off in the process.
According to Fonda, she and her estranged husband, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), purchased the ranch in 1977 to start Camp Laurel Springs, their nonprofit summer facility for youngsters of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that includes a program for inner city kids from the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But the camp has become "increasingly difficult to fund" in recent years, maintains Fonda, who came up with the idea of underwriting it with a nonprofit enterprise in the form of a super-deluxe spa. It opened in November in the remote and remodeled redwood lodge known as the Hill House, which Fonda used to rent to singer Joe Cocker.
"Yes, the spa is expensive for most people," concedes Fonda. "But the money goes for things they can also feel proud of."
According to Fonda's projections, "depending how fast we can take off," within two years the spa's net proceeds, which go into the Temescal Foundation, will be enough not just to support the camp but also research in health, child development and education.
Punishment or Reward?
At first, the idea of spending the day at Fonda's Laurel Springs Retreat sounds more like a punishment than a reward. No doubt, the superathlete, whose "feel the burn" philosophy has toned up and tuckered out men and women of all sizes and ages, would be expected to organize a regimen more fitting to a medieval torture chamber than a Xanadu of rest and relaxation.
And when reveille--in the form of a gentle wake-up call--comes at 6:15 a.m., your worst fears are confirmed. The very idea of calling it a retreat seems like a cruel joke.
But the punch line is still to come--a voice explaining sweetly but insistently that the 3 1/2-mile hike will start in a matter of minutes and you'd better get downstairs pronto .
At any other resort, turning off the phone, jumping back into bed and catching a few more hours of sleep would hardly raise an eyebrow. And even if you did get up and go out, you could look forward after the hike to all those lovely beauty treatments like mud baths, manicures and makeup lessons that other spas offer. Not this one.
Instead, your reward consists of being led to a state-of-the-art gym, hooked up to a six-lead EKG machine and put on a treadmill by Dr. Daniel Kosich, the program director for Fonda's Workout empire. He conducts a rigorous evaluation to assess your cardiovascular fitness, body fat composition, flexibility and muscle balance.
And it's not even 10 a.m. yet!
"The point of the treadmill is you're going to learn how it feels to exercise at your optimum level," Kosich tells his guinea pig, Los Angeles screenwriter Susan Lindau.