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Elvis Has Just Entered the Building

Forget the 5 Million Tae Bo Videos, the Book Deal, the Calls From Ovitz. Everyone Close to Billy Blanks Connects His Success to Something Higher.

August 15, 1999|DAVE GARDETTA | Dave Gardetta last wrote for the magazine on 15-year-old Eagle Rock High School student Marjorie Light

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?

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