Less than a year ago, Billy Blanks was a $70-an-hour personal trainer with a growing celebrity clientele--not exactly a rare job description in Los Angeles.
Today, thanks to the power of video and an oft-aired TV infomercial, Blanks is on the verge of becoming the most popular fitness guru since Jane Fonda.
Even as the 43-year-old sometime B-movie star has made an amazing sprint from obscurity to national renown over the last seven months, his success has spawned a legal war among past and present business associates over the Tae-Bo infomercial--along with a lawsuit from boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, who contends his name was used without permission.
The Ohio-based marketer behind Tae-Bo, meanwhile, is the subject of a federal criminal investigation in connection with another one of its infomercial products, a barbecue grill igniter that was advertised as a $79 health device that could cure arthritis and menstrual cramps.
None of those controversies has dampened spectacular sales of the series of videos based on Blanks' Tae-Bo exercise regimen--an energetic mix of tae kwon do, boxing and aerobics. The videos became a surprise top seller in infomercial spots and retail stores starting last fall, selling an estimated 1.5 million video sets starting at $39.
The muscled martial arts expert just signed a book deal worth a reported $1.5 million with Bantam Books, appeared recently on "Oprah" and an episode of "E.R." and is preparing 24 more tapes for release this year.
"It's a blessing," Blanks said several times in the course of an hourlong interview at his studio in Sherman Oaks, where classes have become so popular that visitors are sometimes turned away from the facility's jammed parking lot.
Blanks presents himself as the redeemer of a tainted industry. "Most infomercials are cheesy," he said. "People are looking for the truth. . . . Tae-Bo has so much to offer. I truly believe it's the exercise of the new millennium."
Blanks and his representatives declined to discuss the financial and legal disputes. Steve Dworman, publisher of Los Angeles-based Infomercial Marketing Report, an industry newsletter, said such imbroglios are not necessarily rare in the world of infomercials, where program-length ads breathlessly hawk everything from snoring remedies to get-rich-quick schemes.
"Whenever you have a business where anyone can go from being a pauper to a millionaire in a few weeks--when you hit that fast and that hard--people get greedy," Dworman said. "And there are no business systems or practices in place [within the industry] to handle what's happening in a businesslike manner."
"It's like the Wild West," said Seth Ersoff, an entertainment manager and former Blanks associate who is suing for what he describes as his share of the tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from the Tae-Bo videos.
For the right product, at the right time, the jackpot from an infomercial can be huge. But the risks are equally large. Producing an infomercial such as the one for Tae-Bo can easily cost several hundred thousand dollars. Buying TV time is expensive--a half-hour spot can cost as much as $50,000 on cable networks--and unpredictable.
The Tae-Bo marketers are shelling out an estimated $1.5 million a week on TV time, Dworman said, without any guarantee that their spots won't end up running during, say, a sudden national crisis when everyone is glued to CNN.
For the video industry, Blanks' triumph is astonishing. Exercise videos, which Jane Fonda helped turn into a profitable fad during the aerobics-crazed 1980s, were in steep decline until Tae-Bo came along. Such tapes sold fewer than 9 million units in 1996, down from 10.5 million units two years earlier, according to VideoScan, which tracks sales data in retail stores.
Tonya Bates, general manager of VideoScan, noted that Tae-Bo is now ranked third on the firm's overall chart, outselling recently released studio movies such as "City of Angels." Tae-Bo has also been a top contender on charts compiled by Billboard, Amazon.com and Jordan Whitney Inc.'s Greensheet, which ranks infomercials by ad budgets and TV exposure.
The media exposure has catapulted the Tae-Bo video to gross sales of about $75 million so far. Blanks' friends said that is simply due to the strength of the product. By adding kick-boxing and martial arts to old-fashioned aerobics, Blanks found a way to invigorate a tired style of exercise. Viewers also seem drawn to Blanks--whose shaved head and chiseled features cut a striking figure--as a charismatic motivator.
Larry Hayes, owner of Ventura Distribution, which is distributing the Tae-Bo videos to retail stores, said the Tae-Bo makers made a brilliant strategic move by selling videos in retail stores while the infomercial was still getting heavy airplay.