MORRO BAY, CALIF. -- I can't die. It would ruin my image.
-- Jack LaLanne
Elaine's driving, and he keeps turning around in the front seat, like a kid, laughing. He's bouncing along in an electric blue jumpsuit, red ascot, cordovan zip-up boots with scuffed toes. Jack LaLanne is 79 now and still emitting inhuman amounts of energy, as if he's hooked up to some higher voltage. He has so much good cheer, it's hard to believe he's French. He's so sunny, you keep thinking you might get a tan standing next to him. He gives and gives, goes and goes -- never needs a sip of anything like coffee or tea.
Dinner, though, did include some sauvignon blanc. A couple of kinds. "Christ," he said, "why are you living if you can't have a little fun?" At his favorite seaside hangout, Dorn's, the legendary fitness guru ordered himself a 10-raw-vegetable salad and a piece of fresh fish to share with his wife, Elaine. While answering questions about his life, he broke into song twice, intimated his sex drive is still quite powerful, used such forgotten expressions as "anywho" and "you bet." He also asked his own questions: about Conan O'Brien and grunge dressing and Hillary's health plan. ("I think fat, out-of-shape people should be fined," he says.) You see, up at his big house above the bay, LaLanne's got a 60-inch Mitsubishi television -- hooked up to a satellite dish -- in his shadowy dark lair, where he spends hours alone lounging on the brown leather sofas, ceaselessly sponging up information.
"Hey, waiter!" he'd shouted at dinner, "bring us another bottle of that organic wine!"
Sure, he doesn't look exactly the same. His hair is thinner, flatter on top. He limps, from two knee surgeries that haunt him. Age and time and gravity have effects on us all, even people like LaLanne who work out strenuously two hours every morning and have been drinking carrot juice since the Depression. But the weird thing is how vital -- bright, alert, curious -- some folks stay upstairs, how some people never tire of living. Jack? Sometimes up in his lair, he tunes in to a Mexican music station and blasts that baby so loud Elaine starts laughing. He sings. He dances. He jumps around. "So many people go through life and never get a kick out of anything!" he says. "That music is so alive! It's got so much!"
Elaine steers the car up the foggy green hill where the LaLannes live. They moved here eight years ago to escape Hollywood and traffic, to live quieter, cheaper. LaLanne isn't a zillionaire like Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda. He and Elaine still work hard, do conventions, trade shows, try to sell the Juice Tiger juicer on the Home Shopping Network. Jack believes you gotta keep changing your workout -- to stay interested. Turns out you gotta keep changing the exercise toys too.
At the end of the driveway, a colossal statue rises out of the darkness and rain. It's a statue of Jack -- is it bronze or what? -- sitting at the front of the house, between two garage doors. Jack's hands are on his waist. His hair is thick and tousled. His chest is massive, buff, meaty. A warrior in a jumpsuit? The thing used to be out in the shrubs, out of sight. Elaine liked it there. Recently Jack had it moved in closer. It must be 10 feet tall -- just about the size he's always wanted to be.
Elaine looks up at it, and laughs.
"Elaine!" says Jack. "You left me out in the rain!"
Elaine laughs again. She's blond, smooth, husky and sixtysomething. She's a positive thinker, a fitness and cookbook author, a full-blooded Norwegian, a beauty in Lycra, a golfer and a woman who has stuffed more press kits in the middle of the night than you'd want to imagine.
This year he turns 80, and something big usually happens on his birthday. Not every year, but certainly those milestone ones. Jack LaLanne likes to perform an incredible feat -- the kind of thing that makes you laugh out loud when you hear about it, because it's so preposterous, and because it means he will be all alone against nature, again, all alone against time and aging, a tiny French guy, hopelessly small in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, pulling a tugboat with his teeth, pulling rafts of hundreds of people, slowly swimming his way toward shore, his dark head bobbing up and down ... .
And he's always been alone, ahead, out there. He's always been the guy who saw land first, saw the light, tasted the vegetable juice, took handfuls of strange minerals and vitamins, contemplated the notion of liquid meals, and went on a mission to change the shape and mind-set of America. Lots of people think he was just a kook on TV -- now fat and rich from a fluke trend.
But he's not fat. He's not rich. Jack LaLanne was so far out front that nobody was ready to pay. In Oakland in 1936 he opened the very first health club, and after it got going, had a vegetable juice bar downstairs, and a health food store. When he got bored with dumbbells, he started inventing his own weight-training equipment, and got a blacksmith to make it -- never bothering with patents. "It didn't have a market then," says Harold Zinkin, the creator of the Universal Gym, "but Jack's designs are legendary."
He tried TV -- 1,000 push-ups without stopping -- just to promote his gym. In 1955 he started his own show -- a ridiculous live broadcast in the San Francisco area, what Elaine has come to call "the pre-jumpsuit days," when Jack hadn't adequately solved his wet-armpit problem. Later on, he wore black ballet slippers, a skintight wool suit, and had his two white German shepherds, Happy and Walter, appear with him. His enthusiasm was infectious. His routines were simple. He didn't go off the air until 1985. Sometimes Elaine appeared too -- the LaLannes sponsored the program themselves -- just to convince women that they wouldn't become mannish if they exercised.
"Basically," says Elaine, "Jack's very shy."
His public image was one of his many overcompensations. Elaine was a girl Friday on a TV show when she met Jack -- when he turned up to do 1,000 push-ups, and pumped away in the corner for 23 minutes. She thought he was a joke!
As time passed his stunts took on a tacky, extravaganza quality. Turning 60, he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman's Wharf -- handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat. The next year he swam the length of the Golden Gate underwater with air tanks, handcuffed, shackled and towing a 2,000-pound boat against the tide. People saw the stunts and promo, the hype -- and thought he was a joke too. They saw the gusty enthusiasm of a quack doctor marketing universal remedies for universal complaints. Rarely did they see the man under all that -- the fanatic, the visionary. The guy who doesn't care that Simmons and Fonda, and aerobiqueen Kathy Smith, make "jillions" because Jack LaLanne isn't really about "jillions."
He just likes converting people. He likes changing their minds, inspiring, enthusing, motivating. He likes leading. It gives him the sort of power he's always dreamed of... .
"I never thought about money," he says. "I just thought about helping, turning people's lives around, changing the world. What the hell you gonna do? Take it with you? I like to make people happy. I'm a giver!"
The Evils of Sugar
He was born Francois Henri LaLanne. His mother and father were French immigrants, a household maid and a dancing instructor, who lived in an abandoned Catholic church in Bakersfield where they ran a sheep farm. There was no radio in the house, or toys, only an old Victrola that played opera records, but that was okay because Jack loved opera. And sometimes in the afternoon, when he was sheepherding, he'd stand in front of the flock, singing to them, and he imagined them giving him a standing ovation.
Over dinner in Morro Bay, LaLanne describes his mother as "a female Jesus Christ." She was religious, disciplined. When the Catholic religion wasn't enough -- didn't demand enough, wasn't intense enough -- Jennie LaLanne became a Seventh-Day Adventist. She couldn't convert her son but surely influenced him, particularly during a troubling period of his life when he turned 14. Afflicted with migraine headaches and constant colds, he became violent at times and unmanageable.
When the sheep died from disease, the family went bankrupt, moved to Oakland, and Jack was placed in a strict church school. At home, he says he tried to kill his older brother with an ax, then with a butcher knife. He tried to set the new house on fire too. Finally, he was kicked out of school for whispering an obscenity to the principal ("Kiss my ass").
Desperate, Jennie LaLanne took a her son to a lecture by nutritionist Paul Braggs, who talked about the evils of white sugar, red meat, dairy products. He talked about the miracles of minerals, vitamins and exercise. Jack sat mesmerized. And by that night, at home, he was converted -- a sensation he compares to being born again.
"I was psychotic with sugar," he explains. "A complete sugarholic. But I got off it, became a strict vegetarian, started juicing, taking brewer's yeast, going to the YMCA. ... I had this dramatic transformation, mentally and physically, and I said to myself, 'God, I can save lives. I can help 'em. I've got to get the truth out to these people.' "
Cult of the Body
Sometimes his boys, Jon Allen LaLanne and Danny Doyle, take him down to Happy Jack's, an old bar in Morro Bay, to drink and hang out. It's a musty place, loaded with bar relics, and ashtrays. But Jack can withstand the cigarette smoke because he likes his sons. He's intensely unfussy for being such a fanatic. He doesn't tell anybody what to do -- and doesn't like being told.
"Go through life with your blinders off!" he shouts. "It's never too late! Look into everything. See everything!"
At 19, all of 5 feet 6 1/2, he won the contest for World's Best Built Man. At 22 he opened his first gymnasium with weights, called "Jack LaLanne's Physical Culture Studio." People didn't join right away so LaLanne gave massages to pay the rent -- until he dreamed up his first stunt.
Wearing the tightest T-shirt he could find, he went over to Oakland High and strutted around. He picked out the fattest kid he could find, asking him if he wanted to be fat, or if he wanted to be strong. And then he offered the kid -- after talking to his parents -- a free club membership for a few months. Soon there was a cadre of boys, all either too skinny or too fat -- but growing stronger. LaLanne had them wearing neat clothes, keeping their hair short. He asked them about their grades, about their diets and dates, and if they missed a couple workouts, he'd call home and hound them.
They are still his friends, almost family.
"His enthusiasm for exercise was infectious. He sold me on it. He sold my parents on it," says Charles McCarl, 72, a physician. "Later, he encouraged me to go to medical school ... even picked out my wife!"
"I was completely under his influence," says Norman Marks, 71, a Bay Area chiropractor.
"I ran a cult," admits LaLanne -- whose followers included a boy named Clint Eastwood. "I ran my gym like a fascist. I was their mother, their father, their teacher, their leader. I was their guru! I loved them and they loved me -- and that's how you get things done in this world!"
LaLanne likes to say that Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda cry whenever they see him -- appreciatively, of course. Simmons had Jack on his TV show.
"Kissed me right on the lips," says Jack, "and then he started crying."
Elaine shakes her head.
"He did! He said, 'Jack, you started it all,' and then he's crying." LaLanne starts sniffling. " 'You're the one who started everything. If it wasn't for you I wouldn't be here.' He's really, well, he can cry at the snap of a finger, you know."
Elaine: "Richard's helped a lot of people."
Jack: "Hey, listen, crying is the greatest release! I love to cry! They say it's un-macho, but it's exhilarating, like having an orgasm!"
"Richard is doing a great job."
"Oh, sure, Elaine," he says. "They are all doing a great job. Simmons, Fonda, everybody. There's still plenty of work to be done... .
"You know what's the biggest killer in this country?" he asks.
"Milk," he says. "It's the biggest evil, a killer. All the cholesterol comes from it -- cream, ice cream, cheese. They should put a warning label on the carton!"
"Oh, Jack," says Elaine. "Are you sure you want to say that?"
A Shy Guy, Really
Elaine LaLanne is always close by. This isn't because she's a meddler or domineering. It's because she still gets a kick out of Jack. The two of them are a study in synergism. When he's alone, Jack is a little quiet, and sometimes a sad look kind of passes through his eyes. When she's alone, Elaine is awkwardly bubbly -- as if she doesn't like having to be bubbly all by herself.
"I didn't want to have anything to do with Jack when I met him," she says. "He kept asking me out and I kept saying no. ... And then, well, he asked a girlfriend of mine out and she went. She was a neat girl too. And it bothered me! I thought, Gosh, maybe I do want to go out with this muscleman after all."
Their most recent conflict has been about Jack's 80th birthday, which comes at the end of September. He's been dying to do another stunt. This time, Jack says he wants to swim underwater with tanks, from Santa Catalina Island to the mainland, more than 20 miles.
"No way," says Elaine.
"But Eee-laine ..." says Jack.
"I'll divorce you," she says.
Is she worried about sharks?
Is she worried about his age?
"It's not his age," she says. "It's my age."
"He's got the endurance to do the swim," speculates his daughter, Yvonne LaLanne. "But I don't blame Elaine. I'm on her side. There's crowd control and insurance to worry about, all the administrative stuff. I remember the Queen Mary towing thing and Elaine and I were up all night stuffing press kits."
He Wants to Pump You Up
People want Cindy Crawford now, or Fabio. They want to stare at fit, firm, round, perfect bodies while they're working out. Is this because a young body is inspiring -- makes you want to exercise harder -- or mere voyeurism? Do we hate old age -- and aging -- so much that it's hard to look at an old body?
Why isn't a wonderful old guy like Jack LaLanne, who looks sensational in his jumpsuit, somebody you'd want to exercise with anymore? Why isn't he making millions upon millions of dollars in exercise videos -- a concept he clearly invented?
"I'm lazy," he says.
His newest ideas include videos of exercises you can do in a chair, and ones you can do in a hotel room with a towel. "Get me off my butt, will you? Tell Elaine! Make me do it!"
He's been working out in the swimming pool early in the morning -- for the last few years -- wearing a strange pair of neoprene gloves that he designed with webbed fingers. "Hydro-nastics!" he says. "It'd be such a great video! Make me do it! Tell Elaine!"
Miracles are within us. You can double your strength, double your endurance. It's never too late. Walking out, he swerves to the left, into his gym. "Elaine, just a second. I want to show her this." He hangs from a pull-up bar, his feet dangling above the orange carpet. His stomach appears below his zip-up shirt -- his 79-year-old stomach -- and it's tight, flat, only marginally wobbly. Very slowly, he brings his legs up, holding them out straight, and touches his toes to his wrists.