There he is, Joe Weider, the self-proclaimed "Master Blaster," looking like a Vegas bouncer in a dapper tuxedo on the cover of Muscle & Fitness, which is one of the seven magazines he publishes. Weider's all duded up to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the magazine empire he founded in 1940. Technically speaking, that was only 59 years ago, but Weider doesn't care. He's so excited he can't wait till next year.
At 76, Weider is a legend in the magazine business. He's a publisher who comes out of the great American tradition of eccentric, egomaniacal magazine geniuses--a tradition that includes Henry Luce, Hugh Hefner and Helen Gurley Brown. Unlike today's corporate publishers, who design magazines by focus group, these folks created publications based on their own obsessions.
Weider's is bodybuilding. He puts out magazines packed with pictures of people who are so pumped up they look like they've got bowling balls in their biceps. And those are just the women. The men are so pumped up they look like they're about to explode. Their throbbing veins look like snakes slithering around under their skin.
"Ewwwww!" my teenage daughter groaned when she saw these pictures. "Gross!"
That's a common reaction. A lot of people find hard-core bodybuilders grotesque. But Weider has a sizable readership. He's made a fortune on bodybuilding magazines--and another fortune selling the bodybuilding products he advertises in his mags, mysterious potions with names like Mega Mass and Good Life and Ultra Ripped.
Weider's story is a classic rags-to-riches tale. He dropped out of school at 12 to help support his family by pushing a fruit cart through the streets of Montreal. A scrawny little runt--5 feet 5 and only 115 pounds--he got ripped off by street punks, so he started pumping iron. Soon he was winning weight-lifting contests. In 1940, at 17, he produced a crudely mimeographed bodybuilding magazine called Your Physique and peddled it to people whose names he'd lifted from the letters columns in other weight-lifting mags.
It worked. He made money, which he used to start more muscle magazines. At one point he had 16 of them going. He moved his operation to New York, the epicenter of the magazine world, and then to Southern California, the epicenter of muscle culture. Now, Weider publishes seven magazines--Muscle & Fitness; Men's Fitness; Fit Pregnancy; Natural Health; a woman's fitness magazine called Shape; Jump, for teenage girls; and Flex, for "hard-core" bodybuilders, people who make Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Woody Allen. The combined circulation is nearly 4 million copies a month.
Weider succeeded because he understands that he's not really selling muscles, or even fitness--he's selling the secular American gospel of self-improvement. "We can help you be everything you're capable of," he writes.
Weider is Dale Carnegie with muscles and his magazines are full of upbeat pep talks. The anniversary issue of Muscle & Fitness is typical. One essay preaches that "failure can teach you how to succeed next time." Another, called "Dream Big," reveals what you need to think about before going to sleep in order to inspire the kind of dreams that "program your mind" for success: "Envision yourself with the exact physique you desire . . ." And the Success Stories column tells the tale of a fat slob who weighed 385 pounds until he started pumping iron and is now a muscle-bound Adonis who owns a bodybuilding gym.
The anniversary issue also has some special bonuses. One is a poster of Schwarzenegger, who was discovered and promoted by Weider decades ago and who still writes a monthly training column in M&F. And there's a collection of the magazine's "most memorable images," which includes photos of bodybuilders' "Freakiest Bodyparts," including thighs that look like they are about to give birth to watermelons.
Even freakier than the body parts are the ads for those strange bodybuilding potions. Weider's magazines are about the only place you can find ads for substances that guarantee you will "gain 30 pounds." Bodybuilders gobble down some weird stuff to help them bulk up--Stoked and Ultimate Orange and Critical Mass and Animal Snak and The Beast, which shows a gorilla in the bottle, and Pinnacle Poppers, which promise to "increase testosterone 98%."
Weirdest of all is an ad for a drink called Extreme Ripped Force. The picture shows a bodybuilder with crazed eyes, devil's horns and the fangs of a rabid wolf. The slogan is: "Summon the Rage." The headline, which appears to be written in blood, says, "Not Recommended Before Going to Church." The copy reads: "You scare the hell out of most people at the gym. The intensity in your eyes makes them stand back, afraid to speak. . . . This thermogenic monster fuel combines Ma Huang and other nutrients too intense for those good for nothin' wannabees. They're not worthy and they know it."
Ye gods! I don't think I'm tough enough for this magazine.
Bodybuilders are exhibitionists and Weider is no exception. Consequently, this anniversary issue contains plenty of stuff about the publisher, who is not too shy to tout his greatness in his magazines.
There are two articles by Weider, and one article about Weider, as well as a long historical study of his magazines and a learned textual analysis of his first publication, Your Physique, by a PhD who treats this mimeographed muscle mag with the same scholarly seriousness other academics reserve for, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
There are also plenty of pictures of Weider. He poses with Schwarzenegger, with Stallone, with Travolta, with Eastwood, with George Bush.
A shot of Joe shaking Ronald Reagan's hand bears a classic Weider caption: "Joe demonstrates his iron grip to former leader of the Free World, Ronald Reagan."
Weider looks great in the pictures--tanned, healthy and all pumped up. He'll probably be around long enough to appear on M&F's 100th anniversary issue, which will no doubt appear shortly before M&F's 99th anniversary, if not sooner.