"Women are busting the diet industry! Women are busting the fitness industry! We'll no longer be victims of industries who steal our money, starve us and set us up for failure." TV health guru and best-selling author Susan Powter was making pronouncements on the phone from her Dallas-based office. She mentions a popular diet-program slogan. "It's a lie! It's a lie! It's a lie!"
Hers is a high-intensity -- indeed, relentless style -- as insistent one-on-one as she is in her ubiquitous, prize-winning and lucrative infomercials. It's a familiar image: the supercharged, svelte 36-year-old Australian native, her scalp clipped to near baldness, scooting back and forth across the stage exhorting her audience, "Stop the insanity! You gotta eat! You gotta breathe! You gotta move!"
Powter is selling, via her infomercial, a health package that combines a low-fat diet ("Food doesn't make you fat. Fat makes you fat!") with an exercise regimen she insists a 63-year-old can use as well as an 18-year-old.
"I teach modification, taking into account the person's age and condition. Why did it take a housewife from Texas to say, 'If you don't have cardiovascular endurance, you can't lift weights 60 times.' "
The $79.80 package offered on the infomercial includes: five audio tapes, an exercise video, a recipe collection, a guide to food-fat content, and a caliper to measure body fat. Powter says she sells approximately 15,000 of these packages each week. That would put the monthly infomercial gross in the $5 million range. Powter said she sold 300,000 in the first two weeks the infomercial aired. Powter also has her own line of fitness wear designed for larger women.
Over the course of little more than a year, that infomercial (a second is now being aired) has had the fastest growth rate in sales, and has been dubbed by the industry as the most successful program of its kind in the last five years. Powter and her infomercial recently won three awards at the National Infomercial Marketing Association convention.
Produced by USA Direct, a subsidiary of Fingerhut Corporation, the infomercial has helped make Powter a one-woman multi-million-dollar show.
It has also been a watershed in the professional life of Rusty Robertson, a Dallas-based publicist who was the guiding force in the Powter creation. In Powter, Robertson saw a great TV personality, and set out to make sure everyone else saw her that way too.
Powter is an anomaly on the scene. Unlike the many stars who do infomercials -- John Tesh, Connie Selleca, Linda Gray, Victoria Principal, Cher, John Ritter, Meredith Baxter and Ali MacGraw, to name a few -- Powter has become a star largely because of infomercials.
Although the galvanizing performer reiterated that the infomercials are only one of her many outlets -- she does motivational speaking tours, had a two-year stint on "The Home Show" as a health consultant and earned a $400,000-plus book contract with Simon & Shuster before one word had been written -- Powter admitted that the infomercial has given her a visibility she never had before.
She writes a syndicated weekly health column. And not long ago, producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth- Thomason ("Evening Shade") offered Powter a part on a Washington-based sitcom they're planning, co-starring Delta Burke and Tom Arnold. "I was very flattered," said Powter. "But I'm not an actress and a sitcom is not what I want to be doing."
What Powter does want is her own talk show, and this fall, the syndicated "Susan Powter Show," produced by Woody Fraser ("Good Morning America"), will hit the airwaves.
"It will be an issue-oriented show for women and children. We'll be talking about everything from heart attacks to breast reduction. It will be presented with intelligence, humor and respect. No tabloid, no abuse, no whining, no bull."
To top it all, Powter now heads a corporation that serves as an umbrella for all her high-powered activities.
So how did all this happen? Who is Susan Powter? Is she for real, is she an invention -- or a little bit of both?
Indeed, her offscreen life is as unusual as her hairdo. Powter and her husband, a jazz musician, along with her ex-husband and father of her two sons and his new wife, share a duplex that Powter bankrolls. "I want my kids to have a mother and a father," she said.
Hers has been an extraordinary professional and personal journey dating back to the disintegration of her first marriage seven years ago. She was a 29-year-old housewife with no career and two small sons.
"I was a frightened, angry, isolated single mother who dealt with trauma by shoving fat into my mouth," she recalled. "I went up to 260 pounds. I had yo-yo'd my whole life, but I was never obese like this. I had no energy, I was depressed, my ankles were blown up. I knew I had to resurrect myself from the dead."
The creation of Susan Powter began with a series of harrowing experiences "with endless diets that starved me and a fitness industry which humiliated me. At 260 pounds I could barely walk, let alone keep up with an 18-year-old bimbo in a health club."
Then came the early revelations. "I knew I didn't feel good after eating three pound cakes. So one day I decided I'd eat lunch instead. And I felt better. And then I decided to cut back on the fat. And I felt still better."
And after each new insight, the gregarious Powter would share what she knew with women -- strangers -- she'd meet at the mall. "I did what women do best: networking and problem-solving."
In fact, she was doing her own problem-solving. Within a year, Powter, reported, "My body fat dropped from 43 percent to 14 percent." She lost 146 pounds on her nearly 5-foot-7-inch frame.
Determined to spread the word, Powter opened her own "Wellness Center" in Dallas. She had previously taught at and been fired from several aerobics studios. "I wanted to give women information and I was always told, 'Women don't want information. Just keep smiling.' "
That's when Powter decided to branch out on her own. Then came the turning point: She contacted Robertson simply "to help me get bodies into my studio." A large part of Powter's success has to be attributed to Robertson's uncanny marketing abilities plus her keen understanding of how Powter's message and the messenger herself would find a receptive and broad-based audience.
"I found her funny, motivational, inspirational and eloquent," Robertson said, describing her first impression. "She had a talent that jumped out at you like Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett. But I knew we'd have to come up with a strategy. Here was this bald woman with no degrees or credentials. We started with radio interviews and seminars and then we created an audio tape. And bodies were pouring into the studio."
Robertson knew then she had just scratched the surface.
"Rusty has always trusted me," said Powter, acknowledging Robertson as a central player. "She'll always be half of me. Rusty introduced me to me."
In approximately two years, what started out as ads for a local health club developed into a nationwide phenomenon. Not only was Powter appearing on national TV and working on a book, requests for lecture appearances also were flooding her office. An infomercial seemed like the next step.
But doing that, Powter said, "was an uphill battle. You gotta give USA Direct credit. They had chutzpah. They must have been biting their nails when I went out there in front of a live audience -- a bald woman wearing a cut-off T-shirt, and no script. Our infomercials are the only ones that are not scripted. And our audiences are not paid to go 'ohh, ahh.' They're not paid at all.
"Other companies that we had approached to do our infomercials wanted to change me. They found me too aggressive. Typical male interpretation."
Powter's non-stop energy is not the result of formal training. She never took a public speaking or acting class, nor has she ever been part of an audience at motivational talks. Her style is her own: spontaneous, unrehearsed and vivid.
Are those the qualities that make Powter's infomercials so appealing? Or is it something else?
Powter conceded that her presentation has comic elements, but she refused to give these too much significance. "As God is my witness, I don't see myself as a comic. But how can you not see humor in handing over $3,500 to drink diet food that tastes like an enema?"
Many of the testimonial videos on her program display less than ideally slender women, at least by Madison Avenue standards, who are enthusiastic about what Powter's package has done for them. Asked if her infomercial has a feminist appeal, Powter balked.
"Looking good is a by-product of feeling well. Some women may just want to be able to walk up a flight of stairs without losing their breath. But," Powter added, "displaying fat and frumpy women for its own sake -- the latest 'Our Bodies Ourselves' -- is as bad as displaying models.
"My infomercial is not feminist. It's political. It's a fundamentally broad-based message that can apply to anyone. It'll probably talk more to women than men because, let's face it, women are under pressure to roll off the delivery table and into a size six dress.
"I am many things -- one of them is feminist, meaning I believe in equal opportunity -- but it's a dangerous term used to slot women. Because I have short hair, does that mean I'm angry, political and feminist? Or, perhaps, a member of a cult? No! I have short hair because this is the best hairstyle for me."
Each week Powter's husband of five years shaves her head and bleaches her remaining fuzz. "All my life I wanted big hair, but I don't have big hair. I have thin, stringy hair. And if I sweat for a living, is that what I need?"
Born outside of Sydney, Australia, one of six children of a civil engineer and his wife, Powter and her family emigrated to the United States when she was 10 years old. The family lived in states all across the country, and Powter recalled "doing badly in school," wherever it was.
"I was always asking 'why' about everything. No one had any answers. I was told to stop talking. Now they pay me to keep talking. One of my sons was told he talks too much in school. I told him not to stop."
Powter dropped out of high school and earned a certificate in secretarial science. For several years she made a living as an office worker and hated it. "I did all the work and the bosses got all the credit."
And then there was her stint -- after her first husband left -- as a topless dancer.
"When the alimony checks stopped coming in, dancing topless was a way for me to make some good money. It gave me independence. I want to know why women who dance in these places are judged, but never the men who frequent them."
Powter's commitment to women is unflagging. Part of her corporation's mission, along with spreading the word and making oodles of money, is philanthropic, and it will be addressing issues that are of special importance to Powter.
"Why is there so little protection for women who are the victims of domestic violence? The courts don't protect them and neither do the shelters. Why are children starving when there's so much food available? And, why don't women get the respect men do? We're going to look into all of these topics. Like Goldie and Barbra and especially Oprah -- what she's done on behalf of abused children -- I want to give something back."