Tae Bo Blitzkrieg
The selling of Billy Blanks

If you haven't heard of Tae Bo you either live on another planet (one that doesn't have cable) or you're one of those Earthlings with a "Kill Your Television" bumper sticker. You'd have to be one or the other to completely miss the 2,000 Tae Bo infomercials that run on TV -- seemingly 24 hours a day -- every week in the United States.  But for the handful of people out there who think Tae Bo is something you'd find on the menu at a Thai restaurant here's a primer:

See also...
... by Leora Broydo
... in the Scope section
... from August 12, 1999
  • Tae Bo is a martial arts/aerobics workout set to really bad dance music.
  • It was created by karate expert Billy Blanks, who holds a seventh-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do (the dominant Korean version of karate).
  • Each letter in Tae Bo has a deeper meaning: t - total commitment; a - awareness; e - excellence; b - body, o - obedience.
  • You can burn 500-800 calories in a Tae Bo workout.
  • You can do "Billy Blanks' Tae Bo Workout" by ordering a set of tapes sold through the infomercial or via retail outlets.
  • You can take Tae Bo classes at the Billy Blanks World Training Center in Sherman Oaks, California or at a few select gyms nationwide. Currently there are only 15 instructors certified to teach Tae Bo.

Tae Bo or Not Tae Bo

Navarro's Martial Arts Academy in San Francisco's gritty Mission district is one of those unglamorous, down-to-earth gyms where locals come for a serious workout, to study Chinese Kenpo karate, Muy Thai kickboxing or American boxing. They certainly don't come to be "seen" or to strut about in the latest Lycra number. The walls surrounding the humble space display scores of trophies and awards won by the school's founder, Professor Carlos Navarro, who holds a ninth-degree black belt in Kenpo, his daughter Rubie, who qualified as an alternate member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Karate team, and his son Frank, a fourth-degree black belt in Kenpo and an expert kickboxer and boxer who's acted in and been the fight coordinator for numerous martial arts films.

But 17 years ago, Navarro's introduced something decidedly untraditional to its students: a cardio workout that set martial arts moves to music. They called their new exercise Crush Kick. It looked a lot like what karate champ Billy Blanks started teaching at around the same time, Kaerobics -- the precursor to Tae Bo. As the Navarros tell it, in the '80s just about everyone with a martial arts black belt was trying to capitalize on the aerobics craze. "There were hundreds of people doing their own Tae Bo," recalls Carlos. "We weren't the only ones. Aerobics was getting stale and everybody tried to put [martial arts] to music," Frank says. "The question was how are you going to grasp the entire nation?"

The multi-million dollar question indeed. Why, in the end, was it Tae Bo that grasped America and not Crush Kick or Karatecize or any of the other martial-arts-cardio-contrivances that dot the sweatscape? Why is Billy Blanks a millionaire and the talented, charming, camera-ready Frank Navarro is not? One word: marketing.

From Who? to Guru

Just a few short years ago Billy Blanks was just an average Joe by Hollywood standards. He started in security, serving as bodyguard to Catherine Bach (Daisy of the Dukes of Hazzard) while she was working on a film in the Philippines in 1989. While there, Blanks scored when the director asked him to fill in for an actor who had been fired. That role was followed by one in Bloodfist and a string of other martial arts B-movie parts. Blanks finally hit the mainstream when he played a deranged, gun-happy football player in The Last Boy Scout.

But it was in the gym where fame would ultimately find Blanks. In 1990 he opened a one-room studio where he taught Kaerobics (he later changed the name to Tae Bo due to a trademark dispute) to a small group of clients that included singer Paula Abdul. Word-of-mouth spread and soon Blanks was working with a who's who of '80s hair stars: Farrah Fawcett, Ryan O'Neal, Rebecca De Mornay, Jack Scalia, and Connie Sellecca.

Still, trainers with famous clients are a dime a dozen in La La Land. Ironically, it would be a little-known businessman from Akron, Ohio who would catapult Blanks to exercise gurudom. That businessman, Paul Monea, would become the brain behind Blanks' brawn.

Monea showed up at Blanks' gym about a year and a half ago. He was there to see a presentation on a product Blanks wanted to develop: an energy snack called Billy Bar. Monea arrived during one of Blanks' Tae Bo sessions -- Paula Abdul and other celebs were there -- and quickly decided there was gold in them thar kicks. He asked Blanks if he would make a workout video and infomercial.

Monea's been called the world's leading trendsetter in multi-level marketing and infomercial programs. He's successfully peddled a number of "quality of life products" via infomercials, including the "Super Salsa" machine. He ran into some trouble a few years back when he was marketing a product called the "Stimulator," a pain-killing device (to relieve headaches, back pain, arthritis, flu, etc.) endorsed by the likes of Evel Knievel and Lee Merriwether via a rather convincing infomercial. The Stimulator was selling well, about 16,000 a week at $79.80 a pop (plus shipping), until the FDA determined it was nothing more than a modified gas grill igniter and filed an injunction against Monea's company.

Perhaps Blanks didn't know about the Stimulator, or maybe he did. In any case, Blanks trusted Monea enough to go into business with him. "What [Monea] said that made it click was, 'Let's go out and help the world,'" Blanks told the Associated Press. "When he said that, he wasn't talking money, but about helping people. Through that, prosperity came."

Boy did it ever. "Billy Blanks' Tae Bo Workout" is the number-one-selling exercise video in the United States, Europe, Canada, and South America. Video sets start at $39 and 1.5 million tapes have been sold thus far. Blanks is a millionaire -- he's guaranteed $250,000 annually as long as the infomercial airs and gets 20 percent of the adjusted gross from video sales.

And there's more prosperity to come. On July 23 Blanks kicked off a national Tae Bo Tour with Magic Johnson in concert venues across the country. This year, 24 new Tae Bo videos will be released. Those include a series of live tapes, "Tae Bo Gold for Seniors," "Tae Bo Kids," "Tae Bo Combat," and one especially for people in wheel chairs. "He spent months working on a wheelchair scenario -- he actually got into a chair," says Blanks' spokesman Steve Valentine. New Billy Blanks Training Centers are scheduled to open in Houston, New York, Miami, L.A., and Chicago. Plans are also in the works to create a whole Tae Bo lifestyle line of products: "Billy Wear" (workout clothes), a nutritional food line, a cookbook, bathing suits, and suntan oil. "[Tae Bo] has created its own industry," says Dan Bohlmann, director of marketing for Tae Bo International Fitness. Bohlmann says Tae Bo was the hot property at a recent licensing expo. "Thousands of licensing deals were offered to us."

Tae Bo Conquers All

If you're still not convinced Tae Bo has bobbed and weaved its way into the very fabric of American culture, get this: Bohlmann recently sat next to President Clinton at an event and gave him a Tae Bo video. According to Bohlmann, Clinton said, "I've seen the infomercial and I thought about buying it for the family so I really appreciate it." Then Bohlmann got word that Clinton had popped in the video during a flight from Dearborn, Michigan to Boston on Airforce One and that he actually did the workout. Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Barcia, (D-Mich) wants to organize a Tae Bo workout on the steps of Congress (Barcia also nominated Blanks for the President's Council on Physical Fitness) and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., has talked about organizing a Tae Bo workout for all the candidates in the 2000 election. Perhaps a country that Tae Bos together votes together.

On April 29, The U.S. House of Representatives honored Monea, calling him "an outstanding humanitarian and a fiercely focused hardworking self-made entrepreneur… Always vigilant to offer the world products which make life safer, cleaner, healthier and less troublesome, Paul is currently producing a 'Stop Smoking' program that has proven results." The "Stimulator" is noted as one of his great accomplishments. It's in the congressional record.

No doubt about it, America loves its Tae Bo. On Amazon.com, where Tae Bo is the best-selling fitness video, there are 697 customer reviews. Almost all of them rave about the workout: customers give it an average of four-and-a-half out of five stars. Recent attempts by the press to dig up "the dark side of Tae Bo" have had little, if any, impact.

One such effort in the New York Post described how exercisers were incurring Tae Bo injuries left and right. "Anyone can do it! the Blanks hype machine says -- trotting out grandmothers, celebrities and converts who lost 30 pounds," the article begins, "But Tae Bo is no miracle road to a trim tummy -- it's sometimes a quick path to tendinitis and other injuries, say New York doctors." Another story in the Boston Globe questioned claims made in Blanks' bio, namely that he's a seven-time world karate champion and a Massachusetts Golden Glove champ. Both, according to the Globe article, are false. The article also gives voice to a number of angry people from Blanks' past: "[Blanks] stole the Kaerobics concept from me," gripes one former trainer and manager.

While Tae Bo's success has created resentment from those who failed to beat Blanks to the punch, there are plenty of people who are grateful to be getting a cut of the action. There isn't a gym worth its salt that's not teaching some form of cardio kickboxing. And aerobics/martial arts videos are coming faster than a horde of angry Ninjas. Here are just a few of the more than twenty titles currently available: "Kick Butt" with Kristoff St. John, Chuck Norris' "Lean and Mean Workout" and "Kathy Smith's Kickboxing Workout."

As for Frank Navarro, he tries not to let bitterness or jealousy get the best of him. He says he thought just once about the millions that could have been his. "Then I had to move on." The truth is that Tae Bo has been a boon for the Navarros' Crush Kick. Carlos and Rubie are teaching packed classes all over San Francisco, and Frank has certified about 300 instructors nationally with his own Crush Kick instructional video. This month Frank starts a 23-city Crush Kick tour across America. He plans to teach in Puerto Rico and Central America as well. "I have a good following," Frank says. "Blanks is not the only star in the world."

Leora Broydo has a sixth-degree black belt in Tae Bo. When not pummeling imaginary opponents she writes for Mother Jones, Spin and Utne Reader.