Blanks, Billy 1955 (?)–
Billy Blanks 1955 (?)–
Martial arts champion, inventor of Tae-bo
Billy Blanks first earned a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s, when he won a series of martial arts competitions. A seven-time world karate champion, he was captain of the U.S. Karate team, and won 36 gold medals in international competition. In 1980, he was captain of the U.S. Olympic Karate team. Later, Blanks worked in the Hollywood film industry, appearing in more than 20 films, including Blood Fist (1989), Balance of Power (1996), and Kiss the Girls (1997).
But Blanks is most famous as the originator of Tae-Bo, a unique fitness program that combines martial arts, boxing, and aerobics. For more than a decade, Blanks and his system were known only to a small circle of fans who worked out at his fitness center in Sherman Oaks, California. Blanks first became a household name in the late 1990s, when he launched his Tae-Bo exercise tapes through a series of nationally-broadcast “infomercials” — commercials that are similar to, and last as long as, regular television programs.
“Do you know Tae-Bo? If you watch television, it’s a good bet you do,” James A. Fussell wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “The fist-pumping, high-flying hybrid of kick boxing and aerobics created by actor and former karate champion Billy Blanks is all over the tube via infomercials.” While the vast majority of infomercials fail, Blanks’ Tae-Bo system became a hot fitness trend in late 1998, selling nearly a million videotapes in just six months.
According to the biography of Blanks available on the Tae-Bo website, he was able to accomplish all this “despite dyslexia which would impede his learning, poverty, an anomaly in his hip joints which would impair his movement, [and] a clumsiness which would earn him the taunts of his siblings and cause his coaches to think he would never amount to much.”
Blanks was born the fourth of fifteen children, and raised in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Erie, Pennsylvania. “All we heard was sirens,” Blanks told Dan Jewel of People Weekly. His strict, hard-working parents—Isaac, a factory worker, and Mabeline, a homemaker—made sure that the children stayed out of trouble, though. “My father taught me that to get something out of life, you have to work for it,” Blanks was quoted as saying in People Weekly.
Blanks had a difficult time at school; many years later, he was diagnosed as dyslexic. But his life changed when, at age 12, he saw Bruce Lee perform as Kato on the TV show “The Green Hornet.” Blanks was captivated, and immediately signed up for karate lessons, which he paid for himself by working part-time as a garbage collector. “I was supposed to be the black sheep,” he told Dan Jewel of People Weekly. “Karate gave me confidence.” Blanks
At a Glance …
Born Billy Blanks, c.1955, raised in Erie, PA; son of Isaac Blanks, a factory worker, and Mabeline Blanks, a homemaker; married Gayle Godfrey; one daughter, Shellie, and one son, Billy Jr.
Career: Martial arts champion, actor, inventor of Tae-Bo. Performed in over 20 films, including Blood Fist (1989), Balance of Power (1996), and Kiss the Girls (1997). Television appearances include S.O.F. Special Ops Force (1997), The Parent ’ Hood (1997), ER (1999), The Oprah Winfrey Show (1999).
Awards: Five-time Amateur Athletic Union Champion, beginning in 1975. Sevemtime world karate champion. Won 36 gold medals in international competition. Captain of the U.S. Olympic Karate team, 1980. Inducted into the Karate Hall of Fame, 1982. Massachusetts Golden Gloves champion in the light-heavyweight class, 1984. Tri-State Golden Gloves Champion of Champions.
Addresses: Home— West Hills, CA. Office —Sherman Oaks, CA.
became a seventh degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, the Korean form of karate; he also holds black belts in five other forms of martial arts.
By the time he was 20 years old, Blanks had married his high-school sweetheart, Gayle Godfrey. Godfrey was just 17, and had a two-year-old daughter, Shellie, from a previous relationship. The couple later had a son, Billy Jr. Blanks supported the family by working as a janitor, and later as an employee in a chemical plant. “It’s an astonishing thing,” Gayle told People Weekly. “A lot of men don’t take care of their own children, let alone someone else’s.”
Meanwhile, he was a rising star in the martial arts community, winning state, national, and international championships. In 1975, he became the first Amateur Athletic Union Champion, a title he would win five times. A seven-time world karate champion, he was captain of the U.S. Karate team and won 36 gold medals in international competition. In 1980, he was captain of the U.S. Olympic Karate team. Two years later, he was inducted into the Karate Hall of Fame. Blanks also excelled as a boxer in 1984, he became Massachusetts Golden Gloves champion in the light-heavyweight class, and the Tri-State Golden Gloves Champion of Champions.
“I think of karate as a way of life—a way to learn self-discipline, self-control, and things like that—instead of as a way to beat up dozens of people,” Blanks told D. C. Denison of the Boston Globe in 1986. As karate champion, however, Blanks has been challenged by people who expect Hollywood-style fighting. “Once 11 guys wanted to fight me at one time,” he told the Boston Globe. “… I kicked the first guy in the chest, pretty hard, and the rest of them got scared and stopped.”
In 1988, Blanks moved his family to Los Angeles, determined to break into movies as martial-arts champion Bruce Lee had. Initially, Blanks worked as a bodyguard to actress Catherine Bach. Soon afterward, he landed a role in the 1989 film Bloodfist. Since then, he has appeared in more than 20 movies, including Driuing. Force (1989), Lionheart (1990), The Last Boy Scout (1991), Balance of Power (1996), and Kiss the Girls (1997). Blanks has also made several television appearances, including S.O.F. Spec/a/ Ops Force (1997) and The Parent’Hood (1997).
Meanwhile, in 1989, Blanks opened a small gym in Sherman Oaks, California, and began to develop his unique Tae-Bo system. His goal was to develop a fitness program that was as strenuous and enjoyable as martial arts, without the more traditional aspects that kept many women from participating. Blanks replaced bowing and uniforms with music and dance, and designed a fitness routine that combined stretching, boxing, weights, and karate.
In 1991 Blanks retired from martial arts competitions, deciding to concentrate on working in films and developing his fitness center. In 1995, the studio moved to a larger location, also in Sherman Oaks. “I’ve been teaching Tae-Bo for 11 years, and I’ve seen my studio go from 16 people to 16,000 people,” Blanks told James A. Fussell of the Chicago Tribune in 1999. Tae-Bo remains a family business: Blanks’ wife Gayle is his business manager, while daughter Shellie works as a trainer at the gym.
By 1997, Blanks had become one of the most sought-after fitness trainers in Hollywood. “Blanks is so in demand these days that celebs even deign to mix with the masses to punch-and-kick at the no-frills Billy Blanks World Training Center in Sherman Oaks, CA,” Dan Jewel wrote in People Weekly. Despite Blanks’ rising stardom, he still made time to teach eight classes a week at his center, Jewel wrote. At $9 each, the classes were so crowded that the fire department had to limit the number of partici-pants, for safety reasons.
“He’s like a teacher that you hate—but you love when you get an’A, ’” actress Lela Rochon, whom Blanks trained for her role in the action film Knock Off, was quoted as saying in People Weekly. “I revolve my life around it,” actress Carmen Electra was quoted as saying in People Weekly. “… you never know who you’re going to see. One day, LL Cool J was here, Queen Latifah was in a corner, and Alicia Silverstone was in class.”
After more than ten years of teaching Tae-Bo at his fitness center in California, Blanks decided to launch the system nationally, using videotapes promoted through infomercials—a strategy known as “direct-response” in the marketing industry. The infomercials were an unqualified success: nearly a million videotapes were sold in just six months.
Later, Blanks made the unusual decision to promote the videos through both infomercials and a more traditional distribution channel—retailstores. “In most cases, direct-response campaigns and retail promotions never run simultaneously,” Eileen Fitzpatrick wrote in Billboard magazine.
Blanks also promoted Tae-Bo through appearances on top television shows. In February of 1999, Blanks appeared on ER “There was the brawny Billy Blanks, celebrity fitness dictator, playing himself and turning the emergency room into a high-kicking, heart-palpitating aerobathon,” Ellen Warren and Teresa Wiltz wrote in the Chicago Tribune. Also in February, Blanks had a week-long stint on the Oprah Winfrey show. “If anyone hasn’t yet heard of Billy Blanks or Tae-Bo, they will by the end of the month,” Eileen Fitzpatrick wrote in Billboard. “… if Blanks’ video series performs anything like some of the fiction titles featured on Winfrey’s book club, it’s sure to shoot to the top of the sales charts.”
“We expect the Oprah show to double reorders for the titles,” Larry Hayes, head of Ventura Distribution, was quoted as saying in Billboard. “The Tae-Bo people took an amazing risk by rolling out this product to retail before its direct-response campaign had peaked. But they felt there was no reason to hold it back. It’s still the biggest seller in direct response and is driving retail sales.”
“Blanks has single-handedly reignited the fitness category at retail,” Eileen Fitzpatrick wrote in Billboard magazine. “Without a new star to drive sales, the genre has been rotting on the shelf. Blanks… looks like he’s the guy who can bring it back from the dead.”
Blanks has denied the suggestion that Tae-Bo is just a fitness fad, soon to be replaced by the next big thing. “No way in the world,” he told James A. Fussell of the Chicago Tribune. “Tae-Bo’s beensuccessful because I waited a long time before I introduced it to the public. Since I put this infomercial out, people think this is a new exercise. But it’s not a new exercise.”
While Tae-Bo has been a huge economic success, Blanks is “not just a guy who wants to make money,” he told Dan Jewel of People Weekly. Instead, he sees his work as a crusade: “I tell [clients], ’If you want to sweat, go sit in a whirlpool. I want you to get some power, I want you to feel like you can overcome everything.’ I tell them, ’Be a conqueror!’”
Billboard, Feb. 27, 1999, p. 62.
Boston Globe Magazine, June 8, 1986, p. 2.
Chicago Tribune, Feb. 23, 1999, p. 7; Feb. 15, 1999, p. 2.
People Weekly, Dec. 15, 1997, p. 79.
Tae-Bo website, http://www.taebo.com/billy.html
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