If you were a self-consciously scrawny teenager back in the 1960s, you knew muscle-building mogul Joe Weider from comic-book ads that asked, “Why be SKINNY?” To start down the road to physical perfection and popularity with the opposite sex, all we needed to do was send him a self-addressed envelope and 25 cents for postage and handling.
In his heyday, Weider, who died on March 23 at age 93 in Los Angeles, was the veritable Donald Trump of hypertrophy, a masterful promoter who persuaded countless couch potatoes to get off their duffs and hoist a dumbbell or two. With his mail-order bodybuilding courses and glossy magazines such as Muscle Builder and his eponymous line of exercise equipment, the Canadian-born entrepreneur not only raked in millions of bucks but also helped pave the way for today’s fitness subculture, in which about a quarter of Americans lift weights at least once a week, according to a 2008 Gallup poll.
Here are five fascinating facts about Weider and the buff world he helped create:
- Weider’s first piece of exercise equipment was junk — literally. As an undersized youth growing up in working-class Montreal in the 1930s, he got inspired to start working out when the local YMCA wrestling coach told him he was too frail to try the sport. According to his 2005 memoir, Weider, who had read about weightlifting, fruitlessly tried to find equipment in his hometown. Finally, he went to a scrapyard, where an amused foreman offered to solder two old flywheels to a rusty iron shaft to create a 75-pound barbell for him.
- He pumped up Arnold Schwarzenegger. The future action-movie idol and California governor was a relatively unknown bodybuilding champion living in Munich in 1968 when Weider invited him to come to the United States and compete in a contest sponsored by Weider’s International Federation of Bodybuilders. According to Schwarzenegger’s 1978 memoir, to his shock, he actually lost, finishing second. Nevertheless, Weider saw Schwarzenegger’s charismatic potential and offered to pay his living expenses if he would move to California to work out in a gym there and regularly pose for exercise photos in Weider magazines. The latter exposure helped make Schwarzenegger’s name synonymous with big muscles, and became the launching pad for his spectacularly successful film career.
- He actually was pretty buff. The guy in those comic-book ads did look as if his muscles had been created by a skillful artist, but in his youth, Weider actually was a local weightlifting champion in Quebec. At a weight of 175 pounds, he once hoisted 300 pounds in the old-fashioned continental jerk, in which a lifter pulls a barbell to his waist and then flips it overhead. His teenage nickname was “Tarzan” because of his hunky physique, which he maintained remarkably even as he got older. In 1989, a New York Times reporter watched the then-67-year-old Weider do nine repetitions in the squat with a 260-pound barbell on his shoulders.
- He had a bit of P.T. Barnum in him. The self-styled “Master Blaster” had a showman’s knack for making colorful, if sometimes dubious, claims. In a 1989 New York Times interview, for example, he explained that one of his muscle-building supplements contained montmorillonite, a mineral he said was scraped from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. (It’s actually a common substance found in clay in many parts of the world.) Schwarzenegger, in a tribute to Weider on his website, recalled that the fitness entrepreneur helped him get his first movie role in the 1969 comedy Hercules in New York by telling producers that Schwarzenegger, who barely spoke English at the time, had been a Shakespearean actor in Germany.
- He made an awful lot of money. He may have started out in 1940 with a mimeographed newsletter that he sold for 75 cents, but by the time Weider sold his publishing company to American Media in 2003, it was worth a breathtaking $357 million.
From YouTube, here’s a 2010 pictorial tribute to Joe Weider — accompanied, oddly, by Johnny Cash’s rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.”