Tae Bo heats up Hollywood -- Billy Blanks reinvigorates the fitness video genre with his unique new exercise style

By Dan Snierson
Updated April 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

I stare into his eyes and the bald-shaven he-man smirks. No, it doesn’t look good for this toothpicky reporter here at Billy Blanks’ World Training Center in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Going live with the Tae-Bo master means enduring a ritual even more intense than the kick-your-rear-into-gear routines seen on his infomercial and tapes. (At least with his Tae-Bo video set, this year’s No. 3 best-seller, behind Mulan and Antz, you can exercise your right to press pause.) Twisting, punching, thrusting, kicking, I find no mercy and — gasp! — could really use some water. ”Water?!?” Blanks shouts over the pulsing music. ”C’mon, hands up — gimme 20 more punches! One and two and three…”

More driven than a Buffalo snowplow in February, Blanks, 43, was a shy dyslexic kid, one of 15 children born to a poor family in Erie, Pa., before finding martial arts in his preteens. Seven world karate championships later, he kicked his way into Hollywood as a B-movie actor (Bloodfist, Tough and Deadly). Fusing elements of tae kwon do with boxing, he unveiled his first Tae-Bo studio in 1989; today, $75 million-plus in tape sales have single-fistedly reinvigorated the fitness genre, which sagged 37 percent from 1994 to 1998. Thanks to celeb testimonials from the likes of Carmen Electra, Sinbad, and Shaquille O’Neal, a guest spot on ER, and a one-week Oprah stint in February, Blanks has become the go-to guru of fitness. And don’t think he doesn’t know it. ”The only difference between me and Michael Jordan,” he declares during our warm-down chat, ”is Michael had TV coverage. But now I’m on TV and people are getting a chance to see what Billy Blanks is all about.” Of his Hollywood dreams, he notes: ”I wanna be an action guy, but a guy with a heart.”

Lofty comparisons and third-person references aside, Blanks seems quite grounded. Devoted to Bible study and religious in his habits, the husband and father of two begins work each morning at 5:30. ”Most people don’t think I’m in the studio,” he says. ”They walk in and they’re shocked: ‘Oh, he’s up there teaching!”’ And although Blanks talks in self-helpy sound bites (”If you have a will, I have the way”), the message is no-frills. ”My goal is to tell the truth about physical fitness,” he explains. ”I’m not going to tell you that this is going to be easy.”

Man of his word, when I exhaustedly ask, ”So Billy, do I have a future in this Tae-Bo thing?” he enthuses, ”You were pretty good — for someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”