Denise Austin built a fitness empire by staying ahead of fitness trends. Before the explosion of boutique gyms, she was leading corporate clients through crunches. When Americans were still indulging unabashedly in fats and salty foods, she was urging women, as a volunteer for the American Heart Association, to eat healthy and work out for their hearts. Before televised workout shows became popular, she was high stepping as co-host on the nationally syndicated "The Jack LaLanne Show," the program that started it all.
Thirty years later, she's a household name in fitness. She has sold 22 million DVDs and videos and in January will release her 11th book, "Get Energy: Embrace Your Body and Enjoy Your Life." She has been on TV for 24 years and she's headed back in January for a new show on the Lifetime cable channel. She has a line of exercise gear, is the spokeswoman for Skechers Shape-up shoes, Nature Made vitamins and Idaho potatoes and writes a monthly column for Woman'sDay. Austin, who at 53 still has six-pack abs, is married to Jeff Austin, a sports lawyer. They live in Alexandria with their daughters Kelly, 19, and Katie, 16.
Why she's successful: "I think it's my energy level. I love the challenge of getting people motivated to exercise. I put my heart and soul into it ... People come up to me and tell me I helped them lose weight and feel better about themselves ... And, I'm 100 percent natural. I've been pregnant in front of people. I had to film six weeks after both deliveries. The biggest ratings I ever received were when I had my baby and then showed my tummy on television."
Obstacle she faced: "Getting in front of the right people. I did everything myself ... I could probably have done things quicker if I had a big agent behind me, but I believed in what I was saying and I knew that I could sell myself better than anyone else could. I learned the ropes as I went along. And I was never afraid for people to say no to me. I was like, 'Okay, I'll call someone else.'"
An early lesson: Austin was born in Palos Verdes near Los Angeles, the middle child of five. Her mother was a homemaker and office manager. Her father worked for 45 years as an executive with the M&M/Mars candy company. "My dad would go to grocery stories and check to see how the candy bars were positioned in the stores. He would check to see if they were lined up, with the labels facing out. I learned a lot about marketing watching him. To this day, when I go see my DVDs or my sisters or brother go to Target or Wal-Mart, we always check to make sure my DVDs are facing out."
First job: In high school, Austin was a gymnast who practiced for five hours after school each day. She received a scholarship to the University of Arizona at Tucson, where she earned a bachelor's in physical education with an emphasis in exercise physiology. "My first job was teaching gymnastics to 4- and 5-year-olds when I was 15 in my hometown. I did that all the way through college."
How she got started: "In 1980, I started teaching aerobics to corporations in Southern California ... That was pretty progressive. In 1980, aerobics in L.A. was just kind of starting, so I was at the beginning of aerobics. Back then, there were no fitness centers. I held classes on rented racquetball courts. I taught some of my friends and my sisters to teach aerobics. I had 20 friends working for me who would all go to these racquetball courts or cafeterias at 5:30 p.m. after work."
Smartest move: "Running up to Jack LaLanne at a dinner party and introducing myself ... I told him, 'I can do handstands and aerial cartwheels on your show!' All these years later, he's still a good friend. He's 95 years old and he loves that I tell everybody that he gave me my start ... I was co-hosting that show and teaching when I got my own show on KABC called 'Daybreak With Denise.' It came on at 5:30 a.m.!"
Biggest challenge: Making a go of her business after relocating to the Washington, D.C., area after marrying Jeff Austin, a former tennis pro and brother of tennis great Tracy Austin. "I gave up my TV show and my entire business in L.A. It's 1983 and fitness is big in L.A., but not in D.C. It was just getting started there. I went to New York to build a national name ... I started to do a lot of fitness tips for magazines ... I wanted to do the 'Today' show. I watched it daily with Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel. I called [Executive Producer] Steve Friedman 35 times until I finally got him. I got a contract to do monthly fitness tips."
Building her brand: In 1988, she began doing a weekly show for ESPN called "Getting Fit With Denise Austin." Ten years later, it moved to the Lifetime channel, where it lasted for 12 years and is still seen in reruns. In 1985, she did her first exercise videos, "Rock Aerobics" and "Rock Hard Tummies," about the same time her first book, "One Minute Exercises," was published. "I have a brand. I am a brand. I protect my brand. I am really in tune, through Deniseaustin.com, to my readers and fans. I reach out to them. I have over 2 million readers who receive the deniseaustin.com newsletter daily. I give them recipes, exercises, and what I call a 'deniseology,' inspirational sayings."
What inspires her: "The difference I make in people's lives."
What's next: "I want to do things for kids and fitness ... I have a book tour starting in January and two new DVDs that will come out then. We're doing the book and DVD tours together."
Advice to the aspiring: "Just keep trying. Don't give up. You will hear a million negatives. Make the call yourself, don't rely on other people. No matter how hard it gets, keep pushing ahead because persistence pays off. That's really why I'm a success -- because I never gave up."
Avis Thomas-Lester| August 18, 2010; 12:00 AM ET | Category: success stories Save & Share:
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