Powter trip: Ditch the diet, scrap the scales, banish fat and 'stop the insanity'

October 13, 1993|By Renee Graham | Renee Graham,Boston Globe

Sitting behind the author's desk at a Boston bookstore, flanked by a wall of books bearing her buzz-cut blond head, wide darting eyes, and the catch phrase ("Stop the insanity") that she has contributed to the lexicon of the 1990s, Susan Powter feels like an idiot.

"I'm just sitting here. I should, like, get up and do something, doncha think?" Ms. Powter asks anyone within earshot. "I should jump up, go out there and talk to people, mix it up a bit. I should be moving."

This is, after all, the woman who has made her name telling the world to move, move and keeping moving. She is the woman who has never hesitated to whip out photographs of herself as a sickly, grossly overweight single mother as proof that people can change their lives and eating habits. She is the eruption of energy bouncing across TV screens with that wake-the-dead voice at all hours of the day and night, imploring us to ditch those diets, scrap those scales, banish the body fat and "Stop the insanity."

Unless you've been in a cave for the past year, you've seen Ms. Powter moving, and moving constantly, either working the stage in her wildly popular 30-minute "Stop the Insanity" infomercial, her exercise video, or her appearance on ABC's the "Home" show. Her fitness and wellness program with exercise video, five audio cassettes, recipe booklet and plastic fat caliper has sold at a rate of 15,000 a week for the past six months -- quite a feat when you consider the whole shebang costs nearly $90. Her wellness seminars are immediate sellouts.

Equal parts fitness guru, motivational speaker and stand-up comedian, Ms. Powter, 35, is now pushing her book, called (what else?) "Stop the Insanity," published by Simon & Schuster, the latest cog in her lean, mean, well-oiled fitness and wellness machine.

"Look at me. I was 260. Huge. Don't ask," she tells a heavyset woman clutching Ms. Powter's book as if it held the keys to the world. "But not any more. That's over with. You have to stop the insanity of diets of starvation and deprivation that don't work. You'll be surprised at what disappears when you get physically well. It's unbelievable. I have so much energy now my head could blow off."

To the casual observer, Ms. Powter is the latest face in the long line of exercise commandos from Jack Lalanne to Richard Simmons to Jane Fonda, self-appointed to whip the world into shape. To her detractors, she's a squeaky wheel getting greased all the way to the bank by exploiting society's never-ending desire for physical perfection, another miracle-cure hustler working her 15 minutes of fame for all it's worth. She has been accused of male-bashing because she often mentions her ex-husband, Nick, in less than glowing terms. And then there is her brother, Mark, who has told the tabloids that Ms. Powter was never fat.

Ms. Powter has heard all the criticism, and while it bothers her more than she'll likely admit, she seems to take it well, flicking it away with her carefully applied, blood-red fake nails.

"I've made a lot of choices in the last couple of years. I have separated myself from people -- including some in my own family -- who are not what I want to be around," she says. "And the media, especially the print media, is so insistent on this, 'Well, you've got short hair so you're a wild and crazy male-bashing woman.' It's three things. It's the haircut. Then it's the fact that I'm intelligent, I have a brain. You know, a woman with a brain is aggressive, not bright. And then I have an opinion, and my opinion is stated. So I have an opinion, which I state, and I have a brain, so obviously aren't I an aggressive woman? That's a given, and it's an unacceptable given.

"Rush Limbaugh can get up there and literally spew his opinion at society, spew it at a camera, and people go, 'Oh, he's got opinions.' I get up and say, 'Diets don't work,' and people say, 'Oh, she's so opinionated, that woman.' "

During two hours of book-signing, she chats with all of her fans and anyone who stands still long enough. In the course of a 15-minute conversation, she skips from advice on marriage to her admiration for Betty Friedan to her love for singer k. d. lang. Ms. Powter is as over-the-top as she is genuine, as amusing as she is annoying, and it all somehow seems to work. If the crowds at the bookstore were any indication, her first book is already a hit, and she has another -- simply titled "Food" -- in the works for Simon & Schuster. She runs a "wellness studio" in Dallas, and has crisscrossed the country putting on seminars. She recently completed her second infomercial, and has signed on to do a daily syndicated talk show, which Ms. Powter describes as "a national format for what women have been doing for centuries: networking and problem-solving."

But Ms. Powter insists there's more to her fitness crusade than just getting paid.

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