Family Fitness

In the 1990s, Billy Blanks was a fitness king—running his eponymous TaeBo studio in Sherman Oaks and starring in his successful fitness infomercial series. Then suddenly he disappeared. How a TV show and a newly forged relationship with his son brought him back.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Written by
    Steven Stiefel
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

 

On his 2012 appearance on Shark Tank, Billy Blanks Jr. (BJ), charms all the entrepreneurs or “sharks” dangling seed money, when he pitches his Dance with Me DVDs and instructor-licensing business. He asks for $100,000 for a 20% ownership, and Daymond John and Mark Cuban counter with $100,000 for a 50% co-deal, contingent upon distribution through Zumba.

BJ, who doesn’t think Zumba will work with his idea, turns down the offer, and he leaves the “tank” dejected. “You know what, if I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it,” Daymond says, rising from his seat after BJ has left the room. “Where are you going?” Kevin O’Leary, one of the other sharks, asks. “I’m going to do the deal,” Daymond replies. No shark had ever chased after a potential deal. Daymond met with BJ and his wife, Sharon, in the waiting room, to convince the fitness instructor to take the deal.

On the show, viewers watched the sharks grill BJ about why his father, Billy Blanks Sr. (Billy) wouldn’t help him establish his own fitness product line. His father had launched the most successful infomercial fitness product, TaeBo, a combination of tae kwon do and boxing set to music.

“Some family structures are different,” BJ said when asked if his father had invested in his fitness product. “He’s making me earn it on my own.”

For Billy Sr., the words—and the truth behind them—stung. “When I saw that episode of Shark Tank, it hit me in the face and it hurt,” he says. “I couldn’t help my son at that time because we weren’t communicating.”

Today BJ has two gyms and a large fitness following, with thousands of instructors teaching his renamed Dance It Out classes. He’s also reconciled with his father, who was the first to blow up the workout infomercial more than 20 years ago with TaeBo.

TAEBO TAKES OFF

Billy Blanks Sr. started TaeBo in 1989, when he was retiring from martial arts competition at the age of 34. TaeBo was something of a fitness revolution and a precursor to hugely popular mixed martial arts and the UFC that we know today.

But TaeBo got there first, based on Billy’s high-energy infomercials. He became a multimillionaire due to the massive sales of his DVDs.

“I was ahead of my time, putting together music, martial arts, rhythm and boxing,” Billy says. “My goal was to appeal to women more than men. I’ve always believed that every woman has a warrior within, but they don’t always know how to unleash it.”

Billy’s large studio gym on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks turned into the hottest day club in Southern California. People lined up outside the doors and around the block to take classes from instructors who included Billy and his daughter Shellie.

In the early years, BJ taught there too. “I’d stop doing TaeBo while I was teaching, and I’d start dancing. That wasn’t considered a workout at the time. My father would come up to me after my class and say, ‘What were you doing?’”

After the infomercials, TaeBo became so successful that Billy Blanks Sr. was able to build a multimillion-dollar, custom-designed home in the gated community of Hidden Hills. Meanwhile his son stopped teaching TaeBo and headed to New York to pursue musical theatre, struggling to make ends meet.

At the height of his popularity, Billy walked away. He moved to Japan, where TaeBo is enormously popular and left his studio in the hands of some relatives (who eventually moved it to another location and renamed it).

FITNESS FISSURE

When BJ was young, he had a natural talent for karate, winning tournaments. His father was proud of these accomplishments. “But I didn’t love it,” BJ says. “I was ignited when I watched Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson perform.”

In New York, BJ eventually won the lead role in the musical, Fame, which toured internationally, returning for a national tour in 1999. “My father wasn’t supportive when I changed my career path, but he has since apologized for not supporting me.”

After the run of Fame, BJ moved back to LA, and began teaching Dance with Me classes at a large gym in Sherman Oaks. “Everyone went crazy for it,” BJ says, instructing sold-out classes of more than a hundred participants.

What his fans and followers didn’t know was that BJ was only being paid $30 a class.

“Everything’s come full circle. It’s the coolest thing.”

He and Sharon had a child, Elijah, but they couldn’t afford a place to live, and so they moved into the 777 Motor Inn close to the gym so BJ didn’t need a car to get to work.

“I decided I was going to quit teaching workout classes and go back to working in restaurants where I could make a decent living,” BJ says. “Just as I was about to announce this at the end of a packed class to my most loyal followers, a woman walked up to me. ‘I’m a cutter,’ she said. ‘And I don’t cut on the days when I take your class.’ She showed me the scars on her forearms. ‘Please don’t ever quit.’”

BJ was taken aback at the impact he could have on people. Instead of quitting, he decided to go on Shark Tank, prompted by 7-year-old Elijah’s suggestion.

 

SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO DANCE IT OUT

After BJ’s Shark Tank appearance, Daymond and Mark called Billy Sr. to make sure that he wouldn’t sue BJ if he used his real name, Billy Blanks Jr., on his product.

BJ’s father hung up on the sharks. “Daymond called me and said he couldn’t put up the money because he was afraid my father would sue him,” BJ says.

“Then Mark called and said, ‘Let your father sue me. I’m a billionaire. I want to go forward with this project.’”

BJ thinks his father misunderstood what the sharks were asking. After Billy Sr. saw BJ’s appearance on Shark Tank, he was moved to tears, and he wrote his son a letter. “I love my son,” Billy says. “And I did not want to leave this Earth without spending more time with him.” The father agreed to the sharks’ deal.

Today BJ has two workout studios—one in Sherman Oaks and the other in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he and his staff teach Dance It Out classes. He also has more than 1,000 accredited instructors in the U.S., as well as another 1,000 internationally, part of the deal he struck with the sharks.

Not only do the father and son spend family time together, they both teach classes at Blanks Studio in Sherman Oaks—a facility BJ opened with two business partners in 2014. Locals can take BJ’s dance or Billy’s TaeBo classes. The senior Blanks hopes to open his own studio next year.

“If it hadn’t been for Shark Tank, that may not have happened,” Billy says. “Sometimes you become so blind that you aren’t able to see what’s happening around you.” The Shark Tank appearance gave Billy the opportunity to see himself reflected in his son’s pain, and so he reached out to BJ to apologize and reconcile.

“Everything’s come full circle,” says BJ. “It’s the coolest thing.”

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