When Susan Powter Tried to Stop the Diet Insanity

The infomercial landscape of the 1990s held particular appeal for people looking to pursue self-improvement. Richard Simmons advocated for Deal-a-Meal, a trading card-based diet regimen; Tony Little swore he could whip people into cardiovascular shape with his Gazelle; Chuck Norris promised that the Total Gym and its resistance bands would build muscle.

All of these marketing campaigns were successful to varying degrees, but none reached the heights of a crew-cut, bleached-blonde pitchwoman who insisted that losing weight and raising your self-esteem were not a condition of buying expensive equipment or starving yourself. It was a matter of making smart food choices, minimizing fat intake, and sticking to a moderate exercise routine.

The woman was Susan Powter. In 1993 alone, she sold more than $50 million dollars’ worth of simplified, common-sense advice to an audience that was ready to take a minimalist approach to wellness.

"If you can't pronounce it," she told followers, "don't eat it."

 
 

Like many gurus before her, Powter’s ascension was preceded by considerable challenges in her personal life. Born in Sydney, Australia on December 22, 1957, Powter's family moved to the United States when she was 10 years old. In 1980, her family relocated to Dallas, which is where—one year later—she met and fell “madly in love” with Nic Villareal. The couple married in 1982 and had two sons. But "the marriage was wrong from the start," Powter told People in 1994. "He was young, and we were too different from each other." In 1986, the couple separated. Powter turned to food to help alleviate her stress, estimating she went from 130 to 260 pounds.

Diets and workout routines were not helpful. Powter once said she rented a Jane Fonda Workout tape and found it impenetrable. Instead, she walked, ate only when hungry, cut out sugar and processed foods, and eventually slimmed down to 114 pounds. After her mother passed away in 1988, Powter used the $250,000 inheritance she received to open a Dallas fitness studio that she dubbed the Wellness Center.

By that time, Powter had adopted her soon-to-be-signature closely-cropped hairstyle, and her energy—which one journalist described as being not unlike a “human air raid”—was distinctive. She proselytized to women in supermarket aisles, counseling them on healthier food choices.

In 1990, Powter approached Dallas publicity representative Rusty Robertson with a request for help getting more members into her gym. Robertson, who understood what it took to get the public’s attention, was immediately struck by Powter’s charisma. She booked Powter on radio shows and for lectures and facilitated a book contract with Simon & Schuster. To summarize Powter’s candid approach to weight loss, one that dispensed with calorie counting and constant use of a scale, Robertson used the umbrella term of "Stop the Insanity."

By 1993, the pair had organized an infomercial (shot partially in Robertson’s home) that spoke to an audience stretching far beyond the Dallas area. For $79.80, respondents would get a Stop the Insanity package that included five audio tapes, an exercise video, recipes, a guide to fat content in various foods, and a plastic skin-fold caliper that made rough estimates of body fat percentages. Roughly 200,000 of the kits were sold within the first two weeks of the infomercial’s airing. From there, Powter moved 15,000 of them a week. Devotees could supplement this counseling with a paperback book, Pocket Powter, as well as the main Stop the Insanity title, which paid Powter an initial advance of $400,000.

“You gotta give [infomercial producer] USA Direct credit,” Powter said in 1994. “They had chutzpah. They must have been biting their nails when I went out there in front of a live audience—a bald woman wearing a cut-off T-shirt, and no script. Our infomercials are the only ones that are not scripted. And our audiences are not paid to go 'ohh, ahh.' They're not paid at all. Other companies that we had approached to do our infomercials wanted to change me. They found me too aggressive. Typical male interpretation."

Fueled by a desire to help dieters cut through the noise, Powter advocated a simple approach. “Fat makes you fat,” she insisted, dismissing strategies involving food diaries or convoluted exercise programs. In person, she communicated with a kind of gastronomic evangelism, insisting women needed to be fit and healthy in order to combat the patriarchy. The press made frequent mention of how she had effectively conquered her own personal imbalance of power, with first husband Villareal sharing a two-family duplex with Powter and her second husband, musician Lincoln Apeland.

One part Richard Simmons and one part Betty Friedan, Powter seemed poised to segue from infomercial star to feminist wellness guide. Then she simply disappeared.

 
 

As is often the case with rapid fortune, Powter had problems delegating whose pockets deserved to be filled. She spent a good portion of the late 1990s in a legal battle with former business partner Gerald Frankel, whom she had met at her exercise studio, for rights to her name and the “Stop the Insanity” trademark. ("Susan wants it all," Frankel told reporters in 1995, insisting the deal had been equitable.) The two fought in court for years. While she managed to win her identity, it came at the expense of a personal bankruptcy.

Powter turned down sitcom offers and film roles, preferring to direct her energy toward wellness issues. She didn't want her message to be filtered, which didn't always sit well with radio and television producers, so her talk shows disappeared. Powter largely dropped out of the public eye from 1998 to 2008, resurfacing only when she felt her messages of self-empowerment could be delivered, undiluted, via the internet.

Today, her website seems to be only sporadically updated. The 60-year-old Powter's public appearances are infrequent. Her admonition to reduce fat intake has since been supplanted by advocates of low-carb and high-protein menus, along with strenuous workouts. But for a number of people, Powter was able to cut out the white noise of fad diets and gimmicky machines to create a simple message: Eat less, move more, and the rest takes care of itself.

Love Is On the Air: How The Dating Game Changed Television

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Chuck Barris had a problem. As the creator and producer of a new ABC game show titled The Dating Game, Barris had thought it would be entertaining to see three men vie for the affections of a woman who quizzed them from behind a screen. Because they'd be unable to rely on visual cues or physical attraction, the contestant and her would-be suitors would have to assess their chemistry based on verbal interplay, and wouldn't see each other face-to-face until she selected a winner.

Unfortunately, early tapings of the game in 1965 had not gone well. Barris later recalled that both the men and women had tasteless responses, answering the contestant's questions with profane remarks full of sexual innuendo that would be unacceptable for daytime television. The shows could not be aired.

Then Barris had an idea. He asked a friend of his who was an actor to dress in a hat and raincoat to give the appearance of a law enforcement official. The man walked into the dressing room where the bachelors were waiting to go on air. He lied and told them that any profanity or overt sexual references would be a violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, a federal offense. They might even get sentenced to jail time.

From that point on, there were no more problems with people uttering expletives on The Dating Game, a long-running series that acted as a precursor to The Bachelor as well as a host of other dating shows. Recognizable for its campy 1960s set, host Jim Lange blowing kisses at the audience, and its inane questioning of contestants, the show marked a pivotal shift away from game shows that offered monetary gain and instead offered a potentially greater reward: true love.

Barris, a game show legend who would go on to create The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, was an ABC executive at the time. As head of daytime programming, he spent much of his time fielding what he thought were many ill-conceived pitches for shows from producers. He told fellow daytime executive Leonard Goldberg that he could come up with something better. But when Goldberg told him to try, Barris replied he had a wife and child and couldn’t spare the time. Goldberg offered to listen to an informal pitch. Barris came up with The Dating Game.

Some have observed the genesis of the show came as a result of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, which posited that women could enjoy more casual relationships without the prospect of marriage looming over their heads. In the more sexually adventurous ‘60s, a show about a simple courtship—particularly one steered by a woman—was still seen as progressive.

At the time, game shows were relegated to contests that typically featured a prize, or at least bragging rights to having won. Jeopardy! and The Price is Right were on the air handing out cash and cars. But Barris was more interested in an intangible benefit. Though the woman and her chosen suitor would be sent out for a dinner date, the expense was minimal, and no one was paid to appear on the show. For viewers, it was about who would find love—or at least the appearance of it.

To select contestants to appear on the series, Barris devised a referral system. After recruiting an initial round of potential participants, his staff had them fill out several forms consisting of their personal information. One of the sheets was reserved for people they already knew and who they felt would be a good fit for the series; a blue form was used for bachelors; and pink for single women. Staffers would be on the phone all day, calling candidates and ushering them in for further evaluation.

For Barris, a contestant on The Dating Game needed to be gregarious, glib, and able to elaborate on answers. If questions weren’t up to snuff, his writers would help craft queries meant to elicit slightly salacious—but never profane—responses. (The questions ranged from perceptive to queries like, “If men are what they eat, which vegetable do you consider yourself?”) Test games would be held in Barris’s Hollywood offices. Out of a pool of 1000 possible contestants, the show would decide on 132 of them to fill their taping needs.

 

For a host, Barris chose Jim Lange, a popular radio personality, to move the game along. Each episode consisted of two complete games, usually a woman interrogating three men—though the format was soon changed to allow for a switch in roles, with three women vying for one man. Barris also enlisted celebrities or soon-to-be celebrities like John Ritter, Farrah Fawcett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Selleck, as well as occasionally sprinkling in a crush, work colleague, or someone else the contestant might know in their private life.

The show was an immediate hit on daytime when it premiered in December 1965. The series soon expanded to primetime in 1966 with a slight change in format: The “dates” now included travel to romantic hotspots like Paris and Rome in an effort to broaden the scope of the show. These trips involved the use of chaperones—a necessity, Barris said, because few parents would allow their young daughters out of the country with a veritable stranger.

The Dating Game aired on ABC through 1973 and entered syndication for one year. In 1978, it went into syndication again (Barris was no longer directly involved), with Lange returning as host. This version, however, was perceived as lewd, with contestants and producers making less of an effort to stifle the sexual wordplay. (“Let’s hear about your tool chest” was among the less-than-clever prompts offered by contestants.) Various other iterations have aired over the years, morphing into the more elaborate find-a-mate series like The Bachelor, which not only expects contestants to have chemistry but eventually wed. Strangely, the conceit seems more old-fashioned than the show that started the genre.

Those shows owe quite a debt to Barris, who eventually left television altogether after feeling as though he was becoming pigeonholed by his game show successes. Barris later penned his 1984 autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which was adapted into a 2002 movie starring Sam Rockwell, directed by George Clooney, and written by Charlie Kaufman), in which he claimed he was an assassin for the CIA and executed targets while chaperoning winners of The Dating Game. That sensational assertion is in doubt, but Barris’s contributions to romance as a television commodity are not. The notion of dating as entertainment goes back to his original idea, a simple partition, and a man in a raincoat.

The Unkindest Cut: A Short History of the Mullet

Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld wore it on primetime television for nine years. Brad Pitt thinks his career got off the ground because he wore one to his Thelma & Louise audition. Peter Dinklage’s high school photo went viral as a direct result of the bold choice.

For all of these men and millions of others, the mullet has had profound and lasting effects on their lives. Famously described as being “business in the front, party in the back” and sometimes referred to as a “squirrel pelt” or the “ape drape,” the short-front, long-backed hairstyle might be the most controversial cut in the history of grooming. What started it? And can anything kill it?

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t have quite the same archaeological provenance as hieroglyphs or dinosaur bones, mullet historians believe there’s ample evidence to suggest that the hairstyle has been with mankind for centuries. Neanderthals may have favored it to keep hair out of their eyes and protect their necks from wind and rain. Greek statues dating back to the 6th century BCE sport the cut. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria rocked it.

Most of these populations embraced the cut for practical purposes: protection from the elements and visibility. But the direct lineage of the mullet to the modern day might be traceable from Native Americans, who often wore their hair short in front and kept it long in the back as a sign of their spiritual strength. The style was eventually appropriated by Western culture and made its way to settlements; colonial wigs, particularly George Washington’s, look a little mullet-esque.

The mullet remained dormant for much of the 20th century. Conformity led to sharp, practical cuts for men and traditional styles for women. That began to change in the 1960s, when counterculture movements expressed their anti-establishment leanings in their mode of dress. Long hair on guys became commonplace. In the 1970s, entertainers looking to appear even more audacious pushed their stage presence to extremes. For David Bowie, that meant a distinctive hairstyle that was cropped over the eyes and ears and left hanging in the back.

 David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973
Express/Express/Getty Images

Bowie’s popularity drew fresh attention to the mullet, although it didn’t yet have a name. The arrival of MTV led to even more exposure, which soon migrated to other mediums. Richard Marx’s blow-dried variant led to George Clooney’s The Facts of Life sculpt. Patrick Swayze’s ‘do in 1989’s Road House deserved equal screen billing. Mel Gibson raced through three Lethal Weapon movies with a well-insulated neck. John Stamos consoled his widowed brother-in-law on Full House with an epic mullet. Richard Dean Anderson diffused bombs on MacGyver for years with the “Arkansas waterfall.” Some fads last months. The mullet seemed to be hanging on for the long term.

But public derision was brewing. The style began to be appropriated by a demographic fond of trucker hats and sandals. The death blow came when the Beastie Boys mocked the cut on their 1994 track “Mullet Head,” a song the Oxford English Dictionary credits with naming the fad. (A “mullet head” had long been an insult used to label someone lacking in common sense: Mark Twain used it in 1884’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Suddenly, mullet-wearers were objects of ridicule and scorn, their locks outdated. For 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson lost his trademark cut. It was the end of an era.

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Like most things in fashion, that would not be the end of the mullet. The cut has made periodic resurgences over the years, with people adopting ironic takeoffs or making legitimate attempts to return the coonskin cap-like look to its former glory. In Moscow, young men suddenly began sporting the look in 2005, which became ground zero for a follicular virus. Some less flexible countries even became proactively anti-mullet: Iran banned it, among other Western styles, in 2010.

Men aren't the only ones to have rocked the style: Scarlett Johansson and Rihanna have both sported the look—albeit a decade apart.

Hairstylists generally avoid the waves of attention the mullet can sometimes provoke. “It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. He declared it "nonsense."

Dacre Montgomery in 'Stranger Things'
Dacre Montgomery rocks a mullet as Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things.
Netflix

But try telling that to the hairstyle's latest throng of fans, many of whom have been inspired to go back in time for the short-long look by Netflix's Stranger Things. "I cut at least one or two a week,” London hairstylist Idalina Domingos, who sports a shaggy-styled mullet herself, told The Guardian in August 2019. "There are these modern mullets, people are coming round to the idea. It’s a fun haircut to have and it's only going to get more popular."

For others, the cut is timeless. Kurri Kurri, a small mining town in Australia, is hosting its third annual Mulletfest, a celebration of all things badly shorn, on February 29, 2020. “We have so many mullets in town,” co-organizer Sarah Bedford said. “My father-in-law had one for 60 years."

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