Appreciation written by Eugene Weinstein
Jack Lalanne (September 26, 1914 – January 23, 2011) was a key figure in American physical culture. His career as a public health advocate started in the 1930s following his encounter with Paul Bragg, an early healthy lifestyle enthusiast. His work remains relevant especially in light of the obesity crisis facing the US
Paul Bragg himself followed in the footsteps of Bernarr McFadden, a legendary and original public figure who combined sexual liberation and a healthy living message. Yet, unlike McFadden, who has much in common with Larry Flynt, together with two trials for the distribution of the obscene materials, and being a father of tabloids and avid participant of many scandals, Jack Lalanne throughout his life has maintained controlled and largely scandal-free image. His secret may be that was gay, a hypothesis supported by his psychosocial profile as well as by some candid pictures on the web.
Nobody came out of the closet at his time
If he was, nobody came out of the closet at his time, and it probably would hurt his image to be openly gay, even in California, a forerunner state for gay rights in the US. (One of the slurs aimed at the flamboyantly heterosexual McFadden was that he was gay, and it did damage his career).
The essence of Jack Lalanne’s message was clear – eat right and exercise and you will never die, never be sick, and never be unhappy. This is largely hyperbole, even for people who dedicate themselves to physical culture and who live healthy lives. The untimely death at the age of 70 of one of my Aikido teachers, Seiichi Sugano-sensei, reminded me recently of this sad fact. He battled diabetes in the last ten years of his life, losing his foot to it in 2003 but continued to teach until the three months before his passing on of cancer earlier this year.
Why is Jack Lalanne’s message effective?
So why is Jack Lalanne’s message effective? The theme that comes across very clearly in every interview is his wanting to help people. For his audience, which largely consisted of out-of-shape and overweight people, his message did ring true. It was also fundamentally and medically sound, even though he did not have formal medical education. Some of his ideas, like his aversion to milk and milk products, may be controversial, but most have withstood the test of time.
Jack Lalanne was an innovator
Jack Lalanne was also an innovator in the health and fitness world and also in business. He was the first to introduce a co-ed health facility, and to found a country-wide gym empire. He created a powerful marketing machine to promote his message and his business, so that in 2002 his endorsement of a juicer helped create a juicer empire.
Telling a story
When talking to his audience on his TV show, Jack Lalanne almost always told a story. Most of his stories are founded in his personal history. They often conveyed a sense of loss and guilt related to the passing of his father who did not listen to his message and died early and of his mother who did listen and lived a long life.
Such an account resonated with family-orientated women in his audience and is psychologically a marked departure from McFadden’s macho slogan “Weakness is a crime. Don’t be a criminal.” Nevertheless, while it is true that his father died early, it was his mother, a strict Adventist, who taught the young Jack Lalanne the value of diet and exercise.
Jack Lalanne promoted his messages by means of a number of feats such as swimming from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco in handcuffs, and claiming the word record in push-ups. Yet we do not find any record of him ever being a brawler or a prize fighter. He did not look or sound aggressive in discussing his feats, unlike other famous stuntmen such as McFadden and Evil Knievel.
Lalanne’s impact on American society has been multifaceted. If the word “fad” may have been coined to refer to Bernarr McFadden, then “Jumping Jacks” are clearly a trademark of Jack Lalanne. This is the name that kids in America call the star jump, an exercise well known in the world and popularized Jack Lalanne. His work does not lack continuity – Jane Fonda being a notable example of a high-profile exercise celebrity influenced by him. He received many awards has been inducted in the California Hall of Fame. A legend in his lifetime, Jack Lalanne’s larger-than-life legacy will endure.
You can catch up on recent news stories of Jack Lalanne here. [TR]