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.
"Anyone that has made money that can say it doesn't make life a helluva lot easier is a liar. It makes life easier, it absolutely gives you more opportunities so if you want to go on vacation, you can. My children and I can pay the electric bill. I lived in fear of the first of every month. I don't do that anymore, and it's a blessing," she says. "But I also work [hard]; I get paid; I happen to do something I love."
What Ms. Powter seems to love most is helping women better their lives. At times, she seems as concerned with shoring up society's respect for women as she is with shoring up the women's loose flab. Her book is unapologetically geared for women.
"I have lots of men on my program. But I speak to women because I am a woman No. 1, and, No. 2 -- and I think it's most important -- we are the ones that have the least support. The men have the support systems; they're running the world. We are the ones who have the social pressure," she says.
"In our society, a fat man is a big guy. A fat woman is an undisciplined slob. That's the way they're treated. This is about women; this is support for women. I believe women are the most evolved species on earth. We are the healers, we are the nurturers, and right now our world needs healing and nurturing.
"A lot of women hear their story in this book. A lot of women raise children alone," she continues. "A lot of women see their dream blow up. A lot of women hate the way they look and feel. A lot of women believe they only have certain choices and they don't. This is my story, and I want to share that with other women."
Throughout her life, the Australian-born Ms. Powter struggled with her weight, was always considered a "big girl." When she married in 1982, she endured a four-month diet of lettuce to fit in her wedding dress. Within her first two years of marriage, Ms. Powter gave birth to two sons. A month after her second son was born, the marriage began to unravel when, she says, her husband began having an affair.
"We were married a couple of years, but forget it. It was in the toilet after the first couple of months. It was a disaster; the whole thing was a disaster. We should never have been married," Ms. Powter says.
When her husband left her, Ms. Powter says she was clinically depressed and miserable, left alone to raise two children. For two years, she buried her sorrows in food and ballooned to 260 pounds. In 1986, Ms. Powter says, she awoke from her "fat coma." After trying dozens of diets ("Diets don't work!" is her second favorite phrase), she began a high-volume, low-fat nutrition plan, along with regular exercise and fitness.
At 5 feet 6 inches, she weighed about 114 pounds the last time she stepped on a scale, which she rarely does. "Monitoring your success when you are reducing your body fat by getting on the scale is like checking the oil of your car by looking at the upholstery. It means nothing," she says. She prefers to measure her body fat, which is an annoyingly small 14 percent, down from 43 percent. She works out about four times a week, and insists anyone who spends more than an hour in the gym each day "needs to get a life."
Ms. Powter says she began to get in shape "to look better than my ex-husband's girlfriend." She constantly evokes her ex-husband's name in her seminars and infomercials, yet she maintains she is not unfair to him.
"I tell the truth. He did walk out. He did have an affair. I don't say he's a lousy human being. I don't say he's a jerk," she says. "He knows he was a part of the problem in the beginning, but he is also very much a part of the solution in the end.
Ms. Powter's ex-husband now lives in the three-bedroom Dallas home she shares with her two sons and her current husband, Lincoln Apeland, a musician, who cuts and bleaches her hair every three or four days. (Of bleaching her naturally brunet hair, Ms. Powter says, "One day I'm going to have to stop. I think you die from this stuff. But you know what? When I do, lie me in a coffin in a string bikini and spike heels and go, 'God, she looks good.' ")
Her ex lives with her so they can co-parent their children, Ms. Powter says. For Powter devotees, it is just another example of how she has taken her sad song and made it better.
Her bookstore appearance was less a book-signing than a lovefest, with the faithful bearing flowers, thank-you notes and gifts. Some waited for hours to have their book signed, then hung around the book store just to chat.
"Susan Powter saved my life," says Maureen Trice of Dorchester, Mass., who reports she went from 184 pounds to 132 pounds in the 11 months she has been using Ms. Powter's program. "I've tried everything, and nothing worked until this. This is the real thing. At last, I'm very happy with my life."
"You should be happy," Ms. Powter crows to Ms. Trice. "You're beautiful. Isn't she beautiful?"