Billy Blanks: A Celebration of Creativity and Character
Black History Month: Billy Blanks turned personal challenges into the powerful Tae Bo Nation.
Billy Blanks was born with an anomaly in his hip joints that left him clumsy and subject to taunts. He found strength—both physically and of character—in karate, and he went on to a successful career as a martial arts champion, bodyguard and movie star.
That in itself is a pretty amazing story. But in Blanks’ case, that’s just the preface. His true legacy was born out of his desire to create something new that could help others learn to love fitness in a whole new way.
The Birth of the Tae Bo Nation
So what was this new thing? Tae Bo®, of course—“tae,” from a Korean word meaning foot or leg and “bo,”short for boxing. Blanks took his workout to Los Angeles in the ’80s, attracting celebrities and inspiring others those whose fame would follow. It was high energy, high intensity and, most importantly, really fun. The fan base began to grow, packing Blanks’ LA gym.
Terry and Tina Shorter were two of those early fans. Before they met in 1999 and went on to create R.I.P.P.E.D.—The One Stop Body Shock®, each had taken Blank’s classes.
Terry remembers the gym on Ventura Blvd, the steam on windows from the intense workouts inside. “You might be working out next to Brooke Shields or Michelle Geller,” he remembers. “But everyone was having the best time—game faces on . . .” for the intense workout.
It was right before the Tae Bo TV explosion, but both Terry and Tina knew there was something special going on. “He was doing something that no one else was doing,” says Tina. “It was an authentic practice. You could feel the joy.”
That’s what Billy Blanks remembers, too. “When people really saw that I was trying to help them get into shape and that I was coming from my heart,” he told The Action Elite. “It wasn’t really about the money; it was about the people. People saw that. My studio back then was nothing special. I had tape to keep the carpet down. It was a run-down place. People came in there and they felt love.”
But for Terry, it was about more than just fitness. “It was the ability to see someone ‘like me,’ he says. “Seeing a Black guy—and a guy doing group fitness for that matter—was big. He was someone I could relate to. I have mad respect and love for him.”
A Worldwide Inspiration
Soon, the world was sharing in that love. In the late ’90s, Blanks began selling his Tae Bo program via infomercials. In its first year alone, he sold more 1.5 million VHS tapes and generated $80 million in sales.
Kirsten Keeton, regional market manager at POUND®, recalls the role that Blanks had in her own life, blogging that he was “the first Black American group fitness instructor I ever saw . . .. My mom, my grandma and my aunts all had multiple Tae Bo tapes. Now that I think about it, Tae Bo is the earliest memory I have of working out with my family. Through reflection, I know why we gravitated toward Billy Blanks and, ultimately, fitness. Here was a Black man surrounded by women of all colors, coaching them through strenuous workouts and telling them they can push through whatever is holding them back to become the healthier version of themselves that they aspire to be.”
Blanks and the Tae Bo Nation continue to motivate and inspire—including through frequent appearances over the years at IDEA® World Convention. “It’s time for us to start changing things for the betterment of ourselves, our children, family, and friends all over the world,” says Blanks. “In order to help others, we must change our own selves first!”
The 2017 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, Michael Piercy, MS, understands just how important that change is. Piercy, owner and founder of The LAB in New Jersey, attributes Blank’s success to his authenticity. “Billy has definitely been an influence and inspiration to me in this industry,” says Piercy. “He was a fitness maverick—one of first people who was out there doing his own thing. He was so different and so comfortable in his uniqueness.”
Piercy admits to being a bit “star-struck” when he first met Blanks, but he says now that Billy Blanks is “one of his favorite people to run into and share a conversation with at conferences.” Both Piercy and Blanks came from the world of elite athletes to share fitness with clients at every level. “He continues to contribute to the industry,” says Piercy.
During the pandemic, for instance, Blanks began posting videos on his YouTube channel—formerly the place to go to see his ‘90s infomercials, telling Men’s Health that people “needed somebody to get them off the couch.”
As leader of the Tae Bo Nation, he continues to reach out to others: “My hope is to help as many people as possible, and bring everyone together through essential cardio kickboxing, the classic Tae Bo system, which revolutionized the whole world and changed the way people looked at fitness.”
It’s a challenge, but Blanks knows just how to do that.