Becoming Jack LaLanne

Pollack, Benjamin Richard
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For 34 years between 1959 and 1983, Jack LaLanne displayed confidence and energy on The Jack LaLanne Show, the first nationally-syndicated exercise television program in history. The show attracted a huge following of fans who purchased from Jack thousands of fitness products and health foods. While building his business, LaLanne earned dozens of accolades for his work as one of America’s best-known health and fitness entrepreneurs, including presidential recognition and a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame. LaLanne’s achievements become more impressive when viewed in light of their historical contexts. Together with his wife, Elaine, he built the majority of his commercialized fitness empire during the 1950s and early 1960s, when many Americans considered exercise unnecessary, unfamiliar, or even dangerous. Nevertheless, the LaLannes persisted, and convinced many of the benefits of working out and eating healthfully. However, their success came at a price. To attract his listeners’ attention and earn their trust, Jack molded himself into an attractive, patriarchal television persona whose advice reinforced the idea that women’s lives should be centered in their homes, serving their families’ needs and desires. Jack often motivated them through shame, insisting that only physically attractive women were worthy of others’ love and affection, and therefore capable of fulfilling a role in society. At the time, these sentiments typified the 1950s American family dynamic. But from a modern perspective, parts of Jack’s career can be considered offensive, even misogynistic. Much popular media has been produced about the LaLannes, but no scholar has given significant attention to Jack and Elaine’s contributions to American fitness. This dissertation addresses that gap in scholarship by exploring Jack’s complicated legacy and by framing his life and career within the context of twentieth-century fitness. This approach is inspired by the biography of another influential fitness entrepreneur: Bob Hoffman. In his book Muscletown USA, historian John D. Fair describes Hoffman’s life in a manner “neither prescriptive nor ideological,” seeking “neither to condemn nor to glorify.” Similarly, “Becoming Jack LaLanne” is, first and foremost, a biography, which will place into perspective the life of an American icon.