Fitness guru Joe Weider passed on in March. His various achievements and missteps have been noted in obits for the past few weeks. As a credit to his rather active life, he comes off as being a bit more cutting edge than your average 93 year old. Most people his age have more of a dead past, with achievements scattered over dimly remembered decades. Weider, by contrast, was a part of going concerns until the end.
Physical fitness has not gone out of style at any time since the 1950s. Joe Weider deserves part of the credit for that. He was no overnight success. His eventual climb to fortune is due to a combination of determination and creativity.
Joe Weider was mostly a salesman. His promotions, which were various and his true strength as an entrepreneur, are all designed to drive the sales of products of his own manufacture. His brand is known for its “Fitness Niche” but that’s not exactly where he started.
Our beat here Is magazines, so we will be focusing on Weider’s career as a publisher primarily. This hardly discloses the whole Weider story. To his enterprise, magazines were first a method of promoting other products and then became products themselves. Weider’s willingness to shift niches, including into the publication of fiction magazines, is how he strays into our pulp turf. It was this willingness to shift niches which became the key to the longevity of his fortune. Although he was never big in pulps, he did become a very successful publisher. Many of his publications are still running strong today.
Joe Weider let success go to his head. He was an extravagant personality, a shameless self-promoter. His theories and ideas are suspect. His firm was targeted for making dubious product claims on several occasions. Much of his self touted history does not hold up to any scrutiny. He did not invent free weights. He did not invent body building. He did not invent the nutrition industry. He did not invent the concept of fitness. He didn’t even start the first muscle magazine. In all of those things, Weider was standing on some very broad shoulders. That said, he was a great salesman and a hell of a magazine publisher.
Every single publisher we have covered claims to have invented their niche—and none of them did. It’s compulsory. The practice is similar to your local bar and grill claiming to have “World Famous” chicken wings or pizza. It’s not lying per se, but it is shtick. Weider has a bit more shtick than normal, since he is not exclusively a publisher and his overall business has a product promotion agenda.
As a publisher, Weider is one of the big three Canadian firms who hit the US newsstands in the 1950s. (The Globe and Harlequin are the other two.) That’s where Weider became a big deal, but it is not his start, either in publishing or as a businessman. (1)
Weider’s family started a health food business in 1936. This concern prospered over time and became known as Schiff Nutrition, today the makers of the popular Tiger Milk. Weider and his brother Ben also developed several pieces of gym equipment. Their breakthrough product was an inexpensive plastic bar bell set that could be shipped via regular delivery. Once delivered, the weights on the bells were set up to be filled with a quick dry cement compound. What had been a product designed for mail order quickly spread to sporting goods stores and opened the door for Weider’s expansion into the manufacture and distribution of other gym equipment for home use. In very short order, Weider became the benchmark for the entire industry, enabling the firm to exploit all price points in the market. For a time Weider was the only household name in the business. The publication division was both a compliment to these two other businesses and the third leg in the stool of this highly lucrative enterprise.
Weider started his career as a publisher in 1939 with a magazine called Your Physique. This was an interesting time to be a Canadian publisher. From the late 1920s through the end of WWII, the Canadian periodical market was protected against competition from publications originating in the United States. It had started as a ban against racy and impure pulp magazines and, tit for tat style, became a mini trade war against comic books, smut and anything printed on newsprint. At the end of WWII the United States unilaterally disarmed and allowed the full scale importation of Canadian material into the states. (2)
Concurrent with Weider’s entry into the U.S. magazine market was the release of his home exercise weight training course. With promotion copy similar to Charles Atlas, Weider began advertising this course in comic books and men’s adventure fiction magazines. (3) He was a major advertiser in these magazines through the 1980s, often positioning his promotions in cover slots. Whether his response from these ads are what prompted him to get into the fiction magazine business himself is unknown.
I’m not sure how well Your Physique did early on or what its position was in the Canadian market. There already were muscle magazines on both side of the border, but the category had gone into decline with the onset of the Depression. Post Depression, there was only one national body building magazine of any note in the U.S., called Ironman, and dozens of regional magazines. It wasn’t much of a niche to be in.
Your Physique was problematic as a magazine title. Although there aren’t many cultural differences between Canadians and the stateside audience, the word “Physique” in the U.S. market generally denoted magazines dedicated to photo studies, mostly clandestine porn and much of it of the homo-erotic variety. Either out of dissatisfaction with the draw of the title or the niche itself, in 1952 Weider renamed the magazine Mr. America.
Mr. America is also the name of an amateur body building contest. It is similar to the professional contests such as Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe. Joe and Ben Weider were the promoters of all of these affairs. (They originated Mr. Olympia.) The choice of this title may have been an attempt to establish a trademark on the name.
As a magazine, Mr. America had less in common with muscle magazines of the day, or even its former self, and more in common with True and the other men’s pulps of the time. Like all “armpit slicks” it was part low brow lifestyle magazine, part scandal magazine and part adventure fiction vehicle. Weider’s twist was to add muscle culture to the lifestyle mix. Weider must have liked the results, since he effectively sub-divided Mr. America into three different magazines in short order.
After a fair run as a muscular clone of True, Mr. America became All-American Athlete. As such, it constituted a continual attempt to pitch weight training as being conducive to performance in all sports. It was also Weider’s only real attempt at launching a sports magazine. The magazine ran in this form from 1963 through 1967.
The title Mr. America resurfaced in the Weider fold in 1958. In this incarnation, it was a gym rat magazine with a slight life style and celebrity focus. In this form it ran until 1973.
All genre magazine publishers have confusing methods of numbering and labeling their products. Taking one magazine and turning it into three is getting off to a dubious start, however. As near as I can tell Muscle Builder, launched with the demise of one of the Mr. Americas in 1953, is the actual successor of Your Physique. It’s using a title abandoned by Macfadden in 1926 and seems to continue the numbering of Your Physique. (As is often the case, a magazine historian may put more thought into these things than the publishers ever did.) Muscle Builder is also the name of Weider’s magazine group, a Weider product line as well as the nick name (perhaps self-bestowed) of Joe Weider himself. This is the Weider organization’s house organ and flagship. The magazine continued under this title until 1980.
Now titled Muscle & Fitness, it reflects the shift of the entire Weider organization. It’s no longer all about body building or professional body building, but rather wellness. With a current average monthly circulation of 340 thousand it is a very healthy entrant to the lifestyle fitness focus category.
The third spawn of Your Physique is American Manhood, which wasn’t quite as successful as the others. It is my conjecture that the title was launched as a precaution, in case Weider couldn’t secure the Mr. America trademark. For a time the Weider brothers were running their own Mr. America competition concurrent with the one sponsored by another organization—and both were at odds with the Miss America backers. American Manhood was a good alternative title for an armpit slick, in case they lost.
Much has been made of the homoerotic nature of American Manhood’s cover themes and the seeming undercurrent on all of Weider’s pulp output. Much of this, I think, is an imposition of modern eyes. Weider was not deliberately targeting a gay audience. The pretty boys with muscles was just his trademark shtick. That said, Weider was hardly out to turn this audience away, either. As with Archie Comics, the publisher was probably aware of the dual audience. Unlike many pulp men’s magazines at the time, Weider’s never touted gay “cures” or any other potential slights.
It should be noted that Weider’s pulps were amongst the least offensive, period.
Possibly culled from American Manhood or one of the iterations of Mr. America was Junior Mr. America. It was just another muscle magazine, albeit one directly targeted at the teen aged set. Not all of Weider’s attempts at niche expansion worked. Launched in 1955, Junior Mr. America was gone in four issues.
At the time Weider entered the pulp market, most of the magazines were slanting towards True Crime, splatter porn, porn & lifestyle or Love Confessions. Weider was initially having none of it. He zagged immediately, taking up the historical adventure niche once plied by pulps in a previous era. Like many men’s pulps, both Mr. America and American Manhood featured fiction set in an almost proprietary version of WWII at the start. (It’s the WWII with naked nympho nurses nabbed by Nazis everywhere!) But then they strayed from the genre.
In 1953 Weider launched Animal Life, a no doubt about it Jungle Pulp. A remnant of the Tarzan craze, which dates back to 1912, the last of the Jungle Pulps had disappeared by 1930. Weider’s magazine must have done fairly well, since it was soon joined by titles from other publishers.
Animal Life itself changed its title to Safari and continued on until 1958, which is a healthy run in this genre. As Safari it broadened its focus from the man versus nature theme and started to bring in fiction about other cultures and life in other places. If anything, it seemed to cement historical fiction as Weider’s particular pulp niche.
Weider’s biggest hit in the pulps was the man versus man themed Fury. Launched at roughly the same time as Animal Life in 1953, Fury was all exotic locations and small unit military actions from the get go. In later years it strayed into total pulp macho BS, but it’s mainstay was historical pulp macho BS. The magazine hung on through several transformations until 1967.
Weider’s fictional focus was on outdoor activities. The heroes were sportsmen, soldiers and adventurers. They didn’t live inside. There are no detectives or mobsters or scientists in Weider pulp land. Honing in on a the theme of participatory sports, Weider issued Outdoor Adventures in 1955. This was about fifteen years after most other sports pulps had folded shop. Although the genre of fiction about participatory sports has since vanished in every medium, it was once fairly well represented. (The potential for advertising in this genre may have been the lure.) Outdoor Adventures was Weider’s entrant into this revival trend, which also included offerings from publishers Martin Goodman and Alex Hillman.
Although Weider stayed clear of True Crime and Love Confessions, he often dabbled in the fantastic, including scattered attempts at Science Fiction. In 1955 he took the plunge into a type of Science Fiction I have dubbed the Modern Thrills genre. This is Science Fiction which uses the modern real world as its backdrop. The way Weider did it, which was True Crime style, the tales of the fantastic were written as news reports. True Weird, a blunt pulp title, was launched in 1955.
The title changed to True Strange in 1956 and continued erratically through 1958. To my knowledge it was the only magazine plying this particular presentation in the post-Story Paper era. Weider picked up on it before the scandal tabloids started making it a mainstay. It was a little ahead of its time.
It is an unfortunate truth that although not all pulp publishers are pornographers, all pornographers are pulp publishers. Weider was a big advertiser in smut magazines. (He was a charter advertiser for most.) That Weider should branch into the production of such should come as no surprise. He jumped in with both feet. Weider launched two smut magazines and then transitioned Fury into a third.
Weider had three problems as a smut publisher. First, there are some things you cannot do in Canada. Whereas the people of Canada are no bigger prudes than any other branch of lapsed Englishmen, their elected members of parliament are flat out cartoon characters when it comes to the subject of sex. Being seen as fully vested members of the upright citizens brigade is an absolute craze amongst great white north elected officials. The first act of the first woman elected to the Canadian parliament was to introduce a ban on the importation of U.S. pulp magazines like Breezy Stories. Keeping Canada smut free was the reason for the ban on U.S. periodicals to begin with.
As a Canadian publisher Joe Weider was prohibited from circulating smut. He could not import smut. And he certainly could not export smut. (4) Quite a large mound of Joe Weider’s money was sacrificed to legal fees finding this out. Weider’s final countermove was to pack his bags, moving his operations from Montreal to Hollywood.
A lot of pulp publishers had dreams of becoming the next Hugh Hefner at the time. Weider is alone amongst the wannabes inasmuch as he didn’t go broke. Montreal’s loss was not Hollywood’s gain, however.
Which brings us to Weider’s second problem as a smut slinger. He was late to the party. By the time Weider showed up, the market was fairly saturated. The market had come to sub-divide. In order to distinguish themselves, these magazines had to find an attractive slant to the material. Weider’s flailed about, badly parroting two bad trends.
Weider’s final problem in smut was that he wasn’t very good at it. This is to say that he was taking the average tact that all pulp publishers took with porn. It was True Magazine with some naked girls in it. Call it a day.
Weider’s Jem magazine, launched in 1957, started as a Playboy clone and then drifted into fetish porn. Or something. Monsieur magazine, first issued in 1958, had the upscale lifestyle focus Playboy gamed at and added a slight international slant. Or something. Weider’s only real innovation in the trend was to feature his OWN WIFE in some of the photo spreads.(5) It should be said that Weider’s second wife Betty Brosmer was a pin up girl before they got married, but it’s still an odd economy move.
Did I mention that Joe Weider was one strange guy?
Despite their lack of distinction, Jem, Monsieur and the reworked Fury hung on until 1968. Their disappearance does not seem to have been a part of any trend shake out, as is often the case. If anything, the titles seem to have survived a few downturns. My thinking is that it may have been a part of a downsizing in magazine holdings, in general—or a move to shed reputational liability.
The Weider organization was moving mainstream as a whole. His magazine holdings followed suit. (Weider, his wife and his brother were also becoming prominent authors at this point.) In 1973 Weider brought out Natural Fitness, which at least in name was a broadening of his offerings away from the gym rat market. It was targeted at normal people who at least aspired to be fit. This first move away from pumping iron and in the direction of the wellness movement would soon be followed by other like attempts at category expansion. Today the magazine has an average circulation of 300 thousand. It was the original leader in its trend.
At about the same time as this launch, Weider was also making an attempt to consolidate his holdings in the muscle building field, acquiring Muscle Power and The Weightlifter. This effort was rather short lived. Hardcore muscle building is a fairly mature segment—and very fragmented. Weider’s only new issue into the field was Flex in 1983—which may have been a rename or replacement for Muscle Power. The shelf room in being more hardcore than Muscle and Fitness is pretty limited.
In 1981 Weider made his first attempt to grab at some portion of the women’s magazine market. Christine Macintyre was hired from outside of the organization to design the product. What Weider intended was a female slanting version of Natural Fitness, however that idea was hijacked by Macintyre who insisted on a professional medical advice focus. She also fought against Weider’s sex and weightlifting and vitamin pushing packaging. Weider relented and let Macintyre run the show. The result was Shape, which at 1.5 million paid circulation became the jewel in the Weider Publications crown.
To Weider’s credit, it takes a pretty cagey guy to go against everything that had made you a success.
If you have a hit, knock it off (imitate yourself). Weider spent the remainder of his mainstream magazine career triangulating between Shape and Natural Fitness. With some success. Men’s Fitness, which is essentially Shape for men, started in 1987 clocks in today with an average circulation of 585 thousand. Fit Pregnancy, with no potential for a renewing subscriber base, moves an average of 503 thousand copies an issue since 1993. Muscle and Fitness Hers, which one imagines is what Weider had in mind for Shape initially, pumps out 90 thousand per issue—average for a muscle mag, but with an exclusive audience. Flops have included the intended for the over 35 set Prime Health and Fitness from 1993 and the 2006 launch of Living Fit, which may have been too much of the same thing.
Weider was also not shy about following magazine trends. He’s had magazines in the foodie and senior lifestyle genres. Weider has additionally been an issuer of neo-pulps, special interest stand alone magazine-like publications. It was through probing the neo-pulp market that in 1987 Weider began making efforts to connect with the upscale audience of history readers. This eventually led to the evolution of a group of short run, high mark up, high demographics historical interest magazines, currently including Armchair General, American History, Wild West, MHQ, America’s Civil War, Civil War Times, Viet Nam, Military History, World War II, Aviation History and British Heritage. The circulation on these magazines ranges from 26 to 60 thousand, mostly subscription. This group is still under the Weider organization’s direct control.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the rest of Weider’s magazine empire. (6) Late in his career Weider became involved in the American Media publication and distribution group. The group traces its origins to Bernarr MacFadden and is essentially an aggregation of the Globe and National Enquirer scandal paper holdings. This is the same group which came to own all of the remaining pulp magazines. No sooner was the group formed when it started going wobbly. Laden with acquisition debt and wasting assets, American Media has been bailed out by new investors and has marched into bankruptcy courts. Weider sadly got in on the ground floor of this disaster. Today what few holdings of value American Media has were started by Weider.
No tag day for Joe, however. Being your own conglomerate has its advantages. With or without the magazines, Joe was fairly well off. He remained active in his businesses until the end. Certainly he was more active than all but few men his age. He did not so much fade away as he did suddenly stop. In Joe’s case, he suddenly stopped at 93.
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(1) Weider founded the second branch of the American strongman family. The muscle fitness movement was originated by Englishman Eugen Sandow who, with the help of Zeigfield, brought the craze to the United States. Following smartly in his footsteps was Bernarr Macfadden. MacFadden added an entire philosophy to the craze and became quite the pulp bigwig in the process. “No one has ever gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public” and “Just spell the name right” (no publicity is bad publicity as long as it is attributed) were phrases coined by MacFadden and key to his business success.
MacFadden was a whole foods nut and was generally only out to sell books and magazines. Convinced that the average young man in need of physical training was too impoverished or deprived of time for gym training, MacFadden’s organization concocted isometrics and promoted such through an easy payment mail order course fronted by disciple Charles Atlas. Using something of the same rationale, MacFadden disciple Jack Lalane started the first TV exercise program for women in the 1950s. The essence of the philosophy promoted by MacFadden and his followers is a worshipful acceptance of how the human body functions, clean living, eating unprocessed foods and the participation in physical activity via whatever is at hand in your environment. It should be said that Bernarr MacFadden, Charles Atlas and Jack Lalane all built themselves up primarily through weight training and gym membership. With isometrics, they were pitching a product that they did not use themselves. MacFadden and his bunch aimed to push “Physical Culture” beyond the realm of gym rats and into the general populace.
Joe Weider claimed to have never heard of Bernarr MacFadden. He shows up somewhat after the groundwork has been laid, after the establishment of a fitness industry. His approach is entirely different. Weider’s focus is on the gym rats and on promoting body building as an actual sport. As opposed to selling an alternative to a gym, Weider sells home gym equipment. And there was little natural about his approach. In keeping with his times, Weider believed in a better life through the science of chemistry. Whereas MacFadden and his first family of strongmen are naturalists, Weider and his disciples are consumers.
(2) Allowing Canadian publishers into the US magazine market was an unforeseen consequence. The action was driven by United States newspaper publishers who desired to own Canadian paper mills. They couldn’t do this if both sides were playing ‘national content’ games with the commodity.
(3) Weider’s promotions were in any niche magazine where male eyes might be found, including hobby magazines, porn slicks and black and white comics magazines. He remained an advertiser in pulps, comics and black & white comics magazines long after he had ceased his own fiction line.
(4) This had not stopped early publishers, like Novelty House, publishers of Women In Crime. The distinction, perhaps, was that the other publishers were using primarily mail order to distribute porn. The typical set up was to have a somewhat tame magazine which had ‘advertisements’ for more graphic material in them.
(5) Betty Weider has made appearances on the covers of many Weider magazines over the years. Not just the smut ones.
(6) Weider's entire empire went through various sell off phases. Somtimes he was getting out of things. Other times he was cashing out. And Joe Weider knew the difference between the two.