Cookie banner

This site uses cookies. Select "Block all non-essential cookies" to only allow cookies necessary to display content and enable core site features. Select "Accept all cookies" to also personalize your experience on the site with ads and partner content tailored to your interests, and to allow us to measure the effectiveness of our service.

To learn more, review our Cookie Policy, Privacy Notice and Terms of Use.

clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Billy Blanks at his Tae Bo studio in Dana Point, California.
Billy Blanks at his Tae Bo studio in Dana Point, California.

Filed under:

The Fitness Gospel of Billy Blanks

Tae Bo was the ’90s workout of choice for soccer moms and celebrities alike. Twenty years later, its founder is hoping to win over a generation that has never heard of him

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

It could be the heat that’s built up in this unairconditioned Southern California dojo, but for a moment I become unmoored from time and place. Tae Bo legend Billy Blanks bounds across the springy crimson floor, pauses before me, and leans in close as he lifts a muscular arm, places a hand behind his ear, cocks his head, and waits.

This moment has happened before. I am 15 years old again, shuffling, jabbing, and roundhouse-kicking along with my classmates as Billy peers out of the boxy television that our PE teacher has wheeled into the gymnasium on a rainy day in 1999, the year Blanks unleashed his fitness tapes on the world and Tae Bo infomercials played late into the night, hailing the cardio workout that fuses taekwondo and boxing as "the future of fitness." By day, hundreds of fans line up to get into Blanks's California studio. Tae Bo's celebrity clientele is a who's who of the moment: Carmen Electra tells People that she takes class with LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, and Alicia Silverstone.

"I can't hear you," Billy says, leaning in closer to the camera. Except, no, that's the real Billy Blanks, and he's leaning into my face. I know what to do: "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight," I yell, as forcefully as a sweat-drenched 32-year-old woman can while winded and punching the air. Though the motions are the same, this workout moves faster and is more intense than what's shown in the tapes. "It gets harder," one woman tells me as I gasp for air. "They're all hard," another woman tells me later.

I'm surrounded by a couple dozen diehard Tae Bo enthusiasts at the Billy Blanks Tae Bo Studio in Dana Point, a pretty coastal city south of Los Angeles in Orange County. Blanks teaches here several times a week, whenever he's not traveling to fitness expos around the world, taping new Tae Bo workouts, or hosting certification camps alongside his daughter — and potential successor — Shellie Blanks Cimarosti.

Despite the fickleness of fitness trends and some legal drama, Blanks has kept Tae Bo alive for nearly 20 years, selling more than 2 million tapes largely by hewing to his original mind-over-body philosophy. Now Blanks is gearing up to unleash two new programs, Tae Bo Evolution and Tae Bo 2.0, aimed at a generation that has never heard of him. Blanks isn't worried about that, though. He has faith that Tae Bo is still the future of fitness.

There's a Billy Blanks origin story that's been told by a legion of newspapers and magazines; it's one repeated by Blanks to this day. It goes like this: In 1976, Billy Blanks was a 21-year-old rising martial arts star who idolized Bruce Lee and chased black belts in taekwondo and other martial arts disciplines. His success in martial arts helped him overcome insecurity that stemmed from an undiagnosed learning disability (later revealed to be dyslexia) and a congenital hip problem. When Rocky was released, he fell hard for the film and began working out to its inspirational theme song in his Erie, Pennsylvania basement. It was nonstop punching and kicking in rhythm — a hell of a cardio workout. Blanks did it to keep himself in shape, but he also knew he had stumbled onto something bigger.

Blanks considered "karobics" (what he called his workout at the time) a gateway for getting women into martial arts. Dojos could be intimidating for women, who were not particularly welcome in martial arts then. Some women-only karate dojos sprung up to compensate, but even women who did learn karate weren't allowed to spar in the competitions Blanks attended.

Meanwhile, he had a new wife and a young daughter named Shellie back home. He grew up with 14 siblings, five of them sisters. He wanted the women in his life to be able to protect themselves through martial arts. "I knew that inside of each female, there's a warrior," he says now. "But what will make it come out?" He thought karobics could be the answer. Women seeking a new aerobics workout would come to karobics to lose weight and develop an appreciation for self-defense in the process.

"I knew that inside of each female, there's a warrior, but what will make it come out?"

As the legend continues, Blanks refined the workout over the following two decades as he won national karate championships and moved to Southern California, where he trained celebrities and acted in martial arts films like Bloodfist and The King of the Kickboxers. He analyzed Jane Fonda's aerobics videos, learned how to count a beat by dabbling in ballet, and taught classes from his garage before opening up a studio in the early '90s. Discovering that "karobics" was already trademarked, Blanks pivoted to the name Tae Bo, a hybridization of taekwondo and boxing that doubles as an acronym for "Total Awareness of Excellent Body Obedience."

Perhaps most crucially, Blanks zeroed in on a sales pitch that defines Tae Bo today. He eschewed the then-popular 8-minute abs, get-thin-quick mentality, telling students that his classes would be a slog but that they could change their bodies and their lives if they remained focused and determined.

In 1996, the Orange County Register reported that a "new form of aerobics" had taken off in studios across the region, with a number of cardio classes steeped in kickboxing and karate cropping up. These classes went by different names, but the most prominent was Tae Bo, which packed a hundred people into daily classes at the Billy Blanks World Training Center in Sherman Oaks.

Group fitness classes were especially popular at the time, and Tae Bo vaulted to the forefront thanks to Blanks's dynamic personality and empowering message. He was able to attract soccer moms and celebrities alike. Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard trained at the Billy Blanks World Training Center, telling the Register, "I'm in tremendous shape now, and I attribute it to tae bo aerobics." The comedian Sinbad added that he lost inches with Tae Bo, saying, "It's the best. It's the baddest."

Infomercials tipped Tae Bo into full-on mass fitness craze. In 1998, when these longform late-night advertisements were at their peak, Blanks joined forces with an Ohio-based infomercial marketer to aggressively hawk a series of four Tae Bo workout tapes. Another company had reached out to Blanks earlier, he says, but ended up passing on a deal because the executives didn't believe white women in middle America would buy a fitness tape starring a black man. Blanks doesn't talk much about race, saying only of this episode, "I didn't really let that bother me because I know it doesn't matter what color you are. I always said, if it's about my color, then I shouldn't be doing Tae Bo anyway. My goal was to touch the hearts of people, not just touch black people or white people."

Blanks could soon be seen on every TV in America, along with the unabashedly sweaty and red-faced people of all ages and sizes showing off their moves. "You couldn't switch the channel on your television without seeing him doing those sidekicks," says Neal Pire, a certified health coach and fitness consultant who has followed the Tae Bo phenomenon.

When the tapes launched in early 1999, they shot immediately to the top of Billboard's video sales chart. By March, the New York Times wrote that Tae Bo had earned $80 million in sales from the tapes and had effectively "swept away last year's fads like so many old sneakers."

At the time, the tapes were the only way anyone outside of Southern California could try the real-deal trademark-protected Tae Bo. Knockoff classes with names like Tae Box and Tae Com Bo were being introduced in gyms across the country though, eventually prompting Blanks to pursue trademark-infringement lawsuits. He also launched a $995 two-day certification program to train his own army of instructors who could teach at any gym they wished, while also laying out an ambitious plan to open his own studios across the country.

In the months and years to come, Blanks would appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show and ER, sign a $1.5 million book deal, launch a charitable foundation, and even join President Bill Clinton's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. "What's next? Tae-Bo breakfast cereal?" asked the Houston Chronicle in July 2000. "Actually, yes. In May, Blanks signed a licensing agreement for Tae-Bo energy bars and Tae-Bo cereal." Tae Bo was everywhere.

With fame comes scrutiny, and Blanks endured his share. At the height of Tae Bo mania, fitness trainers claimed beginners were getting injured from the intense workouts. A Martial Arts Professional magazine press release noted that "some of his peers in the martial arts community have black-balled Blanks and referred to Tae-Bo as nothing more than a dance routine pawned off as self-defense."

With fame comes scrutiny, and Blanks endured his share.

Then there were the lawsuits. Jilted employees and dissatisfied customers alike took aim at Tae Bo's Ohio-based production company, the NCP Marketing Group, and its leader Paul Monea. Blanks's one-time agent sued NCP for cutting him out of his contract, a case that was settled in 2000. A group of Ohio women also filed a class-action lawsuit against the company for making unauthorized charges on their credit cards after buying Tae Bo tapes, while boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard sued Monea for using his name in an infomercial without permission. These lawsuits didn't name Blanks — Leonard made it especially clear that he didn't blame his friend — but his celebrity made them headline news.

More damningly, questions arose about Blanks's backstory. In 1999, the LA Times debunked a claim listed on Blanks's website that he once captained the US Olympic karate team. It was easy to disprove: Karate wasn't an Olympic sport. That same year, the Boston Globe interviewed a woman named Patricia Pierce who claimed to have been Blanks's manager when he lived in Boston. She accused him of both stealing the karobics idea from her and of lying about winning the Golden Gloves boxing competition in Massachusetts. Arthur Romalo, who ran the competition, told the paper at the time that there was no record of Blanks winning.

Blanks denies all these accusations, chalking it up to misunderstandings, opportunism, and lazy fact-checking. He tells me he never claimed he captained an Olympic karate team but rather that his Amateur Athletic Union team demonstrated the sport at the 1980 Lake Placid Games. He insists he won the 1984 novice light-heavyweight division at the Massachusetts Golden Gloves and that he developed karobics on his own. "Tae Bo came out," he says, "and they were trying to dirty it up."

These are difficult allegations to fact-check now, more than three decades later. There's no mention of a karate demonstration in the news coverage of the Lake Placid Olympics, nor a light-heavyweight division champion at the Golden Gloves in 1984, though Blanks says he has news clippings of both. Pierce did not reply to an interview request about her 17-year-old claim, either. And since Tae Bo's tremendous success overshadowed all of these accusations, they rarely came up in the media's telling and retelling of the Tae Bo story in the years that followed.

Exaggerated credentials are particularly common in the fitness industry, where not all credentialing programs are equally rigorous, says Mike Bracko, a sports physiologist and fitness educator. Some self-proclaimed fitness gurus don't have any fitness background or training at all. Bracko says consumers ultimately don't really care about the awards their instructor may or may not have won decades ago. They just want a workout that works.

When Melanie Neat Smuck learned about Tae Bo in 1999, she was watching television in bed, pregnant and miserable. She had gained about 80 pounds and says she was at a point in her life where she didn't feel strong. So when an infomercial came on the screen, advertising a new fitness system called Tae Bo, she watched closely. She saw all these women punching and kicking behind Blanks; she remembers seeing sweat drip from Cimarosti's chin. (For anyone familiar with first-generation Tae Bo videos, Cimarosti is the impossibly fit woman with short curly blond hair who often demos moves for her father.)

Smuck was inspired. "The strength I saw in the videos really tapped into something I didn't have and I knew I wanted," she says now, perched on a yoga mat in the Long Beach, California studio where she teaches kickboxing. She purchased the entire four-pack of Tae Bo tapes and played them in her living room. At first, she could only do 15 minutes at a time, then 30, then eventually a complete hourlong workout. "There was always a sense of accomplishment in every tape," she recalls. She felt she had a champion in Blanks. "When he's teaching, he would yell at me. I'm in my living room and he's on the TV yelling, ‘Don't quit!' and I'm like, ‘How do you know I'm quitting?'"

That was the real magic of the brand. "What was a big turnaround for me with Tae Bo is I started teaching people how to work from the inside out," Blanks says. He cared about everyone who came to his gym, whether they were famous athletes or someone's grandma. His tapes didn't just feature models with perfect bodies but actual men and women with rounded bellies who sometimes stopped to rest.

"Are they in the room just to work out? No. They're in the room because they want to be loved."

"You've got all these people in the room," Blanks says. "Why are they in the room? Are they in the room just to work out? No. They're in the room because they want to be loved. They want somebody to help them. They want somebody to get them to do what they wouldn't do themselves."

His message to the people in the room was simple: Ignore what you see in the mirror and believe that you can get in shape. When you're tired, focus and let your willpower carry you through the workout. It's why he insists — to the camera in his tapes or up in your face in his studio — that students shout the eight-count beat aloud with him. "Your heart and your soul must guide you," he says. "If you become blind to what you see in the mirror and allow yourself to develop the skills, the next thing you know, you're looking at your body like, ‘What happened?'"

It all sounds cheesy, maybe even disingenuous, but spend a few minutes with Blanks and you get a sense that his spirituality isn't just a marketing gimmick. He's all in. He constantly quotes Scripture to explain his worldview on humanity: "You know what it says in the Bible, right? In the Book of Proverbs? Death and life is in the power of the tongue," he declares, arguing that words matter and people need to literally tell themselves they can lose weight. He also believes the Bible has an answer for why you shouldn't give up when the weight isn't dropping off quickly enough: "Faith is the substance of things you hope for."

Blanks is a devoted member of the Crenshaw Christian Center megachurch in Los Angeles, and his foundation funded the church's Billy Blanks Youth Activity Center. He also likes to tell people about the time he tithed a million dollars to the church. Blanks says he started attending weekly Bible study just before Tae Bo took off and that it gave him the words and messages he needed.

Tae Bo's spiritual leanings are more secular, with generic inspirational phrases plastered all over the studio. Down an airy corridor from the reception, the mantra "Fight to Be Fit" runs up a white door frame in enormous red block lettering. Push through an antique Chinese door into a room filled with Tae Bo posters and keepsakes, and you'll find a white wooden board that reads, "Walk by faith, not by sight." Religion doesn't explicitly come up in his workout videos either, although faith often does. What you believe doesn't matter so much, Blanks says, so long as you believe in something — maybe even just yourself.

In 2003, a Texas woman recounted her experience filming a testimonial for a Tae Bo infomercial alongside a group of people who had gravitated to Tae Bo following heartbreak, life-threatening illnesses, and, most typically, years of low self-esteem due to their weight. "We each took turns telling our story, and there were so many tears shed. There was just love in the room completely," she told the Fort Bend Herald.

Smuck was similarly overcome. She had lost 60 pounds of her pregnancy weight working out in her living room and finally felt strong. Driven to keep going, she contacted the Tae Bo team, filmed a testimonial about her own weight loss for an infomercial, and then signed up for a certification camp in 2005. By that time, Smuck recalls the three-day camps cost around $500, which she considered pricey but worth it for the hardcore training. Blanks and Cimarosti drilled the 50-some participants in Tae Bo sequences for eight to 12 hours a day.

Passing wasn't guaranteed. It wasn't quite as rigorous as the personal training programs offered through organizations like the American Council on Exercise, which come accredited by a third-party agency to ensure they meet a high standard of excellence. But Tae Bo's certification program was far more intense than others of its ilk (like, say, Zumba), where pretty much everyone who attends earns a license.

Smuck and others who have been through the process say it's subjective. Blanks only certifies those who share his philosophy of confidence and willpower. Smuck recalls one exam combination that required twisting and jumping as she punched. She stuck her landing, only to realize that she was facing the opposite direction of the other students in her group. "Did you do it right?" Blanks asked her, stone-faced. Smuck replied quickly that, yes, she did. "Would you put your certification on it?" he asked again. "Yes," she doubled down. She admits now that she wasn't sure at all but believes her conviction won her the certification.

Smuck is a natural teacher — evident from the popularity of her kickboxing class in Long Beach and the collection of students who have followed her from gym to gym — but didn't have any intention of actually teaching Tae Bo when she attended the camp. She just wanted to see if she could do it. But Blanks, she says, saw something in her and encouraged her to give teaching a try. She did, and soon after, he hired her to teach at his studio and to tour overseas with him to fitness expos and military bases. "It turned my life around," she says of Tae Bo. "He was willing to believe in me until I could believe in myself."

Today, Tae Bo seems mainly a thing of nostalgia, a bullet point in a listicle about old-school fitness trends.

Today, Tae Bo seems mainly a thing of nostalgia, a bullet point in a listicle about old-school fitness trends. "Tae Bo is very much an exercise of the ‘90s," Bustle declared in May. Men's Fitness describes it as a fad that's still functional, urging readers to "go ahead and break out those Tae Bo tapes you've been hiding under your bed. We know they're there." Grantland chronicled Tae Bo's role in American workout video history, writing, "Every suburban household probably has a Billy Blanks tape lying around somewhere, purchased at a time when kickboxing promised revolution." On Reddit's nostalgia forum, users ask, "Is Tae-Bo still a thing?"

"Most people don't think I'm teaching class," Blanks says as we're seated in the reception area of his Dana Point studio. Wearing a black Tae Bo sweatshirt with lettering on the back that reads "Often Imitated, Never Duplicated," Blanks looks as toned and expressive as he did in those original videos, though now there's a trace of gray stubble on his chin. A framed photo collage on the wall commemorates his 60th birthday, which he celebrated last September.

"Down here, in Laguna, people don't even think I'm in this room, right?" A laugh rises from behind the reception desk, where studio assistant Julie Marshall waits to check students in for the next Tae Bo class. "That was me!" she says. "I drove by forever thinking, ‘No way.'"

I didn't know Blanks was still teaching Tae Bo until a few months ago, when I stumbled across his Facebook page, which led me to his YouTube channel. He updates the channel, which has just over 56,000 subscribers, sporadically, having posted 21 new workout videos during the last six months. One recent one is a 10-minute lesson on power kicks. He also offers 30-minute Tae Bo sessions with resistance bands, an hourlong "rough and tough" workout, and an "advanced next generation" workout that he dedicates to those who have never seen Tae Bo before, though "your mom, your dad, or your uncle has been doing it."

Blanks never entirely disappeared. Even as Tae Bo's profile receded in the early aughts, he kept teaching classes and releasing DVDs. In January 2004, his Tae Bo Cardio video topped Billboard's list of health and fitness video sales, while his newer Tae Bo Flex program nabbed the 16th spot. Tae Bo did near extinction in the mid-to-late 2000s as what had been a flurry of new Tae Bo video releases came to a standstill.

Blanks blames a deteriorating relationship with the NCP Marketing Group for that drought. By 2004, Blanks was unhappy with the team, which he felt was turning Tae Bo into a diet scheme (at the time, it was hawking nutritional supplements) rather than the uplifting fitness program Blanks had set out to create.

He took the group to arbitration over the licensing of the Tae Bo trademark and $2 million in unpaid royalties. The arbiter sided with Blanks, and so did the press: A Cleveland Scene profile of NCP head Monea noted that he "just can't seem to suppress his inner huckster." (Years later, in unrelated cases, Monea was convicted of federal income tax evasion and money laundering and is now serving time in a low-security federal prison in Ohio.)

The legal wrangling had practical effects on Tae Bo. Blanks says he wasn't allowed to produce new videos using the Tae Bo name while the licensing issue was being straightened out. He had to keep the brand alive by other means. And so Blanks continued to teach at his studio in Sherman Oaks, and he visited the troops in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was in demand elsewhere overseas, particularly in Germany and Japan. Blanks worked around the Tae Bo licensing issue by releasing a Billy's Boot Camp video, which makes no mention of Tae Bo, in Japan. It sold a million copies in a year, and the Washington Post reported that by 2007 he had become a household name in Japan with the help of infomercials, as well as the Japanese "unselfconscious passion for fads."

Japan is where Blanks sought refuge shortly thereafter, as he went through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart Gayle Godfrey, and, within the year, married and had a child with his current wife Tomoko Sato. The new couple moved to Osaka for about four years, opening the Billy Blanks International Studio, continuing his own martial arts studies, and promoting his popular boot camp series.

"Even me as a coach, helping people, I get lost too," he tells me, reflecting on this period. "When you help people so much you don't see yourself anymore." In a recent interview with Real Men Connect, a podcast for Christian men "who have a sincere desire to grow spiritually as husbands, fathers, and leaders," Blanks admits that while focusing on Tae Bo was easy for him, his marriage to Gayle was a different story. He says he went to Japan to get out of Hollywood and recenter himself.

"Even me as a coach, helping people, I get lost too. When you help people so much you don't see yourself anymore."

While Blanks kept a relatively low profile in Osaka, Cimarosti continued to run Team Tae Bo stateside. The company had downsized from the original Sherman Oaks gym to a more modest one in Westlake Village where Smuck and other certified instructors taught alongside Cimarosti. But that gym closed too, in August of 2008. Smuck went on to teach Tae Bo at a few gyms in Long Beach, while Cimarosti moved across the country to settle down and teach in Franklin, Tennessee. Blanks often returned to America during this time for promotional and charitable events, like a 2008 appearance at an elementary school in Charleston, South Carolina.

By the end of the decade, Blanks says he was free to use the Tae Bo name again. He soon partnered up with a new production company, BG Star Productions, and returned to Southern California in 2011. There, he got to work on new videos like that year's Tae Bo PT 24/7, a workout that came with a set of bands for added strength training. Blanks also got back to teaching Tae Bo in Orange County, first instructing at a local Gold's Gym and then opening his studio in Dana Point in 2014. Tae Bo was no longer the massive fitness phenomenon it once was, but there was indeed an appetite for the program, and for Blanks.

People tend to linger after class in the Billy Blanks Tae Bo Studio. Though Blanks still draws drop-in fans from across Southern California on weekends, weekdays are for his core group of devotees, mostly women and a couple men. They go to dinner together and host baby showers for one another. One woman distributes bags of kale to her classmates because she and her husband grow it and there's always so much extra. They go out of their way to greet any newcomers, swearing that, unlike at other gyms, there are no cliques here. When someone in class struggles, someone else will inevitably cross the room to pump them back up.

While these people have developed a kinship with each other, they are really here for Blanks. He's usually at the studio five days a week, teaching several sessions per day in traditional Tae Bo, his more core-focused Tae Bo Flex program, and taekwondo for both adults and kids. Blanks also offers personal training, private small-group training, and a course called Billy's Challenge, a group training program that tracks each participant's improvements in weight and waistline.

Blanks can't always be at the studio. He films new videos for YouTube and his subscription streaming service — often starring his Dana Point students — at Tae Bo's headquarters in Westlake Village, down the street from his one-time studio. Blanks also teaches weekly classes at a studio in Sherman Oaks that his son Billy Blanks Jr. owns.

That might come as a surprise to anyone who watches Shark Tank. In 2013, the younger Blanks appeared on the show seeking investment in his Dance It Out fitness program (then called Dance With Me) and revealed a rift with his father that had left him without financial support. That rift appears to have healed. In addition to sharing the studio space, Blanks occasionally promotes his son's dance-based program on his personal Facebook page, and the pair traveled together to Cologne, Germany for a fitness trade show earlier this year.

Blanks travels often to fitness expos, which help keep Tae Bo in the public eye. Expo attendees have worked out with him in Anaheim, Chicago, San Jose, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and beyond, prompting local media coverage laced with nostalgia. Lanette Hansen, an on-air personality at Magic 98 in Madison, Wisconsin, explained in a radio interview earlier this year that people love to see Blanks at these expos because they feel like they know him. Even fitness celebrities feel that way.

On a July trip to Nashville, Insanity creator Shaun T. Instagrammed a photo of himself and Blanks at the airport, captioned: "I ALMOST LOST MY MIND! I did meet him once in Germany but he's such an icon. After years of working out to Tae Bo in my small apartment in New Jersey, it's so humbling to see that man! I'm still fan boying!"

Blanks steps away every few months, too, to host certification camps. Held in various cities across North America and Europe — including upcoming camps in Colorado, Florida, and Canada — they're now a one-day affair that costs $250 plus travel, with a yearly recertification requirement. Blanks believes these camps are crucial to Tae Bo's existence. "Some programs become watered down," he says, adding, "whereas Tae Bo is still legit to people." If you're taking a Tae Bo class, you can be reasonably assured that your instructor has put in significant effort to refine his or her technique under the guidance of Blanks himself.

"Some programs become watered down, whereas Tae Bo is still legit to people."

Though it may seem that many more fitness trainers would use the Tae Bo name if it weren't for the onerous (and expensive) certification process, Bracko argues it's a smart strategy because fitness professionals love collecting credentials. Walter Thompson, an expert in fitness trends and an associate dean at Georgia State University, adds that any gym manager looking to add a Tae Bo-style class to his or her schedule would obviously rather hire someone with the certification. It's not clear how large that market actually is, but it certainly exists: Tae Bo estimates there are 1,000 certified Tae Bo instructors worldwide, many of them based in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Whenever Blanks is out promoting Tae Bo, his absences are keenly felt back at Dana Point. Other instructors fill in, but his students say that Tae Bo without Billy just isn't the same. Glenda Moore says that some people drive an hour north from San Diego to take Tae Bo. She bypasses a lot of gyms to come here but believes it's worthwhile. "He pushes you in person," she says. Betty Sottosanto, who started taking class with Blanks four years ago when he was still teaching at Gold's Gym, commutes to this studio, too: "I followed him because I love him." Not only do his classes make her feel like Superwoman, but he's also become a father figure to her.

In the hallway outside of the dojo, Tiffany Beisner holds back tears as she tells me about her friendship with Blanks. She joined his studio two years ago as her father struggled with alcoholism. When he passed away suddenly last year, profound grief and depression kept her from Tae Bo for three months. Her classmates reached out to lend their support, as did Blanks himself. He called to let her know he was praying for her. He knew she was in pain, but he wanted her to come back when she was ready. He didn't want to see her go backward, he said, and she should know that everyone missed her. So she returned to the gym.

"He literally helped me through that," she says, turning away from the dojo door so that Blanks won't see her cry. Beisner says Blanks has opened the door for her to find something deeper in life. "He just makes you want to be better," she says.

"Let me see you punch," Blanks says to me as we near the end of our interview. He loves that I once used his tapes and wants to see if I retained anything. When I joke that I'm too nervous to punch in front of him, he corrects me. "Don't be nervous. That's where your help comes in, girl. Let me help you." He tells me to turn my hips a little more and says, "Let me see your mistakes. I'm a teacher. I'm not going to embarrass you."

Blanks isn't done trying to help people just yet. He dreams of a Tae Bo renaissance that would transform the lives of his followers once again. He says he's been listening to what people want throughout his years of travel, and now he wants to give them those things: greater strength, more free time, and the ability to defend themselves. Blanks also wants to destroy obesity. And he hopes to achieve all of this by Christmas.

In December, the Tae Bo founder expects to release two new workout programs that will put him back on top of the fitness heap. The first on his docket is Tae Bo Evolution, which Blanks announced on his Facebook page earlier this month with a teaser cut of the infomercial he'll be debuting soon. "Twenty years ago, I asked you to take me into your home," he says in the video. "And you know what? You did. Now it's 20 years later, and I'm going to ask you the same question. Take me into your home and I guarantee you, what you're about to see is gonna rock your world."

What you see is a weighted, flexible bar that bends and shakes and is outfitted with resistance bands. Blanks says he's been developing the device for two years, improving on the band system he released in 2011, gearing it toward those who want to add strength training to their cardio routine without spending extra time in the weight room. Blanks will sell the bar alongside a new Tae Bo Evolution instructional video, which he expects to make available by the end of the year after some market-testing.

At the same time, Blanks will be busy with the anticipated rollout of his other new program, Tae Bo 2.0. He isn't ready to share much intel about Tae Bo 2.0, which is still in development, other than that it will focus more on self-defense strategies than the original Tae Bo. Blanks will teach blocks and elbow strikes and explain why these moves will protect you from an opponent. It's a step toward his goal to make Tae Bo more engaging for younger people, he says. He blames the rising childhood obesity rates on inadequate modern fitness programs, which he argues are mindless, asking viewers to follow along "like zombies." He believes the key lies in engaging people's minds.

"Take me into your home and I guarantee you, what you're about to see is gonna rock your world."

Students who have been testing Tae Bo 2.0 say they do find it more engaging than their usual workout. Moore describes it as a reminder that she's doing Tae Bo for a reason, recalling a nightmare she once had that a man was following her. She realized in the dream that she would need to fight him. "You realize this needs to work," she says.

Blanks believes these two programs — plus some other ideas he has up his sleeve — will restore Tae Bo's place in the fitness world. "It's great timing for a second wave of Tae Bo," says Thompson. And it might not require a strategy that different from what originally skyrocketed Tae Bo to fame.

Back then, Tae Bo was at the vanguard of a burgeoning aerobic kickboxing trend, so much so that Blanks is able to credibly claim he's the grandfather of modern-day cardio kickboxing. Group exercise was becoming popular at the time, and Jane Fonda had just left a gap to fill in the at-home video market.

There's a similar confluence of fitness trends working in Tae Bo's favor today. After a long flirtation with personal training in the ‘00s, and then small-group training, workouts like CrossFit and SoulCycle have brought group exercise back into favor once again. At-home workouts still command insane sales figures, and fitness consultant Pire says that the popularity of mixed martial arts has sparked a renewed interest in self-defense.

Tae Bo now offers both free and paid-subscription streaming workouts in addition to its produced videos that are still available on DVD. Cimarosti says they're even experimenting with live-streaming classes by pinning cameras to instructors' clothing. Beyond that, the brand has its own app and is on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, though its use of the platforms isn't particularly sophisticated. "You have to roll with the times in order to be able to hang," says Cimarosti.

But if Tae Bo is going to become an all-consuming fitness trend yet again, it's likely going to have to go even further. Some are staking the future of fitness on wearables. Fitbit and Apple spent the last year jostling for dominance in the growing smartwatch market. Biometric T-shirts can now measure your heart rate and sleeping patterns. Researchers are discovering ways to analyze dehydration during workouts with sensors that can connect to smartphones.

Both Thompson and Pire suggest that fitness programs need to be working on ways to incorporate wearables into their workouts — after all, that's the entire reason consumers are buying them. Whoever rides the vanguard of the trend, as Blanks did with cardio kickboxing, will be rewarded.

Blanks is on board. He says he's working on an approach to wearables right now, using them in the It's Your Turn challenge he offers in his Dana Point studio for students to measure their progress over the course of six weeks. He wants to create a Tae Bo program that tracks your heart rate and says he might even incorporate wearables into the workouts he's releasing this year. "That's interacting," he says.

But perhaps the most crucial element to Tae Bo's potential return is the fact that it still has its most valuable asset: Billy Blanks. His cell-exploding energy and compassionate-yet-tough philosophy are what fueled Tae Bo's rise. Like a motivational speaker or evangelical pastor, he has taught millions of people to cultivate the power to save themselves.

Blanks likes to say that he's the founder of Tae Bo and Cimarosti is the future. But how do you pass down a cultural juggernaut? Tae Bo is so closely intertwined with its charismatic founder that it's hard to see where it can go when he's no longer involved.

That's not a knock on Cimarosti. Her studio in Franklin, Tennessee is even larger than the one in Dana Point, and she very much shares her father's vision and drive. Cimarosti has earned the respect of Tae Bo enthusiasts around the world for her precise moves and compassion — some rave about her even more than they do her father. She's a Tae Bo star in her own right, and she's well-positioned to take over the empire when her father retires.

There's just little precedent for this kind of thing in fitness. When Jack Lalanne and Jane Fonda retired, their workouts lived on only in old videotapes and broadcasts. Laila Ali took up her father's sport but not his boxing record. Pire suggests Tae Bo can take a lesson from Zumba, which promotes its brand more than its founder Beto Perez, to the point where it stands on its own. "Zumba is no longer a trend," he says. "Zumba is mainstream." Blanks disagrees. He chafes at the comparison to Zumba, calling it a fad that has faded away. Tae Bo, meanwhile, he says, is a lifestyle.

Maybe there's no need to face that future yet anyway. Blanks isn't going anywhere soon. "I don't think my dad will ever stop teaching in some capacity," Cimarosti says, adding that he even taught from a chair while recovering from a hip replacement last year. Blanks agrees: "Until the day I leave this earth, girl."

And maybe it doesn't matter either whether Tae Bo hits the big time again, or even whether it survives. "Just because it's not as visible on television as it was, it still lives on in the hearts of people," says Cimarosti. "It will live on in the hearts of people forever because it's the workout that revolutionized the way people think about fitness."

Everyone has a goal in mind when they take up Tae Bo, but the point has never really been to lose 20 pounds or execute a perfect right hook. The point has been to keep trying. Blanks is here to show everyone the way. "Things come in season," he says. "That was my season. Like a farmer, if you go out and plant it and take care of it, it'll come back. Eventually my season will come again."

Amy McKeever is a writer in Philadelphia.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Heather Schwedel


How Vogue Got Modern


México está lleno de ropa usada de contrabando de los Estados Unidos


How Celebrity Kids Took Over the Modeling Industry

View all stories in Longform