How does Billy Blanks, a shy, dyslexic boy from the ghetto in Erie, Pennsylvania transform himself into a martial arts champion, actor, motivational speaker, exercise guru and roommate to 26 animals?
“I set little goals that I thought I could achieve,” explains Billy Blanks, best known for creating Tae Bo, an exercise phenomenon that became popular in the late nineties. “Once I achieved them, I started setting bigger goals.”
Little goals included taking his first karate lesson at the age of 12. “I had wanted to take karate since I was six but I had 15 brothers and sisters and my family couldn’t afford it. Then when I was 12, they built the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center in my neighborhood and they had karate.”
Painfully shy, Billy struggled through childhood with undiagnosed dyslexia (“They thought I was mentally retarded”) but he quickly excelled at karate. He made the U.S. Karate Team at the age of 16 and in 1975, became the first Amateur Athletic Union Champion, a title he earned five times in all. He became a seven-time world karate champion, won 36 gold medals in international competition and earned a place in the Karate Hall of Fame in 1982.
The father of two credits martial arts for helping shape his perspective. “It taught me to focus and to see that success comes from the inside out, not from the outside in. It makes you spiritually and emotionally stronger.”
Along the way, Billy found companionship with his animal friends. “My mom and dad loved animals so I grew up with them. We’d go to the shelters and get dogs. One in particular was a part wolf, part Akita that had come from the police force. No one could train him but I worked with him until he was friendly towards people.” Billy’s love of animals also extended to the two-legged kind. “I used to work on the garbage truck and we’d go to people’s houses to see if they wanted their garbage removed. One day, this lady gave me two baby ducks. I raised them and they followed me around – it was really cool.” The concept of Tae Bo came about in 1975, when Billy’s wife, Gayle, brought home the theme music to the film, “Rocky.” “I put it on and I got cardiovascularly exhausted. . . and I was the national champion!” Billy started putting some of his martial arts moves to music and found himself feeling better mentally and physically. Gayle encouraged him to introduce the new program to women to teach them self defense plus a fun way to get into shape. The Blanks family moved to L.A. in 1989 and, after setting up his own studio, Billy found people, including celebrities such as Paula Abdul, flocking to Tae Bo classes.
He appeared in a number of movies (Kiss the Girls, The Last Boy Scout) and in 1998, backed by endorsements from celebrities, he launched the first of his workout videotapes to the public. His infomercials helped rack up sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years.
Billy’s mantra acknowledges the link between mind and body. “Where I am today is where mind put me,” states Billy. “Where I’ll be tomorrow is where my mind puts me. Everything I speak into existence will come to me, whether it is good or bad.”
Clearly, Billy Blanks has a lot to say these days. In addition to an already busy schedule, for the last two and a half years, Billy has traveled overseas to U.S. Armed Forces bases, motivating troops and teaching Tae Bo classes with his 30-year-old daughter and Tae Bo heir apparent, Shellie (son Billy, Jr. is a producer). Tours have included bases in Bosnia, Kosovo and Africa and the two will spend time in Iraq this fall. On the home front, Billy and Gayle started The Billy Blanks Foundation, a charity aimed at helping disadvantaged children and women. “Gayle and I always said if we can ever afford to, we’re going to give back,” explains Billy. “The Foundation helps women and kids get their lives back in order so they can make a way for themselves.”
Though his schedule is hectic, Billy still finds time to enjoy family, including the eight dogs, three cats, and 15 birds that share his home. The animals, which range in age from under a year (Juicy the Yorkie) to 12 years (Malcolm the cat), lead a contented life. “My wife is also an animal lover and since our kids have grown up, our animals are like our sons and daughters. They all get along together but they’re all different. We have one Yorkie named Diva who loves to wear clothes – she’s the only one who does. She won’t go to bed unless you put on her pajamas. She’ll bark and bark until you do. Yesterday she had on a miniskirt.”
As you might expect, the animals get plenty of exercise. The couple even built a bird room, complete with trees, windows and a fountain, where their eight-year-old macaw, Beautoin, and his friends hang out. Billy Blanks credits Gayle for helping the animals eat right, and then some. “We pray over our food and Gayle prays over the animals’ food before she gives it to them. We pray that nothing in the food will hurt the animals but that it will give them strength and power so they’ll be healthy and strong.”
A deeply spiritual family, one of the Blanks’ most important goals includes making their home peaceful and warm so people feel love. With 26 animals in the house, you might wonder how the couple could possibly achieve their goal. “All our dogs treat people nicely,” says Billy. “Sometimes they kick me out of bed at night but that’s all right. When people come over they say they feel the presence of God. It’s such a blessing.”