Joe Weider, Founder of a Bodybuilding Empire, Dies at 93
Published: March 23, 2013
Joe Weider, a scrawny kid who sculpted himself with bodybuilding during the Great Depression and created an empire of muscle magazines, fitness equipment, doubtful dietary supplements and Olympic-style contests featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, died on Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 93. The cause was heart failure, said Charlotte Parker, his longtime publicist. Mr. Weider may not have been the 97-pound weakling of the comic books who got tired of having sand kicked in his face. But as a teenager in Montreal, he hated being roughed up by neighborhood hooligans, discovered bodybuilding in a magazine and bought into it for life. He developed a V-shaped torso with bulging biceps and abs like Michelangelo’s David, and was still muscular and jut-jawed in his 70s and 80s.
In the intervening decades, Mr. Weider (pronounced WEE-dur), who moved to the United States as a young man, founded many of the world’s most popular bodybuilding magazines, including Muscle and Fitness, Flex, Men’s Fitness and, for women, Shape. They had 25 million readers and were crammed with photos of greased bodybuilders and Hollywood stars like Sylvester Stallone, Cher and Mr. Schwarzenegger.
Riding waves of postwar fascination with bodybuilding, Mr. Weider and his brother Ben founded the International Federation of Body Builders, which sponsored the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia contests and other competitions for men and women featuring gibbous thighs and sugar-loaf pectorals. Ben Weider, who was the federation president from 1946 to 2006, established affiliates in some 170 countries.
With Joe Weider focusing on publications and products, the brothers promoted fitness as a lifestyle and bodybuilding as an international sport with Olympic aspirations (distinct from weight lifting), and sought to combat popular images of bodybuilders as muscle-bound oddballs.
In 1968, Mr. Weider recruited Mr. Schwarzenegger, the Austrian bodybuilding champion, moved him to Los Angeles and gave him $100 a week to write articles for his magazines that endorsed Weider products. Mr. Schwarzenegger also won Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles repeatedly. There were complaints that Weider athletes won the federation’s contests with suspicious regularity, but no proof of fixes was forthcoming.
Mr. Schwarzenegger said Mr. Weider was a constant through every stage of his career.
“He advised me on my training, on my business ventures, and once, bizarrely, claimed I was a German Shakespearean actor to get me my first acting role in ‘Hercules in New York,’ even though I barely spoke English,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “He was there for me constantly throughout my life, and I will miss him dearly.”
Mr. Weider had a knack for pseudoscientific, muscular-sounding names. He became “the Master Blaster,” and developed fitness equipment like the “Solid Steel Tricep Bomber,” and food supplements like “Dynamic Muscle Builder protein powder,” “Carbo Energizer Chewables,” “Performance Foods” and “Anabolic Mega-Paks,” which featured an ingredient that he said had been scraped from the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
“Nowadays, people want what a professional athlete would eat,” Mr. Weider told Mark Stuart Gill for a 1989 profile in The New York Times. “So we developed these booster pancakes that give you extra amino acids, which are important in protein synthesis and the building of muscle tissue.”
He looked like the King of Bodybuilders, even in his later years. He had a Los Angeles tan that set off a mane of silver hair, a rakish silver mustache and the physique of a narcissistic gladiator. In photos that lined his office, he fit right in with his iron-pumping protégés like Mr. Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, television’s “Incredible Hulk.”
Mr. Weider sold his equipment and dietary supplements through advertisements and feature articles that were unapologetically juxtaposed in his catalog-like magazines, which featured exotic pieces like “Bulgarian Leg Training Secrets.” The magazines circulated to millions around the world, many of whom were not fitness fanatics but just wanted to get in better shape.
While Mr. Weider began as a mail-order entrepreneur, his company by the 1980s was marketing his equipment in 6,000 retail outlets and nutritional products in 12,000 stores in the United States alone. By the 1990s, he was selling in at least 60 countries and grossing hundreds of millions of dollars annually for his Los Angeles-based enterprise, Weider America’s Total Fitness Company.
His product claims were challenged by consumers, experts and government agencies. In 2002, he had to modify weight-gain claims for “Formula No. 7” after its efficacy was disputed by postal investigators. In 1985, the Federal Trade Commission challenged “Anabolic Mega-Paks” and “Dynamic Life Essence,” which claimed to enhance hormone secretions in the bloodstream to generate muscle growth. He admitted no wrongdoing, but modified his ads and provided $400,000 for product redemptions. In 2003, he sold his magazines for $350 million to American Media, but kept other parts of the company.
Josef Weider was born in Montreal, one of four children of Louis and Anna Nudelmann Weider, Polish immigrants. He used the birth date Nov. 29, in years ranging from 1919 to 1923; the year was uncertain because records were lost in a fire. However, his publicist said he was born in 1919. He dropped out of school after seventh grade to work, delivering groceries. He was a small teenager, 5 feet 6 and 110 pounds, and was picked on by toughs.
“I got sick and tired of putting my head down and walking away to avoid trouble,” he recalled in an autobiography written with his brother Ben, “Brothers of Iron” (2006, with Mike Steere). “Skin and bones. That’s all I was. I needed some muscle.”
He found it, and his inspiration, in an American magazine, “Strength and Health.” He developed his body, and by 16 claimed he could bench-press 330 pounds. In 1940, he founded his first magazine, “Your Physique.” It became the prototype for selling fitness equipment and food supplements.
His first wife was Vicky Uzar. They divorced around 1960. He married Betty Brosmer, a model, in 1961. His brother Ben died in 2008, and an older brother, Louis, died in the 1940s. He had one daughter, Lydia Ross, from his first marriage. He also had three grandchildren, Alexandra, Rosie and Tavi. He and Betty had no children.
With Bill Reynolds, Joe Weider wrote “The Weider System of Bodybuilding” (1981) and “Joe Weider’s Ultimate Bodybuilding” (1989).