The baffling world of celebrity workout videos

Camp genius: Vintage workout videos by Angela Lansbury, Linnea Quigley, Cher, Jane Fonda, Alyssa Milano and Mark Wahlberg
Camp genius: Vintage workout videos by Angela Lansbury, Linnea Quigley, Cher, Jane Fonda, Alyssa Milano and Mark Wahlberg

Angela Lansbury slips off her robe and eases herself into a bubble bath. “I think femininity and sexuality go hand in hand,” the Murder, She Wrote star gushes, her toes curling as she splays her legs out of the tub. “It used to be thought that women lose interest in sex after menopause, but now we know that just isn’t true.” To drive home her point, she proceeds to plunge her hand beneath the bubbles, her head rolling back in ecstasy.

This is from Lansbury’s Positive Moves – not specialist pornography but an exercise video that’s been immortalised today in weirder corners of the internet. Lansbury’s video is a well-intentioned one, targeted towards the over-fifties and preaching the importance of self-love and keeping fit. It’s also deranged, just as so many celebrity exercise tapes from the era were.

While today celebrity workout tapes tend to be the reserve of the D-list, or usurped by the Instagram Live workout, the late Eighties and early Nineties saw a boom in bonafide stars stretching and bending for the masses. Among those riding on the lycra-clad coattails of Jane Fonda, who revolutionised the VHS at-home workout, were Cher, Shirley MacLaine and Mark Wahlberg (or “Marky Mark”, as he was then known). Ludicrous, wooden and uncomfortably sexual, their tapes are hard-bodied time capsules of an era in which we thought the only thing separating us from a Hollywood physique was not jazzercising hard enough. In a strange plot twist, they’ve also become summer 2020 must-haves.

“Since lockdown started, we’ve sold out of absolutely every fitness video you can think of,” says Luke Mitchell, who runs Gaming Squad, an eBay store that has made him the biggest seller of vintage VHS in the UK. “Rosemary Conley has gone through the roof. Cher: Body Confidence, Cher: A New Attitude – they’ve all gone. We’ve sold 12 copies of Mr Motivator videos since March. My theory is that a lot of the people now who have major disposable incomes are going to be in their late twenties to late forties, and it’s their memories that they’re buying. It’s nostalgia.

“They also do seem a lot more fun than modern fitness DVDs, or people like Joe Wicks,” he continues. “I was watching some of the Rosemary Conley ones and how she didn’t have a heart attack, I don’t know. But some people must like that and the fact that they’re properly going for it. And that they’re old school and cheesy.”

It was Fonda that kickstarted not only the celebrity workout tape, but the VHS tape industry entirely. When she, a lifelong fitness fanatic, was approached in 1981 to front a VHS adaptation of her best-selling exercise book, she was initially perplexed. A book was one thing, videos seemed a step too far – there was little money in it, while few could even afford VHS players at the time, either. Stuart Karl, the CEO of a video distribution company, believed that a tape designed to be played over and over could kickstart an entire industry. It was only after Fonda realised a tape could help fund one of her political ventures, the California Campaign for Economic Democracy, that she said yes. It proved an enormous success, selling more than 200,000 copies in its first year of release.

Jane Fonda on the August 1985 cover of ‘Billboard’ (Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group)
Jane Fonda on the August 1985 cover of ‘Billboard’ (Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group)

“Women began to hear about it,” Fonda recalled in 2012. “Friends were telling each other, ‘Hey, check this out! This really works!’ VCR players became cheaper as the demand grew and, before I knew it, 17 million of that original video had been sold and I was inducted into the Video Hall of Fame – the first non-engineer to receive that honour.”

Fonda’s tapes sparked a wave of imitators – the Oscar winner also giving a nascent exercise industry an elite cachet that it didn’t previously possess. No star proved too big for the VHS workout market, and Fonda ended up making so much money from her tapes that she declared her retirement from acting in 1991 (it would last until 2005). Today, Fonda’s tapes, most of which have been transferred to DVD, remain bestsellers. On the vintage VHS market, they’re treated like gold dust. Other celebrity fitness tapes from Fonda’s era are equally scarce.

Also incredibly popular on the VHS fitness circuit is Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout, which features zombies doing aerobics and a spooky slumber party that rapidly becomes a fitness class. Quigley, a B-movie icon best known for her roles in cult horror films including The Return of the Living Dead, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Night of the Demons, achieved the seemingly impossible: a tongue-in-cheek workout film that is sexy, scary, and actually good for your health.

“I was doing a film called Murder Weapon,” Quigley remembers, “and I had this scene where I had to lift a sledgehammer up and down while killing someone. And my friend Ken Hall was on the set and he said, ‘Wow! That’s a great workout for your arms’. We both kind of looked at each other like: there’s an idea!”

The resulting film, which Hall wrote and directed, was shot in two days, using Quigley’s parents house as a set as well as the mountains outside Los Angeles. “It was guerrilla filmmaking at its best!” she laughs. “I love parodies, so we were like, ‘Okay, let’s show Jane Fonda! We’ll give her a run for her money!’ We were just having fun with it, taking fitness and then incorporating all these horror elements.”

Angela Lansbury tears up the floor in ‘Positive Moves’ (Wood Knapp Productions)
Angela Lansbury tears up the floor in ‘Positive Moves’ (Wood Knapp Productions)

Quigley says that she’s never encountered fans who have actually committed to the Horror Workout’s exercise plan, though she is aware of fans getting together to reenact scenes from the film at viewing parties. It’s something the Horror Workout shares with much of the era’s fitness videos, with only Fonda’s tapes typically mentioned as far better than kitsch nostalgia pieces. Their high quality, with Vogue declaring Fonda’s first tape to “still be the best exercise class out there” in 2018, means they’re also far and away the least hilarious of the era. Others are camp genius.

Cher Fitness sees the “Believe” icon working out in her lingerie. LaToya Jackson doesn’t seem to know where she is in her Step Up Workout tape. Shirley MacLaine’s Inner Workout features three minutes of the Terms of Endearment star sat cross-legged, motionless and eerily monotone as she speaks of the importance of “geometric design” in conducting the “flow of energy within”. It’s then followed by more than 10 minutes of psychedelic patterns, like a Windows 95 screensaver.

But the overriding theme through many of the era’s videos, whether they star elderly women or teen actors, are how disturbingly erotic they are. It’s somewhat appropriate, too, considering the original goal of the home video workout genre. When Karl first came up with the idea of the fitness VHS, he claimed to want to “fill the gap between Jaws and Deep Throat”: low-budget “films” that could be shot quickly yet sell hundreds of thousands of copies, while featuring a covert sexuality that would entice less fitness-minded consumers too embarrassed to step foot into an adult shop.

‘Featuring Gay Gasper’: The cover art for Step Up with LaToya (Inspired Corporation)
‘Featuring Gay Gasper’: The cover art for Step Up with LaToya (Inspired Corporation)

Alyssa Milano’s Teen Steam, recorded at the height of her adolescent fame on the 1980s sitcom Who’s the Boss?, was officially aimed at 10- to 15-year-old girls (a red flag in itself) but feels like the product of dirty old men. Shot on a set designed to look like a teenage girl’s bedroom, it sees Milano and two female friends giggling their way through stretches and squats, the camera salivating over each close-up of a pelvic thrust.

Sex is similarly everywhere in Marky Mark’s Form… Focus… Fitness, which lingers over his rippling muscles and oozes with latent homoeroticism. It opens with Wahlberg thrashing around topless in bed, his cousin bursting into his bedroom to wake him with the offer of some “f***ing pancakes” downstairs. With Wahlberg then clambering lazily from beneath his sheets, the camera surveying the Calvin Klein underwear he was advertising at the time, it’s one slightly-too-lingering bro-hug away from gay porn.

Admirably, it’s only Quigley’s Horror Workout that openly acknowledges the sexuality of the era’s fitness tapes. Like no workout ever, it actually begins with Quigley showering, in a scene that also acts as a funny ode to the movies in which she found fame.

“There were a lot of exercise videos back then where they show, you know, shots of their butts and their breasts and things like that,” Quigley says. “So I think we thought, okay, let’s tailor it sexually, but also in the vein of some of the horror movies I’ve done. So there’s the shower scene, all the scenes of me exercising where they zoom in on everything… all the dialogue was definitely written to be innuendos, too.”

Still, it’s nothing compared to Lansbury’s.

“God, is that sexual or what?” Quigley cackles. “Talk about scary!”