Self Made man: Chad Atlas
In my other TSB column, Awesome Men Throughout History, we looked at the strange but ultimately successful career of Bernarr MacFadden, a health and fitness guru who got Americans thinking about their longterm health in a more serious, goal-oriented way.
I’d considered labeling him a Self Made Man, but two things stopped me: a) he was kind of crazy, and b) his name has been mostly lost to obscurity by now. But one of the men he influenced became a huge (literally) fitness entrepreneur whose name is still synonymous with bodybuilding – Charles Atlas.
Atlas, an Italian immigrant whose birth name was Angelo Siciliano, turned himself into a brand long before such a thing had even been heard of, and promoted his workout system in long and short-form ads for decades. Anyone who owned a comic book during the 1940s saw the print ads about a “97-pound-weakling” who got even with bullies after gaining muscle through Atlas’ dynamic tension-based weight training regimen. Newspaper stories about Atlas casually bending railroad spikes or ripping phone books in half were commonplace.
Even his public image—big chest, big arms, square jaw, focused expression—was carefully put together to advertise his bodybuilding course as a way of life.
Atlas’ apocryphal story is the same one in his print ads—he was a skinny, unhealthy kid who figured out that pitting muscles against themselves, or inanimate objects, is how animals stayed fit and healthy. He became obsessed with bodybuilding and dedicated himself to it, eventually writing a fitness course with Dr. Frederick Tilney, who became his business partner in 1922.
Atlas’ mail-order business didn’t just flourish, it dominated. Thanks to the aforementioned print ads, his constant public appearances in bodybuilding exhibitions, his work as a high-end art model (he posed for the statue of George Washington in NYC’s Washington Square Park) and his unconventional practice of inviting customers to write him about their progress, he became a cultural institution that defined what an ideal American man looked like.
Atlas’ success wasn’t just built on being seen, it was about being seen consistently in a certain way, and by developing a relationship with his fans/customers that was at once distant and close. Imagine being a scrawny, bird-chested teenager who likes Charles Atlas so much that you spend $30 on his workout course, and then you’re invited to write him and share your progress with the expectation that he will read your letter.
We all have people we admire who we know we’ll never meet; they’ll probably never even acknowledge us. The power of Atlas’ marketing matched anything he did physically, and then some.
In addition to gaining the unwavering admiration of every teenage boy in the country, Atlas also got his fair share of celebrity endorsements; King George VI, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano were all supporters of his. Even freaking Gandhi wrote him about his course.
Charles Atlas died in 1972, but his weightlifting theories and coursework are still active today. No, really.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.