Though Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has become the best unpaid spokesman that workout guru Tony Horton could hope for, Horton steps gingerly around political questions.
The creator of the wildly popular and gruelingly intense P90X fitness program, Horton compliments both Ryan and first lady Michelle Obama for their efforts to get Americans moving. Exercise is a bipartisan activity after all, and Horton, a Rhode Island native, is not interested in taking sides.
“It’s been interesting, it’s like walking a tightrope,” Horton, 54, said on the phone recently while getting his makeup done for a magazine photoshoot in Los Angeles. “It’s just health and fitness, regardless of who you’re going to vote for on Nov. 6.”
Horton has trained Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, even Billy Idol. (He jokes that he’s keeping rock ’n’ roll alive.) Actors Ben Stiller and Ashton Kutcher have raved about his exercise DVDs. But it was the news that fitness buff Ryan swears by the P90X workout that catapulted the regimen into the spotlight — and cemented Horton’s status as New England’s answer to Jack LaLanne.
Not bad for a guy who was a bench warmer for his high-school football team in Trumbull, Conn.
“We were watching the news and heard the announcement that Paul Ryan was picked” to run on the Republican ticket with Mitt Romney, Horton said. “My girlfriend turned to me and said, ‘You might get a few phone calls.’ I said ‘I don’t think so. I’m not really relevant.’ And now, 30-plus interviews later, I guess she was right.”
Horton wasn’t exactly unknown before the Ryan candidacy. His infomercials, staples of late night TV, show a parade of before and after photos of P90X success stories, while the tan and chiseled Horton explains the technique behind the program, a 12 DVD series that sells for $119.95. They feature one workout per day for 90 days (Sundays off). There’s also a nutrition guide.
He’s sold the DVDs to grandmothers on QVC, junior high soccer teams, and led in-person classes on military bases, in the Congressional gym, and at the Pentagon. P90X is currently one of the most-downloaded apps for the iPhone.
Horton’s ability to woo and wow his political and celebrity clients comes as little surprise to his younger sister, Kit Horton Caldicott, of Maynard.
“He was always the fun, joking older brother,” said Caldicott. “He was — and still is — very much a social guy. That’s probably why he’s such a successful guy now. It's because of his charisma. He always had that about him.”
Thanks in part to Horton’s affable pitch-man personality, P90X has racked up sales of $600 million for its distributor, Beachbody, since it went on sale in 2004. Immediately after Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, Jon Congdon, Beachbody’s president and cofounder, said he saw an increase in traffic to the company’s website, and an uptick in sales.
“We don’t want to make a big deal out of it,” said Congdon. “But Democrats and Republicans have a hard time agreeing on much the rest of the day, but for an hour every day they are working out together. I know in some cases that they have cosponsored bills together because they worked out together to P90X.”
Congressman Heath Shuler (D-NC), a former NFL quarterback who regularly leads P90X classes in the Congressional gym with Ryan, appreciates the intensity of the workouts.
“Paul is trying for strength, I’m trying to get leaner,” Shuler said. “But I believe in it. I’ve been involved in fitness for many years, and I’m impressed with Tony.”
Horton took a circuitous path to becoming a fitness authority. He grew up in Westerly, R.I., bounced around the country throughout school (“I was an army brat,” he says), and attended the University of Rhode Island. After his ill-fated high school football experience, he decided to take a weight class in college, and his instructor persuaded him that exercise could be enjoyable.
“The coach was a mentor with a great sense of humor, he was willing to take his time and show us the process,” Horton said. “That’s the first time in my life I thought, ‘Wow, who knew that this thing could be fun, and along the way, you get this whole benefit? Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally.’ No one ever explained it to me that way before. All I’ve done over the past few years is re-create a version of what I got from that class.”
His original plan was not a career in fitness, but in acting. In 1980, he headed out to California, trying his hand at the vocation, along with stand-up comedy, and even a brief stint as a street mime. But he jumped into fitness when he realized that casting directors considered him out-of-shape.
His rigorous training routine and newly muscled body started attracting the attention of fellow gymgoers looking for a personal trainer. Eventually, he was training clients such as Shirley MacLaine, Rob Lowe, and Sean Connery. Last month, he was brought in to train diplomats at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. He came to the embassy after a training session at the Pentagon.
“He’s absolutely passionate,” said Colonel Scott Howden, Canadian Defence Air Attache.“I didn’t get the impression that he’s passionate for commercial purposes. He’s passionate because he really wants people to be active.”
Though the program was designed to be done at home, P90X has been creeping into local gyms and group workouts as well. Ted Duncan, a Brookline realtor and a P90X devotee, runs a biweekly Meet Up group that uses the program (along with another Beachbody product called Insanity) for workout sessions. He says attendance in his classes has grown steadily recently.
“People like to do this in a group,” Duncan says. “It works great to do it in your living room, but it’s different with other people. It can be more energetic.”
Adam Campbell, fitness director of Men’s Health magazine, says the success of any program is not simply based on the exercise component.
“When we create fitness DVDs, one of the hardest things to do is to find someone who is a real authority on the subject, looks and lives the part, and also looks fantastic on camera,” Campbell said. “Tony has all of those things. He’s a special talent, and that’s hard to find.”
Horton, who still regularly returns to the area to visit his father in Rhode Island and sister in Massachusetts, says he’s not sure if the hoopla over Ryan’s physique will make a difference come election day.
“Obviously you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that if you’re a politician or an athlete, or a mom or dad, that being disciplined about your fitness and your diet says that you’re a hard worker,” Horton said. “Will it help with his electability? I don’t know. I think it draws a certain amount of respect. People see that he has that kind of discipline.”
In the spirit of bipartisanship, Horton quickly adds: “But at the same time you see the same thing with what the first lady is doing.”