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Tampa's Tony Little insists there's always a way

Tony Little sits in the green room, focusing on his face in the mirror.

He will have one hour on HSN, the Home Shopping Network, to sell hundreds of units of bison meat — Tony Little's Body by Bison — to regular people, people on fixed incomes who happen to be sitting home at 1 p.m. on a Thursday.

"Body by Bison, Body by Bison, Body by Bison," he says. "Low calorie. Low fat."

His makeup artist smooths his hair with mousse, curl cream and Moroccan Oil for shine, then blows it with a dryer that has an honest-to-goodness Ferrari engine.

"Instead of blowing cold air," he explains, "it's got this button and it goes turbo."

Selling. He's always selling.

Success for anyone seems like a fluke these days. But in Tony Little Land, business is up more than half this year. In just two hours he sold 1,900 HealthRider machines at $280 each. Since the economy tanked in 2008, he has sold 762,341 pairs of his Cheeks shoes. His pillows? More than 500,000.

"It's really a bad economy for people who don't think positively," he says.

This from a man who was hit by a school bus. Who once sat in a puddle of acid. Who sold his mansion to pay the IRS. Who had walking pneumonia twice, facial surgery four times. Whose father committed suicide. Whose babies were premature. Who got held back in the first grade.

Has he figured something out? Maybe Tony Little's cocktail of caffeine and hyperbolic affirmations actually works. Maybe we always need to be selling, selling, selling, even to ourselves.

He swigs energy drink from a squeeze bottle.

"It's got amino acids in it, which I think is positive because it rebuilds your cells."

He gathers his mane and pulls it through the back of his cap, into the ponytail.

• • •

Tony Little is one of Tampa Bay's biggest pop culture icons, both conspicuous and mysterious. He's on TV 6,000 hours a year. He's the guy you see at the airport and tweet about, who eats alone at the Cracker Barrel and works out at Lifestyle Family Fitness in Hyde Park. He is 55 now. He lives in South Tampa with his wife, Melissa, and his children, in a mansion filled with vitamins, bison meat and fitness products.

At night, he props his legs on a pillow — a Tony Little HoMedics Micropedic Traveler — to strengthen his back. He turns the light on, pops open The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and a flips past an opening quote from Salman Rushdie:

To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.

In the morning, he puts on his Tony Little Cheeks baseball cap, Tony Little socks and Tony Little insoles and charges through his house, past taxidermied animals and hundreds of neon sneakers, past his new HealthRider Twist machine, something he tinkered with until it toned obliques and — this is key — rotated so he could face the camera while he was selling it.

In the stairwell there's a picture of Albert Einstein. He idolizes him. "I guess because they thought he was dumb and . . . he wasn't."

The game room has a massive portrait of a bare-chested Tony at his most Herculean, and beside it, a painting of a child hugging a sheep.

As a boy in Ohio, Tony adopted a lamb for 4-H Club. His father named it Birdie. Tony went jogging with the lamb and told it secrets. It wasn't until Birdie went to market for $2 a pound that Tony understood the name was a joke because the lamb would go "bye-bye."

"My dad was not a good guy."

When he was 16, Tony got caught doing doughnuts with a friend in a stolen car. His mother sent him to St. Petersburg to live with an uncle. He started lifting weights at Dixie Hollins High School, then at Dick Fudge's gym on 54th Avenue.

Two days a week he pumped his chest, shoulders, triceps. Two days, his back, biceps and forearms. Two days, his legs and abs. He woke at 2 a.m. to eat bran muffins, at 4 a.m. to eat half a melon. He pounded vitamin C and carved himself like a 5-foot-6 1/2 statue.

He won Mr. St. Petersburg, Mr. Suncoast, Mr. Southern States, Mr. Southern USA, Mr. Florida, Mr. Junior America. He made $25 for appearances at grand openings, $300 posing at fitness expos. He ordered wholesale vitamins to be sent to the Brandywine Apartments, listing his unit as "Suite 101" instead of "Apartment 101." He sold the vitamins to friends.

He had a knack for getting out of jams, convincing people to hear him, selling things he liked.

"I want to market myself now," he told a reporter in 1982. "I'm a good product, a good sale."

He was preparing to compete in the American Body Building Championships, back then called Mr. America.

Then a Pinellas County school bus plowed into his car.

• • •

HSN managers want Tony to stop in the cafeteria. They're serving his bison burgers to the staff.

He's nervous about the time crunch. He budgets three hours before each show to study the 36-count and the 72-count packages, the Italian bison sausage and the breakfast strips, the doctor's notes on growth hormones and stimulants, the shrinkage gap between sizzling cow and buffalo.

"You can't be perfect every time, but it at least gives you a chance to . . ." He blinks. He doesn't have makeup on his hands. "We need to do hands. Is my drink bottle here? I gotta brush teeth and stuff. Teeth, teeth, teeth. Ooh, that's a nasty toothbrush. I gotta make something for toothbrushes one day."

Tony dashes through the call center in a robe that says "Getting ready to do it." Employees peer up from desks as his ponytail bobs by.

He gets to the lunch line and doesn't know where to stand. Is he supposed to hand out the burgers? Is he supposed to greet customers? He fidgets because his momentum is at stake. He spots the Body by Bison sign at the end of the lunch line.

"From a marketing standpoint, I would have put the sign at the beginning of the line," he says.

He approaches an HSN staffer holding a bison burger. Opportunity.

"It's about 5 grams of fat and 24 grams of protein," Tony tells the guy. "No chemicals or anything. The omega 3 is higher than salmon!"

"Really?"

Tony's shoulders loosen up. He breathes.

An IT guy named Jeremy Froehner taps him on the shoulder.

"I got a video of a bison chasing me," Froehner says. He pushes his cellphone in front of Tony's face.

"Look at that," Tony says, genuinely rapt. "Oh, yeah! Hey, make sure to send that to me. Or you should put it on YouTube and say it became a part of Body by Bison!"

By the end of lunch, the cafeteria sells out of bison.

• • •

His empire operates out of an office park in St. Petersburg. There are catalogs of workout tapes, pictures of Tony posing with Carl Lewis, Jack La- Lanne, Jay Leno. There are Tony Little Easy Shaper Pros ("Anything you can do with a barbell, you can do with this.") and Tony Little watches ("It's a regular watch, right, but it's also a dual time zone watch. And any time I want to take my heart rate . . . There, I just took my heart rate.").

There are shirts that say "Negative people suck," one of the half-dozen trademarks he owns.

Conceive, believe, achieve!

There's always a way!

You can do it!

It's clear Tony believes. After the accident with the school bus, his body turned soft and doughy. He had two herniated discs in his back and started sleeping with his legs propped on a pillow. He was incredibly depressed. He watched Jane Fonda workout tapes in his dingy apartment and decided he could do better. The next morning he put on a tie and went to a local cable access channel.

He was 50 pounds overweight with a bloated face, but he intended to do a fitness show. He had the money to do it, he lied. He went home and listed positive affirmations for how to get the money. When people wouldn't finance him, he went home and listed reasons why rejection was good.

When he heard buzz in the early 1980s about a network that let you shop at home, he started calling so much secretaries hung up on him. He finally finagled a meeting. The next weekend, a presenter told the Tony Little story on air and sold 400 workout tapes in four minutes.

Tony always influenced the network. When HSN chief executive officer Mindy Grossman started in 2006, media executive Barry Diller handed her a letter. It was from Tony. It had suggestions.

"I'm like, who is this guy?" she says. "When I came here, one of the first things I did was meet with Tony . . . He is very particular about what products he'll put himself behind. . . . Believe me, he's turned down many, many products."

His biggest success came in the 1990s from his Gazelle workout machine, which earned more than a billion dollars.

"It was big informercial money," he says. "Stupid money."

He threw massive parties, a carnival with Lady Godiva on a horse, women in cages, Chippendales men at the bar, Santa Claus in a dunk tank. In 1997, he got a letter from the IRS. He owed a million dollars. His accountant handled the money, he says, and he didn't know.

He auctioned his house to pay the bill, which he described then to a reporter as an attempt to "simplify my life." He sold 450 treasures, from a stuffed buck head to Chinese statues made of ivory and human bones. It was traumatic, but he paid his debt within half the allotted time and decided it was another triumph.

He kept his brand alive, moved toward equilibrium, found stability while still facing odd hardships. Two years ago, his wife delivered twins three months early. This year, an employee was accused of stealing $600,000 from him.

He wrote a book called There's Always a Way: How to Develop a Positive Mindset and Succeed in Life and Business. He outlined every strange event and uncanny recovery, first the negative, then the positive.

ADVERSITIES OF MY LIFE

Double hernia surgery

VICTORIES OF MY LIFE

My first informercial sells over seven million videos

"I think we all want to feel better," he says. "It's a good goal. It's pretty simple to understand. Look for the opportunities, because there are a ton of them. When your back's against the wall, you've got to come out fighting."

• • •

The director counts down. Tony swivels his head. He rubs his palms, squats and sways. He says three times in his head, "I accomplish all things through Jesus Christ, who is my strength." It was a tip he heard from Zig Ziglar.

It's time.

"You can eat a burger and it's great for weight loss," he tells the people at home. It's a little slow, flat, so he turns it up. His eyes flicker, and he hunches forward.

"You can eat a HOT DOG and it's great for WEIGHT LOSS! The best hot dogs in the world. I believe that with all my heart and soul."

"BLT stands for BETTER LUCK THIS TIME!"

"We're tired of freezer burn!"

"No shrinking. Nobody likes shrinkage. DELICIOUS!"

"YOU CAN DO IT!"

He sells 700 packages of bison in 30 minutes.

Crew members hustle to wheel off the glistening bison display, the hamburger buns and Tony's grotesque logs of fake television fat. They wheel in something that makes soft serve from frozen bananas. He peers at it.

"It's a great little product," he says. "If I was doing an informercial on it, I'd be killing it. But I can only do so much."

• • •

Tony is introspective and quiet when he's alone. He drives with the radio off, unable to sell, unable to do anything but steer.

He sits on his pool deck in the evenings, puffing his cheeks and taking photos of his face with his iPhone. When other people are sleeping, he plunks down a laptop and updates his Facebook page.

Hi Friends, The iJoy Swivel Recliner is a state of the art robotic massage recliner. Customizable, personalized massage to relax you while you recline in luxury and comfort. Leather-like soft upholstery in 3 fashionable colors.

If he lets up for a second, he knows it could all go away. It's easy to make money, but not easy to keep it. It's easy to get what you want, and just as easy to lose it.

Maybe we can do it, like Tony says. But maybe he can't not do it.

One day soon, he hopes to move his family to the country.

"I can see myself with a John Deere tractor and a strawberry plantation . . . Tony Little's Jelly Jams."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8857.

Tampa's Tony Little insists there's always a way 12/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 9, 2011 1:49pm]

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