Published April 1, 1990|Updated Oct. 16, 2005

Since Jenny Craig has become America's leading diva of dieting, not even her grocery basket is safe from public scrutiny. "People are forever checking out what I'm going to eat," Craig said. "Even in restaurants they circle around to see what is on my plate."

But Craig doesn't mind these invasions of her privacy. At 57, the 5-foot-5, 122-pound Craig is the chief executive officer of an international shed-the-pounds concern that bears her name. Jenny Craig International is America's sixth fastest-growing private company, according to Inc. magazine, with almost 500 centers throughout the country.

Founded in Australia in 1983 by Craig and her husband, Sid, the company established a beachhead in the United States two years later when it opened 14 centers. Since then, enormous growth has pushed overall sales to about $500-million, more than doubling last year's $200-million. There are now more than 480 centers worldwide, and the company's goal is to have 1,000 in operation within the next five years.

Craig was in the Tampa Bay area last week to open six more. The weekly average for 1990 has been four openings per week. People magazine noted in a recent article that "Jenny Craig is fast becoming the McDonald's of weight reduction."

The diet plan caught the attention of actors Elliott Gould and Susan Ruttan, the once-plump Roxanne of TV's popular L.A. Law series. Both shed pounds following it.

Whether winging her way across the United States in her new Palomar Jet Star or enjoying her 10,000-square-foot beachfront home in California, Craig sticks to the low-fat, high-fiber diet the centers recommend. Fruit is her idea of a snack. Frozen yogurt satisfies her cravings for ice cream. She walks for exercise at home and attends health spas on the road. Her physical appearance is important, she said, "because 85 percent of my clientele is female."

Her business acumen is also drawing attention from some of the best minds in the nation. Last month, Harvard Business School tapped Craig to be one of its key speakers for a seminar on entrepreneurship.

"Now I can tell everyone I have been to Harvard," the multimillionaire teased in her opening remarks to some 400 soon-to-be graduates. Craig's formal education stopped with high school.

"I don't think there is a correlation between education and success," she said. "The two primary precursors to success are self-discipline and commitment." That goes for diet and fitness, too, she added.

"People think of diets as something you go on and off of ours is a lifestyle," Craig said.

According to Marketdata Enterprises, a research firm in Valley Stream, N.Y., Americans will spend an estimated $33-billion on diets and diet-related products and services this year. And business is expected to double within the next five years. For every 100 of those who shed pounds, weight-loss experts predict about 95 will gain their weight back. Bad news for dieters, but great news for diet companies, which are given the chance to sell the same programs to the same people over and over again.

This week, the diet industry was under fire as a congressional subcommittee looked into allegations that government regulators are not protecting consumers from fraudulent advertising and dangerous diet systems and clinics. Nutri/System, one of Jenny Craig's rivals, has been said to cause gall-bladder disease with its diet. James Kemper Millard, a Nutri/System spokesman, denied that a link had been established between the company's diet plan and the disease.

Sitting in the lobby of Tampa's Harbour Island Hotel, Craig said she was among the 5 percent of dieters who succeeded on the first try.

Craig said she was always thin until she became pregnant with her second child. After her second daughter was born, she was unable to take off the 45 pounds she had gained during pregnancy. Craig, who at the time was Jenny Bour, joined a spa _ Silhouette/American Health. It was the push she needed to lose weight, and since then she has managed to maintain her ideal weight, which she said has not fluctuated more than 3 pounds in the past 30 years.

Craig said she observed how people reacted when they started dieting.

"At first they would be so introverted, heads down _ but as their weight came off, they'd come bouncing in. It was a metamorphosis. A person would change before my eyes."

The management liked the way she handled the public and hired her to manage their spa. In time she owned her own club, "Health-

letic," but soon sold it back to her former employers and started looking for a franchise.

Sid Craig of Los Angeles had run an ad in her hometown, New Orleans, for employees to staff his Body Contour Inc. figure salons, a company owned by Gloria Marshall Figure Control Salons. He hired her and "with her input, it became a new company," Sid Craig said.

At the time, each was married, to others. By 1976, both were divorced, and they started seeing each other outside work. They were married in Las Vegas in 1979. Of their combined family of five children, four are in business with them. The fifth, who is 20, will join the business when he graduates from college, Craig said.

In 1982, Body Contour Inc. as part of Gloria Marshall, was sold to Nutri/System. The Craigs were part of the transaction and then withdrew. As part of the deal they had to sign a two-year, non-compete clause with Nutri/System.

The Craigs headed "Down Under" to put their ideas to the test. They worked. Today there are 96 centers in Australia, 11 in New Zealand and 30 in England.

Jenny Craig's program, not unlike those of several competitors (including Nutri/System and Diet Center), offers weekly one-on-one counseling sessions; a diet of "Jenny's Cuisine" (prepackaged and frozen foods that are supplemented with fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products); and weekly lifestyle classes, behavior modification cassettes and suggestions for low-impact activity and exercise.

The program costs $185 (although it is offering a half-price special touting the opening of the new centers and to keep competitive with archrival Nutri/System, which has recently lowered its fee). Add to that amount the weekly food and diet supplies, and Craig estimates it costs about $3.50 a meal.