Bodybuilding guru Joe Weider built up a fitness empire and transformed Arnold Schwarzenegger into a globally recognized celebrity.
Ben and Joe Weider turned bodybuilding into a worldwide phenomenon: part sport, part beauty pageant and part lifestyle. The younger brother, Ben, expanded their International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, in their home town of Montreal, into a hugely profitable outfit and also became a philanthropist and renowned Napoleonic scholar. Joe, more flamboyant and a relentless self-promoter sometimes accused by rivals of harbouring a Napoleon complex, moved to California, where he kept the various Weider enterprises in the public eye. Joe has died aged 93.
It was Joe who, in 1968, brought a relatively unknown Austrian bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Los Angeles. His repeated success in the Weiders’ Mr Olympia contest led Schwarzenegger into show business and by starring in the film Stay Hungry (1976) and the documentary Pumping Iron (1977), he put himself, and bodybuilding, on the map. Schwarzenegger called Joe a “titan in the fitness industry and one of the kindest men I have ever met”.
Josef Weider was born in the then rough Plateau district of Montreal’s east end. His parents were Polish Jews. Like Ben, Joe left school aged 12 to work delivering groceries. The prototypical seven-stone weakling, he grew tired of the bullying he received in his French-Canadian neighbourhood. He discovered weightlifting in the magazine Strength and Health, and built his own set of barbells from a junked car’s axle and wheels. While still a teenager he began publishing his own Mimeographed magazine and selling equipment and dietary supplements.
The business took off after Ben returned from serving with Canadian intelligence during the second world war. In 1946 the brothers staged the first Mr Canada competition and launched their federation. They built their empire through their publications, which were in effect illustrated catalogues for their products. Their titles, eventually numbering 16, included Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Flex, Shape and even Fit Pregnancy. Joe maintained his own body in the manner he preached and had a classic California “muscle beach” style, with his tan, swept-back hair and a moustache which grew silver-grey as he aged. After he and his first wife, Vicky, divorced, he married Betty Brosmer, one of America’s top pin-up models, in 1961.
In 1965, to compete with the Mr Universe competition run by the National Amateur Bodybuilders’ Association, the Weiders created Mr Olympia, which Schwarzenegger won seven times. The actor and former governor of California called Joe a mentor and father figure, saying “he didn’t just inspire my earliest dreams, he made them come true”. It was Joe who lied about Schwarzenegger’s acting experience, saying he had done Shakespeare in Germany, to get him his first film role, in Hercules in New York (1969).
The brothers added Ms Olympia and other major events to their bodybuilding calendar. At its peak, their company America’s Total Fitness had expanded beyond mail order with a presence in 18,000 retail outlets in the US, and in more than 60 other countries. There were challenges to the efficacy of their products, from the Federal Trade Commission and others, but the brothers still managed to register profits in the hundreds of millions.
The Weider System of Bodybuilding, promoted through the magazines, eventually became a 1981 book, co-written by the sportswriter Bill Reynolds, and prompted a 1989 sequel, Joe Weider’s Ultimate Bodybuilding. In 2003, when the brothers sold their magazine empire to American Media, the price was $357m.
Like his brother, Joe was drawn to great leaders; he collected original letters of statesmen and thinkers, from Abraham Lincoln to Sigmund Freud. With Mike Steere, the brothers wrote a joint autobiography, Brothers of Iron (2006). In 2011 the University of Texas opened the Joe and Betty Weider Museum of Physical Culture, which contains Joe’s collection of bodybuilding memorabilia.
Ben died in 2008. Joe is survived by Betty and a daughter, Lydia, from his first marriage.
• Josef Weider, businessman and publisher, born 29 November 1919; died 23 March 2013
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