No individual has revolutionized fitness like Billy Blanks, the creator of “Tae Bo®.” The total body fitness system promoting the mind and body working together, has sold over 500 million videos through infomercials and created a new breed of popular high intensity workouts we see today. But as he states, “Tae Bo didn’t come overnight it came through 20 years of me punching and kicking and doing my best to work with people and get something going.” This exclusive interview, is his story, in his words – “who would have ever thought that Tae Bo came out of the projects in the basement and now it’s in 103 countries in 30 different languages.” Read or listen to our interview with Billy Blanks as he takes us on his journey from childhood, to rising to global success, his current projects and his legacy.
BFT: We just want to start off by talking about your early journey – getting into your early life. One of the things that we discovered was that you have a unique story; being one of 15 children, dealing with dyslexia and having a hip impairment – did you ever imagine yourself becoming an influential figure in fitness and martial arts?
BB: No, I didn’t think that I would be where I am today I just know that I was blessed to have a mother that prayed all the time, and she believed and because of what she did it kind of led me into what I’m doing. Having the hip replacement and dealing with the learning disorder, it was pretty rough as a kid. Growing up in the neighborhood that I grew up in, that was pretty rough but what I did was got involved in a martial arts program. And because I got involved with the martial arts program at the youth center, it kind of gave me some incentive that even though I couldn’t read as well and do good in school, I could really do good with learning martial arts. That in turn helped me to read better and communicate with people so I’ll say karate was the first thing that really helped me out.
BFT: So what was it about martial arts that attracted you to it so much, and why did you decide this was something that you really wanted to pursue with your whole heart and how did it become a passion of yours?
BB: I first started off in boxing; because I grew up in the streets – you know…I grew up in a bad neighborhood and I seen people fight all the time and through that I didn’t really care too much about beating somebody up in the ring. One of the boxer trainers that I had he would say “it’s like when a shark sees blood you have to go for it;” and that was the way he was teaching. So at the time I said you know what, I don’t want to do that. And I saw Bruce Lee on TV in The Green Hornet and I saw him play Kato and I was just really mesmerized by his discipline that he had over his body.
So when they built this youth center in my neighborhood, I went down to the youth center and I saw this black gentleman who had just came back from the Vietnam War and he was there with his instructor, which was a Korean guy, and I walked in the room and he said “hey, what are you here for,” and I said “I’m here to sign up for the karate program.” Then when I signed up for the karate program he said “I bet you five dollars you don’t stick it out,” so that was really what caught me, you know, he wanted to see my discipline and focus so I got involved with the karate program and you know…because I had that learning disorder I needed for him to be able to stand there and actually do things with me and he told me that he didn’t have that time and he said “if you really want to learn, then you go in back of the classroom and kind of follow the class,” so that’s what I did – I got into the back of the classroom and for nine months I followed the class and I started to pick up things. From that point on, all of a sudden something clicked and the next thing you know my martial arts started to get to the point where I became good. Then I made the United States Karate Team and it started to open up doors for me and that success really helped me out.
When I saw movement it really helped me to educate myself as a person who is dyslexic. When I saw with my eyes that just body movement would really help me out mentally, it helped me be better in this world today. I mean who would ever think that I would create a word; I couldn’t even read a book! If you would’ve asked me to read 20 years ago I would’ve said “no!” But through learning martial arts and putting together Tae Bo it really taught me how to work with words and how to deal with people. So I just say learning body movement really taught me to become more disciplined and focused and showed that if I really worked on certain things – because you know… physical movement demonstrates peoples’ personalities; you can tell how a person feels by the way they move.
BFT: You talked about 20 years ago how if someone would have asked you to read – you would have said “no,” and you overcame those things, so where did you find that perseverance and dedication to overcome your obstacles early on in your life?
BB: My thing was, the first book I ever read was the Bible and I’m glad it was the Bible because I learned a lot and through that I overcome a lot of stuff because I stopped listening to what people would say…because 9 out of 10 times where I grew up you would hear people say “you’re going to be a bum, you’re not going to be any good, you’re going to be like your daddy.” You hear stuff like that…you know what I mean? So if you listen to what people say you don’t go as far. So then I start realizing who made man…God did! So I said you know what, let me see what God thinks of me. When I started looking at how God thought of me then that’s when my life changed.
I’ll tell you one story that you wouldn’t believe but it happened. One day I went to this church; and I always tell people…I always wanted to be a world champion because I wanted to be like Bruce Lee. And when I won the world championship I thought I was going to feel something, I thought something was going to change but nothing changed, so then I went back and did it again – I actually did it seven times trying to feel something, but I didn’t get what I thought I was going to get out of it.
I guess I was just looking to be happy with myself as a person and it didn’t happen, you know…then you say you want to get a car — I got that then two, three or four weeks later I got bored with it…everything. I thought that when you got the stuff, that it was going to make my life change. It was a blessing to be able to have it and going through whatever it was that you need to go through but still, I didn’t find what I needed to find. One day I walked into this church and I heard this guy (Frederick Casey Price) he said for 28 years God had been speaking to him and said that one day someone was going to walk in there and give him $1 million. I never seen $1 million in my life [laughs]. The biggest payday that ever made from a fight was $5000 and that I tithed to church but I said you know what, “I’m going to give that man $1 million dollars, you just watch,” I felt like God was talking to me – a year later I walked in the church and I said “pastor, remember when you said God had been speaking to you for 28 years and said somebody was going to come in here and give you $1 million? Well I liked to give you a check.” It came to pass but it was through hard work, having faith and believing and knowing that things were going to change.
I mean I would tell you some other stores you wouldn’t even believe; I know having faith is what did it especially when I came to California — 70% of people I would see were Jewish people coming in and I put this one saying on the wall it said “walk by faith and not by sight,” and they would say “you need to get rid of that faith stuff, that stuff don’t work.” That’s what people used to say to me every day and I would say “well you watch and see, I believe God has a place for me in life;” so people can say whatever they wanted to say but I kept putting things in action and next thing you know this big phenomenon came…and who would ever think Tae Bo would revolutionize the whole fitness world?!