MORE FRENCH TOAST?" ASKS MOM OF HER TWO PRETEEN sons as she bustles about her kitchen, apron around her waist. The scene could be straight out of an old Donna Reed Slum except for two things: the French toast has been made without yolks (high-cholesterol '90s no-no's) and the chef is wearing a bleached blonde buzzcut.

Yes, this is diet guru Susan Powter, the same force of nature who has built a multimillion-dollar empire from her in-your-face "Stop the Insanity!" infomercials. Yet Powter sees nothing odd about being both a fierce weight warrior and a domestic goddess. "I live in this world," she says, surveying the kitchen table where Damien, 11, and Kiel, 10, are sitting. "I have my children, we cook and we go to PTA." Her secret, in short, is that she has walked in the same scuffed house shoes as her overweight followers. "I'm just a housewife," she says, "who has figured it out."

There has been plenty to figure out. Over the years, Powter, now 36, has experienced—or inflicted upon herself—most of the indignities of postmodern womanhood: a cheating husband, a divorce, a huge weight gain, even stints as a topless dancer and a kept woman, she says, to support herself as a single mother.

Although elements of her life story have been disputed—by her younger brother, among others—its apparently brutal candor has attracted legions of believers. In an industry humming with highly buffed sales pitches, Powter gets her diet message through with laser-like clarity. When she thunders, "Stop the insanity!" on her No. 1 rated infomercial, women who are fat and fed up listen.

And, ironies be damned, they are buying into Powter's solution—a $79.80 package of video and audio tapes, recipe booklet and body-fat caliper—at the rate of more than $1 million a week. That figure does not include sales of Stop the Insanity!, a guide to permanent "wellness" that was on The New York Times's self-help best-seller list for 26 weeks last year, or Pocket Powter, her diet paperback. All in all, Powter has amassed more than $100 million by selling hope and determination to the obese.

Powter lays no claim to originality. Her regimen-low on fats (30 percent or less), high on fruits and vegetables and heavy on exercise—is a familiar one. "There isn't an expert in this country who isn't saying this," she admits. What sets her apart is the outrage she shares with overweight women. Of most diet products, especially diet shakes, she insists, "First, it's not food. Second, it's high in fat. And third, it's not enough calories even to make a gerbil run on a wheel."

Are the buzz-cut and the buzz-saw delivery getting overexposed? Apparently not. Between trips to the bank, Powter has written another hardcover book, Food (Simon & Schuster), which will be in bookstores by Jan 5, and which already has a print run of 625,000 copies. "It's as practical as Stop the Insanity!" says Powter. "It's how to feed the kids, what do you do when you go out to a restaurant. Boy, am I proud of this book."

She is also pleased with her new career as a talk show hostess. The Susan Powter Show, a syndicated daily women's issues talkfest, has been on the air since September. It is, says Powter, a show with a difference: "There is no whining, moaning, bitching. This is about stating the problem, talking and trying to solve it." Although the show has gotten off to a slow start—Powter says that the threat of an O.J. Simpson trial preemption kept syndicators from advertising it—it is, with the exception of the Gordon Elliott show, the highest rated of the new daytime chat parties. This week nighttime viewers will get a look at Powter: She plays herself on the Nov. 28 episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

From the beginning, Powter always made sure she was heard. "I was the funny fat girl," she has said of her wiseacre approach. The second of four children born in Sydney, she moved to New York City in 1968 when her father, Colin Powter, a civil engineer, and his wife, Jan, relocated for business reasons. "I was unhappy at home," Powter says now, somewhat vaguely. "I've never spoken about my parents in the press, but there was a lot of confusion, a lot of issues that were difficult to be raised in." Among them were her mother's problems with antidepressants and alcohol. There were also difficulties at school. "I was bored stiff," Powter says. By high school, she had stopped attending classes altogether, although a few years later, she returned to earn both a high school equivalency diploma and an associate's degree in secretarial science.

In 1980 the family picked up again and moved to Dallas. The following year, Susan met Nic Villareal, a restaurant manager four years her junior. They fell "madly in love," she says, and in 1982 married and settled in the Dallas suburb of Garland. Damien arrived in 1983, Kiel a year later. But, says Powter, "the marriage was wrong from the start. He was young, and we were too different from each other."

The stress of family life drove Powter to her fridge for consolation. By then she had gained a whole person—going, she claims, from a pre-pregnancy weight of 130 to 260 pounds—and 43 percent body fat. But if her poundage failed to signal a relationship gone wrong, the slim redhead that Powter found painting the living room with Nic sounded the alarm.

The couple separated in 1986. Fed up with Villareal's dalliances and her own food obsessions, Powter became angry and desperate. "I hated—hated—the way I looked and felt," she says. Then she took a first step. "I cut back on the obvious fats. Anything white and creamy—out!" A few months later, she noticed that her thighs were no longer rubbing together. "I was shrinking," she remembers thinking.

At the same time, Powter began to pore over diet and fitness books. In the end she decided to adhere to the program she has since packaged: lots of low-fat, low-sugar, high-carbohydrate foods, plus a 30-minute program of moderate exercise daily. After dieting down to 200 pounds, she showed up at an aerobics studio for the first time. Between 1986 and 1988, when her divorce became final, Powter worked her way down to a 114-pound, hard body, with 14 percent body fat, and became an aerobics instructor herself. By night, she says, she supported her boys by dancing topless at a Dallas-area bar—a gig that ended one evening when she slipped and broke bones in both her feet. In 1989, with $250,000 inherited from her mother, who died of cancer in 1988, Powter opened her own studio.

It was during this period, Powter writes in Stop the Insanity!, that she accepted money for sex from a married man she was dating. "If he wanted to give me cash instead of buying more rings, what's wrong with that?" writes Powter. "But prostitution it is, if that's what you want to call it."

As startling as her story appears, it does not square with some accounts. Rebecca Sherman of the Dallas Observer claims that Powter danced topless before, not after, her marriage. Antessa Walters, Powter's neighbor for three years, says, "I would never put her at more than 200 at her biggest." Powter's brother Mark, 34, is also a naysayer. Last year, on Inside Edition, he claimed that she never weighed 260 and that the "fat photo" in her infomercials was taken during her second pregnancy. Says Powter: "It's interesting that when a woman is successful, her credibility is attacked: 'She was never 260.' What was I? 240? Look at that picture."

Wherever the truth lies, Powter might still be just another former fatty had she not admired a buzz-cut on hair stylist Joseph Matheny and asked for one. "Now," she says, "I bleach it, and Lincoln cuts it every three days."

Lincoln is Lincoln Apeland, 31, Powter's second husband, whom she met in 1989 while browsing in a Dallas guitar shop. It was fascination at first sight. She thought the guy strumming in the corner looked great. He was mesmerized by the woman with the white buzz-cut. They chatted, and a few weeks later, Powter called Apeland for a guitar lesson. Six weeks later they wed.

Not long afterward, Powter's high-energy style also piqued the curiosity of Dallas publicist Rusty Robertson, whom Powter approached in 1990 to boost her Dallas aerobics business. "I realized she had it," says Robertson. "I made a video of her, and she jumped off that screen. It felt like she was talking to the women directly." In 1991, Rusty decided her client needed to write a fitness book. Powter went to New York City, charged into Simon & Schuster's offices, delivered her spiel and won a $500,000 book contract with a $125,000 bonus.

These days Powter's time is not always her own. On her rare days off she likes to stay home and cocoon under the green-and-pink quilt on her four-poster bed. "I do that with Lincoln," she admits. "I love to have eight old movies that make you cry, and I love when by evening the bed has that sleep-all-day smell. And maybe, God forbid, you get to make love in the middle of the day. Now that would be fun."

Ex-husband Nic Villareal is also, oddly enough, a part of the Powter household. For three years he and his second wife lived one floor below Powter in the two-story Dallas apartment she rented for them all. While Powter paid his rent and tuition at Southern Methodist University, where he took a premed course, the boys got both parents a stairway apart; Powter got live-in child care. Moving to Tucson last June, and now to the Pacific Palisades in L.A. because of the demands of her TV show, Powter has provided Villareal with a house nearby.

Powter makes sure her kids are always at the epicenter of her hectic life. "I find my relationship with them very easy," she says. "It's intuitive and innate. But the rest is tough. Still, I'm learning how-to grow up. I haven't ridden on anybody's coattails. I've stood up on my own and said what I had to say."

MARJORIE ROSEN
ANNE MAIER and JOHN HANNAH in Dallas and Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Maier,
  • John Hannah.