CARMEN ELECTRA DELIVERS three quick jabs—left, left, right—then kicks out fiercely with her right leg, narrowly missing her sparring partner's jaw. The 25-year-old Baywatch actress and MTV Singled Out cohost braces herself for her foe's counterattack—only to find Billy Blanks bending down to tie her shoelace instead.

Not that the seven-time international karate champion and veteran B-movie actor isn't one tough guy. It's just that he wants to help Hollywood celebs work out—not work them over. As the creator of a new, trademarked form of aerobics called Tae-Bo, a hybrid of boxing, Tae Kwon Do and dance, Blanks, 42, gets physical with such stars as Paula Abdul, Brooke Shields, Shaquille O'Neal and Ashley Judd (he helped whip her into shape for Kiss the Girls, in which he had a cameo). "He's like a teacher that you hate—but you love when you get an 'A,' " says actress Lela Rochon, whom Blanks trained for her role in the upcoming Jean-Claude Van Damme film Knock Off.

Blanks is so in demand these days that celebs even deign to mix with the masses to punch-and-kick at the no-frills Billy Blanks World Training Center in Sherman Oaks, Calif., where the 6' teacher personally holds eight classes a week. (At $9 each, classes are so packed that a fire marshall had to limit the capacity crowd.) "I revolve my life around it," says Electra, a four-or five-time-a-week devotee. "The shape of my butt is changing. Everything seems to be lifting." Besides, she adds, "you never know who you're going to see. One day, LL Cool J was here, Queen Latifah was in a corner, and Alicia Silverstone was in class."

Rubbing shoulders with celebrities marks a radical change for Blanks, who was raised with 14 siblings in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Erie, Pa. "All we heard was sirens," he says. But strict parents—Isaac, a foundry worker, and Mabeline, a homemaker—kept the brood out of trouble. "My father," he says, "taught me that to get something out of life, you have to work for it." At age 12, captivated by Bruce Lee as Kato on TV's The Green Hornet, Blanks began taking karate lessons, paying for them by part-time work as a garbage man. Miserable at school (he was later diagnosed as dyslexic), he says, "I was supposed to be the black sheep. Karate gave me confidence."

By the time he was 20, he had married high school friend Gayle Godfrey, then 17, who had a 2-year-old daughter, Shellie, from a previous relationship. (Now 24, Shellie works as a trainer at Blanks's gym.) "It's an astonishing thing," says Gayle of Blanks's commitment. "A lot of men don't take care of their own children, let alone someone else's."

Supporting the family by taking odd jobs as a janitor and chemical-plant worker, Blanks was also a rising star in the martial-arts community, winning several state, national and international championships. Determined to follow the same martial-arts-and-movies path as Bruce Lee, Blanks moved his family to Los Angeles in 1988. While working as actress Catherine Bach's bodyguard, he landed a part in a 1989 film called Bloodfist—and has since appeared in more than 20 other movies.

As his competitive career wound down—he retired in 1991—Blanks developed Tae-Bo as a way to interest women intimidated by traditional martial-arts programs. Setting up a studio in his garage, he replaced bowing and uniforms with music and dance, and developed a unique routine of stretching, boxing, weights and karate. One of Jane Fonda's instructors was so wowed that she started bringing friends in to see Blanks. In 1989 he opened a small gym in Sherman Oaks, and he moved to his current location two years ago.

Now living in a Mediterranean-style five-bedroom house in West Hills with Gayle, who doubles as business manager, and their son Billy Jr., 21, a dancer and trainer, Blanks says he's "not just a guy who wants to get money." Rather, he insists, his work is a crusade: "I tell [clients], 'If you want to sweat, go sit in a whirlpool. I want you to get some power, I want you to feel like you can overcome everything.' I tell them, 'Be a conqueror!' "

DAN JEWEL
KAREN RRAILSFORD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Karen Brailsford.