IT IS A SUNNY MORNING IN THE SPRING of 1995, and Eric Nies is fiddling with the sunroof of the stretch limo heading to his hometown of Ocean Township, N.J. Then, the former host of MTV's popular dance show The Grind cracks open the window and breathes in the fresh air. "I just love going home," says Nies. "I can see my mom, see that she's happy." For now, however, he and his buddies—Joey Vecchione and Anthony Wiggins—are most interested in seeing the workout video they just popped into the limo's VCR.

"Nice," says Wiggins.

"Tight," observes Nies.

"Fabs," Wiggins concludes.

Time has vindicated their take. A year after that limo spin, Nies's The Grind Walkout: Fitness with Flava has gone platinum. True, the 100,000 copies sold in the past nine months are only half the number his first video, The Grind Workout: Hip Hop Aerobics, has sold since May of 1995. Still, Nies, 25, is sure his latest opus—The Grind Workout: Strength and Fitness—will do fine when it hits stores in October. "The third one should s—t platinum," he says. "Hopefully."

Okay, so humility isn't his vice. In the six years since he was spotted by photographer Bruce Weber and included in his 1990 book Bear Pond (featuring near-naked men frolicking in the Adirondacks), Nies has parlayed his in-your-face combination of abs and attitude into a million-dollar fortune. In 1991 he landed a spot on MTV's The Real World, where, executive producer Mary Ellis Bunim says, "he was atypical, not afraid to express anything." Hired in 1992 to host The Grind, he took off his shirt on the air one day, and a star was born—or, rather, bared.

"People were freaking out," says Nies of the audience approval. "I was like, this is a business, so of course I'll take it off as often as I can. I'm proud of what I have. You're damn sure I'm going to show it off."

Fans may not notice a change in the ripples largely responsible for his fame, fortune and, cynics might say, his brief 1993 romance with Baywatch's Pamela Lee ("It was like, 'Wow,' " says Nies. "She blew me away"). But a change there is: smaller muscles. In March 1995, while in the middle of a workout, Nies's right arm began to swell. The next thing he knew, he was in a hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with thoracic outlet syndrome. In short, his pectoral muscle had become so big it was pressing against a vein and restricting circulation to his arm. After two operations to reopen the vein failed, Nies was faced with an ugly prospect: no more pumping iron, period.

"He was devastated," says his brother John, 29, an aspiring actor. "Our entire lives have been based on athletics. It was a shock." And then some. "I was in a deep, deep depression," says Nies. "I don't want to scare my mom, but I didn't want to go on."

It would not have been the first time he scared his mom. The youngest of four children, Nies was hit hard by the separation of his mother, Anna May, now 57, a nursery school manager, from his father, Jack, 59, a National Basketball Association referee, when he was 13. School held little interest for him. And no matter how hard he tried in sports, he felt he didn't measure up. "Eric always emulated me," says John, a high school football star who played for the University of Arizona. "When he realized it wasn't going his way, he tried to take it in a whole other direction."

Nies makes no effort to disguise that direction: He spent free time bumming around with pals, betting on sporting events, and now and then throwing bottles on train tracks. He moved to Arizona, where his father had relocated, during his senior year, but dropped out before graduating. He returned to Ocean Township, where he partied and did drugs. "I pretty much tried everything except the real hard-core drugs," Nies says.

His partying tapered off in 1989, when he earned his GED and started modeling. He moved quickly from Coca-Cola ads to fame's spotlight. But it was his injury last year that truly changed his life, says Nies. "It was like God was talking to me, saying, 'You're supposed to use your brain. Kids look up to you.' " With the help of natural remedies, he says, and a gradual approach to exercise, he is back doing aerobics and weight training and is "at about 75 percent" of his former bulk.

But today, he adds, he is offering fans more than perfect pecs. Last year he created the Nice Organization to "help stop inner-city violence and support kids' charities," he says. His efforts—including speaking at events with such heavy hitters as New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman—have made his mother proud. "Eric has a great big giant heart," she says. One, by the way, he is looking to share. Between business deals—next month he releases his first record, Work It Out, on his own label—Nies is looking for a mate. "I'm fishing," he says. "Hopefully I'll hook one soon."

ALLISON LYNN
NANCY MATSUMOTO and LIZ McNEIL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Matsumoto,
  • Liz McNeil.