Callan Pinckney Pushed Her Fitness Book Up the Best-Seller List All by Herself

updated 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Geeee, I look good," marvels Callan Pinckney, reflecting on her image bouncing off a mirrored panel in her Manhattan living room. "I'm not tight, I'm lethal." What Pinckney sees is a woman of 46 with a stomach as flat as Melba toast, a bottom as shapely as an apple and taut thighs that are mercifully free of cottage-cheese lumps.

These days Pinckney has every right to preen. Not only did she invent the exercises that molded her remarkably pert figure, she also published Callanetics: 10 Years Younger in 10 Hours and then single-handedly pushed it up to No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list—a Herculean feat that makes her purely physical accomplishments look almost frail by comparison.

"I knew nothing about agents or publishing," says Pinckney, explaining how she launched her crusade in 1982. "But when I saw these ridiculous, pathetic books by celebrities who had less experience than I, I got angry. I was a maniac. I said, 'That does it. How do you write a book?' "

Having figured out that part, with some students' help, she quickly got Callanetics published by William Morrow ($17.95) in September 1984 and waited for recognition. And waited. The fitness secrets of Jane Fonda, Raquel Welch and Victoria Principal were selling almost feverishly, but the world seemed largely uninterested in the secrets of Callan Pinckney. "We had resistance from booksellers and we could not get her on the morning shows because Callan was not a star," says her Morrow editor, Pat Golbitz. Morrow's faith in Callanetics waned.

But Callan's did not. "When they told me the book was dead, forget it, I said, 'I can't, I'd die first.' " So Pinckney, who was raised as a ninth-generation Southern debutante, departed radically from her ladylike background: She hustled like crazy.

Borrowing money from friends to pay for press-kit mailings and cross country phone calls, Pinckney launched a solo sales campaign that seemed nothing more than an exercise in egotistic futility. "I called every show I could think of, and producers would say, 'Well, who are you?' I had so many doors slammed in my face, but I knew I had something, though no one else did." After five months of rejection, she had developed a facial twitch, tripped and broken her nose and lost her boyfriend, 20 years her junior, who, like other people, found her single-mindedness off-putting. Her first break came on a local television show in the South. Then, last July, she coaxed a Callaneticsian to get her onto a Chicago morning TV show on which Pinckney flashed photographs of a student's thighs before (bulging) and after (beguiling) several hours of Callanetics. Afterward, one bookstore received 400 orders. Callan's crusade suddenly looked less quixotic. The TV appearances increased; she went on the Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jessy Raphael shows and was invited back by both; in November, 14 months after it was published, Callanetics became a bestseller.

The exercises might have been called Barbara-netics if Callan had not changed her name on the advice of a numerologist in 1972. "He said, 'Lay low, nothing is going to happen in your life,' " she recalls, "and I said, 'Can we cheat?' I was desperate then. I wasn't accomplishing anything and I wasn't happy with myself."

Barbara Biffinger Pfeiffer Pinckney grew up bored in Savannah, Ga. She was born with curvature of the spine and wore leg braces for seven years, then spent a decade studying ballet to correct clubfeet and crooked legs. Finding herself out of step with the local social set, inclined at 21 toward neither college nor marriage, she boarded a freighter bound for West Germany and spent the next 11 years as an impoverished nomad. She shoveled coal in London, waited on tables in South Africa, was nearly raped in Jordan, came down with amoebic dysentery in Tunisia and in 1972 settled in New York. She was still broke and now also bent from years of carrying her possessions in a backpack. So severe had her curvature of the spine become that doctors felt only surgery would keep her out of a wheelchair.

Instead, Pinckney went back to her ballet barre and there developed a series of deep muscle contractions and spine stretches, inspired by ballet movements, that not only relieved her pain but reshaped her figure. She claims that one hour of Callanetics equals 20 hours of aerobics because the delicate, precise, tiny movements of her exercises work deeply to tighten and lift droopy bodies. She also discovered that she could make a living by teaching her therapeutic methods to others who wanted only to keep their bottoms up.

Today some students fly from as far as Europe to attend six-person classes (at $25 an hour) in Pinckney's apartment studio, which has so many windows it seems suspended over the Manhattan skyline. The phone rings continually. Fan mail is stacked in tall columns and two fluffy cats stretch out beside her disciples as Pinckney, often dressed in her nightgown, flutters among them. "If you're a klutz and a blob, she doesn't make you fee/that way," raves one. "She inspires." With 500,000 copies in print, a six-figure paperback deal and a video being negotiated, she has not stopped selling—Callan-style. During a preliminary interview with David Letterman recently, she gushed, "Oooo, you have the cutest little behind. I want to help everyone in America have a gorgeous little tight behind!" The rather shy Letterman replied, "Yes, but what do you do?" Pinckney announced, " That's what I do." She has not yet heard from the show's producer, so Callan will probably call again.

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