BACK IN THE '80S, WHEN DENISE AUSTIN CONTRIBUTED a monthly fitness segment to the Today show, she would teach viewers how to have tummies as tight as hers. Off-camera, she invited everyone—even, at a White House barbecue, George Bush—to feel her washboard abs. The President seemed impressed. Yet NBC's resident curmudgeon, Bryant Gumbel, never was.
"He used to feel my tummy and say, 'After you have a baby, come back and we'll see,' " Austin recalls, sipping iced tea in the kitchen of her Northern Virginia town house. Motioning to daughters Kelly, 3, and Katie, 7 months, Austin, 37, pats her midriff and smiles. "Still rock hard," she says. "So there."
The only thing fat about Austin these days is her bank account. Getting Fit with Denise Austin, her 30-minute aerobics workout on ESPN, draws 1 million viewers in the U.S. each weekday morning and airs in eight other countries as well. Her 16th fitness video, Denise Austin: Trim-Walk, reaches stores this week; her first 15 have sold more than 4 million copies.
If Austin lacks the star power of a Jane Fonda or the cult following of a Susan Powter, she more than compensates on the bottom line. Last January, in one day, she moved more than $2.4 million of Denise Austin BunFirmers and Super Tummy Trimmers on the QVC network. She now appears on QVC monthly, has a syndicated 30-minute infomercial and is mulling bids for book deals.
Out of breath yet? From her breathless phone message ("Hi! This is Denise!") to her chirpy exercise patter ("That's it! You can do it! Think positive!"), Austin makes the Energizer bunny look lethargic. Three mornings a week she takes 30-minute "trim walks" with neighborhood friends. "I make them pump their arms," she says, laughing.
Yet most of the walk is spent talking about babies and menus. "I'm not a fitness nut," Austin insists. Husband Jeff, 42, adds, "When we go out to dinner with friends, they let Denise order first—they think she's going to get tofu and vegetables. When she weighs in with a hamburger and French fries, there's this collective sigh of relief." Explains Austin: "If you're denying yourself, you're going to drive yourself crazy, and you'll think of food every second. I try to eat a variety of foods."
Still, fitness runs in the family. Jeff is a sports attorney, representing San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson and tennis pro Michael Chang, among others. Jeff himself was ranked in the Top 50 in the world in men's tennis from 1973 to 1977 and is also an older brother of former U.S. Open champ Tracy Austin. "I'm well-prepared to be introduced as Denise's husband after many years of being introduced as Tracy's brother," he says. "I don't mind—I'm happy to bask in their glory."
Denise grew up with sports. Her father, Joe Katnich, pitched for the St. Louis Browns (forerunners of the Baltimore Orioles) from 1946 to 1948, and her mother, Rita, was a New York State champion jump roper in junior high school. Growing up in San Pedro, Calif., the third of five children, Denise practiced arabesques in the kitchen and handstands on the living-room couch. "I was always dodging coffee tables," she says. "I'd spread out the furniture so I could show off for my parents' friends."
After attending the University of Arizona on a gymnastic scholarship and graduating from the California State University at Long Beach with a degree in exercise physiology in 1979, Austin began teaching aerobics classes, eventually building a client base comprising dozens of L.A. companies and health clubs. In 1982 she met Jeff at one of the clubs. During their yearlong courtship, he taught her how to play tennis ("She could barely hit the ball," he says) and she criticized his sit-ups. ("He did them fast and jerky. It just wasn't efficient.") In 1984, Austin landed her Today spot. Three years later she created Getting Fit with Denise Austin.
From September to February, Austin tapes the show every other week in spiffy resorts worldwide, always with Kelly and Katie in tow and Denise's mom along to help with the kids. Fans mob her, and she wades through more than 700 letters a week, many of them heartfelt testimonials. "People tell me their 'fat' stories and send me before and after pictures," she says. "I think fitness is the answer to many people's problems—it certainly is for me. I feel like I'm making a difference out there."
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