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Joe Weider's Story: Bodybuilding, Magazines, and Arnold Schwarzenegger

The man who transformed bodybuilding and fitness.

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Joe Weider's Story: Bodybuilding, Magazines, and Arnold Schwarzenegger

FEDERATION

Bodybuilding contests in the ‘40s and before were mere adjuncts to weightlifting meets, and, in North America, were under the control of Bob Hoffman and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). In 1946, Joe and Ben Weider promoted the AAU Mr. Montreal. Unlike other AAU events, which were typically held in high school auditoriums, the Weiders’ contest was staged in Quebec’s best theater. The brothers hired musicians and a popular guest poser, and they printed programs. The 1500 tickets sold out, and over 80 bodybuilders entered. But minutes before the first pose was to be struck, word came from the AAU that the show’s sanction had been revoked.

Joe was livid, but as the audience clamored for a contest, he and his brother made a monumental decision. Forget the AAU. “As of this moment, we have our own governing body,” Joe told the assembled bodybuilders. “We’re calling it the International Federation of Bodybuilders, and it’s going to make bodybuilding bigger and better than ever.” Not one competitor withdrew. The show went on without a hitch. The IFBB was born, and bodybuilding took a giant leap forward, freeing itself from weightlifting’s shadow.

EXPANSION

Joe’s business outgrew not just his parents’ house but his native country. The circulations of Your Physique and Muscle Power outpaced the capacities of Quebec printers, so, for more than a year, Joe regularly journeyed across the border to have his magazines printed in America. In 1947, he moved near the worldwide capital of publishing, New York City. (Ben stayed in Montreal and focused on expanding the IFBB.) While Joe lived in Manhattan, Weider Publishing was nearby in New Jersey. “An office is beautiful because you do beautiful work in it,” he explained. “In that sense, the dump in Jersey was a palace. The magazines got better and better.”

He worked for 10 hours or more daily, so it’s little wonder his first marriage was strained. But that wasn’t its only problem. Joe remembered, “Just a few weeks after the [1947] wedding, I knew the marriage was a mistake. I think my wife [Diana] knew it, too. But our misery went on for years and years.”

Your Physique stopped in 1952 to make way for Muscle Builder the following year. Fighting for attention on crowded newsstands, Muscle Power and Muscle Builder screamed out with such jarring headlines as “STOP BEING A PHYSICAL DWARF” and “HEY SKINNY! Are They Laughing at You?” Covers dared you to not turn the page. The formula worked so well that Joe branched out into other areas, launching Boxing and Wresting, Inside Baseball, and Inside Sports. Then came men’s adventure magazines, including Fury, Safari, and Outdoor Adventures, which sported attention-snatching cover lines like “I WATCHED MYSELF BEING EATEN ALIVE!” There were groundbreaking women’s exercise magazines, and there were cheesecake and beefcake pulps. By the late ‘50s, Weider Publications was producing more than a dozen titles monthly. “In some respects, a magazine is a magazine is a magazine, whatever the subject matter,” Joe stated. “And my hands-on touch, which pulled in readers for my muscle magazines, worked in every genre I got into.”

DEVASTATION

The war between AAU head honcho Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider raged—sometimes via lawsuits, but mostly in the pages of their respective magazines. Hoffman’s relentless rants against Joe were often personal and anti-Semitic, and his Strength and Health ridiculed the same small-waist, broad-shoulder archetype that Muscle Power and Muscle Builder championed. This was to the muscle magazines’ benefit because more people wanted to look like sculptured bodybuilder Steve Reeves than rotund weightlifter Paul Anderson. Meanwhile, the Weider brothers continued to grow the IFBB—which focused only on physiques, unlike Hoffman’s AAU—and that in turn inspired top bodybuilders to appear only in Weider magazines.

Joe eventually won the war with Hoffman, but another industry force devastated his business. In 1958, American News was taken over by financiers who promptly sold the company’s warehouses located in prime urban locations. Overnight, the country’s largest magazine distributor was liquidated. Weider Publications was printing over two million issues per month when those numbers plummeted to zero. The sudden inability to publish while debts mounted nearly forced the company into bankruptcy. Instead, Joe folded every publication except Muscle Builder and Mr. America. (The latter had just replaced Muscle Power and covered bodybuilding as well as men’s lifestyle issues.)

“I’ll never know the exact total of my losses, which went into the millions,” Joe stated. “I had to quit publishing all the magazines I had added with encouragement from American News. But I would not give up my muscle magazines, not as long as I lived and breathed. Somehow I managed to keep those magazines alive.” Rather than declare bankdruptcy, he made settlements with entities he owed.

One great thing did happen for him in 1958—his daughter Lynda was born. The following year, he separated from his wife of 12 years. At the dawn of the ‘60s, Joe had rescued his business and refocused it on his first love—bodybuilding. Another enduring love story had just begun.

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