Behind his vivacious and bombastic public persona is a smart, soft-spoken, and thoughtful family guy with a fascinating past.
After listening to stories about each crisis situation he managed to pole vault over and wondering if I had enough fingers to count the number of brushes with death, I began to regret my decision to interview this dynamo in my pajamas while eating a bag of Rolos.
But if talking to someone who built his own pop culture status brick by painstakingly slow brick taught me anything, it was to pull myself up by the bootstraps and enjoy the ride.
He was nothing like I expected.
Hey Tony, thanks for talking to Culture Brats today.
I'm not a brat.
We're brats, we aren't calling you one. Let's talk a little about your motivational business book, There's Always a Way. You juggle quite a few balls in the air at all times. What inspired you to write this book now since you are already so busy?
The economy. That and Wiley & Sons, the big book company out of New York, inspired me. I was actually looking to write more of a fitness diet book and they are a large educational and business book company and they came to me and said, "We'd love for you to tell your story during the time when people need a little bit more motivation and hope. There's always a way like you always say."
So they inspired me to do it and to help people with it, so I sat down and started and it was a great experience because obviously I had quite a few adversities in my life and I've always been a positive thinker. Everybody always says that positive thinking doesn't do it all, but I can tell you one thing: your percentage is much higher if you think positive versus negative. I'm just a person who believes in himself.
Like you just mentioned , you've not always had a clear and easy path to success. As a matter of fact, each time you reach a new high some type of adversity seems to pop up and snatch it all away. How do you stay so resilient when most people, myself included, would throw in the towel?
Kids. I have a son and a daughter and now I have two premature twins and my responsibility is to always be a good role model. But it is also my responsibility to make sure that they have things that I might not have had when I was a kid. They are a great goal because obviously my kids make me happy and they are the ultimate production for me. So yeah, they are a big motivating factor. The idea of being real, thinking real, and realizing that life is short and the only way you are going to get to the next goal is to do it yourself. I understand that you need to change your mindset to change your life. I understand that sometimes you need to change your environment to change your life as well. I don't think it’s as complicated as some people make it, you've just got to do it. If you don't do it, then where are you at?
You are the father of young twins and two older children. How have things changed the second time around?
You know, I had such a great experience the first time around but then everyone was telling me the second time around. "Oh my gosh, Tony. You are 54 years old." and I try to remind them that I am 54 years young. But I had a great experience with Tara and Trent, my first two kids, so when I met my wife and she wanted to have children I was all for it because they always make me smile and that was a big deal. I was obviously hoping that as they became older they wouldn’t become the Menendez Brothers or anything like that.
Oh my God, the Menendez Brothers!
Yeah, you know I don't want them to play with my oxygen tanks when I get older.
You need to hide the valves and instruct them never to touch.
Turn it back on! (feigns fighting for breath) But you know, I'm young at heart and I'm not really an overly social person like people would think. I'm more private, so I like spending time with my family and my kids when I'm home.
That is shocking because from what I have seen of you on TV, you seem like an extrovert to the umpteenth degree.
Yeah, I'm an extrovert because the only thing in front of me is a camera and I'm presenting something that I think will help people and make their life better, so it's not a negative business for me. It's a positive business and I realize energy and enthusiasm sell and energy and enthusiasm also come from me loving a product that I'm selling.
I read at one time you owed over a million dollars to the IRS and at first I thought it was one of those urban legends you hear about people, but then I read up and found out it was true. Personally, I am more terrified of the IRS than I am of a Sicilian death squad. How did you get out of that mess?
I've got to tell you that I agree with you: it was extremely terrifying. It's kind of a weird thing how that happened. One day I get a letter from them saying you owe us one point one million dollars or maybe it was nine hundred thousand something like that but obviously with the compound interest thrown at you, it got over one million quickly. It was an accountant that I had that was doing the books wrong doing a lot of it to me personally versus my company. So the IRS weren’t going to take "No" for an answer. They wanted their money. That's also a very important lesson for people out there. When the economy got bad, I had a lot of friends who were really suffering and they wanted to keep their home or keep this or keep that and they waited until the point that they lost everything.
When the IRS thing happened to me, I said to myself, "Let me figure what assets I have. I'm going to sell my home and go to a smaller house. I'm going to sell my business. I'm going to downsize immediately" and I was very proactive. I remember my kids, Tara and Trent, when I was having an auction at my house, because I had this big house with a lot of antiques, and they said, "Dad, doesn't it bother you to see all your antiques go?" and I simply told them, "I'll get them again but the one thing I won’t be able to do is get out of jail if the IRS puts me there."
I worked really hard, but it was really stressful and you have to think quick on your feet and really work at it and [the IRS] had finally come and we negotiated a $12,000 a month for ten years type agreement. And I thought to myself, "Oh God, how can I do that?" And then I just went to work because my back was against the wall and I paid them off in I think under two years. I go out there when I'm in trouble or I think I have a crisis which, believe me, I'm not done having crises.
I think you might be the Crisis King.
Yeah, well you'll find out more in the future.
Yeah, well I go out and do shotgun marketing that I know I’m pretty good at, selling and presenting and things like that. So I’ll go out and start talking about every idea and every product I can and if I have twenty projects out there all I hope is that one works but a majority of times nowadays a lot work.
I'd say more success than failure on that front at this point in your career.
Again my percentages go up.
Well, the IRS is terrifying emotionally and mentally, but let's talk about physical adversity. You've had four nearly deadly car crashes and lots of injuries. I'll assume that your mental and physical stamina have a lot to do with coming back from each of these accidents, but you would think after the fourth one, you'd just throw up your hands and yell, "Uncle." I know I sound like a Negative Nancy but how do you not give up hope?
I don't have that kind of mentality. There are just so many times in your life where you want to give up but if you think simply about it, you say "Where am I going to get throwing up my arms?" and I want to be somewhere, so you've got to figure out how to handle it. It's a crisis management thing. Talk about a crisis management situation, but I saw one of the astronauts on that disastrous Apollo flight, you know the one where it wasn't going to make it back?
Oh yeah, Apollo 13, where they had to slingshot around the moon to make it home right?
I saw him speak and he was probably one of the best speakers I've ever seen. The interesting thing is his whole thing is crisis management because obviously he could still be rotating around up there.
He must specialize in crisis management.
He was funny, he said he was talking to Houston and they were telling him, "You really need to go right now to hit the gravitational pull or whatever to get back to Earth."
That's not too much pressure.
So he looks at his two buddies and tells them, "We need to get going right now." They are both looking out the window, using their cameras to take pictures of the moon and saying, "We'll never be here again to get these pictures." He told them that if they didn't leave that instant, they may never get them developed.
On the list of factoids about you, there was a blurb saying that you were recruited by an FBI-wanted hit man to be his partner. How did that happen?
There was this guy at the gym all the time and he kind of always wanted to talk to me. This was back when I was bodybuilding and I never really gave him much time. I talked to him a little bit to be nice but never really wanted to be friends with him. Then all of a sudden there was a New Year's Eve party that a good friend of mine had and he was there so we got to know each other a little bit more. Then that same friend brought him over to my house and the next thing I know the guy started stopping over at my house all the time. He was a nice enough guy and it had only been a couple of weeks since I'd gotten to know him and I got a phone call from the friend who had introduced us saying that the FBI and the sheriffs were over at his house looking for this guy and that they are saying he's an assassin and he kills people for money.
Then I hear the knock knock on the door and it's him. I think his name was Samson. I used a different name in the book, I think. But it was kind of weird because he looked like a Samson and I didn't know what to say to him. I simply said, "The police are looking for you and they say you kill people." I didn't want to look nervous, but I sort of confronted him and asked him what the deal was with that and he told me, "That's what I wanted to meet you for and talk to you about all this time! I think that we would be great partners in business." I said, "Dude, I don't want to kill anybody." He told me, "Yeah, but you make five or ten thousand dollars a hit. They are bad people. You are taking out somebody society doesn't want." So I told him, "I still don't think I want to do that."
Sort of like you are doing community service!
Yeah. So I told him that they were looking for him right now so he simply said, "OK. I gotta go and I appreciate you telling me that they are coming and I wish we could have made it work." And with that he was gone.
Your life, your career, and your products have made you something of a pop culture icon. Seemingly nearly everyone has a product of yours in their home or has seen you on TV. Did your childhood make you more determined to succeed on that type of level?
You know, I think I succeeded because of my mom.
I didn't succeed because of me. I succeeded because my mom was a very strong woman. My dad was a jerk, but my mom was a very strong woman. A single mom with four kids, [she] put herself through school to get her Master's degree. I thought we never got along because I was pretty headstrong and she was headstrong and she sent me away when I was hanging out with the wrong people. At 14, 15,16, I was hanging with the wrong crowd, drug addicts, and people who were all wrong for me. She saw it and became strong and sent me down to Florida to live with her brother and at the time, I thought it was the worst thing that anyone could do to me but then I realized that it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Hard decision to make.
Yeah, I'm sure it was traumatic for her but she did it and it did change my life. It made me more focused at school it made me more focused on myself. I really didn't want to make any friends and I didn't because I felt like I'd lose them, so I was kind of self-absorbed, trying to be a better person, so I think it all worked out. I remember when my mom was retiring I was able to go to her retirement dinner and speak. So I told the story about how a long time ago my mom sent me away and I thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life but it actually was the best thing that ever happened to me and so I'm going to send her away.
So everyone's kind of looking at me weird, and my mom's been an art teacher for thirty years and she's talked about Monet and Da Vinci and Van Gogh and others, but she's never been to Europe to visit their homes. And so I got her an 18-day artist-only tour of Europe.
Was she floored?
She was. It was my gift back to her for what she did for me.
I'm getting verklempt here. Perhaps someone will send me to Europe for all I've done someday. Let's get to The CB3. Thriller or Purple Rain?
Thriller. Can I tell you something interesting about that?
I own Michael Jackson's fang mold from the "Thriller" video.
Yeah, I was at the auction where they were auctioning off some of his stuff and when the molds for his fangs from "Thriller" came up, I bought them.
You own pop culture history there! Tiffany or Debbie Gibson?
Probably Debbie Gibson.
Pretty In Pink or 16 Candles?
Those are two kind of female movies. Sort of unfair!
OK, quick change. What about Lethal Weapon or Die Hard?
Lethal Weapon! Thank you for the male-oriented movie.
You are actually the only person who's ever pointed it out. I never realized that they were so gender-specific, but I guess you are right. Thanks for talking to us. You are a fascinating guy, not at all like I expected. Much continued success and stay out of crisis mode!
Thank you, take care.