Everybody’s seen Tony Little; he’s that guy with the signature long blonde ponytail screaming at you to buy his Gazelle or an array of other products on the Home Shopping Network. His profound success has led him to 45 million customers and over four billion dollars in sales. He’s done Geico commercials, an ABC Nightline special and just released his book, “There’s Always A Way.”
Recently, Tony’s been heavily involved in his company Cheeks International as well as releasing a product called the EasyShaper. He’s about to enter the watch world when he releases a new product in January. The new Gazelle Transformer is in development, which he says acts like “Robocop”, mimicking your every motion. Tony spoke with TheCelebrityCafe’s Matt Thompson about his new book and his life.
TheCelebrityCafe: I must say your story truly is incredible after reading your book. How long did it take you to write?
Tony Little: The book probably took about eight months.
TCC: Where did you come up with the idea to write a book such as this?
TL: I didn’t come up with the idea actually. I’ve written actually four fitness books in the past for everything from Royal Home Books to Penguin books, things like that, but it was Wiley and Sons whose basically more of an educational business type of publication, that came to me and said, ‘In the economy right now everybody is doing pretty rough and they’re depressed and they don’t think they can achieve anything. You’ve done really, really well and you continue to do well. Let’s write a book about your adversities and your victories and let’s motivate some people.’ It was their idea. Obviously, I was excited about it because it was something other than fitness, it was more about change your mindset, change your life.
TCC: What would you say to people that would call your book optimistic and idealistic instead of being realistic?
TL: I would say that they probably aren’t making much money and they probably aren’t succeeding. [Laughs] If people read the book and see what I’ve been through and then they’ll see how it parallels to the success. When one door closes and one opens. When there’s one trail up a mountain and there’s 99 trails and I have to go 97 before I hit the last one. I think that people have to go back to believing in themselves. It’s not the same as reading a success book and you’re writing down all these workbook solutions: ‘I’m going to do this for the next seven days, I’m going to do this for the next ten days.’ My book is about changing your mindset and going back to believing in yourself. Being positive. Being enthusiastic. That’s what gets you an audience with people.
My belief is right now there is a huge amount of opportunities in an economy like this, because the people who step out, they stand out. The people who are positive and believe in themselves are enthusiastic and really go for it, are the people who employers want to hire. I think we’re tired of people that are non-motivated and don’t know how to get the job done. So obviously it is real, it’s real if you want to make money, it’s real if you want to be a success. It’s real if you want to take the next step and go forward. You got to believe in yourself, you got to change your mindset.
TCC: After all you’ve been through, do you have less patience for people who feel sorry for themselves about their own situations?
TL: I don’t think I have less patience because obviously I feel like I’ve always got challenges. You know one of the things that’s not in my book was a new challenge that we had November 23rd and that was where we had premature twins. They were in the neonatal intensive care unit for three months. There were twelve weeks where they were on the borderline of a pound, 14 ounces. Probably ten years ago they would have died.
So, even past that book I still get my own challenges just like everybody else. I don’t have patience with people who can’t seem to get it together at a time, because sometimes you keep getting pounded, but it’s the attitude that you have that gets you through that. It’s the attitude that you have and the belief in yourself and the belief in above that gets you beyond all these adversaries and into the victory areas. It’s funny — I think probably three weeks ago — believe it or not, it was a double page spread in the National Enquirer about the babies and the adversaries. And it was a positive article, it was a motivating article, it was an inspiring article. Sometimes you just wouldn’t think that that would come out of that magazine, but it did. I thought that was pretty cool.
TCC: Do you think that you need to be in the right place and right time to grow success?
TL: No, I don’t think you have to be in the right place at the right time. I think you got to know when it’s the right place and the right time. I think that people have to see the opportunities when they’re there. Many of us actually have times of opportunity, but we don’t see them. I’ve always been a person that says yes first to almost any project and then I figure out how to do it, what the profitability is and if it doesn’t fit me, then I say no. But I never say no first.
TCC: You had a story about Bud Paxson and his son owning a gym, would you call that seizing an opportunity or the right place and the right time?
TL: I wouldn’t say it’s seizing an opportunity, I would say it’s making an opportunity. You know what I’m saying? Because I spent probably a year trying to convince Home Shopping Network to let me on the air and let me do my videos and everybody turned me down. So, I had to then think outside the box and say, ‘How do I do this?’ And then I found out that his son owned a gym. Well, then I see an opportunity. Opportunity to help him do his gym business and opportunity for him to give me an audience with his dad. I made my own opportunity there. I’ve also found that in my career nobody sells me as good as I sell myself, and that’s because I believe in myself. I’m just a big guy. People say, ‘Oh you’re positive all the time.’ I had a call-in when we were doing a new commercial on a Fox show and the person said, ‘It’s all good and you’re so positive and everything. My wife left and my son’s doing this and I don’t think I’ll ever get out of it.’ The first thing I can tell you is these are horrible things. The second thing I can tell you is with that attitude you won’t get out of it.
TCC: So you’re saying it’s all about the attitude?
TL: It really is about the attitude. It’s your attitude that paves your life and that allows you to go where you want to go. It’s not somebody else’s attitude. It’s the way you think,it’s the way you believe, it’s what you want, and it’s your goals. But you have to go back to the simple times of understanding once you change your mindset you can change your life. If you’re in a bad environment and you change your environment, you can change your life. There are just certain things you got to do first. I think that your mindset has to be changed first.
TCC: You were electrocuted twice, you almost died from drowning, you were in four accidents (which one was right before the Mr. America contest), your father committed suicide, all the surgeries and you were broke. What was the single hardest thing to triumph from?
TL: It’s funny, I would have thought the hardest thing to triumph from was when I had the two hundred stitches in my face and I was going to lose the Gazelle infomercial, which was something I believed in and wanted to do. But I made that. Again, I made that opportunity. I left Ohio, talked to the president and made a bet, which allowed me to, not only win a brand new Porsche, but to also continue in a billion and a half dollar business opportunity, because I didn’t let him say no. But that really wasn’t the hardest mentally to me. Even though it was physical and it looked like it was career threatening.
The hardest mentally to me was when the IRS sent me a letter [in 1997] and said, ‘You owe us 1.1 million dollars and we want it now.’ [Laughs] That was a little bit harder for me, because it was like, mess with them and you got to figure out a way to come up with that kind of money. That was a tough time. That was where again I took action, immediately. I sold my mansion.
I had two kids who were probably six years old. They were like, ‘Daddy why are you selling everything?’ I’m like, ‘Because we’ve got to move on.’ I made the decisions right away, that the only way I was going to be able handle $1.1 million and 10% interest every month or whatever it was, was to take drastic measures and handle the problem. Where as other people might sit back and wait, hoping that something comes in. You can’t wait, because then you’re going to be in worse trouble.
That was the most traumatic, because obviously I had a lifestyle and I had my kids and I had everything and now I had a huge financial problem that’s compounding every day. I didn’t want to be one of the people that went bankrupt and said, ‘Oh I went bankrupt.’ You know how they say it, millionaires go bankrupt all the time, just create another business. Well it wasn’t about going bankrupt with me, because my name was Tony Little. It was my name; it wasn’t a company. So, I wanted to take care of everybody. But, I settled out and paid the whole debt, which obviously went up past $1.2 million at that time. Within two years I was paid up.
TCC: It seemed like, at least early in the book that you were personally really devastated about where you were going to go in your life after the car accident before Mr. America. Could you talk about that a little bit?
TL: I was fortunate. I worked really hard and I won the Mr. Florida and the Mr. Junior America. I won them all fairly quickly because I’m a dedicated, regimented, disciplined type person. And I was the favorite for the Mr. America by the magazine polls at the time. I was going into it pretty solid until I got hit by a school bus driver. I don’t know what it was, three weeks to four weeks before, five weeks before the bodybuilding contest. Obviously, it was tough. I still had to enter to call it a show. I was against a lot of people and I lost a lot of muscle size. I didn’t think I’d win by any means, but it was nice to place in the top five, even after the car accident.
Then, it became very rough. Because obviously I spent a lot of time trying to get to that pinnacle of what I thought I could be and I lost it all. So, I stayed in a one-bedroom condo by myself for a couple years. I drank, I took painkillers and I gained over 60 pounds of weight. I was depressed. I did the same thing a lot of people did in the beginning, ‘Why me? Why me?’ I did everything, as much as I could right and why me? Well, finally I realized, I woke up. There’s only one person who’s going to change ‘Why Me?’ [Laughs] And that is me. Thank God I got that revelation.
TCC: Do you ever wish the car accident didn’t happen and you went on to a long and successful career in bodybuilding instead of becoming famous?
TL: No, no. I’m sure that my direction was a much better direction. I was a fan of bodybuilding as far as competitions and things like that as far as physical culture and trying to be healthy and all that other stuff. I was not a fan of the fact that you worked out twice a day, slept all the time and that’s all you did. All I wanted to do at the time was to achieve my Mr. America status and then I would have gone into marketing products just like I did anyway. I’d just maybe do it quicker. I think it gave me a better success story than being a particular athlete or bodybuilder or weight lifter type of thing. When one door closes, another opens. That door was a much better door for me.
TCC: So would you say that your eye was always on the prize of marketing and sales your entire life?
TL: Yeah I think that I’ve always been goal-oriented. My dad obviously was not a great guy, my dad was a very tough guy. He was a guy who was very physical and abusive, not a good person. I grew up with that. Why I became the opposite of him, where I became very goal-oriented, I don’t know, maybe it’s a pat-me-on-the-back syndrome. I need people to acknowledge that I’m working hard or I’m trying to be a good person, because my dad wasn’t. I don’t really know.
I just know that I believe life is very short. If you don’t set goals, if you don’t have directions, you’re like a boat without a rudder, there’s just no way you’re going to hit where you want to hit. I think that I was able to understand very simple concepts like that, where as sometimes it gets more complicated for other people.
TCC: I personally thought that might have been the most interesting chapter in the book, that and your failures, I was reading about all your interesting experiences, and one of the most interesting ones I read was the one about the person you labeled Hank.
TL: I got to tell you something. I used to go to a psychiatrist and talk about it, because it was like I attracted so many strange people in my life. I’m like asking, ‘Why do I attract them?’ Basically I think what it came down to, as far as what the psychiatrist [told me], ‘Tony, you’re a very personable person. You’re very approachable. People like your persona. So, they approach you. You’re nice. You’re not standoffish. And so obviously you get approached by a high percentage of strange people.’
Hank, the deal with that and the bodybuilding, now he’s dead, but he ended up being involved in three or four murders. It was a very strange thing. I’m sure I would have been one of those murders. Because obviously I was against the guy. The other guy that was the hitman was actually very nice. He was a very nice guy. He was a very cool guy. Obviously, I never would have ended up meeting [him] at the gym, but when I met him at the New Year’s party he was nice. He’d come over and talk. He was even nice when I told him that the FBI and sheriffs were looking for him [because] he kills people. He was like, ‘Yeah that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.’ It was a big matter of fact type of conversation. He was very respectful of me being honest. It almost goes back to the days where you sit there and go, ‘Even though that was a weird situation, everybody respects somebody who tells it like it is.’ It could have been the other way where I hide it and I get nervous. Who knows what would have happened to me. But, I liked the guy even though he shot people.
TCC: When you look at your life, do you look at your life as it was out of the norm or do you feel many people walk down some of the same difficult paths that you did?
TL: I think a lot of people walk down a lot of the difficult adversary paths that I’ve done. A lot of us have challenges. I’m not so sure that they’ve walked down some of the strange, weird things like getting a hypothermic needle in your buttocks and being carried out by a potential killer or pedophile or something like that. I mean I don’t think that’s the norm. But I accept it. When I get with a bunch of people and we start talking about stories and stuff like that and I start telling my stories, everyone is like amazed. At the end they always say the same thing. It’s kind of a stupid thing in some ways, but they say, “Wow, I haven’t even lived a life.” It’s not that I lived a life, it’s that I move fast, I travel international, I’ve been in a lot more friggin’ things that I put in this book. [Laughs]
I can get very weird on some of the stuff that has happened to me in public or other things. The other day I was doing a live show in Vegas for HSN for celebrity type stuff and when I came out on stage, I was asked twice, twice to take off my hat to see that I had all real hair. And I’m like, “How can that be such an important thing?” ABC Nightline did a special on me, it was a great special, again, another positive and cool thing. When they did the advertising for the Nightline special, they went on Twitter and they went on Facebook and they started going off about the truth on Tony Little’s hair. And I was like, “What is the deal with the hair?” Obviously, I use it as a channel stopper to get people’s attention and not look like a total physical jerk, a physical guy with short hair and really clean cut. Boy, it really intrigues people whether I have real hair or I don’t have real hair.
TCC: How long do you plan on keeping the signature long, blonde ponytail?
TL: You know, not that long. I obviously do not want to be [long] grey haired. I’d like to go to short hair someday, because obviously it also is better with what I could come up with like my pillow — which I sold four million of. I started sweating in the bed with a lot of hair, so there are positives in the hair, too.
TCC: In your book, you sort of alluded to religion with the story about the woman on top of the house and the three boats. Are you a man of faith or do you believe everything happens for a reason?
TL: Obviously, I’m a man of faith. I was a born again Christian many, many, many years ago. Obviously, when I went through all this adversary stuff. I would not say I’m a person who follows fellowship as much as I should. I’m definitely a person who believes in God and believes every night in God when say my prayers. Before I go on every show, I always do one thing. It was Vincent Creel or Zig Ziglar, but they said they always say this one thing before they go on-air. I started it many years ago and I always say, “I
accomplish all things through Jesus Christ, he’s my strength. I accomplish all things through Jesus Christ, he’s my strength.” [Laughs] I even say it on the plane before it goes up in the air.
A lot of reasons my twins wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for above. Being able to give doctors the ability to handle premature babies today. The medicines and the stuff like that. It’s all around us in some manner. You go back and look, how can somebody kill a child or hurt somebody? It’s such a weird world out there. It’s like we’ll never understand it, I’ll never understand it. At the same time, I do understand the miracles and the ability to look to a higher power for faith.
TCC: Despite your undeniable success, a key statement I took away from the book was that said in the beginning you were “one lonely man” for many years until you married your wife. Love is the most important thing in life, do you agree with that?
TL: Yeah, I absolutely do. To sit there and smile about a business success doesn’t even come close to being able to smile about kids and a family that love you. Or being able to have someone that’s there for you. In business, none of these people would be involved with you if you weren’t successful or if you weren’t making money, if you screwed up. In family, your screw-ups, your failures, your successes, they’re all accepted. Yeah, that’s a very, very important thing. It doesn’t mean I’m a perfect dad by any means. I still try to be as active I am and as creative as I am with family. But, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve got a son whose graduating four years in college, he’s going to med school. I’ve got a daughter whose graduating four years in college and going on to a master’s degree. I’ve got two nine month old boys named Cody and Chase that have surpassed being under two pounds and living as preemies, turning out perfect so far. I’m a very lucky guy. It doesn’t say that I won’t have pitfalls, it doesn’t say I won’t have problems, it doesn’t say someone won’t rip me off somewhere or something, it just says that I’m always going to be positive.
TCC: Did you sacrifice your personal life in your early career? I know in your book it said that you were putting business first, especially right in the beginning and that women and everything else would be second.
TL: Back when you were in an individual sport like bodybuilding, when I first started in that area — obviously it was a very narcissistic and a very you-only sport. Where did you have time for anyone else when all you were doing was working out all day long, watching what you eat all day long and sleeping all day long? Obviously, I understand the dedication it took to get to my next goal level — which would have been Mr. America. But after that, I never felt that way. After that, I was married and I had my two kids. Kids change your life. No matter what happens in your life, no matter what goes on, you get back and watch those children smile at you – they melt you. It’s funny because there was a magazine called Direct Response magazine, which is kind of my industry a lot of the times, the infomercial industry, the commercial industry, the shopping channel industry – they did an in-depth interview with me one time. They asked me a bunch of questions and the first thing I did talk about was my family versus business. The editor commented that out of the last 50 businessmen he’s interviewed, nobody talked about family first. I thought it was interesting and then later on, the magazine was nominated for an award for that article. Their first award. So, obviously someone else believes in family. When I had my kids when I was divorced, probably when they were about five or six, so I had the kids about three or four days a week as a single father – it was such a joy. But if I had a business meeting with somebody, no matter what the business meeting was, I brought the kids to the meeting or to the restaurant or to wherever it was that I had going on. If that businessmen or businesswomen did not want that to happen, I didn’t do business with them. Because obviously, they thought business was more important than family. That probably wouldn’t have been a good match for me anyway.
TCC: In a world where most people are skeptics, believing that products sold on television are never going to work, how are you able to sell so much through infomercials?
TL: Because I don’t sell anything that I don’t believe in. I don’t sell anything that I don’t think has value or really truly think that customer’s won’t like. If you look at the industry now and the fitness people that are out there. Richard Simmons is gone. Kathy Smith is gone. Don’t see Denise Austin anymore. Don’t see Susan Powter anymore. I mean there’s very few people left and I’m still building categories. I now exercise you, I now feed you and I now put you to sleep. I build a lifestyle business out of it and I build a customer base of over 45 million customers and over 3 billion dollars in sales. It doesn’t come from selling a product that people are unhappy with, it comes from selling a product that people love. You’re never going to please everyone, but your goal is to always do the best job you can at the right price range and try to help people change something. I’ve really been very strict about what I represent.
TCC: You’ve conquered bodybuilding and the business world as you’re talking about 45 million and selling over 4 billion. Have you ever considered going into Hollywood or acting?
TL: No, it’s funny the early days you talked about family. In the early days in the mid-90s, early-90s, I was offered to go into a comedy training program at Paramount Studios by the head of comedy at the time and that they would take care of it for me. As much as it would have been so much fun because I love humor and I love comedy and stuff like that, my kids lived in Florida and I wasn’t going to leave them. So I turned it down. I look back at parts and roles that I turned down at the time. I remember “Fresh Prince of
TCC: Will Smith?
TL: Yeah, they had called, they wanted me to play the part of the president of “Overspenders Anonymous” for the show and it would have been the greatest thing in the world to do. I would have loved to do it. You know, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. I couldn’t do it because I was on the air at a shopping channel. I couldn’t justify at the time going out and doing a killer show like that and giving up 50 to 100 thousand dollars to do it.
TCC: Do you think that would have led down other avenues if that got rave reviews, your part?
TL: Yeah, it would have led down there. I think I’m quite live and entertaining. I’ve done three Lenos. My infomercials are the most used infomercial footage in motion picture history. Obviously people love that high energy, the crazy type personality, the Mr. Hyperactive stuff. It’s been used in everything. It’s just amazing. Even to this day,it’s still used in stuff. It was in “Juno,” when “Juno” was an award winner, they talked about me. It was in “Jennifer’s Body” just recently. The thing with Kevin James which he’s doing called “The Zookeeper.” I did the Geico commercial. I was the first actual named celebrity that was one Geico. I was the first. I was doing “Yeah, baby. You Can Do It” with the Geico thing. “You Can Do It” is an actual trademark phrase that I own. I know that probably eight months ago I was in the New York Post and a bunch of different newspapers because I was opposed to a Dunkin Donuts, “You Can Do It” campaign.
TCC: Did you develop your catchphrases over time?
TL: Oh, yeah. “You Can Do It”, I own the trademark in five to six different categories.
TCC: Where do you get all your spunkiness and charisma from?
TL: I think I get it from learning when we do live television and we have to sell something. I used to tell people that my first four infomercials outgrossed – by a lot –George Clooney’s first four movies. The difference was people had to watch my shows, but they might have to open their wallet and spend three or four hundred dollars at that time. So it was a much bigger success. I mean, if we could spend 150 to 200 thousand dollars on an infomercial and it would make 200 or 300 million.
TCC: Did you have the same personality when you were younger or your saying it just developed?
TL: I think I became more fun and more realizing to just be myself as I got older. But in the beginning I was a pretty intense, hyper, crazy, intense person on-air. I mean it was like scary. I remember the first infomercial I did which was called Target Training, which was three videos, the investor out of Philadelphia, the owner called up another friend and said, “I just bought a quarter of a million dollars on a guy yelling and screaming.” I blew all the records. I had three videos that I sold. And all three were the top three selling videos on Billboard’s sales at the same time. I sold eight million copies.