Billy Blanks built his martial arts dynasty on a love of fitness and a devotion to a higher power.

 “Getting to know Billy better has been the biggest challenge for me.”
“Tae Bo was createdto ‘introduce’ people to martial arts in the form of cardiovascular exercise.”

ImageInterview by Michael Lizarraga
Ask how he maintains his million-dollar enterprise, his enormous charitable contributions, his phenomenal family life and his amazing physique at age 54, and Tae Bo creator Billy Blanks will say only one word: God.     

Through infomercials, videos, DVD’s, motivational CD’s and accessory kits, Blanks’ fitness program—Tae Bo—has sold over 75 million units in the last decade. Combining tae kwon do, karate, ballet, hip-hop and boxing, Tae Bo has become a household name, its demographics reaching men, women, children, seniors and physically and mentally challenged practitioners. Blanks’ client roster has also carried an array of popular artists and athletes such as Paula Abdul, Lou Diamond Phillips, Pamela Anderson, Neve Campbell, Viveca Fox, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal, to name a few.

And long before his fitness fame, Blanks was a world-renown martial artist and open circuit fighter. Blanks was recently promoted to 8th dan from his teacher, grandmaster Jong Soo Park, who is among a handful of people ever to learn tae kwon do directly from General Choi Hong Hi, the father of tae kwon do.

Aside from being an acclaimed trainer, a seven-time world karate champion, action film star, accomplished author, motivational speaker and founding The Billy Blanks World Training Center, he also started The Billy Blanks Foundation, providing high-risk individuals with life skills to help them reach their goals. The program’s other projects include helping troops overseas stay physically fit and supplying them with care packages.   

Blanks has also been given the opportunity over the last two years to help another important person—himself. Living in Japan with his new wife Tomoko, their new baby daughter Angelika Blanks, and his wife’s two daughters, Marriett and Erika,the experience has given Blanks the chance to rest, focus and connect with his maker. It has also allowed him to learn from expert Japanese instructors and add to his already incredible martial arts metier.

He has endured much in recent years, Blanks shares how taking time to renew his spirit, strength, mind and faith has in turn taken his martial arts to another level. I’m better than I’ve ever been before,” declares the fitness guru.   

What new fitness programs are you currently undertaking?
BILLY BLANKS: I just created a new system called PT 24-7, and it’s expected to revolutionize the fitness world as Tae Bo did. PT stands for Physical Test, and after working the program for seven days, you will see a difference in yourself. It’s a combination resistance and cardio workout at the same time. I developed this system while training in Japan and working with holistic medicine. We’ve brought it back to the U.S. and introduced it to producers, and they went crazy over it. We’ve just finished 24 episodes ready for DVD and infomercials. I’ve also created some really good tools that go along with the workout.

What inspired you to live in Japan and study martial arts there?
BB: For one, my wife Tomoko, who is Japanese. Secondly, Japan is where martial arts began. So it’s good to go to a place where I can get more in touch with my martial arts roots and learn from Japanese instructors, especially as a trainer. 

: Was it humbling to learn new things?
BB: No. I’ve always been someone who has been open-minded and willing to learn from others. I’m not a “know it all.” The only humbling thing was the intense language barrier and not being able to understand people. But it’s great, because now I can mix and mingle and teach in Japanese. That’s what martial arts is all about: humbling yourself so you can be open to learning more.

What other things have you been learning and re-learning?
BB: Focus, discipline, patience and perseverance. This experience has given me the chance to really understand and know God better, being with people of an entirely different culture and language than me. I was able to meditate, pray and read. I’ve gotten the chance to see what the top, bottom and middle of a mountain are really like, and similarly, a chance to see life from all ranges. I learned how to take myself to higher levels and how to stay there. No matter who you are in life, we all stumble. But the key is to keep at it.

Let’s talk about your overall career as a fighter, actor and trainer. What have been your biggest setbacks and challenges?
BB: Getting to know Billy better has been the biggest challenge for me. I’m always busy helping other people and not helping myself. Now that I’ve been able to go away for a while and rest, focus and given a chance to know myself better, I’m able to help others get better as well. The key to helping others is to first help yourself.

IKF: You struggled with dyslexia as a child. How has that affected your overall success?
BB: When I first started martial arts as a kid, I had a karate instructor who had to constantly stand with me. With dyslexia, you see and do things backward. He finally told me, “You need to go to the back of the classroom, because you can’t keep up with the class.” So I did that. But I eventually got my black belt, and saw that I could become successful no matter what people said to me.
Most people think of martial arts as purely “physical.” But it is spirit, soul and mind, and it was these elements that helped me overcome my dyslexia. I figured if I could do that, I could help people with the same type of difficulties around the world.

IKF: When and how was Tae Bo developed?
BB: I first thought of the concept in 1975 and began developing it soon after. However, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s. I needed to first get some testimonials and wanted Tae Bo to prove itself—that it could really work. You see, karate had not really broken into the average household and become a household name. But when Tae Bo came out, it became that. They’re now grandparents and children who know about Tae Bo. It gave “everybody” a chance to try out martial arts. It opened up new doors for the martial arts community and made it even more popular.

IKF: What sort of criticisms has Tae Bo faced through the years?
BB: In the beginning, most martial artists didn’t like Tae Bo. They felt it wasa “kick down” in self-defense and the more traditional schools.But Tae Bo was createdto “introduce” people to martial arts in the form of cardiovascular exercise. I see it as a vitamin or supplement to get people in shape and prepare them for whatever other forms of martial arts they want to pursue.
          This was especially great for women who would normally not join martial arts schools for fear of injury. With Tae Bo, they would learn about themselves and empower themselves from the “inside out,” and at the same time have fun. In time, they would say to themselves, “Maybe I can join a martial arts school.” It was hard to get people to do that with traditional schools.
IKF: You’ve recently re-married, adopted your wife’s two daughters, and now have a baby daughter. How’s family life? 
BB: I’m learning a lot. Trying to adjust to the Japanese culture, which is way different than Western culture. I’m again learning how to take care of someone else’s children, which I did in my previous marriage.
          When I married my first wife Gayle, her daughter Shellie became my daughter, and I raised her like she was my own flesh and blood. She then became one of the best martial artists in the country. My goal for my current wife’s two girls is to also help them be the best they can be. I’ve learned a lot in 35 years with my previous wife, and am going to carry it over to my current marriage.

IKF: What isd Shellie and Billy Jr. up to these days?
BB: Shellie’s working hard and traveling a lot. She just helped me finish the new PT series, and teaches in Franklin, TN. Billy recently created his own system called “Cardioke”, where people sing as they work out, which essentially helps with breathing.

IKF: What current benevolent projects are you undertaking?
BB: Gayle and I are currently working on a program against child obesity, through The Billy Blanks Foundation. This [disease] is killing people and (the program) is basically designed to help kids and parents change this.

          For the past 10 years, our organization has worked with the military in helping troops overseas stay physically fit. We’re always traveling to Iraq—this September will be my 7th trip. I’ve had six trips to Afghanistan and we’ve visited many other places, like Kosovo and Bosnia. We also send care packages to troops that have been injured.

IKF: You’re almost 55 and can easily pass as Billy Jr. in photos.
BB: (Laughs) I stay restored like an eagle.

IKF: What’s your secret?
BB: I run a lot. I also intermix karate and Tae Bo in my workouts. I make sure my heart is in good shape and always get an annual physical. A physical gives you confirmation—making sure you’re working out and eating right. When the doctor tells me, “Looking good,” it makes me want to work out even more. Just being in Japan and around some of the healthiest people in the world have made me change my eating habits. Lately, I’ve been sticking to mostly a fish and vegetable diet.

IKF: Where do you envision Tae Bo in the future?
BB: I envision Tae Bo becoming more of a household word. I’d like my daughter, Shellie, to eventually take it over, and come out with new styles. But for the most part, I just want to keep Tae Bo alive and living up to its acronym: Total Awareness Excellent Body Obedience.

IKF: What would you say have been the keys to your overall success?
BB: Understanding faith and who God is. People always say, “Billy did this, Billy did that,” but it’s always been God. Without Him, Tae Bo would never be where it’s at today. He gave me a gift to help people and save lives, but also a wonderful opportunity to talk to people about Jesus Christ. Of course, I’m never pushy with it, because I don’t want to turn people off. But I try to tell people about Him in ways they’ll understand, by casual conversation. The more you guide people in that direction, the more people’s lives change.
I believe there’s a candle in every person’s heart. Now and then, that candle can lose its flame. It’s then, and only then, we need to realize that God gave us all a will and a mind to keep it lit.


Michael Lizarraga is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and martial artist.

Up Close
Name: Billy Wayne Blanks
Birthdate: Sept. 1, 1955
Birthplace: Erie, Pa.
Style: Tae kwon do
Rank: 8th dan
Personal: Billy is the 4th of 15 children

Did You Know?
Billy invented Tae Bo while running a karate school in Quincy, MA. Tae Bo comes from his two loves—tae kwon do and boxing.