In the early 1960s, after The Twilight Zone and the Late Night movie, a slim, blonde fitness guru named Debbie Drake popped up on the tiny televisions of the era, demonstrating how to slim down, strengthen, and stretch. Her fifteen minute program aired in grainy black and white with Debbie ALWAYS in her signature, slim fit leotard.
Debbie Drake’s monopoly on multimedia fame was an American phenomenon, similar to the multimedia deluge of the Beatles years later. In those early, innocent years of the 1960s, Debbie Drake owned media.
Savvy and shrewd, Debbie Drake left behind a failed marriage in Texas and several defunct businesses. She even left behind her real name: Velda Louise Bellah. (In an interview, she once said, “Do I LOOK like a Velda?”). Debbie arrived at a Ohio television studio with a proposal that utilized her most important assets: her vast knowledge of exercise and her stunning figure, proudly displayed in a clingy leotard.
Once a week she stretched and strengthened her way through a televised “reducing” program, attracting a loyal following but making only $20 a week. For an ambitious woman (and a mother of a 12-year-old) that was hardly enough. As her popularity grew, an Indianapolis television station came calling and offered her $150 a week for the exact same program. She sprang on it.
Her show offered a unique mix of fitness advice and demonstrations, delivered from a set that looked like a middle-class living room. Her tone was conversational. Her advice, while strict and sexist, wasn’t expensive. It didn’t require a membership or expensive equipment. Good health and happiness didn’t come from being rich, in her opinion, but from three essentials: a good diet, good exercise, and a good marriage.
This was the 1960s. A different time and a vastly different culture.
The Debbie Drake Show quickly conquered television. Stations across the country snatched up her show for syndication. Her fame spread, and she capitalized on it. She came out with a popular fitness record How to Keep Your Husband Happy (Look Slim! Keep Trim! Exercise Along with Debbie Drake) then followed it up with Debbie Drake: Feel Good, Look Great! Drake published four books during her career, the most popular being Easy Way to a Perfect Figure and Glowing Health and the more progressive and risque How To Be a Better Lover…Longer.
Her tireless efforts to become a multimedia star didn’t end there. She signed off on endorsements ranging from luxury townhomes to diet soft drinks. Numerous newspapers featured her syndicated column (often accompanied by images or illustrations) where she dispensed health and exercise advice and even offered a personalized health assessment (filled in by her “Home Service Department”). She even sold a Debbie Drake fashion doll, which closely resembled another iconic doll of the day—Barbie.
Those marketing her television program also noticed another interesting trend. The Debbie Drake Show had a sizable following of male watchers. Apparently men enjoyed watching the lithe, bottle-blonde Debbie Drake stretch and bend and pull in her signature leotard, for whatever reason (wink wink). Rather than being morally outraged by this, Debbie decided to capitalize on it. Her program began to air both during the day and then late at night, just before the station sign off. Her popularity grew. She became a staple on late night television: Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas…
When television tastes changed, she changed with them. The Debbie Drake Show became Debbie Drake’s Dancercize. For almost twenty years she ruled the airwaves as the country’s top female fitness guru. She remained there until the mid-1970s, when her demanding diet and exercise regimes and reliance on a husband’s approval was deemed old-fashioned and sexist.
As suddenly as she came into the national spotlight, Debbie Drake disappeared. Little information on her later years is available, although newspapers did report a serious accident on a visit to Mexico in 1986. While she stood on a sidewalk, a driver struck Debbie, tearing ligaments in her leg, breaking her ankle, and collapsing one lung. She recovered eventually, and then faded into quiet living once again. In 2015, the National Fitness Hall of Fame honored Mrs. Drake by inducting her into their Class of 2015, an award she accepted in person, looking at fit as ever.
Our cultural memory of Debbie Drake has faded significantly in the last fifty years, largely because she was overshadowed by other multimedia stars (Jane Fonda anyone?) and because much of Debbie’s advice did little to empower women of her era. That said, we can’t help but admire her monumental efforts to establish and expand her brand—pure ambition—and her dedication to good health and good living.