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Charles Atlas playing tug of war with the Rockettes atop Radio City Music Hall (Charles Atlas LTD)

Charles Atlas: Muscle Man

How the original 97-pound-weakling transformed himself and brought physical fitness to the masses

Atlas threw out his equipment. He began flexing his muscles, using isometric opposition and adding range of motion to stress them further. He tensed his hands behind his back. He laced his fingers under his thighs and pushed his hands against his legs. He did biceps curls with one arm and squeezed his fist down with the other. Experimenting with varied techniques, and likely aided by exceptional genes, Atlas emerged from many months at home with a physique that stunned school chums when he first revealed himself on the beach. One of the boys exclaimed, "You look like that statue of Atlas on top of the Atlas Hotel!"

Several years later, he legally changed his name, adding Charles from his nickname "Charlie."

Holding up the world, however, wasn't a career. Atlas was too mild-mannered to go chasing neighborhood bullies, though on the New York subway he once lifted a troublemaker by his lapels and issued him a stern warning. A dutiful son, he learned leatherworking to pay the rent and support his mother. (His father had taken one look at his adopted home and high-tailed it back to Italy.) But Charlie hadn't built up his chest just to make purses. Eventually, he gave up on the leatherwork and took a $5-a-week job, doubling as janitor and strongman at the Coney Island sideshow, where he lay on a bed of nails and urged men from the audience to stand on his stomach.

And this might have been the last anyone heard of Charles Atlas had an artist not spotted him on the beach in 1916 and asked him to pose.

A boom in public sculpture was coming, and busy carvers were desperate for models with well-built bodies. Among the most prominent was socialite sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who, watching Atlas disrobe, exclaimed, "He's a knockout!" Further impressed by his ability to hold a pose for 30 minutes, she soon had him running from studio to studio. By the time he was 25, Atlas was everywhere, posing as George Washington in Washington Square Park, as Civic Virtue in Queens Borough Hall, as Alexander Hamilton in the nation's capital. He was Dawn of Glory in Brooklyn's Prospect Park and Patriotism for the Elks' national headquarters in Chicago. Photographs of him in classic poses, nude or shockingly close to it and with more than a whiff of eroticism, suggest how much he liked the camera and the camera liked him.

And the money was good—$100 a week. Still, Atlas was restless, and ambitious, and when he saw an ad for a "World's Most Beautiful Man" photo contest, he sent in his picture.

The contest was sponsored by Physical Culture magazine, the brainchild of Bernarr Macfadden, a publisher and fitness fanatic, as well as one of the most bizarre figures in the annals of fitness entrepreneurs. (He would later found a publishing empire with True Story and True Romances magazines.) Macfadden was obsessive about his health. When he wasn't fasting, he ate carrots, beans, nuts and raw eggs. He slept on the floor and walked to work barefoot. Impressed with Atlas' photograph, he asked the young man to stop by his office. When Atlas stripped to his leopard bikini, Macfadden stopped the contest, though he waited for a second visit to hand over the $1,000 winner's check and celebrate with a glass of carrot juice.

Atlas got an even bigger jolt of publicity when, in 1922, Macfadden followed up the contest with "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" extravaganza at Madison Square Garden. Seven hundred and seventy-five men competed for the title, judged by a panel of doctors and artists. When Atlas walked away with a second trophy, Macfadden called a halt to any more contests, grousing that Atlas would win every year. Likely, he was merely hyping Atlas' next showstopper: starring in a Macfadden short, silent movie called The Road to Health, directed by one Frederick Tilney, a busy if unsung health and fitness expert. On a ride to the film studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, one day, Tilney and Atlas decided to set up a mail-order business to sell an exercise routine. When, after a few years, their collaboration ended, Atlas went solo.

But an extraordinary body did not translate into a head for business, and, within a few years, the company floundered. With profits lagging, Atlas' advertising agency in 1928 turned over his account to its newest hire, Charles Roman, who was 21 and fresh out of New York University. What the young man came up with so impressed Atlas that four months after they met, Atlas offered him half the company on the condition that Roman would run it. It was the smartest move he ever made.

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