SANTA ANA, Calif. - Driving toward his home in Tampa, Fla., during late-afternoon traffic, Tony Little jokes about how hard he's had to work during his 2 1/2-week vacation.
"Business is booming right now," says the irrepressible personal trainer and shopping-channel product-hawker. He attended a shoe convention in Las Vegas, met with a shipper in Madison, Wis., then footwear companies in New York. He's going back to Vegas for an infomercial convention. Then to Baltimore for Natural Products Expo East, "where I'm helping endorse a popcorn line that I put together." He also finds the time to work out twice every day.
Little became a constant presence on the Home Shopping Network in the late 1980s and early '90s, racking up huge sales for his various fitness products, including the legs-a-swinging Gazelle workout machine. A nonstop engine of enthusiasm and catchphrases (he trademarked "You can do it!"), Little was both rewarded and mocked mercilessly for his stocky build, husky voice and his flowing blond ponytail.
He forged ahead and never stopped. Today his arsenal of products includes a therapeutic pillow (4 million of those sold), sandals, running shoes, bison meat and the "Body by Bison Diet and Recipe Book."
"I'm happy, because I've got to tell you something: It's much more advantageous at my age to have 15 beautiful models wearing my shoes and me get on the floor and say, 'Look at those cute, cute shoes!' rather than using an exercise machine for half an hour and it kicking my butt."
Little turned 57 last week, and he says he feels good for that age. But for the past year he's been dealing with a neck injury, to which he assigns a strange cause: During all the thousands of hours of infomercials and other videos he's made, he's usually stage right, standing with his right shoulder facing the camera/audience. He'll look toward one of his models at stage center, or a piece of equipment, then sharply look back to the camera/audience.
"I'm always, as you know, very hyper. I've jerked my head to the right for 25 years."
It got worse when he taped three workout DVDs this year.
"My head was turned to the right the whole time, for an hour and a half, and my neck never healed from that. I've been to a lot of doctors. No one wants to do surgery on me, afraid I'll lose my spontaneity and flexibility."
As the famous story goes, Little was in his mid-20s, an up-and-coming bodybuilder who won Mr. Florida and was training for Mr. America when he got into a car accident in 1983. A school bus hit his car, injuring his back and knee. More misfortune followed, including two more car accidents, one of which smashed up his face.
He recovered, used his personality and willpower to make a video, convinced HSN to let him hawk it on the air, and the rest is history.
"I really thought I was gonna be Mr. America, Mr. Universe, and figure out how to start my vitamin line," he says. "Other things happened that changed my life, and I found that all the adversity that I face, I try to make them into victories. I tried to make a positive out of it. I thank the Lord above that that kind of thinking works. People say, 'How can you be so positive all the time, say "You can do it"? I said, 'If you think about it, if you think you can't do it, what are your chances? It's a mind-set. No matter how simple that sounds, it really is simple.'"
In 2009, Little married Melissa Hall, a model and fitness impresario he'd met on the set of HSN. In November of that year, they had twin sons, Cody and Chase, who were born some three months premature. The boys had multiple operations for a variety of health problems and finally went home at 3 months. Melissa also suffered from postpartum depression.
"That was a very stressful time, going to the hospital for three months with my wife, but that was a great learning experience too, because the challenges the kids have to go through, after being through my son and daughter" (Tara and Trent, from his first marriage). "My son's becoming a doctor, and my daughter's becoming a doctor. Now I got these little guys, who've had their own problems."
Little says Cody was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder but after years of therapy, he "doesn't really exhibit any of those things. He loves to hug, he loves to dance. He talks in whole sentences. So cool stuff happens if you just follow through."
Ever upbeat, Little describes how Cody, when he was trying to learn how to crawl, couldn't quite do it. He'd drag his body, or roll to the side.
"I'm so used to fighting adversity, I look at things simple sometimes. So I went to Home Depot and built this 10-foot-long, 24-inch-wide platform, like a race track, and I'd stick him in it every day. He could only go forward or backward, and that's how he learned to crawl.
"I don't know why, I just always feel there's a way. People need to be a little bit more positive."
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