Denise Austin’s fitness empire, for sale to the highest bidder
By Vicky Hallett, Monday, May 5, 9:44 AM
Most women could never put themselves in Denise Austin’s shoes. It’s not easy to imagine what life must be like for the honey-haired, 57-year-old fitness guru.
And besides, the size sevens won’t fit.
“She’s got really small feet,” declares Amy O’Donnell, who is one of the dozens of people pawing through possessions at Austin’s Alexandria house. The mountain of sneakers — mostly never-been-worn white walking shoes from Spalding’s “Denise Austin” line — is just a fraction of what’s on offer at a combination estate sale and online auction that ends Tuesday. During her three-plus decades in the exercise industry, Austin boasts, she has sold 24 million videos and DVDs. Her TV show ran for more than 20 years, longer than any other in the business. In her seemingly endless monologue of positive reinforcement, Austin has taught legions of devotees that fitness is attainable — that you too can zap flab and “make your backside your best side.”“She’s got really small feet,” declares Amy O’Donnell, who is one of the dozens of people pawing through possessions at Austin’s Alexandria house. The mountain of sneakers — mostly never-been-worn white walking shoes from Spalding’s “Denise Austin” line — is just a fraction of what’s on offer at a combination estate sale and online auction that ends Tuesday.
During her three-plus decades in the exercise industry, Austin boasts, she has sold 24 million videos and DVDs. Her TV show ran for more than 20 years, longer than any other in the business. In her seemingly endless monologue of positive reinforcement, Austin has taught legions of devotees that fitness is attainable — that you too can zap flab and “make your backside your best side.”
But why should fans settle for Austin’s brand of encouragement onscreen alone? Why not test the transitive property of tummy tautness with the contents of Austin’s home gym?
“Owning something from here might be inspirational. There’s inner energy,” says O’Donnell, a professional organizer who is part of an early cluster of shoppers to scout the room on the first morning of the estate sale.
As for those shoes, Austin boasts she once moved 90,000 in a single day on QVC (“that was in 19. . . I don’t even know,” she says), but they’re a tougher sell now. Instead O’Donnell wanders over to a brightly hued stack of stretchy pants and tanks — several still with their tags on — and immediately grabs an armful.
Austin has always been on top of the trends, shepherding fans from step aerobics to high intensity interval training. So it’s no surprise that she and her husband, Jeff — a lawyer/sports agent — are embracing the latest baby boomer rite of passage: downsizing.
Minus the personal effects, such as family photos and mementos from two terms served on what is now called the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, everything inside the brick colonial is up for grabs. That includes pots, paintings, pillows and even a pair of painted greyhound jardinières that guarded her front door for 15 years.
“This has been a great place to raise kids, but it’s too much house to deal with,” Austin says, taking a break from sorting her stuff prior to the sale. Their two daughters are in college in Los Angeles, so the couple bought a spot on Manhattan Beach, where they’re spending half of their time. And they’re trading their sprawling suburban home for a compact condominium overlooking the water in Old Town.
It’s been painful to part with so much of her past, Austin says — particularly that morning, when she’d bonked the bridge of her nose while moving a box. But there’s simply no room for most of her furniture in her new place. And proceeds from the sale will cover medical bills for Austin’s niece, who’s battling breast cancer.
In her office, she points to the pale wooden desk where she wrote 10 books and planned out nearly 50 fitness DVDs (she released her three newest titles last week). There was always a set of five-pound weights to one side, she says, because “if you see them, you use them.” She’d pump out bicep curls and one-arm rows while chatting on the phone.
Now, the workspace has been cleared of everything except a wooden figurine of an older lady goofily thrusting a pair of dumbbells in the air. (Price? $25.) “Someone gave it to me as a joke. But my husband — it creeped him out,” Austin says.
She rushes down the hall to the connected family room and kitchen, which is lined with mugs, dishes and serving bowls all ready for the sale. Austin stands over the countertop, miming how she’d chop vegetables to make dinner or shoot segments of her Lifetime show. From that spot, there’s a panoramic view of the backyard pool and tennis court.
But the feature of the house she’s going to miss the most? “My gym,” says Austin, who stocked it with everything she could possibly need for any kind of workout.
Other people own exercise equipment and gear, but only a select few have this extensive of a collection, says Elizabeth Wainstein, owner of the Potomack Company, which is overseeing the estate sale and auction. The unusual assortment influenced her decision to rely on the combination method — some items are tagged so people can buy them on the spot, but other items are reserved for online bidding.
Works by noted painters and designer furnishings, both of which are in the Austin home, fit the bill. And so does Austin’s decade-old Landice treadmill, which looks like dozens currently posted on Craigslist. The difference is that this one has provenance. It’s been well loved, says Austin, who stepped onto it every morning. For 30 minutes, she’d do a series of intervals — three minutes walking, two minutes running — while Jeff sat next to her, riding his stationary bike (which is also part of the online auction).
The starting bids for the fitness pieces are not dauntingly high — only $50-$200 — because it’s tough to say precisely how much Austin ownership is worth.
On the opening morning of the estate sale, the first person to take anything out of the famed Austin gym is Bob Dahlke, who grabs a full-length mirror. He has never heard of Austin, or her fitness empire, although he does admire her taste in end tables.
Like many of the day’s visitors, Dahlke swooped in on a whim after seeing a sign on the corner. These people seem uniformly baffled as to why the resident of this house would have not just a complete weight set on racks, but also assorted dumbbells of varying sizes in a full spectrum of colors.
(Austin stayed away while estate sale shoppers were surveying the goods, but had she been there, could have told them it was because she always liked to coordinate her weights with her leotard on her TV shows.)
When Mike Jones of Lorton, Va., is informed that the pair of yoga mats he’s picked up belong to Denise Austin, he reacts like he’s just won a game show. His next move: Phone a friend. The Pilates instructor buddy on the other end of the call instructs him to buy more, so he joins Amy O’Donnell by the clothes pile.
Then in waltzes a trio of ladies — neighbors Susan Shaw and Debra Swan and their friend MaryAnne Sapio — who make a beeline for the Pilates equipment. Each of them grabs a magic circle, which is a flexible ring that can be squeezed between one’s thighs for resistance training.
“It’s good for arms too. I think Denise taught me that on a workout video,” Sapio says.
Inside the gym, shoppers are hoisting weighted medicine balls and giving the hula hoops a whirl. It’s like Austin’s presence is lingering in the room, whispering her upbeat patter.
After yanking on several elastic resistance bands, neighbor Carter Flemming selects two she’s going to take with her the next time she visits the gym.
“Why did you get a red one? That’s hard,” says her friend Becky Bostick.
“I’m going to advance up,” Flemming replies, earning a high-five from another shopper.
The person working up the most sweat is 25-year-old Carlos Cruz, whose mother summoned him here to help load her haul, which includes a table, three boxes of pots and pans, a set of porcelain monkeys, weights and a jump rope.
He thinks he’s finally done when a Potomack employee points out there’s one more thing he needs to carry to the car.
“That other lamp is also ours?” he sighs. “Well, I’m getting a workout. That’s appropriate, I guess.”
There’s a final day of estate sale shopping and online auction previewing at the Austin home (408 Lloyds Lane, Alexandria) on Monday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. To bid in the auction, you must be registered and approved by the Potomack Company. Visit potomackcompany.com for more information. The first of 94 Austin lots closes Tuesday at 10 a.m. Interested in buying the house? Too late. It’s already been sold.