Hollywood royalty, Oscar-winning actress, anti-war activist. Jane Fonda fit all of these descriptions by the late 1970s and 1980s, when she emerged in her latest incarnation: exercise guru. On April 24, 1982, Fonda extended her reach into the home-video market with the release of Workout, the first of her many bestselling aerobics tapes.
Daughter of the celebrated actor Henry Fonda (star of 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath), Jane worked as a model before joining Lee Strasberg’s famed Actors Studio. She broke out in 1960 with a Tony-nominated performance in Broadway’s There Was a Little Girl and a starring role in the big-screen comedy Tall Story. She soon established a reputation as both sexpot (1968’s Barbarella) and serious actress, earning her first Oscar nomination for 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and taking home the Best Actress statuette two years later for Klute. As an outspoken member of the opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, Fonda was famously photographed behind enemy lines next to an anti-aircraft gun during a visit to North Vietnam in 1972. (She later expressed regret about posing for the photograph.)
Fonda won her second Best Actress Oscar in 1979 for Coming Home. That same year, she opened her first workout studio, breaking into a gym industry previously dominated by male boxers and bodybuilders. A former ballet enthusiast, Fonda had begun practicing aerobics with her future business partner, Leni Cazden, to keep fit. In 1981, Fonda published Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, which remained at No. 1 on the nonfiction bestseller’s list for more than six months and in the top five for more than 16 months. The cover showed a grinning Fonda striking a pose in black tights and legwarmers.
With the phenomenal success of her exercise studios, books and videos, Fonda not only sparked the aerobics trend of the late 1970s and 1980s–she also popularized the concept of working out for women in general. Other instructors soon capitalized on the workout movement, including Richard Simmons and Judi Missett, creator of the aerobics spin-off known as Jazzercise. For the first time, millions of women (and a few men) were exercising together in groups, doing leg lifts, side bends and lifting dumbbells to the beat of peppy music. Aerobics also launched a fashion craze, with neon spandex, legwarmers and leotards becoming ubiquitous among health-conscious women. Fonda’s videos remained top sellers into the latter half of the 1980s, including Jane Fonda’s New Workout (1986) and Jane Fonda’s Low-Impact Aerobic Workout (1987).
The revenues from Fonda’s exercise empire financed the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a leftist political organization founded by her then-husband, the leading 1960s radical Tom Hayden. After divorcing Hayden in 1989, Fonda largely withdrew from the spotlight. She announced her retirement from acting in 1992, explaining her desire to spend more time with her third husband, the media mogul Ted Turner. The couple divorced in 2001. Fonda returned to the big screen in several movies, including Monster-In-Law (2005), Georgia Rule (2007), This is Where I Leave You (2014), Our Souls at Night (2017) and Book Club (2018).