Voices in Unity: A Conversation With Tony Little

By Annie L. Scholl
Tony Little and Family

Faith is at the center of Tony Little’s life. It’s what Little—the blonde, ponytailed, high-energy, muscle-bound man known for selling fitness products on late-night infomercials—attributes to helping him through tough times. Despite having phenomenal success, Little has had plenty of tough times. Little, now of Tampa Bay, Florida, grew up in Fremont, Ohio. His mother raised him and his three siblings alone after his father abandoned them.

“She was a very, very strong single mother,” Little says of his mother, who died of colon cancer in 1997. “Before my dad left, she’d sit on the stairs with us at night and read hymns to us before we went to bed. Then after that, my dad took me down in the cellar and gave me the belt. They were two totally different people.”

Little, the third of four children, said he started hanging out with the “wrong” crowd when he was a teenager.

“I think I was the only person in my town who skipped the school where my mother taught. She was constantly trying to get me on track.”

When he was 14 or 15, his mother sent him to live with her brother in Florida.

“She needed to change my environment in order to change my life,” he says. Little resented his mother for making the decision, but he eventually saw how it helped him.

“I didn’t want to make any more friends because I lost everyone I grew up with by moving,” he says. “I became more soul-searching. I became more self-sufficient and goal-oriented. I actually got better in school.”

While Little didn’t adopt his mother’s religion of Christian Science, he did embrace her love of God and Jesus. He was also inspired by the late author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, who integrated Christianity into his work. Little discovered Ziglar when he was reading motivational and spiritual books—“everything that would have to do with me becoming a better person and being more effective in my life.”

Little started working out and getting into bodybuilding. He kept winning contests and was named Mr. Florida. In 1983, he was training for the Mr. America Bodybuilding Championship when a school bus ran a red light and slammed into his car. The near-fatal crash, which seriously injured his back, shoulders, and neck, shattered his dreams of becoming Mr. America. It also sent him into a two-year tailspin of depression and addiction. The former vitamin sales representative was unemployed and living in a small, one-bedroom condo. He also gained more than 60 pounds.

“I went through a lot of ‘why me?’ I felt like I had lost everything,” he says.

Little recalls seeing the Bible his mother had given him on the counter, but he couldn’t pick it up. “I was aware it was there. I needed help, but I just couldn’t make the move.”

One day he went into a health food store and ran into a man he had known when he was in vitamin sales. “He said, ‘I’ve been waiting for the day you would come back so I could help you.’” The man then gave Little a pocket-size Bible. He also told Little about an upcoming health convention in Orlando and encouraged him to attend. Little decided to take his advice.

On the way back home from the convention, Little was driving through a terrible storm when he felt like someone was talking to him. The voice told him it was time to help other people.

“I didn't understand it. I didn’t know how I could help people,” he says. “I was so freaked out that I spent two days locked up in my apartment, not wanting to get out of bed. It messed with me quite a bit.”

A couple of days later, Little was watching TV when he saw actress and fitness guru Jane Fonda leading a workout.

“I used to train people, I understood fitness, so immediately I thought, ‘Wow, I could do what she’s doing.’”

However, he planned to do it differently: He would educate people and teach them proper technique, not just lead them in exercise.

Despite being overweight and a long way from his Mr. Florida physique, Little went to his local cable company to inquire about doing a fitness show. He learned that he would need $15,000 to produce a dozen or so shows.

“I signed the contract, not knowing how to do a television show,” he recalls. “When I got home, I was still so motivated, but I realized I didn’t have any money. I said a prayer: ‘Please help me out. I think there’s something I can give back.’”

Little then came up with an idea for a company specializing in cleaning the wet areas of health spas. Within in a day he had cleaning contracts lined up. He also learned he could sell commercial spots on his new show.

“I sold those spots and started my own television show,” he recalls. “It just kept growing from there.”

In 1987, he struck a deal with Home Shopping Network. In 1993, he teamed up with QVC. Little has helped sell billions of dollars worth of fitness products, including workout videos and the Gazelle Glider exercise machine.

Little, who turned 59 on September 16, says when he looks back at the beginning of his success 30 years ago, he also sees it as the beginning of truly believing in himself and in God.

Success hasn’t kept other tragedies at bay. In 1996, Little had another serious car crash. In 2009, twin sons Cody and Chase were born prematurely to Little and his wife Melissa, a fitness model turned fitness host. Cody, who was one pound, 15 ounces at birth, is on the autism spectrum while Chase, who was just two pounds at birth, is extremely smart but has underdeveloped lungs. The boys will turn 6 in October.

“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also heartwarming every time I’m around them,” says Little, who also has two adult children.

Rather than focusing on the negatives in life, Little keeps centered in his faith.

“If you don’t think there’s something there, then you have nowhere to go,” he says.

While people want to know about Little’s success, it’s his long, curly blonde hair, pulled into a ponytail and tucked under a ball cap, that people ask about most.

“The No. 1 question is, ‘Do you have hair?’ because I wear a hat all the time. I do have a lot of hair. Once in a while, someone on Twitter will say, ‘Why don’t you get your hair cut?’ I say I’m lucky to be nearly 59 and still have hair.”

 

Learn more about Tony Little at tonylittle.com.


About the Author

Annie L. Scholl is a freelance writer and native Iowan who lives in North Carolina. In addition to writing for unity.org and Unity Magazine®, she is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and blogs at her website, anniescholl.com.