Up Close and Personal With 'America's Personal Trainer'

Photo: Up Close and Personal With Americas Personal Trainer: Infomercial Institution Tony Little Rules $3 Billion Fitness EmpireHandout
The Gazelle, Tony Little?s biggest infomercial hit by far accounts for half his sales volume and has brought in nearly $1.5 billion in sales over the years.

He's known as "America's personal trainer," the Florida fitness freak with the ponytail and the trademark shout.

He is Tony Little and he can be seen on television sets across the country snuggled in spandex and perennially peppy, constantly urging America to get off that couch and get into shape.

Little is an infomercial institution, but even after 25 years perfecting his routine on the Home Shopping Network, he told us he still gets the jitters before he goes on air.

"I am always nervous. I am always shaky, I am always very intense," he said.

On the day we shadowed him, he did two live shows, hawking his "Easyshaper" to millions of viewers. Over the course of his career, he's done more than 10,000 shows and for every single one of them he's wound up tighter than, well, a Gazelle.

Americas Personal TrainerPlay
America's Personal Trainer

"I don't like taking chances. I'm a perfectionist," he said. "I like to have everything ready to go because on live TV, if you mess up once you're gonna lose money."

And Little hates to lose money. To date, his products have brought in $3 billion and been sold to 48 million customers worldwide. A recession has not slowed down his success.

"When people are cocooning and ... staying out of retail stores ... they're at home, flipping through the television ... and that's where I'm at," he said.

These days, Little has branched out from the fitness products that made him famous. He's got a line of micropedic therapy pillows, a line of bison beef jerky and his "Cheeks" sandals, which he sold 80,000 of in one day.

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America's personal trainer is building an infomercial empire. Or as Little puts it, "I now exercise you, feed you with my bison products, and put you to sleep with my pillow products."

Little has been on the air so much for so long, he's the butt of jokes everywhere. He was parodied by Alec Baldwin on "Saturday Night Live" and on "Beavis and Butthead," "The Simpsons" and "South Park." He's even popped up in lyrics by Bruce Springsteen.

He easily brushes off the mockery.

"When they're not talking about you, that's when you're in trouble," he says.

And he recognizes how lucky he's been: "You know I've had nine infomercial hits. You know you're lucky to get one in a lifetime."

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Gazelle: Little's Biggest Infomercial Hit

The Gazelle, his biggest infomercial hit, by far, accounts for half his sales volume and has brought in nearly $1.5 billion in sales over the years. The Gazelle is so iconic that two years after the infomercial was off the air, Geico made a parody ad of it -- an infomercial -- within a commercial.

"What would it have cost me to brand that?" he said. "You know, they must have had $20 [million], $30 million in that."

Little Overcomes Obstacles

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Sure, it sounds like easy money. But success hasn't exactly come easily. His book, "There's Always a Way," recounts a laundry list of adversities that would make anyone take pause.

"I don't think a lot of people knew that," he said. "I got hit by a school bus when I was getting ready for the Mr. America contest, then I was actually hit by a lobster truck in Miami, then I hit the only hill in Florida and have actually had four reconstructive face surgeries. Spinal meningitis, 18 days in the hospital, thought I was going to die. Just a lot of things, you know ... adversities."

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His latest adversity: infant sons, twins, born 3 months premature, that are still so weak they need to be fed through tubes implanted in their stomachs.

"There's no question about it. I've had a lot of obstacles in my life but I've also had a lot of successes," he said. "I feel that every time a door closes another one opens, and I was fortunate enough to make it work for me."

He's the kind of guy who won't take "no" for an answer, no matter what he might be selling. When asked about his iconic ponytail, he acknowledged it's mainly a marketing thing, a gimmick designed to make people stop and look. He'd be glad to cut it but knows he can't.

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It's part of the Tony Little brand, and you just don't mess with success.