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Paige PalmerMythbuster: Paige Palmer

Date of interview: October 2000

"First Lady of Fitness" Paige Palmer is truly a renaissance woman. As host of her own fitness and variety show (1948-1973) on WEWS TV Channel 5, she was decades before her time. Ms. Palmer developed her own line of exercise equipment for women, raised three sons, was the first person to interview the Dalai Lama after his extradition to India, wrote two books on India (for one of which the Indian government honored her), and is an accomplished fashion and travel writer. Most recently, she was inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame.

Driven by an independent spirit and a need to empower others to improve themselves, Ms. Palmer today is just as active as ever. We caught up with her at the Kent State University Museum, where her pottery is being featured in "Uncommon Clay: Ohio Pottery from the Paige Palmer Collection," an exhibit that runs until October 2001.

How did you become a pioneer in women's fitness?
I was the first person to do exercise on T.V. I had a very illustrious career. It started when I was seven or eight years old. I was the one who taught kids in the neighborhood how to play games, put on shows. By the time I was 13, I was teaching at the YWCA in Akron: swimming, dancing, tennis. The head of the YWCA was my role model. The Akron Beacon Journal would cover shows I was in.

My greatest job throughout my life has been teaching other people. I love to see people improve and make the most of their talents. I was gifted with dancing. I would see somebody dance and I could turn around and teach it. I feel all of us are given a special something, and mine was the ability to teach from the time I was very young, and I knew it. Most people don't recognize their God-given talent.

How did you become such an independent spirit?
Ever since I was young, I could never be fenced in. When I was 16, I opened a dance studio. I saved my money and rented a big old house. I rented one room to my friend who taught knitting; another room to someone who taught saxophone. I put an ad in the paper and gave free rent to a married couple if they'd take care of the furnace. The dance classes I held there were enormous. I taught ballroom dancing, ballet, toe, tap. My parents didn't even know I was taking dancing lessons; they thought I was only taking violin lessons! Then they got the invitation in the mail for my dance school's opening. Looking back, I think the only reason the landlord rented the house to me was because my father was well known in the community. He knew if I couldn't pay for it, my father would. But it's mind-boggling to me that I had the courage to do that!

How did you first become interested in exercise?
I was always so feminine. Back in the days when I was in school, the physical education teachers were always so masculine. I decided I was going to prove that a feminine woman could be a good athlete. I became a very good swimmer. Shirley Fry, who went on to win Wimbledon, was a friend of mine. Her father had Shirley and me practice tennis every night of the week. She went to Wimbledon, and I taught tennis all through high school.

By the time I was in college at The University of Akron, they didn't have anyone to teach dancing. In my freshman year, I was teaching tap dancing. The university then sent me to become the physical education director at Our Lady of the Elms, a girls' private school, when I was in my second year of college. I taught field hockey, and I'd take the girls down to the YWCA for swimming. I would also choreograph dances, including ones to classical music. We got great reviews. I set up a preschool at the Elms, and had several exercise programs for that. I taught day camps for boys and girls as well. In those days, camps were very important. I also took a minor in nutrition, so I learned a lot about eating right.

You are also known for your fashion savvy. How did you become such an expert in fashion?
The university had a course in textiles, which was an elective. I took it and it changed my life. Somebody sent my picture to New York. I won a national "perfect figure contest," which took me to New York. Because I had taken that textile course, I became the fashion promotion director for the largest fabric house in New York City, Cohn-Hall-Marx. My job was to find out what the fabric colors be for the upcoming year, then go to the cosmetic houses and show the girls the fabrics so they'd know what colors would sell. The company used to send me around the country to promote fabrics and fashion.

How did you get on T.V.?
During the war, in order to sell television to the public, they put television sets on the different floors of the department stores. My company, Cohn-Hall-Marx, bought time on T.V. This was in the beginning of television. You had to wear really brown makeup and lipstick. If you wore a white blouse, it'd look like your neck was cut off. It was amazing...and hot! I thought I'd never want to be on T.V. They'd give me bolts of fabric to design the current fashion trends.

But that's how I started. I did the first women's show in New York. Once when I was back in Cleveland, I talked to the director of Channel 5, Mr. Hanrahan. He asked me, "When can you start your show here?" I had no intention of coming back to Ohio. I had become a New Yorker. Well, I started a 15-week contract. Then when 26 weeks came up, they asked me to stay. They just took it for granted I was never going to leave. Then I started going to KDK in Pittsburgh. I'd have a cab waiting for me outside the T.V. station. I'd fly to Pittsburgh to do the same show there every day at 3 p.m.

What kind of show was this?
Exercise, cosmetics and fashion, but other topics, too. Mr. Halle of the department store said television will never sell fashion, but Women's Wear Daily wrote me up as the only one in the country that was able to sell fashion on T.V. and do a good job at it. We had a lot of other write-ups, too. I invented my own line of exercise equipment for women. The sporting good buyers in New York said it would never sell because those departments were just for men. I later took the equipment to the sporting good department of May Company. They started selling it in all their stores throughout the U.S.A. Eventually, the other stores came on board.

You invented this equipment?
Yes. There's the stretch rope and the bar. I even had mats. They didn't have anything for women, even the stuff in the universities was for men. I had a fine physical education director in college. He also taught us physical therapy. We had to know anatomy, physiology-where the muscles attached to the bones. I knew how the body worked, why people had to walk straight and have good posture. Because of that background, I was able put together this equipment. I knew what I was doing.

Tell me more about your show.
I had a beauty clinic. I'd pick somebody out who had big hips, big thighs, etc. I'd put them on a diet, and I'd help them reduce their size. Two months later, I'd put them on T.V. You would not believe the results. Fifty to 100 women would come for the interview; I could only pick 12. There were some who wanted to increase their bust size, others who wanted to reduce it. No one was happy with what they had. I'd tell these women, "Make the best of what you've got."

I was also the first person to have a "judge" segment on my show, called "Who's Liable?" I'd have a judge and two attorneys. We'd take situations like: "Your son threw a ball into my yard. He climbed over the fence, and my dog bit him. Who's liable?" I designed these scenarios. I'd also have doctors, like Dr. Page, who performed the first artery transplant, on the show. We had the patient on the show before and after the surgery. I'd also have doctors bring in X-rays and tell the viewers how to read an X-Ray. I covered all kinds of subject. Every couple of weeks I'd have some famous antiques dealer on. So I became very knowledgeable about antiques. I'd have artists from our area on, talking about the different types of art.

When I started doing this show in 1948, women weren't working outside the home. I'd tell them, "Get yourself a hobby, which someday can turn into a vocation when your children leave the nest." You have no idea how many letters I got from all over the country telling me how important that was to them. I felt like I knew everyone in that audience and they felt like they knew me. These women would have their children exercising with them. When the Kent State University Museum held the "Panache: Paige Palmer, A Salute to 50 Years of Fashion and Fitness" show last year, these children-who are now 35, 40 years old-told me what I meant to them. They said when they'd exercise with their mothers, those were some of the happiest times of their lives.

When did you start writing?
I started writing in college, a fitness column. Then I wrote for a chiropractor's journal during the time of my show. Now I write for International Travel News. It's like a bible for people who travel out of the country two or three times a year. I also write for the Times Group in Lorain; I do travel and fashion for them.

I traveled all over the world. I went to India every year for so many years because I was very interested in the religions and cultures there. That's how I started writing a book for Fodor's. Then I wrote my own book, The Best of India, for which the Indian government decorated me. I received the International Gold Award. The prime minister and ambassador came to New York for the ceremony. I was the first in the world to interview the Dalai Lama after he came out of Tibet. I impressed him because I had a Tibetan dress made; he let me interview him longer than the allotted 15 minutes.

How did you balance all this work with raising your kids?
I was very fortunate. After my third son was born, I put an ad in the paper for a housekeeper, and this couple showed up. I interviewed them and was so impressed. We had a big house, so her husband helped keep up the house, and she looked after the boys. I never would have been able to have had a television show without them. On snowy days, Papa Joe would get me up early to make sure I got to Cleveland in time for my show. Ada was like a mother to me, right up until she died at age 101. My sons didn't miss out by having a working mother at all. The youngest one traveled with me from the time he was five years old.

You had to quit your show because of a vertigo condition, and more recently you lost your husband. How do you deal with the setbacks that you've had?
I left Channel 5 because I got Mieneir's Syndrome. I never knew when I was going into vertigo. I had one of the most severe cases the doctors had ever seen. When I left T.V., WELW Radio asked me to do a radio show, which I did for 10 years. I overcome things with a strong mental attitude.If I have to use a cane to go up steps, I'm not ashamed. Wouldn't you rather carry a cane and stand up straight? Be glad you're able to live this long and enjoy it. I need a hearing aid; what's wrong with that?

How old are you?
My sons say I should be very proud and happy of my age. I guess you could just say I'm an octogenarian. Even my doctors don't believe my age. To me, chronological age doesn't matter. It's how you live life. Physically fit, mentally fit, spiritually fit, emotionally fit. Having curiosity, like children. They want to look in drawers, in closets. You have to have that same curiosity, and never let it die. And enthusiasm; tackle something-a new subject, a new problem enthusiastically. I am a big believer in museums. I think you get your exercise in museums. You not only get your physical fitness, you get your mental fitness. I also think because they're a calm atmosphere, they help you stay emotionally fit. I love museums!

What does aging successfully mean to you?
Like I said, being curious and enthusiastic. Another thing is staying positive. I think people who are negative age much faster. Growing older shouldn't be a worrisome thing. It's inevitable; you're not going to stop it.

You have to stay busy and involved. You really don't have to have a lot of money to stay busy as an older person. There are so many activities available for seniors; just look in the paper. There are specials and discounts for plays and dinners. We've got a great park system in northeast Ohio. You can do volunteer work. There is no reason for anyone who is mobile to stay home. You can't feel sorry for yourself.

What do you do to stay young?
I attend benefits-whether it's for the Cleveland Orchestra, or the ballet or the KSU Museum. I've been on the board of the American Cancer Society for the last 25 years. All these benefits are so marvelous at keeping me involved. They give me a purpose. For example, I have to plan what I'm going to wear. A lot of older people don't want to bother even getting dressed.

I go to so many openings for shows and galleries. But I also read a lot, and write letters. I exercise my fingers; I have no arthritis. I'm very good about praying; I even pray in the car, and thank God for my life.

I have never slowed down. There's so much to do and see that I haven't done yet. I'm always going to make the most of each day, whether it's raining, snowing or sunny outside. After all, I'm the one who's going to make my day.

Paige Palmer passed away November 21, 2009 at age 93. Read her Plain Dealer tribute.

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