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Robert Kennedy:
Still Going Strong

MuscleMag publisher benches a lot of weight on the newsstands


Story and Photos by Sahba Khalili

Robert Kennedy stand in front of a collection of his pride and joy
MuscleMag started from a kitchen table in Brampton, Ontario.

Adulterers, murderers, gladiators and governors have all graced the cover of Robert Kennedy’s MuscleMag magazine.

“This guy used to live in a box,” says Kennedy, MuscleMag’s publisher, pointing to a recent issue that features Mike O’Hearn. “Now he’s an [American] Gladiator.”

That guy,” he says referring to a brawny man on another cover, “is crippled now, and this guy used to be such a ladies’ man. Now he’s a weirdo.” As Kennedy makes his way through the warehouse of his Mississauga, Ont. office, each past issue of MuscleMag stands at attention on the 12-foot mantles that stretch endlessly along the aisles.

That guy and his wife killed a young girl,” he says as he picks up an issue highlighting Craig Titus, the professional bodybuilder who allegedly murdered his assistant in 2005. “And this guy,” he says, grinning, “this guy is the governor of California.” Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has decorated the cover thirteen times since Kennedy first fathered MuscleMag in 1974.

Today, Robert Kennedy is still flexing his potential in the industry of fitness and bodybuilding publications. He’s the founder, publisher and executive editor of MuscleMag International Corp. which produces six publications, with MuscleMag at the company’s core. Possessing 44 per cent of the North American health and fitness magazine market and engaging a readership of more than three million, Kennedy has truly established a chiseled presence on the newsstands.

For someone who has captured such a distinct audience, Kennedy is hardly the muscle-bound man who people would imagine delivers the world’s hardest bodies to local newsstands. Tall and lean at 70, his tweed jacket and slacks conceal a well-sculpted physique that has seen a life-long devotion to physical fitness.

When it comes to magazine publishers, Kennedy is anything but typical. He is actively involved in all his publications, from writing articles and columns, to photographing spreads and cover shots and even contributing to the design. Kennedy’s ability to engage himself in every element of production is more synonymous with the diversity of today’s generation of journalists. Decades ahead of his time, Kennedy put together the pages of his first magazine in 1974 from a kitchen table in Brampton, Ont.

“I’m an only child, right. Some people say about only children, it never occurs to them to fail. I just started a magazine without knowing anything about it. I did the artwork in it, wrote articles, contacted a few people I knew in the business,” Kennedy says. “So it never occurred to me to fail.”

Robert Kennedy instructs a staff member
Every single page of his magazines requires his signature before it goes to print

Kennedy came to Canada in 1967. Growing up in a small town in northern England, he developed a love for physical culture at a young age. He would devise homemade weights crafted out of broomsticks and cement-filled biscuit tins. Saving his pocket change for days, he would hitchhike 40 miles into the city just to buy a bodybuilding magazine. He walked almost everywhere on his hands and he even hitchhiked over a hundred miles with his friend, “Gino,” just to see the Mr. Universe contest in London.

A former art teacher in England, he took on a personal training job when he first arrived in Canada, but realized immediately it wasn’t for him. When Kennedy decided he wanted to start a magazine, he first called his old chum “Gino” - Dennis Edwards - to persuade him to get involved.

“It says something about the faith I must have in him,” says Edwards, the former art teacher, “that I came over for a two or three-week visit during school holidays, liked what I saw, and with a wife in one hand and a child in the other, I gave up everything and came to Canada to work with him. So, that’s the sort of inspiration he has carried throughout his whole life because he’s created any number of stars: Trish Stratus, Vicky Pratt, Johnny Fitness.” Known to his readers only as “Johnny Fitness,” Edwards has been MuscleMag’s sole editor since its existence. The two went to art college together in England and have been inseparable for almost half a century. They even worked out together using those makeshift weights.

“I was the art director, general dog’s body, sweep the floor at night,” says Edwards. “It was just a home spun business. And we did everything. We had to, for it to start, literally.”

With no staff, no advertising and no distribution network, Kennedy pumped out his first issue and had more than 110,000 copies printed and delivered to his doorstep in the fall of 1974. Only then did he begin to search for a distributor. By year’s end, Kennedy had succeeded. But it would take another 15 years before he would see his magazine turn a profit. During that time, Kennedy suffered years of debt and dodging creditors and would eventually be forced to sell his home and even his treasured 1974 Jaguar XK-E.

"It never occurred to me to fail."
- Robert Kennedy

What kept Kennedy from starving during these years of famine was revenue from the 50-plus books he wrote between issues, books with such titles as Rock Hard!, Muscle Up!, and The New York Times best seller, Hardcore Bodybuilding.

“I invented the term ‘hardcore’,” he boasts. “Now 30 years later, everyone is using it but I came up with the phrase.”

No doubt, hardcore defines his life. But while in a typical 300-page issue of MuscleMag, there are more than 100 pages of ads, mostly for dietary supplements that promise to pump you up or lean you out, the biggest obstacle has always been obtaining mainstream advertising.

Mainstream advertisers “are not interested in coming into a magazine where people are going like this,” he says, flexing to demonstrate his magazine’s character. “They say the mood is wrong. And I’ll say to the advertisers, well everybody drives cars and men all shave, why can’t Gillette razor come in? Why can’t Ford motorcar come in to advertise? They say no. The mood is not there for a person to look at a car. I kind of disagree, but I see their point. They are careful where they spend their money and they will put it into Gentleman’s Quarterly or Esquire rather than into a bodybuilding magazine.”

To access yet another source of income, Kennedy opened a chain of fitness stores called MuscleMag International, the first of which opened in downtown Toronto on Yonge Street in 1976. It was hugely successful, grossing $850,000 a year. It was the first of its kind in Canada to sell exercise equipment such as weights, treadmills and fitness gear, recalls Edwards.

When imitators rolled in, Kennedy expanded south of the border, opening stores in Miami, New York, Las Vegas, and California. In their prime, the MuscleMag International stores would total 28 across North America. Kennedy would even go on to start his own fitness clothing line, called Faremon. But over the years, his retail operations would struggle along with the sport of bodybuilding. Despite an increase in the number of people working out, the sport has steadily alienated itself from the mainstream.

“Bodybuilding is a dying culture in a sense. Arnold Schwarzenegger brought it up in the 60s and 70s and now it’s sort of dying. [Bodybuilders] are becoming too big and they are taking too many steroids, instead of being of nice proportion. The sport is killing itself. I realized bodybuilding was getting stupid. These guys are walking around like this,” he says as he puffs out his upper chest and elevates his shoulders, “and even dogs are barking at them.”

Foreseeing bodybuilding’s demise, Kennedy expanded his roster to entice a new audience of workout enthusiasts, those who are generally interested in health and exercise. With his second publication, Oxygen magazine, Kennedy attempted to embrace an entirely new demographic – women.

“I’ve always loved women’s training. I like to train women and answer their questions about training and diet. In fact, I wanted to start a women’s magazine in 1974, but I could hardly keep MuscleMag going,” he says. “Years went by, and by, and by and I finally thought, well I better get started.”

Robert Kennedy discovered Trish Stratus
Throughout his career, Kennedy has ignited the careers of many stars.

He waited until 1997. Since then, Oxygen has developed a strong following of fitness-minded women by focusing on training and nutrition. The publication has a circulation of over 200,000.

His other magazines also maintain a distinct audience within this niche. Kennedy started Reps! to target the man who idealizes a proportionate physique and isn’t necessarily interested in the bodybuilders’ brawn. He developed American Curves to show off the fit female form. And he created Maximum Fitness for the man whose focus is fitness and physical endurance.

Kennedy’s own endurance has had a lot to do with innovation. Kennedy says he was the first to produce a bodybuilding magazine in colour, and the first to create a magazine exclusively for women in fitness.

Throughout the years, Kennedy would go on to craft specialty issues, and recently released one called Clean Eating, committed to nutrition. The issue was such a success that Kennedy has now branched off into a new publication.

Today, Clean Eating is on its third issue and proving to be a nourishing part of Robert Kennedy Publishing (RKP). And Kennedy is convinced Clean Eating will soon be his best seller due to its mainstream appeal.

But it’s not just magazines Kennedy is producing these days. He recently published a series of books authored by his wife, Tosca Reno. She’s a regular columnist for Oxygen and the author of several how-to health books. In 2007, she released The Eat Clean Diet and this year she has followed up with The Eat Clean Diet Cookbook, The Eat Clean Workout and, most recently, The Eat Clean Diet for Family and Kids.

Reno credits Kennedy with giving her the motivation to start working out and eating “clean.” Reno, who was over 200 hundred pounds at the age of 40, is now, at the age of 49, a swimsuit model. The two met while she was working for him and it was Kennedy who persuaded her to take control of her weight. He has also contributed to her books and even captured all the black and white photos that appear in them. He says his wife is such an inspiration to readers that whenever she appears on the cover of Oxygen, sales go up by as much as 20 per cent.

Today, the collection of his life’s labour consists of books, exercise videos, fitness gear, and, of course, his beloved magazines. 

“Most of the old issues are not that good,” he says of the first issues of MuscleMag. “Nowadays, they have gotten a lot better.”

Kennedy insists these days he and his 100 person army put more effort into design than ever before.

“We are optimizing virtually every page: strong, compelling cover lines and strong cover pictures and improved writing because it is so competitive,” he says.

Kennedy’s biggest competition always came from brothers Joe and Ben Weider. Joe Weider is the founder of Muscle&Fitness, and Ben Weider founded the International Federation of Bodybuilding, the iconic organization for professional competitors. Together they have dominated the industry. But Kennedy always competed well. In 2002, Weider sold his empire for $350 million US to David Pecker of American Media Inc., the man behind celebrity gossip mags, The National Enquirer, Star and others. Pecker bought all six Weider titles, including Flex, Muscle&Fitness, and Shape.

According to Kennedy, when Pecker moved in, many people moved out and some have since migrated north to RKP. One person who made the trade is Rich Baker, a former art director for Muscle&Fitness.

Baker says one thing that distinguishes Kennedy from competitors is his hands-on approach and MuscleMag’s distinctive style.

“Over the years, M&F has really changed its focus,” says Baker. “They have slowly transitioned into fitness. MuscleMag fits into that nice niche. It keeps more humour about it and has more of a broad coverage of bodybuilding.”

As Kennedy glances over some of the first issues of MuscleMag, a cover featuring Arnold captures his attention. A young Schwarzenegger glances confidently back.

“Arnold is the most interesting person I know. He is a very driven man, very astute. He can read a person just by looking at them, and know what it is that they want from you. Just like a woman who sums up a man from his clothes or the dirt under his fingernails, Arnold can sum a person up just like that.”

Robert Kennedy poses in front of good friend Arnold Scharzenegger
Schwarzenegger is just one of Kennedy's famous friends.

Kennedy was introduced to The Terminator when Schwarzenegger was 18 and they’ve worked closely together throughout the years. For a short period, Schwarzenegger was a regular contributor with his own Q&A column. Schwarzenegger even managed to get Kennedy into a nasty legal battle with Gold’s Gym when, in one issue, he referred to the California fitness centre as an outhouse. Luckily, Kennedy managed to sweet talk his way out of that one. He and Schwarzenegger have maintained a relationship over the years and Kennedy says he still sends the governor issues of his magazines by the boxful.

And while MuscleMag is still only the second biggest publication in its niche, Kennedy is convinced he will soon corner the magazine market on the lifestyle he has embraced since his childhood.

“I was 14 years old,” he says, “and my father told me one day when he saw me in my little shorts, ‘You skinny!’ And that was enough to make me worry about it because I sort of looked up to him. I used to try and eat as much as I could and drink as much milk as I could, anything to gain weight. I didn’t even care if it was muscle. And then . . . I got into bodybuilding.”