The larger-than-life story of Bernarr Macfadden, a bodybuilder who turned his obsession with muscles, celebrity, and confession into a publishing empire that transformed global media.
In True Story, Shanon Fitzpatrick tells the unlikely story of an orphan from the Ozarks who became one of history’s most powerful media moguls. Born in 1868 in Mill Spring, Missouri, Bernarr Macfadden turned to bodybuilding to transform himself from a sickly “boy” into a creature of masculine perfection. He then channeled his passion into the magazine Physical Culture, capitalizing on the wider turn-of-the-century mania for fitness. Macfadden Publications soon become a pioneer in mass media, helping to inaugurate our sensational, confessional, and body-obsessed global marketplace.
With publications like True Story, a magazine purportedly written and edited by its own readers, as well as scores of romance, crime, and fan magazines, Macfadden specialized in titles that targeted women, immigrants, and the working class. Although derided as pulp by critics of the time, Macfadden’s publications were not merely profitable. They were also influential. They championed reader engagement and interactivity long before these were buzzwords in the media industry, breaking down barriers between producers and consumers of culture. At the same time, Macfadden Publications inspired key elements of modern media strategy by privileging rapid production of new content and equally rapid disintegration and reconfiguration of properties in the face of shifting market conditions.
No less than the kings of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, Macfadden was a crucial player in shaping American consumer culture and selling it to the world at large. Though the Macfadden media empire is overlooked today, its legacies are everywhere, from true-crime journalism to celebrity gossip rags and fifteen-minute abs.