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From New Castle studio, fitness guru spreads her influence worldwide

Tuesday, December 04, 2001

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's 9:30 a.m. and Leslie Sansone is sweating.

So are the 20 other women following her lead in the second aerobics class at Studio Fitness in New Castle.

"Our bodies are meant for motion," says Leslie Sansone, who shows her vivaciousness while filming a new fitness video in the Crane Room Grill, New Castle. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette Photos)

Dressed in flared black workout pants and red tank top, her arms pump up and down as she marches in place on a platform in front of a mirrored wall to a heart-thumping, get-moving version of "Proud Mary."

"Rollin', [side step, side step] rollin' [side step, side step] rollin' on the river."

From fire hall to exhibit hall, from videotape to live television, Sansone has spent 21 years building a little fitness empire, developing a worldwide Walk Aerobics video tape fan-base of tight tummies and toned thighs, all from Lawrence County.

"She's considered by the people in this area to be a truly dynamic promoter and marketer," said Bob McCracken, executive vice president of the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Sansone is a member.

"She's been very generous in sharing her time with other business entrepreneurs and sharing some of her secrets to success," McCracken said.


For more information about Leslie Sansone or walk aerobics, visit http://www.walkaerobics.com/ or call 888-440-9255.


Like any exercise diva worth her salt, the 40-year-old Sansone is fit, energetic and born to motivate. This vivacious mother of three is also a QVC staple.

In fact, Sansone was the first guest host to tout her own product on the fledgling television network 15 years ago. QVC's buyer agreed with Sansone that "the girl with these tapes has great charisma, great personality," said QVC's Roger Elvin.

Sansone, wanting to take away the fear of fast-paced aerobics, developed her program based on aerobic walking.

"Our bodies are meant for motion," she says. "If you just think of it that way, we have to be more physical in our daily language to be healthy."

Sansone's line of in-home walking tapes began when a fitness studio regular heading for vacation asked her to videotape the classes so she wouldn't miss her workout. Since then, she's developed 28 fitness videotapes.

Her visibility really skyrocketed this year with the release of her "Walk Away the Pounds!" infomercial.

It features soap queen Jackie Zeman of "General Hospital" fame as the host. But make no mistake, Sansone is the star. Young mothers, middle-aged couples and aerobicized grannies line up to see her at public appearances. And Sansone takes her time with each person.

She is a wealth of fitness wisdom and she likes to share. She holds six fitness certifications, including ones from the American College of Sports Medicine and the Cooper Institute.

"We didn't just think of a product and throw it out there," said Sansone. "We have worked this program for 20 years."

That's not difficult to imagine, since "persistent" and "hard-working" are the words used to describe her. Coupled with Sansone's genuine niceness, there's no way she could have failed, friends and family say.

"She just has that consistent upbeat, positive attitude," says husband Joseph Bullano. "She finds good things in everyone."

Bullano and Sansone found each other in a business meeting 11 years ago. The couple have two children together -- Marie Ellena, 10, and Joseph, 6 -- and Sansone has a son, Andy, 17.

Daughter Marie Ellena's story about an event at school amuses Leslie Sansone.

Bullano is amazed at how well Sansone balances being a wife, mother and career woman. She has no full-time help with the housework or the children.

"I love a normal life; I wouldn't want to be in a situation where I have a staff," said Sansone, who relishes her role as homemaker. "The best thing my mother taught me was how to keep a home, how to cook, how to clean the floors, to make a home a home."

Sansone and her husband also give credit to her associates, a corps of women who help operate Studio Fitness.

"I love my job," said Michelle Conti, Sansone's director of business affairs, road manager, right hand and friend since high school. "We work very hard, but it's the journey that's made it so fabulous."

In the early days, Sansone traveled to church and fire halls to teach aerobics, accepting donations in a coffee can on the floor.

Though she's enjoying huge success now, by all accounts she remains unfazed by it.

"She's the same whether she's in front of the TV camera or she's talking to you one on one," said Mary Kay Bruening, who started out in a class 21 years ago and is now an instructor.

That's a quality that prompted Good Times Production to offer Sansone an infomercial.

"We've known Leslie for years and seen her work," said Lynn Hamlin of Good Times Production. "We felt she was somebody that could be marketed in a very, very big way."

They should know. Good Times produces infomercials for Richard Simmons' weight loss products and Charlton Heston's Bible videos. Sansone's infomercial has sold more than 500,000 units of "Walk Away the Pounds" at $39.95 each.

When not teaching at her studio, Sansone works from the little office in her home, a comfortably elegant three-bedroom -- with plenty of windows -- at the end of a cul-de-sac. The fitness phenom and her lawyer husband are building a bigger house on three acres right around the corner.

At the taping of her new video, Leslie Sansone is surprised to see Yvonne Chichin of New Castle, her third-grade teacher whom she hasn't seen since grade school.

That's not bad for a modest Italian girl born on a wintry Feb. 14. She has two older sisters, Valerie Sansone and Toni Ullrich, and a younger brother, John, a local restaurateur. Toni, a registered dietitian, provides Sansone with nutrition and diet information.

As naive teens, however, they "went on a lot of crazy diets together," Ullrich said. "We didn't have a clue about proper nutrition and exercise."

An A-student and the only girl studying mechanical engineering at New Castle High School, Sansone was quiet and shy around crowds, said her brother John, owner of Little Johnny's. When she was voted homecoming queen, she thought about declining but didn't.

After graduation, Leslie Sansone began studying engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. That summer, she took a fitness class and enjoyed it so much that soon she was leading classes.

To her mother's dismay, Sansone left Youngstown State University, where she had transferred, in her sophomore year to teach fitness full-time.

Her father, a buyer for a store in New Castle with a degree in electrical engineering, had no qualms over her decision.

"I knew everybody has a wish or a goal," John Sansone Sr. said. "You should never forget your dreams because one day those dreams can happen."

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