Politics, religion throw Curves a curve

Southwest fitness franchisees sweat out a controversy over founder's antihomosexuality, anti-abortion views

The strip mall at Lagoon and Dupont looks like most others. While it's a good spot to operate a low-overhead business, it has a slightly beaten appearance. At this black-topped ribbon of Uptown, you can rent a movie, buy a cellphone, hire temporary workers, cash a paycheck, do a sack of laundry or tone the muscles of your posterior.

A small segment of the low-slung brick mall is adorned with a curvy white-and-violet logo safely suggesting something slightly sexy. Inside, a dozen women -- most appear to be in their 40s, 50s and 60s -- are exercising in one of the more than 7,500 Curves health clubs around the world.

Like most Curves franchises, the two in Southwest, 2929 Dupont Ave. S. in Uptown, and 4345 France Ave. S. in Linden Hills, are owned by women. And like all Curves franchises these days, they're caught in a media tempest.

It's a squall that clearly makes Lori Clarke, owner of the Linden Hills franchise, uncomfortable.

As she sits in sweatclothes behind a modest desk just a few feet from her perspiring clients, it's obvious that she'd rather not talk about the controversy churning around Curves' founder and

CEO, Gary Heavin, a Waco, Texas businessman.

"This isn't about religion or politics," she said of her business. "It's not about that. When people start talking about politics, we just direct the conversation elsewhere."

In the beginning

The topics of politics, religion and Curves became linked April 20, when a San Francisco Chronicle columnist took a hard shot at the company. Jon Carroll wrote that Heavin (pronounced "Haven"), a born-again Christian, "is a heavy contributor to several organizations allied with Operation Save America, the rather more muscular successor to Operation Rescue, the antichoice group."

A week later, another Chronicle columnist, Ruth Rosen, wrote that the 49-year-old Heavin had given "at least $5 million of his profits to some of the most militant anti-abortion groups in the country."

She closed her column with what she described as a feminist dilemma: "Curves targets Baby Boomer women -- many of whom consider themselves feminists -- precisely because it offers a refuge from gyms that cater to musclemen or singles.

"What to do? Your decision. There are alternatives, including just plain walking."

As Internet bloggers and discussion forums called for a boycott of Curves, it seemed as if the company were in trouble; its carefully constructed "woman-friendly" image shattered.

Not so fast. A couple of weeks after Heavin issued a press release disputing the Chronicle reports, the paper retracted Rosen's column and corrected both its Curves pieces.

Chronicle editors wrote that Rosen's characterization of the organizations receiving Heavin's money was "not accurate." They wrote that only one of the "recipients, Care Net, operates pregnancy crisis centers that are designed to dissuade pregnant women from having abortions while offering other support services to encourage adoption."

That organization is receiving $750,000 from Heavin over five years.

The other women's health groups Heavin donated to aren't actively involved in the anti-abortion movement, according to the Chronicle.

Though Heavin's charitable contributions were the subject of shoddy reporting, he's responsible for taking pen in hand earlier this year to write an editorial for his hometown Waco Tribune-Herald. The local Girl Scouts branch had named the head of Planned Parenthood of Central Texas a "Woman of Distinction" and some people in Waco were calling for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies. Heavin wrote that he wouldn't allow his 10-year-old daughter to join the Scouts.

"I don't want her being taught masturbation and told that homosexuality is normal," he wrote.

He let Planned Parenthood have a broadside, too: "Those who support Planned Parenthood are supporting its agenda of abortion on demand and the subsidy of other people's abortions with our tax dollars, materials that allege 'safe sex' and promote homosexuality and, oh yeah, some health care…"

Raining on Heavin

Nancy Lund, owner of the Uptown Curves, as well as three others in the Twin Cities area and three in Chicago, said she thinks Heavin has been unfairly portrayed in the media.

"His ultimate goal really is to help women's health," Lund said. "He's rooted in that because his mother died of complications for something that could've been corrected if she'd exercised and eaten right."

Lund said, "I think that someone who is a multimillionaire -- I don't even know if he's a billionaire -- who wants to run his business according to very, very spiritual principles, it's a breath of fresh air. He doesn't force his religion on anybody, but he does run his business in a fair manner because of his beliefs. And I feel very taken care of as a franchisee."

She said if a boycott were to take place at her business, one of the last people to be hurt by it would be Heavin.

"Gary gets no more or less money whether somebody quits or not," she said.

Lund said she has about 3,000 members at her seven clubs; each pays $29 per month. She said she pays a flat franchise fee of $395 per month to Curves International whether she has 1,000 members or 10 members.

She said that when news of Heavin's donations to pro-life organizations first spread, "We had members who actually wanted to quit and had some concerns about it. They wanted to know if we, personally as owners, were involved in any of that type of donations."

Lund declined to identify herself as either pro-choice or pro-life, but she said her Curves franchise has donated to the Heart Association and Caring and Sharing Hands, among other charities.

She said that all of her members decided to stay with Curves after she shared Heavin's press release with them.

Clarke said that only one member of her 800 has quit her franchise after hearing about Heavin's stance on choice.

Becky Frusher, a spokesperson for Curves International, said because all franchises are independently owned, the company has no way to know how many members nationwide have quit because of Heavin. "We don't keep those kinds of numbers. They don't give them to us, and we don't ask them."

She said some areas of the country were "hit harder than others" by the controversy, but that Minneapolis isn't one of them.

Frusher said Heavin "makes no bones about being forward with his Christianity."

Franchisees attend a week-long training seminar at which Heavin "tells everyone up front: this is who I am; this is why I believe I'm successful," she said. "The problem is, when you're in that situation, you're excited about being there; you want to open your club, and you're not listening to that. You're thinking, 'How can that possibly affect me?' Well, people need to start thinking and, you know, listening to what he says."

According to Entrepreneur magazine, Curves is the fastest-growing franchise operation in America, boasting over three million members, all women. They typically go to their neighborhood Curves three times a week to spend 30 minutes working out on low-impact hydraulic machines and jogging mats arranged in a conversation-friendly circle.

Lund said that women who boycott Curves "are going to be hurting themselves in the long run because they're not going to be exercising, losing weight and getting healthy. We watch these ladies change. They blossom in front of us. They don't have knee problems any more, they don't have backaches any more, they sleep better at night, they're happy, they're active.

"These are the ladies that would not be working out anywhere else without Curves, and it would be a shame if any of them stopped working out, regardless."

Samantha Smart, a founder of the feminist organization Speak Out Sisters!, said the question of whether to boycott Curves is difficult because it's wrapped up in health and image issues and questions about whether feminists should spurn woman-owned businesses.

"A lot of women feel terrible about themselves and their bodies because we've got this whole super-skinny, tall, thin, blonde, blue-eyed model of beauty," she said. "So that's an important, related issue because there's a lack of self-love because of all of that pressure."

While Smart doesn't call for a boycott, she said, "We've got to take for granted that women do a lot of oppressing of each other, even though you'd think that we should have so much common cause -- we should have sisterhood. We have internalized patriarchy in the same way that people of color have often internalized racism. So we're suffering and oppressing each other as much as we're being oppressed by others."

Erin Matson, president of Minnesota NOW, said her organization doesn't encourage a Curves boycott.

"It's really kind of ironic because a lot of women have really loved Curves as this way to feel good about their bodies. It's an easy way to get fit, and it really works for a lot of women and it feels like a women-centered environment. Yet at the same time, [the members] don't know that their money is…going to support antichoice causes that certainly aren't friendly to their bodies."

A spokesperson for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a Kingfield-based pro-life organization, declined to comment.

Seeing both sides

Most of the two dozen women we asked to talk to outside the Uptown and Linden Hills Curves also declined to comment or said little more than "everyone has a right to their opinion" before making their way into the club or their cars.

No one said she had heard of the Heavin controversy and when informed of it, no one said she would quit the club.

Beth Ronald of East Isles said she thinks everyone has a right to his or her opinion "even though I don't agree on this."

Ronald said she decided years ago, after a controversy about Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan's support of pro-life organizations, not to boycott businesses supporting political and social causes she opposes.

"I wouldn't try to hurt them," she said of Curves. "I can see it both ways."

Said Curves franchisee Clarke, "In this club, I have people from every walk of life: military, Christian, Muslim, lesbian and everything in between. Far Left and far Right. I just want this to be a comfortable place to come to without that debate. This isn't the place for that."