During his January 14 program, Fox Business personality Neil Cavuto tried to bait Michael Karolchyk, the willfully offensive owner of Denver's Anti-Gym, into directing one of his trademark tirades against overweight people at the jolliest soul he could imagine: Santa Claus. And Karolchyk was more than happy to oblige. "Santa Claus — now, he'd be skinny for Americans. He'd have to actually go back to the North Pole and eat more. He'd be considered a teenager today," he blustered, so lost in his riff that he occasionally forgot to make sense. "And Mrs. Claus — oh, my God, that's an eating disorder. They'd say she was anorexic."
Cavuto chortled along with this rant, and no wonder. In a day and age when the easiest way to land a slot on a TV reality show is to act like a prick, Karolchyk is made to order for national cable. Indeed, his Fox Business cameo came less than two weeks after the Anti-Gym was featured on Fox News glamour boy Shepard Smith's program — and Channel 31, the network's local affiliate, recently made Karolchyk the star of an extended point-counterpoint hosted by anchor Ron Zappolo. Channel 31 frequently screens his memorably obnoxious ads, too, even though the "No Chubbies" catchphrase they're built upon makes it seem as if he wants to outlaw erections.
Nevertheless, Karolchyk takes delight in posing as a victim of media operations too gutless to let him share his hard-ass lessons about diet and exercise with a porky public even when he's willing to pay handsomely for the privilege. His website's home page asserts that he's been "blackballed at Colorado & Co.," put on "double secret probation from Mix 100.3" and "banned from CBS," and these claims prove accurate, more or less. Colorado & Co. producer Dreux DeMack offers a no-comment — "I really don't want to feed it," he says — but the show has definitely stopped accepting Karolchyk's cash. So has the Mix, whose head honcho, Don Howe, felt that Anti-Gym ads — like the one in which a hefty gal mopes about having to get dates drunk before they'll have sex with her — didn't fit the station's profile. "Their spots are aimed at shocking and shaming people into picking up the phone," he maintains. "That may be an effective strategy for them, but it's not advertising we're going to send out to our listeners, who were very vocal about the ads. They used words like 'offensive' and 'insulting.'" And Walt DeHaven, general manager of Channel 4, a CBS outlet, says attempts to find a middle ground between Karolchyk's desire for provocative promotion and the station's interest in keeping the switchboard quiet "never came together."
According to DeHaven, his dealings with the Anti-Gym ended there. But Karolchyk argues otherwise in a labyrinthine tale that involves Martin Higgins, a comedian who currently works on Anti-Gym commercials, and another TV station, Channel 7. Higgins says that last year he happened upon a posting on Craigslist announcing a protest against the Anti-Gym and attended out of curiosity. There he got his first look at Karolchyk, who went into the street and berated his critics through a bullhorn. Even though Higgins is a plus-size fellow, he says he was fascinated by Karolchyk's flair and recognized the opportunity to stage the equivalent of guerrilla theater. So he arranged to meet with the Anti-Gym's king rat, and together they came up with what they considered to be a foolproof way to garner more publicity.
"What Marty does is infiltrate fat acceptance groups," Karolchyk reveals. "He gets involved in them, or starts some of them, and gets real fat people to hate me. People ask about the protests we've had in the past, and the way it works is, there are five or six hired people who get paid, and then about twenty real ones will show up."
Before long, Channel 7 reporter Lane Lyon learned of a planned protest from a press release and contacted Higgins for an interview, not knowing the supposed Anti-Gym hater was actually in Karolchyk's corner. "It was an incredible marketing opportunity, and no one was going to get hurt by it," says Higgins, who was listed on the release as Martin Kitson — his mother's maiden name. "And as a comedian, I couldn't pass it up."
Lyon subsequently interviewed Karolchyk and Higgins/Kitson, and the report appeared that evening. Shortly thereafter, word filtered back to the station that Lyon had been bamboozled. Karolchyk swears he didn't know in advance that Lyon had interviewed Higgins, but he certainly did by the time the reporter returned for an explanation — and he chose to play things coy. "Lane Lyon said, 'You gave me a fake story.' I said, 'No, I didn't.' He said, 'What about this guy, this Martin Kitson? They said he works for you.' And I said, 'I don't know a Martin Kitson' — and I don't. I know a Martin Higgins, but not a Martin Kitson. So I told a little white lie. But it wasn't my fault. It was his fault. He should have done better research."
Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy agrees. "People stage events all the time, and every day you're doing the best you can to make sure the people and the motives and the issues are real," he says. "That's what we're supposed to do, and 99.9 percent of the time, we get it right." This case was obviously an exception, and Channel 7 pulled all references to Lyon's report from its website. However, the station didn't put out a correction because, Grandy maintains, "I don't know if we ever solved the matter of who the guy worked for and who he was working for at the time." Perhaps one of Channel 7's investigative specialists will be able to do so now.
Karolchyk thinks he already knows who tipped Channel 7 to Higgins's identity: Walt DeHaven. He says he heard from two sources — Channel 7 local sales manager Missy Evenson and Channel 31 news director Brad Remington — that DeHaven circulated either an e-mail or a letter warning his broadcast peers to give Karolchyk and the Anti-Gym a wide berth due to the incident. But Evenson declines to comment on the subject, and Remington says he heard about the hinky report from an unnamed newspaper reporter. And DeHaven? In his words, "It never happened in a million years."
Of course, raising objections about the way Karolchyk operates seems like common sense considering his admission about the bogus protest — and a profile in the January edition of 5280 magazine won't make many folks reconsider their negative opinions. The piece, by staffer Robert Sanchez, blew holes through many of the stories Karolchyk told about his past, and climaxed with his own mother declaring, "My son has become a liar."
Predictably, Karolchyk excoriates Sanchez, branding him a "bastard" for allegedly taking comments out of context, quizzing his mom despite a declaration that family was off-limits, and stating in print that Mr. K. had dodged a formal interview despite a string of e-mails in which he expressed an eagerness to chat. Sanchez, for his part, stands by the accuracy of his reporting and emphasizes that he never agreed to steer clear of kin — and he says Karolchyk didn't overcome his allergy to a sit-down until very late in the process, when he figured out that the feature wouldn't be a valentine. "He kept saying, 'I want to rebut my critics,'" Sanchez recalls. "But there weren't really any critics in the article. It was about his life. He would have essentially been rebutting himself."
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Karolchyk will probably get around to doing just that eventually. Until then, he refuses to apologize for his methodology or his message — and given the rapidity with which he's landed a coast-to-coast platform, why should he?
"If everybody likes me, I don't make any money," he says. "So we have to be edgy — and being edgy offends a ton of people. But I don't care. I don't care if I piss off a million people, because when I do, they write nasty blogs about me and we grow our brand virally. When I tell the truth, I get way more marketing, way more media. So bring it on."
Chew on that, Santa.