November 13, 1999
By Larry Maddry
The Virginian-Pilot

HERE'S A SUCCESS story about a professional writer who zoomed to the top of the best-seller list - without a lot of heavy lifting.

That's what Norfolk's Mike D'Orso did. And the bucks and the fat checks just keep coming.

D'Orso, a former Virginian-Pilot reporter, is co-author of "Body for Life,'' with fitness guru Bill Phillips. The HarperCollins book voices the opinions of the highly successful muscle-building magazine owner and nutritionist. "Body for Life'' has been at or near the top of several non-fiction best-seller lists - including The New York Times, and Publishers Weekly - in recent weeks.

D'Orso has collaborated on a host of books; three of them were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and three were national best-sellers. A solo effort, "Rosewood: Like Judgment Day,'' was highly acclaimed. He just worked with U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., on a book for Simon & Schuster; "In Praise of Public Life'' will be released in February.

But for sales, none of those books can touch "Body for Life,'' which has sold more than half a million copies since it was published in June. I talked recently with D'Orso, who is gratified, if not astonished, by the book's success. How did he get involved, I wondered.

He credits his agent, David Black, for making him aware of Phillips and his program for mental and physical health and strength.

"David phoned in the spring and told me about the opportunity to do this book, noting that a publisher had shown real interest. I said, `David, the man is a body-builder, I can't think of anything more removed from my interest.' ''Black knows D'Orso well and brought the author around to his point of view. The agent patiently explained that the book he envisioned was more inspirational and motivational than merely a how-to for body-building.

Fortunately, D'Orso listened. Weeks later, he flew to Denver to interview Phillips, who created EAS, a company that produces nutritional food supplements. He also publishes the popular Muscle Media magazine. Meeting Phillips on his own turf was a surreal experience. "He makes about a million dollars every 11 days,'' D'Orso said. "His headquarters in Golden, Colo., looks like Xanadu perched on the cliffs overlooking Denver.'' At first, D'Orso regarded the headquarters building as a temple of vanity. "Orchids are flown in from Hawaii every day to decorate the lobby,'' he explained, shaking his head at the extravagance. But, after getting to know the fitness advocate, D'Orso was impressed.

"Everyone is blown away by Phillips' looks,'' he said. "People in weight rooms around the country want to look like him in the way that kids with basketball goals in their back yards wanted to jam the ball like Michael Jordan.

"But I was impressed by the way he talked. He speaks like an infomercial, but he believes what he says. . . . He does help people change their lives, and that gives him genuine pleasure.''

A trim specimen himself, D'Orso didn't feel the need to change his life or body, so he hasn't used the program, which stresses good nutrition and weightlifting. In the book, D'Orso gives shape to Phillips' language in the way the body-builder has improved his readers' appearance. There are many stories of victories over fat. For years, Phillips has held a contest - he calls it a "transformation challenge'' - to those who want to improve their mind and physiques by taking his 12-week program. His pupils were asked to submit "before'' and "after'' photographs of themselves and an essay about the benefits. The first prize in the beginning was a blood-red Lamborghini.

This year's prize includes $1 million in cash and 100 first-class, all-expenses-paid dream vacations to Hawaii. Is that a great gimmick for selling a book or not?

One thing's for certain, the before and after photos of men and women who have practiced Phillips' program are stunning. Phillips says the overweight can change their lives with aerobics and good nutrition. But, he asks: Since both involve physical exertion, why not choose the method that sculpts your body into the shape you desire?

That's the kind of thinking that could give dumbbells a good name.