Fast-Food Nation Part One: The True Cost of America's Diet

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Fourteen of Feamster's employees meet at the Belmont store around seven o'clock on a Tuesday morning. Feamster has tickets to an event called Peter Lowe's Success at the McNichols Sports Arena, in Denver. It starts at 8:15 in the morning, runs until six in the evening and features a dozen guest speakers, including Henry Kissinger, Barbara Bush and former British Prime Minister John Major. The event is being sponsored by a group called Peter Lowe International, the Success Authority. The tickets cost Feamster ninety dollars each. He's rented a van and given these employees the day off. He doesn't know exactly what to expect from the event but hopes to provide a day to remember. Feamster wants his young workers to see that "there's a world out there beyond the south side of Pueblo."

The parking lot at the McNichols Arena is jammed. The event has been sold out for days. Men and women leave their cars and walk briskly toward the arena. There's a buzz of anticipation. Public figures of this stature don't appear in Denver every week. The arena is filled with 18,000 people, and almost every single one of them is white, clean-cut and prosperous. They are small-business owners, salespeople, middle managers. In the hallways and corridors where you'd normally buy hot dogs and Denver Nuggets memorabilia, Peter Lowe's Success Yearbook is being sold for $19.95, American Sales Leads on CD-ROM are available for $375, and Zig Ziglar is offering Secrets of Closing the Sale (a twelve-tape collection) for $120 and Everything of Zig's (forty-seven tapes, five books and eleven videos) for the discount price of $995.

Peter Lowe has been staging these large-scale events since 1991. He's a thirty-nine-year-old Canadian "success authority" with a home in Tampa, Florida. His parents were Anglican missionaries who gave up the material comforts of middle-class life in Van-couver to work among the poor of India and Pakistan. Lowe was raised in Mussoorie, India, but he chose a different path. In 1981, he quit his job as a computer salesman and organized his first "success seminars." The appearance of Ronald Reagan at one of these events soon encouraged other celebrities to endorse Peter Lowe's work. In return he pays them a fee of between $30,000 to $50,000 for a speech – for about half an hour of work. Among those who've recently joined Lowe onstage are George Bush, Oliver North, Barbara Walters, Mikhail Gorbachev, Colin Powell, Charlton Heston, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Mario Cuomo.

Rachel Vasquez, the manager of the Belmont Little Caesar's, can hardly believe that she's sitting among so many people who own their own businesses, among so many executives in suits and ties. The Little Caesar's employees have seats just a few yards from the stage. They've never seen anything like this. Although the arena is huge, it seems as though these fourteen fast-food workers from Pueblo can almost reach out and touch the famous people onstage.

"You are the elite of America," Brian Tracy, author of The Psychology of Selling, tells the crowd. "Say to yourself: 'I like me! I like me! I like me!' " He is followed by Henry Kissinger, who tells some foreign-policy anecdotes. And then Peter Lowe's attractive wife, Tamara, leads the audience in a dance contest; the winner gets a free trip to Disneyland. Four contestants climb onstage and dozens of beach balls are tossed into the crowd as the sound system blasts the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA." Thousands of people start dancing and bouncing the striped balls into the air. Barbara Bush is next, arriving to "Fanfare for the Common Man," her smile projected onto two gigantic television screens. She tells a story that begins, "We had the whole gang at Kennebunkport…."

When Peter Lowe arrives, fireworks go off and multicolored confetti drops from the ceiling. He is a slender, redheaded man in a gray double-breasted suit. He advises the audience to be cheerful, to train themselves for courage, to feed themselves with optimism and never quit. He recommends his tape series, Success Talk, on sale at the arena, which promises a monthly interview with "one of the most successful people of our time." After a short break, he reveals what is ultimately necessary to achieve success. "Lord Jesus, I need you," Peter Lowe asks the crowd to pray. "I want you to come into my life and forgive me for the things I've done."

As the loudspeakers play the theme song from Chariots of Fire, Lowe wheels Christopher Reeve onstage. The crowd applauds wildly. Reeve's handsome face is framed by longish gray hair. A respirator tube extends from the neck of his blue sweat shirt to a square box on the back of his wheelchair. Reeve describes how it once felt to lie in a hospital bed at two o'clock in the morning, alone and unable to move and thinking that daylight would never come. He thanks the crowd for its support and confesses that the applause is one reason he appears at these events; it helps to keep his spirits up. He donates the speaking fees to groups that conduct spinal-cord research. He has a strong voice but needs to pause for breath after every few words. "I've had to leave the physical world," he says. A stillness falls upon the huge arena. "By the time I was twenty-four, I was making millions," he continues. "I was pretty pleased with myself.. . . I was selfish and neglected my family.. . . Since my accident, I've been realizing. . . success means something quite different." Members of the audience start to weep. "I see people achieve these conventional goals," he says in a mild, even tone. "None of it matters."

His words cut through all the snake oil of the last few hours, calmly and with great precision. All of those in the arena, no matter how greedy or eager for promotion, all 18,000 of them, know deep in their hearts that what Reeve has just said is true – too true. Their latest schemes, their plans to market and subdivide and franchise their way up, the whole spirit now gripping Colorado, seem to vanish in an instant. Men and women up and down the aisles wipe away tears, touched not only by what this famous man has been through but also by a sudden awareness of something hollow in their own lives, something gnawing and unfulfilled.

Moments after Reeve is wheeled off the stage, nutritionist Jack Groppel, the next speaker, walks up to the microphone and starts his pitch: "Tell me, friends, in your lifetime, have you ever been on a diet?"

This story is from the September 3rd, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.



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