Sportacus, Magnus Scheving’s alter ego, is on a mission to get couch potato kids off the sofa and outdoors playing. He has been credited with transforming the youth of Iceland By Sarah Lyall
Saturday, Mar 03, 2007, Page 16

Advertising Advertising

Except for the muscles rippling under his form-fitting dress shirt, Magnus Scheving at first glance bears little resemblance to Sportacus, the hyperactive, health-promoting hero he plays in the international hit children’s television program LazyTown. Unlike Sportacus, Scheving does not have a thin black mustache that juts out as if he had recently been electrocuted. He does not reside in a dirigible in the sky. He does not have a ski hat-cum-nightcap permanently affixed to his head.

But both he and his alter ego are devoted to a single, impassioned cause: getting couch potato-prone children to exercise, eat good food and generally lead healthier lives. And somehow Scheving, the creator and chief executive of the vast entertainment and licensing company known as LazyTown Entertainment, has become one of Iceland’s best-known figures and biggest exports, a sui generis hybrid of Jack LaLanne and Richard Branson.

He has been credited with prying a generation of Icelandic children off the computer and into the frigid outdoors. Now that LazyTown is broadcast in 106 countries, including the US, he wants to do the same for everyone else.

Scheving, 42, has worked, often simultaneously, as a talk show host, motivational speaker, actor, director, writer, carpenter, fitness instructor, health club owner, healthy-lifestyle ambassador, stand-up comedian, entrepreneur and aerobics competitor. In a recent interview in LazyTown’s boardroom in this Reykjavik suburb, he held forth on those and other pursuits, supplementing his remarks by writing on a whiteboard, as if giving a lecture.

He demonstrated an infectious charm, a healthy ability to laugh at himself and a tendency toward hyperbolic non sequiturs.

“When I was 15 I had a larger salary than the prime minister,” he announced. Of his knack as a carpenter, he said: “You will see downstairs there is a steam bath that I built myself in one weekend.”

Lazytown Entertainment, begun 12 years ago, is now so influential in Iceland that when it organized a promotion in which children could exchange special LazyTown “money” for healthy products, sales of fruit and vegetables increased 22 percent in one month.

Across the country, children go to bed at 8:08pm, because that is when Sportacus does (or else he gets grumpy and overwrought).

The show depicts a community whose children are constantly tempted by the sweets and sloth offered by the world’s slobbiest villain, Robbie Rotten. But the day is inevitably saved by Sportacus, who repels junk food by the deft use of tennis rackets, passes off apples and carrots as energy-enhancing “sports candy” and never walks into a room when he can just as easily do a double flip through the window.

A compact 170cm, Scheving does the stunts himself, with the aid of three “guys in their 20s,” he said proudly. He thought carefully about what to call his creation — “I wanted to have sports in it, but I didn’t want to call him ‘Sportsman,”‘ — and its potential for wider exploitation down the road.

“Tarzan was a great concept, but you can’t really sell his clothing, because he was naked,” he said.

Scheving grew up in Borgarness, a small town 90 minutes northwest of Reykjavik. He studied to be an architect, but realized that such a job was inadequate to his boundless ambition. During his 20s, a friend bet him that he would not be able to learn and excel at an unconventional sport: competitive aerobics.

The sport has a certain reputation, in part because of the tendency of male contestants to wear sparkly, Liberace-style costumes, Scheving said. But “in my mind, it is one of the most difficult sports in the world,” he said, listing several reasons on the board.

He dropped to the floor. “I go to the football guys, ‘If it’s sissy, let’s go down and do a one-armed push-up and then go from side to side and up,”‘ he said, before performing a maneuver that resembled a push-up the way a double back flip resembles jumping lightly in the air. “They never can.”

He won a silver medal at the World Aerobics Championship in Japan. He won the European championship, twice. Other awards followed. (“Maria!” he yelled, summoning his personal assistant. “When was I sportsman of the year, 1994 or 1996?”).

The first LazyTown product was a book, Go, Go, LazyTown! Then came a stage musical, written by Scheving. He starred as Sports Elf, a Sportacus precursor in a woodsy mustard-yellow outfit.

“In Iceland there’s a whole tradition of elves,” he said. He himself does not necessarily believe in them, and was irritated when a German interviewer repeatedly demanded, in apparent seriousness: “Are you sure you’re not really an elf?”

When he is filming, Scheving said he works “17.7 hours a day.” But he has other interests. He and his girlfriend, whom he met at the gym 18 years ago and is LazyTown’s chief financial officer, have three children.

While he sits in the makeup chair eating his porridge on filming days, employees line up for an audience like airplanes stacked up on the runway. “Maria says, ‘OK, you have five minutes each,”‘ he said.

He also holds meetings while in the shower (though he closes the curtain) and strews dumbbells strategically around the building. “Sometimes when I’m talking to people in post-production, I’m lifting weights,” he said.

A believer in fitting exercise into daily life, Scheving jumps up and down 20 times when he boards a plane; performs 100 push-ups before bed; and does an indefinite number of squats before getting in the shower, even at the public swimming pool. “My son thinks I’m a nutcase,” he said.

As he was winding down, Scheving showed a promotional video that included shots of his silver-medal aerobics routine. Then he put on his jacket and prepared to disappear into the late-afternoon Icelandic gloom. “I’m going to a bank to sign a deal for US$10 million,” he said.

But he had a few final thoughts. “My philosophy is ‘learn while you live,”‘ he said. “LazyTown is about balance. I’m not there yet.

“There’s a lot of things I want to do,” he declared. “I want to learn Italian. I want to learn to play tennis better. I want to motivate the world, basically.”