Vivian Zink ABC
Diane and Gary Heavin, founders of Curves International, are no strangers to a paycheck-to-paycheck life.
For one week last May, multimillionaires Gary and Diane Heavin moved into a dilapidated row house in Houston’s Third Ward. They lived without air conditioning, made do with a food budget of $6.50 a day and struggled with a toilet that barely functioned.
The CEOs and co-founders of the women’s exercise emporiums known as Curves weren’t making a film about volunteering, as they told their new neighbors. Instead, they were the latest stars of the reality show, Secret Millionaire. Their segment airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on ABC.
In the series, some of America’s most successful business men and women briefly abandon their luxurious lifestyles to live undercover in the nation’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Their mission is to identify deserving people and organizations. By the end of the segment, the millionaires reveal their true identities and give away at least $100,000.
“We were screaming and crying when we found out who the Heavins really were,” said Marilyn Gambrell, founder of No More Victims. “The money was awesome. We ended up with so many things — computers, fax machines, office supplies and equipment — and so much more that we couldn’t have bought without them.”
Show rules prevent the couple from saying exactly how much they gave away, but Diane Heavin, 49, said it was much more than the minimum.
Own a 1,000-acre ranch
In real life, the Heavins live on a 1,000-acre ranch in Gatesville in Central Texas, own their own plane and buy whatever they want or need. But both could relate to the poverty they saw around them in the historic Third Ward, where almost 46 percent of the households earned less than $15,000 in 2009, according to city figures.
Gary Heavin, 56, was born in the Third Ward, not far from the row house he and his wife briefly called home. When the couple married in 1990, Diane said, “Gary was in the midst of downsizing.”
She paused a moment, then expanded on the word “downsizing.”
“Gary was in the midst of losing all of his businesses. We were very poor. We didn’t have to live as frugally as we did in the Third Ward, but we know what it means to live paycheck to paycheck and not have any money.”
Their fortunes changed, literally and figuratively, when they opened their first Curves in Harlingen in 1992.
The idea was to open a gym for busy women, one that would offer a workout in 30 minutes. The Heavins wanted the environment to be relaxed, not competitive; nurturing, not intimidating.
The concept has developed into a $1 billion business that has spread across the United States and to 90 countries.
ABC producers contacted the Heavins last spring to see if they would be interested in starring in the reality show. The TV executives wanted to be sure the Heavins were on the up-and-up. And the Heavins wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be portrayed as kooks or flakes.
When both sides were satisfied, they went to work.
The row house was only partially furnished, the plumbing was iffy, and it was hot. The worst, Diane said, was the late-night fighting that went on next door.
“There were domestic violence issues,” she said. “That’s what wore us out.”
But during the day, they loved their mission. “We searched for people in different organizations doing good things,” she said. As it turned out, they were easy to find.
The couple chose three organizations to help financially: No More Victims, an advocacy group for the children of incarcerated parents; Lazarus House, dedicated to helping Houstonians combat and manage cachexia (disease-related muscle loss); and the Sean Ashley House, which serves children and adults diagnosed with mental retardation with a focus on the autism spectrum.
“We caught everyone totally off guard,” Diane Heavin said. “There were a lot of happy tears.”
Kelly Benson, CEO of the Sean Ashley House, described the Heavins as “down-to-earth, every day, regular and sweet people.”
Diane Heavin said they have no intention of losing touch with their Houston friends. And, by the way, they used only half of their $6.50-a-day food allowance, eating white bread and Ramen noodles.