September 17, 1984 12:00 PM

The idea first hit him in 1969. Covert Bailey was 37, a lifelong ectomorph with a history of being able to eat the fatted calf, alone and in one sitting, without putting on weight. Then suddenly, it seemed he was sporting new acreage around the waistline. He tried to pinpoint the change in his life that accounted for the revolting development and decided it actually had begun five years earlier when he had assumed a desk job and began indulging in power lunches, drinking more and exercising less.

But why had it taken five years for the extra pounds to show up? Drawing on his training in nutrition and metabolism at MIT, Bailey formulated an explanation: Over time fat had steadily replaced muscle in his body, so he had gained no weight overall. But muscle can hold just so much fat before filling up, he says, and the fat begins to build outside the muscle, under the skin. In short, “I got fat for five years before I started gaining weight,” he says, shaking his head in wonder.

Today, at 52, Bailey has worked himself back into shape (he packs 164 pounds—down from 180—on a 5’11” frame). Better yet, he has parlayed his personal epiphany into two slender books that have propelled him into the pantheon of fitness gurus. The first volume, Fit or Fat? (Houghton Mifflin, $4.95), appeared in 1977 and, despite an almost total lack of advertising, now boasts nearly 950,000 copies in print. This year he followed with The Fit-or-Fat Target Diet (Houghton Mifflin, $5.95). Over the summer his two books played tag with each other on the paperback best-seller lists.

Notwithstanding the title of his second volume, Bailey sneers at diets. “Yes,” he allows, “people who have gotten too fat may need to diet to get it off.” But once that’s done, he insists, the real problem is to avoid getting fat all over again. In the long run the only way to reverse the process toward plumpness is to change your body chemistry, making your body less able to store fat. The most efficient way to do that, he believes, is through aerobic exercise, coupled with his Target Diet, which is less a diet plan than an elaborate system for evaluating the nutritional value of food. In admonishing readers to select foods high in fiber and low in fat and sugar, Bailey supplies a plethora of bull’s-eye-shaped charts and pithy observations. (Sample: “Butter isn’t food at all—it’s grease extracted from a food called milk.”)

“Bailey is absolutely correct in what he’s saying,” notes Dr. George Sheehan, the New Jersey cardiologist who has written several well received books on running. “Obese people have only three choices: They can stay obese, they can go hungry for the rest of their lives or they can exercise. Bailey’s are the only books that put it right out in front. I probably recommend them to five or six people a week.”

Born in Boston, Bailey was the second of three children. His parents were in the storm-window business. Bailey grew up feisty in part because of his exotic first name, which was a red flag to pugnacious playmates. “I was named after my mother’s family,” he explains. “There’s a little town called Dansville, N.Y., where the cemetery is loaded with Coverts. There were no surviving males so I got the name to preserve it for another generation.”

Though he was an uninspired student who dropped out of Maine’s Bates College, Bailey has always been a man of eclectic curiosity. He enlisted in the Army in 1952 to gain entrance to the Monterey (Calif.) Army Language School so that he could attain fluency in Russian. Later he was stationed in Germany, where, he says with a grin, he did “classified translation work—of a Covert nature.”

After the service he temporized as a ski instructor in Vermont before taking another crack at academia. This time he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology at Boston University. In 1967 he enrolled at MIT for a master’s in nutritional biochemistry, emerging four years later at the top of his class. Thereupon he and his wife, Sally (they married in 1965, divorced 10 years later), and their children, Grant and Christina, moved to San Francisco, where Bailey took a job with the California Dairy Council.

His assignment was to set up seminars on health, but he soon discovered that he could be the main attraction. He cut his teeth as a lecturer, appropriately enough, with a group of dentists, who paid him $50 to discourse on diet. “They made the mistake of applauding,” he says. “So I did another lecture, and another and another. It just snowballed.”

Now a days Fit or Fat? is a sort of mini-industry with a newsletter, seminars and lectures at $2,000 a pop. Its proprietor obviously enjoys his six-figure income and his waterside home on Lake Tahoe. Yet he drives a beat-up truck, his yachts are of the canoe and Windsurfer kinds and he is building a remote hideaway on a Sierra mountaintop. “I don’t want to be rich and famous,” he insists. “I just want to be outdoors. I’m only interested in being a healthy guy.”

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