Patricia Bragg blows into a room more like a tent-revival preacher spreading the gospel of good health than the chief executive of a multimillion-dollar wellness company famous for its celebrity clientele and worldwide health crusades.
Within minutes of arriving in the conference room at Bragg Health Products and Books in Santa Barbara, Calif., she announces that her favorite color is pink and that she always wears a hat because actor Jack Lord—"you know, from Hawaii Five-0"—once told her: "Patricia, you may be only 5 feet tall, but if you wear a hat you'll be 6 feet tall."
She demonstrates exercises that have kept her feminine physique firm, even into her early 70s, and marches around the room, pumping her arms and legs like a drum major, drilling a visitor on the four pumps of the heart: "Your two arms and your two legs. I stand tall, walk tall, sit tall," she says, chin high in the air, pink flip-flops slapping the floor.
"I'm a health and life coach. I love it, live it and preach it," she chants as she finally settles on a couch, both feet planted on the floor. "Never cross your legs," she admonishes as she swats a sinner's wayward knee. "We're not meant to sit like a pretzel."
Although her words and actions may seem random, they're as scripted as a Sunday sermon. Virtually everything Bragg does is part of her crusade as a health missionary—"saving souls physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually." Her face is on the cover of nine health and wellness books and on every bottle of Bragg Liquid Aminos and Apple Cider Vinegar sold by the company her father, Paul Bragg, founded in 1912. Her voice is as familiar as a mother's to the thousands of listeners of her wellness radio shows, but she reveals precious little about herself that doesn't relate to her products. Ask her age, and she throws her arms wide and joyously declares, "I'm ageless," quickly turning the subject to one of her favorite topics: celebrity devotees of the Bragg Healthy Lifestyle. "Tom Selleck says I keep him 39. The Beach Boys are ageless—they've followed us for 40 years."
Even to her close friends, she's an enigma. "I've known her for 30 years, and she lived on my property in Hawaii for a year, but I still don't know her. She has a big heart, loves people, loves attention, but I don't think she's taken a whole lot of time for Patricia the woman. All her energy goes into healing and helping people," says Paul Wenner, founder of Gardenburger and a fan of all things Bragg.
"Patricia's a wonderful mystery, like a little medicinal butterfly going from flower to flower," he adds. "I think her mystery is part of her shtick—'one who doesn't tell all.'"
Daughter of a preacher man
It's impossible to understand Patricia Bragg without knowing the story of her father. Not only was Paul Bragg responsible for his daughter's physical existence, he also shaped her emotional, spiritual and mental character. Three decades after his death, he is still a daily influence on his daughter. "Dad said …" is one of Patricia's most frequent phrases.
"I believe my dad was on the right track about everything," she says. "I'm very thankful he was my dad, my buddy, my mentor, my leader, my teacher, my angel."
To Patricia's friends, her regard for her father is nothing short of reverence. "When she saw the impact he had on the people promoting what we call today 'alternative health,' the admiration they had for him, the success stories of really prominent people he helped, she was in awe of him," says Bobby McGee, former owner of House of Health natural foods store in Honolulu and a friend of Patricia's since 1967.
Wenner says, "She became him. If someone made a movie of her life, Paul would be the shadow behind her—he's talking, she's moving."
Paul C. Bragg was born in 1880, 1881 or 1895, depending on whom you believe. Some Internet sites have posted a Social Security death index entry for a Paul Bragg of Desert Hot Springs, Calif., (where Paul C. Bragg lived) who was born in February 1895 and died in December 1976. Others don't dispute the death date, but place the birth date in 1881. Bragg insiders, including Janie Guevara, who has worked in the Bragg company mailroom for 17 years, say Paul Bragg drowned in a 1976 surfing accident at age 96. Patricia Bragg says her dad was born in 1881, but doesn't acknowledge his death. "As far as I'm concerned, he's not dead; he's alive," she says.
Although the Paul Bragg story reads better if he died at 96 instead of 81, it would be an incredible tale at any age. Little is known about his life until he was a teenager diagnosed with tuberculosis. Scared he would die, he developed an eating, breathing and exercising program that restored his health (see "How to live the Bragg Healthy Lifestyle," below). He credited God for much of his newfound vigor and made a pledge that he would spend the rest of his life showing others how to achieve "super health."
He wasted little time. According to Patricia, her father founded Bragg Live Foods in 1912, opened the Health Food Store in Los Angeles in the 1920s, launched Health Builder magazine in the 1930s, helped found the National Nutritional Foods Association in 1936, and hosted the "Health and Happiness" television show with Patricia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Along the way, he and Patricia wrote and published Bragg Healthy Lifestyle, Build Powerful Nerve Force, Apple Cider Vinegar, Healthy Heart, The Miracle of Fasting, Super Power Breathing for Super Energy, Bragg Back Fitness Program, Water: The Shocking Truth and Build Strong, Healthy Feet.
But it was the Bragg Health Crusades that garnered the most attention. "We'd go into a town and put posters all over the town that said 'Free Health Crusade.' People would flock to them; they loved them," Patricia says. "When we came to town, we gave the health food stores the biggest sales they ever had."
As a teenager suffering from asthma, Wenner attended a Health Crusade, or as he calls it, "Paul's tent revival," in 1965 in Portland, Ore. "It was kind of like a religious festival—loud talking, excitement, screaming. Paul had this built-in ability to see the best and most incredible aspects of people, and they responded."
Taut and tanned, with gleaming teeth and wavy, movie-star hair, Paul Bragg would run on stage, puff out his chest, plant his feet wide and begin his sermon. Fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who was a skinny, sickly, pimply 15-year-old when he attended his first Bragg Crusade in the late 1920s, has never forgotten what Paul Bragg said that day: "It matters not what your present age is or what your physical condition is. If you obey nature's laws, you can be born again."
Pictures show Paul Bragg with his arms thrown out, embracing rooms full of congregants. "He was so gung ho and energetic," remembers Kathryn Matheson, owner of Full O'Life Natural Foods Market and Restaurant in Burbank, Calif. "People like him who have a strong personality are natural salesmen. When you have a fire in your belly, you can sell everything." LaLanne agrees. "Paul's the best salesman I ever knew. Paul could sell shoelaces to [the] barefoot."
His showmanship wasn't too shoddy, either. Bill Gault, founder of Good Earth Restaurants, remembers: "Paul had this great big pot he'd take on stage, and he'd put 20 to 25 jars of different chemicals you find in food—stuff from white bread, Coke, you name it—and he'd say, 'I'm going to cook dinner for everyone tonight.' Then he'd put everything in the pot, stir it up and shout, 'Who's ready to eat? Folks, that's what you're putting in your body.'"
Thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world became disciples of the Bragg Healthy Lifestyle after those crusades. Biochemist and supplements pioneer Jeffrey Bland says the Braggs were an early inspiration in his health education. Dr. Henry Heimlich and Dr. William Scholl were Bragg fans. Patricia says her father influenced future health food store owners, including the founders of Trader Joe's and GNC. "We were lecturing in Pittsburgh, and my father asked: 'Who wants to open the first health food store in all of Pennsylvania? We'll stock it with Bragg Health Products on consignment,'" says Patricia, arms spread wide, imitating her father's booming voice. "And that was Lackzoom yogurt shop [opened in 1935], which became GNC."
House of Health's McGee says that in the 1960s, "Paul was like a guru to those of us that got into vitamins and minerals instead of drugs."
Then there were the celebrity Bragg followers. "Samuel Goldwyn called up my father and asked him to speak to his actresses. He said, 'These young girls are staying up all night partying and they're so tired, I can hardly make a movie,'" Patricia says. Most of the girls ignored the Bragg teachings, but one was mesmerized: the 18-year-old Gloria Swanson, who became a Bragg fan and occasionally joined Paul on lecture tours.
Bragg became a celebrity himself, remembers Joe Bassett of Bassett's Health Foods in Toledo, Ohio. "He and the other health food guys were like rock stars. When they walked into a Hollywood restaurant, even the movie stars knew who they were. Jack LaLanne is the last of the guys around who were like that." "I like to say Paul inspired them and I perspired them," LaLanne says.
Birth of a missionary
Paul Bragg sired a son, Patricia's half-brother, in 1918 and later married Patricia's mother, Nettie, a fourth-generation Californian. Patricia remembers an idyllic childhood in northern and southern California. "I didn't know murder, didn't know the word 'rape,' didn't hear swearing or never anything negative," she says.
She grew up in a house where "people would go look in our cupboards for aspirin, coffee and sugar, and they wouldn't find them. I never had a Coke. My dad taught me to see a skull and crossbones on a bottle of Coca-Cola."
She once ate a Hershey bar, "but I got a terrible sore throat. I knew it was a sin," she says. Same with alcohol. "When I was 23, I drank a glass of champagne at a wedding, and I threw up," she says. "My dad said, 'You're allergic to alcohol. It dulls your brain.'"
She's never shaved her legs, painted her fingernails or worn makeup (except for lipstick—"After I turned 60, I just needed a little help," she says). Her father advised her to never wear a bra because it impedes circulation. But "everything still stands up by itself," she says proudly, demonstrating the pectoral exercises she does three times a day in two-minute sessions. She's never pierced her ears ("It exposes nerve endings") and doesn't wear a wristwatch because she believes it cuts off circulation. She never had the desire to rebel against her father's teachings and sneak a cigarette or even an aspirin. "I always knew the consequence of living an unhealthy lifestyle is sickness. You pay for your sins," she says.
"She lives what she sells," says Matheson of Full O'Life Natural Foods Market. "I've been with some pretty high-falutin' people in the health food business, and I've seen them smoking and drinking. That's not Patricia."
Bragg's childhood nickname was "Busy Lizzie." "I was very active—I was playing tennis and piano when I was 5; I've been gardening since I was 5. I danced ballet and jazz. I had super energy," she says. Demonstrating that more than 65 years later she's still worthy of the "Busy Lizzie" moniker, she leaps off the couch and begins jogging in place. "If you get up and bounce around, you massage trillions of cells, and good circulation is one of the keys to good health," she says as she races around the room barefoot, pink sweatpants flapping, pink sequined cowboy hat bobbing.
When she was 8 years old, Patricia began attending the boarding school she would graduate from in the early 1950s—the Mary Wallace School in Piedmont, Calif. Others might be lonely or scared to leave home at such a young age, but not Patricia. "It was a wonderful school; I loved being there," she says.
After graduation, she taught kindergarten at the school for a year. "I took little monsters and made them little angels. I taught them what's right, what's wrong, how to sing and dance, grow vegetables and flowers. I taught them healthy habits and never to have a swear word. What comes out of your mouth is living—words are living." Bragg is so opposed to swearing that she forbids it among her employees, and once fired a woman for cursing on the job.
Joining the cause
During her school years, Bragg dreamed of being a Baptist missionary in Africa like her cousins. But when she was 18, her father approached her with an idea. "He said, 'I want you to be a health missionary. Just give me one year.' " Paul Bragg wasn't the type to take no for an answer. "The only person I've met who is stronger than Paul is Bill Clinton," says Gardenburger's Wenner. "When you are around someone so strong-willed, strong-minded, so controlled, you realize you don't change people like that. You do what they want." So Patricia took her place in the Bragg pantheon.
She quickly discovered she was suited for the lifestyle. "My dad said I was his left and right hand. We were like two peas out of a pod. He said sometimes he even knew what I was thinking," she says.
During the 20-plus years she worked with her father, she stayed mainly behind the scenes, assisting him on his lecture tours, appearing on his TV show and helping him write his books. But "they were always a team," recalls Matheson. "When you looked at them, you would see only two people headed in the same direction, and as he waned, she took over. She was born to do his work."
Matheson remembers Patricia in those days as "beautiful, with long, blond hair and very tan." LaLanne described her as a "sex kitten." But she never married. She was engaged at one point, but her fiancé died in an accident a week before the wedding. Since then, "I've been going with someone for many years, but I just can't get around to thinking about marriage," she says. House of Health's McGee, who regards Patricia as his little sister, says, "She has had many opportunities to marry, but she's never found the right one. I told her, 'You admired your father so much, it's impossible for other men to compare favorably with him.'"
Although her friends believe Patricia's personality is as vibrant as her father's, they also agree it's not as forceful. "Paul was a little tougher in his approach—he'd literally challenge you and say you're going to die if you don't change," Good Earth's Gault says. Patricia recounts that when she joined the Bragg crusade, "My dad said, 'Just don't be too tough—don't hit them over the head with a stick.' He'd say, 'Patricia, remember: slow and low.'"
"I saw Paul Bragg when he was 92, and he was singing songs, vibrant, full of life. You would think he had another 25 years left," says Sandy Gooch Lederman, founder of Mrs. Gooch's health food stores in the Los Angeles area. "Patricia observed and patterned herself after his attributes. She's a character, a little spitfire. She's very engaging and a tremendous salesperson."
Patricia's approach to health crusading is more motherly, but just as persuasive as Paul's. "She never stops talking health," Gault says. "If you're eating with her in a restaurant, she'll find a way to go over to another table and strike up a conversation about health. We went on a cruise together, and before it was over, all the crew had at least three of her books." Wenner adds: "If she's at a gathering, she'll go to every person and give them some information about being healthier. She doesn't miss a person. Patricia gets them moving in the right direction. She truly changes lives, one person at a time."
Patricia relies heavily on celebrity stories to get her point across, tantalizing listeners with tidbits such as: "Steve Jobs called me five times, saying: 'Patricia, I've got to see you. I've been reading the Bragg books since high school,' or J.C. Penney—a wonderful man, a brilliant man, so humble—told me we all have human angels. 'You're a human angel and so's your dad,' he said." She talks about lunches she's had with Jane Russell and how she taught Clint Eastwood to stand up straight. She rhapsodizes about how both the Dalai Lama and Tony Robbins love Bragg Liquid Aminos. She talks so much about celebrities, she leaves little time for questions about herself.
But like most things Patricia does, name-dropping serves a greater good. "Other people are a witness, just like in the Bible, which gives you stories of things that actually happened," she says. People can more easily relate to a celebrity health story than a nutrition textbook, she believes. Gault adds, "If you talk about famous people, there's something that hooks people into listening. So many people are wrapped up in the star syndrome today."
Shortly before Paul's death, Bragg Live Foods was making 365 products in its Burbank plant—everything from natural candy to natural cosmetics. Patricia cites a long list of health products Bragg pioneered, including herbal teas, amino acids, juices and vitamin and mineral supplements. The company had offices in California; London; Sydney, Australia; and Auckland, New Zealand.
"A lot of big corporations, including WR Grace & Co., Ovaltine and Kroger, wanted to buy us out, but we didn't want to sell," she says. At the same time, "Our attorney said it would kill me to keep all the products." Patricia culled the inventory to her favorites: Bragg's Liquid Aminos, olive oil, salad dressings, seasonings and apple-cider vinegar made with the nutrient-packed "mother" enzymes found naturally in vinegar. She's also planning to introduce an apple-cider-vinegar drink. She kept the company's Health Science division, which publishes the Bragg books she updates yearly. And she continued the health crusades, lecturing women's and church groups, prisoners, corporate gatherings and a host of other organizations around the world.
"It's my life crusade," she says. "It gives you a real purpose in life to be needed, to be a crusader." Today, Bragg crusades mainly through radio talk shows, recording as many as five a day. For a woman who has been around the world 13 times, leaving home isn't as much fun as it once was. Still, she frequently visits her 550-acre organic macadamia nut farm in Maui and her 80-acre organic farm in Australia that grows 30 types of organic fruits. She has properties around California, many inherited from her mother's family, which produce the ingredients for Bragg products. Last year, she moved the Bragg headquarters to a 110-acre organic farm in Goleta, near Santa Barbara, Calif., and set up residence in the 120-year-old farmhouse.
Surrounded by 650 rosebushes, the house is aptly named "Patricia's Rose Cottage," and is decorated with dozens of dolls, stuffed animals, cheerful floral prints and mementos of her 8 cats.
Like her father, Patricia has a Ph.D. —in nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley—and a doctor of naturopathy degree, which she earned in her 20s from Bernadine University. She continues to keep abreast of health information, incorporating the latest studies into her books. The old walnut barn at her farm houses a library with hundreds of titles. Subjects include organic gardening, babies and motherhood, allopathic medicine, self-help, aging, happiness and joy, psychology, health and healing, and cookbooks.
She also applies that research to her products. "In the Bragg Sprinkle, Patricia picked out every single ingredient," says Bragg Chief Financial Officer Sandi Enriquez. Sandy Gooch Lederman adds, "You could always trust the Bragg products. Paul did his research, and he really believed in his products."
Patricia also devotes time to charitable causes funded by the Bragg Health Foundation. "Not many people know how much she does for charity," Gault says. "She put up the seed money for Friends of the Animals International and set up a Mexican spaying and neutering program where U.S. vets train Mexican vets. She also funds research with botanicals for alternative cancer solutions."
Enriquez says Bragg helps pay the tuition for some of her 30 employees at corporate headquarters and gives money to everything from church charities to wheelchair athletes. "She cares about everyone; she embraces everybody," Enriquez says.
For Bragg, giving back to others is a mission. "You put your life to a test on a daily basis, and you ask, 'What are you doing to help mankind?' " she says. "Sometimes people just have to have someone open the door and tell them, 'It's up to you—either you have health or you have sickness.'"
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 34, 36, 38, 40, 42