Cathi Watson wants both your spirit and the backs of your thighs to be as lovely as her own. Raising a toned gam through the slit in her silver lame lounging gown, the 65-year-old exclaims, “There’s hope no matter what your age is.”

As if she were the exuberant love child of Dale Carnegie and Elaine LaLanne, Watson is a marvel with a message. It first came to her when she was only seven. While attending a funeral, she noticed how old the women in their 30s looked, bent and weeping. Little Cathi decided, “I don’t think you have to get old. I think it’s a choice.” Her course was set.

Watson created a whirlwind life, touring with a ballet troupe, marrying husband Bill at 20, raising three children, running a fashion boutique, opening a modeling school, and taking her own spins down the catwalk. Then, in the early 70s, her second epiphany hit.

“It was at the old Goldblatt’s on State Street,” she says. “I was modeling a low-cut Balenciaga gown for a fund-raiser of haute couture there. I remember coming out of the pivot and thinking, Is this all there is? The light went on.”

Watson had frequently gazed at the women in the audience from the runway and observed how sad they looked. She says she wondered if all of them secretly yearned to just once be the one admired onstage. A guru was born.

Watson launched “The Exciting Woman,” self-improvement seminars that eventually led to her current lecture series and cable-access talk show, Ageless for Life, featuring guests of varied vintages who exemplify joie de vivre. In the shows I saw, fabulous 70-ish ballroom dancers provided a demonstration of their prowess and a chiropractor discussed alternative healing strategies and aging. Watson’s dogma is a melange of positive thinking, exercise, alternative medicine, nutritional supplements, and personal empowerment. “I urge my clients to row their own boat, and not let anyone else in the boat that does not bring value to their lives.”

Although effusively optimistic, Watson expresses some dismay at her relatively low profile and dearth of financial backers who could empower her to spread her good news. “One sponsor, two good sponsors that say, ‘This babe has done her homework; she knows what she’s talking about. Let’s get behind her and let’s just shake this generation up, shake the whole society up!'”

Her youthful appearance is certainly a good advertisement. A Medusa-like tousle of frosted sable curls frames a cherubic face glowing with a simple sheen of moisturizer. Scarlet toenails peek out from a pair of her beloved “hooker heels.” An enormous rhinestone-studded crown from the 1998 Beauty of America 60 Plus pageant is prominently displayed in her immaculate Michigan Avenue apartment. She’s the paragon of pep.

But preserving youth isn’t easy. Watson acknowledges her “daunting” level of commitment to continued vitality. She wakes at 4:30 for an in-bed acupuncture session, followed by a regimen of facial calisthenics and tongue stretches. Other exercise includes a five-mile run, weight training, and regular trips up and down her building’s stairwell to the tune of 60 flights a go. A five-step skin-care routine, antioxidants, and “copious” glasses of water finish off her grand plan. “I like to see a woman who is toned,” she says, “who never wastes an entrance or an exit and never apologizes for what she is wearing.”

But Watson cautions against concentrating only on the physical. “Our minds create our environment,” she says. “People don’t think their mind and body are connected. But those cells weep if you’re disparaging them and not giving them the love that they need.”

And mere mortals need not abandon all pleasures of the flesh. “Bill and I have our cocktails every single night. Vodka on the rocks. I swear, that’s what keeps us healthy. I eat red meat, too.” There’s an added bonus: Watson reports that living vigorously and positively “improves your sex life, the intimate moments. Honey, I might be over 60, but I’m not dead.”

Ageless for Life airs on cable channel 19 Thursdays at 5:30 PM and Fridays at 12:30 PM. Seekers desiring lifestyle counseling can call Watson at 312-540-1220. –Joy Bergmann

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cathi Watson photo by Lloyd DeGrane; Watson in 1965.