The Rise of Celebrity Trainers: How Boutique Fitness Instructors Became Superstars

  • Misha Gajewski Misha Gajewski
  • Fitt
The Rise of Celebrity Trainers: How Boutique Fitness Instructors Became Superstars

Most trends disappear as quickly as they arrive. Short-lived phenomena like dabbing, fidget spinners, and unicorn food certainly made some noise. But these are more fads than trends, and thankfully, their moments have passed.

A true trend has more staying power and a greater impact on society. Take the boutique fitness boom that’s sweeping the nation for instance. Studios like SoulCycle and Barry’s Bootcamp have changed the way we sweat and socialize so drastically that buying a membership has become a status symbol.

From the outside looking in, boutique fitness classes are surprisingly similar to the parodies out there. The music is deafening, the room is dark, and, most interesting of all, the top instructors are worshiped with a fanaticism that’s borderline cultish. They have a devoted fan base in their city and on social media, their classes sell out in a matter of minutes, and journalists even cover their weddings.

The rise from in front of the class to atop a pedestal seems to have happened overnight. You blink and Kayla Itsines is on Vogue and you have a date with your TV and Tony Horton after work. It begs the question: how exactly did fitness instructors become deities?

  • Video made the fitness star

    The first “celebrity trainers” cropped up in the ’70s and ’80s with the likes of Jake Steinfeld, Richard Simmons, and Jazzercise founder Judi Sheppard Missett. By adding an element of entertainment, they were some of the first to get any sort of notoriety for their workouts and fitness regimes.

    Thanks to aerobics, group fitness craze hit its stride in the late ’80s and early ’90s. God bless leotards, leg warmers, and choreographed high-kicks!

    “One count estimates 22 million Americans took aerobics during the late 1980s and one gym manager staffed up with “aerobo-cops” for crowd control before popular classes,” wrote popular culture historian, Natalia Petrzela.

    And in case you don’t believe that the hype for aerobics reached such epic heights, just quickly Google “National Aerobic Championships”. Yeah, there were competitions for this shit.

    But even back then, people glorified fitness instructors. According to a 1995 New York Times article, some went to great lengths to go to their favorite instructor’s class… one guy even stood up his wife to make a class.

    Until recently though, most “famous” trainers were already famous before they got into the fitness industry. Take Jane Fonda, Billy Blanks, or Tony Horton for example. It was with the help of the home workout video plus the magic of television that allowed them to enter into the homes of millions and become household names.

    As for non-famous people becoming famous, there were typically two main paths, the most common being to train an actual celebrity.

    Let’s take the case of Tracy Anderson. She has an A-list client roster including Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Richie, and Kate Hudson. And as a Bloomberg article points out: “The worst-kept secret in celebrity training […] is that trainers need to have famous clients to be famous themselves.”

    With celebrity backing, trainers are able to exploit their fame by association and market their products to the masses, earning celebrity status in their own right.

    The other avenue that has given rise to the likes of Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper is reality TV.

    Around the time aerobics took off, the reality TV phenomenon was just getting started. In 1983, HBO was the first to broadcast a show called An American Family Revisited and by the time the ’00s rolled around, there was a reality television show about almost every subject you could think of. So it only makes sense that working out and losing weight became the focus of shows like The Biggest Loser, Work Out, Work Out in New York, Fit For Fashion… we could go on.

    We totally get that working with celebrities or being on a television show pretty much automatically gives you notoriety, either by circumstance or association. But that still doesn’t quite explain why the boutique fitness instructor has risen to elite status.

  • Worshiping at the altar of fitness

    Image via Rumble Boxing Instagram

    In recent years the fitness industry has experienced an incredible boom. Health club revenue topped $81 billion worldwide in 2015, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association (IHRSA) and that same year, more than 150 million members visited some 187,000 health clubs. And at the epicenter of this explosion are boutique fitness studios. They currently make up 21% of the American fitness industry.

    The success of these boutique fitness studios can be attributed to a number of things, though we can pull out three prominent themes: 1) they make you feel like you’re getting more from your workout; 2) their cult-like atmosphere makes you feel accountable; 3) they’re a status symbol.

    But above all else, they create a sense of community and meaning. Many of these studios pledge to do more than change your body, they’ll “change your life” or help you “find your soul”, all the while inviting you into this exclusive club and making it feel like you belong.

    At the front of this marketing strategy—because that’s what this is—are the trainers. These are the people that are selected for their ability to foster that sense of community and be the embodiment of that lifestyle.

    “We want someone who is skilful and can teach the mechanics of the workout but at the end of the day we are looking for the spark of charisma to hold a room for 45 minutes. And beyond that, to create a transformational experience to be the strongest most powerful persona you can be on the bike and carry that strength and enlightenment home off the bike,” said Gabby Etrog Cohen, SoulCycle’s senior vice president of PR and brand strategy, in an interview.

    The instructors who end up reaching celebrity-like fame are the ones who best personify the best. They look how you want to look and have the charisma and charm of a cult leader, making them easy to idolize. Their fame is supposed to proliferate because it means more class sign-ups, publicity, and don’t forget — brand recognition.

    Even from a self-promotion standpoint, their social media game is on fire. It’s the ultimate weapon for these trainers turned celebrities; just look at how Kayla Itsines made a name for herself. Social media allows them to grow and maintain their community with evangelical-like fever.

    And with the introduction of digital streaming, their position as celebrities could become even more solidified. Similar to how the workout DVD helped proliferate Jazzercise, digital streaming brings boutique fitness into your home. More importantly, it invites your fitness idol to join you on your living room carpet.

    So if you take all these factors into account, it only makes sense that boutique fitness trainers are reaching celebrity status. In fact, it’s probably only a matter of time before many of them become household names like Jane Fonda, Judi Missett, and Richard Simmons. While we can only hope there aren’t as many thong leotards with the new wave of celeb trainers, a more important issue to consider is whether it’s a good thing that fitness trainers are so revered.

  • #fitspo

    Image via Kayla Itsines Instagram

    Admittedly, obsessively idolizing someone in spandex can seem a touch weird, but on the whole, it’s not the worst thing in the world if more people are looking up to fitness trainers.

    Real talk — Americans don’t exercise enough. In fact, only one in five get the recommended amount of physical activity a week. So if these celebrity trainers motivate just one person to live a healthier lifestyle, then that’s awesome.

    Sure, there can be a dark side to fitness trainer idolization, but most of these instructors are better role models than a lot of other celebrities out there (*cough* Kardashians *cough*).

    They promote healthy eating, an active lifestyle and body positivity, and emphasize that feeling good is more important than looking good. It’s aspirational to the masses because it seems actionable — they’re successful, fit, and healthy, and most importantly, they’re the man or woman with the plan.

    And their platform isn’t just for rock-hard abs and staged supplement promotion. Some even call out the unrealistic body images that can sometimes be associated with #fitspo. For example, Fit Body Guides creator Anna Victoria, made headlines after posting photos of her stomach rolls. It’s not all smoke and mirrors for these “fitness” celebs. Well, maybe it is a lot of mirrors, but if that also includes some self-reflection on egos, we’re all in.

    So if we have to pick who society should be looking up to, at least in terms of physical appearance, we’re always going to vote for the celebrity trainer who got famous for getting healthy over the celebrity influencers who got famous for… well, we’re not even sure.