How Bikini Body Guide cre­ator Kayla Itsines be­came the Tay­lor Swift of situps

How 25-year-old Kayla Itsines built a global fit­ness em­pire one burpee at a time

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - By Claire Sud­dath

“Do I re­gret call­ing my guides Bikini Body? My an­swer is yes. That’s why when I re­leased the app, I called it Sweat With Kayla. Sweat is so em­pow­er­ing. I love that”

Twelve min­utes into the Sweat With Kayla boot camp, af­ter the manda­tory hug-the-stranger-next-to-you ice­breaker but be­fore the se­ries of 30-sec­ond, full-body planks, an ex­as­per­ated cry comes from some­where in the sea of 4,000 women do­ing burpees on yoga mats: “This is soooooo hard!”

And it is. The three bas­ket­ball courts in New York’s Pier 36 recre­ational com­plex are packed with women huff­ing and grunt­ing their way to fit­ter bod­ies, their co­or­di­nated ath­leisure out­fits soaked with sweat, their for­merly coifed pony­tails glued to the backs of their glis­ten­ing necks. They’re fol­low­ing the in­struc­tions of Kayla Itsines, the 25-year-old per­sonal trainer from Ade­laide, Aus­tralia, whose Bikini Body Guide (aka BBG) fit­ness pro­gram has be­come not just a work­out but a way of life for many of them.

Itsines is the type of wo­man other women want to be. Her brows are shaped, her nose is straight, her frame is si­mul­ta­ne­ously mus­cu­lar and su­per­model slight. When she sweats, her skin shim­mers like golden sand. She’s wear­ing her straight, brown hair in two French braids, and the only thing whiter than her teeth are her Adi­das sneak­ers. “You look amaz­ing!” Itsines cries as she jumps and lunges on­stage, lead­ing the women through four cir­cuits of three to four ex­er­cises each.

In the past few years, Itsines has be­come a onewoman fit­ness phe­nom­e­non based on a sim­ple, time-tested, and pretty ob­vi­ous idea: To get in shape, you have to eat well and ex­er­cise. Pag­ing through Us Weekly for 30 min­utes on the el­lip­ti­cal doesn’t count. Her $52 BBG PDF guides and $20-per-month Sweat With Kayla app, re­leased in Novem­ber, are full of 28-minute strength-and-car­dio work­outs so hard they’ll make your mus­cles shake. Itsines has more than 5.3 mil­lion In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, twice as many as Gwyneth Pal­trow and al­most eight times as many as TV fit­ness coach Jil­lian Michaels. While some celebrity train­ers shame clients into slim­ming down—The Big­gest Loser head trainer Bob Harper once im­i­tated over­weight con­tes­tants by fake cry­ing, “Waah, I want pizza! I want cook­ies!”—Itsines of­fers a mes­sage that isn’t about ab­sten­tion. It’s about feel­ing happy: A flat stom­ach boosts your con­fi­dence. That kale salad is full of vi­ta­mins. Lift­ing weights makes you strong. Her fol­low­ers post be­fore-and-af­ter gym self­ies of their shrink­ing waist­lines on In­sta­gram, with com­ments like “the sweat … went up my nose” or “now I’m ac­tu­ally dead.” About 150,000 women are so devoted to Itsines that they’ve formed what they call the BBG com­mu­nity, or, some­times, Kayla’s Army, “em­pow­er­ing” them­selves one pushup at a time.

Of course, peo­ple don’t do pushups and eat kale only to be em­pow­ered. They do it to look bet­ter. “I started her pro­gram be­cause I wanted to be thin. I wanted abs like Kayla’s,” says Kelsey Wells, 26, who’s from Hous­ton and has ac­com­plished her goal. Still, she adds, “The big­gest change has been my con­fi­dence. It’s not about weight. I’ve freed my­self from that mind­set.” Wells flew to New York specif­i­cally for the Pier 36 event; she’s one of many die-hard BBGers who vol­un­teered. Itsines rarely leaves Aus­tralia, so when she does—usu­ally to host events like this in cities such as Lon­don and Los An­ge­les— her fol­low­ers flock. “The guy at the air­port looked at me funny when I told him I was trav­el­ing just to work out,” says Stef Jakubowski, 22, who ar­rived from Toronto. Six­teen women from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., showed up in match­ing green tank tops em­bla­zoned with a picture of a flexed bi­cep and the words “Squad Goals.” Many of the women wore the same style of black Adi­das shoes (Adi­das spon­sored Itsines’s tour; the events were free). They cheer for their idol the way other peo­ple do for pop stars. “We just love her!” says Marissa McGinn, 24, part of the Wash­ing­ton squad. Kayla Itsines is the Tay­lor Swift of situps. It’s hard to tell just how big or lu­cra­tive the BBG em­pire is. Itsines and her boyfriend and busi­ness part­ner, Tobi Pearce, 23, keep the fi­nan­cial de­tails of their com­pany, Bikini Body Train­ing, tightly con­trolled. At the New York event, Pearce claims “25 mil­lion peo­ple around the world” use their guides, but PDFs can be copied, and a spokesper­son later ex­plained that he was re­fer­ring to ev­ery­one who’s in­ter­acted with Itsines’s prod­ucts on­line, which doesn’t mean they nec­es­sar­ily paid for them. Ac­cord­ing to on­line an­a­lyt­ics com­pany App An­nie, Sweat With Kayla has gen­er­ated more rev­enue than any fit­ness app this year, best­ing Nike+ (free, but an op­tional Fuel+ wrist­band is about $200) and Un­der Ar­mour’s MyFit­nessPal ($50 a year for a pre­mium ac­count). At a re­cent New York Ap­ple Store event to pro­mote the app, Itsines de­flected ques­tions about her fi­nan­cial plans. “I don’t think of this as a busi­ness,” she said. “I don’t have big plans for this and that.” At the same event, Ap­ple showed a com­mer­cial she filmed for the Ap­ple Watch.

Seven years ago, Itsines was 18, freshly grad­u­ated from a per­sonal-train­ing course at the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Fit­ness. She was lead­ing ex­er­cise classes at a women’s gym in Ade­laide. “It was mostly older women. They put them on ma­chines, and ev­ery few min­utes I’d shout, ‘Next!’ and they’d change ma­chines. That was it. ‘Next!’ I was like, this isn’t do­ing any­thing for them,” she says, sit­ting in her Man­hat­tan ho­tel a few days be­fore the boot camp. One day, Itsines cleared the ma­chines, turned on a stereo, and led the women through a cir­cuit of stan­dard ex­er­cises—leg lifts, burpees, skip­ping in place. They loved it. Then her younger sis­ter’s friends, many of them still in high school, asked her to help them get in shape so

they could play net­ball, an Aus­tralian ver­sion of bas­ket­ball, on the school team. “I thought, OK, I’ll train them like ath­letes,” she says. She picked ab­dom­i­nal ex­er­cises that strength­ened mus­cles re­spon­si­ble for sta­bil­ity. Jumps and squats helped the girls de­velop pow­er­ful legs. She lec­tured them on eat­ing healthy and, bor­row­ing a tech­nique from her gym and from decades of weight-loss ads, asked them to take be­fore­and-af­ter pho­tos to track their progress.

Itsines was look­ing for a way to or­ga­nize the pho­tos when her 12-year-old cousin sug­gested she join In­sta­gram. “I was like, ‘In­sta­gram? What is that? Is it a com­puter pro­gram?’ ” She joined as @kay­la_itsines in Au­gust 2012 and used her ac­count to post pictures of clients in sports bras and un­der­wear, along with how much weight they’d lost (8 pounds in five weeks for one, 20 pounds in three months for another, etc.). Waists cinched, butts tight­ened, bi­ceps emerged and then bulged. In a few months, Itsines at­tracted hun­dreds of thou­sands of fol­low­ers who wrote to her for weight-loss tips and asked if they could hire her. Pearce, who’s also a per­sonal trainer, sug­gested she sell a work­out guide, some­thing women out­side Ade­laide could use to ex­er­cise on their own. In March 2013 she and Pearce started their com­pany, with Itsines as di­rec­tor and Pearce as chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer. They cre­ated a web­site and in Jan­uary 2014 sold two PDF guides, one for ex­er­cise and one for nu­tri­tion.

They cre­ated the work­outs them­selves, but for the diet, Itsines turned to Julie Dun­don and Anne Sch­ney­der, di­rec­tors of Nu­tri­tion Pro­fes­sion­als Aus­tralia. “Kayla re­al­ized she didn’t have the qual­i­fi­ca­tions to be of­fer­ing nu­tri­tional ad­vice to the world,” says Dun­don, who’s also the mother of one of Itsines’s ear­li­est clients. Itsines shunned fad di­ets—she wanted a plan that in­cluded fat, carbs, and meat—and didn’t want to pro­mote calo­rie count­ing be­cause she didn’t think her teenage fol­low­ers should ob­sess over num­bers. Dun­don and Sch­ney­der have since cre­ated veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan plans for her and say the only dis­agree­ment they’ve had was about al­co­hol. Itsines doesn’t drink and doesn’t think any­one pur­su­ing a healthy life­style should, ei­ther. The nu­tri­tion­ists told her to be re­al­is­tic. “We got her to at least ad­dress the is­sue,” Dun­don says. Itsines did so by call­ing it “poi­son” and not­ing it has a lot of calo­ries.

Her food guides are as ex­cru­ci­at­ing as her work­outs. Itsines’s sam­ple meal plans for peo­ple look­ing to lose weight ran as low as 1,200 calo­ries a day, but in 2014 that changed to 1,6001,800. They’re de­signed for women age 16-25, who, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture guide­lines, usu­ally burn about 2,000 calo­ries daily. On her app, a recipe might call for oneeighth of an av­o­cado, with no sug­ges­tions for what to use the other seven-eighths for later. Break­fast might be a smoothie. Din­ner often in­volves chicken and quinoa. As a re­sult, many BBG girls don’t strictly fol­low the diet. “I was too hun­gry, so af­ter a while I was like, ‘I’m sick of it,’ ” says Alice Wil­liams, 24, of Salt Lake City.

Wil­liams is one of the few peo­ple con­tacted for this story who had even a mildly neg­a­tive word to say about Itsines or BBG. She was also the only one will­ing to talk about the clos­est thing to a scan­dal to have hit the BBG em­pire. Wil­liams is a BBG af­fil­i­ate; on her blog, Hon­estly Fit­ness, she of­fers a link to buy the BBG guides, and in re­turn she gets 10 per­cent of sales from peo­ple who click the link and pur­chase. Last year one of Itsines’s fol­low­ers com­plained that the af­fil­i­ate pro­gram lacked trans­parency. The fol­lower re­fuses to dis­cuss the in­ci­dent, which ap­pears to have led to a fall­ing out with the BBG com­mu­nity. Itsines won’t talk about it ei­ther.

Itsines’s Every­woman im­age is tightly con­trolled. She’s never posted her own “be­fore” photo. She pa­trols on­line com­ments crit­i­cal of the BBG com­mu­nity and turns down some mag­a­zine photo shoots be­cause she can’t con­trol how she’s por­trayed. “They’ll say, ‘We’ll put you in tiny, tight booty shorts, make you look re­ally fit­nessy!’ No,” she says. She doesn’t even like the term “BBG” any­more be­cause it im­plies there’s only one type of body ap­pro­pri­ate for a bikini. “Do I re­gret call­ing my guides Bikini Body? My an­swer is yes,” she says. “That’s why when I re­leased the app, I called it Sweat With Kayla. Sweat is so em­pow­er­ing. I love that.”

Re­cently, Itsines’s mes­sage has evolved into one more closely re­sem­bling a life coach’s. On­line, her trans­for­ma­tion pics now ap­pear along­side inspirational mes­sages such as “We rise by lift­ing oth­ers” and “You are ca­pa­ble of more than you know.” In New York she starts the boot camp with a game of Never Have I Ever: She asks if any of the women have ever eaten junk food af­ter work­ing out. “See? You’re not the only one!” she shouts as all 4,000 women do a burpee, an ad­mis­sion that they still some­times eat dough­nuts. Ev­ery­one she sees is beau­ti­ful, ev­ery­one is an in­spi­ra­tion, ev­ery­one is try­ing her best. When the work­out is over, she poses for pho­tos, hugging thou­sands of sweat-soaked backs. “Don’t think of me as a celebrity,” she tells the crowd. “You don’t need me. You can do this by your­self.” <BW>

KelseyWells 26,@mysweatlife

Stef Jakubowski 22, @pas­sion­for­fitt

El­lie Alexan­der 35, @elian­nealexan­der_bbg

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