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

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

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

“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-and­car­dio 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> Stef Jakubowski 22, @pas­sion­for­fitt

KelseyWells 26,@mysweatlife

El­lie Alexan­der 35, @elian­nealexan­der_bbg

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