Meet Kayla Itsines, Australasia’s new $46 million body
How does a 25-year-old fitness instructor amass a fortune of $46 million? Ingrid Pyne charts the rise and rise of Kayla Itsines.
To most shoppers at a food court across the Tasman, Kayla Itsines looks like any other 25-year-old – albeit an improbably toned and tanned one. Yet to the women and girls lining up to see her washboard abs in the flesh, the fitness guru is a demi-goddess.
“I love her so much, she’s changed my life,” gushes Katie Lolas.
“She’s so inspirational, she’s amazing,” agrees Lisa Dawson.
As Kayla – sporting her signature ponytail and gym gear – poses gamely for photos, a middle-aged woman, spying my notebook, sidles up. “Who is that?” she asks and, when I tell her, mutters, “Never heard of her.”
Unless you happen to be aged 16 to 28, are a health fanatic, or have become addicted to your social media feed, chances are you have never heard of Kayla either. Yet, at this particular point in time, the petite brunette could legitimately lay claim to being one of Australia’s biggest celebrities. The personal trainer from Adelaide has attracted millions of fans on Instagram and Facebook at a level never before seen in the fitness world. At last count, she boasted a staggering six million Instagram followers – four times that of Kylie Minogue, 30 times more than Elle Macpherson and 495 times more than Julia Gillard.
She has punched her way onto business magazine BRW’s Young Rich List with an estimated $46 million fortune, graced the cover of 10 women’s health magazines, been named among Time magazine’s 30 most influential people on the internet (alongside Donald Trump and Kanye West) and won Cosmopolitan’s Woman of the Year.
When Kayla takes her gruelling boot camps on tour, thousands of devotees, from Los Angeles to
London, flock to her workout sessions, squealing as if at a boy-band concert and earning Kayla such monickers as the “Taylor Swift of push-ups” and the “One Direction of the fitness world”.
So how has someone become so famous among girls of a certain age without the rest of us having a clue who she is? To understand, we need to backtrack seven years. Kayla, then 18 and freshly graduated from a personal training course at the Australian Institute of Fitness, was leading classes at a women’s gym in Adelaide. One
I felt bad I wasn’t able to help.
day, when her boss was away, she decided to ditch the prescribed programme and take the mostly older clientele through a circuit of highintensity exercises – burpees, leg lifts, push-ups, jumps, squats and sit-ups. They loved it.
Before long, Kayla had her own studio and was training a posse of clients her way. She asked them to exercise hard, eat lean and take beforeand-after photos to track their progress. And then, being a child of the 1990s, Kayla uploaded these transformation pictures to her Instagram account.
“I had a few girls start asking me [via Instagram], ‘Can you train me?’” Kayla tells The Australian Women’s Weekly. “But they weren’t from South Australia, they were from other areas of Australia, so I kept saying, ‘No, no, no.’ And I got really upset because I felt really bad that I wasn’t able to help them.”
Enter Tobias “Tobi” Pearce, Kayla’s 24-year-old boyfriend and fellow gym junkie, whom she met through Facebook. “Tobi said, ‘Why don’t you create an e-book for these girls?’” Kayla continues. “So we created e-books together and didn’t really think anything would come of it.”
The first e-books, PDF versions of Kayla’s 28-minute high-intensity workout and healthy eating plans, which were branded the Bikini
Body Guide (BBG), were released in January 2014. And, to Kayla’s surprise, something did come of them: her social media profile exploded. She has since added a best-selling fitness app, Sweat with Kayla, a forum and merchandise such as water bottles and sweat towels to her arsenal.
It is, however, difficult to get a handle on how lucrative Kayla’s BBG empire is. The Australian Women’s Weekly was instructed that “absolutely no business-specific questions” were to be put to Kayla, including seemingly innocuous ones, such as how many employees she has, who her competitors are, or from where she derives most of her revenue. The research team at the BRW Rich List estimated Kayla and Tobi’s worth at AU$46 million (NZ$48.2 million), based on sales of their AU$69.97 Bikini Body Guide and Sweat with Kayla apps, which cost AU$54.99 for three months access or AU$19.99 a month – but we were banned from even trying to confirm that figure.
That said, the Bikini Body Training Company was impressive enough to pass muster with the judges of the prestigious Ernst & Young (EY) Entrepreneur of the Year awards in 2015, when Kayla and Tobi were lauded for seizing the opportunity presented through the internet’s borderless market, and achieving in a very short time-frame what many businesses have been unable to achieve in their entire life cycle.
“The EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme is unique in that it enables us to unearth and put the spotlight on businesses that may be well known to some people, but completely unknown to others,” EY Chief Executive Tony Johnson tells The Australian Women’s Weekly. “The Bikini Body Training Company was a case in point. I have to confess I hadn’t heard of this great business when I met Kayla and Tobias during the programme, and yet my daughter was a devotee and devastated when I told her I had met Kayla and didn’t get an autograph.”
And therein lies the Kayla celebrity conundrum. Until now, she has existed online in an alternative celebrity universe, away from the world of books and television that have become increasingly peripheral to the lives of Generations Y and Z.
Yet one senses that Kayla is limbering up for a full-scale assault on traditional media – and, with it, an older generation. On the morning we meet, she has already appeared on breakfast TV to offer up summer health tips and she has just published a book, at the request of her mum’s friends, who wanted something tangible that they could actually “touch and hold”. The result is Kayla’s glossy, pink The Bikini Body 28-Day Healthy Eating & Lifestyle Guide, full of nutritious recipes and instructions on lateral lunges, incline push-ups and dumb-bell squats.
Which brings us back to the food court in Sydney’s northern beaches. Kayla is here, on this summer afternoon, to sign copies of the book for her fans, who are fewer in number than I’d been led to expect (about 20 in total), but no less fanatical.
Shoppers pausing for a milkshake or a box of hot chips throw confused looks at the large, cordoned-off stage, where Kayla is posing for photos in front of crates filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, attended by two hulking bodyguards.
The food court, with its ubiquitous fast food outlets, seems an incongruous setting for Kayla, who urges her followers to be 100 per cent committed to a healthy lifestyle. Yet Kayla seems right at home as she kisses and hugs her fans, and chats effortlessly to them about their health and fitness journeys.
“Kayla is such a great person, she’s just so authentic,” Tobi tells me. “She’s very different to other people who have such a huge following. She’s not focused on ‘Look at me’. She’s more focused on her followers and what they are doing.”
Indeed, Kayla seems utterly genuine, sweet and humble in a gee-shuckshow-did-this-all-happen-to-me kind of way. Yet it soon becomes apparent that her everygirl image is strictly controlled. She has two publicists on hand to closely monitor any question put to her and, when I try to interview Tobi (with his approval), I am quickly shut down by one of the publicists, who informs me in pretty clear terms that I don’t have her approval. Which begs the question: what do they have to hide? Well, not much, it seems. Kayla was
born on May 21, 1991, the elder of two daughters to Anna, a teacher’s aide who helped out at Kayla’s primary school, and Jim, a teacher of English as a second language. Her 21-year-old sister Leah, also a personal trainer, is her best friend. Their childhood sounds blissful.
“My mum is the most loving and helpful person you can ever find and my dad is just incredible. They never fought,” Kayla says. “They would do anything for you. If I was late for my homework, my dad would stay up till 11pm to help me. I grew up in the best family – not with a lot of money, but with a tonne of love… so I always felt rich. I never had a mishap. I don’t have a sob story. Tobi says I lived in a bubble.”
Her partnership with Tobi, from both a romantic and commercial perspective, seems no less idyllic. “Tobi is the most amazing person with the most amazing ideas,” Kayla gushes.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. He has an incredible mind. We work really strongly together as a team and play to our strengths and never step on each other’s toes.”
Parlaying a troublefree, love-filled childhood into a trouble-free, love-and-cash-filled adulthood does not make for the most riveting of profiles. Yet it soon becomes apparent that Kayla is actively pushing her blandness. Prior views such as “Alcohol is poison” have been watered down to “I do not promote or condone it, but if you were having a wine right now, I wouldn’t tell you to put it down. It’s up to the individual.”
The “bikini body” her guides espouse is not actually about having a bikini body, she tells me now, but about health, strength and “being bikini body confident, it’s about how you feel about your body”.
When I attempt to ask her about her endometriosis, which she has spoken openly about in previous interviews, her publicist blocks the question. It is clear Kayla is not keen to become the poster girl for any particular cause.
And therein lies the genius in Kayla’s marketing. Rather than putting herself front and centre, she uses her followers’ dramatic before-and-after pictures to evangelise her brand and engage new fans. For if you can’t relate to Kayla – with her supermodel slight frame, flawless tan and shaped brows – then perhaps you can relate to @kathgetsfit, @misslozzybird or any of the other two million Instagram users who have uploaded their transformation photos after following Kayla’s high-intensity workouts and diet advice.
And so, unusually in the world of social media, where oversharing is common (if not compulsory), Kayla’s Instagram contains scant details of her life. Images of Kayla herself are scattered through many before-andafter shots of her fans, motivational sayings and pictures of her Siberian huskies, Ace and TJ. She often cuts off her face in these pictures and has never posted her own “before” photo.
“It’s really about not making the page specifically about me and my body – what I eat and what I do,” Kayla explains. “It’s about their stories and them having a relatable story for someone else. So you can see Ellie from America and her story about how her husband passed away, and someone in the world will relate to it.”
The momentum just keeps on building. “As girls see my page, they feel comfortable sharing their stories because they are seeing, say, a girl who has come back from post-natal depression, and another mother thinks, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one, I must send Kayla my story.’ It has started this big
FROM TOP LEFT: Kayla is honoured by Cosmopolitan; Tobi and Kayla with their EY award for entrepreneurship; and the couple receive their Guinness World Records certificate for the most number of people doing various exercises at once in Melbourne in November. FROM ABOVE LEFT: Kayla with parents Anna and Jim; with sister Leah; with her grandparents; and her pet Siberian huskies Ace and TJ.