All Hail The Queen
How Mapule Ndhlovu maintains the energy of an Energizer Bunny
Curtsy lunge for the queen of fitness. She reigns over SA’s gym scene with her highenergy workouts, she’s got charisma that can’t be beaten and she’s inspo on all levels – body, mind and spirit
Definition of fitness
It was that energy that won Maps our inaugural Women’s Health Next Fitness Star title in 2016. Her unmatched creativity, fearlessness and positive vibe set her apart for the judges. And turned her into the star the SA fitness scene had been waiting for. Over the past two years, Mapule has gone from a gym PT with a couple hundred followers to an Insta sensation and fitness celebrity. People can’t get enough of her next-level compound workouts, including gravitydefying burpees and superhuman feats of balance and strength. And she’s joined the one-name club. Like Beyoncé or Adele in the music industry, mention Mapule in fitness and health circles and there’s no surname required. And that’s just how she likes it. “I want to be at a point where I epitomise South African health and fitness. When they think of South African fitness, people must be like ‘Queen Fitnass!’ first, then the list can continue.” (@queenfitnass is her Insta alias on the ’gram, but duh – you already knew that.) But it’s not just the prospect of fame that drives the adidas and Shield ambassador. “I want to motivate everyone,” she says. “When you see me, you must instantly see somebody who eats healthily, exercises and takes care of themselves. I love it when people come to me and say, ‘Maps, I’ve started exercising because of you.’ That’s the biggest compliment you can give me because I know you have started doing something positive in your life.” Unlike many fitness trainers who find their niche and stick with it, Mapule’s approach is holistic. “Whether I’m around bodybuilders, runners, triathletes, CrossFitters or yogis, I must blend in. I must be the definition of fitness,” she says. That infectious energy, heart-on-sleeve love of all things active and the gymstudio dance moves you see on Insta every #Friyay may have you picturing the start of Mapule’s love affair with exercise as a meet-cute. But it wasn’t. She actually used exercise to numb a dark time in her life. That’s how it all really started.
Built on strength
Mapule’s early life was tumultuous. Born to a mother who had been adopted, Maps and her mom found themselves without a home when her grandparents – her mom’s adoptive parents – passed away. “When Mom used to say it’s time to move, we moved. I’ve slept in cars, under bridges and in the rain,” she says. It was always a struggle to find a decent meal and a bed. When they finally did put down roots, their situation became a different kind of bad. “I grew up in a household where there was an abusive relationship and I would see my mom getting beaten up. I didn’t grow up with my dad.” Things went from bad to worse when her mom grew sick and Mapule had to be the adult. “I had to grow up at a very young age. I lived thinking that my mom could die tomorrow. And she would tell me everyday, ‘you need to get yourself together because if I die, nobody else will want to live with you.’ This forced me to be disciplined and not be the child.” So much so that when, at 13, Mapule found out she’d contracted TB through household second-degree smoking, she had to take herself to the clinic. “I was almost close to depression growing up and nobody could pick it up”. It would have been easy for Maps to turn to vices, like alcohol, to release the pain, but instead, she flat-out rejected those things. “I still don’t like alcohol because of the behaviour people show after. Some people think I don’t drink because I exercise, but it’s also because I like to be in control.”
MAPULE NDHLOVU STANDS IN FRONT OF ME WEARING HER SIGNATURE LYCRA AND SNEAKERS AND SAYS, “I’M NOT READY.” I’M CONFUSED. “I’M NOT READY FOR THE COVER. I’M EXCITED. AND I’VE ALWAYS WANTED THIS. I’VE DREAMT ABOUT THIS. BUT I DON’T THINK I’M READY,” SHE SAYS, SHIFTING FROM SIDE TO SIDE, GRINNING. WE’RE AT THE GYM, OF COURSE – THE EXCLUSIVE VIRGIN ACTIVE COLLECTION ALICE LANE CLUB THAT SERVES AS MAPULE’S FAT-FIGHTING OFFICE – AND HER ALLEGED TREPIDATION DOESN’T FIT. SHE'S BECOME ONE OF SA’S MOST FAMOUS FITFLUENCERS AND, AT JUST 28, SHE’S TICKING ALL THE BOXES OF A CELEBRITY PERSONAL TRAINER: IMPRESSIVE CLIENT LIST, OVER 95K INSTA FOLLOWERS AND COUNTING, THE BODY-FAT PERCENTAGE OF A PRO ATHLETE, KILLER ABS AND ENVIABLE CURVES. NOT READY? MAPS WAS BORN READY. SHE’S AN UNRELENTING, VIBRANT BALL OF ENERGY. FROM THE WAY SHE WALKS TO THE WAY SHE JUMP SQUATS.
Living in a township with not much access to gyms, Mapule stumbled upon an exercise class near her home in Alex. She found it to be a healthy, manageable way to cope with her troubled life. Exercise helped her clear her head, helped release bottled-up emotions and improved her self-esteem. “Exercise gives you a positive state of mind. It makes you believe ‘you got this’ because your mind is in the right space. And the body always follows what the mind is telling it.” It was these positive vibes – and a scholarship to study exercise science – that prompted Maps to jump down the fitness rabbit hole. Now she uses her love of fitness to motivate other women to strive to be their healthiest selves, mentally and physically.
Beyond the body
“Ever since I was young I’ve always had people say, ‘you have a nice body’,” says Mapule. “To me, it was not a compliment because I had my own personal issues. I used to feel that’s all that I am: a nice body.” Something that worries Mapule is the trend to look at models’ and celebs’ social media as a fitness and ideal-body compass and feel that they need to emulate their looks exactly. “We want to be like other people, like social-media people. And because of this, many black South African women are intimidated to work out because they think the bodies they see out there are far-fetched. So sometimes they’re like, ‘Ag, I’ll never get there’. But it’s not supposed to be you getting ‘there’. It’s about you getting to the next level of your life, the next level of your well-being, your confidence and your beauty. And along the way we forget that. It’s about being the better version of yourself.” This is one of Maps’ mantras: “be a better version of yourself”. She believes it’s not about conforming to some universal standard, but that your best version is unique to you. “If muscles aren’t for you – that’s fine. If skinny is not for you – it’s alright. If thick thighs aren’t your thing, it’s really okay.” Mapule advocates the idea that awesome comes in all shapes and sizes. And it’s important to her that women slam the internal judgemental voices inside their heads. And the external ones too. “Men are often guilty of influencing women’s thinking; making women forget to put themselves first and find the real reason they are exercising. Women will often decide to exercise just because their guy said they are picking up weight.” Maps would like to see the fitness scene focus less on aesthetics and more on achievements – breaking down gender stereotypes in the process. “I do all the things I do so that when I tap into a new space, even where there are a lot of men, they will understand my language before I even speak. The language of fitness is universal.”
Maps’ trajectory from PT to household name has been cemented by partnerships with big brands like adidas, Shield, Toyota, FIBO Global Fitness (the world’s biggest trade show for fitness, wellness and health) and Red Bull. And, of course, her loyal followers. “I still feel I have a long way to go,” she says. “But it’s been easy because I’m not trying to be somebody else. I chose not to take people’s advice and post basic exercises – like everyone at the time.” Her approach is far more unique. But what is it that really makes her stand out? Simple. Showing her pearly whites. “I like smiling when exercising. Even on shoots I smile. Even when it’s a tough one. And while in pain, I have the same thought: ‘Oh my gosh, is this me? Jumping, pulling up, twisting? I love what I do.”