The celebrity fitness empire of Adelaide's James Duigan
TALK about luck. A restless young man with energy to burn left Adelaide for London with no idea what to do with his life. At first he did it tough; a stint at a pub in return for a night’s accommodation, a job behind the counter in Harrods. He would wait for Starbucks to throw out its sandwiches then raid the bin. He became very clear that living on 90 pence a day was not the lifestyle he wanted. After a stint in Greece he got a job on reception at a gym and studied at night to become a personal trainer.
One day, Elle Macpherson walked in. It was that kind of gym. James Duigan, a self-confessed bogan from Adelaide, was working in Knightsbridge, near where Elle lives. When she visited he was doing something inventive like standing on a Swiss ball and pulling a cable to keep himself challenged. Elle didn’t pay him any special attention and walked out.
The next day his phone rang. It was the long-legged Australian supermodel with the million-dollar body. Would James like to work with her and become her personal trainer?
“I started training her and we clicked, got on really well and I trained her for 15 years,” says Duigan who is back in Adelaide until September while his wife, Christiane, has their second child.
This pleasant looking man who is healthy and fit but not dripping with muscle or charisma became part of Elle’s entourage, spending much of each year with her in the Bahamas, on Harbour Island.
“We’d work an hour a day, four days a week, it would depend,” he says. “I got to do things I never would have dreamed of, and met people I never dreamed I’d meet. It was just amazing. Then as her kids started going to school, everyone became much more London-based.”
It was a stroke of luck that can change a person’s life, if you let it. Duigan began doing press through Elle and over a decade he built a very hot brand – James Duigan, celebrity trainer. He is not quite the same bogan he was, with his beautiful wife, five-star lifestyle and a glittering queue of clients willing to pay large sums of money to be trained by him.
From that chance meeting he has built a health/nutrition/flat-tummy empire that includes a series of best-selling books – the Clean and Lean Cookbook, the Clean and Lean Fat Tummy Fast – and nutritional supplements with names like MultiOptimum and Body Serenity.
He has also put his name to an ultraluxury fitness gym brand with exclusive Bodyism gyms, in the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, the Maldives and Turkey. Last week, he flew to Queensland to open Australia’s first Bodyism, at One & Only on Hayman Island. Bodyism LA will open next year. Elle wrote the foreword to the 2010 Clean and Lean Diet – training with James clears the body and the mind, she writes – but these days he no longer needs Elle. British papers have hinted at a cooling off
between them but Duigan says it is just “circumstances” that mean he no longer trains her, and because he travels a lot.
“We worked together for a long time and she’s an amazing lady,” he says.
Move over Elle and make way for Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (English actress, girlfriend of Jason Statham, former Victoria's Secret model), Lara Stone (Dutch model), Megan Gale, Teresa Palmer (former Adelaide actress who is godmother to the Duigan’s daughter Charlotte) and Holly Valance. They all train with Duigan and lend their fame to his brand. Even Hugh Grant is a fan. “I’m now dazzling in my panties,” he says. So why seek celebrities out? “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but they seek us out. You can’t seek a celebrity out,” Duigan says.
He is used to defending this and argues there’s no point having the best gym in the world if no one knows about it. Celebrities make people sit up and listen.
“I could spend an hour talking about amazing stories about people and the amazing things they do and then if I mention Elle or Rosie, that’s who will be written about. That’s the reality. It’s a commercial fact of life,” he says.
Christiane, heavily pregnant and radiantly beautiful in a make-up free kind of way, says people like to read about how other people get their bodies.
This is what his success boils down to: Bodies. Looking like Elle, weighing what Rosie weighs, a post-baby body like Megan’s or Lara’s. Duigan argues that he is about much more than weight loss but the elusive flat tummy – and his 17 per cent body fat target (it’s low!) – are part of the Clean and Lean regime. And it comes with a touch of bling; fitness kissed with the over-the-top, private-chef kind of luxury that some of his clients enjoy. Duigan cleverly pitched himself above the grunt and sweat to offer luxury health, fitness and nutrition, with the promise of a gorgeous body thrown in.
A career as a holistic health and body beautiful guru didn’t exist when he was growing up in Adelaide. He was the child of hippy parents who took a while to put down roots.
His father Kevin, who died earlier this year, played guitar, his mother Stella painted. When Duigan was 16, his parents trained to be teachers and they moved to Uluru where his father taught at the Indigenous community at the base of the rock. Duigan remembers the way the desert transformed when it rained. Eventually, they returned to Adelaide where Kevin became a much-loved teacher at the Kaurna Plains School in Elizabeth.
“We had his funeral about three months ago at a church on Goodwood Rd and it was full. Busloads of Aboriginal people came in from all over the place. It was amazing, he was a beautiful man,” says Duigan.
In his early years, Duigan learnt from his free-thinking parents about nutrition and food. When he was four, he had a persistent cough and couldn’t sleep; doctors recommended steroids and tranquilisers.
“Back then the doctors were treated like gods, but even then Dad said, ‘I
MY BODY IS THE RESULT OF GOOD GENES AND A HEALTHY ATTITUDE ~ ELLE MACPHERSON
don’t know, tranquilisers and steroids, it doesn’t sound right’,” says Duigan. “My mum took me to a chiropractor naturopath type person who said ‘he’s definitely hypoglycaemic, he’s intolerant of sugar’. So they took me off sugar and in two nights I was completely calm, and then the cat ran away and my cough disappeared!”
At school he was the kid not allowed to have lollies; the one with the carob Easter eggs that (he says) tasted like dirt. But he still credits his dad with saving him from what might have been an entirely different life.
He wasn’t great at school, he says, not bookish. He was a student at Cabra Dominican College and was constantly in trouble for talking in class. He remembers being physically incapable of shutting up. And he was terrible at sports, at least at first.
“Because of my parents being the way that they were, I’d always have mismatching shoes and a ruffled pirate shirts for cricket. ‘Can’t I have a T-shirt like the other kids?’ ‘No, this is cool.’ So I was always a bit different. And I had long hair,” he says.
When he was nine, his body kicked in. He bowled a ball, hit middle stump, bowled again and did the same. His skill had caught up with his ambition. In the classroom not much changed. He couldn’t concentrate enough to do homework and never felt that he fitted.
“I was told three separate times I’d never amount to anything, and it was horrible to have an adult telling you that,” he says. “But it did motivate me. Thankfully, my parents were never worried. They never put expectations on me. They always thought I’d figure it out.”
At Duigan’s Bodyism gym in the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge (membership around $30,000 a year) you don’t suck on a used Pump bottle. Someone hands you a glass of crystalline water with an added dash of chlorophyll. Nor do you get a sheet of exercises to slog your way through; you have a consultation called the Body Oracle where a trained assessor does a part-psychological, part-physical assessment.
You will probably be told to cut the C.R.A.P. out of your life; that’s Caffeine. Refined sugar, Alcohol and Processed foods.
You will also be told that unless you change your mind, you will never change your body.
“One of the mantras that we have is ‘any change in your body happens in your mind first’,” Duigan says.
“We have a lot of people come in and say ‘Oh, I look like a pig in jeans, you’d literally throw up’.
“And it’s funny and they say it as a joke. But it’s actually quite severe and you’d never say that to another person.
“So you realise that your body starts to believe what your mouth tells it and you have to be careful about what you say, and you have to be kind to yourself.”
His underlying narrative of self-worth is something even the rich and successful need to hear. He says some people subconsciously believe they don’t deserve a happy, healthy life and sabotage their behaviour with chocolate, cocaine or alcohol. Duigan, who is teetotal, backs up his fitness tools with a mindset that seeks to change how people think.
“When people come in, we really listen to them so the gym isn’t loud music and lots of stuff going on, it’s about having conversations and hearing what’s important to them,” he says.
“Doing squats isn’t going to change anyone’s life but changing how they feel about themselves will.”
But did Elle or Rosie’s life change because they worked out for an hour a day?
“They’re not losing 20 kilos, absolutely, but we are more than losing weight,” Duigan says.
“It’s a lifestyle,” adds Christiane. “Someone might come in and they think they’re in for a really hard training session and we say ‘Today we’re doing yoga, or a massage’ and people are surprised by that. I guess you are changing their lives as such because they come in feeling stressed and they go out feeling amazing.”
Together, the Duigans are contenders for the perfect couple. Christiane, who has Brazilian parentage on her mother’s side and a father from Adelaide shed kilos under James’ guidance.
Now, she is the gorgeous model on the front of his books, including the pregnancy guide. She is the beauty to his brains.
Their first date was a disaster. Back in Adelaide for Christmas in 2006, Duigan saw her at a party and wanted to meet her. A few days later on New Year’s Eve he asked a friend about her. “That’s Christiane, everyone wants to talk to her,” the friend said. “Just introduce me!” said Duigan.
They met, chatted and got together for lunch but it somehow went awry. For reasons he still doesn’t quite understand, half way through the date Duigan lost his cool.
“Something happened, I started to really tense up. There was this sweat going on, chest sweat, and one dripped from my nose,” he laughs. “I wasn’t talking. I was focusing on trying not to sweat, looking like a serial killer.”
Don’t go overboard on this bit, he warns Christiane, when I ask her what she was thinking. It was fine, he says, I was just sweating a lot, and I went silent…
“I cut it short,” smiles Christiane. “I just said I had to get back to work.”
That was it for a year. Duigan went back to London but never stopped thinking about her. In the meantime, Christiane told her sister about her
WHEN PEOPLE COME IN, WE REALLY LISTEN TO THEM, SO THE GYM ISN’T LOUD MUSIC AND LOTS OF STUFF GOING ON – IT’S ABOUT HAVING CONVERSATIONS AND HEARING WHAT’S IMPORTANT
awkward date with someone called James Duigan.
“And she went ‘ James Duigan. THE James Duigan,” she says. “She said I should give him another chance.”
A year later, Duigan walked into a shop where she worked and she suggested they catch up. It all went much better. They met in the East End and bonded at the Chocolate Bean, over chocolate soup.
She is the living, breathing exotic realisation of the health and beauty image that he sells. Yet they are very different people, Duigan says, and it took years to figure each other out.
“I’d listen to Chrissy and think ‘ What do you mean? I don’t even know what you mean?’ And it was like we were from two different planets, but there was such a strong love,” says Duigan. “That’s all we had at the start. We had nothing in common except that we loved each other and from that we figured a way, and started to understand each other.”
They have a daughter, Charlotte, and late this month her brother, Leonardo, is due to be born. Christiane works on the operations side of the business although these days there are teams of people making sure the Duigan empire runs smoothly.
Business is booming and their success with a range of Bodyism supplements has dwarfed the rest of the business.
In partnership with trainer Dalton Wong, Duigan produces “a bespoke range of supplements and health drinks” designed to strip fat and make you feel better. They include Body Brilliance (“the supermodel’s secret weapon”) and Berry Burn, which encourages fat loss during a workout. The supplements will soon be stocked by a major store.
The Bodyism gyms will remain exclusive, their locations restricted to places the Duigans want to visit: London, the Maldives, Turkey and LA.
“We wanted to create a good lifestyle for ourselves; we want gyms where we want to go basically,” says Christiane.
James says he was offered the opportunity to open a gym in a particular city that was guaranteed to make him a fortune. He knocked it back because it wasn’t somewhere they wanted to go. Life’s too short, he says.
Their next potentially huge step is to expand their business into a personalised online lifestyle service, bringing their celebrity-endorsed workouts, recipes, supplements and philosophies to the masses. Bodyism online will include exercise programs you can watch on your iPhone or iPad or computer; menu plans; nutritional programs and localised information about where to get the best facial, what vegetables are in season, where to go for a holiday and what restaurants serve food that is Clean and Lean.
“The website is a way of connecting, it can give you feedback in real time,” says Duigan. “We obviously won’t be able to talk to everyone but we will have a team of people who can. It’s more of a living, breathing thing and it’s more immediate and connected, so that’s exciting.”
Duigan knows he didn’t invent any of this and says he is standing on the shoulders of giants. But he seized a piece of luck and used it to build an empire. And he is grateful for the chance.
“People say it’s nice that you’re still humble and that’s good to hear, but I’ve got nothing to be a big head about, very few people do,” he says. “I’m not a surgeon or a rescue worker or someone in Africa digging wells and massaging elephants. I am what I am; a bogan from Adelaide who’s done some personal training and I’m really lucky to have everything else.”
2 1 Personal trainer James Duigan and his wife Christiane his first famous client, in London 2 Duigan walks with Elle Macpherson,
1 1 James Duigan, his wife Christiane and daughter Charlotte 2 With model Kasia Z 3&4 Duigan's A-list clients include Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Megan Gale