Bloomberg Businessweek (North America)
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
“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 My Fitness Pal ($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>