The Unstoppable Rise of the Celebrity Trainer
Dr. John Spencer Ellis is not actually a doctor, but he does have a college degree in health, a PhD in education, and a black belt in kung fu. He's also certified in "flexibility," "golf conditioning," and "sports hypnosis," and claims to have biked enough miles to circle the earth. Yet Ellis's greatest achievement may be his Fitness Fortunes Live seminar, which debuts later this month in Dallas. For $297 per ticket (or $447 for VIP treatment), Ellis will teach ordinary, personal trainers how to become celebrity trainers. "Swing your kettlebell, and do your warrior pose another time!" Ellis's website declares. "It's time to get 100 percent pure and valuable content on how to get rich as a highly respected fitness pro."
Ellis is one of a handful of fitness pros turning celebrity training into a full-fledged, actual profession, replete with agents, managers, publicists, Web engineers, social-networking gurus, and even celebrities. The rise of Gunnar Peterson in Los Angeles and Tracy Anderson in New York has created a micro industry of ambitious gym rats hoping to be the next Jake Steinfeld. It was Steinfeld who in the early 1980s became the first and possibly the greatest celebrity-trainer-turned-borderline-celebrity in the history of the celebrity trainer business. Steinfeld built an empire that included an A-list Hollywood clientele, cable fitness shows, endorsements with Playboy Enterprises, and a handful of books under the "Body by Jake" brand. He remains the gold standard to this day.
The current generation of aspiring celebrity trainers face more competition. There are currently 400,000 "fitness professionals" in the U.S., says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA Health & Fitness Assn., an industry research group. About 200,000, she estimates, are personal trainers. It's a far cry from IDEA's first personal-trainers convention, in 1988—Arnold Schwarzenegger was the keynote speaker—when about 1,000 people turned up. Kevin Weaver, an agent who started his career 25 years ago representing workout queen Denise Austin, now handles the careers of 250 "fitness personalities," including Ellis. Weaver, who gets 15 percent every time he books his clients an infomercial or an inspirational speech, calls the '80s "a seller's market." These days, he says, "there are a thousand [trainers] coming up each year."
Most of these trainers make between $20,000 and $35,000 working at a gym, according to industry estimates. Those who become celebrity trainers can expect to reel in six figures or more. Michael George, who's trained Toby Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, and Slash, of Guns N' Roses fame, says he once made $10,000 a month training Meg Ryan. Joe DiAngelo, a New York trainer whose clients have included Wall Street bankers and gangster rappers, charges $300 for house calls. Anderson, who trains Gwyneth Paltrow and Shakira, charges clients $900 a month to train at her Manhattan gym (initiation fee: $1,500). Ellis, 42, who's been lecturing personal trainers for years about transforming themselves into small business owners, likes to remind his audience of these potential riches. Fitness Fortunes Live will feature a speech by little-known professional speaker Topher Morrison on how to make $123,000 a year on speaking fees—even as a little-known speaker. The lineup also includes comedian John Heffron, whose talk, titled "Stand Up to Your Inner Heckler," is meant to nudge shy trainers to stop being shy and start getting rich.
The secret of celebrity training lies in building one's own brand. This is how Ellis's most successful protégé, Jillian Michaels, catapulted herself from obscurity to berating morbidly obese contestants on NBC's The Biggest Loser. Michaels, a formerly fat-teenager-turned-trainer, is now known in the industry as the trainer who makes very fat people less fat. That's her brand—her niche—and it's led to her interactive Wii video game, Jillian Michaels' Fitness Ultimatum 2009, and her spin-off reality show, Losing It With Jillian, which debuted last year on NBC. In celebrity training, Ellis claims, everyone needs a niche. "There's a lady in Canada," he says, "she's the Pilates guru." Tony Horton, creator of the Power 90 In-Home Boot Camp, is the "30-day, transformation guy." Greg Wolfe has cornered the vegan market. "My niche," Ellis says, "is making trainers wealthy and famous." Ellis, who no longer does much personal training, says he made "several million" dollars last year.
The modern-day Steinfeld is Gunnar Peterson, whose clients include Halle Berry, Sylvester Stallone, Kim Kardashian, and a raft of pro athletes. Peterson, who says he stumbled into fitness, now runs an upscale Beverly Hills gym filled with fancy equipment, loud music, and ubiquitous pictures of his famous clients. "When I was a kid, and we played basketball, and it was shirts and skins, I did not want to be skins," says Peterson, a one-time fat kid. "Not with those boobs." Then he lets slip that he attended a Swiss boarding school, double-majored in French and Italian at Duke, once hop-scotched around the world in a Gulfstream jet, and has a brother, Tor Peterson, who is a billionaire executive at the global commodities outfit Glencore International. Peterson, in other words, is just what celebrities want—someone to talk to who could not care less about talking to them. That's his brand: the celebrity trainer who does not care about celebrities.
Once trainers have established their brand, it's easier to sell things. Anderson, for instance, offers Metamorphosis By Tracy, a workout-nutrition plan that promises to "defy your genetics and create the body you never thought possible." Valerie Waters, who's trained Jennifer Garner, Benicio del Toro, and Kate Beckinsale, offers an array of "Valslide" workout DVDs. Jay Cardiello, founder of the NFL Training Camp workout, touts Cardiello Fitness, which "synergistically combines conditioning training with mind, body, and soul."
The worst-kept secret in celebrity training, however, is that trainers need to have famous clients to be famous themselves. And this has led some trainers to some very dark places. "You have to find out who works on the set where they're filming," says Scott White, a Phoenix-based trainer whose most famous clients include Tia and Tamera Mowry, from the now defunct television show Sister, Sister. "Or you find their doctor, or whatever. You have to have an in." Trainer Greg Anderson has twice been sent to prison for refusing to testify against his most famous client, Barry Bonds, regarding the slugger's alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. He's branded himself as the celebrity trainer who actually went to jail for a client.
It wasn't always like this. Three decades ago, Steinfeld was lounging by the pool at his Studio City apartment complex when a woman asked him to help her get in shape for a Club Med commercial. She said he could train her at the apartment of her boyfriend, a movie producer. When Steinfeld showed up, Francis Ford Coppola—a friend of the producer—opened the door. "I didn't know who he was," Steinfeld recalls. "I just thought he could use a workout." With a broom, a chair, a towel, and some canned goods, Steinfeld cobbled together a makeshift gym. Soon after, he had branded himself as the Guy Who Trains Famous People in Their Homes, and booked Harrison Ford, Bette Midler, and Michael J. Fox as clients. He became the trainer to the stars. "'Trainer to the stars'—I own those words," Steinfeld says. "They're copyrighted."
Steinfeld tells this story matter-of-factly, as if he accidentally wound up in his lovely Brentwood office with its spectacular view of Los Angeles. The truth may be that Steinfeld became the trainer to the stars not through degrees or certifications—which he conspicuously lacks—but because's he's likable. Steinfeld has never heard of Dr. John Spencer Ellis, but he's dubious that the skills of a celebrity personal trainer can be taught. "The key to success for trainers is personality," he says. "With personal training, it's personal."