Personal Best

How I inadvertently became a personal trainer to the stars

In 1985, I quit my job in the soul-sapping, sexist music business and got a job making sandwiches at an upscale Soho caterer. “I’m free!” I thought.

My joie de vivre lasted a couple months and then I panicked. I was 27, single, I had no special work skills, I didn’t go to college, and I didn’t want to be assembling ham and brie sandwiches for the rest of my life.

“I’ve been working out in gyms since I was 16,” I told Lidija, the owner of Soho Training Center, an art-filled loft with rows of exercise machines. “I’ve been a bodybuilder, a tournament racquetball player, an aerobics teacher, a scuba diver, a 5K runner and I started a one-hundred mile bike club and I fence,” I told her.

She looked at me with no affect, which I came to think of as “Yugoslavian.” Her husband, Robert Redford in a muscle suit, stood behind her silently. When she named the celebs who trained there, perhaps to see if I was too starry-eyed, I nodded knowingly, somberly, like her. You’d think we were discussing medieval texts. “I trained Madonna at a health spa in Mexico,” I said with the gravitas of a philosopher.

At this time, there were no personal training certificate programs and exercise specialist college degrees were for team coaches. “Personal trainer” was not a household word. At Soho Training Center, it was all about what you did with your own body and how much knowledge you gained doing it and how well you conveyed that.

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After months of shepherding artists and actors through the circuit of exercise machines, focusing on form and trying to get just the right cut in the muscle, I came up with the idea to teach an aerobics class in a corner of the loft reserved for stretching. It became wildly popular. But what a class! My regulars: Isabella Rossellini; James Taylor; “Little” Nell Campbell (from "Rocky Horror Picture Show"); artist Kenny Sharf; and photographer Christopher Makos and his group of Warhol denizens. None of these people did what I instructed, but looking out at this group of random famous people doing their own thing was very funny.

I did not exercise at Soho Training Center but at a nearby club. As I had always done, I watched what other people did to hone muscles, build bulk or fine tune definition, but now I had my new clients in mind. Before I tried anything on anyone, I tried it on myself.

One day I was walking home from the gym when a guy who showed me lat exercises beckoned me from the door of an old church.

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“Hey, there’s a party here,” he said. “It’s Robert Rauschenberg’s. You can go up if you want. Art snobs. But there’s food.”

I knew who Robert Rauschenberg was because I recently married an artist. “Okay!” I said, up for anything. I looked good that day. It was late summer; I had a good tan, my body looked tight and muscular in white spandex shorts and a tight white T-shirt. I was wearing new red Converse high tops.

I walked in the door and stopped. Rauschenberg’s living room was the size of an airplane hangar. The scene looked like it was airlifted whole from an art gallery opening. I knew no one. Should I go to the bar, a bookshelf, a window? Instead I stood and smiled like I was supposed to be there.

David Salle, a newly famous artist, was the first person to talk to me. “How do you know Bob?” he asked.

“I don’t. I know the door guy downstairs. From the gym,” I said.

He thought that was funny.

“Do you go to the gym?” I asked, noticing his tight pecs and compact, toned body.

“I have a gym at home,” he said.

“Oh, I teach people how to exercise in their home gyms,” I lied. I never knew anyone with a home gym. “Like Madonna,” I added knowing she’d vouch for me if ever asked. “I also work at Soho Training Center.”

David introduced me around. I left the party with plans scrawled on a napkin to go to the lofts of David, Susan Rothenberg, Bryan Hunt and Louisa Chase in the next week.

David was my first client and the longest — 15 years, until I moved to Massachusetts, and then a couple more years when I moved back to NYC. Through my first group of artist clients I worked out many of the art stars, their dealers, and art critics of the '80s and '90s. Through Madonna, Lorraine Bracco became my client and through her, other actors and actresses.

My strategy from then until now is perhaps old school — it was what I learned at Soho Training Center — what you teach is what you learn from working out and transforming your own body, and from watching the techniques of others and how it changes them. Always try something on yourself before having a client do it, have more than one exercise for any body part, in case your client hates it; be entertaining but don’t talk too much about yourself; and be attentive if your client is developing a crush on you, but never indulge it.

I did not go to school for this. I did not take a certification course (personal training is an unregulated field and certification courses are a money-making venture). I lived in gyms, watched and experimented. That is how I learned.