Forbes’ 2017 top fitness influencer and Instagram queen Kayla Itsines is kneeling on the floor of Collective Hub HQ to get a little closer to our office pooch, Benny. She is fast besotted and explains that if she hadn’t stumbled into the fitness influencer life she now leads, she’d most definitely be helping out at a dog shelter. From the look on her face as she coos at the cavoodle, I believe her.
It’s no surprise that 26-year-old Kayla is dressed in a version of her daily uniform: workout tights, a grey sweat concealing a crop top, runners, a high pony, Apple watch. She says she hasn’t accepted sportswear sponsorship deals because it would limit her ability to mix and match wares. It speaks to her mammoth success that Kayla is able to happily decline the lucrative offers many others are gasping to snap up. Recently, Kayla was announced among the top 5 women on the 2017 Financial Review Young Rich List, climbing 11 spots on the previous year.
In 2016, Tobi Pearce, Kayla’s fiancé and business partner, conceived SWEAT, an app featuring three personal trainers, each with a different expertise. Kayla offers her oft-hashtagged BBG (Bikini Body Guide) program, Kelsey Wells is the post-pregnancy training expert, and Sjana Elise Earp is a yogi.
“When Tobi approached me about being a SWEAT trainer, I had no idea what that meant. I knew my program would be within the SWEAT app, which was awesome. But then he said, ‘Look, I want to be able to put other trainers within the app,’ and at the moment there is a big push for mums, and there’s a big push for yoga.” Some of Kayla fans were confused about how to incorporate other exercise into the BBG program, and so the app, available for a monthly fee of AU$19.99, incorporates the three.
Kayla the helper
Kayla Itsines loves helping people. To illustrate the point, she relayed a time whereby she tipped the entire contents of her senior PR officer’s handbag onto a table without her knowing, cleaned it out, returned items to their most logical posts, and handed it back. She also has reserves of drive and determination, but it’s the helpfulness that most defines who she is and why she has amassed 8 million Instagram followers. The Forbes announcement reached her only after someone messaged her “Congratulations” on Instagram. “It’s just nice to be recognised for helping people,” she says.
When I ask what else she’s known for, she says, “Yeah, that’s it. Being authentic, just being real and sticking to my morals, I guess. People could see me who knew me years ago and still be like, ‘You’re the same person then as you are today.’ When they meet me, they’re like, ‘You’re exactly the same.’”
And genuine Kayla is. When she was approached to be profiled by the New York Times, her runners remained anchored still. “Yeah, that was awesome as well. I was like, ‘Thank you so much’. Everyone’s trying to shake me and be like, ‘This is huge,’ but I’m literally just doing what I love, ’cause I love helping people. I’m weird. Like, if you said, ‘Oh, my nail’s chipped,’ I would run – run – go get you nail polish remover and repaint your nails. Nothing is beneath me. So, yeah, I just like helping people,” she says.
The specific help Kayla’s referring to is the way she inspires and educates mostly young women to take charge of their fitness and, in doing so, feel more body-confident. Many who follow her training program also follow her Instagram account, on which she shares the before and after transformations of exercise converts. The goal, she emphasises, is not to be skinny, but strong.
How to grow your tribe
Kayla’s story, and rise, is rooted in her coming from a hard-working Greek family in Adelaide, where she still lives. “We’re just hard workers. We don’t mind what we do, as long as we love what we do, if that makes sense. My grandpa always taught me, ‘Do things out of love’. I don’t think you can teach someone that at this age. You just have to be born with it,” she says.
For her, family is paramount. “They’re people that I look up to because they’re not out to make a lot of money. My parents are teachers, but my mum worked herself up from just doing reading with kids that had learning difficulties, and she loved it, and ended up getting a job as an… everything. I don’t even know what my mum does. She does everything. So, yeah, I look up to my family so much because they’re just hard-working people.”
Every morning, as Kayla checks her phone, her direct messages icon flashes 99+. She reads them in order to offer her audience the very thing they’re seeking. When I ask her how she got so popular, she explained it’s only recently that she has crystallised the answer: “Have your passion, but also listen to your audience and what they say, because there’s nothing worse than producing something that you think is cool and you think is awesome, but it’s not what they want. You have to listen… For example, my clients, they’ll find little things that I don’t see, like, ‘Oh, you should do this, or you should do this,’ and it’s like, ‘That’s a really good idea.’ If you just listen to them, you build a product that your customer wants,” she says.
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