Health Is The New Handbag

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BoF reports that with ingestible beauty products causing a shift in the global beauty industry in recent years, wellness today is seen as an expression of personal values and belief system, in the same way a handbag might have played this role years ago.

Last month in Hamburg, fitness guru Kayla Itsines was on a stage in front of 7,500 eager attendees of the OMR (Online Marketing Rockstars) conference. Most of us settle for seeing her no larger than an iPhone screen, for the lithe Australian with super-toned abs, often on show between skimpy shorts and sports bras, as well as a seemingly ever-cheery disposition, is the queen of Insta-fitness with 9.3 million followers on Instagram alone. At the age of just 26, she has topped the fitness category of Forbes Top Influencers List and appeared on Australia’s Young Rich List (for entrepreneurs aged 40 and under) compiled by the Australian Financial Review; this year she leapt 11 places to number 40 with an estimated worth of AUS$46 million ($35.2 million).

“I don’t think of this as a business,” said Itsines just two years ago at an Apple store event in New York during an Adidas-sponsored tour; entire stadiums were filled with adoring fans (#kaylasarmy) following her lead through some of her famous Bikini Body Guide (BBG) moves. Yet her company turns over an estimated A$100 million ($76.755 million) per year, most of which is generated by A$19.99/month ($15.30) app subscriptions. According to latest figures from App Annie, Itsines’ Sweat is ranked in the top five health and fitness apps in the US.

It all started innocently enough. As an 18-year-old Adelaide-based personal trainer, Itsines was left in charge of the gym where she worked. She started training women and targeting the body areas they found hardest to change, then posted before-and-after shots on her Instagram feed. Cue customers. Cue followers. Cue demand for the launch of her Bikini Body Guides for non-IRL clients, and a fitness community that sprung up around them all sharing the #BBG hashtag, cheering each other on while Kayla gives shout-outs by regramming successful transformations on her own Instagram account. The guides, originally PDF downloads, became apps with full video instruction and now incorporate fitness programmes by Sjana Elise Earp and Kelsey Wells for yoga and post-pregnancy programmes — all packaged under the umbrella of Sweat, the business run by Itsines and Tobi Pearce, her life partner and chief executive.

Of course, it isn’t all roses. BBG has had its share of complaints, chiefly from users finding it hard to stop direct debits from the app after they’ve cancelled their monthly subscription. And, of course, there have been social concerns about young girls being overly influenced by influencers and finding “thinspiration” in their posts.

But Itsines and Pearce aren’t alone in their ambitions to tap the growing intersection of fitness and digital influence and, though the couple continue to self-fund their business, investors have taken notice. Fellow Australian, Gold Coast-based model-turned-trainer Emily Skye has 2.3 million followers on Instagram and recently sold part of her health and fitness business to Quadrant Private Equity, which also owns gym chains including Goodlife Health Clubs and Fitness First Australia. Industry insiders believe they’ll be aiming to float on the stock exchange later this year. Welleco, the wellness and fitness shake brand founded by Elle Macpherson and former magazine editor Andrea Horwood, had initial seed investment from Hoperidge Capital, the family investment firm of Perth-based education entrepreneur Rod Jones, and recently private equity firm The Foundry has taken a stake.