Four years ago, one of Peloton’s star instructors, Cody Rigsby, was scouting for new recruits to join the then relatively unknown online fitness platform when he spotted Leanne Hainsby teaching a spin class in London. After the class he told her he was going to change her life, which Leanne recalls dismissing as ‘so over the top’.
His words, however, proved to be prophetic. Back then, Leanne, 34, had just emerged from an unhappy relationship and was living with her parents in Kent, lacking in confidence and financial stability. She’d spent 12 years as a backing dancer and had only just begun to dabble in the fitness industry.
Since becoming an instructor on Peloton’s stationary bike, for which members pay £1,350, plus a £39 monthly subscription fee to stream live and on-demand classes to a screen attached to its handlebars, she has amassed an army of fans, known online as the ‘Yes to You Crew’. With 282,000 Instagram followers, her position has brought perks she could once only dream of, not least a famous fiancé, Ben Alldis, 28, also a star Peloton instructor, with whom she now shares a London home. She has two agents and is invited to film premieres.
Like Joe Wicks and banana bread, Peloton’s fame grew exponentially in the first lockdown. Sales soared by 172% and online users rose from 1.6 million at the start of 2020 to 5.9 million in June 2021.
‘It was surreal,’ says Leanne of the attention she began to attract – although call her a celebrity at your peril. ‘That word makes me feel uncomfortable. When you think of someone as a celebrity you think of them being on a different level. That’s everything I work hard not to be like.’
This relatability is at the crux of not only Leanne’s appeal, but that of all 54 Peloton instructors worldwide, who also lead classes on the treadmill and offer their 6.2m members – of which I am one – strength, yoga and meditation classes. Recently, they’ve even branched into dance.
Bridging the gap between fitness and celebrity, Peloton trainers are part-athlete, part-reality star, part-life coach. They harness the power of technology and music – Peloton has collaborated with Spotify and signed deals with Beyoncé, while its American CEO John Foley, who founded the company in 2012, describes his fitness venture as ‘a media company akin to Netflix’.
And their draw, in a post-pandemic world in which much of fitness remains online and we’re more invested in our health than ever, is huge. With vast social media followings, they are beloved by A-listers, including Michelle Obama and Miley Cyrus, as well as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who this year described Cody, 34, Peloton’s cycling director who also helps find new talent, as his ‘go-to’ instructor.
In new SATC reboot And Just Like That... even Big has a favourite instructor, Allegra, played by real-life Peloton trainer Jess King, 36 (although – spoiler alert – his heart attack post-ride prompted the brand to release a statement suggesting his ‘cocktails, cigars, and big steaks’ were likely responsible, then – hilariously – put Jess and Big actor Chris Noth in a Peloton ad suggesting they’d run off together).
Such is the level of hysteria they prompt, one fan took a picture of instructor Robin Arzón’s grocery shopping and posted it on Instagram, Cody reached the finals of Dancing With The Stars in America in December 2021 and, Leanne reveals, ‘When me and Ben are together people point at us and say, “Peloton!”’
It helps that their relationship with fans is interactive. Cajoled into peddling faster and congratulated for completing a tough class, you feel you’re being coached by a friend, or perhaps the leader of a healthy, wholly addictive cult.
Like all good reality stars, most have backstories they use to captivate and motivate members to overcome their own adversity. Cody, a self-declared ‘opinionated homosexual’ with an Instagram following of 987k, was raised in conservative North Carolina in the US, where he endured prejudice and three years of homelessness with his single mother before becoming a dancer and joining Peloton in 2014.
Fellow American Ally Love, 34, who has 798k followers on Instagram and is also a former professional dancer who joined Peloton in 2016, was told she’d never be an athlete after breaking her leg in a near-fatal car accident, aged nine. As a trainee lawyer, New Yorker Robin Arzón, 39 (Instagram followers: 886k) took up exercise to ‘run the trauma out’ after being held at gunpoint in a wine bar in 2002. Since swapping law for Peloton in 2014, she’s encouraged members to ‘hustle’ like her.
They’re also open about relationships and mental health issues – Californian Kendall Toole, 28, a former cheerleader and boxer, has spoken of her depression and spent one class documenting her break-ups.
Leanne was taught that authenticity is crucial during her two months’ training at Peloton’s flagship New York studio before she joined the 2018 UK launch. In any case, she says, adopting a different persona during live classes wouldn’t work. ‘Because of the pressure we’re under, it would become obvious very quickly if we were being anything less than ourselves.’
Some classes are more scripted than others. Jess King, a former dancer, has said if she’s teaching a class with a particular message she memorises ‘every second’ beforehand. Looking flawless (in outfits never seen twice) is key, but instructors do their own make-up. ‘I give myself seven minutes for make-up, five for hair,’ says Leanne, whose classes, of which there are up to 10 a week, are filmed in Peloton’s London studio, from as early as 6.30am, with two people behind the camera and a production assistant present beforehand
to make sure live classes run to schedule. Classes take around two hours to prepare. When Robin announced her pregnancy during a ride last September, producers reportedly needed to know that she planned the reveal in minute 25, so they could get the best shot.
Social media is integral to instructors’ profiles, whether they are promoting classes or giving shout outs to followers. On Instagram, Leanne documents everything from her dawn under-eye masks to fiancé Ben’s proposal in Ibiza this summer and receives hundreds of messages a day from fans thanking her for improving their lives.
As for what this new breed of fitness star makes... although Peloton doesn’t disclose salaries, American tread instructor Jess Simms, 34, revealed in 2019 she made ‘six figures with stock options’, while Bloomberg reported in January 2021 that senior instructors make over $500,000 (£359,000) a year. Then there are the lucrative ad deals. Robin is an ambassador for adidas, while Ally hosts New York basketball team Brooklyn Nets games and Leanne, who lived ‘week by week’ as a dancer, has this year promoted Harrods and Morrocanoil.
Yet none of the instructors appears to chase stardom for its own sake. Yoga and meditation trainer Chelsea Jackson Roberts has said that in yoga ‘you don’t want to feed the ego’, while Leanne is determined to remain down to earth. ‘I have a great family around me, so if there was any hint of me believing the hype my mum and dad would be like, “Time to check yourself Leanne.”’ However, she knows the hype is unlikely to abate any time soon. ‘It’s been a wild ride so far, and I feel like it’s just beginning.’