March 1, 2016
She first made headlines as a tough reality television personal trainer, to recent hype surrounding her personal life and baby son. Now, Michelle Bridges gives insight into life as a powerhouse in the Australian health and fitness industry, introduces her new family, talks business success and weighs in on the nation’s health, in a candid interview with Anna Rawlings.
As a young teen, I remember excitedly tuning in to watch reality television fitness show The Biggest Loser Australia; whole family weighing in on our favourite contestants and trainers became a popular weeknight activity in our sporty and healthy household.
Inspired, I toyed with the idea of becoming a personal trainer, before choosing a journalism degree and career in the media (although I’m still a bit of a gym rat!), with Michelle being one of my biggest fitness inspirations.
There’s something so inherently healthy about Michelle, known for her ripped, bronzed body and uber-athleticism – on the morning of our interview, I’m extra-energized to hit the gym and grab a banana, honey, coconut milk and peanut butter smoothie for breakfast on the way to the office.
So it’s with some anticipation I’m connected through to the queen of a self-made fitness empire and come to discover that away from the glossy brand and television personality, Michelle is down-to-earth, chatty and open.
“We’re under a bridge, we’re just driving in Sydney at the moment, you can probably hear the kids in the car,” explains Michelle over the background noise of traffic.
‘We’ is of course, Michelle’s blended family, partner and TBL co-star Steve ‘The Commando’ Willis (who incidentally I’ve also met at a recent fitness expo – can you see a trend here?), his three kids, and their first baby together, son Axel who was born in December 2015.
While Michelle transcended the fitness industry to find household fame in 2007 on the first season of The Biggest Loser Australia and quickly built a fitness empire, more recently the trainer and TV personality attracted some controversy in 2014, when she and Steve, 39, revealed they were dating, ending their former relationships – Michelle’s nine-year marriage to her business manager husband, and Steve’s relationship with his partner and mother to two of his three children.
The duo was soon touted as Australia’s very own ‘celebrity fitness couple’, and of late, sunny snaps of Michelle pushing Axel’s pram in Sydney, or stunning photos from an exclusive mother-and-son photo shoot pepper her Instagram page alongside gritty, motivational images of Michelle in the gym and client transformations.
It’s this new side to Michelle – first-time mum at 44, that has garnered particularly heightened attention.
“It’s a completely new chapter for me, it’s really exciting. It was in the back of mind and always there, but for me it was about timing and the right time. It’s certainly changed a lot of things, but good – all good changes,” she says of new motherhood and starting a family.
“Axel is going to have the same lifestyle I have, so good education, we’re always going to be active, eat healthy food, there’ll be the occasional treats here and there, otherwise pretty much healthy habits and that’s the lifestyle he’ll be introduced to straight away.”
As we discuss how Michelle’s adapted her exercise routine she laughingly admits, “at the moment I’m dabbling in a bit of crossfit because my other half is very crossfit orientated. I need to do more stretching and mobility, he would nod his head at that,” she laughs, to my delight, given that I hate stretching – so if Michelle Bridges doesn’t have to, I don’t either!
“My training has always been a bit of a mixed bag, I feel like that gives me a well-grounded, all-over foundation, I like to run, I like to do weights, I genuinely feel like a balance gives you a good grounding,” she adds.
Michelle often posts her gruelling workouts, and with her opinions published widely on social media, there’s scope for her to come under fire, most recently for continuing to train while heavily pregnant and just after giving birth. However, her supporters, the people whose lives she changes through her 12 Week Body Transformation (12WBT) guides, and Michelle herself, are quick to silence the negativity.
“Social media can be a lot of fun and very rewarding but I guess you have to see it for what it is and don’t get too bogged down in it, there are plenty of naysayers out there and there will always be someone who is offended or someone has something negative to say, so fine, you just don’t let that bother you,” she says.
A trailblazer who earned the crown of ‘fit queen’ years before Instagram-famous ‘fitspo’ identities filled our screens, Michelle has broken two Guinness World Records, helped Australians through her online weight loss programs, published 10 books, developed a vitamins and supplements range and created a fitness apparel range.
I had a country-ish upbringing, I was pretty much playing every sport I could get my hands on.”
With the body and looks of someone who’s spent her entire life adamantly eating well and working out, after all she’s a walking advertisement for her business and brand, it’s easy to forget that Michelle was in her early 30s when she scooped the role of the female trainer on the first Australian season of The Biggest Loser 10 years ago – by which time she’d been in the fitness industry for almost 20 years.
Michelle spent her early years growing up at her grandparents’ motel in remote country north-west of Tamworth, before moving to Newcastle.
“I had a country-ish upbringing, I was pretty much playing every sport I could get my hands on, ballet, I tried to do everything and my mum was always complaining, why do you have to do every sport known to man!” she laughs.
“From a very young age I learnt that I loved the competition and training, and I really enjoyed the discipline, commitment and team camaraderie as well.”
At 14 years old, Michelle noticed fellow students weren’t participating in the weekly sports lessons and pitched teaching fitness classes to her school mistress.
“I put together my mix tape, got my legwarmers out and took pieces from all of my training and sport, put it together like a circuit, and I thought, I was an absolute champion at this!” she laughs.
“So then I took myself down to my squash court and told them I could teach fitness classes and they let me loose on the general public at the age of 14 with no registration, nothing, I mean you could never do it now, you’d be sued!”
Michelle spent the next four years teaching fitness classes until she qualified as a fitness instructor at age 18.
“It was always in me, I wasn’t going to ever not do it. I’d been doing it since I was 14, I was doing it for no other reason than that I purely loved it.”
After progressively moving through teaching fitness classes part-time to personal training, by her early 30s Michelle had a prominent profile in the fitness industry, had trained people all over Australia, presented at global fitness conventions and had appeared on television, after approaching then-Nine Network morning show host Kerri-Anne Kennerley (at the Sydney health club where Michelle trained and Kerri-Anne worked out) for a fitness segment on her show, and had been named Australian Fitness Leader of the Year in 2004.
One evening, Michelle was watching the American version of The Biggest Loser.
“It sat me on my butt, I was like, oh my god, this show! I was obsessed with it and when I saw the female trainer (Jillian Michaels) I thought, I can do that job! I didn’t realise they were going to have an Australian version, I got a call from the casting agents at Channel 10,” she says.
Following a rigorous four months of fitness tests, audience screening and personality profiling, Michelle scooped the gig.
“I brought everything I had in my bag of tricks, it was such a great opportunity for me and not only showcased a lot of the things I’d learnt from the age of 14 through to my mid-30s, I knew I had a lot to offer and get it out there.”
It was almost serendipitous timing, as Michelle candidly reveals that after two decades in the fitness industry, she almost turned her back on it.
“You got me thinking about what was going on in my career in the fitness industry just before Biggest Loser turned up for me, and I had become a little disenchanted, I felt like I had done everything,” she admits.
What felt like a bad thing actually turned out to be quite good.”
“I thought, I’ve done classes, I’m a personal trainer, I’ve owned a gym, I’ve had my own business, there’s not that much more out there.”
Michelle started writing for magazines, and was working part-time with a newspaper in advertising just before she got the call for TBL.
“What felt like a bad thing actually turned out to be quite good, it made me break the mould and think outside the square of how I could reinvigorate my career and find new ways of doing stuff in my industry.
“Straightaway within the first few weeks of Loser, I thought to myself, having been a business owner and operator, you always have your exit plan. So in my head I thought, you should really start getting yourself out there now so you have something to stand on as a foundation, so my book ideas and all the other things, I did that off the first season.”
“It was like trailblazing in a way and I guess that’s a pretty cool message that what might be at the time disenchanting or a problem, the solution that can come from it can be a whole new way of tackling stuff.”
On TBL, Michelle quickly gained a reputation as a hard-core, tough-as-nails trainer, the diminutive brunette image eschewed for orders barked in her trademark husky voice, rippling biceps flexed as she stood hands-on-hips over a tearful contestant. Michelle admits that weight loss is a very personal topic, especially played out to thousands of viewers, and in reality she’s the opposite to the trainer persona on the show.
“Here I was able to really see some amazing transformations, I’d never really worked with morbidly or super obese people before, not to the extent of 200kg plus, so that was a really big, fast-track learning curve. So the 10 years on the show has been like 30 years of learning information in a way. It’s extremely rewarding, extremely tiring, but rewarding as well.”
Tough love when it came to training the shockingly overweight contestants, but in the face of an obesity epidemic not only in Australia but the world, it was a chance for Australians’ lives to be changed – although there’s the disheartening fact that many of our population will continue to be dangerously obese, and Michelle’s voice hardens as she weighs in on the topic.
“There’s a complex amount of reasons, there’s lack of education, socioeconomic factors, add to that the complexity of fast food and junk food, organisations or businesses that have extraordinarily large amounts of money they can call on for their marketing and PR. Add the complexity about human nature and how we can get quite addicted to high sugar, high fat foods. All of these layers have given us where we are at right now with an obesity epidemic,” she says.
“We need to address it, people are dying, and our economy is being drained substantially because of illnesses that are majority related to our lifestyle choices, it’s crazy.”
Hundreds of thousands of lives have been directly and indirectly changed by Michelle’s influence on the show, as well as through the 12WBT.
“I feel that in a small way I’m making a difference, I think about my 12WBT changing a substantial amount of Australian lives which makes me very proud, but it makes me think, I’ve still got a long way to go and so much more to do.
“On my program alone we are getting close to two million kilos lost and that’s a lot of weight, so it is possible to turn it around but I need help politically, from the fitness industry and from the food industry, there needs to be a real meeting of the minds to turn this tsunami around.”
It’s this insight into our health issues at all levels that’s motivated Michelle to make a career out of guiding people to wellness, coupled with her intense ambition to create business success, now juggling her fitness empire with a newborn.
But forget the standard tips of implementing exercise into your day for professional success; Michelle outlines a message when it comes to providing motivation for business people.
“My biggest thing is I want to get in their heads – what do you they want to achieve? Do you want to lose weight, be fitter, be strong, run 5km, run for charity? Work out why it is you want to do it and then look at all the roadblocks you’ve been putting in front of yourself. The bigger question is why aren’t you doing it, what excuses have you been throwing out there to stop you from doing that?”
Delivered in typical Michelle Bridges style, upfront and honest. And, she’s taking her own advice with the recent launch of her new book.
“I’m excited/nervous because I’ve never done a book like this before, it’s got no exercises or nutrition in it, it’s got some client stories, it’s all about taking stock of where you’re at and what you want to achieve in life, and some personal stories and lessons I’ve learnt along the way.”
Michelle will be on the Sunshine Coast on Friday, 2 and Saturday, 3 April for a dinner event and morning bootcamp for Premier Speakers and Events.
“The Friday night will be an opportunity for me to talk to people about what it is that you want to achieve, like where you want to go and why you want to go there and why haven’t you been able to get there before, bigger questions which will then lead you into exercising and eating better. You’ll get to know me a little bit better, not just that trainer who yells at people and tells them to do 20 push-ups, you’ll get a taste of that the following day when you do the work out!”