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Kayla is the definition of success!
She's grounded, wholesome and has a unique sense of purpose - she wants to improve the lives of women!
I've always been drawn to her authentic social media presence and it was easy to see why she's the perfect fit for 'My 30 Minutes'!
She boasts an impressive 9 million Instagram followers, 20 million Facebook followers and the largest female fitness community in the world.
To top it off - last year Forbes named her the most Influential Fitness Star in the World. The world! Not the most influential female - nope she beat out all the boys too!
Kayla and I met for the very first time when we sat down to do this interview. A team and I flew to Adelaide to catch up with her & film our interview for the first time. She was warm, engaging and real. So what's the secret to her success? You'll have to keep reading!
Here's 'My 30 Minutes' with Kayla Itsines.
One of the first questions I wanted to kick off with was telling people how to say your name. Because every time I talk to people about you or we reference your program, people don’t seem to know how to say your name? And you tell people often on social media...
“I think once you’ve had it in your head it’s like ‘it-signs’ and that’s it done for them. They can’t understand that it’s ‘it-seen-ess’ but it’s very Greek.
Kayla Itsines everyone!
Thank you so much it’s a real thrill to catch up with you. We’re in Adelaide, it’s a cold kind of stormy day but it’s great to be in your home town with you. You are a fitness star, that’s how people know you. Forbes made a pretty big call last year calling you the number one influential fitness star in the world. How does it feel to have that sort of title?
“It feels amazing!
I’m so blessed to be in the position I’m in but also blessed to have people recognize me for doing what I love doing – that’s helping women, training women.
So it’s awesome. It was actually a shock, but it was awesome.”
How do you see yourself in a snapshot? If you were to do 30 seconds of who Kayla is... what do you see yourself as?
“30 seconds? Umm me? Personal trainer, family person, I would just keep saying family person, family person, Greek. I love helping people, hard worker.”
Family is cool, that’s great!
“Yeah family is my whole life. That’s why I don’t move from Adelaide.”
Do you think family or relationships in general play a pretty big role in why you’ve been so successful?
“Yeah definitely, they’re humbling. My grandparents are Greek, they don’t really speak much English. They don’t really know what I do, like they do, but they don’t and that’s really humbling. When I go to their house they’re not talking to me about work, they’re not talking to me about newspaper articles. They can’t read the magazines that I’m in. So it’s nice to just go there and eat and for them to talk about what they did. Their biggest issue is that the barbeque doesn’t work, or something. So it’s really humbling and having family makes me a better person.”
They don’t speak much English?
So when you go there are you speaking…
“You have to speak Greek of you can speak very slowly. They don’t say much, they say ‘how you?’ Good. ‘You want to eat?’ That’s it, that’s as far as the conversation goes and you just sit and eat and then they speak to you in Greek.
You have a sister – do you speak to your sister in Greek?
“No we speak in English.”
Can you speak any other languages?
“No! (laughs) I can count to 10 in Chinese.”
Going back before all of this began. You nearly didn’t study personal training. Your mum sort of thought when you were a teenager… maybe this wasn’t the best career move. Can you see how your life might have been different?
“My mum is the most supportive mum ever and she said to me... ‘whatever you do we’ll support you but where are you going to be in 10 years?’ It was actually 10 years now.
I said ‘I don’t know’. And she said, ‘is this something you’ll do for the rest of your life, can you do this for the rest of your life?’ I said ‘yes, yes I really want to!’ So, she said ‘Ok, ok.’
I said I would do teaching as well. So, I went to university and studied teaching, but I love personal training so much that I deferred, with all intention of going back. But then I just didn’t go back and I’ve just stuck to it ever since.”
What were you going to teach?
“P.E. (Physical Education). I wanted to be a P.E. teacher. Because both my parents are teachers, so naturally I thought I’d fall into teaching like them. But I guess I am sort of a teacher in a different way.”
When you made the step to pursue personal training, knowing that your mum said, ‘give it a shot but how viable is this as a career?’ – did it feel like a bold move at the time?
“No, I don’t know. It just felt right for me. It felt like – this is what I want to do, this is what I love, I didn’t really care what anyone thought, it was just right for me. So, I think really think I was being a bit sneaky doing personal training I just thought ‘I love doing this’. I was able to change people’s lives just in Adelaide and that was enough for me.”
You finish your personal training, you’re starting to train people, what happens from there?
“I first started women’s only personal training sessions. We had a system there where we had to upload their before and after photos. It was a confidential system, we did it to show clients their results with us after a few weeks.
Then when I started doing mobile personal training, when I started my own business... I really wanted those progress photos and I missed that computer system. So, I thought ‘I’ll just take them on my phone and then my little cousin said ‘why don’t you just put them on Instagram, it’s like an app where you can upload your favourite photos’. So, I started doing that and women just started following me. They started requesting for me to train them, requesting for my help… and they did not live in Adelaide.
Then my partner Tobi said to me ‘why don’t we create some e-books for them so you can put what you’re doing with your clients in an e-book so they can do it at home’. So, we did that and it honestly just took off. We worked hard, like we worked so hard with those e-books to make sure it was perfect for them.
I did every single workout, I did every single exercise to make sure it flowed perfectly, there’s a lot of science behind it. But they just loved it.”
The concept is amazing because if someone wants to work out and work out with a PT - that is a physical 30 minutes or hour with you. And if you’re going to work fulltime… say you’ve only got 40 hours a week… or so many hours in your day.. you and Tobi had the foresight to say ‘let’s make something so others can join in on this’.
“Yeah, everyone can join in. Well not everyone – it was aimed at women! Part of the market just wasn’t there for women. So, we do 28 minutes – there wasn’t anything that was that sort of program. There was nothing that was targeted specifically at women, it was all programs for men ‘altered for women’. There was also nothing like that for women and there was also nothing that told women – work out to be strong and fit and confident. Women were like ‘excuse me’. It all sounds weird now sitting here in 2018 that those words have been thrown around and that’s what people would work out for, but back in the day that’s not what you saw on TV – it was ‘get shredded now, lose 10 pounds, all the celebrity diets’ that’s what was there. So, when we came up with this plan people were like ‘what is going on?’ So, we hit the market where it needed to be!”
Because it was tailored to women, when I think about exercising, there was always exercises that existed for men – if you’re a female you do your push ups on your knees. It was a very condescending system working out as women, as if it wasn’t for them. Were you breaking the mould in that way?
“Yep! The first thing I did on my first world tour, I would tell the women ‘the next exercise is push ups.’ I stopped and I stopped the music and I said to everyone ‘we’re going to do push ups on our toes.’ I said ‘can anyone tell me what the push ups on the knees is called?’ And someone yells out ‘girl push ups’. And I was like ‘absolutely not! This is a modified version of a push up but it is not a girlie push up! A push up on your toes is a push up, a push up on your knees is a push up.’
I didn’t want someone to think we’re precious or we’re fragile!
That’s the first thing I ever did – built women’s confidence up. I remember one of the ladies came up to me once and said ‘I am so glad I built my way up to doing a man push up.’ And I thought – we’ve got this all wrong! But now I think that’s all changed.”
I think it’s changed too. Now we’re expected to do push ups on our toes and it’s not a man push up, that’s just a push up. So perhaps you can be credited with that culture shift in our country?
“I hope so!”
For someone like me who wasn’t privy to all the details on the inside of your journey – it really seemed like your star rose and rose and rose over the last 10 years. Did it feel as fast for you as it did seem to someone like me on the outside. Or to you, do you just remember hard work?
“I remember the hard work. I’ve only been around for like three or four years. I was a personal trainer before that, but no one really knew because there was no Instagram, or I wasn’t on Instagram. But I remember the hard work. I remember the hours. I remember getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and finishing work at 11 o’clock at night. These were huge days!
So when people say ‘you’re so lucky...’ yes we are lucky, I feel lucky, but both Tobi and I worked so hard, so many hours, we had so many clients, we had bootcamps, we had personal clients, we had group sessions. We didn’t just go on Instagram one day and say ‘here’s a program’. We had those results from real time clients. So, we did work really hard.”
Has it come to a point where you are able to pull back at all? In terms of your output in specific hours or how much you have to do, have you been able to pull back in a different way?
“In a different way – yes! I don’t have my bootcamps anymore or the big group sessions. I still do some clients – I’ll train my friends and stuff like that, but I don’t have the hours and hours for clients. But you have to work hard in different ways. If you’re doing world tours you’re training 4000 people at once, you’re travelling all over the world, you’re doing stuff like this, early mornings, freezing cold outside… you guys can’t see that... but it’s freezing cold outside. So you work hard in different ways.
I think I’ll continue to work hard. Like I said, my family is Greek and all they do is hard work. So I know nothing, like I wouldn’t be able to do nothing. Nope.”
Was there ever a point for you where you did look around and although you were working very hard and it was one on ones and then it was kind of evolving in a way. Was there ever a point for you where you looked around and kind of thought ‘this is working’. Was there ever that shift?
“Yeah - when the first girl started sending in their transformation photos! We grew very organically.
Remember there was no sponsored posts, there was no advertising on Instagram, so there was nothing like that. We grew through word of mouth.
When our program got released, I think it was six months after that it grew really big, really organically and women were talking about it and they were loving it. So, I think that’s how we got most of our following – out of the culture and the community. And then again, the world tours were amazing because you get to see people in person and bring a community of women together.”
You talk about culture and community – social media can be a pretty ugly place to spend time if you’re looking at some people’s posts. Your community is incredibly positive! I’ve never seen anything like it. I want to believe women are good at supporting women, but so often we’re not and I think in Australia ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is really rampant and even when you want the best for someone, sometimes because you feel insecure you maybe bring them down. But in your community it is the complete opposite, where you’ve got women who are strangers to each other and they add this hashtag to their profile that says ‘I’m part of Kayla’s team’. It’s phenomenal and they all themselves end up with stacks of followers because people journey with them. Why do you think that’s happened?
“I think positivity attracts positivity. You surround yourself with the people you want to be like, or you surround yourself with people that will bring you up and that’s why these women have so many followers because they’re literally like rays of sunshine. I started with a few really positive girls and it just grew, and I attracted what I am, and I attracted more and more women like that.
We’re now the world’s biggest online female fitness community and they are incredible!
So when people write uneducated comments, like you were saying about social media being harsh sometimes... someone will write something like ‘I think she looked better before’ and someone will jump in and say, ‘it doesn’t matter because she feels fantastic now’. Having that support so that I don’t have to do it, I don’t have to come in and justify it, someone else will do it for me. So, I think that’s really nice as well, having that support. I’m supporting them, but they’re also supporting me.”
How do you feel about social media? It’s a big part of your brand, maybe you never chose that intentionally but that’s how it’s evolved.
“Social media is like my friend. I’m a friend of social media because of what it does for the business, because it’s able to bring so many women together in a positive way. If it was different for me, I was in a different situation and there was a lot of negativity surrounding what I did or if I was a different person – then I can understand how I wouldn’t love it as much as I do. But for me it’s brought a community of women – the biggest community of women – all over the world, through health and fitness, through being happy, being confident… for me that’s the ultimate!
I brought people together through health and fitness. That’s unheard of.
Women wanting other women to do well, women wanting other women to work out and do well... that’s honestly unheard of. I want to go to the gym, I want to be healthy.”
It’s amazing because to so many other people in your position – with that level of influence on social media – there’s a lot of striving that goes on, particularly on Instagram. At the moment you’ve got 9.4 million followers. No doubt that will have gone up by the time some people are seeing this. In terms of having that big of an influence – what’s amazing about you is you’re not a sell out to anything. A lot of people who are using Instagram, they’re promoting something or they’re just a real level of striving on there. How important is it for you to maintain that – you’re just authentic on there, you’re not trying to sell people Adidas pants or…
“100 percent and that comes from the very beginning where Tobi and I sat down, and he said to me ‘we need to set up some rules because both of us have never used Instagram before, this is growing really fast. I want to know if we’re going to start a business and we’re going to have staff members – what will you do and what won’t you do?’
Even if we go on doing media because we never did media before, and for my first media I was so nervous. We had to send them a sheet of what wouldn’t I do. And they sort of just laughed at the sheet - Kayla will not be in a bikini, Kayla will not be sexualised. But my things were like – I didn’t want to be sexualised to sell a product, I didn’t want to promote things that I don’t believe in or that’s not relevant, things that I posted had to be relevant for my community. Not something that I think is cool - something that’s relevant for health and fitness. There were just heaps of little rules that we set, and we just stuck to them and I think it’s made it really, really good.
Of course we’ve had amazing opportunities given to us, but we’ve just had to say no purely because it doesn’t benefit our community. It’s not what the girls want. It might be awesome for me to get a pair of whatever it is, like a pair of clothes, but it doesn’t benefit the community, so I have to say no. And it’s been really good. I’d much rather pay for it myself – we were just talking about how I have a hole in my pants, it’s ok these are old.
But I’d much rather pay for it myself, wear it for three years and get holes in it than take something away from the community.”
Do you find you spend a lot of time on your phone because of social media? I know you record videos every day but how many hours a day are you spending on your phone?
“I say to people – as much as you would spend say you work 9 to 5 on a computer at work, I spend that on my phone plus more. I’m not going to lie and be like ‘I put my phone down’. No, and it’s worse because I work with Tobi and he’s the CEO of the company, so we come home and we talk about work. People ask ‘where’s your balance?’ We like it though! We can come home and talk about what’s exciting, we’re both on our phones, we’re on them together. So yeah, I’m always on my phone, always. From when I wake up, to when I go to sleep I’m on my phone – but I’m working. That’s what I say.”
You mentioned Tobi and you’ve talked about family. You and Tobi have been together for a long time, he’s obviously incredibly instrumental in your success and your brand. He works as the CEO – do you work together throughout the day?
“No, we’ve got amazing staff members and his job is to run the business, and my job is to run my little BBG section. It makes more sense now that there is Sweat because Tobi is the CEO of Sweat, and I am the trainer within Sweat, and I work on the BBG community, my BBG program, so I am BBG – Bikini Body Guide.”
We probably didn’t cover that…
“28 minutes Bikini Body Guide. The reason we called it that... some people are often like ‘what, what is that name’… is so that we can change the way that people thought about the words ‘bikini body’. I wanted people to go onto my profile and see all these different bodies and think ‘there is no bikini body’ – it’s just when you feel comfortable, when you feel confident.
He’s the CEO and I guess I work for Tobi, but we’re in a relationship so when I’m at home I’m like the Greek boss of the house. (laughs) Then when I’m at work I listen to what Tobi says.”
You launched the Sweat app in 2015 and you mentioned BBG. Did it feel like you were differing your brand by giving people a new name that they’re connecting with?
“Sweat came out in 2016. Sweat with Kayla was the first one and we only did that because people were asking for an app because they kept losing the guides. They’d print them off, they’d leave them at the gym, they said ‘can we just have an app so we can have you on our phones and travel with you everywhere.’
So at first it was just my program within an app and then it became Sweat and there was no dramas with that. I was happy with that. I stuck to my BBG, I’m in control of my community still, so it wasn’t a big transition for me. That girls loved it! Having two other trainers, they loved that as well.”
Tell me about the success of the app, because it’s been massive?
“It was massively successful. Women absolutely love it, they say it’s like a personal trainer in their pocket. Having 28 minutes on their phone – so easy. Having 2 other trainers, so now there’s post pregnancy, there’s weight training, there’s yoga, there’s my program, there’s high intensity, there’s my stronger program. There was a need!
Again, when we started there was a need for women, there was a need for women to train, a need for women to have more confidence. Once they got that there was a need for women to be able to, or a want for women to be able to swap between programs.
Women don’t want to do the same program for the rest of their life. They want to be able to change and chop between and Sweat offers that – so that’s what we did.”
Not to undersell yourself but in terms of app pricing, your app came with a fee. It’s like a membership paying for a subscription. Were you worried that the dollar value on it would or wouldn’t discourage people from coming on board?
“I think at the start because we were one of the first people to have a subscription model for a health and fitness app it was a bit of a shock and people were a little bit taken back.
But then we explained it – it’s like a coffee. It honestly is the price of a coffee a week, for all of your workouts, all your food, all your progress tracking.
I think once women got on the app and they started using it they were like ‘this is fantastic and so worth it’. That’s the feedback we got. At the start people were like ‘we have to pay weekly for an app?’ It was unheard of, but then they were like ‘wait a second we pay weekly for our gym membership and then we have to pay for classes, and then we have to pay for…’ And they loved it.”
They don’t need to go to the gym to do these exercises. I should point out too – the app really changed everything because it’s got you doing exercises in a moving sense. People can watch you by hitting play and see how to do it. It’s actually you filmed doing it. I know when I downloaded the app that really helped me, because you want to do the exercise 100 percent correctly, so I think that transformed it?
“We had a really big green screen, so we did all our exercises on the green screen. Even little things like having Apple Music integration – we were one of the first people to have that in our app.
So having your workouts there and you can actually see the exercises that you need to do in the right form, rather than it just be burpees with a photo... it’s burpees with me actually doing a burpee.
So yes, I filmed every single one of those exercises, I was so sore! It was like 500 exercises.”
You say you’re on your phone a lot, you work a lot and you and Tobi go home together as well. How do you find a work-life balance? Family is hugely important to you and you try to see them almost every day. How do you find work-life balance, or is it all consuming because you’re passionate about what you do there doesn’t need to be a differentiation between being at work and then being at home with Tobi?
“Both. In terms of Tobi – we’re completely understanding of our relationship in terms of how much we work. But we also have fun together. If we want to put down our phones and go to dinner or bowling, we’ll do that.
In terms of my family – I book them in like appointments. So, I am at my grandparents’ house at 8:50am, I have to be there at 8:50am because that’s when my grandma puts the coffee on and if I’m there any later I miss out. She’ll tip it down the sink in front of me. I’m like ‘DON’T!’ So, I’m there every morning for a coffee. I make sure that I see my grandparents. And my mum will text me at like 2pm while I’m out shopping saying ‘dinner at my place’… so we always see mum and dad.
We live a 2-minute drive away from each other, which is so Greek, so it’s very easy. And we’re in each other’s lives as well, like I’ll get home and my mum will be vacuuming my house. I see them all the time!”
You do live in Adelaide and that’s something I wanted to ask you – you could live anywhere in the world being as successful, influential, obviously money you could kind of live wherever you want. But you stay here in Adelaide?
“Yes because I love my family too much. If I didn’t have my grandparents or my parents, it would be a different story. I think it would be a different story. If I didn’t have my family here it would be completely different. Or not completely different.
I do love Adelaide but having my family here there’s no way I could leave them.
I can’t leave my grandparents, I see them every single day, coffee with them every single day and I have dinner with them once a week. There’s no way I would trade living in, I don’t know somewhere in America in a big house, for not seeing my family.”
If you did live somewhere else – hypothetically – where do you think you’d want to be?
“I would just move north in Australia, so somewhere where it’s a little bit more sunny than Adelaide. I wish you guys could see how cold and rainy it is outside today. But I would just move a few hours up. Somewhere in Queensland, yep probably Queensland.”
So you’d stay in Australia?
“I love Australia. When I’m travelling, like I love travelling, I love meeting new people but I always get back to Australia and I almost kiss the ground. I love Australia and I think it’s so beautiful and some people don’t understand how beautiful it really is here and how lucky we are.”
I want to talk about success with you because when I talk to women I find that we seem to be really hesitant to acknowledge our own success. I don’t know why. Men seem to be wired really different and they are always proud of their success and really own it. You’re 26, you’re about to turn 27.. I could list a million things – you’re a multimillionaire, the most influential fitness star in the world, have a great relationship, have family. Do you feel successful at this point in time?
“Yeah of course. This is a silly story but when I was younger I said to my mum ‘we’re rich aren’t we?’ And we were not rich, our house was like mud, we were trying to renovate. My dad was a teacher, my mum was working at a fish shop. She was a real estate person before hand, but she started working in a fish shop and then she did volunteer work in a school in the background. But she said ‘Yeah we are. Why do you think we’re rich?’ And I said ‘Because we have a biggest family and we have so much family!’ I honestly thought that money was family. I don’t know how I though that when I was a kid but I always thought I was successful.
If you have family, not necessarily family by blood but people around you that love you, you love what you do every day and you have friends/family - I think you’re successful! And I honestly think that, I’m not just saying that as like a ‘oh I feel successful because I’ve got my family’ I really think that!
So I felt successful before. And like I said when I had my clients and I was training people in my backyard – I felt successful. They loved it. We were in the rain outside, there was no cover, all my equipment was getting wet and rusted – I thought I was successful then!”
So if all of this, if the community, if social media, if Sweat, if everything disappeared you’d be ok?
“I say that every day. I would miss my community. I love my community. I love what I do, and I love being able to help women but if someone just went (clicks fingers) and said ‘all you’ve got is your family’ I’m happy with that. Take my family away though...”
40 seconds – what can we expect next to see from Kayla?
“Helping women more. 40 seconds! (laughs) I’m doing a few bootcamps this year. I’m travelling more, I’m going to a few countries. We were talking about success just before – I want to talk to women about being successful, not putting themselves down. Do more motivational speaking and things like that, so that’s what’s next for me I think.”
Is moving into a speaking role maybe a bit different? Because you’re always up there working out and doing something?
“100 percent! I hope to combine the two – speak first and empower women, and then do a workout as well. I don’t want to just go places and just speak. I’m a personal trainer, that’s what I do, so I hope to combine the two together. Definitely!”
Alright, time’s up!
*N.B. - This was not a paid interview. Kayla donated her time for 'My 30 Minutes'.