The making of Michelle Bridges

She could have been a fitness trainer to the rich and famous but Michelle Bridges prefers to share her healthy outlook with the masses, writes ROSEMARIE MILSOM.

Obsessively fit people are often smug. They talk about exercise and diet with a fervour that causes the rest of us to either roll our eyes or shrink in shame. So when meeting Michelle Bridges at a wholesome cafe within a health food store in Sydney’s inner west, I order a kale ‘‘shake’’, a big glass of green liquid with the addition of pineapple and lime juice to make it drinkable. Lithe, health-conscious Hollywood stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow wax lyrical about the leafy superfood and I presume Bridges will be all over it. Not so. The make-up free local dressed in jeans and a shapeless cream knit and khaki coat chooses a skim piccolo, aka a baby latte.

‘‘I’m not a trainer who has to have half a banana at 10am and then my protein shake at 11,’’ says the 41-year-old in her distinctly husky voice as we perch on stools to chat about her meteoric rise from teenage amateur fitness instructor at Nelson Bay High to this country’s most well-known fitness identity. ‘‘First of all, shoot me! Secondly, how can I relate to anybody if that’s how I live my life? I’d always be looking down my nose at people. I don’t live like a Tibetan monk, it’s just not me.

‘‘I loooove going out with my girlfriends and having a few drinks, but it’s about keeping it in check; it’s not every night, not every weekend, even.’’

Click on the image above for more pictures of Michelle Bridges.

Bridges’s down-to-earth, ‘‘I’m one of you’’ approach is a marketing dream, even more so because it is sincere. She stresses she doesn’t leap out of bed itching to knock over a 10-kilometre run. Her London-born business manager and husband of eight years, Billy Moore, tells how she slips into ‘‘robot mode’’, a strategy to push herself out the door even when there is a gruelling 14-hour day ahead.

‘‘She doesn’t allow herself to think about exercise, otherwise she’ll give herself the opportunity to negotiate her way out of it, like we all do,’’ he says. ‘‘Having said that, she’s a very tough woman. She grinds out some appalling workouts. I look at them and think, you can’t be serious? She won’t leave the gym until she’s burnt a thousand calories. We go together, but we don’t train together. I’m not stupid!’’ he laughs, full of admiration and respect.

Moore also reveals that Bridges is due for surgery on an injured hamstring after suffering an avulsion, or complete tear, when she tripped over the couple’s dog Paddy during a run. ‘‘She’s still been training,’’ he says, ‘‘though she’s focusing on her upper body to work around it [injured leg].’’

Bridges adheres to a simple philosophy summed up by an acronym she shares with the thousands of people who sign up to her 12-Week Body Transformation program – more than 300,000kilograms have been collectively lost since its February 2010 launch – and has printed on a cap she wears when she doesn’t want to exercise: JFDI. Just F---ing Do It. It’s a tougher, cruder, Aussie take, if you like, on Nike’s famous slogan.

‘‘Really, when you’ve run out of excuses you just have to get out there and do it,’’ says the straight-talking Bridges. ‘‘You have to stop analysing and get moving. I’ll text my girlfriend and complain about having to do sprint training and she’ll reply, ‘JFDI’. She uses my psychology on me!’’

After 22 years in the fitness industry, Bridges might sometimes lack enthusiasm for exercise but she is bursting with the same intense ambition that percolated during her high school years in Nelson Bay (Bridges attended New Lambton Public School and Lambton High before moving to Port Stephens in year 9). The sports-mad teenager pitched her first fitness class proposal to her principal.

Bridges says she was aware at a young age, ‘‘like seven or eight’’, of the value of sport. ‘‘I was learning some really good things about myself ... commitment and discipline and turning up and being competitive. I learnt how to win and how to lose. They were big lessons, but I got it.’’

No one in her family was sporty, not even her older sister. ‘‘As a 14-year-old I remember lying in bed and dreaming. I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, but I knew I was going to have an impact on people, that I’d be talking to people about positivity. I know that sounds weird, but I just knew.’’

After school, Bridges worked in various jobs, including at a bank, while developing her skills as a fitness instructor. Then, in 1995, while working for the YMCA in Alice Springs, Bridges discovered Les Mills International, a global business that was developed by Phillip Mills (son of former New Zealand Olympian Les Mills).

She joined the company in Sydney, training other trainers, lecturing and presenting at conventions in Australia and overseas. She became a master trainer and in 1996, she met Moore at his gym in Balmain. In 2001, they opened a health club in Haymarket and married two years later. It was a match made in marketing heaven. ‘‘We always knew that we were a great commercial partnership and we were great friends beforehand,’’ Moore says.

‘‘We’ve got a shared passion and business acumen. We made the decision that I was going to stop work and focus on her brand. We identified that there was a gap in the market for an aspirational female role model in her 30s and at that stage it was all about Paris Hilton and her like, who weren’t really contributing anything.’’ (The couple is so consumed by their work, they’ve banned phones and iPads from their bedroom).

The lure of television soon began to dominate their business strategy. Opportunity knocked in the Sydney gym where Bridges trained and (then) Nine Network morning show host Kerri-Anne Kennerley worked out.

‘‘I chased her around the health club till she finally said OK,’’ Bridges recalled in a recent interview in The Australian. ‘‘I set up meetings with her people. I pitched for a fitness segment on her show. They were a bit unsure, but said: ‘We’ll do it, but we won’t pay you’. I said: ‘I’ll do five without payment and then if you like it, you pay me from then on’.’’ Viewers were hooked and she was signed on (and backpaid, to her amazement). Bridges became a household name. She still travelled for Les Mills, taught classes, trained private clients and in 2004 was named Australian Fitness Leader of the Year.

She now produces DVDs and writes newspaper and magazine columns. She is a trainer on The Biggest Loser (she is still in contact with her 2012 winning contestant Margie) and an ambassador for Nature’s Way, Triumph sports bras, Safcol and the Australian Institute of Fitness. She has sold 250,000 books – her seventh title will be published this year and her eighth is in the pipeline – and has close to 50,000 followers on Twitter and 100,000 on Facebook. ‘‘Tens of thousands of people’’, says Moore, have signed up for her 12WBT since 2010, paying $200 a pop. And this month, ‘‘Brand Bridges’’ expands with the launch of her active wear line, One, in Big W stores, the culmination of a long-held dream.

‘‘I’ve been an ambassador for Nike and adidas, and as much as I enjoyed working for those companies and we had a really good relationship, I still felt intrinsically that they didn’t align with my philosophy of fitness for everyone because they are still relatively expensive,’’ she explains. ‘‘I work in the industry and I baulk at a hundred dollars for a pair of tights. I have to for my job, but it’s too hard for a mum with three kids.’’

The fashion lover who enjoys dressing up and donning a pair of designer heels is ‘‘super proud’’ that pieces in the range go up to size 26. ‘‘Women have been saying to me, ‘All because I’m a size 18, why do I have to exercise in my husband’s basketball T-shirt?’ I don’t know of any other fitness label that caters for women in these sizes and that, for me, is really rewarding.’’

Spend time with Bridges, who chats away as warmly and openly as a friend, and the key to her success becomes clear: it is a winning combination of knowledge, attention to detail, passion and empathy. When she recounts how the husband of a recent 12WBT success story thanked her for ‘‘bringing my wife back and saving my marriage’’, she becomes teary. ‘‘She’s never one to elevate herself above others,’’ says Moore, ‘‘and people identify with her for that reason.’’

Essentially, Bridges wants to inspire people to be healthy, fit and happy. She could have carved out a lucrative career as a trainer to the rich and famous, but that would have been ‘‘boring and too much hard work! Those egos would have killed me,’’ she cackles. ‘‘I get so much more from having a woman in my program turn up who’s got eight children and she’s been training every day to lose 15 kilos. That’s real success.’’

Michelle Bridges will speak about health, fitness and weight loss at Newcastle Panthers on Thursday, August 23, at 7.30pm. Tickets are $65. See epicevent.com.

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