Barry’s Bootcamp

The Times, Jun 2014

In Hollywood, muscle mass is out; lean, athletic bodies are in – inguinal crease obligatory. Barry’s Bootcamp is the place to get it.

Barry's-Bootcamp-by-Barry-J-Holmes

Photo by Barry J Holmes

Also at The Times

“Treaders! Let’s take it up to nine! Come on!”

It’s barely 9am and trainer Barry Jay has been yelling into a radio mike for three hours. The space is small and sweaty, tucked into a West Hollywood mini-mall, with dim red lighting and mirrors on every wall. But it pulses with energy. The music’s loud, the machines are whining and then there’s Jay himself, a small, hyperactive man of 51 in combat shorts and a tank top. While half the class runs on treadmills and the other half pushes weights, Jay bounces around between them, urging them on by name and singing along to the music, in this case, the Romantics’ “That’s What I Like About You”. He won’t be happy until, he says, everyone is “drenched, wiped and pumped.”

“You got it Elizabeth! Don’t stop now! That’s what I like about yooooo!”

In the crowded world of Los Angeles fitness instructors, Jay has emerged as the A-list’s favorite drill sergeant. His class, Barry’s Bootcamp, has made devotees of Katie Holmes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Amanda Seygfried, Jessicas Alba and Biel… (the list is long) – and although it was largely a west coast phenomenon, following its 1998 launch, in 2010 the franchise program started and things rather took off. There are now 13 studios spanning America, England, and Norway, a line of apparel in Bloomingdales and a constant stream of articles, not unlike this, touting Barry’s as the place stars go to suffer. London’s Euston studio is no exception – you might find the Beckhams there chatting with Guy Ritchie at the “fuel bar”. Now, a second London venue is forthcoming (this time in the City), and offers fly in from Dubai, Hong Kong, Paris and Toronto. Jay estimates they’ll have 25 studios within five years.

At first Jay seems an unlikely figurehead for a global fitness brand. Outside of class, he becomes someone else entirely, a gently-spoken, mild-mannered man. Though he’s in good shape, of course, he’s on the small side, at only 5’7” and 155 pounds, and he has none of the booming alpha confidence one might expect.

“I lead a very quiet life,” he says, when we meet after class. “Maybe it’s from all the years of growing up bullied but I still keep mostly to myself. I’m not the life of the party. I never wanted to be the center of attention.”

Jay’s story starts in Rockland County, about 30 minutes north of the Bronx, where the future fitness icon was once, in classic style, a cowering seven stone weakling.

“I was this skinny, picked-on kid, afraid of his own shadow,” he says. “A total target.” And a gay one too, which didn’t help. “You can picture it – lousy at sports and really into musical theater. The bullying went on till I was 18.”

There was little comfort at home, where Barry lived with his sister, his housewife mom, and his late father, a court reporter, whom Jay describes as “a very cold man.” So he would hide. “There were these open basements across the street where people kept storage units, and sometimes, just to be alone, I’d go and stay in the storage bins. It was a solution.”

Like a storyline from Glee, Jay took solace in musicals. He’d get the bus into New York and watch shows alone for $10 a pop. And that became the dream for a while – to sing and act on stage, at least until he taught himself piano and decided he’d rather be a songwriter instead. And that’s what brought him to LA.

“At that age [20], I kind of wanted to be 3000 miles away from my family,” he says. “I wanted to understand this gay thing that was happening inside. And I heard that for songwriters, it was either LA or Nashville. And I thought ‘Jewish? Gay? Probably not Nashville!’’”

Like so many people in Los Angeles, Jay chased a dream there, and found that reality fell far short. He moved into a poky West Hollywood apartment and had to take a number of part-time jobs to support his songwriting ambitions – scooping ice cream at Haagen Dazs, directing cars in a multi-storey car park, and eventually the high glamor of selling office supplies over the phone.

His gay awakening, however, was going swimmingly – so much so that the timid mummy’s boy from Rockland County, was soon spending so much time in nightclubs that he went from his first cigarette, to joints, to cocaine and on it went, through acid, crack, Quaaludes and “whatever I could get”. And in true Hollywood story style, he reached a low that proved to be a turning point.

“I was on the floor in some crack den in the [San Fernando] valley,” he says. “I knew there was life going on around me but I didn’t know how to talk or move. And then I woke up at home with no idea how I got there.” Home as a “$350/month shithole” in the suburbs, and he looked a sorry sight – bone thin, with circles under my eyes and multi-colored hair. “And I just remember thinking: ‘go to the gym’.”

It was a period of seeking for Jay. As he changed his body by working out and taking calorie supplements to build mass, he changed jobs a couple of times, working as a publicity assistant at a celebrity PR company before moving to the Mayor’s office. He even spent a couple of years as a church-going Christian.

“I met this girl called Cheryl who had a light in her eyes, and she said it was the Lord,” he says. “So yeah, my friends called me a Jew for Jesus for a while.” He went to a church called The Vineyard in Santa Monica – one of the more modern, “rock ‘n roll churches” – and he briefly resurrected his songwriting ambitions there. “Cheryl was in a rock band, and one of the songs we wrote together actually became #1 on the Christian charts!”

His first job in a gym was as a receptionist at a fitness studio in a little strip mall in West Hollywood – the very room that would later become the first Barry’s Bootcamp. The studio ran a number of classes including bodysculpting (weights) and a step class. But his favorite was a class that used both light weights and a treadmill. He trained so often, that when the usual instructor left, there was no question who should take over. And he found his calling at once.

“The music, the party atmosphere, everyone doing things together – I loved it,” he says. “I did 27 classes a week and I never took a vacation.”

One day, however, he found a padlock on the door. The fitness studio had closed down and all the trainers were let go. And while Barry kept teaching at other gyms, trying to persuade his old class members to stick with him, two of them – John and Rachel Mumford – encouraged him to start out on his own. John was a lawyer, and Rachel was a struggling actress, and between they saw an opportunity in Barry. His in-your-face style had started to get noticed around town. “He used to say stuff like ‘put your grandmother’s earrings down and pick up some real weights’,” says Rachel. “He’d get on the floor and yell at your feet: ‘move!’ Some days, he’d make the class run to the Standard Hotel, pick up a job application and run back.” With Barry’s charisma, and his A-list clients, and with their business acumen, Rachel was convinced there was a business to be built: Barry’s Bootcamp was born.

“I wanted to call it just ‘bootcamp,’” says Barry, “but Rachel insisted that it have my name attached. That took some getting used to.”

They picked the same venue as the previous fitness studio had used, and started from the ground up – a scrappy beginning, entirely self-funded. It was October 1998. “I told John ‘I need all your retirement money,’” says Rachel. “But we still couldn’t afford a computer, so we used index cards. It was really seat of your pants. And I had to give Barry a bit of a makeover too, get him a haircut and put him in combat shorts.”

But after six months, John was paid back in full. Barry’s Bootcamp was already catching on.

It was the start of a trend in fitness away from gyms and towards boutique classes. And Barry introduced four principle innovations to mark his brand out from the rest. Red lighting was one. “Because red feels like a nightclub. It’s hot and sexy,” says Barry. “And heavier weights – at most classes the biggest weight was 10lbs, so you’d have to go to the gym after class to get a proper workout. I wanted to cover it all.”  He instituted a schedule that worked on each particular body part per day, as a personal trainer might. “You can’t do it all in an hour,” he says. “You need to exhaust the muscles and shock the body from workout to workout by changings things up.”

And lastly, Barry’s Bootcamp stressed commitment. Members are encouraged to buy classes that expire after a month so that you have to train to get your money’s worth. And if you don’t show, someone calls you at home. “Gyms don’t care if you go or not,” says Barry. “But we care. Your phone will ring: ‘Hi, Barry said you’re supposed to be here, just want to make sure you’re OK.’ Nobody was doing that in 1998.”

At the beginning they worried that the word “bootcamp” might scare people off. But when Rachel suggested he lighten his workouts, Barry held firm. “He said, ‘we’re not for everyone’,” says Rachel. “And once we embraced that philosophy, it exploded. We were the hardest fitness studio in the city, and there are lots of people who want that challenge.”

So the apparel took on a militaristic look. And John trademarked the tag line, “best workout in the world”. And as Barry threw himself into the training – doing 40 classes a week – the business grew rapidly.

“It was all word of mouth at the beginning,” says Barry. But this being Los Angeles, they were A-list mouths. The first was Rosanna Arquette whom Barry fairly whipped into shape: “I told her to grow up and stop quitting things!” he says. Arquette then brought Sandra Bullock, and that “got out”, though not by accident. “I was conflicted about it,” says Rachel. “So I asked Barry – is it OK to tell Allure magazine? And he said, ‘it’s common knowledge she was here. Everyone saw her.’ Sandra was great for business.”

Other critical tastemakers along the way have included the LA Times gym reviewer (yes, there was such a job), and in the modern era, the unavoidable Kim Kardashian, who has even featured the class on her show, even though Barry recognized her when she came in. “I don’t watch television!” he says. “All I watch is horror movies, I’m a junkie. So one of my trainers tried to explain who she was, but I still couldn’t really grasp the concept. She’s just Kim to me, and she works her butt off.”

Now that Barry’s Bootcamp has far outgrown its humble beginnings, Barry’s role in the company has changed. He still leaves the business side to others, but he can’t just teach his classes and then retire to his quiet home life – with his room-mate (also called Barry) and three rescue dogs, a life of writing songs by the piano and watching horror movies. Now he has to hire and train new instructors, or as they call them in Barry’s world, “enter-trainers” – an army of hot, ripped and charismatic young motivators.

“I never much travelled before, but now I’m away two weeks in every month,” he says. “But you know how you have to drag the dog to the bath, but when you get there, he likes it?” Still, Barry keeps it low key when he travels. “When I visit London I just teach a class, take a class and see a show,” he says. “Same in New York.”

And when he returns to LA, a more familiar routine sets in, albeit one that starts most mornings at 4am. He still teaches at the original West Hollywood location where it all began. “It’s the seed from which it all grew,” he says. “So I get up and meditate to prepare for my 5.30am class. Then I teach until nine, and take a class myself in the afternoon. And that’s it!”

He still writes songs at the piano. And even though his Stephen Sondheim dreams may not have yet been realized, he has made some recordings – he sometimes includes them in his soundtrack for class. And his horror movie obsession may yet become a career – he recently sold a script called Bloodline, that goes into production this summer.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “I guess I designed the workout, but it really takes a village to make this what it is. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for everyone else.” He smiles. “But it’s fun being the Barry!”