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What It's Like to Work as a Fitness Model

With the activewear market booming and fashion's growing fixation with fitness, we got to know the sector of the modeling industry that's focused on selling the active lifestyle.
Model Julie "Jaws" Nelson for Athleta. Photo: Athleta

Model Julie "Jaws" Nelson for Athleta. Photo: Athleta

The impact that the fitness industry has had on fashion over the past few seasons is undeniable. With a growing number of designers tapping into the activewear market, to the "sporty chic" trend that’s taken over the runways during Fashion Month, to the growing popularity of high-end "athleisure" brands and boutiques, it’s become commonplace for even the most style-savvy women to default to workout gear and sneakers on both their off and on-duty days. 

The modeling industry, which has a reputation for glorifying a waif-like body type, is beginning to shift with the trend. Just take a look at the newly revamped Self magazine, which has placed super-fit high fashion models like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Candice Swanepoel, Hilary Rhoda and Joan Smalls on recent covers. Or Victoria's Secret, which encourages its Angels and catalog girls to share photos of their frequent workouts with the hashtag #TrainLikeAnAngel. Much like in the realm of luxury fashion, these women represent an aspirational lifestyle — although they might sooner encourage consumers to sign up for a gym membership than to invest in the latest "It" bag — and while many fashion brands (and big-name models) have hopped on the fitness bandwagon lately, there's long been a sector of the modeling world that's focused solely on selling an active, healthy way of life.

Activewear brands typically look to fitness models for their e-commerce shoots and ad campaigns, and while the job description may be similar to that of a fashion model, the physical requirements are vastly different. Charlee Atkins, who's posed for clients like Nike, Target and Sports Authority, and is a full-time senior instructor at SoulCycle, initially thought she wasn't tall enough to model, but was approached by a magazine editor in one of her classes who wanted to book her for a shoot. "Fitness models can be a bit shorter — in the 5'5" to 5'7" range — but last year there was a push to find models that were taller," she says. "We typically don't have as big of boobs [as commercial models] and have more of a boxy shape, but it depends on what your fitness specialty is, like dancing, boxing or yoga."

Much like fashion models, fitness models spend much of their time at go-sees with clients, but since shoots are extremely physical, they're asked to do more than just show off their walks or try on clothing. "Each casting is different, but they all want to see you in activewear and to see how your muscles work — we basically wear no clothes," Atkins says. "Most clients want to see a squat, a lunge, pushups or burpees. The reason why fitness modeling popped off is because they needed women who could hold poses for longer." 

Charlee Atkins. Photo: Target

Charlee Atkins. Photo: Target

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Julie "Jaws" Nelson, a professional dancer and SoulCycle instructor whose clients include Reebok, Athleta and Under Armour, agrees that this stamina is a key difference between her job and that of a fashion model. "They might ask you to hold a plank for 40 shots while your hair is in your face — after a shoot I’m really sore," Nelson says. "You have to be able to follow through and do the workout. Some fashion models might not have the strength to do what photographers and brands need to get the shot. It's all about endurance." Fellow Wilhelmina model Jess Cadden Osbourne, a Radio City Rockette and instructor at Flex Studios in New York, tells us that she's had to do yoga for eight hours straight on a job — holding each pose for up to three minutes — and once ran on a track from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for a Runner's World editorial. 

Many fitness models are employed as trainers, dancers or teachers at a studio; in fact, according to Topher DesPres, the director of the fitness division at Wilhelmina, upwards of 60 percent of the men and women on the board also work as an instructor. However, they're also encouraged to explore new types of exercise and are given free passes to classes through their agencies. It's often at these studios where they're scouted — especially now that so many publications and brands are interested in the fitness phenomenon and buzz spreads to the right ears when it comes to top instructors. Atkins notes that while every model has his or her own area of expertise, practicing yoga or Pilates is key when it comes to prepping for physically strenuous shoots. "The photographers love angle shots, so models should do workouts regularly that lengthen the body and open up the hips so you can hold those poses," she says.

There are some other differences between a fitness and a high-fashion shoot. The fitness sector is particularly low-key when it comes to time spent in hair, makeup and, obviously, wardrobe. On-set clothing is typically limited to spandex activewear and sneakers, and the beauty look only takes minutes to create. Since models are working out for the entirety of most shoots, hair is usually put up in a braid or ponytail, and makeup is extremely minimal — just a hint of mascara and light foundation. To keep their bodies glistening for the duration of the shoot, models are sprayed with olive oil or coco butter oil as well. Because of the simple beauty and revealing wardrobe, models are basically baring it all, and unlike most fashion shoots, they don't rely on retouching to correct images after the fact. "There's not a whole lot of post-production — clients hire you because of how you look and perform and they don’t want to change that," Atkins says.

While each model we spoke with (as well as DesPres) says they've seen an uptick in opportunities for fitness models in recent seasons, they're now seeing more fashion model-types at the same castings as well — especially when a brand is still deciding whether it wants a to go in a more editorial or an athletic direction with the shoot. Despite the "trendiness" of their field right now, they all agree that fitness modeling is much more about committing to a healthy lifestyle than it is about booking jobs — something that can't be faked at a go-see. This passion for wellness is what sets them apart, as does being multi-dimensional in their skills and being able to perform for the camera. 

"I think it’s important to note that the term 'fitness model' is a misnomer," DesPres says. "Our models are sought out for campaigns and editorials beyond the typical 'gym' story. They all come from an extremely diverse playing field; it could be a gym, a sports team, they might have a nutrition degree, or be a kinesiologist. New faces can come from many places; it is up to us as agents to identify their strengths and bring them to market."

Building a following and showing off technique by leading daily fitness classes has proven to be crucial to their success as well. This is the aspect that seems most similar to the current state of fashion modeling, where women like Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss and Kendall Jenner have ushered in a new era of supermodels with their use of social media. Unlike fitness in fashion, this is probably not a passing trend. "If you search the hashtag 'fitness model' on Instagram, there are hundreds of photos, so if you want to get noticed, there has to be a personality behind the body," Atkins says. 

 Front page photo: Athleta