For devotees of the phenomenon that is Peloton – you know, indoor bike, kick-ass on-screen classes – instructor Leanne Hainsby hasn’t just kept them fit through lockdown, she’s transformed their lives. Elizabeth Day meets the pedal-powered goddess.
One of the privileges of my job is that I get to meet famous and interesting people. I have interviewed royalty and one of the Kardashians. I have met A-listers on red carpets. I have taken selfies with film stars and flown around the globe to profile singers and once I asked Clint Eastwood for his autograph because, well… he’s Clint Eastwood. But never has anyone caused quite such a stir among my immediate friendship group as Leanne Hainsby.
‘You’re interviewing Leanne?’ asked one, barely able to contain her excitement. ‘I’m so jealous.’ My phone was flooded with gushing texts, each one telling me how Peloton instructor Leanne had transformed their life for the better, how they felt they knew her and would be great mates if only they could meet, how they admired her taste in music, her upbeat nature and her make-up routine. I was deputised to give Leanne several messages from various individuals, including the editor of this magazine, who was gutted that Leanne didn’t follow her on Instagram. One friend, who also happens to be a massive celebrity in her own right, cupped her mouth with her hand and froze with awe when I told her. ‘I love her,’ she whispered.
You might not have heard of Leanne Hainsby. In fact, if you don’t own a Peloton, you probably have no idea what I’m on about. So for the uninitiated, a quick recap: Peloton is a fixed bike with a screen that you can use for indoor cycling in your own home.
Beloved of celebrities including actor Hugh Jackman, sprinter Usain Bolt and mogul Richard Branson, a Peloton enables you to livestream classes from instructors in New York or London, which are then added to an on-demand library. There are strength, running and yoga workouts available, too.
It’s a gym without all the bother of actually going to a gym. Which is why, despite the starting price for a Peloton bike being around £2,000, there has been a surge of sales during lockdown. As Covid-19 forced gyms to close, the firm’s global membership base more than doubled to hit 3.1 million at the end of June. The company’s revenue soared to around £468 million last quarter. And its 33 instructors became superstars.
In 2018, Leanne became the first female Peloton instructor in the UK and, since then, has grown into a spin-class legend with more than 115,000 Instagram followers. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes her so charismatic. As with all star quality, it remains intangible. I’ve been a Peloton devotee since I got a bike last November. Leanne is the person I go to when I need a failsafe and uplifting 30 minutes.
She is motivational, but not in an annoying way. She’s smiley but never inauthentic. She pushes me harder than I’ve ever been pushed, but does it with such clarity and encouragement that I don’t notice it happening. Plus she’s got brilliant taste in music (I’ve cycled to everything from ‘YMCA’ to Cher in her classes).
When she shouts instructions through the screen, I feel she is talking directly to me – she calls us all her ‘friends’ and describes sweat as ‘a sparkly fitness bubble’. When you do something particularly good, she will shout out your name from the leaderboard and utter her famous catchphrase, ‘Yes to you!’
Leanne also shares bits of her life with the Peloton community – her relationship with fellow British instructor, chisel-jawed Ben Alldis, and her recent 33rd birthday trip to climb Snowdon in spite of the fact she suffers from vertigo. She has got me through some of the hardest times in my life – two miscarriages and the not inconsequential matter of a global pandemic.
‘I feel exactly the same because I get so much from all of you,’ she says when I tell her this over Zoom. ‘Everyone goes through stuff sometimes and the best therapy for me is to get on the bike and do the ride.’ She wells up. ‘You brought a tear to my eye there,’ she says.
As with many of her fellow instructors, Leanne has a background in dance. US-based Emma Lovewell (271,000 Instagram followers and rumoured to be Ellen de Generes’s favourite) used to perform with Björk and The Rolling Stones, while Cody Rigsby (390,000 Instagram followers), whose classes routinely attract more than 20,000 attendees, is a former professional dancer who has worked with Nicki Minaj.
Leanne, who grew up in Chislehurst, Kent, with one elder sister, went to dance lessons from the age of three. Aged eight to 11, she attended the Royal Ballet as a junior associate but ‘it wasn’t for me. I preferred pop and commercial so I went to a performing arts college in Essex at 16.’ From there, she became a backing dancer for everyone from Taylor Swift to Steps (‘lovely people’). Katy Perry once gave her a kitten from a video shoot.
But as she approached her 30th birthday, Leanne wanted to make a change. She was in ‘a really unhealthy relationship’ and ‘I was falling out of love with dancing just a little bit’. She started teaching at a couple of boutique fitness studios in London in her spare time and one day, a tall, flamboyant man walked into her spin class. She grins.
‘“Hold on,” I thought, “this person looks very different.”’ Halfway through her class, the man whipped his top off, ‘and I thought, “Oh, here we go.” Then at the end, he said he wanted to go for a quick coffee.’ The man in question was Cody Rigsby and he was looking for potential Peloton talent.
Soon Robin Arzon, Peloton’s head instructor, was emailing her. ‘Robin said, “We love you. Will you fly to New York and audition?”’ The audition required her to instruct a filmed class in the studio. She passed and was offered the job on her return to the UK. This was two years ago.
It was one of the toughest but most rewarding chapters of her life. The training lasted ten weeks, during which Leanne underwent the gruelling physical challenge of upping her fitness levels on the bike to such a point where she could talk easily while cycling and be able to motivate the thousands of people who would join her rides every week.
But by far the hardest part, she says, ‘was to allow myself to be authentically me. I’d been in a career for 12 years playing different characters and fitting in with a different style of dance. A big part of [Peloton] training is perfecting the class. You have four cameras in the studio and being able to naturally use them and command the space is difficult – you can fill the room but you also have to imagine over three million members so there’s a huge amount of energy that you need to work on. A lot of skill goes into making that seamless.’
During this time, she struck up a friendship with her fellow trainee Ben, which blossomed into romance when they got back to London. For a year, they kept their relationship private, but during lockdown, when Peloton instructors were delivering rides live from their own homes, some eagle-eyed members spotted that Leanne and Ben seemed to be taking classes from a suspiciously similar-looking flat. ‘We were conducting classes from our tiny spare room where we struggle to get a bed in!’ she says now. ‘At one time there were 10,000 people in that bedroom!’
Post-lockdown, the Peloton studios have opened up again in London and New York. A typical week for Leanne starts early on Monday when she’s at the studio by 5.45am in order to record several classes. On top of that she exercises four times a week with her own personal trainer ‘because when I’m on the bike, I don’t see that as my workout’, as well as one physio session ‘and lots of meetings and meetings about meetings. A lot of time is spent prepping the classes. I start with the music and once I have my playlist, I know what I want to say and I know the feeling I want the members to have.’
She says the most difficult thing when she takes a class is not the physical exertion but the need to namecheck members who have reached particular milestones because there are now so many of them. Is she ever exhausted? ‘Yes, actually. I have days where it’s that time of the month and I don’t feel that motivated. But I remember Robin saying to us very early on, “You won’t always be motivated but you will always have to be disciplined.” There are times I have to check in on me. I give a lot and I have to practise what I’m saying and take time to rest. But I still love it. I never used to be a morning person and the fact that I’ve completed three classes before I used to wake up blows my mind.’
Peloton has changed Leanne’s life for the better: it gave her the opportunity to leave a toxic relationship and find herself again.
Many of her Peloton colleagues have similar stories. Head instructor Robin was a successful lawyer when, in 2002, she was taken hostage in a Manhattan wine bar with 40 others by a man armed with three pistols and a samurai sword. The man shot three people, doused the group with kerosene and threatened to set them alight. He later grabbed Robin by the hair and held the gun to her head, using her as a human shield. The man was eventually overpowered by police. It was a trauma that prompted Robin to start running ultra marathons. In 2014, she joined Peloton. She is now pregnant with her first child.
Cody, meanwhile, grew up gay in a conservative part of North Carolina and felt that he never fitted in until he found himself on a bike ‘working in a place where there are so many people from different backgrounds and so many different stories to be told’. As an instructor, Cody is hilarious and waspish and has a fund of personal anecdotes about everything from his teenage crush on the Backstreet Boys to the time he listened to Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard album in the car with his mother on the way to school.
I ask him what makes a great instructor.
‘A good person,’ he replies without missing a beat, speaking over Zoom from his home in New York. ‘I’m looking for someone rooted in compassion and empathy who understands that our community comes to us to overcome adversity.’
If all that sounds a bit touchy-feely, then you probably haven’t yet experienced the endorphin high of a Peloton workout. It is a feeling addictive enough to make adherents almost cultish in their enthusiasm.
Leanne has recently started being recognised in public. The last time was at the top of Snowdon a few weeks ago. ‘I was moaning at Ben for not taking a good enough photo of me, and the man next to me said to his partner, “Oh my god, that’s my Peloton instructor!”’ She laughs.
She’s not particularly fussed about her newfound fame or the fact that the high-profile people she once danced for now take her classes. ‘I get more excited by a woman whose username is BuzzyBirdUK,’ Leanne says. ‘She has gone through cancer a couple of times and she still gets on the bike, and I’m so in awe of her and how strong she is. I can see her climbing up the leaderboard and I can see she’s gaining strength.’ This time we’re both getting a bit misty-eyed. ‘To me she’s more of a celebrity than anyone else.’
Peloton’s team GB
Meet the three other hot Brits with a global following.
The ex-city worker
Don’t dismiss Leanne’s boyfriend Ben Alldis as being all brawn, no brains. The 27-year-old University of Leeds economics graduate was working in private equity in 2018 when he gave it up to become a Peloton instructor. With nearly 600 high-energy classes under his belt, he is one of Peloton’s leading London stars. Instagram following: 79.1k @benjaminalldis
The acting sensation
Sam Yo, 41, from London has more than 15 years of experience in the entertainment and fitness industries. He started out as an actor – he had parts in EastEnders and some action films – but always had a love for fitness, football, martial arts and even dance from a young age. In his 20s, Sam was a Buddhist monk and, since joining the Peloton crew in 2019, he’s known for his motivational and inspirational classes. Instagram following: 37.9k @yoiamsamyo
The sing-along cyclist
Before joining Peloton, Hannah Frankson, 31, was a competitive triple-jumper who trained with Olympic athletes. Known for playing the best tunes of the 80s, 90s and noughties during her classes, Hannah combines her love for music, sweat and cycling in high-intensity sessions designed to boost power and strength. Instagram following: 45.3k @hannahfrankson
Styling: Holly Elgeti, assisted by Annie Ounstead. Make-up: Aga Dobosz using Oxygenetix. Hair: Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes using Bumble and Bumble.
Additional reporting: Charlotte Vossen.