We already knew SoulCycle is, in many ways, cultlike. The cycling-studio chain that came to dominate the boutique-fitness market has epitomized obsessive wellness: Clients pay huge amounts to go to multiple classes a day, and they speak an exclusive secret language and deck themselves out in branded gear. But now it seems SoulCycle is even darker than anybody thought.
A new Vox investigation chronicles the company’s heydey from wellness empire frequented by celebrities to its current semi-demise, in which the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered dozens of locations and a much-heralded IPO on the stock market never came to fruition. And boy, does it contain some nuggets of Soul insanity.
There’s the bizarre sexualization of both instructors and riders: One master instructor apparently gave something called a “Be You or Fuck You” speech to new trainees because a SoulCycle instructor should be someone riders either aspire to become or to have sex with. Known as Janet, this instructor reportedly referred to riders as “little sluts.” She is also allegedly responsible for an unhinged “motivational” quote written on a Post-it in a SoulCycle office that read, “If someone asks you if you are back on cocaine or if you have an eating disorder … You know you’ve hit your goal weight.”
Former employees say SoulCycle’s “culture of yes” meant SoulCycle studio employees had to cater to clients to an absurd degree. “In the beginning, that meant you give the socks off your feet to a rider if they forgot their socks,” one said. “I’ve literally seen people do that. That built that sense of community — ‘We would do anything for you’ — but what that became actually was something sort of abusive internally and externally.”
The wait lists to get into classes and onto bikes fostered what seems like a psychotically competitive environment. Per Vox, “Studios also had what was called a ‘move list’ — a list you can put your name on to get closer to the front row. Some instructors also had ‘secret’ move lists to dictate who was good enough to sit in their front rows.” One instructor would reportedly move people out of her front row, saying, “I don’t like the way they ride. I don’t like their attitude. I don’t like the way they looked at me. I don’t like looking at them.”
The most bizarre anecdotes are about the cults of personality that formed around the most popular instructors and how their riders, largely women, would establish hostile cliques of the most loyal. An instructor and model named Akin Akman apparently had a group of followers called Akin’s Army. And most harrowing: One Greenwich, Connecticut, instructor was so popular that after he paid what at least someone thought was too much attention to one rider in a class, the woman found a used tampon in her purse.
The era of SoulCycle seems to be coming to a close, and the silver lining is that maybe we’ll get even more stories of mad cycling clients committing sanitary-product-based acts of intimidation. That feels like self-care to me.