SoulCycle treated its instructors like celebrities. Now, years of star trainers mistreating staff and sleeping with riders is catching up to the beleaguered fitness brand.
In August 2014, Jennifer Brody was working as a studio manager at California’s Palo Alto SoulCycle when she met Conor Kelly, a “master instructor” with SoulCycle. Kelly was in town from the East Coast to teach a class.
After riding in his class, Brody, who is a Black woman, said she changed out of her workout clothes and put a bandana on her head. When she passed Kelly in the studio, she said, he laughed and said “Whoa — Aunt Jemima!” in an apparent reference to the syrup and pancake brand.
“That he felt OK calling me ‘Aunt Jemima’ in the middle of a studio lobby in Palo Alto was disgusting,” Brody recently told Business Insider. Brody said she told a couple of instructors of color about Kelly’s remark, but she didn’t officially report it because, she believed, “There wasn’t anyone who would have cared.”
“SoulCycle kind of turned the cheek on a lot of stuff as long as they were making money,” Brody added.
SoulCycle instructors were fawned over by riders and the company’s top brass, but insiders said inappropriate behavior became more commonplace as SoulCycle’s cult following grew.
While top-tier talent was lavished with perks like Soho House memberships and, in one case, a Mercedes-Benz while teaching in the Hamptons, insiders said some of SoulCycle’s most successful instructors discriminated against a pregnant woman, fat-shamed employees, slept with riders, and used homophobic and racist language.
They said there were numerous complaints to SoulCycle headquarters. In one case, a complaint involved an unwanted sexual encounter.
A SoulCycle studio in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Business Insider spoke with more than 30 SoulCycle insiders — including current and former riders, studio staff, instructors, and corporate employees — many of whom accused SoulCycle of turning a blind eye to egregious behavior because the instructors were too valuable to let go of. None of the instructors mentioned in this article responded to requests for comment.
“The more senior you are as an instructor, the more toxic you are,” one former corporate staffer said.
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A SoulCycle spokesperson declined to comment on specific allegations but told Business Insider in a statement that: “At SoulCycle, our priority has always been to build a community centered on our core values of diversity, inclusion, acceptance and love. When we receive complaints or allegations related to behavior within our community that does not align to our values, we take those very seriously and both investigate and address them. We are committed to continuing to make improvements and ensuring that we live up to the values that our teams and riders expect of us.”
But, as SoulCycle struggles to stay afloat amid the pandemic, at-home cycling competitors like Peloton, and a recent executive exodus, the very star instructors who built the brand may now be one of the company’s biggest liabilities.
‘Well, they better not hire a bunch of twinks to work there’
Laurie Cole is a master instructor with a devout following. In a 2010 New York Times article, one rider compared the difficulty of getting into Cole’s class to scoring a reservation at Momofuku Ko, the Michelin-starred restaurant in New York.
Despite the fanfare, Cole was also met with criticism and accusations of inappropriate behavior toward both staff and clients. Sources said Cole demanded absolute control over which riders filled her coveted front row of bikes, which typically went to the most attractive and fit people in the room.
In the summer of 2019, a pregnant rider sent an email to SoulCycle’s general counsel alleging discrimination after Cole booted her off a reserved front-row bike at the Hamptons studio, two people said.
“She was, like, ‘Oh no, no, no — I need you to come sit here,’ and put her in the back corner and moved a more fit, attractive person in front,” the former corporate staffer said. As far as the staffer knew, Cole was never disciplined.
Some insiders said the front row at SoulCycle was often reserved for the fittest and most attractive riders.
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for FIJI Water
Three people told Business Insider that Cole had “fat-shamed” studio staffers. One former assistant studio manager in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan said that on multiple occasions Cole ordered studio managers to remove certain staffers from their shifts because they weren’t in good enough shape.
“She has taken photos of staffers who were maybe curvy and said, ‘This is not on brand for my check-in. I don’t want this at the front desk during my classes,'” the former manager recalled.
“It’s awful,” this person said.
Another former high-ranking employee said that if Cole’s staffing demands weren’t met, she’d threaten not to teach. “It was so extreme, the level of control that she was trying to have over things,” the employee said.
People also said that Cole used homophobic language at work. In 2017, before a class, Cole and the assistant manager were discussing a new studio that would soon be opening in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. According to the assistant manager, when the conversation turned to the studio’s new manager, who was gay, the assistant manager recalled Cole saying: “Well, they better not hire a bunch of twinks to work there.”
“It was just so shocking to hear,” the manager said. “Because I’m in the queer community, I can understand how messed up that is.” This person said she reported the comment to a corporate staffer who said they would escalate the complaint to human resources. The manager said that, to her knowledge, “Nothing happened.”
Jonathan Tisch, Jennifer Fisher, Laurie Cole, and Kelly Ripa at a SoulCycle charity event in New York in 2013.
Leadership at SoulCycle HQ was well aware of complaints about Cole’s behavior, four people said.
On several occasions Cole met with the company’s chief people officer, Adrienne Gemperle, and chief talent officer, Halle Madia. Cole was reprimanded for her behavior, the former high-ranking employee said.
“Laurie would talk about how she needs certain things to make her classes run and how she’s contributing to the business,” the employee said. (This same employee said they were privy to the meeting details.) Gemperle or Madia would tell Cole that she had acted inappropriately.
In more than one instance, Cole’s conduct got her taken off the schedule temporarily, another former longtime senior staffer said. But the behavior didn’t change, the former high-ranking employee said.
Cole wasn’t the only instructor accused of misbehaving. Another popular New York instructor, Janet Fitzgerald, who is SoulCycle’s senior training officer, was known to make lewd comments, particularly to instructors in training, four sources said. Two people said she sometimes referred to riders as “little sluts.”
Janet Fitzgerald leading a class in New York in 2011.
Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
A longtime New York instructor said Fitzgerald asked her and other candidates about their sexual orientation during their training. The longtime instructor said that the question made her uncomfortable and she found it to be “super bizarre and unnecessary.”
One senior instructor said Fitzgerald was a “nightmare” during training because of her frequent sexual remarks.
“She would say things like ‘Do you want to get f—–?'” the senior instructor said. “And the girl or boy would be like, ‘Uh, what?’ And then she’d be like, ‘You’re never getting f—– if you look like that. Let your hair down. Put some lipstick on or something.'”
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The longtime instructor said she didn’t formally complain about Fitzgerald’s behavior because she didn’t want to hurt her chances of becoming an instructor. “There were no repercussions for trainers,” the employee said. “They did whatever they wanted. Ultimately they were making the company more money than you.”
‘Walking into Conor Kelly’s class was like walking into a sex dungeon’
Some behavior was so rampant it became company lore.
With his chiseled abs and sleeve of tattoos, Conor Kelly has amassed 13,700 Instagram followers and cultivated a devoted rider base dubbed the “Conz Crew.” Before the pandemic, his classes — mainly in New York City, nearby Westchester County, and Greenwich, Connecticut — would have waiting lists only seconds after online booking opened.
The atmosphere in his classes was distinctly sexual, several people said.
“Walking into Conor Kelly’s class was like walking into a sex dungeon,” a SoulCycle rider who took one of Kelly’s New York classes said. “It’s all these blondes in the front row with these high ponytails and their boobs out. There was this way about him. He’d reach the whole studio. It’s overwhelming.”
A SoulCycle studio employee in the San Francisco Bay Area said that when Kelly taught there he would do “weird sexual dance moves.”
Brody, the former Palo Alto studio manager, recalled Kelly teaching at her studio while wearing a pair of women’s Nike neon pants with no underwear.
“When you sweat in neon Nike running pants … he knew what he was doing, you know what I mean?” Brody said.
Kelly’s popularity among female riders became a potential liability at the Greenwich location. Several people told Business Insider that it was common knowledge among studio and corporate employees that Kelly was sexually involved with a number of his riders.
The former high-ranking employee said that Kelly texted nude photos of himself to riders, and that the photos were circulated around the SoulCycle community.
“That became problematic because people’s spouses were complaining, and then it caused a lot of infighting with riders as well,” the former high-ranking employee said.
The former corporate staffer said SoulCycle cut back Kelly’s schedule in Greenwich in the fall of 2019 and relocated him mainly to New York City studios to keep an eye on him. That September, Kelly had been teaching up to 15 classes, six days a week in Greenwich; by November he was there two days a week.
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But SoulCycle swept complaints about Kelly’s behavior with riders under the rug because he was “a moneymaker,” the former corporate staffer said.
“He did teach a great class, and it was very evident that the reason SoulCycle was keeping him on was because he was pulling in money for them,” a veteran rider said. “But in any other type of work environment, no one would tolerate that.”
‘The second he takes a T-shirt off, that’s 50 more bikes that he’s sold’
Kelly was not the only instructor whose sex appeal sold seats.
In London, Mantas Zvinas, a beloved senior instructor with more than 12,500 Instagram followers, would frequently ask front-desk staffers for riders’ names and professions so that he could message them on Instagram, one former London staffer told Business Insider.
The former front-desk staffer said he thought it was inappropriate for privacy reasons, but when he brought the issue to studio management, he was told it was “completely fine.”
“They knew that most riders who would come into Mantas’ class were skinny white girls who wanted Mantas to sleep with them,” the former staffer said. If Zvinas paid extra attention to them outside class, they were more likely to keep coming back, the staffer added.
Mantas Zvinas in a white baseball cap at the opening of SoulCycle’s first London studio in June 2019.
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for SoulCycle London
Zvinas, who used to teach in New York, also ignored SoulCycle’s policy that forbade instructors from showing their nipples in class, the former front-desk staffer said.
“This rule is obviously not enforced when the person we’re talking about is an instructor who, the second he takes a T-shirt off, that’s 50 more bikes that he’s sold,” he said.
Mike Press, who taught in New York pre-pandemic and is now teaching in Westchester and Greenwich, where studios are open, is another top instructor accused of sexual impropriety.
Two people said that Press was once involved with a rider who bought him a motorcycle. Later, after they broke up, Press told the rider never to come back to his class, the people said.
One SoulCycle rider, Olivia Atherton, said that Press pressured her to give him a blow job in September 2017, in her Manhattan dorm room while they were in an on again, off again relationship.
Atherton and Press met at SoulCycle’s East 63rd Street studio in May of that year, when Atherton was 20 years old and Press was 31. After Press’ class, Atherton and Press chatted briefly. The next week, she said, he followed her on Instagram and started messaging her. Soon after they started spending time together.
Atherton said Press was often controlling and talked down to her. In one text-message exchange, viewed by Business Insider, Press appeared to berate Atherton for going out with her friends one night, saying: “I can’t have you going out if you want to see me. Makes you look like your sleeping around.”
A week after her 21st birthday, in September 2017, Press came to her dorm room at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Atherton said, adding that Press continually pressured her to have sex, which they had never had.
“He was very forceful,” she said. “I took a shower and I was, like, ‘No, I don’t want this right now.'”
When Atherton came out of the bathroom, Press was lying on her bed, she said. He took his pants off and said, “You at least owe me this.”
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“He pressured me for probably about 10 minutes, and I was very clear that I did not want to do anything,” Atherton said. “I was very uncomfortable, very nervous … so I did what he wanted,” she said, referring to performing oral sex on Press. Leatha Craft, Atherton’s best friend, who lives in Kansas, said Atherton told her about the incident over FaceTime once the pair broke up for good.
Atherton said she continued seeing Press until August 2019. She began recounting her experience with Press on her blog and Instagram nearly a year later, at one point writing: “Walking around with a SoulCycle instructor on your arm is a status symbol.”
Atherton, who detailed the alleged encounter, said a number of high-ranking corporate employees viewed her blog and Instagram Stories.
This August two of Atherton’s friends sent SoulCycle emails, viewed by Business Insider, about Press’ alleged treatment of Atherton. One of them received a response that said her email had been “elevated to the proper internal teams” at SoulCycle. As of this writing, the other friend said they still had not received a response.
Still, nobody from SoulCycle reached out to Atherton, she said. This September, she added, she called the company’s headquarters several times and even tagged SoulCycle in a Tweet demanding a response regarding the instructor and her claims about his behavior.
They responded, she said, with a message asking her to email their “Your Soul Matters” customer-service address. But Atherton’s September 25 and October 12 emails to the company went unanswered, she said.
“I guess it just upset me that they were just going to let it slide,” Atherton said. “I’m disappointed that they clearly value their prize instructors over their riders. And I realize it’s not their fault what Mike did, but especially when there’s more than one woman saying this guy is using his platform to prey on women.”
Two other women, a rider and a former high-ranking SoulCycle employee, showed Business Insider what appeared to be flirtatious messages that Press had sent them on Instagram.
“I received a lot of inappropriate messages from him via DM, where he would comment on photos of mine,'” the former SoulCycle employee said. Later, she said, he would tell her in-person not to tell HR about the messages.
One rider, who started taking SoulCycle classes in 2011, said that Press would direct-message her “quite often” and react to her Instagram posts by sending hearts and messaging her things like “Looking good” or “That’s hot.” One woman told Business Insider that she once sent an email to SoulCycle about Press’ treatment of women and never got a response.
“I just want them to know who they’re hiring and to care about who they’re hiring and to ensure that no one else goes through that,” Atherton said.
‘They didn’t have a sense of reality. They thought they were celebrities.’
Several sources said that SoulCycle fostered an environment where its instructors were treated like A-listers and it was everyone’s duty to keep them happy and protected.
“The instructors are our product,” one SoulCycle insider said. “Without them it doesn’t exist. And they are very demanding, and it’s a talent business, and as with any Hollywood business, the talent knows that they are valuable.”
Riders can spend up to $90 a class for priority access to their favorite instructors’ Hamptons classes through the Super Soul package. Assuming 30% of bikes in an 80-bike class were Super Soul, the total bike sales for the class would come out to nearly $5,000.
Top instructors could take home as much as $1,500 a class, a former SoulCycle executive told Business Insider. In a typical week in the summer of 2019, it was not uncommon for instructors such as Cole and Kelly to teach 15 to 20 classes, according to SoulCycle’s online class calendar.
In 2018 SoulCycle and its parent company, Equinox, went so far as to launch their own talent-management agency to represent their prized instructors, with the Hollywood agency WME, which represents Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron, among others, in an advisory role.
The instructors’ demands were Tinseltown-worthy.
Stacey Griffith, one of the earliest instructors whose classes were beloved by Kelly Ripa and Brooke Shields, demanded private office space in the basement at the East 83rd Street studio in Manhattan, three people said. SoulCycle granted Griffith her request despite the studio lacking sufficient storage space, two people said.
“She had a shoe collection in there,” the former high-ranking employee said of Griffith’s office. “She would meditate in there. She would bring her friends in there. I’m not really sure why she needed an office. She wasn’t doing any admin work for the company.”
Ari Perilstein/Getty Images for American Express
When the Tribeca studio was renovated in 2014, Cole demanded her own private office space, too, both people said.
“They didn’t have a sense of reality,” the former corporate staffer said. “They thought they were celebrities. The sense of entitlement was fueled by SoulCycle giving them exclusive treatment.”
While new instructors would get a $25 gift card for their birthday, top-tier instructors such as Cole and Griffith would be given thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts, like expensive jewelry or a leather Rag & Bone backpack. As recently as 2019, SoulCycle was paying for Cole’s membership to Soho House, the members-only club where an annual membership costs upwards of $2,400, according to one former high-ranking employee.
SoulCycle paid for a Mercedes-Benz for Cole to drive around the Hamptons when she taught there in the summer, two people said. In 2019 the company paid for part of the wedding of two instructors, former CEO Melanie Whelan told Business Insider last month.
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The longtime New York instructor said SoulCycle was unique in the way it treated its instructors.
“We’re taken care of in a way that a lot of other fitness companies actually can’t afford to or haven’t found a way to,” this instructor said. “But there’s an ego that comes with it.
“When you’re treated a certain way by staff and you’re treated a certain way by riders and you’re on this pedestal, literally and figuratively, that changes your expectations.”
‘Her nails went so deep into my skin that I almost bled’
The instructors’ entitlement created a hostile work environment and traumatized studio staff members, insiders said.
When new studio employees were onboarded, they were given a separate training on how to interact with Cole and Fitzgerald, the former high-ranking employee said.
New hires were told “not to touch what was theirs, when to speak to them, when to make eye contact, what music to play when they walked into the studio,” the employee said. “If the wrong music was playing, it would be like World War III.”
Fitzgerald was accused of once making a studio manager cry because he couldn’t find a specific pair of Fitzgerald’s cycling shoes, the former high-ranking employee said.
“She reamed him out on the microphone in front of her entire class,” the employee said. “This kid was crying and had to take a walk around the block and thought about quitting because he was so ashamed and embarrassed.”
Cole berated studio staffers for getting things like her off-menu green-juice order wrong, several people said. The former assistant manager at the Tribeca studio made a laminated card with all of Cole’s juice’s ingredients and Velcroed it to a door so that staffers could take it with them when they picked up her juice from Whole Foods.
Cole would also frequently misuse the studio’s emergency doorbell, which many SoulCycle studios have for situations like a sick or injured rider, two people said.
“We’re trained that if the doorbell goes off, it’s like you’re hauling ass to go in the studio to go help,” the former assistant manager said. “There’s a whole protocol where they turn all the lights on so that people can go in and get the person out safely.”
Cole, however, rang the doorbell up to five times a class to summon studio staff to adjust the room temperature by one degree, both people said.
Cole flouted other safety protocols. The former assistant studio manager said Cole refused to let staffers use flashlights to guide late riders to their bikes when the studio lights were off.
“Laurie would yell at staffers, ‘Turn that shit off!'” she said. “So then they’re in an awkward situation where they’re, like, ‘OK, should I try to do it with the lights off?’ And then you’re risking someone being injured.”
One former front-desk staffer in the Hamptons recalled setting up a late rider to Cole’s class in the summer of 2019.
As the staffer left the room, she said Cole grabbed her arm and yelled, “Don’t you ever leave without looking at me.”
“Her nails went so deep into my skin that I almost bled,” the former front-desk staffer said, adding that working at the studio with Cole was “the most toxic experience of my life.”
‘There was no single source of truth’
SoulCycle’s lack of responsiveness to complaints went hand in hand with an ineffective system for documenting and tracking them, sources said.
A former executive said that when he joined the company, in 2018, there was no system in place to officially document or track any complaints about instructors. He said that he saw it as a “gross negligence,” adding that when he recently left the company, protocol had not changed.
SoulCycle’s online system for receiving complaints had a backlog of “thousands of emails” and finding out anything about complaints against instructors was virtually impossible, the former executive said.
“Information in regard to instructors was so sporadic that if I went to any one decision-maker in this company and said, ‘Let’s talk about this instructor,’ I’d have to go to five people to collect all the information about them,” he said. “There was no single source of truth.”
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A source close to the company said that people in the talent department who managed instructors often acted as a “net” to keep complaints from getting escalated to HR.
“They created a convoluted reporting process that wasn’t conducive to holding instructors accountable,” the source said.
The SoulCycle insider said anything important to do with the top-tier talent went straight to the CEO, bypassing traditional HR. The insider said there was no official policy regarding sleeping with riders either.
This fall Emily Gellis, an Instagram influencer, reposted dozens of complaints about instructors, including some about Cole, Fitzgerald, Kelly, and Press. As of this writing, Cole, Fitzgerald, and Press were still on the teaching schedule. Kelly last taught in October.
“These are the people who made SoulCycle popular,” one New York rider said. “I feel like that’s why the company has done nothing for so long. I hope that this is finally the nail in the coffin that makes them take action on people who are hurting this community.”