This article appeared in the January 2008 issue and is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s celebration of longform journalism.
The research process for this story involved a lot of layers. On the surface was the story behind Tracy’s failed Fishers exercise studio and the clients and instructors who were left in the lurch when she closed. But as I dug deeper, public records and court documents revealed a history of financial missteps, both business and personal. And then there was her ex-business partner/lover who allegedly never received payment for the exercise equipment he built for Tracy. Despite all this, Tracy Anderson has risen from the ashes–today, she is one of the most sought-after personal trainers in America. Her business partnership with Gwyneth Paltrow is strong, and she has a half-dozen high-end fitness studios and an A-list celebrity clientele. –Megan McCormick, author
Editor’s Note, January 2014: Madonna’s former trainer now works with gal pal Gwyneth Paltrow on an ongoing basis, and has a new AOL web series with the Oscar winner. Talk about blonde ambition.
A live image of Tracy Anderson flickers onto the computer screen. Even through the grainy lens of a webcam, she is animated, effusive, stunning.
Her long, blond hair—expertly styled, but a bit mussed from a long day of training—hangs loose around the straps of her camisole. Her tanned skin radiates a post-exercise glow, and her well-defined clavicle hints at a slender body beyond her head and shoulders—the only parts of her physique visible from the camera’s angle. She smiles and gushes, “How are you?”
At a mere five feet tall and 90 pounds, the 32-year-old Anderson is a petite version of the Hollywood ideal—a perfect size zero. She developed her fitness method—a program that frankly emphasizes being skinny, not just fit—in Fishers, where her reputation made her the go-to fitness trainer for local celebrities such as Indiana First Lady Cheri Daniels, NFL wife Ashley Manning, and Nancy George (daughter of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Mari Hulman George).
In recent months, she has emerged as a trainer to more widely known stars—most notably, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna. She has even become something of a celebrity herself: In the July 2007 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, under the headline “My Month with Madonna’s Trainer,” the writer touts how Anderson helped her flatten her saddlebags. On an episode of the VH1 series The Fabulous Life, Anderson talks about toning Hollywood limbs and cores. In the September 2007 issue of W magazine, which featured a willowy Paltrow on the cover, the actor raved about Anderson’s workout techniques.
The high-profile attention seems to indicate a new chapter in her life. But in her home state of Indiana, her financial affairs are mired in years of bad business decisions, lawsuits, and unpaid bills. Just eight months ago, when she abruptly closed her Fishers fitness studio, she left behind a string of jilted clients—many of whom had prepaid hundreds or even thousands of dollars for training sessions. The business partner–turned-boyfriend who built her unique exercise machines says she took him for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Anderson declined to answer most questions about those matters, though she did agree to talk about her fitness method—and insisted that conversation take place via video chat instead of telephone. “I just like to see,” she explains, her image flickering over from London, where she is working with a client. “It makes it so much nicer.” When conversation turns to her former studio in Fishers, her publicist, Meredith Sloane, yanks the webcam toward herself, obviously irritated. “Tracy’s not going to answer that,” she says firmly. “We don’t want to talk any more about Indianapolis stuff.”
Yet Tracy Anderson’s former business associates and fitness students in Indiana can’t stop talking about her. They say she sells herself with charisma and succeeds, time and time again, by giving the impression that she is already successful. Even when she was just starting out, Anderson hired a celebrity photographer for promotional photos, drove a luxury SUV through a neighborhood where her husband was thousands of dollars behind on homeowners-association dues, signed leases for businesses but didn’t pay the rent, and lived in a meticulously maintained Noblesville subdivision but didn’t pay the sewer bill. Former business associates say her studio was thousands of dollars behind in payroll taxes when she first traveled to London to sell Madonna on her fitness
plan, but she stayed at a $1,500-a-night hotel. “With Tracy,” says a former business partner, Glynn Barber, “it’s all about perception.”
Anderson says she wants to focus on the future, one that now looks glamorous. But her liabilities, brought on by years of financial missteps, keep her tethered to the past—and to Central Indiana.
Tracy Blythe Anderson (nee Richardson) grew up in Noblesville and credits her ballerina mother, who still owns a dance studio there, with sparking her interest in dance. Anderson was a varsity cheerleader at Noblesville High School and graduated in 1993. She met her future husband that summer on the movie set of Blue Chips, which was filmed in Frankfort and featured current and former Indiana University basketball players. Eric Anderson, who had been an IU forward and was then playing for the New York Knicks, portrayed himself; Tracy played a cheerleader.
After high school, she enrolled in the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, but she began struggling with her weight and gained 40 pounds, much to the dismay of her dance instructors. “They were pretty cruel to me,” she says. “They were like, ‘just make weight,’ but they had no formula. I watched my roommates and other girls do unhealthy things. I wanted to have an eating disorder, but I couldn’t. I really love to eat.” Instead, she turned to exercise—a high-cardiovascular regimen, coupled with private Pilates classes. And still, she never got the results she wanted.
At the time, Eric was suffering back problems and being treated by sports-medicine doctors and physical therapists, so Tracy began consulting with those professionals and researching fitness. “I wanted to see if it was possible to take any woman, from any genetic background, and turn her into what these schools want, with a fitness formula,” she says. “What I realized early on in my research was that you can manipulate your muscular structure, but it’s really difficult. Your muscles get smart fast, so they quit responding to conventional forms of fitness.”
In 1996, the same year Tracy graduated from the dance academy, Eric signed with the Continental Basketball Association’s Fort Wayne Fury; he left the team in 1998.
The couple married, and Eric bought a four-bedroom, 21/2-bath home in the Oakmont subdivision of Noblesville, where they settled into life with their new baby boy, Sam. In July 2001, the Andersons opened a business together—the Young Artists & Athletes Development Center, a gym and dance studio housed in a 7,000-square-foot Fishers warehouse facility near 121st Street and Cumberland Road. It seemed like life was on the right track.
Soon, though, the Andersons began struggling financially. The first sign of trouble, in 2001, looked innocuous enough: The Oakmont Homeowners Association assessed a lien on their home after they failed to pay a $480 assessment. Then came a court judgment for failing to pay a public-relations professional in Zionsville who had helped them publicize their first business, and another for failing to pay for advertising in a fitness magazine.
Over the following months and years, the city of Noblesville assessed several liens for unpaid sewer bills. Meanwhile, Tracy went from driving a minivan to cruising around in a luxury car, and her neighbors took notice. “Neighbors wondered how she could drive a Mercedes SUV, having never paid for homeowners-association dues,” recalls Bob Lutz of Kirkpatrick Management, which oversees the Oakmont subdivision.
Financial matters were not any better at work. According to court documents, the Andersons were several months behind in rent for their Young Artists & Athletes studio. Facing mounting debts, they closed their first business and opened a second, called Hardcore Pilates, in the Village Square shopping center in Fishers.
But they fell behind in rent there, too. In March 2004, 17 months after Hardcore Pilates opened, the Andersons’ landlord sued them for back rent; shortly after that, their former landlord at Young Artists & Athletes also filed a lawsuit.
On February 9, 2005, a judge ordered the Andersons to pay their first landlord $84,375. The next day, another judge ordered them to pay $250,000 in missed rent payments to their second landlord. The same day that judgment was issued, Tracy formed a new company with a new business partner, Deana Grabill. The business they opened together, East of LA, had two locations—Fishers and Los Angeles, where Grabill was based.
Then, in April 2005—two months after East of LA was formed—Eric and Tracy Anderson filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
At East of LA, with a Fishers studio located in a strip mall off of Allisonville Road, Tracy moved forward with her idea for a new fitness concept. She wanted to develop a new exercise machine that was similar to a traditional Pilates reformer with one main difference: a pulley system that draws from multiple points of resistance, not just back and forth, to allow the user to perform a series of movements that imitate dance. She found a fabricator close to home: Glynn Barber, a Portland, Indiana, businessman who owned a successful tool-and-die business.
Tracy hired Barber to build the machine—which she dubbed the “Hybrid Body Reformer”—and developed a fitness method that combined sessions on the reformer with dance-based cardio. The desired result? To make the client’s body very thin, yet muscular. “If you go to traditional Pilates places, it won’t make you super-tiny,” Anderson says. “With my method, you’ll never do the same move twice.” Anderson claims she has created more than 2,800 choreographed moves for her machine and changes the sequence of her clients’ workouts about every six days. “You have to reengineer the muscular structure and then make sure that your cardio is not counterproductive,” she says. “I don’t believe in running. I can’t be pulling your muscles in teeny-tiny and then you go bulk it up with your cardio.”
When he met Tracy, Barber was a 36-year-old married father of four. He had studied aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University while serving in the U.S. Air Force, and founded his company, Qualtech Tool and Engineering, in the garage of his Jay County home in 1994. He used his engineering knowledge to take on bigger and bigger clients, eventually providing parts and machinery to companies such as General Motors and Raytheon. Qualtech had about 40 employees, though Barber was also building a new business—XPLEX, an extreme sports complex.
Qualtech was more likely to build a drilling machine than exercise equipment, but when Anderson approached Barber in February 2005, he says he couldn’t say no. “She was everything I respected,” he says. “She was an entrepreneur.” In fact, the Starkey Law Group and Indianapolis Woman magazine had honored her that year as a successful female entrepreneur. Barber’s company built 12 Hybrid Body Reformer machines—six for Fishers and six for Los Angeles.
Qualtech billed East of LA, but six months later, Barber says, he was still awaiting payment. When he drove to Fishers to confront Anderson in person, she first referred him to Grabill, saying that the partner should have taken care of the bill; then, finally, she suggested that the three of them meet—in California. Over dinner, Barber says, he learned about the depth of their financial troubles.
“They presented me with, ‘We have no money,’” he says. “They owed me about $70,000—and that was giving them a heck of a deal. We discounted a lot of stuff. I just wanted to get something; I wanted to get the materials back and some of the labor. Then they started telling me, ‘Look, we’re broke. We have all these issues.’ They were two or three months behind in the Indianapolis rent. They were several months behind in the L.A. rent.”
Despite the fact that the women were already in the hole with Barber, they asked if he would be willing to buy into their business. Back in Indiana, Barber looked over their business plan and decided to invest. “I immediately knew that Tracy was going to be a viable product,” Barber says. “She’s got the personality; she’s bubbly; she’s got the talent.”
In late 2005, Barber began pumping money into the floundering business. He claims he wrote tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of checks to catch up both studios on their delinquent rent. In February 2006, he sold Qualtech to his largest client, Moser Engineering, and focused his attention on East of LA. By March, Barber says, he had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the business, and it still wasn’t making money. “I started asking Tracy questions,” Barber says. “She kept telling me, ‘I’m the talent. I know nothing about business. Deana is the financial side.’ And everything was blamed.”
At Barber’s urging, and after he offered to help her start a new business, Anderson split with Grabill. “I should have phrased that differently: ‘I will help you help yourself,’” Barber says. “Because Tracy interpreted it as, I was taking on all of her debt.” In the end, Barber became sole owner of a fitness business with Tracy Anderson’s name on the door. He says he stepped up because he believed Anderson’s techniques were marketable.
But a belief in the product may not have been the only faculty at work. Barber was spending massive amounts of time in Indianapolis with Tracy—pretty much every evening, he says—and his marriage and family life suffered. In April 2006, his wife of 19 years filed for divorce. At that point, Barber says, he began a romantic relationship with Anderson.
Tracy, too, was married, but the Andersons’ relationship was unconventional. “Tracy and Eric haven’t been ‘together’ for quite some time, but they have a wonderful friendship and are a huge support to one another,” writes Sloane, the publicist, in an e-mail. “They are raising Sam together as a family.”
In June, Grabill sued Anderson. It marked the sixth time in 27 months that Tracy Anderson or one of her companies had been sued in Hamilton County.
With his marriage in disrepair, Barber zeroed in on building his new business and his relationship with Anderson. In August, he purchased a home for them on Cumberland Road in Noblesville; the next month, he says, he placed an engagement ring on her finger. But he was beginning to understand why Anderson’s Fishers studio had struggled so much. “The payroll was astronomical,” Barber says—many times the amount of revenue the business generated. He says he told Anderson they needed to close.
But they didn’t. About that time—in October 2006—representatives of Gwyneth Paltrow contacted Anderson about her program and expressed interest in buying a Hybrid Body Reformer. She had learned about Anderson through her agent, whose wife had been a client at the L.A. studio. Barber says he and a Qualtech employee drove a machine to New York City, hauled it up 62 flights of stairs, and assembled it in Paltrow’s room at the Waldorf-Astoria. Anderson met with the actress and demonstrated the machine; in the end, Paltrow purchased the reformer.
Two months later, Madonna—a friend of Paltrow’s—inquired about buying one. Suddenly, the workout designed by Anderson, executed on the machine built by Barber, was marketable among people with deep pockets. Barber and Anderson flew to London (on Barber’s dime) to meet with Madonna. There, Barber says, Anderson wanted to present herself as a fitness instructor who was already a success—someone who didn’t particularly need money. “We had to stay at The Goring hotel—$1,500 a night for 10 nights,” Barber says. “It was a lifestyle that we couldn’t afford.” To Anderson, he says, perception was reality. “Tracy has always wanted to be a star,” Barber says. “That’s pretty clear now.”
In London, Madonna became Anderson’s second high-profile client. But shortly after Anderson and Barber returned to Indiana, the fitness instructor’s history of ignoring bills finally landed her in jail. For all the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt in her past, the warrant for her arrest was issued on a $271.32 claim from a chimney sweep. On December 21, 2006, Anderson was arrested and held at the Hamilton County Jail. That same day, Barber posted bond and paid the chimney sweep, and she was released.
Soon, Anderson started to spend more time with celebrity clients in New York and Los Angeles, and told Barber she wanted to take controlling ownership in the business. In January 2007, after several business and personal disagreements, Barber asked her to move out of the Noblesville home he had bought for them, though they continued to try to make their relationship work.
Anderson says she began traveling to personally train clients in order to help her Fishers business. “My Indiana studio was financially suffering, and several advisers told me time and time again that I needed to close it down,” she said in a written statement. “I held on as long as possible and tried to do everything in my power to keep Indiana running. In order to bring money into the studio, I began training private clients around the country, but this only proved to cause more problems because I couldn’t be there to monitor what was going on.”
Over the next few months, Tracy Anderson Studios began to fall apart. In April 2007, four Hybrid Body Reformers were removed from the studio. Though staff told clients they were taken to make way for new machines, Barber contends that they were sold to some of the deep-pocketed clients Anderson had picked up. “The reformers were taken out because the studios weren’t making enough money to build reformers to send where Tracy needed them to go,” he says.
Then, on May 17, in an e-mail to her Fishers clients, Anderson announced that the studio had closed. Clients wanted their money back, but there wasn’t any money left. By that time, according to Barber, the business was tens of thousands of dollars behind in payroll taxes.
Leanne Rantanen of Carmel recalls the first time she heard of Tracy Anderson. In the summer of 2005, she was headed to a farmers market with a friend, and they stopped at an ATM for some cash. When the friend reached for her wallet, her shirt pulled up and revealed her fit stomach. Rantanen couldn’t help but ask her friend where she had been working out; soon, Rantanen found herself looking into Tracy Anderson Studios.
The studio was in a Fishers strip mall that also housed a tanning salon and a Papa John’s. Most of the interior looked like any other dance or aerobics studio—mirrored walls, light-colored hardwood floors, separate areas for the reformer sessions and dance aerobics classes, and ceiling fans overhead. But through the glass storefront, even passersby could see the main selling point of Tracy Anderson Studios: Tracy Anderson herself. Large, glamorous photos of Anderson hung in the reception area—in one, she was coy in a sports bra and a white tutu; in another, she wore silky lingerie-like workout gear that revealed her taut abs and lean limbs. Some of the shots were produced by Nigel Barker, a celebrity photographer best known as a judge on the television show America’s Next Top Model.
Rantanen, 38, joined Tracy Anderson Studios not only to get fit, but as a way to spend time with her mother, who was also interested in working out. When the women had their first consultation with Anderson, the instructor discussed her fitness philosophy and credentials, and then gave them a tour of the studio. “It was not a hard sell,” Rantanen says. At one point during the sales pitch, Anderson placed her hand on the small of Rantanen’s back. “That,” Anderson told her, “is the beginning of a tire.” Despite the directness—or, perhaps, because of it—Rantanen and her mother signed up.
Rantanen prepaid $995 for 36 sessions. “She is an amazing saleswoman and has personality running out her ears,” Rantanen says of Anderson. “She’s very gregarious, very convincing.” Though the program was initially grueling, it worked for both her and her mother: In their first 10 sessions at the studio, Rantanen lost a total of 17 inches, while her mother lost 20. They were elated.
Former clients and business associates say Anderson presented herself as someone with an extensive background in dance and fitness, not to mention performance. They say she said she had performed in a Broadway production of Cats and starred as the pink Power Ranger in one of that series’ productions. (Anderson would not comment on whether she made those claims or whether they were true, and independent efforts to confirm those performances were unsuccessful.) She also promised not just weight loss, but Hollywood-style thinness, the sort of body-reshaping that sounds like too bold a pledge for even a late-night infomercial. “She promised that anyone could look like her,” says Amy Paull, 38, another former client who lost money when the studio closed. “Anyone could be a size 0 or a size 2.”
“Tracy has this energy that draws you in,” says Nicole Miller, 32, who joined the studio in 2005 as a client and later became an instructor there. “When I signed up, it was $3,450 for 156 sessions. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so expensive,’ but I had the results.”
When Tracy Anderson Studios closed, Rantanen and her mother were out thousands of dollars in unused sessions. They weren’t the only clients who lost money—more than a dozen still had credit. “I have also not been paid for being a dancer in her aerobics video,” says Miller, who claims she lost thousands of dollars. “I feel betrayed, totally embarrassed.”
“The usual comment I hear is, ‘It’s terrible what she did, but did her workout work?’” says Paull. “People are so desperate to be thin.”
Anderson moved to L.A. to build her client base at that studio, and Barber says he paid for her apartment there and continued to try to salvage the relationship. By then, he was running out of money. In May 2007, the bank began foreclosure proceedings on the Noblesville home the couple had shared; his relationship with Anderson ended that summer.
A couple months after the breakup, Barber was cleaning out his garage when he found boxes Anderson had stored there. Inside, he discovered piles of months-old mail, including the original Qualtech invoices his company had sent her in May 2005. They had not been opened.
At press time, nearly all of Anderson’s Fishers clients had received partial refunds, according to Anderson’s Noblesville-based lawyer, Jack Hittle. The state attorney general’s office received 16 complaints after Tracy Anderson Studios closed, but only a couple remain unresolved. “I don’t think Tracy is a malicious person—maybe irresponsible,” Rantanen says. She and her mother both received 75 percent of their money back. “To be fair, she was always very nice to me, and it felt genuine. I really think Tracy wants to be a good person. I think it is just easier to be out of sight, out of mind.”
Anderson has also settled her dispute with Grabill, the former business partner whose lawsuit accused Anderson of using company funds for personal expenses and failing to withhold payroll taxes. Neither woman would comment on the suit, which has been dropped.
In the video chat, Anderson talked about how hard she has worked to get where she is, how successful her Los Angeles studio has become, and how painful the Indianapolis situation is for her family. But she refused to talk about her money troubles here, and declined the opportunity to specifically respond to Barber’s allegations.
In a statement from her publicist, Anderson calls the problems in Fishers “a wonderful learning experience.”She also says “I have worked 10 years to create a wonderful product that truly works to transform bodies,” Anderson writes. “My biggest strength is my creativity. I know that I am not a great businesswoman and have made many mistakes in the past. The most painful part of this is that no one knows the entire truth. Clients and the public don’t see what goes on behind the scenes.”
Anderson’s emerging success hasn’t ended her money troubles in Indiana. In July, the same month Harper’s Bazaar touted Anderson’s methods, the Oakmont Homeowners Association—owed thousands of dollars in overdue assessment fees—took ownership of the Noblesville home the Andersons shared. And in November, the Ford Motor Credit Company sued the couple, alleging they still owe $5,014 for a Mazda MPV they bought in September 2005.
Barber says he is moving on with his life—he has opened a new tool-and-die business and still hopes to open his extreme sports complex. He also hopes to launch a not-for-profit corporation to help small-business owners with legal issues. But Barber is also struggling with personal issues: According to court records, his divorce from his wife is still pending and has involved visitation squabbles and accusations that he has not paid child support. “I had a net worth of almost eight figures two years ago,” he says. “But I also grew up with nothing. So for me to start over, it’s just a challenge—it’s not really a big deal. It’s just something God wanted me to go through.”
Even though Barber claims he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to bankroll Anderson’s business, he did her one more favor. This fall, when she asked him for enhancements to the Hybrid Body Reformer, he built her two HBR2s. This time, though, she paid upon delivery.
In the final minutes of the video chat, Anderson’s publicist talks about how her client is taking accountability for her actions (“I work my butt off every day!” Anderson exclaims.) and has learned from her mistakes. Anderson sweetly apologizes for leaving the tough questions to her publicist. “I hope you don’t think I was being rude,” she says. “I really appreciate you contacting me—really, really a lot.”
Photograph courtesy Tracy Anderson Studios.
This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue.