27_29_Interview Eric by liwenting


									   I Wish they all could be Californian
                                                   Interview by Peter Myers
                                                    Photography by Fee Lee

                                                                     Corridors are decked with his prized collections: signed
From a couple of fitness centres in Toronto,                          photos, guitars and records from the world’s most famed
Eric Levine has built up a veritable fitness                          movie and music luminaries, some exceedingly rare and
                                                                     valuable. In the colossal lounge; the biggest television
empire with California Fitness Centres. And                          I have ever seen. Other rooms sport huge portraits and
now, you can’t visit Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei, Hong                    magazine covers, mainly featuring the exquisite good
Kong or Singapore without stumbling on one                           looks of Eric’s girlfriend Supornthip Choungrangsee,
                                                                     socialite, sometime model and ex-MD of PR firm 124
of his high-volume, mass-market super gyms.                          Communications.
Welcome to California.
                                                                     Because California always hires the ‘best PR firm in each
If a man’s home ever reflected his personality, it is Eric Levine’s   country’ to disseminate their message, Eric soon began
riverside apartment in Bangkok. A palatial residence of over-        working with Supornthip. Before he met her, a colleague
the-top extravagance; one room boasts a fully-equipped gym,          had informed him that she was the most beautiful woman
which most upmarket hotels could only dream of possessing;           in the world; their initial professional relationship soon
nearby, a candlelit meditation room claims two hours of Eric’s       turned seriously romantic. Luckily, Supornthip doesn’t
time each day. A spa/massage room comes complete with a              mind living in such a fitness- and wellbeing-oriented
full-time masseuse.                                                  environment one bit: “She’s been meditating since she
                                                                     was a child, so she loves the facilities in our apartment,
                                                                     Eric laughs”

     Here were modern, hip, loud, and glitzy fitness
     circuses that were attracting movie stars,
     models and the local in-crowd, so everyone
     wanted to be a part of them.

     Eric’s professional life started with a move from hometown Montreal
     to California, where the acting jobs he dreamed of didn’t materialise,
     and often he had to resort to stripping and waiting positions. A stint
     as a Club Med ‘G.O’ served to broaden his horizons – as did, one can only
     presume – his time as one of the first Chippendales. But it was probably
     his regular visits to Venice Beach (or Muscle Beach, as it subsequently
     became known), that drove home the realisation that more and more
     men and women wanted to look good, and were starting to demand
     workout facilities – preferably glamorous ones – where they could hone
     and tone to their hearts content.

     After starting a small chain of gymnasiums in Toronto, Eric moved back
     to California where he formed a partnership with the ‘godfather’ of the
     fitness industry, Ray Wilson who, at 29 years-old, owned 300 clubs, and
     also merged with Mark Mastrov (CEO of 24-Hour Fitness).

     Holding a long-standing love affair with all things Asian, and having
     noticed how important fashion, style, brand names and the body
     beautiful was to Asian city dwellers, (and how sadly lacking most good
     hotels were on the fitness front) Eric decided to leave the States for
     Southeast Asia eight years ago and form pioneering California Fitness       “If you were an instructor, and
     Centres. It took him a day in Hong Kong to decide that he wanted to live
     there and start his first club. There are six clubs in Hong Kong now, plus   wanted to teach all around the
     Planet Yoga, a centre which teaches 20,000 clients a month.                 region, with classes that regularly
     Catching on right away, in 1996 Hong Kong’s California signed               exceed 100 people, on specially
     up 3,200 people in eight weeks; all paying USD 700 for an annual            sprung floors and with top-of-the-
     membership. The overwhelming response to Eric’s pioneering brand
     of ‘Exertainment’ meant that venues in Singapore, Taipei, Seoul and         line equipment, you would want
     Bangkok followed thick and fast. Here were modern, hip, loud, and glitzy
     fitness circuses that were attracting movie stars, models and the local
                                                                                 to work for us too!”
     in-crowd, so everyone wanted to be a part of them. As Eric modestly
     explains, “Having a California membership card was way cooler than a
     black American Express card!”                                               in the space of an hour. I dare people – join the class
                                                                                 and get your butt kicked – it’s basically a survival
     Another interesting dynamic at California is the 60/40 women to men         situation! But afterwards you’ll feel like a million
     ratio – the centres are considered to be a safe environment, and have       dollars!” I can feel the yoga purists shudder, but,
     such a diverse range of aerobics classes that getting in shape is by no     Eric assures me that although Bikram focuses on
     means a monotonous process. Aerobics aficionados also appreciate             the physical aspects of the art, yogic breathing is
     the standard of instruction. Eric explains, “People ask me how we find       covered thoroughly too. Members can expect pilates
     such good instructors. If you were an instructor, and wanted to teach       classes to become a regular fixture in California
     all around the region, with classes that regularly exceed 100 people, on    Centres too; a new line of pilates equipment has
     specially sprung floors and with top-of-the-line equipment, you would        just been delivered to Bangkok branches.
     want to work for us too!”
                                                                                 Aside from the classes, California Fitness Centres
     One California class increasing in popularity in Bangkok is Bikram          boast an armoury of equipment. Each club houses
     Yoga. Eric grins when the subject is brought up: “Even I have to psyche     around 300 pieces of cardio kit, including 50 to 60
     myself up to do a class and make sure I’m well rested and hydrated. I’ve    treadmills, and total equipment per gym is worth
     never been in a class that I’ve wanted to bolt out of three of four times   in the region of USD 1.2 million. The inventory
                                                                                 is replaced all the time; generally because of the
                                                                                 constant evolution of technology rather than
                                                                                 through wear and tear.

                                                                   California Fitness Centres boast
                                                                   an armoury of equipment. Each
                                                                   club houses around 300 pieces
                                                                   of cardio kit, including 50 to 60
                                                                   treadmills, and total equipment
                                                                   per gym is worth in the region
                                                                   of USD 1.2 million.

                                                                   centre (he tries to get to two or three countries a
                                                                   month: “As soon as I enter one of my gyms, I can
                                                                   tell whether the manager is un-cool or lazy or
                                                                   whether the members are enjoying themselves”).
                                                                   He soon realised that he was struggling to hear
                                                                   any kind of beat;z z listening more carefully,
                                                                   he ascertained that the Country & Western
                                                                   song playing was the most tragic and downbeat
                                                                   he’d ever heard. Eric then calmly strolled down
                                                                   to the reception where the music equipment
                                                                   was kept, picked up as much of it as he could,
                                                                   and threw it out onto Orchard Road. Country &
                                                                   Western ballads haven’t been heard since in any
                                                                   California gym! In fact, all the music is now DJ-
                                                                   mixed, with the DJ’s themselves playing live in
                                                                   the evenings.

                                                                   Eric is the first to admit that he has led a
                                                                   charmed life. But the wealth he now enjoys
                                                                   has come from a genuine desire to change
                                                                   people’s lives through fitness. Many thousands
                                                                   of California-addicts lives have undoubtedly
                                                                   been changed – quite probably for the better
                                                                   – or have certainly become more streamlined
                                                                   and adrenaline-charged: no small feat in these
                                                                   apathetic, television- and desk-oriented days.

One danger with the super-gym format that struck me is the
potential lack of a personalised service, with members allowed
to form bad or ineffective workout routines due to lack of
guidance. However, on closer inspection, California’s ‘mother-
ship’ branch on Bangkok’s Silom Road (famous for its pavement-
level panoramic windows, behind which rows of joggers happily
people-watch through their cardio training) is chock-a-bloc
with internationally certified personal trainers, and they’re not
loafing around, but actively engaged in instruction. Eric thinks
first-time users at his gyms should have at least 10 sessions
with a trainer, followed by one every month: “The trainers will
motivate you, convert bad habits, and take you to the next

If the trainers don’t motivate you, the music certainly
will. Individual California Fitness Centres are fined if top
management do a spot check and the music is too low, or if the
TV’s are showing anything but Chic TV, or a music or sports
channel. A while ago, Eric was working out in his Singapore


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