Michael Karolchyk has built his unorthodox fitness brand by offending nearly everyone. He calls himself the health conscience of America, but is he really trying to help you, or is he more interested in helping himself?
This article was a finalist for the 2009 City and Regional Magazine awards in the personality profile category.
"Can...can I just smash her right now?"
"No, Michael, not now."
"But, I really want to."
"Not yet, Michael."
It was a late-summer afternoon and Michael Karolchyk, a chocolate pie in one hand, stood in the family room of a LoDo penthouse loft, in front of an overweight actress smiling wearily from a faded floral-print couch. Karolchyk—already notorious for yelling into a bullhorn and throwing cupcakes at clients—was filming the latest commercial for his unorthodox, vulgar, and suddenly booming Anti-Gym business, but the script still wasn't outrageous enough.
He returned the woman's grin, his blue eyes in a cocky, fixed stare. Looking more through her than at her, he let out a deep, booming, attention-grabbing laugh that made everyone in the room stop, look, and worry.
He was giddy at the thought of slamming a pie into her face.
"Leave the pie out for now, Michael. I know you're dying," the director called, sensing the uneasiness swell. "God, we're so far off the script right now."
Karolchyk silently scanned the faces looking back at him. He had paid these people, and dammit, they were going to listen to him.
"I want to push her into the couch."
"Mike, if you push her, that's going to cross the line."
"But that's what I want to do."
This was the second of three spots, and he wanted it to be his masterpiece. The actress, Sophia, was to sit on the couch, eating the pie and lamenting that only drunk men would sleep with her. She had a beer-stocked refrigerator to prove it. Karolchyk was to jump out of the fridge looking tough and goofy, call Sophia fat, and slam the round pie into her round face. He had only two requirements for the commercial: Filming had to be quick, and the finished product needed to be "evil as shit." He stood under the hot lights, liquefied whipped cream running down his broad forearm, dripping onto his size 13 feet.
"Can I pour a beer over her head?"
"It'll be considered insulting. Remember, she's going to get hit with the pie."
Daylight was fading in the loft. Karolchyk was getting restless.
"I just want to slam this fucking pie into her head!"
At 36, Karolchyk's professional life has never been better. A New Jersey native who arrived in Colorado nearly a decade ago, his ascent to the pinnacle of Denver's fitness scene has been quick and dramatic. In barely a year, the Anti-Gym's client list has grown to more than 600, some of them paying as much as $8,400 annually, transforming a onetime mom-and-pop training center into a regional force. A second gym in Cherry Creek opened last spring, and Karolchyk says he'll soon debut a third in San Diego, with more than a dozen new facilities planned nationwide.
In Denver, where bodies are taut and tummies are trim, Karolchyk has found his target audience. Like Juan Ponce de Leon searching for the Fountain of Youth, he has tapped into the vanity and insecurities that flow within us all. He sees himself as a "truth-teller," a modern-day Holden Caulfield, lashing out against the "phonies" who don't accept his conviction that, deep down, everyone aspires to be sexy. "Caulfield was the only person willing to point out the fakeness around him," he says of The Catcher in the Rye protagonist. "He was a rebel, just like me. He was misunderstood, just like me."
In his yearlong effort to rebrand himself and his business, Karolchyk has ratcheted up the suggestiveness of his print advertisements, including one that shows fake semen running down a woman's face. (5280 rejected it in 2006.) His smoky, sandpapery, East Coast growl demands attention in his 30-second radio rants: You'll never get a hubby if you're a chubby! His TV commercials take it up another notch. The first one features Sophia losing her husband to a chesty blonde bombshell, played by Karolchyk's real-life girlfriend, Lisa Pelster. In the third, Sophia, dressed in overalls, hangs over the edge of a bridge, vainly attempting to grab a doughnut that has fallen to the ground while trim, bikini-clad women shout insults at her.
Critics—"haters," in Karolchyck-speak—call his ads misogynist, offensive, over the line. (Plugging the terms "Michael Karolchyk" and "asshole" into Google yielded, as of press time, 19 hits.) He remains undaunted, enjoying the thrill of pushing social boundaries even if others see him as a feral misfit. The ads, he says, are integral to his growing enterprise, a sexy, dangerous essential for the lifestyle he so relentlessly pimps—and so many Coloradans have bought into.
To leverage and promote his brand, he's created a spin-off modeling agency, Sexellence, to use as a launching point for a website that, for $3.99 per click, will include videos and photos of nude women, alone and together. And in an ongoing effort to foster some mainstream credibility for himself, he has jumped into local politics, giving thousands of dollars to lobbyists who push legislation that would fight childhood obesity.
However sincere some of his motivations might be, his outrageous persona is always on display. One day at the Curtis Street gym, Karolchyk was lecturing a dozen of the tanned and toned young models on the essence of being sexy. They sat on the floor at his feet, eager to please. One primary topic of discussion was on the virtue of large breasts, specifically about how few of these women had them.
"How many of you have gone to college?" he asked. Several hands shot in the air. "Wow," he said in mock surprise, "educated girls, fantastic. So, since you're in school you know some things. Things like how to get to the next level." He paced in front the room. "San Diego and Arizona, the girls are on fire. They all have big boobs already. They already have big lips. Nice loooong legs that go on all day. You can go to a restaurant and get six chicks like that," he said. "Now you guys, if you work hard enough, you can be the Midwest Queen." He paused for effect. "You all are hot as shit for Denver. But that's like saying you're hot as shit for South Dakota." The women nodded in agreement.
Karolchyk's desire to intimidate and offend encompasses all aspects of his personality and appearance: His shaved head, with a shadow of stubble wrapped around his skull like a Greek laurel; his thick neck, broad shoulders, and muscled chest. He lives in a downtown loft and drives a black Hummer H2. ("I wanted to get Anti-Gym logos, but I was afraid someone would key my car.") He eats several times a week at the swanky Capital Grille, where he once threw a cupcake at a diner, nearly causing a fistfight. To promote himself and his business, he often wears a T-shirt with his latest mantra emblazoned on the front: "No Chubbies." He has been called the "Howard Stern of fitness" and "the most hated man in Denver" and has gleefully co-opted both intended insults. (A Stern quote adorns the wall of the Cherry Creek gym.) He brags of wild nights out, of beers poured on his head at clubs, of women spitting into his wine, of confrontations on the street. "In five years, someone is going to try to kill me," he is fond of telling people. "That would be great for business."
His backers and acolytes endure his insults and his hurled cupcakes, complying with such off-the-wall punishments as being handcuffed to a stationary bike or dancing (though not disrobing) in a stripper's cage at the Anti-Gym, punishment for "chubbies" who don't meet his strict workout criteria. The humiliation is all part of his body-sculpting brand, the promise that his trainers—Karolchyk calls them "lifestyle consultants"—will do anything to get their clients slimmed down and ripped.
He encourages his clients to eat properly, stay away from sweets, and drink plenty of water, but he also promotes alcohol consumption and marijuana use. "Mike is a genius businessman; he knows what's going to get him attention, what's going to get him media, and that's being offensive," a Sexellence model says. "You can't argue with [the success he's had], regardless of what he says or does."
But the truth-teller has another side. His closest friends and family wonder what happened to the cheerful, popular guy they used to know. As his success has grown, he's become unwilling to turn off or tone down his act, even at home. After recently separating from his second wife, Kelly Marcovich, a born-again Christian, he now has a fitness model girlfriend, vocally professes a love of threesomes, openly degrades women, smokes pot, and is unfazed by all the negative attention—hell, he craves it. "I'm going to take this to another fucking level," he says of his public image. "No one will be able to stop me."