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?
Certainly, I wasn't going to try.
I hadn't gotten in many people's way since fifth grade, when Travis Lutz chased me around the Pine Lane Elementary playground after I threw a football at him for making fun of one of my friends. Nineteen years later, that's the closest I've ever come to a real fight.
I've always been tall but underweight, the scrawny kid on the playground, an easy target for others' put-downs. I've been called a beanpole, a weakling, a stick, a little boy. These days, at 6-1, 160 pounds, I'm still skinny, weak, by traditional standards of masculinity—especially Karolchyk's.
I'd suggested to his media handler, Constance Goetz, that I work out at the Anti-Gym to see her boss in action; feeling better about my body would just be a bonus. Thin and attractive with black hair, she studied me from behind a conference-room table. "You're his typical chubby," she said matter-of-factly. "Weak. Not much muscle tone; you'll fit in perfectly." Then she added: "It will be very difficult for you at first, but you're going to grow to love the workouts. I mean, look at me, I'm still working out with Michael because I'm not where I need to be. At first, I thought I needed to lose 10 pounds. Michael said it was more like 20." I laughed. She didn't.
Less than a week later, the Jackal loomed over me. The trainer, a.k.a. Carlos Daniel, a former college basketball player, was disgusted by what he was seeing. "Pick it up!" the Jackal screamed. "When you do a push-up, you get all the way to the ground! That is not a push-up! Damn, you might be the weakest person I've ever seen! I got old ladies who can kick your ass."
After about an hour of nonstop weights, push-ups, running, and the stationary bike, I felt like I might vomit. My face was red and sweat poured down my back. My pulse thumped in my ears. "If I don't survive this, can you make sure my wife gets my last paycheck?" I joked, trying to steal a second to catch my breath. The Jackal said nothing.
The Curtis Street Anti-Gym is a one-story brick edifice in the shadow of downtown. Karolchyk moved there in February 2006 and lives in the gym's attached loft. The building's exterior is wrapped in tinted glass, giving it an air of exclusivity and mystery. Inside, the gym looks like something out of The Sopranos, a place where the mobsters take someone to get whacked, a steel city of black weights, pulleys, and machines. Techno music thumps over speakers spread throughout the gym. The cinder block walls are lined with autographed football helmets, jerseys, and photos. At one end of the room, a dancer's cage hangs near a blow-up sex doll. On one wall is a chalkboard with a "dean's list" of clients who have satisfied Karolchyk's standards of performance, healthy eating habits, and punctuality. Those with work to do are listed on the adjacent "Jimmy Dean's sausage list." The failures are listed under one word: "Fatsos." I scanned the board; the media handler was a Jimmy Dean. Another list, of people he calls "heretics"—those who couldn't survive his regimen and quit or were kicked out—is above a door near the entrance. He plans to create yet another list of people who came for a consultation but failed the gym's personality test; he gives them a cupcake and a rejection letter on their way out the door.
The spartan facility reflects Karolchyk's vision that workouts should be intense and focused, and the gym's characteristics fit perfectly with his own self-image: tough, gritty, urban. His trainers—including a U.S. Military Academy graduate, the son of a college football coach, and, of course, the Jackal—"are not here to be your friend or encourage you," Karolchyk told me. "They are here to make you into a new person."
Karolchyk's controversial behavior is no different outside the gym. If he's not insulting someone, he's waxing poetic on the virtues of a woman's body or the taste of fine wines. Despite his outspokenness—his almost immature need to be the focus of attention—he's friendly, funny, and confident. Being in his presence can be intoxicating. Wherever we went, people stared as we ate $42 sides of beef and $10 asparagus spears at the Capital Grille, or valet-parked the Hummer, Karolchyk slipping the attendant a twenty at the end of the night with a surreptitious handshake as if he were making a side wager on a street craps game. We drank Heinekens at clubs while scoping out women in swimsuits, Karolchyk introducing me like a friend to the guy in the suit, the woman in the miniskirt, the waitress at the bar. "This is Robert," he'd say. "You need to meet him."
Clients had told me that once you entered his circle, he was loyal to you; one old friend even credits Karolchyk with giving him a training program that helped him beat cancer. One of his models talked about how just being around him made her feel better about herself. "He can be rude, but the man's a genius," she says. "Put it this way: For some reason, you don't want to disappoint Michael."
His menacing charisma was on full display later, during a taping of his new Internet show, "American Chubby," in which young women compete to become the Anti-Gym spokesmodel. During one filming at his Cherry Creek gym, Karolchyk harangued about a dozen women, all of them in their early 20s, some with children, most with stories of drunken sexual escapades. They were easy targets, vulnerable to his criticism. Their breasts were too small, he told them. Their asses were too big. He wanted them to kiss each other and dance nude in his hot tub. One woman, a tiny, 20-year-old wannabe model named Samantha, told him her C-cup breasts "were a good size" and said she kept fit by jogging regularly. Karolchyk seized the opportunity, asking her to turn slowly, take off her top, and jog in a circle. She complied with each request, kicking her legs like a horse, her breasts flipping while a half-dozen cameras preserved the moment. "Niiiice," Karolchyk said.
A few days later I called her.
"I told my boyfriend what I did, and he said it didn't sound like me," Samantha said. "My mom would be disappointed." She said she found herself getting embarrassed for the other women at the audition. "I thought, 'That poor girl,' but that's probably what the other girls were thinking about me. I mean, I'm so not even like that."
She went quiet for a few seconds before whispering, "That's not who I am. I'm disappointed in myself."
I felt sorry for her, an impressionable young woman who craved acceptance so badly that she'd compromised herself in a roomful of strangers. But I had been just as susceptible to his influence. A few weeks earlier, as we walked along 16th Street downtown, Karolchyk announced that he needed a tan, even though his skin was its typical warm honey color. A few blocks from the salon, he stopped. "You know, why don't you get a tan, too?" he said. "My treat."
I told him I'd never sought a tan, solar or otherwise.
"No, really," he said, deadpan. "You're whiter than shit."
He kept insisting; I kept declining. Finally, in the drawn-out voice of a schoolyard bully, he said, "You...are...whiter...than...shit."
Minutes later I was filling out a form acknowledging that tanning can cause skin cancer. The attendant told me to pull up my shirt, noticing aloud that I had very fair skin. My shoulders slumped. "Wear your underwear in the booth," she told me. "You don't want to burn your privates."
And I didn't want to disappoint Michael, who by this time had taken to ordering my dinner for me at the Capital Grille, fixing me muscle-building shakes for lunch, and staying apprised of my workouts. He sent me frequent e-mails—with subject lines like "Chubby Man"—that berated my laziness at the gym. ("I hear your intensity is terrible," and "Lay off the soda, bro!") He made it seem like he was acting in my best interests. But he was simply trying to control me, and I had bought into it. My wife—seven months after giving birth to our second child, and initially repulsed by my Karolchyk stories—called me one morning, knowing I was at the gym. She wanted me to get tips from him about how to lose another 10 pounds of baby weight. "Tell her to stop eating for two," Karolchyk deadpanned.
Disgusted, she hung up.
Within two months she'd dropped 15 pounds.