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?
A crucial component of the Karolchyk brand is his life story, a biography, as he tells it, of fighting through numerous obstacles with an underdog's determination. Though he attended the elite Blair Academy boarding school near his Blairstown, New Jersey home, 60 miles outside New York City, he told me again and again about getting beaten up by his classmates. Karolchyk says it was tough being from a middle-class family amid a sea of trust-fund children, and having an overachieving star wrestler for an older brother didn't help. "We were the 'poor kids,' and that really made me bitter," he says. "My brother was a great athlete and he was beating everyone, so when I came up, those people wanted to take a shot at me. I mean, when you've blacked out four times and tasted your own blood...you really start to become numb."
Prior to landing in Blairstown, Karolchyk says his parents moved frequently during his childhood, making it difficult for him to fit in and trust others. He told me about his father, a college professor, and how the two only recently became close. "My son will hate me from nine until 22, just like I was with my dad," he says. "Then we'll be best friends. Women have no business raising sons after the age of nine."
At Blair, Karolchyk remembers being a good student and an even better runner (he says his best mile time was 4:18). He tells a story about one event in which he made a wrong turn and was attacked by a dog. He fought off the animal, got back on the course, and won the race, his legs bleeding the entire time. In 1990, he enrolled in Brown University, eventually becoming a star collegiate runner. Despite his apparent prowess, Karolchyk's extensive training regimen and his outsized ego ("I felt I could dominate anyone") had become a problem. Though he had frequent run-ins with his coach and struggled to keep up with classwork, he says he eventually completed his degree. Today, his 1995 Brown class ring frequently adorns his right hand, like a trophy.
Karolchyk says he then was accepted into the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, where he planned to study entertainment law as a primer to becoming a sports agent. About that time, he got an offer to join a road racing circuit. Hopeful that this could be his meal ticket, he broke the news to his family during a dinner celebrating his Brown graduation. "Everyone exploded," he says. "I told them I wanted to run professionally and I was going to follow that dream. I went back to my apartment, and later my grandfather came to the door. He just yelled at me; called me a bum and said I wouldn't amount to anything. I wanted to prove him wrong."
Though he says he won a few races along the East Coast, Karolchyk calls the running world "a shithole life" that sometimes involved sleeping in his car on hot nights with the air conditioner running. Finally, he tore a calf muscle during a competition, ending his career. "I was angry at the world," he says. "I was hurt. I [had] no fucking money.... I could have gone to law school. I [was] a fucking mess." Over the next three years, Karolchyk worked several jobs before winding up, thanks to a friend's connection, as a gym manager in New Jersey.
Things started to look up. He met a woman, got engaged, and moved to Colorado in 1999 when she changed jobs. He started building a reputation locally for his rigorous workouts and established a steady base of white-collar clients. But the momentum wouldn't last. In 2002, his wife filed for divorce for reasons Karolchyk is reluctant to discuss, leaving him "lost and lonely" but eventually more focused. "He completely swore off women," Karolchyk's friend Sean Kennedy says. "Then six months later, he's out with me saying he met this great girl and that he wanted to marry her."
Kelly Marcovich was tanned and thin, with large breasts and straight hair that hung like the well-coiffed fur of a Pomeranian. A Colorado native from a wealthy family, she got her father to front the couple seed money to open a gym, Bodies By Michael and Kelly. (Now weathering his second divorce, Karolchyk says Kelly did little more than perform "odd jobs" for the business, and he declines to specify how much money his father-in-law gave him.) By 2005, "Bodies" had about 60 clients. Still, Karolchyk felt unfulfilled. "I didn't think the business was growing the way it should," he says. "It needed to be more aggressive, like me. It needed to be more in-your-face. I thought things should change—drastically. Kelly would be happy if we'd have stayed Bodies By Michael and Kelly and trained people and had a house in the suburbs until we were 65 and I was hit by a bus. I can't live that way."
The metamorphosis was swift. His old magazine ad featured tastefully silhouetted figures of a man lifting a woman into the air; now it was replaced by ones with sweat-dripping stomachs, of two women sucking on a lollipop, of Karolchyk flipping off the camera with Twinkies on his middle fingers. He began using the phrase Have sex with the lights on in his ads and started the "American Chubby" Internet show.
The more offensive he got, the more popular he became. His phone rang off the hook. "It's OK to be sexy," Karolchyck says of his newfound promotional message. "It's OK to be vain. Vanity leads to sanity." In November 2006, he selected a new name, Anti-Gym, and started wearing pins and T-shirts with the "No Chubbies" catchphrase. He brought cupcakes with him wherever he went and passed out condoms as his business cards. "He doesn't care what people think of him. It's no act," says Karolchyk's girlfriend Pelster. (He prefers to call her his "special relationship.") "He loves drama and controversy. He loves action."
It all makes for a good story: Neglected, street-smart kid survives a rough-and-tumble life and various personal setbacks to become a successful, self-made businessman. But little of it is true.