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."
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.
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.
Karolchyk's friends call his peculiar way of representing himself "stretching" or "storytelling;" if you want a piece of his time, you simply have to accept it. The gift for self-aggrandizement comes naturally for any Jersey guy, as second nature as spending a weekend down the Shore or rooting for the Yankees. "My dad called him the biggest bullshitter in the world," one friend says. "I just think he thrives from being in the spotlight."
The way Karolchyk tells it, his life is one long confrontation: of getting beers dumped on his head, of late-night calls and hate-filled e-mails from overweight women, amusingly furious at his offensive ads. He portrays himself as a human version of an 18-car pileup, but outside of the stunts he'd staged for my benefit, there was little evidence to back up his accounts. He gave an appearance of openness ("You're seeing my life in ways no one else has"), but he rarely answered my serious questions—about his mother, his second wife, how much money his gym was really making. I asked to speak to his parents; he wouldn't tell me his mother's name. I asked to speak to his wife; he said no. I asked for a formal sit-down interview with him, but he kept dodging me, preferring to have me follow him around like a dog. I'd been riding shotgun on his take-no-prisoners crusade, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something, maybe many things, he'd been trying to hide from me.
I called Brown University. The registrar's records show that Karolchyk attended but never graduated. He got the class ring, I later learned, as a gift from his mother during his junior year. Obviously, that meant he was unlikely to have been accepted to Emory, which meant that the elaborate scene with his grandfather—Karolchyk's stated motivation for making him who he is—also could be untrue. And despite numerous stories of Capital Grille melees described to me in e-mails ("You missed a damn good night the other night.... What a beautiful ending to a night of major betrayals and major developments!!!"), no one at the restaurant could confirm his accounts.
I kept looking. Karolchyk had told me he owned the Curtis Street building and the loft, but the Denver Assessor's official records list Karolchyk's former father-in-law as the owner. In a rambling, convoluted e-mail responding to my questions about the discrepancy, Karolchyk wrote a byzantine explanation for the ownership structure. "We have left if [sic] completely ambiguous and confusing ON PURPOSE," he wrote. "MY QUESTION: WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE ANTIGYM AND YOUR STORY???"
I again asked to speak to his parents; instead, he gave me lists of fired employees and clients whom he thought would add to his "most-hated" moniker and fuel his image as a rebel.
Fed up, I looked up his parents' number and called his mother.
"My son has become a liar," Pat Karolchyk told me. "I don't know what has happened to my son."
Among the untruths: Michael Karolchyk's father is a high school English teacher, not a college professor. The family moved once during his childhood; his parents owned the same home from the time he was six until selling it about seven years ago. He was never beaten up at school. "He was always one of the popular kids, always a conversationalist, so he never had problems," his mother says. "He was a fantastic son. I loved him deeply. We were best friends."
She says her family witnessed the transformation after her son moved to Colorado. His explanation for the rift with his mother is a radio interview Karolchyk says he gave in 2007 in which he called her fat; she heard it and was deeply hurt. This is news to Pat Karolchyk, who says she has never heard her son on the radio. "Why does he lie?" she says. "What does he have to gain from hurting his parents? What is he trying to do to his family?"
Karolchyk downplays his mother's anguish, calling her a "hurt and wounded animal." But he also hopes for an eventual reconciliation. "I love my mom to death and do not want her hurt anymore," he says.
For now, a detente seems unlikely. "When he was a kid, he said he'd never drink, but now there he is, drinking. He said he'd never do drugs, but there he is. Michael has asthma, so why is he smoking marijuana?" Pat Karolchyk says. "I don't know who my son has become. He's a PR generation. I want my boy back. He's ruining his name. What's wrong with Michael being Michael?"
And with that, she sniffed. "I'm going to go now and cry," she said, and hung up.
Michael Karolchyk is mired in the same ironic game he has so successfully played against others, the "chubbies" and phonies he rails against. People with common insecurities—under the toxic influence of our "Biggest Loser/Fat Actress" celebrity- and fitness-obsessed culture—go to him, willing to be humiliated, to be transformed into someone new. They don't like what they see in the mirror, and Karolchyk preys on that. Yet for all his bluster, he remains a loyal friend and a devoted, effective trainer and businessman. "I truly hope for him that he doesn't lose the Anti-Gym concept with all this sexual stuff," Pelster says. "He should get credit for being a marketing genius, but he'll always get you to lose weight."
Karolchyk has the thick neck, the knotted shoulders, the women, the car, the loft, and the business: ample evidence of his professed standing as the health conscience of America. But what does he see in the mirror?
Shortly after I stopped hanging out with him for this article, I received this e-mail: "Atlas media corp CEO called me for [an] hour today. They want me to do a five minute film for them to give the networks and then come out to NY to meet with some of the network boys. They think me and the antigym are perfect for a reality show. Ha! What a fucking crazy world."
Fed up with his lies, tired of being a pawn in his manic circus, this was my chance to expose him. I called a spokesperson at Atlas Media, and couldn't believe my ears. "We love Michael," she told me.
This time, his story appears to be true. The tireless pitchman keeps pushing his obnoxious message. And we, perpetually dissatisfied with the image staring back from the mirror, we keep buying it.
Robert Sanchez is a staff writer at 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].