Successful, wealthy and ruler of her own multimillion-dollar fitness empire, there’s no one quite like one-woman fitness warrior Michelle Bridges. She first shot to fame in 2007 on Channel Ten’s hit reality show The Biggest Loser. Since then she has broken two Guinness World Records, helped Aussies lose over 1 million kilos through her online health & fitness program, 12 Week Body Transformation (12WBT), published 10 best-selling books, created of a fitness apparel and equipment range with Big W, launched her own vitamins and nutritional supplements range with Blackmores, become an XBox avatar and most recently she has created the Delicious Nutritious range of healthy frozen meal options with Woolworths. Not to mention she is a mum to Axel Bridges Willis. The woman is unstoppable!
Media commentator, Jo Casamento talks to Michelle Bridges about how she created her own destiny and how you can create yours too.
image via pinterest
Life has a funny way of coming full circle. To understand Michelle Bridges – CEO of a $53 million fitness and well-being empire, gossip page regular, soon-to-be first time mum, vixen if you read the hype, mentor to many, life changing role-model to thousands and BRW rich list business guru – you have to go back to the beginning.
Back to the girl who was raised along with her sister by a single mum in a humble Newcastle home. Back to the girl who, at 14, would lie awake at night wondering how she was going to change people’s lives. Back to the girl who hopped in a second hand Barina with $300 bucks in her bank account and drove across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with little more than a dream. Back to the girl who was taught the value of good nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle by a mum who worked around the clock – but still managed to have a balanced meal on the table each night – and also mow the lawns. Back to the girl who was told she didn’t need anyone other than herself to succeed.
“Yes and no…There’s positives and negatives,” a thoughtful Bridges hesitates for the first time in a series of interviews over several months when asked if having a mother, who taught her she didn’t need a man, was an amazing gift. “My mum was a working mum and I solely blame her for the whole thing,” she laughs.
She has already mentioned she doesn’t have a relationship with her father, although acknowledges he is aware of who she is (“he’s not really in my life and it just the way it’s played out”).
We’ve had a wonderfully long discussion about how a young girl from Newcastle ended up on the BRW Rich list. And it’s this question, which causes her to pause and reflect. This particular conversation is several months before Bridges has revealed to the world she is pregnant with her partner, fellow The Biggest Loser trainer Steve Willis’s fourth baby. She is due this month. But we’ll get back to that.
“Look, I’ve been soooo driven. And I look around and think; ‘why have I been so driven?’ Maybe it was because mum said this is what you can do and what you can achieve. It is a gift really and it did kind of, in a way, affect how the path has been laid out for me,” she confides.
“I put a lot of this stuff at her feet because she was divorced with two girls and as a single parent had to make ends meet. She worked full time she was basically told – and you have to remember this was back in the late 70s – if your children get in the way of your job you’ll lose it. So even when we were sick would have to pack us up in the bed and she would wheel the tiny TV on a wheelie stand, she’d make a sandwich and cut it and put it on the edge of my bed side table and say ‘do not move – you know where the phone is if anything happens call me’. She’d say: ‘Michelle you don’t need a man. You can do anything. You can be anything you want to be. You don’t need anyone to tell you what to do. You can be an independent strong woman’. I don’t think she fully realized how much I was taking that in…’’ she trails off.
Instilled or genetic, that drive would keep a young Michelle up at night. She knew there was something bigger out there.
“I just remember laying in bed at night thinking I’m going to be doing something where I’m speaking to prove to people where I’m going. To prove something positive and it’s going to be really cool and I honestly felt like I would be leading something and that was at the age of 14! And I know it was 14 because I remember laying in bed at night thinking ‘wow if I’m doing that, when I get older if I get married and have babies and stuff how would I have time to cook dinner? Hang on a minute I’m 14 I don’t even know how to cook dinner!’”
The stepping-stones began early. She pitched an idea to a school mistress to start a fitness class. Her reason was simple; she wanted kids who were missing out on the benefits of sport to feel the amazing confidence and abilities that sport had given her.
“I definitely was [a sporty kid]. I played everything I could get my hands on. I liked the thrill of competition I liked the thrill of the game – I liked team sport – I liked the camaraderie being in the game together. I liked how sport brought me and my girls together, you know, my basketball team, my netball team, my hockey team…I was determined to be an Olympian,” Bridges laughs. “I just couldn’t work out which one [sport]! I was good at some things but I wasn’t great at everything. The things I learned at a very young age that I carried with me throughout my life – and the reason as to why I started teaching classes at such a young age to the kids in my school was not because I was worried about their blood pressure, or the fact they were overweight, or that I wanted to change their lives so they could live a better and more healthy fulfilled life for their children – which is what I am doing now as a more mature adult. But back then it was; ‘dude you have no idea what you are missing out on’.
“I am learning about commitment. I am learning about discipline. I’m learning about how to be a team leader. I’m learning about how to win, more importantly I’m learning about how to lose,” she continues. “That particular lesson took many years. I was competitive but I was not necessarily good at all the sports I played in, the ones I wasn’t good at I would get really frustrated and ask ‘why wasn’t I winning?’ So I needed to learn a little bit of humility and pull my shit together basically at a young age and go and shake their hands and tell them they deserve to win on the day. Great lesson. Great lesson. That’s the beauty of sport. You learn to pull it together and get back out there.”
Equipped with this knowledge and assured she wanted to make a difference, Bridges beavered away in the fitness industry working 7 days a week. But she found herself in her early 20s questioning whether this was all there was to it.
“I found myself saying ‘far out is this it?’ I love what I do but I’ve done a lot of this stuff in this industry. If there isn’t any is there any more this industry has to offer me I have seriously start to question whether I wanted to stay.”
Having taught a zillion classes, presented at conferences both here an internationally, having owned her own health club, she’d owned her own personal training studio, she’d managed other peoples health clubs and she’d also competed in body building competitions in the US, Michelle had come to a turning point.
“I really felt myself coming to a place where I had to choose to leave the industry or break some new ground. I never left my industry completely but there was a moment there in my late 20s to early 30s where I actually stepped out of the industry full time. When you think about it there’s just over a handful of things in the box I’ve ticked. In a career – I haven’t worked in any other industry to really know – but I’m figuring there’s probably several paths you can take in the corporate world. But in my industry I felt like there wasn’t any more paths to take so I was thinking ‘do I leave or break new ground?’”
Hoping a change of scenery would shake things up a little bit; Bridges took a secondment to Canberra to work for a health club for six months. While it was great, it still left her thinking there was something else out there. “Either way I knew it might start a fire in me to come back to my industry even bigger and better than ever, or it would start a new path for me,” she recalls.
So she applied for a job as an advertising account manager with the prestigious Fairfax newspaper, the Age.
“I’m serious!” she laughs when I raise an eyebrow.
“I didn’t know what an account manager did – but it looked like a really important job being in the paper and the Age seemed quite reputable. I thought ‘I don’t know what this all means but ill apply for it’. I’ve always had the opinion the person who gets the job isn’t, unfortunately, always the best person for the job. It’s usually the person who does the best interview and I knew I could do a killer interview!”
Of course she got the job.
“One of my mottos is to bite off more than you can chew and just chew damn fast. Which is what I did,’’ she says. “I quickly learned how to pitch, I learned how to razzle dazzle advertising agencies. I learnt so much from it. They ended up asking me to go full time which I did for a short time – but I was burning to get back to my industry by then.”
Even though she had still been doing weekend fitness work, he sabbatical had done the trick. She was ready get back to working full time in the fitness industry armed with new knowledge and a creativity that was brimming.
“I just pressed the reset button basically. I learned the fitness industry was my first love. Then I came back and started throwing everything at it that I possibly could and then some. Some things stuck and lots of things didn’t, but I kept pushing and pushing.
She faced an onslaught of “no’s” and plenty of moments of disillusionment, but ever tenacious, Bridges stuck to her guns.
“I was going round in circles. I wanted to write articles for different media outlets – but they were like ‘who are you? Why should we let you? We’ve already got a beauty editor and a health editor’,’’ she remembers. “And I’d say ‘well I’ve been doing this since I was 14’ and they would say ‘did you go to university? Do you have a degree?’”
She maintained her drive because she knew she was better.
“I’d read these articles and go OMG! Like you’re clearly someone who hasn’t been in the industry, you’re clearly someone who is a very, very good journalist and writes beautifully, but are you in the world of health and fitness? I don’t think so.”
And that’s how the MB fitness empire began; amassing a fortune of $53 million dollars and landing her on the BRW Rich list in 2015, debuting at no 29.
“For me, I find it a bit bizarre really,” she says of her net worth. “The numbers that were put out there in that article are a conglomeration of all my businesses combined together, and that is not my personal wealth that I have in my bank account. I rang my accountant and said that can’t be true because I’m not on my way to the Bahamas in my Gulfstream. That’s actual business,” she emphasizes. “It’s not personal”
Bridges is incredibly proud “of that fact that we employ people and help them pay their mortgages. I think that’s something to be really proud of”.
Refreshingly she is actually one of the few women I’ve interviewed who don’t consider ambition a dirty word. “Hell no,” she states emphatically. “It’s an empowering word. The number one stepping stone from the time I drove across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in my second hand sports girl Barina with 300 bucks in the bank and all my possessions in the back seat. From that moment – to where I am today – there has been a gazillion stepping stones,” she says, her voice clicking into motivational speaking mode. My ears prick up ready to learn the secret to success as he voice gains traction:
“The number one stepping stone and the only stepping stone you can take in order for all the other stepping stones to appear has to be self belief. You have to believe you can do it. You’ve got to believe. You can’t have a foot in each camp and say maybe I’ll lose 10 kilos if I join your 12-week program. It won’t happen. Throw your feet in one camp. You don’t want to do that because you think you’ll fail? What about if I said ‘give me both your feet and if you fall over there is a lesson in there for you that will help you get to your next stepping stone so where’s the failure in that? And by the way if you do fall over – and you will – go back to that first stepping stone of self-belief and the whole reason why you’re doing that in the first place’.”
No wonder this woman is a motivational guru. I’m almost inspired to get my gym gear on just listening*.
“I give myself a 24-hour get out of jail free card. I say to myself all right you can cry your eyes out, have a tantrum, have a freak out, tear your hair out, and tell everybody that they’re not listening and that everybody is wrong have a tantrum thrown things around and then after that? Right. We know why we’re doing this. There’s a reason.
“You still have to have that stepping stone of self belief when the haters come – you know the haters and knockers. The people who say you can’t run a half marathon, you can’t write a book, you can’t lose 10 kilos, you can’t get a job promotion, you can’t travel, you can’t get married or have children, all of the haters and the knockers – well you need to have that stepping stone of self belief because that’s your lifeline through all the mud. I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve had to drag myself through the mud like that. “
And there’s been plenty of mud. Oodles of squelchy, thick, neck-deep mud. Anyone who can Google will tell you. When she first hit the red carpet with Commando a media firestorm erupted with those, including Commando’s ex, calling her a home wrecker amid allegations of an affair, which the couple denied. When she fell pregnant on the set of The Biggest Loser this year, Michelle again came under fire for stating her pregnancy at 44 was the result of regular exercise and healthy eating, the online backlash calling her “smug”.
But Bridges never wavers; secure she is here to empower others and not get distracted by detractors.
“You know what? I think everything I’m doing has reason, what I’m doing has passion, what I’m doing has credibility, and I’m doing what I’m doing because I’m the real deal. I haven’t just turned up in this industry and said can I get my head on TV. I’ve been doing this since I was 14. If everything fell over tomorrow I would still be doing it. I don’t care whether I’m on TV, in the paper, not in the paper, I honestly don’t care. What I care about is when I’m out there in the field. Out in Blacktown, or out in the Western Suburbs and I have people come up to me and say ‘you’ve helped me change my life’. That’s why I do this.
“Just knowing I am making a difference,” she continues, “that’s all that matters. For me anyway at a personal level, if I’m making a real contribution – a real contribution the community at large than I’m being the girl that my grandmother always wanted me to be and that is ‘who can I be? Rather than what’s in it for me?’”
She has a policy not to engage in social media trolls (“Its just not real, I never engage. Never!”) and keeps herself surrounded by good people.
“I just don’t buy into it and I don’t think its real. When I have a mother-of-three saying she’s happy because she’s rocking around in her new heels and her husband thinks she’s amazing – that’s real!
“What I find challenging is when people clearly just want to put the boot in without ever really bothering to check in on what they are putting the boot in about! Especially in the world of social media. In my view however, these things are simply distractions. I tend not to read them or give them any airtime, which is really what they are looking for, and get on with what I’m trying to achieve; which is empowering others to support and help themselves. Now that’s worth writing about! Anyone who has been following my life’s work knows what I’m on about. My messages have always been solid and unwavering.
“I’ve always been in the world of empowering people and lifting people up…. I was taught to look after your friends, look after your family, and stand up for what you believe in. Empower people, lift them up rather than tear them down…so this industry is hard and tough and you go ‘whoooah hang on a minute – really?’. But I know what’s real. I had to smarten up a little! I think going back to the original reason I’m empowered what I do – that I can empower people – getting out there and inspiring others to do. Don’t let the detractors detract.”
With the impending arrival, Bridges and Willis have already braced themselves for the public interest.
“We both have our feet very firmly on the ground. And we both have had a similar upbringing, which we lean on. We have wonderful friends and family who are very supportive. Steve has three beautiful children who remind us every day what’s real and what’s important in life. And I’ve got no doubt that the new addition will remind us loud and clear about what’s important in life! Just like any other parent, we are and will be protective. I think most people get that, especially parents,” she says acknowledging that people are genuinely interested and “that’s quite lovely”.
“I had a gentleman on the street with his little one stop me and say he loves what I do and congratulations. How beautiful is that? I feel very blessed to have been able to help as many people as I have and I feel like its been exactly what I was put on the planet to do.”
The inner circle of people she trusts is lead by her ex husband of nine years, Bill Moore, who she began the MB brand with. He is often at her side in a work scenario and describes himself on Twitter as “Ringmaster of the Michelle Bridges circus”.
“Bill and the rest of my team [are my support group]. Absolutely. We are part of a great team and we all believe in what we do and we all put what we do as a bigger more important picture than ourselves because were united as a group. The whole “I’ it’s all about me syndrome – you’re not going to move forward very quickly with that mindset. We all believe in what we’re doing, we’re all happy to put that first. We are a team. There is so much going on that everyone plays a vital part in moving forward. With every venture we either create or it comes to us, we always put it alongside our values and core beliefs.”
Of working with an ex, which for some sounds excruciating, Bridges and Moore are the gold standard. The mutual respect is evident to those in their orbit.
“Myself and Bill are happy to put that in front of our own egos or vanity or anything else. The MB team – we keep pretty tight. There are 8-10 people within that team. Then there is the 12WBT team, which is a lot bigger, and I have smaller satellite teams. At anyone time you can have a group of people coming together and pushing forward and I find that so exciting and there’s a reason were all doing it – because were passionate about what we do…. My team plays a major role in bouncing around ideas. I listen to all of their advice… I take on advice but also listen to my gut instinct. There have been times when I haven’t done this and I’ve regretted it.”
So for the girl who packed up for the bright lights from a sleepy coastal town are there any other regrets?
“Plenty!” she exclaims. “Plenty of regrets along the way! Anybody who says they don’t have any regrets, I think they’re lying. But the great thing about regrets is you can learn from them…. I guess the biggest lessons for me are the ones I’ve learnt personally.”
It’s this ability to get back on the field despite setbacks, which clearly has led her to national domination. She has been spotted on and off over the years in the US, appearing on NBC’s Today Show, talk suggesting she was aiming to launch internationally. Plans for global domination would be a natural step surely?
“I honestly don’t see it like that, and maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve got to where I am. I started doing what I do in 1984 as a 14 year-old. It wasn’t because I saw pretty pictures of fitness models on Instagram or because I thought I could become well known or famous and world domination was definitely not in my scope. My reason was simple. It was, at that point, to help give back all the amazing confidence and abilities that my sport had given me to kids at my school who were missing out on sport. I started teaching fitness to them for sport and before I knew it I was teaching at the local squash centre as a 14 year old to the general public. PT’s [personal trainers] were unheard of back then, especially in a sleepy seaside village called Nelson Bay. Actually, I guess 14-year-old fitness instructors were unheard of! “
The way Bridges sees it: “People’s ideas of success are all very different. I honestly feel that because my desires to do what I do came from a genuine place of love, there has been a level of success. My goals are the same as they were when I was 14 in reality. That is why I’m continually evolving my business to help more people, and now am so excited to branch into healthy food with the launch of Delicious Nutritious.”
If she had to target someone globally as a role model, she admits to always admiring Jamie Oliver. She considers him someone who is relatable and realistic.
“I love his passion, forward thinking, adaptability, speaks his mind even when it’s not always popular and most of all he genuinely wants to create change. I love that he is not perfect and nor does he want to be portrayed that way. He, like all of us makes mistakes in life and in business and learns and grows from them. This really inspires me because it’s real… I’m a big fan of people who are in the trenches, rolling up their sleeves and being a part of the foundation, the team. Never asking what’s in it for them but rather my favourite question; ‘who can I be?’”
When asked if the new arrival will see the sculpted exercise queen soften, Bridges is quick to respond with a smile:
“Of course it will. I’m a believer in chapters within your life. Nothing ever stays the same, even when you wish it would. I’m moving into a very new and exciting chapter in my life and I’m totally accepting of that. I can definitely say I’ve had some amazing page turning chapters in my life so far, so I feel like this one it absolutely going to be another. There are parts of me that are simply hard wired and one of them is my training. Currently, it has wound down and will probably be that way for a few months yet, but, as I know myself and how I operate, I know that those times and training will inevitably come back. I actually always say ‘give me a mother any day of the week to train. They are often the toughest and know how to dig in and just get on with it! They know hard work!’ “
She also reckons the time saving frozen meals will come in handy. I joke that I’ve no doubt there will be a baby range of mushed up pears and pumpkin sitting in the freezer section of the Woolies supermarket aisles in the future, next to her current range.
“I’m very grateful that we’ve managed to get this nutrition out into the market at this time in my life. My master plan has all come together! I’m definitely going to make sure my freezer is well stocked with Delicious Nutritious. I’m going to want to still get my training in, I’m going to want to obviously have things in my like the brand new baby and make sure things are going along in my business world as well.”
So far she’s sailed through the pregnancy, and when bub is due around Christmas, will the business take a back seat? Friends have revealed the couple has built-in-gym in their garage, helpful for easy access with a sleeping bubba.
“I’m not putting any expectations on myself I’m happy to have freezer well stocked just in case. I think nutrition will play a massive role as it always has. My mum handed that down to me and I plan on doing the same. What you feed yourself is really an investment in your health presently but also your health and well being in the future and that’s always going to be a major part in my life and no doubt be a part of my babies life, but that’s something I try and impart to everyone I work with and general public included. Your health and wellness doesn’t have to fall by the wayside just because you’re busy….Those messages were imparted on to me at a very young age. Mum on the weekend would cook up stuff – I tell people now that back in 1978 she was doing stuff I tell people in 2015. She’d cook up stews or casseroles and she’d freeze them for when she came home at night after working all day and she had two daughters at home and put it together. We didn’t have chips we didn’t have lollies or cordials in the house. She would bring them in on the on occasion but it was never on tap.”
She may be about to become a more marshmallowy version, but there’s little doubt Bridges will still be as busy.
“Right now I’m trying to think of all the things I want to do to ‘chill out’ as everyone has been saying ‘do it now, because the rest of your life will never be the same…’ But the truth of it is neither Steve or I are really the chilled out, laze about kind. Yes, we will sit and read or go for a walk with the dog or maybe spend a couple of hours at the beach, however, we are doers. It always ends up that he’s clearing out cupboards and organising the garage, whilst I’m filing and chasing up on errands. We don’t tend to sit around much. We do however love to watch a good series. Right now we both can’t wait to sit down at the end of a busy day and catch an episode of Vikings.”
I have no doubt there are dozens more incredible chapters to come from the MB Empire. Both personally and professionally. We all just get to sit back and watch as passengers on the MB express.
“The thing is, if you are going to stand for something and be a trail blazer, you can’t expect everyone to like you. It comes with the territory. And that’s ok, provided you know who you are, what you stand for and the reasons as to why you are doing what you are doing.”
Trailblazer, leader, author, mother, fitness queen, business guru, TV star, motivational legend. Whichever tag you pick, Bridges lives up to. And she makes absolutely no apologies for any of it. She dreamed it as a 14 year old. And now she’s living it. Her rules. Her way. Engineer of her own destiny. And there’s a lesson in that for all of us.
*The writer was indeed inspired to don sneakers (the first time in a decade) for an 8-minute work out with the queen of sweat to launch MB Delicious Nutritious. True story.