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Inside Spornosexual Pride

Mark Simpson goes to BodyPower, the UK’s biggest fitness expo, & tries not to stare too hard. Even though staring is very welcome.

(Originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph 4 August, 2016)

“Would you like me to take my top off?” is the shy and retiring usual response when you ask a chap here if he minds having his photo taken. Followed by much flexing.

Those that are actually wearing a top. Many are just wearing a flawless tan. Or vests – or ‘tanks’ as they’re now called – of varying degrees of skimpiness and stretchiness. It’s cool out, but shorts and compression leggings abound – as well as tapered gym pants so ‘fitted’ that might as well be compression leggings. When in the National Exhibition Centre make a national exhibition of yourself.

And why not? Shyness is overrated, especially if you’re seriously fit. And most people here – I would estimate the crowd today 80% male and 20% female and mostly under 30 – have spent a great deal of time, sweat and money turning their body into a very glam accessory and want to show it off. Club music is pumping, the vibe is good, the crowd is friendly and not at all standoffish – but everyone is sober and the lights are up, so we can all get a really good look.

Officially called BodyPower, the UK’s largest expo for the UK fitness industry might be dubbed the Ideal Body Exhibition. Or Spornosexual Pride. It’s eye-poppingly clear that the gay love of the idealised male form has been taken up by a generation of (mostly) straight guys. And buffed up even more. In truth, they’ve turned out to be rather better at it than gay men.

Held over a weekend every May at the NEC, Birmingham, BodyPower fills six halls with exhibitors from the booming gym, supplement and sportswear sectors, represented by costly, elaborate stands for brands such as MyProtein, USN, Dynamix, Aesthetix Era and Gymshark. As well as ‘healthy eating’ kitchens, a teeth-whitening booth, posing coaches and PowerPoint lectures in darkened rooms on the science of muscle-building.

For those wanting more action, there are competitions such as the ‘BodyPower Games’, a blizzard of sweaty torsos and flying abs doing furiously fast pull-ups and leg raises. And ‘Fit Factor’, a talent search for new fitness models. Onstage the hopefuls adopt their favourite Men’s Health/Muscle & Fitness poses and grins while a photographer snaps and flashes away – the results instantly projected on a big screen and totally judged.

There’s even a workout area – just in case you felt guilty about missing a training day to go to BodyPower. After all, you’re already wearing your gym gear.

Launched in 2009 by CEO Nick Orton as something of a niche show for bodybuilding and power sports, BodyPower, like our culture’s interest in in the body itself, has grown rapidly, and now caters for ‘the whole fitness spectrum’, attracting over 90,000 visitors this year. Fitness and bodybuilding has left the dank, dark locker room and come out into the light – in really nicely filled-out compression leggings.

One in every seven people in the once pie-scoffing, pint-downing, tab-smoking UK is now a gym bunny – that’s over 9M memberships with a total UK market value estimated to be £4.4B, according to figures published last month by the Leisure Database Company. And the industry shows no signs of hitting a plateau – 224 new gyms opened in the UK in the past year alone.

Likewise, the fitness supplement industry is no longer a discreet corner in Holland & Barretts – protein sales alone are estimated to be worth a ‘swole’ £8B globally by 2017. Fashion gym-wear is also busting out all over, for both women and men: the global ‘athleisure’  – or spornowear – market is estimated to be worth £200B.

But of course, even with a pumped fitness industry, BP would be nothing without pumped punters. And everyone I speak to seems to think they’re getting value for their c.£30 admission.

‘We love it!!’, is the verdict of three cheery, worked-out lads in their late-teens, early 20s, Jack, Jake, and John from Leeds, who got up early on a Sunday morning and drove two and a half hours to be here, their second visit to BP. They also love training, going 5-6 times a week.

Do they get any stick for that from family and friends? ‘All the time,’ says one, the others agreeing. ‘Not so much from family, as they’ve accepted it, but mates are always going: “What you wanna go to the gym for??” With a belly and pint in their ‘ands!’

They’re especially looking forwards to meeting their fitness idol, Calum von Moger, a preposterously handsome 25-year-old Australian three times Mr Universe social media star (2M Facebook followers). Moger, along with preposterously pretty Americans Steve Cook (31 yrs,1M Instagram followers) and Jeff Seid (22 yrs, 1.7M Instagram followers) – both also attending BodyPower, courtesy of their sponsors – represents a new wave of ‘physique’ or ‘aesthetic’ bodybuilders. The aim now is not to be as freakishly huge as possible, but as hench and hot as possible. The so-called ‘cover model’ look. Pro spornos.

Thanks to social media, these fitness idols, with their downloadable ‘bulk and cut’ diets and ‘boulders like shoulders’ exercise plans, have in many ways become more influential than the magazines that they appear on/in. The Leeds lads tell me they don’t really buy fitness mags, preferring to watch Moger et al’s motivational videos on YouTube instead.

‘You’re looking pretty shredded, man!’ says Steve Cook to a 20-something male audience member in a particularly draughty vest – who then gets up and flexes for a cheering audience. Onstage at a packed auditorium at BodyPower, ex pro American football jock Cook, with his narrow waist, dazzling smile, great hair and skin, photogenic personality and unapologetic vanity – he identifies as metrosexual – is the perfectly-formed embodiment of ‘aesthetic’.

He has real star quality. He jokes how his parents took the mirrors out of his bedroom when he was a kid ‘’cause they knew I liked them too much’, banters with a man-bunned member of the audience about a rumour that he had one himself for a while (‘It was a very dark time in my life’), before breaking into an impromptu Whip and Nae-Nae dancing display for his fans crowding round to have their selfie taken with him.

The ‘swole’ selfie moment in many ways the BP money shot – the real attendance draw. Punters patiently queue to have their selfie taken flexing with their online idol – the idealised, ‘motivational’ reflection of themselves as they hope to be.

Sometimes the mirror-image is literal. One lad waiting to meet Jeff Seid at his sponsor’s stand (Pursue Fitness) looks uncannily like his only slightly less pumped twin, right down to the high hair and the wide grin: ‘Some people say I look a bit like him!’ And indeed he does.

Jeff Seid meets the man in the mirror.

And if you happen to actually have a proper, biological twin already, that’s catered for as well. Toby and Adam, two boisterous, buffed, 20-year-old redhead twins in identical vests and caps have travelled from Herefordshire to meet UK muscle model twins Owen and Lewis Harrison (25yrs, c. 400K Instagram followers each), cover stars of this month’s Muscle & Fitness. Though at their sponsor’s stand, BPI supplements, Lewis seems to have gone temporarily AWOL, slightly spoiling the twin twins selfie moment.

A Harrison twin meets a couple of fans

With their mirror-image, colourfully-inked, sculpted physiques and hair, shaped eyebrows and perfect skin, the Harrisons are the total ‘aesthetic’ package. Pec pop stars. In fact, these ex junior pro footballers from Manchester look like the ‘totally shredded’ offspring of Beckham and Take That.

They also represent the ultimate gym-buddy fantasy: brothers in muscle, mirroring each other’s achievements. But, I ask, can working and training with your twin ‘bro’, cultivating exactly the same muscle development – part of their savvy branding – lead to some resentment? Even when he doesn’t go AWOL? ‘I bloody ‘ate ‘im’ laughs Owen.

Actually Owen, like most of the ‘brand ambassadors’ I’ve seen today, seems very good- humoured, relaxed, and endlessly patient with the fans, happily co-operating with endless, sometimes slightly breathless photographic requests (and slightly breathless questions from this middle aged journo). Perhaps because he was once a fitness fan himself, though ‘when we started it was all about the fitness mags – that was what inspired us to work on our bods, to be a cover star’.

Then again, these days one tetchy remark to a fan can get you trashed on social media.

At the next stand, protein brand Dynamix, three grinning Asian lads in their mid-twenties from Wolverhampton, Suhi, Jas, Iqqi, are having their selfie taken with a tall, especially v-shaped and of course topless muscle model called Myles Leask – ‘He’s a big inspiration!’.

Myles Leask meeting and greeting

Leask, 27, standing 6’3” tall, is exceptionally lean or ‘cut’, with your actual ‘shoulders like boulders’ giving him that hyper v-shape, and a blindingly white smile almost as wide. He’s one of the most established and versatile UK muscle models, jetting around the world for expos and photoshoots, fitness and catwalk. He’s seen a lot of changes.

‘The industry and BodyPower has grown so much since I started out seven years ago,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot more money in it now.’ How much does he make? ‘Well, let’s just say it’s not a bad living!’ Like many other pro spornos, he started off as a high-level athlete, but a shoulder injury put paid to his rugby career – before he found another, possibly more lucrative one in fitness modelling.

The rise of social media is the big change. Leask has adapted to it, and the way it means that you are ‘always on’ – not just during photoshoots and expos – but is still sometimes baffled by its intimacies. ‘I did a big glossy photo shoot for Attitude magazine recently. But that got nothing in the way of likes compared to a badly-lit selfie of me brushing my teeth with my top off.’

Stereo Sporno – The Harrison Twins

Mark Simpson on the splendidly shameless pumped progeny of David Beckham & Take That

Good things come in pairs. Buttocks, breasts, balls, pecs, Twix – and the Harrison twins.

Owen and Lewis Harrison, originally from England’s beautiful Lake District, an hour’ or so’s drive north of Manchester, are quite the attraction themselves – international fitness models, personal trainers, Instagram stars and ‘ambassadors’ for the giant online supplements company MyProtein. So they’re probably not eating many Twix.

They’re also stunning spornosexuals. So stunning, you see double.

HTwins

Through hard, sweaty labour at the gym, carefully-planned diets, plenty of supplements – and liberal application of designer ink, styling fudge and fake tan – these 25 year-olds have fashioned themselves into highly desirable, highly saleable commodities. Male glamour models.

Fitness models and aesthetic or ‘physique’ bodybuilders (e.g. Steve Cook, whom I blogged about recently here) are the online high priests of spornosexuality – that is, second generation, ‘hardcore’, sexed-up, body-centred metrosexuality.

Bodybuilding for most younger guys is no longer about being as big and Austrian – and straight – as possible, as it was in the Arnie 80s & 90s. Instead it’s about being as hot as possible – and maintaining a cover-model body all year round, instead of having ‘on’ and ‘off’ seasons centred around contests.

The Harrisons, like many other fitness models, star in a host of YouTube ‘motivational’ workout videos – usually topless and in tight compression pants, lit by romantic lighting. Motivating thousands of young men to get a hench, hot bod like theirs. On their website, again, like other fitness gurus/idols, they offer personalised diet plans to help make the v-shaped dream come true, as well as, for the lucky few, ‘one 2 one‘ meetings. (Disappointingly, you only have the option to choose to train with Owen or Lewis – not both.)

pants

If Bel Ami did workout videos.

Former Royal Marines, the Harrisons, like their ex-Marine buddy David McIntosh (below), seem completely at ease with sexualising themselves and behaving in a fashion that a previous generation would have thought ‘well gay’.

David McIntosh

‘Look at the pins on that!’

As Owen explains in the ‘How it All Began’ vid (below – featuring a motivational workout ‘threesome’ with fitness model Simeon Panda): “I LOVE coming in the gym, working out an’ – sounds a bit poncey – looking in the mirror and thinking ‘I built that!‘”

In a profile in the Daily Mail, Lewis said: ‘It’s good fun getting in front of the camera and showing off our physiques which we have worked so hard for.’

Personally, I think they both have a lot to be proud of, and I don’t blame them for liking what they see in the mirror.

‘Objectifying’ themselves, far from rendering them powerless and despised as the word would suggest, has given them a fame and lifestyle that wasn’t supposed to be an aspiration for working class lads in rural NW England being told to get real and get a trade – and work on someone else’s property instead of their own bodies.

They originally dreamed of becoming professional footballers: ‘Growing up in the era of David Beckham… that was the dream’, explains Owen. Despite being talented scouted by Bolton Wanderers it didn’t work out for them. Rather than knuckle down get a trade, they opted for the glamour and excitement of the Royal Marines instead. It’s rather touching when Owen gets all teary-eyed reminiscing about his time in the Marines as being ‘a brotherhood’ – when of course having a twin brother is more ‘brotherhood’ than most people ever have.

After they left the Royal Marines and suffered a series of ‘depressing’ manual jobs the Harrisons finally achieved their Beckham dreams by hitting the gym harder – even after a long day labouring – and putting into action a plan to become fitness models like the ones they admired on the cover of the glossy mags they loved to read. Eventually they were discovered by a physique photographer, became online celebs – and then professional spornosexuals. A more modern, more digital type of hero than a Marine, or even a footballer or pop star.

In a sense the Harrisons are Beckham’s offspring – with some mesomorphic Take That DNA thrown in. And more interesting and significant for that reason than Beckham is perhaps now, frowning in his H&M dad pants. (But it seems especially fitting that the gym the Harrisons work out at with Panda at the ‘climax’ of the clip is called ‘Metro-Flex’.)

Their identical, stereoscopic physiques – albeit with slightly different body art – are part of their marketing shtick: cleverly, but also rather sweetly, they began their transformation into fitness models by making sure that they ate exactly the same meals and trained exactly the same way with exactly the same weights, so that they would have exactly the same weight, chest and arm size. (Their shared genes had already given them the same height of 5′ 10″.)

‘We lived together, trained together and ate all the same things at the same time. It was full on’, Lewis has said. Even their ‘cheat’ days were spent scoffing the same Dominos pizza and chocolate bars.

In a sense, they had the kind of dream ‘gym buddy’ shared lifestyle that many guys today, gay, straight or bi fantasise about. Nothing lasts forever though – the twins no longer live together as Lewis has moved in with his girlfriend.

There is also something about twindom that resonates with modern selfie-regarding masculinity (e.g. Tom Hardy in ‘Legend’ and those preternaturally prescient D&G twin ads from a few years back), which compliments the gym-mirrors and camera-lenses of spornosexuality. The Hodge twins (below) in the US are another impressive manifestation of this twinsome tendency.

Hodge Twins

The Harrisons however take it to another level. Look at the way they pout and preen in front of the mirrors – much like the lads in my gym who have no qualms about taking their tops off and flexing and snapping selfies while I pretend not to gawp. Look at the way they run their hands over themselves, feeling their own pump, gazing into the camera lens, sharing that special moment with us. Bless ’em.

pout

And as twins they are of course mirrors to one another anyway.

No wonder other fitness models are sometimes photographed as if they had a twin.

Chris Allen

Chris Allen

Andrew England 2

Andrew England

And some people even use the twin illusion to sell books.

I know that you’re gagging to for the lads to give you their hot tips, so will leave you with some more motivational videos starring our twinsome devils – including a ‘group’ sesh (bottom) with the American physique model Jeff Seid and his big hair and even bigger tongue.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already feeling totally motivated. So much so I may have to adjust my compression pants….

 

 

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