Fitness model Kim Strother: The strange life of an exercise pinup.

The business, culture, and science of working out.
Jan. 21 2011 4:12 PM

Now, Hold That Squat. And Smile!

The strange life of the fitness model.

See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.

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Fitness models don't just have to look sleek and strong. Magazines and sportswear firms need toned talent, DésPrés says, because "[fashion] models can't run like a runner. … They can't do shit right." Fitness models are often yoga instructors and personal trainers by trade, and are experts in the poses and techniques they're asked to perform. At least, they're supposed to be. Every booker has a story about a model who looked the part but couldn't do a squat, or a guy who lied about his max bench press. (It can be especially challenging to find women who can do pull-ups. In some cases, a trainer holds the model up, then runs away quickly so the photographer can snap a shot before she falls.)

Kim Strother, holding her form. Click image to expand.
Kim Strother, holding her form

Strother, a former trainer, keeps getting work because she's easy on the eyes and has no problem maintaining a Pilates position. "They're always so happy because they know I can do the exercise, which makes me feel like I'm doing something with my life," she says. Fitness modeling is, in large part, about atomizing exercise. To teach someone how to do the perfect lunge, you have to break it into components and showcase the most-intensive parts. This requires holding yourself in an uncomfortable, halfway position as the photographer searches for the perfect angle, the one that highlights the move without zooming in on your crotch. "They want the dumbbells to be parallel in the picture," says Justin Hileman, a 29-year-old former pro baseball player who's modeled for Men's Health, Men's Journal, and Under Armour. "You're in an extremely awkward position, you're dying, the lady wants to pin your shirt differently, and there's a wrinkle in the shorts."

And don't forget to look delighted (a set of crunches—oh, happy day!), even if you're posing on cement. To make exercising seem effortless, you have to practice at home: no grunting, no squinting, no pursing your mouth, no stretching your face. "A lot of times they want you to smile while you're holding a squat for two minutes. It's burning, and you're trying to keep your form," Strother says. "Sometimes you forget to smile."

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Strother is blessed in one significant way: "I really don't sweat that much, and I don't know why." This lack of perspiration sometimes leads the wranglers on set to mist her with water or dab baby oil on her arms to mimic a glistening look. Along with donning fake sweat, Strother must also exercise in skimpy gear she wouldn't sport in her civilian life. In nonsimulated workout sessions, she wears Capri pants (never shorts) and big, baggy shirts. "If you put a girl in the magazine with what I wear to the gym, it would be unflattering," she says, explaining the need for the unrealistic wardrobe. "I wouldn't even look like I work out."

Perhaps on account of her big, baggy shirts, Strother says she rarely gets recognized. Despite her relative anonymity, she is one of the few fitness models who are able to make it a full-time career. While Strother hasn't worked as a personal trainer since she signed with Ford Models in 2005, most of her peers can't quit their day jobs. While the field is growing, magazine shoots typically pay just $200 or $250, and lucrative catalog work is less plentiful than in the high-fashion world.

The fitness model's best days might still be ahead of her. Self's Murphy says the magazine's increasing reliance on video—both on the Web and as part of a new iPad app—has led her to cut loose the women who merely look good in a still position. "You cannot fake it," Murphy says—you have to hire athletes and trainers who can really do the moves. Strother, who starred in a series of instructional videos that Ford created in partnership with YouTube, seems better-positioned than anyone to take advantage of this shift. Video made Jane Fonda a workout queen in the 1980s. Thirty years later, perhaps it will mint the next generation of fitness stars.