See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.
One time, on a shoot for Women's Health, Kim Strother jumped in the air 84 times. Strother started keeping track because she'd done this particular move—run and leap, run and leap—hundreds, probably thousands of times, and she figured it was time to get a strict accounting. Strother has leaped for sportswear ads and for magazine workout spreads, the images set apart in her portfolio by the color of her sports bra. In these shots, she is the picture of feminine fitness—a powerful woman suspended in midair, her muscles taut but not overwhelming.
Strother is the Gisele of the gym, the go-to fitness model for Nike, Target, and magazines like Shape, Health, and Runner's World. That's her ripped stomach in a Fitness spread on "sculpting amazing arms, legs, abs, and butts," and that's her doing a back handspring for Self's primer on how to "put the spring back in your step." She adopts serene yoga poses for clothes catalogs—photographers tend to prefer tree, Warrior I, Warrior II, and upward dog—and, for reasons she doesn't understand, often gets asked to glide around on Rollerblades.
Despite her thriving career, the blond, 28-year-old Strother says she "always finds it really awkward" when people ask what she does. Fitness modeling is not a well-known occupation, and those who have heard the term, Strother says, have some misconceptions: "They think you would be one of those girls that's 'roided out on the cover of some hard-core fitness magazine."
Indeed, fitness modeling has traditionally been associated with hypertrophied dudes and dudettes. Fitness competitions and muscle mags, which grew out of the world of bodybuilding, remain a realm of Schwarzenegger-ian physiques. Alicia Marie, owner of the title Ms. Muscle & Fitness and a one-time paramour of John Rocker, is the best-known female fitness model of this ilk. And ex-Army Ranger Greg Plitt, the self-proclaimed top fitness model in America, is something like the Joe DiMaggio of ginormous pecs, having appeared on a magazine cover for 53 consecutive months.
Marie and Plitt are both represented by Topher DésPrés, the senior agent for Wilhelmina's two-year-old fitness division. A former model himself ("I was too short to do anything except take my shirt off"), DésPrés says the industry had yet to take shape when he started out 16 years ago—he didn't even realize he was doing fitness modeling. Increased popular interest in health and nutrition led to more demand from magazines and clothing companies for models who could hold their own on a yoga mat. This led to more professionalization and specialization in the modeling world, as fitness-specific agencies sprung up to meet clients' demands for a new kind of fitness model—gym-savvy men and women who didn't look like they'd overdosed at the pharmaceutical counter. Someone, essentially, who looked great in spandex and could demonstrate the proper form for a push-up.
Strother came to the business during this uneasy transition. In 2001, she went in to see an agent at the urging of a fitness model friend. The initial evaluation made her cry: "She told me I was too short, I needed to lose weight, didn't like the way I dressed." (In the agent's defense, Strother—a competitive cheerleader at the time—says she might have gone to the audition in a rhinestone-studded T-shirt.) Despite those supposed flaws, Strother managed to book a test shoot for the cover of Muscle & Fitness; she didn't get the job, she believes, on account of her lack of implants.
But fitness modeling was no longer just about bulging muscles and skimpy bikinis. Although she didn't have the fitness pageant look, the 5-foot-8 Strother was the new-school archetype. Meaghan Murphy, Self's features director/fitness, calls her the magazine's "go-to girl"—a model who is "healthy, strong, and aspirational." While runway models have bodies like coat hangers, fitness types have healthier, more recognizably human forms—the samples sportswear companies send to Murphy come in size medium. "The supermodel won the genetic lottery," Murphy says. "The fitness model worked damn hard for that body, and you can tell." (OK, full disclosure: Murphy says that the mediums are sometimes too big—these women are models, after all.)