The anti-Trump backlash against SoulCycle, explained - Vox

The next great American culture war is taking place on the candlelit, grapefruit-scented fitness battlefield known as SoulCycle. Under the supervision of a trainer, up to 60 people or so gather in these cycling studios, channeling their frustration, bad days, and pent-up energy into sweat and screams on bikes that go nowhere.

But now, because of a fundraiser for President Trump in the Hamptons, Soulcycle is finding its once-loyal members’ energy directed right at it — as they unleash on the fitness studio the same aggressively focused vigor that SoulCycle spun into profits and cardiovascular health.

This week, the Washington Post reported that Stephen Ross, the billionaire real estate developer (reported net worth: $7.7 billion) and SoulCycle investor by way of his Related Companies real estate firm, is hosting a fundraising effort for Trump’s reelection campaign at his Hamptons mansion on August 9, with ticket costs ranging from $100,000 to $250,000.

Ross’s fundraiser has incensed SoulCycle’s liberal-skewing, millennial clientele: Not only does supporting Trump run against the open-minded mantra and credo of SoulCycle, which refers to itself as “a space to come as you are and celebrate who you are,” but the event is occurring at a particularly difficult political moment.

Events like Trump’s recent racist comments that nonwhite Americans should “go back” to the countries they came from; a lack of grace in the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio; and an attack on the city of Baltimore have left a terrible taste in the mouths of those who pay a hefty price to get their soulful cycling on every month.

SoulCycle is a place where everyone (or rather, “all souls”) is welcome and hate isn’t tolerated, according to SoulCycle (and the merchandise it sells). It’s a message crafted by its founders and passed down to its staffers and its loyal riders.

The fitness company’s indirect connection to Ross’s expensive campaign soiree has rankled more than just its high-paying members. The investor’s conservative ties caused a meltdown with SoulCycle’s instructors — the ones in charge of spreading its message of goodwill, hope, and tolerance to people in studios across the country.

“I don’t think there’s a single employee at SoulCycle who has been more vocally anti-Trump than I have been,” wrote a longtime instructor on a private, SoulCycle instructor-only Facebook group the afternoon the news broke. Screenshots of the message board were provided to Vox from a current instructor.

“Now I have to figure out how to continue to pour my heart and soul into every class I teach, knowing that every dollar riders spend with me is enriching a man who is supporting what I consider to the most corrupt, evil administration in our country’s history,” the instructor continued.

We reached out to SoulCycle about numerous instructors’ concerns, shared to Vox, about the company’s relationship to Ross. We are awaiting comment.

But while the meltdown and infighting are undeniably spicy — akin to the mordant satisfaction of watching someone’s perfect facade come crumbling down and reminding you that they, too, are mortal — a big investor in SoulCycle vouching public support for such a controversial figure has left those dedicated to the studio to wonder about the state of SoulCycle’s once-hot brand.

It also brings into focus just how well brands have commodified our values and identities. SoulCycle has insinuated itself into its members’ and instructors’ lives, inspiring people to rethink how they treat their bodies; but the ethics SoulCycle espouses also have left an impression on how they lead their lives. And for the progressive, liberal member base that prides itself on its well-rounded lifestyle, SoulCycle’s political ties (even if indirect) throw all their soulfulness into disarray.

The anti-Trump backlash to SoulCycle, explained

Disclosure: I used to be a devout SoulCycle rider and would take four to six classes per week (over the past six years). I still think it’s a great cardio workout and I only had positive experiences there. I stopped riding in February, not due to political reasons but because my favorite instructor left the company to start her own fitness business. Despite the time and money I poured into SoulCycle, I haven’t really had a compelling reason to go back as regularly — such is the power of a good instructor.

What I’ve gleaned from all these classes is that while the instructors and their personalities are very different, the fundamental idea behind SoulCycle is that it can serve as the highlight of your day — and that is largely determined by the trainers in charge of your class. The studio pledges that it’s about positivity and community, and instructors will often emphasize that it’s a team concept and the participants are all inspirations for each other. And as corny as it sounds, there’s a true sense that for 45 minutes in the dark, you can start to become who you want to be, alongside 60 people who want the same thing.

Throughout the class, the instructor peppers in mantras about acceptance and tolerance and treating each other with kindness and encouragement. Outside of class, instructors sometimes promote organizations, charities, and causes they believe in on their social media accounts, which their students often follow.

SoulCycle has also openly supported efforts like International Women’s Day and Pride for years, along with offering charity rides at its studios any given day of the week. And while it has claimed to not be political, its messaging tends to hew toward the liberal side of the political spectrum.

Granted, feminism, LGBTQ rights, and welcoming people of all ethnicities aren’t exclusively the province of liberals and Democrats, but with Trump’s repeated racist rhetoric and prejudiced policies, like banning transgender people from serving openly in the military, supporting equality and women and people of color has somehow become a political issue. And SoulCycle often targets big metropolitan areas — it has studios in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta — which tend to vote blue.

All of which gives context for the clientele’s inflamed reaction (the SoulCycle Instagram page is full of angry comments) to finding out SoulCycle has a Trump-supporting benefactor.

SoulCycle’s instructors were blindsided by the news

Some of the fiercest backlash to Ross’s Trump fundraiser stems from inside the company.

Numerous instructors, many of whom identify as LGBTQ and nonwhite, and who are paid to spread a message of positivity and welcomeness, felt frustrated, blindsided, and hurt by the news.

According to an instructor who wishes to remain anonymous, the news of Ross’s fundraiser was a huge surprise to instructors, who found out at the same time as the general public — between August 6 and 7.

“Ross has had this on the calendar for a while,” the instructor told me, explaining that a fundraiser of this magnitude just doesn’t happen overnight. “Getting in front of it would have mitigated a lot of the backlash.”

Judging by SoulCycle’s maligned response and SoulCycle sending out an email blast on August 7 announcing its digital/home exercise bike, the news caught the company by surprise as well.

On the same day of the news, a master instructor — the highest level of instructor at SoulCycle — posted an anti-Trump declaration on their Instagram Story page: “In the cleanest way possible, if you support Trump and would donate money towards a fundraiser to re-elect him ... DON’T TAKE MY CLASS AND DON’T ASSOCIATE WITH ME ... your ‘support is not needed.”

These confused and raw initial reactions were understandable, considering SoulCycle didn’t release an official statement until later the day the news broke. In the afternoon of Wednesday, August 7, SoulCycle posted an official statement from CEO Melanie Whelan insisting that Ross’s values have nothing to do with the company and that he’s merely a “passive investor.”

Instructors greeted the response with criticism, mainly at the lack of clarity behind the term “passive investor.” Ross is the chair and majority shareholder of the Related companies, which own SoulCycle and Equinox, and judging by responses on the private Facebook message board, instructors are still confused as to how much he gains from his investment in SoulCycle.

At a time of PR crisis like this, it’s natural to look to the CEO for answers and leadership, and it’s a CEO’s responsibility to right the ship. The problem for Whelan is that the company she’s been leading has been struggling to keep up with its meteoric pace since she took the helm.

Whelan was named CEO in 2015, nine years after Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler co-founded the company. And that same year, 2015, may have been the tail end of SoulCycle’s peak.

By 2015, celebrities such as Oprah were seen going to classes. The elite of the elite wanted to follow in these famous footsteps, encouraging more newbie cyclists to strap in. SoulCycle was the workout, and there were no worthy competitors in sight, though it would eventually inspire successful imitators like Flywheel.

In 2016, Cutler and Rice each left with a $90 million buyout (which became Ross’s Related investment), with the company poised to go public with an IPO:

Since then, however, news surrounding that IPO has all but vanished; meanwhile, SoulCycle finds itself fighting to keep its riders from switching over to the upstart Peloton. Its 2017 experiment in non-cycling fitness classes, called Soul Annex, shut down a year later, in October 2018.

These factors, combined with the Trump-tied firestorm and Whelan’s response, have led instructors to call Whelan’s leadership into question, especially in comparison to how Cutler and Rice ran the business.

But some were even reexamining the positive vibes of Cutler and Rice’s tenure in the wake of the fundraiser news.

“One thing I will say is before you wax nostalgic about Julie [Rice] and Elizabeth [Cutler], they knew who they were selling their company to and they walked away with $89 million EACH without sharing one penny with the handful of strong women who were CRUCIAL to the company’s success. So there’s that,” a master instructor wrote in a message posted to the Facebook message board.

In addition to Whelan’s response, SoulCycle released talking points to instructors in anticipation of questions from riders. Vox obtained the bulleted list, though at least one instructor posted them on a social media account.

The talking points weren’t any clearer about the fundraiser, and instead seem to be Whelan’s statement broken down into bullet points like, “At SoulCycle we believe in diversity, inclusion, and equality. All souls are welcome,” and, “Mr. Ross is a Passive Investor.”

On August 8, Whelan sent a company-wide email to instructors and staffers, apologizing for a perceived lack of urgency and clear response to the outrage and backlash.

“We’re human. We’re not perfect. But we’re unbreakable. I know we’ll come out of this stronger,” she wrote. “I’ll be on calls tonight with our studio and instructor teams answering questions.”

On the same day as Whelan’s call, an instructor posted their frustrations on the board: “Does anyone else just want to hear someone say, ‘we’re sorry that the company has put you in this position. We’re sorry that burden has fallen on the shoulders of the studio staff and instructors.’ Like just say SORRY one time.”

The outrage among instructors isn’t necessarily universal. After Whelan’s call, a few instructors noted on the message board that there had been an improvement in the company’s efforts to support its instructors. Others put up social media posts pledging to stand by SoulCycle, no matter its affiliations.

“I’ve been working for @soulcycle for 4 years, and I’ve had the privilege of getting to know and love my co-workers,” instructor Eddie Corley, who is based in New York City, wrote on his personal Instagram on Thursday. “They’ve been fighting the good fight since I stepped foot into this place and that’s why I am still here. One person, or opinion won’t change that. What can change is how you approach your choices.”

Others are opting to express their beliefs and rebuke Ross himself, instead of directing their agitation toward SoulCycle.

“A single person might have money, but we got mics,” San Francisco-based instructor M.K. (Mary Kate) Hurlbutt wrote on her Instagram account. “They might be trying to fill the coffers of hate and bigotry and racism and misogyny, but we’re out here pumping up the volume on LOVE and INCLUSION and EQUALITY and JUSTICE. And we’ve got people in those rooms hell bent on changing the motherfucking world.”

Whelan followed her Thursday email and phone call with another message to staff on Friday, obtained by Vox, detailing a plan to soothe concerns: Instructors have been given the opportunity to host charity-based community classes, during which SoulCycle would “donate 100% of the proceeds of each ride to the social justice causes” chosen by the instructors and studio staffers.

“This is not the only answer. But it’s our answer for today, so our community can start to heal,” Whelan wrote.

SoulCycle is a tribe in an age of tribal consumerism

It’s understandable that SoulCycle wants to tamp down what sounds like vocal opposition to its brand right now, and we’ve reached out for the company for further comment. But the outrage over Ross’s unearthed Republican ties really boils down to a simple idea: As seemingly every facet of our lives become political, consumers today want to know if and when their money is going somewhere politically affiliated. The backlash to SoulCycle isn’t unlike the negative response to Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay, Republican-supporting donations or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, the right-wing backlash against Nike for making the controversial, outspoken football player Colin Kaepernick the star of a major marketing campaign.

There is an important difference between Soul and Nike’s campaign with Kaepernick, as SoulCycle pointed out: Ross’s politics never enter the studios or gyms, and SoulCycle has never run a pro-Trump ad campaign or endorsed Trump.

“Ross won’t feel the boycott,” an instructor told me. “He was a billionaire long before his company invested in SoulCycle. But we will. We feel it. ... Life isn’t as simple as, ‘Well, get new investors.’”

Yet that sentiment won’t mitigate the frustrations of consumers.

One of the terms that SoulCycle uses to describe itself is tribe; there’s a sense of identity in participating in SoulCycle. It isn’t just an exercise; for many people, it’s also a place that stands for something and for everyone — the company has repeated that over and over again. So it makes sense that people who believe in SoulCycle because of how they perceived it to align with their personal politics were hurt by Ross’s fundraiser.

In a sense, it’s a testament to SoulCycle’s success in co-opting social justice ideologies of welcoming, acceptance, individuality, and community into a marketing strategy that the company has gotten into such trouble over its investor’s politics. As brands have become extensions of our self-expression and identity, burning a pair of Nikes or publicly breaking up with SoulCycle becomes a crucial way of asserting our identities and values.

But our strong feelings toward brands almost always say more about us and what we hold important, the hypocrisies we find inexcusable, and what we think other people should believe pertinent than the brands we support. And as we examine why exactly SoulCycle’s news hit its devotees (past and present) the way it did, it makes it clear that this backlash is really more personal than it seems.