Global brand … from humble Newcastle roots Michelle Bridges now runs an empire valued at "around $200 million". Photo: Chris Colls
She drove into Sydney, at 25, in her second-hand Barina, her life possessions on the backseat and in the boot, and about $300 in the bank. Michelle Bridges' net material worth back then was "absolute zip", says the now 43-year-old, who was raised in Newcastle by a single mother.
These days, Bridges is a household name, the face of a fitness and nutrition-product empire her office estimates brought in $67 million in revenue last year. The business is valued at "around the $200 million mark", according to Bridges. She's put one marriage behind her – but professes love and friendship for that man – and is dating a tattooed colleague with muscles and military-style cropped hair who is best known by a two-word moniker: The Commando.
Onward and upwards, the Novocastrian dreams of the US and its can-do ethos. Given her books and products are launching there, and her US television pilot awaits network executives' consideration, might Michelle Bridges become the Oprah of exercise? "There's been a lot of discussion around, 'Oh, she's ambitious,'" says Bridges. "I don't see it as ambition. I see it as, I really, really love what I do."
Nothing fishy about it … sardines top Bridges' list of superfoods (below). Photo: Getty Images
The former personal trainer shot to national prominence through TV's The Biggest Loser, followed by a slew of books and a column in this magazine, not to mention a Big W line of sports clothing, children's clothing, gym equipment and kitchenware. Also planned is a range of healthy food and beverages.
This month, thousands here and overseas – "everyone wants to know the numbers," she says coyly – will act on their new year's resolution and pay $200 to join the next cycle of the online Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation challenge (12WBT). On a Wednesday night their guru will sit on a sofa with a computer and camera, and beam herself into the picture: Don't forget we've got the 300 push-up challenge. Just a shout out to Beccy from Brisbane; she's run her first half-marathon. Now, questions. Bring it on.
Ahead of 12WBT's official US launch, I have plenty of questions. For one, has anything ever held her back? We meet in one of her favourite restaurants, The Fish Shop, in Sydney's Potts Point. She moved to the neighbourhood last year after moving out of the semi she shared with her husband, Bill Moore, whom she married in 2003, in Sydney's inner west. Moore, a bricklayer by trade and her business partner, still oversees the Bridges brand, despite their split.
She has a near-perfect taut figure, lightly tanned and unblemished skin, and eye-catching shoulder and arm definition, all clearly visible thanks to her singlet top.
What's her training regimen these days? "Well, not as much as I'd like," she laughs, having ordered for us calamari with chilli and garlic, snapper sashimi and a green salad. "I used to train two or three hours a day. Now I'm lucky to get one [hour] in a day because I'm so busy. My schedule is off the chain – 6am to 10 at night, often.
"There's a standing argument between me and my manager and my agents about me needing to train. That's the whole reason why we've all got a job: I'm a trainer, and I need to be fit. You can't have me getting unfit!"
Bridges is fit, but also an unrepentant foodie. Saturday nights you might find her at an Italian restaurant, eating pasta. "I'll have my entrée and have my bread, and maybe even dessert and a few glasses of wine. The next day I'll be training the house down. I may have a bit of a hangover, but so what?"
As we talk, I realise I've been eating the crusty sourdough bread on the table, even though I'd recently sworn off carbs. "There goes your no-carb diet," she laughs. I note she has put her own sourdough to the side.
Michelle Bridges was born in Newcastle in 1970. Her parents split early and, when she was five, her mother, Maureen, took Michelle and her older sister, Tracey, to live for nine months with Michelle's paternal grandparents in Barraba, near Tamworth.
Did her father's absence affect her? "Not really," says Bridges. "Like anything, you don't know what you don't know. I mean, my mum has told me there were moments when I'd come home from school crying, 'Why don't I have a daddy? Everyone else has got one.' But that wasn't really a showstopper. I just got on with it."
At 14, the avid sports all-rounder pitched her first business proposal to the form mistress at her school in Nelson Bay: to train the kids who didn't want to participate in Wednesday afternoon sport. The circuits she put together were a hit.
Bridges says she learnt her "strong work ethic" and independence from her mother. "My mum always told me, 'Michelle, you can do anything you want, you can be who you want to be; you don't even have to have a man to prop you up for that.' I think that was because she was divorced and really wanted us girls to get out there and make a mark in life, and have what we wanted. I'm not sure that when she was saying it, she truly believed it herself," Bridges laughs, "but as a child I totally bought it."
Maureen Partridge – who raised her two daughters on her own after the trio resettled in the Newcastle area – humbly suggests her daughter's entrepreneurial streak came "probably more from her father and his parents. I mean, I was a hard-working mum, working at an office job."
Michelle's paternal grandparents "played a big and wonderful part in my girls' lives", says Partridge. But Bridges' father, a sales rep, today living on the Gold Coast with a second family, has figured little in his famous daughter's life. Partridge laughs when I tell her that her daughter has paid tribute to her as an inspiration. "Well, I guess so, possibly. She watched me do it on my own, just through sheer determination to survive, I guess."
The family split, however, continues to reverberate. Tracey, who is five years older than Michelle, is estranged from her sister and mother. Bridges says she and her sister are "two very different people" but does not elaborate further.
Partridge recalls all that her daughter took on in high school: two part-time jobs, the debating team and singing Whitney Houston's Greatest Love of All at her school formal. (When I ask Bridges what talent she'd most like to have, she nominates being a rock star like Freddie Mercury.) "At 16, 17, she wanted to be in everything," says Partridge. "She was frightened she might miss out."
At 18, Bridges was sexually assaulted, an event that could have derailed her future had she not been so resilient. A man claiming to be a manager at a nightclub where she had gone for part-time work trapped her in a room, repeatedly grabbing her and tearing at her clothes before she was able to escape. The man was sentenced to 12 months in jail.
"Whether it's a good trait or not, I can shake things off pretty quickly," says Bridges. "It took a little bit longer, that one. A year or two to get my confidence back. I realised that if I hung on to that [assault], he still had the power. I had to let it go in order for me to be able to take back control and move forward."
Bridges has also moved forward from her marriage to Moore – they announced their separation in March – but not the friendship. "I'm very proud of the relationship I have with Bill. A lot of people go, 'Really? You're still talking, and working together?' It can happen if you're both prepared to put your egos aside.
"I have known Bill since I was 29. I'm now 43. Like, if someone's going to be in my life for that long, am I really going to go, 'Get out'? I love him, and he feels the same about me. Okay, we're not romantically inclined, but I have the deepest respect for him."
Moore is 17 years her senior. Bridges says the age difference was never an issue, even if people around her questioned it. "He could run rings around most 30-year-olds – fun-wise and fitness wise."
Enter The Commando: Bridges' fellow Biggest Loser trainer, Steve Willis. What's their connection? "Obviously, we have a connection with health and fitness, we're passionate about what we do. So he respects what I do and I respect what he does." There's a pause as she chews a mouthful and thinks her words through. "And then, I mean, we just get on like a house on fire."
Their relationship has been played out in the gossip mags for the past year. Rebecca Small, who became friends with Bridges when they worked together in a Sydney gym in their mid-20s, says, "She has to have a thick skin, because some of the stuff written about her is neither the truth nor very nice."
Bridges' sense of humour and thick skin aside, "she's actually quite sensitive underneath all that bravado", says Small. "[She is portrayed as] this tough workout gal who's going to put you through your paces, but they don't see the other side of her ... she'll tell me about an incredible story on The Biggest Loser, and I'll watch the show and think, 'What?' They just completely edit it out. She looks the way they want her to look."
Bridges' success has largely hinged on her uncanny ability to recognise the psychological barriers people, particularly women, put up to hinder better nutrition and exercise practices and a more fulfilling life. "Exercise and weight loss is a by-product," she says. "I can teach people how to train and do the exercises, or I can teach people how to prepare food, but anyone can Google that. What underpins that is understanding your mindset and what's been holding you back – the excuses, the victim mentality, the blame game, the 'I'm-not-worth-it, I'm-not-good-enough'."
Equally crucial to her success is that her message is delivered in straight talk. She is fond of earthy expressions such as, "Oh my god" and "shithouse"; the latter she insisted her publisher keep in one of her best-selling books. She manages to gain people's trust without intimidating them.
Having a big media profile obviously helps. "You can't expect to get to the core of people until you've earned their trust and empathy," she says. "I'm lucky, in a way, that people know who I am, they know what I stand for and they're ready to go."
Her American soft launch thus far has included a TV pilot kept under wraps, and guest appearances: last month she appeared on NBC's Today demonstrating exercises. Could she become the Oprah of exercise?
"Gosh, if I can get the same results I get over here, over there, wouldn't that be amazing?" she says. Something like ambition – or loving what she does – flashes across her eyes and she beams a wide smile. "I've always said I want to leave a legacy. The rest of the world looks to America. If you can make a dent in the obesity epidemic there, you could possibly make a dent in the rest of the world."
Lead-in photograph: Chris Colls. Styling: Penny McCarthy. Hair & make-up: Jody Oliver for La Mer. Michelle wears Prism bikini.
Above photograph: Michelle wears Eres “Show” bikini top, $295, and “Malou” bottom, $195, from sylviarhodeslingerie.com.au. With thanks to Bondi Icebergs.
MICHELLE'S TOP FIVE SUPERFOODS
Sardines: little silver flashes of amazing protein
Sardines have, in recent years, been hailed as a fish eater's salvation. Packed with omega-3 fatty acids that are beneficial to brain function, and with lots of protein without many kilojoules, sardines have also been a sustainable fish source. However, along with many other species in the oceans, the sardine population is under more and more pressure as demand increases. Always check that the fish you buy has come from a sustainable source and regularly check information from the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Once you have stocked up on your sustainable sardines, there are so many wonderful ways to enjoy them, from a sandwich to a salad to simple grilling – try some on the barbecue this summer.
Cauliflower: lots of nutrients that give exercisers energy
While leafy greens are superb providers of nutritional content, their white cousin, cauliflower, is no slouch either and thoroughly deserves a place on my superfoods list. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help keep your cells and physiological functions in good shape, which makes this vegetable a great complement to any training regimen. If you eat well, your body will perform better when you push it. These effects are compounded in cauliflower by its vitamin B6 content, which helps brain function. With benefits like that, who wouldn't want some?
Kale: curly or straight, kale totally rocks
We've heard a lot about kale's super properties recently and in this case, do believe the hype. As a leafy green vegetable, kale contains a lot of carotenoids. These help protect your cells from free radicals, which are weak molecules that look to bond with, and break down, stronger ones. Carotenoids are the equivalent of nutritional bounty hunters, rounding up and neutralising these destructive interlopers. Loaded with vitamin C and vitamin A, kale is great for detoxing and also has anti-inflammatory benefits. Your body will thank you every time you eat it.
Blueberries: seriously good for you
I sometimes wonder how something so small can pack in so many good things. Blueberries are simply wonderful. They are like facilitators because they help all of the body's systems function correctly. Flavonoids and antioxidants help keep your cells healthy (including those in your brain, which will slow cognitive decline), fibre aids digestion, while niacin is crucial to cardiovascular health. Blueberries also have a vividly intense flavour. Just pop one in your mouth and crack through the skin; the sheer fruitiness that bursts out is amazing. For me, this makes them a great snack food. You get a sweet treat from nature's lolly shop.
Kiwi fruit: how much vitamin C?
Yep, kilo for kilo – although I'm not suggesting you eat a kilogram in one sitting! – kiwi fruit pack in more vitamin C than oranges, and oranges are pretty damn dosed with it. Vitamin C plays an important role in protecting our cells from attack by free radicals, so making sure you get enough helps fight disease. Kiwi fruit are also a good source of fibre, which is essential for colon health. With that double dose of goodness, you'd be mad not to get them into your diet.
Edited extract from Superfoods Cookbook: the Facts, the Foods and the Recipes – Feel Great, Get Fit and Lose Weight by Michelle Bridges (Viking), out now.