The Parameters of Peloton Celebrity

Yes, we are going to talk about Ally Love's Wedding

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. And if you want to read the first in the Peloton series, it’s right here.

The first thing to understand about the five-day wedding of Ally Love — one of Peloton’s most valuable and popular instructors — is that it was embargoed. Not press embargoed. Social media embargoed. None of her friends or fellow Peloton instructors were allowed to post about any of the events until she posted first.

The week happened. Then the week played out again, at Love’s direction, over the course of a dozen Instagram accounts, and millions of collected followers found themselves on the receiving end of wave after wave of coordinated wedding content. Love posted about the first night (Welcome!) and then the others in attendance did as well. Same for the second night (Carnival), the third (Miami), the fourth (actual two-part wedding) and the fifth (Sundays with Love, a play on her popular Peloton series).

How did instructors know to wait for Love to post? How did they know what outfits, in what color combinations, to bring to Mexico? Because for the last eight weeks, she had been sending out a weekly newsletter to guests, explaining the color themes and “style decks.”

I know all of this because she told Vogue about it, but I also know it because corners of Twitter, various Peloton Facebook groups, and Who Weekly had tried to figure out the mechanics of the rollout before and during and after it happened. The groundwork for this hunt was set by Love’s social media accounts, but also by Peloton itself: similar to fellow instructor Robin Arzón’s pregnancy, Love’s engagement had been absorbed by the Peloton Brand, packaged for public consumption in the form of a special theme ride.

If Peloton were an actual gym, it would’ve been the thing everyone was talking about in the locker room. In his first cycling class after the wedding, Cody confessed his confusion over the posting schedule — and various instructors also dropped in-class allusions to the wedding (Robin, for instance, distracted participants in a ten minute ab class by telling them how much she sweated on the dance floor every night).

Whatever you think about a five-day themed destination wedding with 200 drones spelling out “I love you” and the wedding logo (I personally did not know there were wedding logos), that’s not the point of the piece. This is the second installment in an ongoing series on the larger cultural phenomena of Peloton, and I’m much more interested in how the wedding underlines the transformation of a handful of fitness instructors into celebrities, complete with extra-textual narratives about their lives and inter-celebrity drama and generalized gossip that takes up mental real estate you didn’t even realize you’d offered up for sale.

Just to get us started, here are the various points of discussion in which I have personally participated and/or observed on Twitter or Facebook:

  • Who is at this wedding (instructor-wise)

  • Who is not at this wedding (instructor-wise)

  • How do the people not at this wedding (instructor-wise) feel about it

  • Oh look that blonde instructor who was very much not invited definitely just passive aggressively posted something about snakes? And then two of the other instructors who weren’t invited commented with snake emojis???

  • Wait Denis is there? Of course Denis is there

  • Is this #sponcon for this resort? Definitely, right?

  • It makes sense that none of the UK instructors are there but then two of them (Ben and Leanne) got engaged to each other and how do you think Ally feels about that?

  • Did they postpone posting their engagement so that it really would deflect from Ally’s content roll-out?

All of this is clearly trivial middle-school-level gossip, but it’s adding texture to a dynamic that was previously incredibly unified and, for the most part, pretty bland. The Peloton messaging is that the entire platform is a family — ONE PELOTON!!! — including the instructors themselves. That message was reinforced through an echoing sameness in the way instructors were photographed, highlighted on social media, and presented in group photos. (Robin, elevated from the start as a VP and ‘Lead Instructor,’ is the notable exception, and you could also make a case for Matt Wilpers, who heads the PZ program).

Like a collective, flexing, party hat-emoji whole, they commented on each other’s Instagram posts and at least appeared to celebrate each other’s milestones. But anyone who’s worked with a bunch of big personalities knows that no matter how unified a front might have been presented externally, there were divisions and dislikes going on behind the scenes. The hints were there, of course. Who does Alex actually mention in his rides? (It might surprise you!) Who goes to lunch one on one? (Ally and Emma) Who spent a weekend in a cabin in the woods listening to music? (Denis and Adrian).

I notice these things because I’m always thinking about celebrity formation, but I also notice them because I am invested in gossip and have stared at their faces during rides, thinking about said gossip, for hours on end.

Over the course of the last, oh, six months, the writing between the lines has become more and more legible: who was friends with (or invested in appearing to be friends with) who, but also who got the bigger stock cash-outs, who had bigger brand partnerships, who was more committed to transforming their off-bike existences into lifestyle content. The Ally Love wedding provided an inflection point: a means of further sorting instructors into types and teams, of clarifying who they are and what they mean.

Do I like Christine more because she’s ostensibly uninvested in all of this (and too busy turning 50)? Do I think Chelsea was invited and couldn’t come? Does it please me that the instructor who bugs me the most wasn’t there? Was it endearing that Alex clearly didn’t follow the posting protocols and maybe accidentally revealed the wedding night look before Ally did? Do I think it’ll be a bit before I can bring myself to take another Ally class? Yes, all around!

Your answers may vary, but that’s part of the point. These celebrity instructors, like all celebrities, are texts. Their primary ‘meaning’ is located in their status as ‘coaches,’ inflected with whatever coaching personality they’ve adopted and refined. (Ally, oscillates between a murderer (her Tabata classes) and a cool- church praise leader (Sundays with Love)). As consumers, we can be influenced and swayed into certain ways of reading those texts, but the reading practice itself is never static. What matters is that we’re invested, even if we don’t admit it.

Are there people who care about this wedding who’ve never taken a Peloton class? Maybe, if only because Love is also the half-time host for the New Jersey Nets. But as a host, Love is a fixture, a familiar face, but not a personality. It took hours of Peloton classes to make her image three-dimensional, and this wedding to flesh out the parts that remained in shadow.

Or at least some of the parts. Historically, studios, publicists, and brands have attempted to persuade consumers that what you saw of a celebrity was the whole, true, authentic self. What you read about Judy Garland in MGM-approved fan magazine profile from 1947 was “the whole story” — just as what you read in a Rolling Stone profile of Tom Cruise in 1984 was “the whole story.” Scandal is what happens when that fiction is disturbed.

Sometimes, the scandal is that the entire image was manufactured — a constant risk in Classic Hollywood, when wholesome studio-fabricated images were both a necessity and a terrifying liability. But we’ve seen it more recently, too, with the dissolution of John Mulaney’s marriage, and the way his subsequent relationship with Olivia Munn undercut the abiding understanding of what Mulaney, as a text, had come to represent.

The images of big stars are unwieldy, and the stakes feel higher. But they’re considerably less fragile than those of reality stars or influencers, whose ‘transparency’ makes them particularly vulnerable to slippages in the ‘authentic’ performance of self. In these cases, the darker, hidden self (see: Rachel Hollis) ruptures the ‘authentic’ self and the entire construction collapses.

Big stars, by contrast, have more room to maneuver — more shadows to reveal, or, at the very least, to illuminate differently. Angelina Jolie managed to transition her image from someone with a vial of her husband’s blood around her neck to a self-less humanitarian global mother. She bent existing gossip narratives to her favor, using a combination of magazine profiles and strategic paparazzi.

And she was able to do so because she was able to keep other parts of her life hidden. Even today, the shadows remain maneuverable; the light only hits what she chooses to expose. There are few stars for whom this remains the case. Kerry Washington is one. Jennifer Lawrence is another. You could make a pretty decent case for current Taylor Swift. Beyoncé, of course. Adele. Women for whom talent and success has either obliterated or foreclosed the need for constant documentation. They don’t need to make themselves relatable or accessible. They’re fucking stars. They own their own shadows.

But this route to stardom has been narrowing, if it hasn’t closed entirely. Billie Eilish and Lorde are definitely interested in trying to control access to their images, and I’m very curious to see how that interest evolves over the course of their careers. But over the last twenty years, turning oneself inside out for public consumption has become the primary route to celebrity, with attendant audience expectations for accessibility and transparency. Ally Love’s wedding, Emma Lovewell’s HGTV cosplay, Robin’s pregnancy and new motherhood discourse — they’re ways of texturing their star images and increasing the brand investment, but they’re also pitches for expanding the current boundaries of their celebrity: for illuminating existing shadows and, hopefully, clearing real estate for new ones, which can in turn be artfully revealed.

Without this sort of conscious expansion, the parameters of acceptable behavior begin to close. Last December, during the peak of pandemic concerns, another Peloton instructor, Kendall, took a sponsored trip to a resort in Mexico. The backlash was immediate — and exacerbated by Kendall’s immediate inclination to delete negative comments on posts documenting the trip. In various Peloton communities, the posts sparked a larger discussion about whether an instructor’s off-camera actions actually mattered. The best encapsulation came from Peloton Reddit user SustainableSpin:

Personally, I can’t ever see taking one of Kendall’s classes again. I’ve removed her from my bookmarks. That made me feel pretty sad because she has some classes that have been raved about on here that I hadn’t managed to take yet (Mental Health day, Billie Eilish…), but it doesn’t feel right to support her in any way at this point. It’s ultimately her hypocrisy that I can’t stand.

I understand some people don’t care what instructors do outside of class, but to me given how much Peloton pushes the ‘community’ aspect of its platform it does seem relevant. Kendall says a lot of things in her classes that seem hypocritical when put next to her (very facetuned) IG presence. I don’t think her recent actions align with the brand Peloton is pushing, but I’d love to hear everyone’s perspective on that here.

The source of the scandal, I’d argue, is that Kendall’s personal brand was not developed enough to be considered as anything other than an extension of the Peloton brand. Her decisions about international travel felt in conflict with the brand, and helped illuminate other parts of her image (“very facetuned”) that also seemed in conflict. This Reddit commenter’s relationship to Peloton as a whole is rooted in a certain understanding of the company. Kendall’s actions (indeed, her entire image) unsettled that understanding.

Are some of these contrasts also true of other instructors? Of course. There are instructors with obvious lip fillers and social media presences that are just as facetuned. And it’s not as if Kendall was the only instructor traveling internationally in 2020. (In her Vogue interview, Ally Love mentions she was in Mexico over the holidays last year — at the same time as Kendall. She just didn’t tag the location on Instagram) The problem, then, was that Kendall’s trip activated a larger discourse about her “fit” with the larger brand ethos.

Does Ally Love’s wedding do the same? Not exactly. It surfaced hierarchies that had been sublimated, bolded components of Love’s image that had been sketchy. But the throughline of the wedding was a celebration of family — very Peloton! —and, well, Ally’s own planning skills. The shadows of her image shifted, in other words, and revealed 200 drones and an eight-week wedding newsletter.

The image revelations were elaborate, but they weren’t all that interesting. I felt like I couldn’t look away until the point that I got, well, bored — kinda over it, just like all the guests by the fifth day of the wedding when they had to show up in purple to the farewell brunch. And yet: I know some people really loved it! And no matter what you think of the event itself, it has undoubtedly transformed Ally’s own narrative into something bigger and bolder.

Of course, none of this actually changes the fact that Love, along with the rest of the instructors, are whos, not thems. Their primary skill remains “being good at fitness instruction,” which is a real skill but not a particularly dynamic one. They structure the experience on the bike and expand its resonance, but they, as individuals, are not essential to it. As invested as you might feel in a particular coach, you’re most invested in the way they coach you, which is to say, the way they coach millions of others. It’s not tailored, even if it has the illusion of being so. It’s a general mode of address, a mix of encouraging and forgiving, a deftness with signal cues, a magentism. That’s difficult to replicate. But not impossible — not by any means.

Love knows she’s one of Peloton’s most valuable coaches. But if she’s just a coach, she’s replaceable. Which is at least part of why she made Instagram “private” ahead of the wedding so as to incentivize follows, architecting a cross-account five-day event, and created a side-business, Love Squad, with its own merch. She’s expanded her image into something with space to grow — even beyond the bounds of Peloton.

Does that mean she’ll be a successful celebrity? An enduring one? I can see her giving a lot of talks on the conference circuit, maintaining a massive Instagram following, selling a lot of books, crafting her life into consumable bits. There’s a handful of other coaches who could join her there.

As for the rest — I hope they have stock options, and I don’t mean that flippantly. Not everyone who’s good at something, even something that’s performed for an audience, should have to turn their personal lives into a buffet for public consumption. Some can be just be instrumental in building something successful: a product that helps users give shape to their lives, that makes them feel a different way than they did before. That doesn’t mean not having personalities, or social media accounts, or weddings. It just means freedom, of sorts, from the current compulsion to monetize every corner of them.

Ally Love’s wedding got in the way of my planned writing schedule for this series, but next up: the Peloton social media communities + the Peloton rhetoric of fitness. Subscribe here to have them arrive in your inbox in the weeks to come, and I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the dynamics of Peloton celebrity below.

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