The world’s first fitness influencer was a Victorian strongman
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Mar 1st 2021
by Will Coldwell
When Eugen Sandow (pictured) opened his first School of Physical Culture in London in the summer of 1897, he ensured that its decor matched his personal brand. On arrival at 32A St James’s Street, visitors found themselves facing a life-sized statue of the founder himself. A nearby oil painting depicted Sandow as an ancient gladiator. In both cases his sculpted physique evoked the spirit of Greek classicism that Sandow, regarded in his heyday as the “perfect man”, strove to embody.
The opening of the school heralded the birth of the Sandow fitness empire. It was the culmination of a decade of celebrity status that Sandow, a circus strongman from Prussia with a winning smile and a striking moustache, had enjoyed since arriving in Britain in 1889. That year he earned the title of “strongest man on Earth” when he vanquished Charles Samson, a Frenchman. In a bicep-popping competition at the London Aquarium, the men burst chains with their chests and lifted a (presumably normal) man at arm’s length. Sandow secured victory when he lifted a 280-pound (127kg) weight with one hand. Samson couldn’t compete.
There were tougher men out there. Stronger men, too. Sandow lost the title 18 months later, but he had struck a chord with the public. Though other Victorian strongmen faded from memory, Sandow remained a household name (and sex symbol) until his death in 1925 from an aortic aneurysm (reportedly a consequence of lifting his car out of a ditch a year or so previously).
What endeared Sandow to the public was his ordinariness. When the curly-haired, blond gent of average height arrived on stage to compete with Samson, people laughed. Only when he removed his coat and waistcoat to reveal his muscular body did they take him seriously. Despite his strength, he looked much like any other man when clothed – and so he offered a glimmer of hope to others that they could become just like him.
“Hundreds of letters reach me daily, asking, ‘Can I become strong?’ Yes, you can all become strong if you have the will and use it in the right direction. But, in the first place, you must learn to exercise your mind.”
Sandow sold them everything they needed to do so. He started with a chain of gyms. Sandow was hot property: among his celebrity fans were Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Shackleton and King George V. He published books, launched a magazine and sold supplements and workout equipment. His branded merchandise included Sandow’s Concentrated Embrocation, a muscle rub, Sandow’s Health and Strength Cocoa, which was a proto-protein shake, and Sandow’s Perfect Figure Corset, “a woman’s good fortune”.
If there was an opportunity to capitalise financially from his A-list eminence, Sandow grabbed it with both hands and raised it effortlessly above his head, arms aloft, moustache twitching. A century before Kayla Itsines (12.8m Instagram followers), Joe Wicks (4m followers), Adriene Mishler (1.1m followers) or Michelle Lewin (13.7m followers), there was Sandow. He was the original fitness influencer.
Joe Wicks may have received an MBE from the queen for delivering online exercise classes to kids during the coronavirus lockdown, but Sandow impressed the monarchy so much he was appointed professor of scientific physical culture to the king. Crossfit, high-intensity interval training, hot yoga and spin classes were all foreshadowed by Sandow’s System of Physical Training just over a century ago.
Sandow’s accessible programme of exercises – which focused on multiple reps with smaller weights – was taken up by hundreds of thousands of people. His world tour drew crowds in South Africa, Japan and Australia. His visit to India may even have helped to transform traditional yoga into the asana or posture-based practice so popular in the West today.
“By the aid of this school and its branches it is hoped that something will be done substantially to aid the physical development of this and succeeding generations.”
Today’s social-media savvy fitness influencers depend on a boom in a new form of media – and so too did the physical-culture movement of which Sandow was a figurehead. Sandow made full use of the latest technologies to advertise himself. After meeting Thomas Edison, who invented an early motion-picture device called the kinetoscope, Sandow starred in a series of short films, among the first in cinematic history. Silent, black-and-white footage showing Sandow flexing his muscles and performing a backflip was played in peep shows across the globe.
Prominent photographers invited Sandow to pose as a Roman soldier, or adorned in a leopard-skin leotard. Postcards of Sandow, posing nude except for a fig leaf, were shared among his fans like viral Instagram posts. Sandow’s bestselling book, “Strength and How to Obtain It”, was filled with such images. Like many modern influencers, Sandow extended his personal brand into a media empire, producing books, magazines and pamphlets. His Magazine of Physical Culture is considered the first bodybuilding periodical: it was a lifestyle magazine as much as an exercise guide.
“Sex sells” has long been a mantra in modern advertising. But by disguising the erotic images as a celebration of the ideal form seen in Greek sculpture, Sandow found a way to appeal to both male and female fans without seeming seedy. His use of classical imagery helped position bodybuilding as an intellectual pursuit; muscles could be for the middle classes, not just labourers. Like today’s exercise gurus, Sandow argued that health and fitness should be aspirational.
Here was a man who knew how to get himself trending. Sandow spun ludicrous tales of his achievements for receptive newspapers. Once he claimed to have fought a muzzled, mittened lion in San Francisco. On another occasion he broke all the strength-testing machines in Amsterdam and lifted a policeman. And then there was the time he tripped on a carpet while carrying a piano – as it was being played – and was sued for damages by the disgruntled musician after sending both flying off stage.
“We are in danger of becoming a race of people whose sole physical exertion will consist in pressing buttons and turning levers.”
Sandow also understood the power of community and nurtured a close relationship with his followers. “Before and after” shots are a mainstay of online fitness communities, and the opening pages of “Strength and How to Obtain It” feature letters from followers announcing their own successes from following his training regime. Sandow ran a mail-order fitness programme for those who could not use his gyms and – like an influencer responding to online comments – thrilled many fans by replying to their letters. According to “The Perfect Man”, a biography of Sandow by David Waller, he developed an elaborate system to categorise questions and employed clerks to reply to all correspondence as if it were personalised guidance from the man himself.
If Sandow teaches us anything, it is that anxious times prompt people to question their relationship with their body. In spring 2020, with millions ordered to stay at home, Adriene Mishler’s soft, soothing voice encouraged people to breathe and stretch; the media anointed Joe Wicks “the patron saint of quarantine”.
It seems appropriate that, at the height of a health crisis, these fitness influencers were hailed as the king and queen of lockdown. The pandemic merely accelerated an existing boom in wellness culture, which itself is a response to the simmering neuroses that blight today’s desk-bound, screen-locked lives. Though yoga and meditation offer an escape from work-induced stress, their ubiquity on social media fuels a competitive drive to sculpt bodies into idealised forms.
Sandow flourished amid similar fears in the late Victorian era. Society was changing fast. The new forms of media he used for self-promotion were provoking much hand-wringing about the state of society. Industrialisation and urbanisation threatened the nation’s health, with polluted air and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. “We are in danger of becoming a race of people whose sole physical exertion will consist in pressing buttons and turning levers,” wrote Sandow in “The Gospel of Strength”.
Gender roles were changing too. As women began to live more freely and dress more comfortably, male insecurities began to simmer. There were fears that working-class men were becoming sickly and weak, and that bourgeois men were increasingly effeminate.
Sandow offered hope. “He was the embodied rebuke to all those who argued that manhood was in decline, the incarnate proof that the tide of degeneration could be reversed,” writes Waller. Like today’s fitness heroes, Sandow was not simply a man of his own making – he was a product of his time.■
Will Coldwell is a freelance writer in London
IMAGES: GETTY, ALAMY