She had signed up for Thursday’s 10 a.m. indoor-cycling fitness class when she learned that Stephen Ross, the chairman of Related Cos., whose principals own majority stakes in SoulCycle and the fitness club chain Equinox, was planning to host a fundraiser at his Hamptons home for President Donald Trump on Friday. Different levels of access will be offered to donors, including a photo with the president for $100,000.
Hall, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Brooklyn and nearby Sag Harbor, New York, is a regular SoulCycle customer who has found inspiration in the brand’s message of sweaty spirituality and community. But she is not a supporter of Trump’s and was alarmed to realize the money she spends at SoulCycle, where 45-minute classes held in the Hamptons cost $42, was profiting a Trump booster who would be hosting the president at his home Friday, just a few miles from her morning ride.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said as class was about to begin. “Part of me feels like a hypocrite for going.”
Briggs Coleman, who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, and spends summers in the Hamptons, had no such concerns. “I don’t want to hear about politics while I’m working out,” she said. “There is a lack of respect. People should just respect the president,” she said, adding an expletive.
Amid a summer of division and dissent over treatment of migrants, political rhetoric and gun safety, the anger that has roiled 2020 campaign events and social media feeds has landed with a barbell’s thud on the fitness studios, where the well heeled pay for expensive club memberships and boutique classes to release tension and burn fat.
Political fundraisers hosted in the Hamptons by wealthy New Yorkers are an annual August rite. Yet news that Ross is supporting Trump’s reelection efforts was met with a swift outcry on social media, with indoor cyclers and club members vowing to boycott. Both companies have significant customer bases in liberal cities and promote themselves as havens for the LGBT community and stalwarts against bigotry.
Equinox, a fitness club with 100 locations in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, and SoulCycle, which has 94 studio locations, released statements distancing themselves from Ross. “SoulCycle in no way endorses the political fundraising event being held later this week,” the company said. “Mr. Ross is a passive investor and is not involved in the management of SoulCycle.” Equinox’s statement also referred to Ross as “a passive investor.” It added, “We want to let you to know that Equinox and SoulCycle have nothing to do with the event and do not support it.”
Management is struggling to control the damage. On Wednesday, SoulCycle’s chief talent officer sent an email to instructors providing “talking points” to share with customers. They included, “At SoulCycle, we believe in diversity, inclusion, and equality. All souls are welcome” and “None of the money you spend at SoulCycle will go to this event.”
Meanwhile, people who work for the fitness company are organizing to register their anger. On Thursday, emails from an anonymous Gmail account went out to some Equinox employees calling for a strike. “If we do not show up to work, the clubs can not function,” the email read. “We are the cleaners, the managers, the trainers, the group fitness instructors, the sales reps, the shop salespeople, the spa professions and the gatekeepers. Our collective efforts will have results.”
Inside the 10 a.m. class at the Water Mill studio on Thursday, it was entirely perspiration and no politics. All but a handful of the nearly 70 bikes were occupied by ponytail-wagging, sports bra-wearing riders who had showed up for a workout led by Mireya D’Angelo, one of the company’s most popular instructors. As “Havana” by Camila Cabello and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” blasted in the dark room, the mostly female cyclers swayed and bopped like dancers at a club exclusively for stationary bikers.
Toward the end of the class, the staffers who had been working at the check-in desk skipped in and sashayed across the studio, wielding flashlights and positive attitudes. Many bikers swung hand towels above their heads.
In the parking lot after class, the feel-good endorphins turned to agitated adrenaline as some riders realized a reporter was present. “Are you here to ruin people’s day?” shouted one woman wearing a baseball cap with the word “LOVE” written in rainbow letters. Her friend called out, “I love you, SoulCycle!”
Jared Epstein, who lives in New York City and Water Mill, was circumspect. “All Americans are entitled to their own opinions and their own political views,” he said, calling Ross “a great human being.
“What about the Democrats and the liberals?” he added. “More hate spews from them.”
Evan Johnson, a rising senior at Cornell University who grew up in Sag Harbor and worked as a desk attendant at SoulCycle two summers ago, got out of her mother’s car and asked if she could share her perspective on a SoulCycle investor’s role in a Trump fundraiser. “I’m very upset,” she said. “I feel like it goes against everything they tell people to work toward and all the values they say they promote. I think Mr. Ross should consider his constituency and the base which supports his business.”
Ross, the man whose political fundraising is at the center of this tempest, is a billionaire who owns the Miami Dolphins and has a wide range of business interests anchored by Related Cos., one of the most powerful real estate interests in New York. (Related Cos. retains a majority stake in Equinox, of which SoulCycle is a subsidiary — the holding is divided among the firm’s partners, of which Ross is only one, making him a minority investor.)
Ross issued a statement Wednesday noting that he had known Trump for 40 years. He said he agreed with him on some issues, but “strongly disagreed” on others. He also said he has always “been an active participant in the democratic process.”
Ross has primarily been a donor to Republicans, though he has given to Democrats as well over the years, including Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Mark Warner of Virginia, as well as Rep. Lois Frankel of Florida.
In 2019, Ross has contributed $150,000, topped by $50,000 to the Republican National Committee and $33,600 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In the 2018 midterms, Ross’ largest contributions were $155,000 to the political committees of then-Speaker Paul Ryan and $150,000 to the RNC.
For one anonymous SoulCycler, though, Ross’ political contributions weren’t the only problem. The rider took issue with how the fitness companies responded to the uproar by trying to diminish Ross’ influence.
The cycler attended class because he had paid for it, and thought a boycott would hurt the company employees more than its wealthy investors. “I think they need to get on top of this big time,” said the customer, who declined to be named. “I’ve already paid for a big package of classes, but I’m waiting to see what they do next before I pay for more.”
Boutique fitness classes, perhaps more than other ways people could spend $45 of disposable income on a Thursday morning, are closely tied to people’s identity and sense of community. The routine becomes a part of their lives.
“You’re going to hear people say, ‘Keep politics out of business, keep politics out of exercise.’ But all politics is is principles, and it is values,” said Anne Mahlum, chief executive of Solidcore, a D.C.-based fitness chain that offers Pilates-inspired classes. “So what you are asking people to do is to set aside their values in certain situations, and that’s a tough ask.”
In 2017, Mahlum faced intense criticism after she requested a meeting with Ivanka Trump, who had attended a class using an alias. Mahlum said she wanted to register her concern about Donald Trump’s policies and Ivanka Trump’s involvement in them.
“Discovering something about a company, it's like discovering your boyfriend has been cheating on you for three years,” Mahlum said. “If people didn't know Ross was a Trump supporter, and are now finding out, they have an opportunity to decide how to respond to the new information. If they say ‘This is not OK,’ that's their right. If they say, ‘This doesn't bother me,’ then that's great, too.”
And if customers do decide it’s not OK, New York-area cardio enthusiasts will have an affordable alternative this weekend. The chief executive of the New York Sports Club fitness chain announced his facilities will waive fees for people switching gyms.
Hall, who had struggled with the decision over whether to attend the SoulCycle class, wished afterward that she hadn’t. “I was annoyed no one said anything in the class about what is going on,” she said.
“SoulCycle for me was something that made me feel good. But I think, for the time being, I am done.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.