Interview: Jera Foster-Fell
Below is an interview with Jera Foster-Fell, former SoulCycle instructor and fitness/lifestyle blogger extraordinaire. Since leaving SoulCycle a few months ago she's been able to spend more time working on her brand, which is all about exiting the comfort zone, enjoying life, and finding confidence.
Addis: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are now?
Jera: I grew up in New York City and lived here until I was about 18, then I jetted off to USC for college. I had no idea what I wanted to major in when I got there but ended up choosing Fine Art with an emphasis on Graphic Design. I had always grown up in a creative household: my mom works in video and my dad is super creative as well, so it made sense for me to follow in that line of work. When I graduated I worked as a graphic designer for about 5 years total, I lived in LA for about a year and a half then ended up moving to Boston because my boyfriend at the time got into Harvard Law School. I worked as a graphic designer there for about 3 years but I had a pretty terrible experience. I was working 7 days a week and not feeling appreciated for my work at all, and it honestly got to the point where I should have been hospitalized for exhaustion. Actually, there was this one moment where I worked for about 36 hours straight with no sleep, and I was also losing hair at the time from stress. I was pretty young and naive and don’t think I could ever let myself be that mistreated again, even to half that degree.
I ended up leaving that job and that relationship to come back to New York. Back then I was following Kayla Itsines on instagram, a social media fitness super star, who had this workout guide called the Bikini Body Guide that had a huge following. For a year I watched her post amazing physical transformations of the women who dedicated themselves to her program, and the great thing about her posts was that you could click on them and see that they were real women and not just some random ad. I was inspired by the fact that these were real women doing the guide, so I thought: “Let me head to the gym and try this out”. That same day I also made an Instagram account, which I didn’t think would become anything, I just saw other girls online with similar accounts and decided to make one for myself. Within the first couple of weeks a couple of things started to happen: I was sticking to the workout program, which I think was in part due to Instagram because it held me accountable. Because I was sticking to the workout program I was feeling pretty good about myself, and I hadn’t felt that in a while. Also, I was connecting to other women just from doing the same workout program as them; this led to online friendships which became real life friendships. I really value the friendships I made through BBG because when I was balancing a shitty job and my relationship I didn’t really have time for female friendships. The final thing that happened was that my Instagram account started taking off; I found that when I was at my graphic design job during the day I was so excited to get home and respond to comments and build my account, it led to me finding a passion for social media. I made my account in April 2015 and by September 2015 I left my office job as a graphic designer and went freelance.
At this time I fell back in love with SoulCycle. I had started going in 2010 when I was in college and started going again when I got back into fitness in 2015. During those first initial classes back I felt so excited to get back to the studio again, and developed this dream of being a SoulCycle instructor in the back of my head. I got my NASM Certification in personal training, which I admit I’ve done absolutely nothing with, but it helped me narrow in my passion for fitness. By 2016 I still wanted to be a SoulCycle instructor. I had to audition twice in order to be accepted into the ten week training program, and officially stopped doing all graphic design work. In that time, I also became an Adidas ambassador. I also began to realize that I could start to make some money through social media by working with brands. Fast forward to current day, I just left my instructor position at SoulCycle to pursue working on my brand full time, which is exciting, terrifying, and wonderful all at the same time!
A: As a former SoulCycle instructor how has your profession impacted your life and your feelings on health (physical and mental)? By being someone who has guided people on their journey in health and fitness how did that affect how you look at mental health and physical fitness?
J: I think that physical fitness can have such a profound impact on your mental health. If you’re having a bad day and are super stressed out, usually going to a yoga class or going on a run can help you feel a little bit better: the physical release is connected to the mental release. There are many ways that SoulCycle has affected my mental health outside of just the 45 minutes of class, I really saw a huge transformation in myself during my two and half year SoulCycle journey. I had to audition twice and go through the training program twice, which was really difficult and heartbreaking as it was happening, but once I reached the other side, so rewarding. They really break you down in those 10 weeks to build you back up. It’s physical, emotional, and spiritual. Becoming a SoulCycle instructor sparked a huge transformation because it made me face a lot of fears, particularly my anxiety and fear of public speaking. To add to it all, I had no fitness instruction background but I ended up becoming more comfortable facing my fears because I had to do it every day.
A: Yeah, I remember you talking about your struggle with social anxiety in a podcast interview a while back, could you talk about that a little bit more?
J: Social anxiety is something that I have more of a handle on these days but it’s something that I realized I was struggling with during that really challenging time in my life in Boston. In social situations, which were primarily work situations because I didn’t really have a life outside of work, I would have these moments of complete panic. I would be terrified to speak in front of a group and also to people one on one. In these instances I would feel really hot and start to sweat, primarily in my face. This ended up creating a fear of work events and I would get anxious for days leading up to them. Eventually, it was my mom who helped me realize that this was a deeper problem, which led me to research therapists. I found a specialist in social anxiety, who I saw for about a year, and this was a huge step for me. I wouldn’t say that I’ve completely conquered it, because anxiety isn’t really something that completely goes away, but he was a huge help in teaching me how to manage it.
A: I also struggle with social anxiety, and it’s exhausting! Nobody wants to be the person who goes to a party and has to leave 45 minutes later because they’re so anxious, I hate that. I think my anxiety stems from wanting to present myself perfectly and wanting to make good impressions on people I don’t know. I keep thinking: “Oh my god the night is so long, how am I going to keep this act up?”, and I get anxious about thinking that I’ll fail in some way. It’s definitely really difficult because most people don’t think that way, or at least I don’t think they do.
J: Actually, I think a lot of people do think that way, it’s almost comforting in a way. Most people, at the least, have some sort of nervousness around small talk and how they'll be judged by others. We should all take a little bit of comfort in knowing that we're not completely alone in those feelings.
A: What do you do to take care of yourself? It sounds like you have so much going on!
Jera: I just left SoulCycle at the end of April, and I feel like for the first time in about 2-3 years I’m actually able to take care of myself. Before this I didn’t have much time to take care of myself because I was teaching between 1-3 classes per day. On days where I taught 3 classes I just tried to cover the basics, honestly sometimes after a triple I’d be ready to get into bed and realized that I forgot to take a shower! It was hard to stretch or even do laundry regularly. And when you're an instructor, your job is really taking care of everyone else. It was my responsibility to make sure that my riders got that mental, physical, and spiritual release that they sought after. Being a SoulCycle instructor is a wonderful thing, but you’re giving everything 100% of the time and so rarely making time to receive for yourself. It’s a huge challenge for any fitness instruction job really. But now that I’ve left that position, I finally have time for myself. As an example, I’ve been getting more into skincare and makeup lately, which I've always been interested in but haven't had the time to focus on. In more of a spiritual way I’ve been figuring out what my next steps are in terms of my hobbies, passion, and business, which is super important because I never really made time for that.
A: We love that you preach being yourself and self-love, especially telling your followers to remember their unique voice. It’s very empowering – what is your overall message to your fan base?
J: That’s actually been something that I’ve been trying to figure out and develop. Over the past few years I feel like I’ve been able to work on my brand to a certain extent, but I’ve really just been keeping my head above water because of all the stuff I’ve been involved with (graphic design, personal training certification, SoulCycle). Now that I’m working on my brand full time I feel like I have more time to be super strategic, thoughtful, and creative about my next steps. I'm still developing my message, but I know it involves empowering women to find confidence, get out of their comfort zones, and not take life too seriously.
A: Definitely! How has your work with Adidas and being an Adidas ambassador impacted that?
J: I love that Adidas is all about both empowerment and creativity. The different ambassadors that they’ve taken on all bring something different to the table: for example, we have runners, boxers, moms, musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, and dancers. It’s a great mix of women that just radiate girl power, empowerment, creativity, and just going for it.
A: Wow, this sounds like a really incredible opportunity that’s been given to you!
J: Adidas is a major brand that is innovative with the content that they create and the people that they work with. But what I love even more is that they really care about their ambassadors and their customers. It’s not just about creating content; they really care about feedback and creating community.
A: Where do you think the boutique fitness industry has room to grow? What about Instagram and social media as a whole?
J: It’s kind of crazy because there is so much boutique fitness right now, especially in NYC. Whatever you’re looking for, it’s out there at this point! So much has been thought of and executed, I can’t even think of what new class could be created. The only thing I could think of has to do with community and creating relationships. I think that SoulCycle has done an incredible job of that because it’s so much more than coming in and riding a bike and getting sweaty. People meet their husband and wives there, friendships have been formed, and it’s just such a wonderful thing. I just wonder if there’s more potential to develop that aspect of community in other forms.
In terms of Instagram and social media, I hope we can figure out how to create content, information, and resources on social media that can work offline because there’s only so much that can be done online and through a screen.
A: What are some topics or issues that you wished were discussed more on social media, and how do you think we can begin incorporating them into our digital lives?
J: There’s so much that’s being talked about on Instagram right now, it almost feels like every topic is being covered but when you think about it a little more in depth, I don’t really think that’s true. In the space that I’m in body image is a huge topic right now, but it's more focus around body shape and weight. I started doing a little more research in this space recently, and I think there's a lot more a lot more that can be discussed. For example, a few weeks ago I started following a few accounts that focus on body hair, which I found really interesting as I don't see many people talking about that as much as we talk about shape and size.
But aside from the body I still think there’s more to explore. For example, I think there is a lot more than can be discussed about sex and sexuality, as that topic still seems to be a bit taboo.
Also, money is a really hard topic to talk about but we should be exploring that too. A couple of weeks ago I posted something on Instagram asking people to send me topics that they wanted see to discussed more on Instagram. One girl commented: “It’s really hard to be on Instagram, especially in New York where everything is really expensive, and see girls posting their new expensive workout outfits or see all the expensive boutique workout classes that they go to. I can’t help but think about how they afford it all”. I think that fitness on a budget, whether we're talking about workout clothes or classes, is something that should be touched on more for sure.
Lastly, I think plastic surgery, injections, botox, etc. is a topic that we should be talking about more because it’s something that so many people do, but it’s not something that many people admit to. Regardless of if you’ve done it or not I think it’s a subject that people really want to hear about, whether it's because they've done it, want to do it, or are simply curious in learning more. But I know that there’s a lot of backlash against plastic surgery and changing your appearance in that type of way, so I understand how it is a challenging topic to broach publicly.