Tanya Poppett was not long out of university, going down the well-worn and solid career path of a primary school teacher, when something different beckoned.
It had started with a free pair of running shoes. Poppett, a life-long runner from Gerringong, made a short video when she was still an education student at the University of Wollongong, in a bid to win a pair in a competition run by one of Instagram’s early purveyors of “fitspo” – fitness inspiration.
Instagram is rife with fitspo. It’s a buzzword for the visual content – pictures, short videos and motivational quotes or slogans – produced by healthy, strong, usually Millennial men and women, for an audience seeking inspiration to similarly transform their own bodies and lifestyles.
The most successful fitspo builds a big enough audience for its creator to be considered an authority. As with celebrity endorsements, companies court these “influencers” with free goods and sometimes more – experiences, contracts, payments - in the hope that their products and their brand will make it onto their feeds, and onto the wishlists of their thousands - sometimes millions – of followers.
Poppett won the running shoes.
As Geoffroi Renaud-Roy – her boyfriend of five years – tells it, she was ecstatic.
“You should have heard her,” he says. “That first pair of shoes she won. She was jumping everywhere, screaming.
“Since then, even after all the success she has had, she has never been that happy.”
Four years on, Poppett herself is the one with the influence. From a page that began with a few short workout videos intended for friends and clients (Poppett is also a fitness instructor), more than 366,000 people now look to her for motivation, and the opportunities are rolling in.
Her empire includes a slice of the proceeds from three week-long fitness retreats she will lead in Thailand and Bali this year for a Melbourne-born company, Active Escapes.
She has her own app – Train With Tanya – and endorsement deals with a kitchen appliance company and a fitness equipment provider.
Last year she traveled to Italy to film virtual personal training workouts for the interactive fitness platform iFit. From their treadmills, it is Poppett that the app’s subscribers will see jogging up ahead, rounding onto a jaw-dropping stretch of the Amalfi Coast.
“One of my jobs - my awesome jobs – is that I get to go to scenic places - beautiful trails all over the world - and they shoot treadmill workouts,” Poppett, 26, told the Mercury.
“I do love going for runs in pretty places so it's definitely lined up pretty well. In saying that, it is very hard work. You probably run about 15kms a day on those shoots and you're there for two weeks - always energy on. It's amazing, but you have to work very hard.”
Poppett also recently signed an exclusivity contract with Adidas – a deal that came with an annual payment and preceded her decision to put school teaching on hold and focus on fitness entirely.
“My job is to not only [act] as an influencer, but … create rich content, whether it be workouts, or me training people at an event for Adidas or whether it just be day-to-day things encompassing a healthy life and showcasing how Adidas resembles that too, as part of me,” she says.
“It definitely comes down to choosing brands that reflect your key values, because you become part of the family.
“I suppose that's where the influencer market is heading these days. No one really wants people to be selling them brands straight out. It needs to become part of you. It needs to be genuine as well.”
Poppett is the second-youngest of nine children, the brood of Gary, a postman, and fitness instructor Janet, who still teaches up to three classes a day, gentle exercises for older ladies.
Poppett was a representative cross country runner but found her interest in exercise waning in her senior years of high school. It was as she was nearing the end of university that her interest sparked again, reignited, she says, by a new outlook on what fitness could be.
“It wasn't until I started getting back into my running and just running out of enjoyment that I started to look at fitness in a more of a holistic approach and looking at health as more holistic as well,” she says.
“As a fitness instructor I like … looking at fitness as a way to best your performance and get the most out of your body, rather than a purely aesthetic thing, which is a common view for most people thanks to a portrayal by the media.
“As most teenage girls do, I struggled with body image.
“As I learnt more about my body and all the amazing things it can do if it's nourished properly and if it gets daily movement [I saw] the way that exercise can empower you, rather than just [be] something that you have to do.”
Renaud-Roy, a French-Candadian born engineer, is the unseen element in Poppett’s Instagram success, taking the majority of photos and weighing in on decisions on what opportunities to accept and which ones to walk away from.
The pair met at a Yours and Owls music event in Wollongong, she one of the “cool kids”, he accompanied by a well-known wingman, Wollongong comedian Ben “Frenchy” French.
In a pyramid of thousands of would-be Instagram fitspo queens, Poppett’s page resides in a competitive middle layer – elevated out of the glut of pages that have only a few thousand followers, and close enough to the pointy end – where a precious few amass millions of followers – to pique the interest of the big brands – Renaud-Roy says.
Setting her apart are the often al fresco pictures and workout videos, many shot near the couple’s more recent home of Port Kembla.
The flavour is dynamic and down-to-business. Creative combinations of moves are made to align with the principles of the popular HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) movement, and with hip-hop or alternative music chosen with care by Poppett, a Triple J fan. There are no “booty” shots.
“She's not posing,” says Renaud-Roy.
“She gives her 120 per cent. I can never finish any of her workouts, they're all too hard. She's genuinely in love with fitness. Adidas caught on to that. She impressed them because she is the real deal.”
Part of her – their – success came from their preparedness to refuse endorsement deals that might have been off-putting to followers.
They made a decision early on, to only work with “tier one” companies, Renaud-Roy says.
“At the beginning we had a lot of companies contacting us to say, ‘promote slim tea for so much’. Or a lot of products that are just bullsh-t – protein powder, things like that that Tanya didn't like.
“She didn't want to be a sellout or sort of promoting things that she didn't fully, genuinely endorse herself.”
“There was a lot of ‘no’s’ - refusal of the offer. It wasn't difficult because she had a good job as a teacher, I'm an engineer myself. We're very comfortable we have a good lifestyle. There's no pressure. we didn't try hard to just go crazy for it. We just took our time.”
Renaud-Roy has seen the number of followers on Poppett’s page go down, as well as up. He knows they’re in a fickle game, and that the audience could dry up tomorrow.
All the more reason, he says, to take the opportunities while they come – the overseas travel. The free running shoes. He’s seen it firsthand how much happiness there can be in that.
Tanya will be at the Healthy Livin Festival in Kiama on March 3 and 4. More information here.