WASHINGTON — Emily Collinson returned to work at Solidcore, a high-end, rapidly expanding boutique fitness studio patronized by Michelle Obama and Ivanka Trump, on the first day gyms were able to reopen under Washington, DC’s coronavirus guidelines in late June. She taught two classes, one at 6 a.m. and one an hour later. She didn’t feel safe.
To give clients 6 feet of distance between them, Solidcore has flipped half their workout machines so that people can work out head-toe, head-toe, with their faces 6 feet apart. But the machines themselves are only about 2 feet apart, and people in class are face-to-face for some exercises. This arrangement violates the DC Department of Health’s coronavirus guidelines, which state that workout equipment should be spaced 10 feet apart on all sides, not just 6. And until recently when DC issued a more expansive mask mandate, Solidcore did not require clients to wear masks.
Solidcore did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News about the company’s compliance with the DC Department of Health’s guidelines.
Worried about safety, Collinson started reaching out to other instructors, hoping to organize them and bring their concerns to company leadership. It didn’t take long for Collinson to get a call from Solidcore headquarters. The company’s senior director of people, Sarah Kiernan, told Collinson she had heard she was sending messages that made people uncomfortable. Collinson responded, saying she was organizing, and she was perfectly within her rights to do so.
Just a few hours later, in an email reviewed by BuzzFeed News, Kiernan informed Collinson that the company was ending its relationship with her. Collinson soon filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which she shared with BuzzFeed News, contending that the company restrained employees from speaking negatively about the company, illegally prevented coaches from organizing, and told employees they should quit if they didn’t feel safe at work.
Solidcore did not comment on Collinson’s firing or the charges she filed with the NLRB against the company. A spokesperson for the NLRB said the board could not comment on an ongoing investigation, but confirmed they were investigating Collinson’s charges.
Collinson’s firing received coverage in the Washington Post and Washingtonian, but two dozen current and former Solidcore employees and contractors told BuzzFeed News that the company’s handling of her firing and the coronavirus pandemic is symptomatic of a broader, toxic culture at the company.
Interviews with 25 current and former employees, including senior corporate leaders, as well as coaches and a vendor who had previously worked with Solidcore, described an abusive workplace, marked by relentless bullying and favoritism from founder and CEO Anne Mahlum, who they allege has created a culture of fear, body-shaming, racial microaggressions, and sexual harassment. Many of them shared emails, text messages, and other documents backing up their accounts with BuzzFeed News.
Two former employees recounted an incident when Mahlum took off her clothes in front of employees. Other employees described instances of fat-shaming, such as the company putting a scale in front of employee snacks, and alleged that Mahlum had fired two instructors she felt were not thin enough. Former senior employees allege the company has a practice of avoiding paying vendor bills until they are 90 days past due and, in some cases, trying to get out of paying altogether. Mahlum, multiple former members of corporate leadership alleged, also consistently bent the rules and appeared to them to sometimes violate the law, including opening new studios before certificates of occupancy were issued and misclassifying employees as contractors to avoid paying taxes.
As Solidcore’s gyms have begun to reopen across the country, coaches and employees, led in part by Collinson, have formed a group they call Solidcore United.
The mostly anonymous organizing team has focused its work for now on the company’s response to the coronavirus, making demands for better air filtration and cleaning practices, among other safety measures. But some of the group’s members said they felt mistreated by the company long before the outbreak.
“Even before COVID, it was the resounding overall thought that Solidcore cares more about their bottom line than they do about anything else,” one current coach, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the company, told BuzzFeed News.
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Solidcore declined to make Mahlum available for an interview and did not respond directly to allegations made by current and former employees and coaches. The company provided a statement from Mahlum in response to the allegations, which read in part, “Building and growing a company is a challenging endeavor and I have an incredible team that works tirelessly in this pursuit. I am deeply apologetic that anyone in the company or community was uncomfortable – whether now or 4-5 years ago. I am committed to learning and growing. We have taken steps to make sure our employees have a safe, confidential, space to voice concerns, they are integral to this community and this company, and I want to ensure they know their voice will be heard. I hope those who I made uncomfortable will accept my apology.”
Malum said in the statement that the company’s studios “comply with all guidelines, regulations, and laws,” and said Solidcore and her own career are both “built on inspiring and connecting people through our inclusive community, which includes a diverse staff – race, gender and body type throughout every level of the organization.”
“As a leader and individual, I am outspoken, opinionated, demanding, and I have high expectations of myself and my team,” Mahlum’s statement said. “I am publicly transparent about every aspect of my life – my family, my relationship, my history with an eating disorder, my politics and more – I speak about these topics regularly.”
Solidcore said they have had more than 1,300 people work for the company over the past seven years and argued their annual turnover rate is less than half the industry average. Asked for more details, the company said their turnover rate is 37% a year and linked to a sponsored post from a website called Club Industry that said the annual turnover rate for personal trainers is “80 percent, according to numbers cited by many people in the fitness industry.”
“My team is critical to the company’s success,” Mahlum said in the statement, “which is why all of our full-time employees will receive a portion of the proceeds from my personal equity when the company sells. We’ve built a steadfast and devoted community. I will work hard to ensure that does not change.”
Founded in DC in 2013, Solidcore now has 69 studios across the country, and, before the coronavirus outbreak, was aiming for 100 studios around the US by the end of 2020. The classes — 50 minutes of intense Pilates-inspired strength training — cost about $40 each in DC.
Solidcore has attracted high-profile clients, including Michelle Obama, whose love for the workout Mahlum touts in her bio on the company website, and Ivanka Trump, who used an alias to book a class in 2017, after which Mahlum tried to meet with her.
“While I don’t know her and I always seek to understand… I do know her father is threatening the rights of many of my beloved clients and coaches and as a business owner, I take my responsibility to protect and fight for my people very seriously,” Mahlum wrote on Facebook at the time.
Employees and coaches who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they applied to work at Solidcore because they loved the workout and wanted to work for a company that empowered women and focused on strength and personal wellness. But once they actually joined the company, employees said they quickly noticed red flags.
“I think one thing that stood out to me in my time there was, like, we were constantly kind of pushing this image of, like, inclusion and community,” a former member of the company’s marketing team said. “But it kind of felt like that wasn't really something that was actually prioritized with this company.”
Like the coach and former marketing team member, most current and former employees and coaches who spoke to BuzzFeed News asked to remain anonymous due to nondisclosure agreements and out of fear of retaliation.
Many employees described Mahlum as a verbally abusive boss who expected employees to be on call constantly, including on holidays and while on vacation. Mahlum, they said, would encourage her employees to take risks, speak out, and ask questions, but, as one former employee put it, would “castrate” anyone who spoke up. The employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they worked — and in some cases continue to work — in fear, never knowing when it would be their time to be the subject of Mahlum’s verbal abuse, including screaming phone calls about minor mistakes and berating employees in front of their peers. Solidcore declined to comment about the specific allegations of verbal abuse from employees.
“The anxiety of seeing an email come through from Anne or a phone call, I mean, literally like your heart would jump like from your chest. … [I] would be terrified,” one former senior employee said.
The former employee said in an interview with BuzzFeed News that he hated and feared the weekly leadership meetings, as they consistently devolved into Mahlum “literally just screaming at people, and it would just be like the most awkward three hours of your life.”
Current and former employees said that hardly a day went by without someone crying in the office, and that it was near impossible to do the jobs they were actually hired to do because of Mahlum’s micromanaging.
Many of the two dozen employees and coaches who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they started to experience serious panic attacks, depression, and other mental health issues as a result of working for the company, and said they spend hours discussing and dissecting Mahlum’s own mental health.
“It just felt like we're being taken advantage of because we love the company, you know, we love the workout and the communities,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s like, ‘Well, we can treat them whatever way we want because we kind of know that they'll just do it.’”
In her role as founder and CEO, employees said Mahlum is hyper-focused on profit and growth, and obsessed with eventually selling the company.
"I think I'm willing to sacrifice abs for a clean conscience."
When asked about the company culture, many employees pointed to the recent firing of Solidcore’s six regional managers, who were let go suddenly last year after they’d all come to the company’s Washington, DC, headquarters for a retreat. Mahlum asked three managers who had traveled to DC to change their travel plans home and stay an extra day, and after they did so, they were all fired. Solidcore declined to comment specifically about the firings.
The rest of the staff was upset after the group was let go, but when Mahlum picked up on the mood at the headquarters, multiple employees said, she chided her staff for “gossiping.”
One employee who left the company said she quit because she was having constant nightmares. “I was just a shell of myself,” she said. “We worked so hard and we were never working hard enough. We were paid shit.”
One current coach said the company culture has started to take such a toll that she’s considering leaving.
“Every time I go to coach, I go back and forth on whether or not it's the right thing to be doing and whether or not I should quit,” she said in a recent interview. “One of my other former coach friends, honestly I think she said it best: ‘I think I'm willing to sacrifice abs for a clean conscience.’”
Current and former employees also alleged in interviews that Mahlum often violates professional boundaries, including instances of sexually harassing her staff.
“Very frequently, [it has been her] asking either me ... or other people in front of me about their sex life and wanting to get into specifics,” one current employee told BuzzFeed News. “She’ll want to talk about, you know, do you enjoy anal? Like, is that something that you like? How do you feel about monogamy? Are you into threesomes? Like, what do you think about that?”
Other employees said Mahlum would ask them things like, “Can you see my vagina through these pants?”
Employees at Solidcore’s headquarters said when these conversations made people visibly uncomfortable, Mahlum wouldn’t stop, but rather lean in, before eventually pivoting to talk about work again.
Employees also said they could not turn to the company’s HR department for help. A current employee described an instance when another employee went to HR to make a complaint, and the HR head went directly to Mahlum, who then called the current employee to discuss the incident.
“If you think about a toxic work environment,” she said, “logically you would have HR support or being able to feel like that was a safe space to go and express concerns about the company.” She added, “It was not a safe place to file any sort of grievance or concern, especially about Anne.”
Solidcore declined to comment specifically about allegations of sexual harassment made by current and former employees. The company also declined to provide a copy of its sexual harassment policy and declined repeated requests for comment from the company’s head of HR, saying in an email, “Anne's statement speaks for itself.”
"I was just like, this lady is out of her mind."
In one particularly serious incident, in the summer of 2016, when a group of employees were at Mahlum’s lake house for a retreat, two former employees said Mahlum took her pants off and exposed herself in front of a large group in her dining room. BuzzFeed News reviewed contemporaneous text messages between two employees discussing the incident.
One of the former employees who was present for the incident called it “the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
“It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my entire life,” he said. “And I was just like, this lady is out of her mind. And those are the kinds of things that would happen at these like Solidcore retreats. It was just, like, out of control.”
After BuzzFeed News contacted Solidcore with details of the allegations in this story, Kiernan, the company's senior director of people, announced on an all-staff call (a recording of which was shared with BuzzFeed News) that Solidcore would be “researching an external hotline” that employees could use to report wrongdoing.
The decision was the result of an employee survey about the company’s leadership that asked, among other things, whether employees feel the company’s people team is a safe and confidential place to report misconduct. The responses to the question, Kiernan said, made them realize it was “an area of opportunity.”
The current employee who said HR is not a safe place to report grievances, particularly about Mahlum, said she felt it was “unfortunate” that although the issue was addressed, neither the company nor Kiernan herself took any responsibility.
“It’s interesting they would need to bring in an external hotline instead of looking into why people do not feel safe with HR in the first place,” the employee said in a text message to BuzzFeed News.
Other employees and coaches described harassment and discrimination due to their race or weight while at Solidcore.
“There were so many incidents that happened during my time there that were just triggering and unprofessional,” one former studio manager and coach told BuzzFeed News. “I am a Black American, and I was one of the only Black females on the corporate team, and on more than one occasion, I was singled out in that regard.”
The former manager said a colleague once referred to her as “the cute little Black girl” in front of other employees. She also said that while she had experience with modeling, she was not invited to join the photo shoots other coaches and employees participated in. Solidcore leadership often told her that she was “off brand,” she said.
“I got an email saying that my attire was off brand or that I was off brand. And it was hard for me to really accept that and I didn’t really understand what they meant by that.”
What exactly about her was “off brand” was never explained to her, but she said she felt as one of the only women of color at the company that she would never be “on brand.” Solidcore declined to comment specifically on what “off brand” means at the company and the former employee’s feeling that the critique was related to her race.
Another woman of color, the former member of the marketing team, described similar concerns. She said she tried to push for more diverse and inclusive branding and marketing — including more people of color and more diverse body types — for the company, but she said she soon realized there wasn’t space for or interest in that work from Mahlum and the heads of the company’s marketing team.
She said she was also told in a conversation with her manager not long before she left the company that she had an “attitude.”
“It just felt like really coded and targeted language. As a woman of color, when somebody says that you have an attitude, especially in a work environment, it's like, what are we really talking about here?” she said during a recent interview. “And it just kind of made me wonder, if a white man responded in that same way ... would you really have accused them of having an attitude?”
Current and former employees said that body-shaming and sizeism were embedded in the culture at Solidcore.
When Solidcore began expanding into Texas, several former high-level employees said that Mahlum personally called for the termination of two new coaches in the state who were heavier than she thought instructors should be. Two former high-level employees said they couldn’t remember the exact timing of the incident, but believed it was fall of 2018. The two women had already been through training and were ready to start coaching, but former senior leaders at the company said Mahlum had them fired after meeting them in person. One former employee alleged that Mahlum sent text messages after the incident with pictures of obese people, and joked, “Should we hire these people?”
Eight employees also said that Mahlum kept a scale in front of the snacks at headquarters and several said she would make comments to employees who went to get food like, “Are you sure about that?”
Current and former coaches said the weight-shaming was infuriating because of how much it was driven into them during Solidcore training never to comment on body aesthetics while teaching classes.
“During class, if we’re working on lower body, like, no one's gonna say, ‘Get that peach emoji, like, summer’s coming up, like, fit into your bikini.’ Like, none of that is what we care about,” one current coach said. “I have clients of all shapes and sizes, all ages, men, women, everybody. And they all love the workout, we embrace each other, and then you take one of Anne’s classes … [and] she breaks her rules.”
A former Solidcore brand manager said in an interview that after just a couple months at the company, she had a midyear review, where the only feedback she was given was that she needed to work out more. She said she was also consistently directed only to show very thin and fit people on the company’s social media; Solidcore’s Instagram features almost exclusively thin and muscular body types.
“That's why I wanted to work for this company, because they're super strong, female-founded, very body-positive, and getting into the nitty-gritty of marketing, it was the exact opposite,” she said. “Everyone that we had to call on for photo shoots had to have abs,” she continued. “It was just really mind-boggling to me that we weren't advocating for, like, inclusivity even though that was one of our so-called brand values.”
One upsetting incident that stood out to her was when she wanted to post on social media the story of a Solicore client who had lost 90 pounds from doing the workouts. Over several rounds of edits, the brand manager was told to crop the photos higher and higher until the woman’s stomach was left out of the image.
“I wanted to post that just as is, because especially like having body image issues myself, I know people don't want to be criticized on their body — especially when they're so proud and happy of how far they've come,” she said. “And I was told that I had to crop out her stomach or crop out all of her weight, and I was just not comfortable with that. But that was actually the most successful post we had to date because it was a real person telling their story instead of these, like, shredded trainers showing that they have abs.”
For many former employees, the body- and weight-shaming was a major reason they ultimately left the company.
Erin DeBoer, who coached Solidcore classes in Chicago for a year and a half, hit a breaking point earlier this year after Mahlum posted a picture to her Instagram story in early May saying she still had her “thigh gap” several weeks into quarantining.
“Anyone knows that ‘thigh gap’ is like a trigger word for an eating disorder,” DeBoer said during an interview with BuzzFeed News.
On May 12, in an email shared with BuzzFeed News, DeBoer wrote to all Solidcore employees and coaches, “I am absolutely sick to my stomach about this post on IG. As a woman who has battled an eating disorder in the past, skinny does not mean sexy/strong. A CEO of a company should be a leader, a supporter, a cheerleader for being healthy, and healthy does not mean SKINNY. In addition, a CEO should be PROFESSIONAL, should always choose the higher ground, and lead by example.”
DeBoer said Solidcore soon ended their relationship with her, and Mahlum posted another picture of herself to Instagram, which was viewed by BuzzFeed News. “Thigh gap, abs, cleavage,” she wrote. “Hate on me if my confidence makes you feel better.”
But earlier this month, during the company call after BuzzFeed News first approached Solidcore for responses to the allegations employees made in this story, Mahlum apologized for some of her social media posts.
“There have definitely been a couple times during COVID where I also let my heightened emotions get the best of me. And there are a couple moments where those came out on social media,” she said, according to the recording of the call shared with BuzzFeed News. “I as a person know that there's a lot of expectations and responsibilities that come with leadership, and I'm not gonna lie, like there was some poor judgment in moments that were made that, you know, some things didn't need to be put on Instagram that I reacted to and put on Instagram and, like, you guys, not only do I know better than that, but you guys deserve better than that.”
The apology rang hollow for one current employee.
“I think her apology was for optics. Anne has a pattern of acting out and then asking for forgiveness. The apology was vague,” the employee wrote in an email. “She asked for people to talk to her if they felt her IG posts and how she acts are inappropriate in the future, which multiple people have done in the past (especially in regards to the thigh gap post) and she put them on blast. I understand and 100% agree that people should provide feedback in a respectful way, but it is not reciprocated.”
Part of the problem, employees said, is the impression they had that Mahlum believed she was infallible. Several of them traced that back to an early lawsuit against Mahlum and Solidcore. When she first started the company, Mahlum planned to license her workout machines from California fitness owner Sebastien Lagree. But Lagree only licensed machines for certain zip codes, which would limit her ability to expand the company. Mahlum went ahead and expanded anyway, opening a new studio and starting to design her own machines, she told Washingtonian in 2016. Lagree sued Mahlum for breach of contract and false advertising; Mahlum countersued and the two reached a confidential settlement, the magazine reported.
The case, employees told BuzzFeed News, shaped how they believe Mahlum looks at the world and manages Solidcore’s growth: It proved to her that she couldn’t be stopped, and that the rules that confine other people just don’t apply to her.
One example employees repeatedly flagged was the fact that Solidcore classifies their coaches as 1099 contractors, rather than W-2 employees. For coaches, that means they don’t get any benefits, like healthcare, from Solidcore. And because taxes aren’t taken out of their pay, many of them ended up with high tax bills, which some said caught them off guard. Coaches and employees, including several former corporate leadership members with knowledge of the company’s finances, said Mahlum does this to save on payroll taxes and that almost everyone at the company believes the classification is an IRS violation.
"We would do whatever we needed to do to have class."
“It's one of the silliest things I've ever heard about, honestly,” one coach said of being classified as a contractor.
Solidcore declined repeated requests for comment on the company’s use of 1099s, as well as requests for comment from the company’s legal counsel.
The coaches at Solidcore and former employees who managed Solidcore’s finances for the company believe there are several things that make it clear to them the instructors should be considered employees, not contractors: The certifications the coaches get to teach at Solidcore studios can only be used at Solidcore, not any other fitness company. Solidcore also controls their schedules, almost everything the coaches say in class, and until recently required them to wear Solidcore-branded clothing while they taught. Coaches also have to clean the studios, take out the trash, and act as front desk staff, in addition to teaching classes. They also attend trainings and company meetings without extra pay.
A former employee who worked closely on Solidcore’s finances for several years said, “Anything that could save [Mahlum] money or affect her bottom line, she was going to do it. And of course it's cheaper to have 1099s on your staff, because you're not needing to pay employer taxes, you know, workers comp and all the things that come along with having people classified as employees.”
Employees and coaches also said that coach pay and manager bonus structures changed frequently and without explanation, and employees are often asked to take on additional responsibilities without additional pay. Studio managers and employees at headquarters also said that many of them worked 80- to 100-hour weeks for what worked out to barely a living wage, never able to hit the bonuses they were promised because the goalposts were moved so frequently. Solidcore declined to comment on the concerns employees raised about changing pay structures.
“Every time [the pay structure] changes, there's a big PR email as to why it's better for the coaches, but nobody's stupid,” one former studio manager told BuzzFeed News. “It’s better for the company. And really the only way you can make a really decent amount of money is if you fill your classes to the brim, not one open spot. But as soon as you fill your classes, they're adding to the schedule to make sure that there's not full classes.” (Several coaches said they had similar experiences of having more classes added to the schedule so that classes were consistently less full and coaches could be paid less for the same work.)
Mahlum also has a habit of opening studios before certificates of occupancy were issued, several former company leaders told BuzzFeed News.
“She would pick a day that she would want to open” and would make it happen no matter what, one former executive said.
Employees with knowledge of the studio opening processes said construction delays and fire code compliance did not stop Mahlum from meeting her opening date.
“She did not care. It didn't matter,” the former executive said. “We would do whatever we needed to do to have class, even if a light fixture was, like, hanging from a wire from the top of the ceiling and just not installed properly.”
Employees also allege Mahlum never wanted them to pay invoices on time, if at all. Employees said they were told to pay vendors only 90 days after the bill was due, and were frequently made to tell vendors they wouldn’t be paid at all because Mahlum had decided the product was not up to snuff.
“I'm not talking [about vendors] that were millionaires or corporate companies, like, utilities or whatever,” the former high-level employee who used to manage the company’s finances said. “The cleaning people, for example, [she would] be like, ‘We're gonna wait until the last minute to pay them, because we want to make sure that our bank account is like the fluffiest it can be for as long as possible.’”
Solidcore declined to comment on any specific allegations related to studios opening without certificates of occupancy and refusing to pay vendors.
One vendor who previously worked with Solidcore called his experience “awful,” and said it was “most likely the worst” professional experience he had ever had. The vendor said Mahlum was frequently verbally abusive over the phone, and that employees who worked under Mahlum mirrored her behavior.
“Not just with the person, Anne — obviously she's responsible for the culture, but the culture that she created was scary,” he said. “I mean, the place was a cult,” he continued. “I never felt so mistreated.” ●