The obvious glamour of the club tinctured virtue with vice, “bolstering that image that this was sexy, this was a singles club, this was where people went to meet each other,” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, another fitness historian. “But at the same time they had to sanitize that image, because they wanted to attract this white-collar clientele.”
Big Fitness continues to walk that line today. “We see that with instructors who are very risqué in the language they use when talking to riders and students,” Ms. Petrzela said. Cheeky marketing language often foregrounds sex appeal. At Barry’s Bootcamp, the red lights evoke a red-light district. “On the other hand,” Ms. Petrzela said, “you’re engaging in this disciplined pursuit of health, which is the most culturally sanctioned thing we have.”
Case in point: In 2017, the infamous nightclub The Limelight reopened as Limelight Fitness.
Connecting and Disconnecting
Mornings and afternoons at the Vertical Club were prime time for networking. At one point, staff kept white slips of paper at reception for members to write down each other’s phone numbers. “A lot of business connections were made there,” said Julie Cirillo Milliron, the club’s director of fitness from 1988 to 1993, who taught downtown at Joy of Movement and Pineapple before she was recruited.
In 1984, it cost $1,150, according to The Times, and $4,000 for the tennis program; some people would save up all year for a membership to gain access. “You had a real cross-section of New York,” said Gay Talese, the author, from teachers and firefighters to lawyers and civil servants, with varying interests and education levels. “You met all kinds of people,” he said, who “were really paying attention to one another, and not diverting their attention to some little hand-held gadget.”
Because there were no smartphones or television, there was nowhere to look but in the mirrors surrounding the gauntlet of Cybex cardio machines, at oneself or someone else. “To be very blunt about it, it was kind of an elevated pickup joint of well-exercised people,” Mr. Talese said. (Ms. Niland met her husband there.) From the basement pool and juice bar, to the roof deck and restaurant, there were plenty of places to hang out.
Today, “many boutique studios will ask you to put your phone in your locker, or tell you to put it away, so in some ways I think they try to recreate that experience where you’re engaged and in the moment,” said Liz Plosser, the editor in chief of Women’s Health magazine, who has been aware of the Vertical for as long as she can remember. Pre-pandemic, she said, “many gyms and boutique studios became this gathering place for people to find community.” For some, “it’s supplanted going out to coffee with friends.” Last March, those spaces closed and fitness migrated online, united by the influence of “super-instructors” on platforms like Zoom, Instagram and Peloton.