Turns out Toronto was more interested in the Material Girl than getting into the groove.
“It’s Friday night, are you ready to party after this? I want to hear you SCREAM!”
A room full of sweaty bodies throws their hands up in the air and cheers. Top 40 pop hits blast out of the speakers, colourful disco lights flash through the otherwise dark room, and music videos play on the jumbo screens at the front, creating a kaleidoscope effect.
“Crank up the speed! Let me hear you…crank it upppppp!”
Part intense workout and party, this is Hard Candy Fitness, the Madonna-endorsed Toronto gym. But as of early May the Madonna party at her only North American location ends.
For a brief few months, I was one of those Hard Candy devotees, getting my workout on in the sleek-looking 42,000 square foot fourth floor gym overlooking downtown Toronto. I would stop in awe of the oversize poster of Madge welcoming members in the locker room vestibule and regularly take part in the Addicted to Sweat dance classes inspired by Madonna’s very own fitness regimen.
This upcoming weekend marks the end of Hard Candy’s short Madonna run. The club will close for two days to undergo its own re-branding and reboot as Aura Fitness in order to better co-habitate with the building it shares a name with—and end its partnership with Madonna.
“Madonna was fabulous,” says Leonard Schlemm, owner of Hard Candy Toronto, now Aura Fitness. A power broker in the fitness industry, Schlemm and his business partner have opened 15,000 clubs worldwide, including 24-hour-Fitness, Crunch Gym and Steve Nash Fitness Clubs, among others.
Schlemm recalls his encounter with the icon back in February 2014 at the club’s opening. Around 800 people made it into the facility that day to witness the main event, and about the same amount were lined up outside. According to Schlemm, a typical gym opening of his sees between 200 to 250 people.
So why the sudden need for a re-branding? Schlemm points to the lack of visibility of the gym (it’s located on the fourth floor of a mixed condo building) as well as issues around the club’s branding and marketing.
When he first signed the lease back in 2008, Schlemm was promised large signage on the building’s façade with the Hard Candy branding. But by the time they were ready to open, the City passed a new ordinance preventing any signs above the third floor—and this proved to be a problem. “When you stopped people on the street and asked them about Hard Candy, they had no idea what you were talking about even though they were often standing right outside the building,” says Schlemm.
The other issue was around the brand itself. “People couldn’t figure out where Hard Candy was and then they were turned off by the brand because they thought it was a dance studio,” says Schlemm, who is willing to take the marketing blame here.
But looking back, perhaps Madonna’s gym was doomed to fail from the start. If anything, the 120 different media organizations covering the gym’s opening should have been a clear indicator: they were more interested in seeing Madonna cut the ribbon than actually exploring the new fitness facilities. As for the fans, while a select few did become members, more were interested in taking selfies with the Warhol-inspired posters than actually paying the monthly fees.
“Madonna has adoring fans and she has rabid fans,” says Schlemm. He mentions instances where he heard of some flying in from Chicago to visit the Toronto-based gym, take a few pictures, and then jet back home. And the staff often had to take time away from training to double as tour guides.
“We are in the business of providing fitness to people who want to be in shape,” adds Schlemm. “We aren’t a destination for you to come and take a selfie.”
Aura Fitness will focus on playing out the different features of the club, whether that’s upping their spinning game or showcasing their hot yoga room. “That club is one of the nicest in the world,” says Schlemm. “And if I had to pick a place to workout in for myself, I’d choose this one.”
The goal for Aura is to put more emphasis on functional training as well as to offer smaller group programs. The membership prices will remain the same, as will the staff.
While the look of the gym won’t change radically over night, this weekend’s makeover does mean those infamous Madonna posters will be stripped down.