A Muscle Man in Exile

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

In September, David Barton Gym released a statement saying that Barton, its founder and muscular nameplate, was leaving the company. It was a quiet announcement. A couple of gym-­industry blogs picked it up; there was a “Page Six” item. The changes at David Barton Gym can get lost in today’s downtown—where a Pilates, Bikram, or SoulCycle studio can be found as easily as a Starbucks. Barton, who opened his first location in 1992, can be considered a pioneer, the first to brand a New York City gym with ­something other than fluorescent lighting and peppy primary colors. Instead, he ­created the health-club-as-nightclub experience. A shamelessly sexy Spartacus. Part disco, part gym, part porn set.

When Barton opened his first location on 15th Street and Sixth Avenue, there were just a handful of gyms downtown, like New York Health & Racquet Club on 13th and World Gym at Lafayette. “I remember saying to my friends that in ten years there will be a gym on every corner. They looked at me like I was crazy,” Barton says. “I wanted to start a gym where cool people would go.”

We are sitting at a Tribec­a ­restaurant. Barton, who is five foot five, has a pumped-up body that makes him almost as broad as he is tall—a human fireplug. His hair is black and tousled with long bangs. While he talks, his neck occasionally twitches, as if he has just come from a punishing weight routine. He is ­costumed in a body-hugging, hard-to-ignore wardrobe: a white semi-see-through mesh top torn at the shoulders and sleeves, paired with white jeans that have curlicue designs printed all over them. He stands out, a throwback to a time when people below 14th Street looked weird, different, downtown.

Like other nineties fixtures, Barton ­figured out that his weird/different/downtown vibe could be bankable. “Who you were had to do with what clothes you wore, where you hung out, and what gym you went to,” he says. Drag artist Joey Arias taught the club’s first class (an abs class, while wearing a thirties-era one-piece), accompanied by D.J. Johnny Dynell from the meatpacking-district club Jackie 60. With a little bit of money left over from the opening, Barton posted an ad in The Village Voice. “A couple years before, I was interviewed for a fitness article. I said that, in the end, people just want to look better naked. So I used that phrase.”

“It was as nightclubby as you could imagine a gym being,” says Carlos Reyes, a personal trainer who worked at the gym in the nineties. “David was able to create this wonderfully diverse community of characters … this environment of drag queens, transsexuals, bodybuilders, and just the average person of the neighborhood. Somehow they all inhabited the space and got along.” Barton, with his then-wife, club promoter Susanne Bartsch, would also sometimes hold actual parties in the space: holiday toy drives hosted by the likes of Debbie Harry, Susan Sarandon, and Marc Jacobs, as well as Diane’s Day, a benefit for ovarian-cancer research, named after ­Barton’s older sister.

David Barton Gym outlets eventually cropped up in Miami, Chicago, and the Upper East Side. In 2004, Barton moved its downtown location into the YMCA on 23rd Street (the one the Village People sang about). It was here that he mastered his gym-as-club aesthetic: low lighting; thumping music; snazzy clientele like Anderson Cooper, Gwen ­Stefani, and Calvin Klein; and a palpable sexuality. “Peacocking at DBG was a refined art,” recalls one member. “The ­marble slabs between the shower stalls didn’t go all the way to the wall. So everyone would start their shower, get a little wet, and then lean close to the wall and peek to either side to see if anyone was thrusting their pelvis forward. It was a voyeur’s shower dream.”

A few years later, Barton opened a massive, 33,000-square-foot gym on Astor Place. Construction costs were reportedly $8 million. With shelves of electrically flickering candles and a sculpture of ceramic-baby-doll heads tumbling down the wall like a waterfall, the venue looks more like Cher’s gothic palace than a gym. “I’ve seen Amanda Lepore on a StairMaster at the gym in her pumps. Amazing,” says artist Rob Roth.

Soon after it opened, however, the chain filed for Chapter 11. Former employees claim that the company suffered from mismanagement and haphazard hiring practices. “Everyone in the company was a friend of a friend, not hired from previous experience,” said an ex-staffer. “And David never seemed to be exactly like a businessman. He was a little caught up in the ­superstar fantasy of it all.” The company eventually restructured its $65 million debt and partnered with Meridian Sports Club California; DBG plans to open a brand-new outpost in the West Village. The 23rd Street ­location will soon close to make way for an even larger flagship in Chelsea, rumored to be in the old Limelight building.

The Impresario
Marc Jacobs and Barton at a DBG toy drive in 2007.
Photo: Patrick McMullan

The official declaration from both ­Barton and the gym is that he chose to leave the company. “I don’t have an M.B.A., and at this point it’s about personnel and inventory and spreadsheets,” Barton says. “It was no longer the right place for me.” But some feel he may have been edged out.

“If he was unsatisfied with being in that environment, with one foot out the door, it didn’t seem that way. He looked involved,” says one person who worked in the gym. “I find it hard to believe that he didn’t want to be a part of this anymore.” In leaving, Barton gave up the rights to the name David Barton Gym, as well as his famous slogan “Look better naked.” But he seems at peace. “Companies do fine without their founders all the time,” he says, adding, “I did hear they just had a Diane’s Day ­benefit. That feels a little weird.”

Free from the empire he built, Barton plans to reinvent the gym experience all over again. Working with his friend Ian Schrager, as well as Studio Sofield and “a large technology company and a couple of doctors,” he’s opening a facility next year that he claims will be the next step in fitness. Barely touching the arepas he ordered, Barton explains with workout-nerd excitement how “aging and weight gain are less about calories and gravity and more about chemical and hormonal dis-generation.” Now, he says, diagnostic information about our personal health can be paired with supplements, medication, nutrition, and training so that anyone can look as shredded as Daniel Craig. “It’s a service that’s only available to celebrities. No one’s put it together commercially yet. We will look back on this era as nostalgic, because it will be much more efficient to transform yourself.”

The plan seems like an admission of how fitness culture has changed. This is a city of $34 spinning classes taught by Lululemonites treated like cult leaders, not a drag queen in a thirties one-piece. The gym has splintered into a thousand workouts—all at a price. Barton’s vision of a gym on every corner came true, but not quite in the way he might have expected.

As we leave the restaurant, several sharply dressed professional types walk by, checking their phones. “I’m an upstart. I need to innovate,” Barton says. “Status quo is not my comfort zone. I mean, look at me!” He hails a cab. I watch as the new downtowners stare at him, muscle-bound in his loud outfit, as if they have never seen such a person. Then they return to staring at their phones.

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A Muscle Man in Exile