Caleb Marshall aka The Fitness Marshall is as energetic during our Zoom interview as he is in his many dance workout videos. A self-proclaimed “modern-day Richard Simmons meets Britney Spears”, Caleb brings joy to exercise with his workouts set to the biggest and best pop tunes around.
After starting as The Fitness Marshall while in college in 2014, 30-year-old Caleb’s following rocketed during the pandemic when people sought new ways to exercise that also lifted them out of the lockdown doldrums. Here, he talks about his love of Britney Spears, dancing, and dream cameos.
When did you first fall in love with Britney Spears?
That’s the best question! The first time I saw her infomercial. I remember my tiny bubble TV, it was the …Baby One More Time album, and she was doing backflips and her pigtails… Ever since that moment, I was obsessed. I was never allowed to listen to Britney Spears when she got ‘sexy’. In addition to my secret sexuality, I was also secretly trying to get Britney Spears songs and videos and record them. Since the first time I saw her is the easiest way to answer that.
What is the best Britney song of all time?
‘Freakshow’ is one of my favourite Britney songs. I also really love ‘Cinderella’ from the Britney album. My favourite Britney single is probably ‘Gimme More’ or ‘Circus’.
There was a great moment on your livestream where you realised Jamie Spears had left the conservatorship. You were clearly invested.
That was a genuine moment that I am so happy I got to share. I’ve been following the conservatorship for over a decade. I love her so much. If she never performs again, I just want her to be happy. I was just celebrating that as a fan of her.
Are you hoping for more music?
Yes, but as long as she wants to. If not, it’s fine.
Was Britney your pathway into dance?
Yeah, I was always captivated by her. I was obsessed with pretending to be her in the mirror or making up dances to her songs. That is what helped me find my confidence when I was younger and felt out of place. That is where I felt I could really shine and let go of my insecurities. Not that I was great at it, but I enjoyed moving my body to music.
Have you always been into dance?
The deal with my mum and dad was that if I did all the sports and I really hated them, I could dance. It was never professional; it was children’s dance classes. That’s where I really found my love for moving my body in a fun way and not a way that was rigorous or that I had to train for.
You didn’t enjoy fitness growing up?
I was the kid that everyone made fun of for being overweight. Just every little thing that could be considered different got pointed out. So, I was always obsessed with food and exercise and looking in the mirror and looking at everything I hated. That’s something that I think everyone struggles with. I think so many people have a bad relationship with fitness because the first time you’re really getting into it usually is because you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, someone said something about my body,’ or ‘I want to change something about my body.’ If we put our mental health first, the physical would follow. But we associate exercise with a physical goal. That’s where we all go wrong.
As The Fitness Marshall, does that mean people expect you to start the dancing at parties?
Yeah, and I hate it so much. The videos are my way of being confident and moving my body. But when I’m just me with my friends, I’m much more reserved and much less The Fitness Marshall. It helps me feel confident. And when it’s just Caleb, I don’t want to be the first one on the dance floor sometimes. Being in the middle of a dance circle gives me so much anxiety. I’m a good time, don’t get me wrong, but I also don’t always want to be the centre of attention.
The way you talk about The Fitness Marshall, it’s almost like armour. Is that how you see it?
Yeah, The Fitness Marshall is my alter ego, for sure.
Where did you get the idea from?
I hated exercise. I was really missing performing when I got to college, because I used to do community theatre and high school show choir. In college, they had these dance fitness classes. I just remember feeling like a pop star. I was having fun. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I got a great workout and I feel amazing.’ And so that was really a way for me to take control, not only of my physical health, but my mental health and find a source of joy. When I started teaching these classes, I just fell in love with it and the idea of letting other people learn that moving your body doesn’t have to be a chore or awful, or only for fit or coordinated people. I just saw a real opportunity to help people and give them a space to feel like Beyoncé or Britney.
How does The Fitness Marshall work? Where can people sign up?
We have over 300 free videos on YouTube where people can just find their favourite song, do a three-minute dance workout with themselves anywhere that they can watch YouTube. We also have 30-minute workouts and 60-minute workouts. Those are our paid subscription tiers that are $14.99 and $19.99. We do them every single week. They are live so I am messing up, I am bickering with my backup booties who are my best friends from high school. We’re having the best time. That’s my favourite part of my job because it’s so real and raw and it’s not edited. It’s just a way for people to laugh and have fun while working out.
Do you hear back from people who do the routines?
All the time. And that’s what keeps me going. There was someone who emailed me who was diagnosed with HIV, and they were trying to figure out how to embrace their sexuality and they used my videos to help them find their confidence again. During lockdown, people in Italy were emailing me. I have so many folders saved of stories to remind myself how real it is. That makes it all worth it.
How do you go about choosing the songs and the routines?
It’s songs that I love. The only thing that’s different now is the landscape has shifted so much, especially with TikTok. I have a lot more fun looking online and seeing what’s trending.
Have artists who you’ve done workouts to got in touch?
I’ve had Miley Cyrus share my videos on her story. I’ve had Cardi B share my stuff and acknowledge it. Lizzo was actually supposed to be in one of my videos right before she broke through. That would have been cool.
Are there any dream collabs?
Besides Britney Spears, a dream collab would be Richard Simmons. I would love to do anything with him. Also, Jane Fonda. That’d be really cool!
What’s been the highlight so far?
Sesame Street — the peak of my life personally and professionally. Meeting Elmo in person and Big Bird, I’ll never forget that! I saw videos of children dancing to me and that’s the coolest thing. There was a little kid who had a brain tumour and was going into surgery, and she watched my videos to calm her anxiety.
Being on The Kelly Clarkson Show was another huge highlight. Working with record labels is one of the coolest [aspects] because a few years ago, I had record labels trying to make me go away. Now, I have record labels paying me to use their music. I’m really passionate about helping other people be able to use music that they love and change that landscape, which is going in a positive direction.
Do you find it easy to make exercising feel fun?
I’ve never really gone into it thinking it’s a workout. I’ve created something that is so much fun it genuinely doesn’t feel like I’m working out. The most stress comes with trying to make up dances because I put so much pressure on myself. I’m like, ‘A dancer has to have fun doing this and so does my grandma.’
Does being The Fitness Marshall make exercising for yourself more difficult?
No, I just do different things. I really enjoy doing a variety of workouts. The Fitness Marshall is a lot of cardio, which I love. But then on my own time, I’ll do some weightlifting. I love taking other people’s classes and just seeing what else is out there.
What’s your advice to someone wanting to get into fitness more?
Number one, find something you genuinely don’t hate doing. Aside from something physically challenging, I think the biggest hurdle to starting is your mental health and what you’re telling yourself. Once you get over that hurdle, then you can find something that’s more aligned with your goals.
Is there anything else you do to maintain good mental health?
Lots of therapy. When you actually acknowledge your mental health and work on it, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and the most rewarding. Also, just setting boundaries, not overextending myself, not helping people who don’t want to help themselves, has been really hard for me. It took me so long to feel secure enough and confident enough in who I am to not constantly be worried about how everyone perceives me. Once I let that go, and really just started focusing on how to maintain or have a healthy relationship with myself and the people I loved the most, that’s when things got really good. Also, medication. That has been something I was so ashamed of and so worried about doing and it changed my life for the best. Just don’t be afraid to face your demons.
What was it like growing up in Indiana?
I think the current climate right now is a good indicator of how it was. As far as the anti-drag laws, the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ laws, that’s the people I was surrounded with. It was nice people who supported you up to a point as long as it didn’t make them uncomfortable. That was difficult to navigate as a queer kid. Everyone around me was deeply religious. There was a lot of good with that, but also a lot of trauma. It makes me really sad to see that still today that’s not going away, and it’s almost gotten worse.
What’s your message to LGBTQ+ youth right now?
Just be visible. The more we hide, the longer it takes for progress. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. And it’s not fair. But we can’t do anything but be loud and be ourselves.
Tell me about the Active Booty wear.
We wanted to make a line that was really representative of our audience and clothes that were also not made for specific sizes. Everything we make is offered in XS to 5X. And while the styles don’t change, the way the clothes are made means they adjust to fit individual sizes and body types. That’s something we’re proud of. It’s a way for us to represent the people that do our videos.
What’s next for you?
Our tour. We haven’t been on tour since before the pandemic. We’re starting in August, and we’re hitting eight cities all over the country, and a little bit of Canada.
Words Alastair James Photography Devin Dygert Styling Active Booty