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Donna Richardson, Weekend Today fitness correspondent and co-star of ESPN2’s Crunch Fitness, is easily one of the most recognized authorities in the fitness industry. Her trademark smile and sculpted body have been featured on magazine covers, television shows and exercise videos.
Today, her career is in high gear. But 15 years ago, Richardson was a Hollins College student working as a waitress to make extra cash. Her quest to dominate the fitness industry sprang from a challenge to take an aerobics class. “That class really whipped me,” she says, but she hung in there. In less than four months, she became the instructor, earning $3.25 an hour. “My family was wondering when I was going to get a real job,” she recalls.
But fitness was her real job, if she could find a way to make it pay. Richardson’s enthusiasm and talent landed her a position at an upscale women’s spa in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. But before her gig got jumping, the spa closed down. With two years of experience and only two clients, Donna launched Donnarobics, a personal training business.
“I also taught group classes for $2-$3 per person at churches, schools, community centers, hotel ballrooms-anywhere I could get space,” she says. She began with 25 classes a week. Over the next year, she hired other instructors and built up her offerings to 100 classes per week. “I was beginning to wonder when it would pay off.”
It did in 1986, when the Maryland Department of Recreation contracted her to teach at its three locations for a 75% take of class fees. Later that year, a local magazine named Richardson one of the top personal trainers in D.C. But she wanted more national exposure. She and a friend used $10,000 in personal savings to produce an exercise video, Stay Fit With Charles and Donna, which they distributed at trade shows and fitness workshops.
By 1989, Richardson had saved enough to lease her own studio, Stay Fit Plus, with an upper-class clientele paying $15 per session. “That’s where I cut my business teeth,” recalls Richardson, who was then 27. “For the first time, I had overhead costs and I worked nonstop, seven days a week. When the instructors didn’t show, I taught the classes. If the cleaning crew didn’t show, I scrubbed the showers.”
In 1991, Richardson left Stay Fit Plus to a colleague and set her sights on the white-dominated television fitness industry. She met with resistance almost immediately. “Doors were closed in my face or I was offered less money than white colleagues.” Knowing that face-recognition was her ticket to the top, she took any opportunity that came her way.
Her big break came later that year when she was chosen for a new ESPN show-Fitness Pros. Despite the low-paying, grueling schedule-52 shows in two weeks for a total of $5,000-her career began to take off. In 1994, Anchor Bay Entertainment signed her to fill their top spot in a four-year contract for $100,000 plus royalties.
Today, Richardson is seeing the fruits of her