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Helen Pye has published 14 articles

Slim when you're winning

Helen Pye hears how skating and slimming have transformed the life of fitness mogul Rosemary Conley
Helen Pye on Saturday 4th February 2012
Photograph: ITV Pictures

Rosemary Conley is currently starring on the latest series of ITV’s Dancing on Ice. Although some of the other contestants’ claim to the title of ‘celebrity’ is more dubious, Conley has been a household name since the 80s when her lycra-clad body burst onto the scene through her popular diet and fitness clubs. 2,000 franchise clubs now span the country with nearly 80,000 members and the inimitably perky Conley has had success with best-selling books and videos ever since.

What I want to know is why anyone would choose a job that depends entirely on leading exercise clubs when you just want to slob in front of the TV and say yes to that second slice of cake? ‘I went to slimming clubs when I was 21; I’d just got married and was overweight. After learning about calories, I decided I wanted to start my own club because I felt I could do it better. So I started my own with a few neighbours initially, then moved onto a local village hall and then it grew from there until it was 50-strong classes in Leicestershire.’

Conley says she faced no opposition when setting up her clubs from bigger competitors who didn’t want her muscling in on their business, but her journey to success was not a smooth one. Fighting hard to resurrect her business when it folded under the ownership of IPC, a magazine publishing company who first took Conley’s classes national, characterises the determination that has now made Conley a stalwart of the diet and fitness industry.

‘I was at a point when one business had failed, and you go from being on a salary and company car to thinking how am I going to survive. The only thing I could do was continue with my own classes, then I was hit by a gallstone problem and went into hospital and was put on a low-fat diet. With that changing my body shape I became a devotee of low-fat eating and published The Hip and Thigh Diet in 1988 which went on to become a massive seller. At the same time I became Christian and I also got married for the second time so I was a pretty important year for me. I had reached a low point in my life and then when The Hip and Thigh Diet came out I found myself with the opportunity to do something hugely exciting. I’d been in the business for 17 years and suddenly I was catapulted into the headlines and could command a fee for serialisation of my book. I just seemed to be so much in demand.’

Considering the incredible reversal in her fortunes, it’s understandable why Conley credits finding God as the turning point in her life. ‘When I became a Christian I was at a very big crossroad. I had made a mess of my life: I had a broken marriage, broken relationships, my business had gone down and I really didn’t know what the future held. When I became a Christian I just felt God was saying, “I’ll be the chairman of your life; follow me and I’ll take you forward”, and from that moment He did. He opened doors and I walked through them and my life was transformed; my whole focus of how I lived my life changed as a result of that. It just seems quite amazing how the same person can live their life in such a different way when God’s in it.’

Having established her weight loss business as one of the ‘big three’ in the country, alongside Slimming World and Weight Watchers, Conley’s next big challenge is of course remaining in the Dancing on Ice competition. Conley has been so committed to the programme that since first being approached five years ago, and having never skated before, she jumped at the challenge and for the past two years has had skating lessons to prepare herself. Despite admitting it’s ‘potentially completely dangerous’ for someone of 65 to take to the ice, Conley is exuberant about the whole experience.

‘It’s the most unbelievable experience of a lifetime, insofar as it’s a huge privilege to be one of 15 people out of a 60 million population who’s given the chance to skate every day and be taught by the top professionals in Britain. Each year they audition about 80 people to go on and from that make their selection. I have to say they’re very clever the way they do it because the mix of people we’ve got is quite amazing. Nobody wants anyone to leave the show and we all are really genuinely fond of each other and very much want to go out and do our best and let the viewers and the judges make their decisions.’

Even Chico? ‘They’re all such nice people. As a group we’re hugely supportive of each other. I’ve been delighted and surprised at how the other competitors have embraced me; they’ve treated me with enormous respect, and they’ve been genuinely kind and loving towards me which is really very unexpected for somebody like me, because I don’t consider myself to be a celebrity. These are actors and singers, people who are really in the public eye, and I’m just a dieting expert who’s made a career out of teaching people how to lose weight. It’s been such an added bonus.’

Conley is the equally enthusiastic about dance partner Mark Hanretty, who first appeared on the show last year and partnered Nadia Sawalha, only to be eliminated in the first week. But that probably shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of Hanretty’s skills as skater or teacher: Conley calls working with him an ‘amazing privilege’ and, despite their 39 year age gap, credits progressing to the fifth week on getting on excellently as both friends and in their working relationship.

Surely as no stranger to lurid leotards and leg-warmers, she must also feel at home in the spangly costumes? ‘The costumes are gorgeous, they cost between £1500 and 2000 pounds each; they’re basically a leotard with a skirt attached and then adorned with these beautiful crystals. It’s like a second skin, they’re skin tight, very, very secure and beautifully made. I wear two pairs of normal tights and a pair of fishnets over the top – It definitely holds the flesh in! And when you’ve got it all on and your hair’s all done and your make-up’s all done, you do feel pretty damn good.’

It’s a ‘wholly consuming’ training schedule, she comments, but with a career built on keeping fit, Conley is used to her job taking over her life. She admits that she feels constant pressure because ‘people are judging me on my choices and look at what I eat.’ While it might be tiring always having to choose the salad, Conley wants to keep going with her business as long as she can. Her first step: winning this series of Dancing on Ice. And at the moment, it’s looking like a pretty promising plan.

Visit Rosemary’s website www.rosemaryconley.com and follow her progress on facebook.com/voterosemary or on twitter @RosemaryConley

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