Obé Fitness's Soul Trainer Walter Kemp Keeps His Core Tight

Walter Kemp II splinters his training circuits into three short acts. Act I is focused on the movements themselves. “I break everything down,” he says. "'Make sure your weight is in the back of your heel.' 'Make sure your core is tight.'"

It is safe to say that Kemp’s core is tight. It is also safe to say that his compression shorts, peeking out from beneath an emerald-green fitness ensemble, can barely contain his thigh muscles. Angling himself toward one of three cameras, he crawls into a geometrically perfect plank position. Elsewhere, thousands of other people — med students, special-education teachers, consulting professionals, and other striving souls who have logged in to Obé (pronounced "obey") this weekday morning for a 28-minute strength class — do the same, though not nearly as precisely as Kemp.

Near the Brooklyn Heights waterfront, a windowless studio is crammed with recording equipment, Ikea furniture, a changing area and makeup table, a neon rainbow of spandex-outfit possibilities, and a magazine writer (hello!). Mostly, the studio is filled to bursting with Walter Kemp II, who is short and muscle-bound but somehow also manages to make his presence felt 
in every molecule of the room.

"The Box," as Obé fans call it, is where workout classes are captured and streamed live to the heaving masses, wherever they are. The walls and floor are lit from within, glowing in blue, pink, and green. Its incandescence was inspired by the works of Dan Flavin and James Turrell, installation artists who work in abstractions of color and light; Obé is actually an acronym for Our Body Electric, a Walt Whitman reference.

But the service’s primary source of radiance is Obé’s cast of 25 instructors, all of whom teach classes live and on-demand from The Box, seven days a week. In brilliantly hued athletic separates, they squat and lunge against great, moving fields of pastel color. When Kemp transitions from the morning’s warm-up into an ass-blasting squat set, The Box blushes from glacial blues to downy sunrise tones.

Since joining the company in 2018 as its first male instructor, Kemp has been one of the brightest stars in Obé's constellation. The pandemic, which drove people out of gyms and into the arms of digital fitness services, only turned up the wattage.

Kemp's origin story comes up not infrequently in his class and at times takes on the contours of a fitness parable: He struggled with obesity, moved to New York from his native Miami to pursue dance, and came to understand his obesity as an obstacle. "I had a professor who said, 'What's your dream role on Broadway?' And I was like, 'to be Seaweed in Hairspray.' And he looked at me and said, 'Don't you think you're a little chubby for that?'"

Kemp was hurt, but ambitious, so he began to gradually incorporate exercise into his routine. He'd go jogging and let his mind wander. One day, he experienced something like a vision: a beautiful Black man standing before him. Thick of biceps, svelte of waist, gold of chain, and platinum of teeth. It was Walter Kemp II, but from the future. "Ever since that day, the weight dropped," Kemp says now. "Whenever I work out, and even in my class, I say, 'See yourself completing this workout.' If you can hold it in your mind, you can hold it in your hand."

This brings us to Act II of Kemp’s strength circuit. After the moves have been taught, it's time to let the mind wander, where it can fall prey to divine revelations.

"Round two, you know exactly what to do." He grins a heavenly white. "Now you’re just chilling."

"Entertrainment," or fun and fitness coupled into glorious harmony, is Obé's unique value proposition, according to cofounder Mark Mullett. He and cofounder Ashley Mills met working as agents at CAA, where their skill for scouting electric performers and their mutual love of boutique fitness classes fused into a business plan. Mullett declines to share information about Obé’s viewership numbers, a corporate messaging strategy similar to that of Netflix: "We want to make sure that all of the talent, all the folks at home are just fixated on having a great, pure experience with the instructor, or themselves, or the group," he half-explains. Plus, by not alluding to the material, conversations about Obé inexorably drift toward the spiritual. Even so, Mullett concedes, a single Obé class is attended by more participants than could possibly fit in your traditional American fitness classroom. (Later, I’m told that it’s "definitely safe to say" thousands of people will tune in to a single class.)

On Kemp’s makeup table sit a single tube of Alpha Male Cosmetics concealer next to a short stack of fan mail. In his Instagram DMs, there are hundreds more messages. The comments underneath range from heart eyes and fire emojis to full declarations of worship. His fan base coined a nickname for The Box when Kemp is in it: the Altar of Walter.

Which brings us to Act III of Kemp's strength circuit. Now that the body has been engaged and the mind unwound, the soul is left awaiting salvation. Kemp may or may not be able to access yours, but he is absolutely going to try. 

As Mullett explains, the platonic ideal of the fitness instructor is a blend of friend and superhero — someone who cares about you more than just superficially, who can also demonstrate advanced human physical performance. They have to be full-body entertainers, which is perhaps why many of Obé's instructors come from musical theater backgrounds. It is not enough to make the workout look easy; it has to look irresistibly fun.

Fostering a sense of intimacy, even between a fitness influencer and thousands of breathless strangers, is also key, so a TV placed under the middle camera scrolls the names of class participants while Kemp shouts them out. "Jane, welcome to class!" Kemp beams, mid-lunge. "Jolene, I haven’t seen your name in a long time. I’m not calling you out, I’m calling you in!" He laughs. "Hi, Kelly! Good to see you. Beautiful work, Gary!"

During the upper-body set, Kemp sermonizes while demonstrating a shoulder press. His left arm is tattooed in an exquisite Bahamian motif — a tribute to his grandfather, who was also a dancer. His right arm is ink-free and glistens like rain-soaked pavement. "Let me tell you guys something," Kemp says. He grips two 10-pound dumbbells as they ascend into a shoulder press. "I experienced a storm recently in my life and it caused me to stay at a place longer than I expected." 

(He explained the incident before class: Kemp was in his native Miami celebrating his 34th birthday, but his flight back to New York was canceled due to inclement weather.)

"I was freaking out and I didn't know what to do. But I had to surrender. And once I surrendered, I  realized that I was meant to be there," he says. "I want you to surrender."

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