Hailing from Illinois, Zen Gray began her career as a personal trainer and fitness instructor over 15 years ago. Her background includes instruction in strength training, boot camp, step, aqua, bodyworks, circuit training, and dance classes in Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver. She is currently working at Jackie Warner’s gym Sky Spa in Los Angeles and is one of the feature trainers on Bravo’s ‘reality TV’ show “Work Out,” which has just begun its third season of taping. It is one of Bravo Televisions top shows and has a huge following not only in the fitness community but across the board. Zen is extremely personable, funny and down to earth. She has spent years dedicating her life to teaching others the advantages to physical fitness, a healthy mind, and overall happiness, well being and positive thinking. Zen heads up her own company ZEN GRAY, INC and was also the co-founder of the Women’s Weight Lifting Club at the University of Illinois. She was also a member of the Illinettes and Illini Dance Teams. She is a writer, public speaker and stand-up comedian appearing frequently at such clubs as World Famous Improv in Hollywood, the Comedy Store, and the Laugh Factory.
T: What do you miss most about growing up in Illinois now that you live in L.A.? Don’t you miss shoveling snow and digging out your car in the winter?
Z: Yes, it’s hard to miss Illinois in the winter. When I first moved here, I was like, “Open-toed shoes in December? SHUT UP!” But, I think Chicago is the greatest town. Seriously, it’s so friendly and fun and clean and easy to get around. Of course, we all have to say that or Mayor Daley will sick the mob on ya.
T: What were your parent’s professions?
Z: My Dad is a computer consultant and my Mom was a teacher for a while, an artist, and conspiracy theorist. I adore my Mom’s crazy advice she leaves on my voicemail. “Honey, they said on “60 Minutes” that you could get Mad Cow from gardening. So be careful, OK? Love you.”
T: What did you want to be as a kid when you grew up?
Z: I loved anything sporty or artistic as a kid. I was a grubby Tomboy who squealed and ran away from my parents when they demanded that I take a bath. I played every sport. I took dance classes and I always asked for “art stuff” for presents. Oh, and I really wanted a magic wand, too. I’d chuck it all if I could go to Hogwarts right now.
T: Getting a degree in advertising, how did you find your way into the world of physical fitness and personal training?
Z: Being on dance teams in high school and college naturally led to teaching aerobics as a fun outlet. So many people came up to me after class and asked me to train them that I went and got certified. I realized that I loved the fitness industry much more than advertising. I can’t believe it took me so long to figure that out.
T; What are the best and worst things about your profession?
Z: I LOVE seeing people’s lives change for the better. I know I have a talent for motivating people and it often spills over from fitness to their careers and their relationships. My peeps are not just leaner… they’re happier all over the place.
Worst thing? When people lie in their food journals. That kills me. “All you had was a carrot and a couple of cashews this weekend and you gained 5 pounds? That must have been one BIG f’n carrot.”
T: How did you come to work for Jackie Warner?
Z: Jackie has the best gym in LA. Naturally, I work there.
T: Is she as tough as she seems on TV or is she really a pussycat?
Z: Jackie is an amazing woman. I’m impressed with her drive and her diplomacy and she’s tough when she needs to be. She’s got a lot of responsibility and she handles it gracefully. She’s been surprisingly open and vulnerable in front of the camera and I think it shows that she has a soft side, too.
T: I know in ‘reality TV’ there’s so much left on the cutting room floor before it hits the screen since they’re cramming things into a one hour show. What are some of things we don’t get to see that we’d be surprised about?
Z: I don’t think people are surprised by anything anymore. Not with this group.
T: Have situations been set up ahead of time for the sake of drama and conflict on the show? Like the fisticuffs between Jesse and Rebecca last season.
Z: I wondered that, too! I asked Rebecca if she planned on throwing that water. She said she only had a moment before she threw it to make sure there wasn’t ice in it that could cut his face open.
T: Obviously last season was a rough one in more ways than one. The most heartbreaking was the passing of your friend and fellow trainer Doug Blasdell. I was lucky enough to get in contact with Doug early last year. What a great guy. Can you share with me some of the things he taught you not only personally but professionally?
Z: Doug was pure love. He was a great example of how to live with heart, gratitude and integrity.
T: I know taping for this season has already begun. What surprises can we look forward to with you and the rest of the trainers?
Z: Sorry, you’ll have to wait and see.
T: If you have a partner in crime at the gym who would it be and what kind of trouble have you gotten yourselves in to?
Z: Erika. Let me just say we’ve never been CONVICTED of anything.
T: Who’s the toughest trainer at the gym? I know you’ve run boot camps also but are you as intense as Peeler seems to be?
Z: Does Peeler seem that intense? Funny.
T: I would imagine that at some level the cameras can be a distraction. I’ve heard other people talking about their ‘reality TV’ experiences. Does there ever come a point when you really forget they’re there? It must be more difficult training a client with them around the gym all the time.
Z: You HOPE they’re not there when you forget to watch what you say.
T: Is it more difficult being on the dating scene now since you’re on TV then it was before the show started?
Z: I think a little bit. I’ve gotten some very persistent admirers. But you’re nobody until you have a stalker.
T: For all the guys out there who really want to know, what are you looking for in a man and what’s the first thing that grabs your attention?
Z: A great attitude is everything. If you’re a smart, hot, funny and wonderful dance partner… that’s great! But if you’re a jerk to the waitress, you won’t get another date.
T: How did your stand-up comedy come about and are you still performing regularly?
Z: I always enjoyed performing and I think that comics are brilliant. I perform periodically to work out the kinks in new material. I’d like to get up on stage more, though. I’ve just been very busy with my training clients.
T: You have a great relationship with your parents. Do you ‘volunteer’ your dad often for the athletic events? It must be quite a surprise for him when you come home.
Z: HA! Yes, I called him on Father’s Day and said, “HAPPY FATHER’S DAY! I’ve entered you in a swim race in September.” He almost hung up on me. But when I went back, he sucked me into swimming with him. We had a great time and almost the whole family was there to cheer him on. It was awesome. Family and friends beware! You’re next. It’s my new thing for gift giving.
T: With all the weight loss fads out there, do you see a dangerous trend as a trainer that people should be better aware of?
Z: I hate when people starve themselves. It just doesn’t work. I guess that’s not a fad, but I see it all the time. Then they eventually flip out and eat more crap. Very unproductive and not a fun way to live.
T: I know Jackie is not a fan of the gastric bypass surgery. What’s your take on that and lipo/plastic surgery in general?
Z: I’m a fan of eating right and working out. But, honestly I love the advances in medicine that help people feel better about themselves. People just need to try the natural thing first because ALL surgeries have the possibility of complications. Lipo works best when people eat right and workout. You can’t just lipo your whole body. It just doesn’t work like that.
T: What’s your guilty pleasure food and your favorite restaurant in L.A.?
Z: Tina, you know I love carrot cake. Stop tormenting me.
T: When it comes to relaxing, what does Zen like to do the most or least for that matter?
Z: I love the spa. Massages, facials, manicures/pedicures… All that stuff. Heaven. Least? Hmmm… Taxes.
T: Since you’ve been training for over 15 years what are you most proud of in regards to your own personal growth?
Z: I did a firewalk at a Tony Robbins seminar a few years ago. That was AWESOME! I’ll always be proud of that because it’s a metaphor for conquering your fears. I may be afraid of stuff… But I do it anyway.
T: What’s the next competition you’re training for? I know you’ve participated in triathlons lately.
Z: One of my New Year’s Resolutions what to do a triathlon. I LOVE sprint triathlons! I did two this year and I’d like to beat my times next year at those same races and possibly add a half Ironman distance. I suck at running, so I hope to improve in that area.
T: What would you like to achieve for yourself in the future and where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Z: I know EXACTLY what I’d like to achieve! I’m going to produce fitness videos and take a fitness touring group to schools around the country to promote healthier living. Over 65% of our kids are overweight in this country. It’s insane. Maybe I’ll do some stand-up in those towns, too… Hmmm….
T: Next time I come out to L.A. where are we going to hang out? I’ll work out with you but if I see Jackie coming my way to get me on the treadmill I’m running for the hills. I saw the Kathy Griffin episode. Sideways, not a chance!
Z: Aww… You can do it, Tina. Suck it up.
T: Now be honest, who’s dogs are cuter, mine (even though I only have one) or Jackie’s? Forget that she’s your boss for a minute and go for it.
Z: Pah-LEASE!!! No one’s cuter than your dog, Elmo.