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August 19, 2010

New York's Top Personal Trainer

Michael Turek

How Mary Ann Browning is getting Manhattan’s Upper East Side into shape—one mogul at a time.

The first time I met the woman who’d change my life—along with my waist size, my diet, percentage of body fat, even the cut of my suits—it was 6:30 p.m., December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. We met at the Core Club, a stylish, membership-only outpost of exclusivity and power for newly minted masters of the universe, preferably hedge funders–cum–art collector types, on Manhattan’s East 55th Street between Madison and Park. She was already seated near the bar, iPhone in one hand, a Patrón tequila (“tall, on the rocks, with seltzer and lime juice”) in the other. “This is what you must drink from now on. No more martinis! And you can have two and still be able to train like a dream in the morning.” This she tells me, in between calls, and quite emphatically, as is her style in most matters.

I had been sent to Mary Ann Browning by Anne Buford, a smart thirtysomething girl about town who knows everything re how to do it, buy it, spend it, and live it Upper East Side style.

“Richard, I want you to meet this great trainer. She’s fabulous. Does all the big guys,” she starts telling me in that breathless way such girls talk. “She’s going to save your life. I swear to God.”

“But,” I manage to squeeze in, “I have a trainer and I like him and…”

“But you don’t have a Mary Ann Browning.”

And so I met the wonder woman of über-trainers, all five foot eight inches of her size-0, Donatella-blonde self. Dressed in a skintight black sleeveless—yes, and it was December, as I said—Azzedine Alaïa, smoky stockings, and Christian Louboutin stilettos, she managed to show to her advantage every attenuation and curve, or, in her case, angle, of a hard-body workout. She’s trained Paula Zahn, Vera Wang, and Frédéric Fekkai as well as a good percentage of every middle-aged mogul-in-training in New York City.

We chitchatted about this and that: how she had been a principal dancer in South Africa’s leading ballet company. “That lasted until I was all of 28, when my husband started opening a series of unsuccessful restaurants. His idea of work was to play cards all day and wait for divine intervention. So the famous ballet dancer was now a waitress and a dishwasher.”

As the conversation started winding down, I knew the time had come to do more than talk about me. She checked me out like one of those judges at Westminster looking for Best in Show. The only thing she didn’t do was lift up my tail and take a good hard look at my rear haunches.

“Five days a week, three months, and we’ll begin seeing some real results!”

Five days a week, three months! Forget it. Who has the time—and at $400 an hour?

“Let’s see: I am in the business for eighteen years, have two degrees, am certified in everything I could be certified in, and…I get amazing results. So if I were a top lawyer and you paid for my time, then I’m very cheap. Besides, you won’t train directly with me but with one of my trainers. As for the time, you’ll find it.”

And so I did, training with Effie Eleftheriadi, a 28-year-old Athenian, via a brief period in Los Angeles before joining Browning. Religiously. Seriously. And without missing or rescheduling once. I was at that gym at 6 or 6:30 every weekday morning, huffing and puffing, hiking and pumping my way into shape. Six months later I’m 50 pounds lighter and have gone from a size-40 waist to a 34.

What Mary Ann calls the Browning Method does not reinvent the wheel in terms of exercise. It’s heavy on cardio—running, fast-paced walking for those like me whose knees gave up on running long ago, biking coupled with light weights. Hard and lean rather than big and muscular is her motto. “But the key is working out at least six days a week,” Browning says. “Start slow, don’t get injured, and don’t burn out.”

The Browning Method is also about losing weight from areas where fat is stored. You can quite literally change the shape of your body. Browning strongly believes in cardio 45 minutes a day, at least five days a week, as a way of burning calories and shedding pounds. Only at that point do weights enter the program to build muscle and burn fat.

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And then there’s diet. “No, we don’t use the word ‘diet’ in the sense of eating less. That doesn’t work in the long term. Rather, we talk about eating smart,” she says. Cut out or cut down on cheese, chocolate, cream, and butter. Reduce your alcohol, halve your servings of protein, double your water intake. And practice portion control.

What distinguishes the Browning Method from the millions of other high-priced trainers’ guru techniques is the way Mary Ann Browning completely and utterly devotes herself to a client. “I don’t sleep,” she says. And you believe her, when you get the e-mail, sent at 2:45 a.m., saying “What did you eat for dinner?” This following the one asking about breakfast, the midmorning snack, lunch, and an after-lunch check-in. Other e-mails interspersed throughout the day ask all sorts of questions about how you trained, how you felt, how much you trained. She is there in the there, as they say. Even if you don’t train with Mary Ann herself, you feel as though you do. When I told her I was going to the Monkey Bar, the fashionable Graydon Carter–Jeff Klein restaurant, she had the menu faxed to her and then annotated it for me: grilled fish, not sautéed with butter; vegetables, lots, on the side; and fruit for dessert. Oh, yes, and ten to 20 glasses of water a day is key. Somehow it just happens—after a few weeks, maybe a month, it all begins to seep in and you are hearing the strong, muscular voice of Mary Ann Browning in your head. You’re anticipating the e-mails.

“I will do anything to get results for my clients,” she says. “Run, bike, swim, stretch, buy food, shoes, socks, pills, magazines. I will order food for them late at night, check the menus of every place they go.”

Mary Ann Browning credits her career to real estate developer–cum–boulevardier–cum husband of Samantha Boardman, Aby Rosen, who helped her open training centers at the Core Club and at 980 Madison. But in the beginning she only trained women. “I had issues, and issues with men, but I did like to lift heavy weights, run, and bike hard.” Guys like Rosen and hotelier and PlumTV mogul Jon Tisch started coming to her. “And I found that allowed me to get over all my issues and insecurities about men. Now I am like a man—there is nothing they can say or do that would surprise me. I am like one of the boys, and I know how competitive and driven they are, so it works well.”

“She’s exceptional, strong-willed, and relentless when it comes to determination, motivation, and inspiration. She never gives up on you,” says Rosen, who was one of eight guys who made up the informally named $5,000 club. Browning created it as a gimmick, a motivational tool to see who could lose the most body-fat percentage and weight. And it worked. She asked each to ante up $5,000, with winner taking all. “I couldn’t believe how competitive they were. In two months they all lost about 20 pounds, but some were just more driven than others, worked out harder, and, well… The man who won lost 25 pounds, his body fat went from 24 to 10 percent, and two years later, at 50 years old, he’s leaner, fitter, stronger, and, he says, playing better golf than ever.”

A few weeks ago I sat down with Browning at Casa Lever, the superfashionable Midtown mogul’s canteen on East 53rd between Park and Madison. When Mary Ann isn’t working out, training, traveling to Miami for a triathlon with clients, or arranging private sessions in East Hampton, she’s likely to be found here, especially at lunch. At the restaurant she’s often surrounded by “my boys.” I order tuna carpaccio as she articulates her philosophy of life: training, eating, and socializing. “Oh, look,” she says, “Aby’s always over there, and oh, David’s here for lunch today. Do you know Tico? Or Diego, who works with him?” Next week she heads to the Turks and Caicos with clients to do a little private resort training.

Right now seems the perfect opportunity to ask her if she’s pleased with my results.

“When I first met you, to be honest, I thought you were just another flake who might be keen to get results but was not serious. Even in the beginning I never thought you would be serious. But I always give my fullest to whoever asks me, so I did it. You did not let me down, thank you. I am really proud of you—a true example of how it can be a way of life, and you get results, not crazy training, no starving either.”

At this point a waiter delivers a deliciously fresh salad of artichokes and arugula. I start to take my first forkful when Mary Ann leans over and says, politely and in my ear so no one else can hear, “You did ask for the dressing on the side, didn’t you?”

Brownings Fitness is located at 980 Madison Avenue, with outposts at the Regency Hotel, Morgans Hotel, Core Club, and Southampton. Prices are customized and upon request. For more information, go to browningsfitness.com.