This story is part of Image issue 6, “Energy,” an exploration what sports style feels like in the City of Champions. See the full package here.
A switch turns on. Angela Manuel-Davis has gone into motivational mode. Her words are coming out hot and fast. “You were created in purpose, on purpose, for purpose,” she says. “You are so necessary, every single one of us on this Earth is necessary. And it’s not about finding your purpose because it’s already in you.”
These words are meant for me. “Every single thing that you could possibly need to be the greatest version of yourself was downloaded in your DNA as you were being created in your mama’s womb,” she continues. “Everything that you could have ever needed is in you. And not only what you need, but you are needed. And that is why you are here. That is why you are on this Earth. That is why you are on this planet — because there is something in you that only you can do. No one else can do it.”
I try to remind myself, this is what Angela does. She shows you how to adapt, how to bounce back, how to do all the things she preaches in her notoriously punishing and pastoral fitness classes and motivational speeches. “She’s always been an encourager,” says Angela’s husband, Jerome Davis. “She’s probably one of the most influential, famous, nonfamous people you’d ever meet. If you’ve ever had a chance to spend time with her it’s like, ‘How don’t more people know who you are?’”
Manuel-Davis is the inspo gawd of L.A. Her ability to motivate is what has helped her reach the rare level of worldwide notoriety but without the fame. She’s low-key but impressive nonetheless. She’s a speaker, fitness guru, stationary-cycling coach and chief motivational officer at AARMY, the company she started with former SoulCycle instructor Akin Akman and creative strategist Trey Laird. And that’s on top of Manuel-Davis, the former All-American track and field star and Olympics hopeful (she missed the cut at trials by milliseconds), and the eldest of four extremely successful siblings, including Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo. She’s also daughter of former Major League Baseball coach/manager Jerry Manuel and, for nearly eight years, was one of the most famous SoulCycle instructors in L.A., beloved by everyone from Busy Philipps to Bey and Jay.
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If there was ever a person who could put life’s most persistent nagging question — what is my purpose in a world that often feels too big, too random and too mysterious for me to even understand — into its appropriate context, it’s Manuel-Davis. Why am I here, I ask her. What’s the point?
“You are unique. You are individual, you are special. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are destined for greatness. You are more than enough,” she answers.
Clarity often comes in a safe space. The place where Manuel-Davis can retreat, where she doesn’t have to tell people to go faster, harder, stronger, is her home in Beverly Hills. Here, she sounds more casual and relaxed. Here, she uses an inside voice. “When we do the kind of work that we do, we do need a place that’s ours,” Manuel-Davis says. “Like, I don’t want to entertain here.”
Manuel-Davis is a collector. Her home is filled with weird chairs and art that she’s carefully selected over the years. It’s the art that inspires her most. A Nike athlete and fashion enthusiast, Manuel-Davis is spotted often at art openings, rocking her asymmetrical curly cut and a wide-brimmed hat, a grill shining out of her mouth. (One of her close friends is Moschino designer Jeremy Scott, and her CFDA-nominated little brother, Jerry, is a star in the luxury streetwear world. Fear of God even did an exclusive collaboration with AARMY recently.) Manuel-Davis has been known to dedicate two days off a month to checking out up to 16 museums and galleries each day with her husband and kids.
Fitness is about movement and wellness. For Manuel-Davis, it’s also an exercise in speech. She tells stories in her classes; it’s the thing that moves people to not give up when they want to, the thing that bridges gaps. But at the crux of what she does is service. Manuel-Davis is serving. In that sense, she doesn’t see what she does as so different from any other form of art, fashion or business. What connects them is something unspoken. “Dabbling in high fashion or streetwear, or artistry — it’s the same language,” Manuel-Davis says. “It stirs up my creativity. It forces me to push the envelope. It forces me to take risks. I think intersection of all of that is like the sweetest pocket ever.”
Manuel-Davis has told this story countless times — one, because people always ask for it, and two, because it connects to the core of what she does now: How did she become this person?
There are two key events that left Manuel-Davis clawing out of struggle, shaping her path. “Probably two of the lowest points in my life,” she says. “What I think about those times — and what also fuels what I do as far as encouraging people — is I know what it feels like to feel hopeless. I know what it feels like to believe your life isn’t worth living.”
She was barely a young adult when she divorced her first husband. He was a baseball player, and Manuel-Davis felt like everyone in that world — which was her family’s world — thought she had failed. She moved into her parents’ basement and went into hiding; she watched trash TV and disconnected from the things she once loved. At some point, her dad told her she needed to start running again. More specifically, he said it was time to “run toward healing.” Manuel-Davis did just that. She got back on the track and started training for the Olympics. She didn’t make it past trials, but she felt like herself again.
Running (plus Manuel Davis’ insistent auntie, who worked at USC and befriended Jerome Davis when he was running track and field there) is also what led her to her husband, whom she calls her soulmate. “We always carry each other as if we’re in each other’s presence,” she says. “Like, always.” But after the birth of her second child, Renzi, Manuel-Davis was consumed by a case of postpartum depression. On one of the worst days, Davis went to work early and came back to find her in the same position on the couch, staring at the wall. She hadn’t moved all day. He told her that he’d gone to a yoga and cycling studio — this was before the rise of SoulCycle — and the instructors were waiting for her. Manuel-Davis took one class and immediately bought the five-pack.
There’s more to the UCLA Bruins women’s gymnastics team than a deep bench of Olympians, viral routines and a winning record.
“The first time that I did it, what started to break off for me was the heaviness of the depression and the hopelessness,” she says. “I knew I needed to come back.” After completing her five classes, Manuel-Davis became an instructor and quickly amassed a fan base. “I know that there are these moments of darkness, that if we let them win, they can take us out,” Manuel-Davis says. “You really just want to sit in that pocket with people that you love, or people that listen to you, or people that will allow you to coach them, and just encourage them to hold on, because that won’t last always.”
Manuel-Davis has always been this person. She inherited it from both of her parents, high school sweethearts, whom she summons while she’s coaching. “They always said, ‘You need to, you need to figure out how to serve the world, you need to figure out how to serve humanity, you need to figure out how to take what you’ve been given and give it back to the world,’” she says of her parents.
The aesthetics of stationary cycling are sleek and stylish. The energy is devotional, aspirational and beautiful: making something grueling look sexy and easy, and making that into a culture. The stereotypical stationary cycler is a thin white woman who lives in New York or California, wears skin-tight athleisure and — if in L.A. — drinks the Green Goddess Superfood Smoothie from Erewhon like it’s water. In most people’s minds, the stereotypical instructor isn’t much different.
Manuel-Davis grew to be one of the most influential instructors on the West Coast because her coaching and her classes speak to something more than reductive aesthetics. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, I want to get some abs,’ or ‘I want to fit into this dress,’ or any of that — I don’t care. I don’t care!” she says. “It doesn’t matter, but what I will do is I’ll get in the pocket with you and I’ll fight for your life.”
Some have described Manuel-Davis’ classes as “church on wheels.” She’s carried that energy with her from the early days at SoulCycle to AARMY, which is now doing pop-ups all over L.A., including a recent one at the Mistake Room, an art space in DTLA. Picture the scene: Manuel-Davis wearing the sneakers your hypebeast boyfriend can’t even cop and a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes. She’s dancing. She’s jumping around. Music is blaring. Then comes the sermon — just the thing cyclists near their physical breaking point need. As Manuel-Davis crescendos, the cyclists’ tears flow as freely as sweat. For Manuel-Davis, the experience is out-of-body. “You’re just a vessel,” she says. “You’re just in surrender. And you won’t remember really what you said, or what happened.”
That’s what got the attention of Oprah, whom Manuel-Davis toured with multiple times, speaking in stadiums filled with tens of thousands of people. Other attendees of Manuel-Davis’ classes include Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Ciara, Kelly Rowland, Busy Philipps and Kerry Washington. For Manuel-Davis, the superstar and the new mom coming to a fitness class for the first time since having her baby are given the same treatment. How many times Beyoncé curses while on the bike — a number Manuel-Davis won’t confirm — is no different from the next person. Everyone comes to sweat and be inspired. In turn, the artists who come to her classes inspire Manuel-Davis. “We invite each other to match our fly,” she says. “Match my fly. Inspire my fly. That’s how we go out and then inspire the world.”
OK, but back to the motivational speech Manuel-Davis is giving me. She tells me that I’m no accident. That “God was not having a bad day when he made me.” Something I don’t reveal to her is that I’m someone with a healthy skepticism when it comes to any kind of motivational speech. The way I’ve seen it done has struck me as ingenuine in the past. But I’m listening, keeping an open mind, because I’m just as in need as the next person.
“What is the matter of your heart?” Manuel-Davis asks me. “What is the thing that you could or would do where you didn’t even have to get paid to do? What are some things that keep you up at night? What are some things that have you tossing and turning?”
I know Manuel-Davis does this for a living. I know she’s done this countless times, for countless souls. But it still feels like she’s attempting to connect with me, my fears, my insecurities, instead of reading off some script that has been etched into her memory. The skeptic voice in my head says that’s probably because her words are universal — that we’re all lost in the same way. But it’s more than that. Not everyone has the gift to make people feel seen. But Manuel-Davis is seeing me.
“Stay encouraged and know that the revelation is coming, as long as you keep your head down and do what you can do,” she says, switching into affirmation mode for me. “I trust that it’s going to make itself clear,” she continues. “I trust and I’m going to put one foot in front of the other, and if there isn’t anything in particular that I can think to do on a given day, what I’m going to do is I’m going to just wake up and be in gratitude. I’m just going to wake up and be thankful. I’m going to wake up with gratitude because I was on the wakeup list this morning, because I did get to see another day, because I am still here, because there is breath in my lungs, because I do have life in my body. I’m going to be grateful, and then I’m going to think of something I can do for someone else.”
I’m nodding furiously.
My throat gets tight, my eyes a little wet.
“I’m going to trust that one day, that answer will reveal itself to me. But I will not — will not — believe the lie that I was not created in purpose on purpose for a purpose. And I will remind myself every single day that God was not having a bad day when he made me and I will remind myself every day that I am necessary.”
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