On a Saturday morning in August, aerobics instructor Erica Nix starts her Zoom workout class with a few zany jokes and by sharing a video clip of Richard Simmons giving a pep talk. After the ever-eccentric Simmons, tenderhearted fitness star of the eighties, closes out his words of encouragement, Nix keeps her screen share going and cuts to the next video, switching between YouTube clips and recordings of herself demonstrating the moves. Angela Lansbury leads a back stretch, lying on the floor sensually and repeating, “This is a wonderful stretch.” Later, Tony Britts speeds up the tempo to get the twelve or so students warmed up. Cher then punches the air in a lacy black getup. 

In another clip, Judi from Jazzercise lightly insults Nix’s class: “You should have it by now! If you don’t have it,” she pauses for a breath as she boogies, “you’re never gonna get it.” Nix tells us to ignore her. “Rude! You will get it!” she shouts. “And if you don’t ever get it, it doesn’t matter. This dance will never look cool anywhere you go in life. This is just for fun.” 

Nix frequently trawls the internet and her personal VHS collection to find the weirdest fitness videos out there: a room full of poodles lifting weights; a gospel workout imploring participants to “lift those arms in praise.” All the while, she talks over the mic in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with her own brand of motivational speak, including body-positive nuggets of support, self-deprecating personal anecdotes, sex jokes, and loving reminders to take the eighties icons, and their fitness advice, with a grain of salt.

Pre-pandemic, the Austin-based choreographer and fitness guru taught in person at places like Myo Massage and led poolside aerobics at the Austin Motel. Companies such as Whole Foods and Outdoor Voices have also hired Nix to teach classes for their employees. Now she’s pivoted to leading classes on Zoom (though only from her chair at the moment, as she’s recovering from a back injury). The move to digital hasn’t discouraged loyal followers, though, and it’s earned her new fans, too. Nix identifies as queer and has an especially loyal following among LGBTQ Texans, but everyone’s welcome. Participants often hang around on Zoom after class to talk about virtual dating, local protests, and online shows, plus the other odds and ends of socially distant life.

Nix met her idol, Richard Simmons, in October 2012.Courtesy of Erica Nix

The fresh-faced Nix has a kinetic glint in her eye, a wild, curly mane of red hair, and a slight swell to her raspy yet exuberant voice. Fans and followers describe her as “vibrant,” “larger-than-life,” “vulnerable,” “radical,” and “ridiculous.” Most folks who take her class these days are supporters of her Patreon, a membership platform for content creators. But Nix has been delivering fun, occasionally risqué, and disarmingly clever content as a fixture of Austin’s nightlife and queer community for a long time.

Settled in her eager, campy persona for well over a decade, the Arlington-born Nix has been doing interactive events around town since the early 2000s, shortly after she moved to Austin to study fine art photography at St. Edward’s University. (She runs a queer wedding photography business on the side.) Her YouTube channel goes back to 2010, when she started a web series to “make working out fun again,” donning a leotard and leg warmers that looked straight out of the eighties. Nix has been in and out of the art gallery world, the fitness scene, and internet cult fame. She started a queer-centered gym called Transform in 2015, but it closed down last year. Five months after it shuttered, she created her most recent multimedia performance art piece, a variety show with local drag queens called This Is Not a Cult (hint: the plot involves a pyramid scheme—in other words, a cult). Its upcoming sequel will be a socially distant, interactive drive-in movie event in early December—the centerpiece of Austin’s Contrast Film Festival.

“She eats, sleeps, and breathes this as an art form,” says collaborator and wellness advocate Rocky Lane. And according to This Is Not a Cult producer Jeremy von Stilb, “it seems like an accident that she became a real-life fitness instructor.” It all began when Nix was in college. On weekends, she started dancing for an Austin garage rock band as her aerobics personality, Thunder Thighs. She’d do sit-ups while pounding beer and smoking cigarettes, and each performance would end with her weighing herself, subsequently flying into a fit of rage and breaking the scale, and then stuffing her face with doughnuts, humping a cake, or spraying Cheez Whiz all over the audience, “like it was coming out of my tits.” 

Despite its absurdity, this performance had serious undertones for Nix, who says it was a way of “exorcising demons” from her conservative upbringing in Arlington. “My mom was a diet freak and an aerobics freak,” she says, “and I grew up not knowing that my body was beautiful, not believing that.” When the band asked her to be a go-go dancer in their shows, she says, she didn’t feel sexy enough to do that, so she concocted the Thunder Thighs act instead. Mimicking real experiences she’d had as a child obsessively weighing herself after following along to her mom’s aerobics videotapes, she’d choose the highest-impact moves in hopes of losing weight quickly. She’s still unpacking these sorts of things in therapy, and it comes up these days as she sifts through outdated videos for her vintage VHS mashups: instructors make constant mentions of belly fat and include close-ups of women’s body parts as places to lose weight (“which doesn’t even work,” she notes). 

Nix on the campus of St. Edward’s University in Austin in August.John Leach

As Nix explains it, many people don’t feel welcomed or motivated by “normative physical culture,” herself included. Overemphasis on weight loss and unhealthy dieting habits, issues that were certainly worsened by some fitness norms that became mainstream during the eighties, have been obstacles for Nix on her journey to feeling good in her own body. “I’m one hundred percent pro–Richard Simmons,” Nix says. “His focus on bringing fitness to people of all shapes and sizes was revolutionary.” But she still winces at how some of the lines uttered by her hero, like “Sweat off that mayonnaise,” can instill a sense of guilt around food. 

Simmons came from a time when the calorie was king, and by the same token, the closet was king, too. While the flamboyant Simmons’ sexuality has been widely speculated upon, he never actually came out as gay, despite his hints and his flirting back and forth with David Letterman every time he went on the show. Today, the queer community is more accepted, and the body positivity movement is changing the conversation around exercise from calories burned and pounds lost to embracing your body, whatever shape it is. This is the work Nix builds upon. “The idea is to do what your body feels right doing,” says Laramie Gorbett, who has been working out with Nix for almost five years.

The same goes for Class Transitions, a weekly class Nix created for trans and nonbinary folks “using strength training to love their bodies as they become their most authentic selves,” as the class description reads. Since COVID hit, Nix has been co-teaching online with Rocky Lane, an Austinite who started his own transition three and a half years ago. He says that given the barriers to entry in traditional, heteronormative gym environments, he and other trans people he knows have to ask one another, “Who’s safe to work out with?” Nix’s name kept coming up. 

Lane says he sees Nix stepping up not only as a cisgender woman, but also as a white woman. In August, she danced with community groups in a flash mob outside Austin City Hall in support of defunding the police. “Dance protesting is my favorite,” says Nix. At the moment, she’s charging only $1 for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) participants to take her classes—the lowest rate Patreon will allow. Political performance has always been part of her process: Nix thinks of her class as a “cyclical art piece” that gets people moving back and forth between the gym and the streets. In past years, she’s brought her ragtag team of self-proclaimed “queerdos” (a portmanteau for queer and weirdos) to dance and sing for Planned Parenthood, One Billion Rising, QueerBomb, and even Occupy Wall Street in New York City. In 2017, she co-organized the Queer Dance Freakout, a party protest in front of the Governor’s Mansion against Senate Bill 6, better known as the “bathroom bill.” 

Nix with members of Transform, the queer-centric gym she founded in Austin, in June 2016.Courtesy of Erica Nix

Nix’s sense of humor, combined with her celebration of queer sexuality, means her classes can get a little risqué. During the Zoom workout I attended, in the midst of a goofy move—the old video instructed us to flip our hands up and down—she shouted out, “That reminds me of how my sixth-grade boyfriend touched my boobs for the first time.” As a general rule, when the class does shimmy shakes, she may invite you to do so on the side of the screen so she can motorboat you. 

Zoom seems to have been more expanding than limiting for her business: new followers are joining from California to Nebraska. “All it took was one first workout,” says Ashley Maynor, who learned about Nix through the Boss Babes ATX conference and now works out with her three times a week from New York City. “It’s something special.” Luxury yoga studios are everywhere in her neighborhood, she says, and it’s intimidating to even walk past them. Here, she can feel the Austin vibe of “keeping it weird” radiating. It’s a rare opportunity to be seen at all during quarantine, and it goes a long way for Maynor, who says she is in a heterosexual relationship that makes her queerness feel somewhat invisible outside of the class. “I can’t tell you how many times in her workouts she tells the entire class how beautiful we are. Especially during COVID, that has been so,”—she sighs—“nice. It’s really nice to be told you’re beautiful.”