'I was failing at everything' - How Rob Lipsett went from college dropout to YouTube sensation
From college dropout to YouTube sensation, Dubliner Rob Lipsett has transformed his life. Now, he's promising to help you do the same with his new fitness book. Here, Regina Lavelle meets Ireland's answer to Joe Wicks.
If you're not yet aware of the man on these pages, then you will be soon - his online audience is almost equal to the population of Dublin. At the time of writing, he has 410,881 followers on his YouTube channel; 481,300 on Instagram; 35,000 on Twitter; roughly 30,000 on Snapchat, and over 30,000 on Facebook.
Until now, Rob Lipsett has been an almost exclusively online phenomenon, but he's going old-school with a fitness book - The Rob Lipsett Game Plan - that he hopes will make him a "household name". The book itself is an easy-to-follow guide to getting ripped and sets up the reader for what would amount to a total body transformation, were you to follow it faithfully. He eases the reader in, cajoling them back to exercise in chapter one, before hitting them with the facts. It boils down to: count your calories and get off your arse.
Aptly, it's a lean read without the flab that can sometimes bloat such works. You get the impression he would be quite an uncompromising personal trainer. But he's not robotic - he maintains that having a flexible diet is the only way to achieve success, and also he advises on how to drink and maintain your weight: count calories, know what you're drinking. The recipes are straightforward and delicious-looking but there is a spread on supplements, including creatine, that seems unnecessary to me. (Rob says he doesn't think supplements are needed and while he believes in use of creatine within the guidelines, you can get creatine naturally in chicken, fish and steak.)
But the book's star ingredient is Rob and he's on almost every other page - workout Rob; pensive Rob; Rob by the sea; Rob with granola - but mostly, Rob looking outrageously buff.
If you've lived in Dublin for any amount of time, you know his type - expensively educated (Coláiste na Rinne and Clongowes), a regular at Krystle, deadlifts his own body weight and yet wears Alexander McQueen shoes - 100pc Southside bro.
So I begin the research. Let's start with his Instagram, which is an homage to T&A - Teeth and Abs. It is like the Magna Carta of muscle. Then move on to his YouTube channel... and that's where I fall down a Rob Lipsett rabbit hole. Half an hour goes by. An hour goes by. Two hours go by. I have to be retrieved by guests arriving for dinner. And then I realise I'll have to say it: his YouTube channel is actually rather good. He's likeable, open and warm. He also wears a top more often than he does on Instagram, which thankfully makes my research feel less salacious.
It's his accessible style that has already led to comparisons with The Body Coach, Joe Wicks - a British fitness sensation who also started his career by posting his videos on social media.
Given his audience and reach, Rob, 26, is already a success by any metric, so why go analogue now? "I wanted to reach an audience that a physical book would appeal to," he says. "I want to become a household name in fitness. The younger generation would be more into the videos. In my analytics, the average age is between 21 and 25. I'm 26, so they're not that young, but I would like to get a little bit of an older crowd - late 20s, maybe 30s, that are going to pick up the book and discover me for the first time."
If you are one of that 'elder' cohort, let me quickly get you up to speed: Rob is the younger brother of the Lipsett sisters, Roz, Avila and Sarah, a trifecta of formidably groomed socialites - model, PR consultant and solicitor, respectively. He is also the son of Robert and Therese Lipsett. It was Therese's Rostrevor House nursing home in Rathgar which was the subject of a series of abuse allegations passed by HIQA to the Gardaí in 2011, which later resulted in a closure order.
He had a long-term girlfriend, Sarah Godfrey, also a fitness vlogger, but their relationship ended in acrimony earlier this year amid a volley of allegation and counter- allegation posted on each of their social media accounts.
And he took part - briefly - in last year's Love Island, the wildly successful ITV series that's basically a Club 18-30 holiday with more cameras.
But until 2014, Rob was, in his own words, "failing at everything". Never much fun for anyone, it must particularly sting in a successful family. "I was a college dropout," he says emphatically. "I studied business management and I wasn't engaged. I got fired from pretty much every job that I tried to hold down. I was making sandwiches in Spar; I worked in retail; I had an office job, a nine-to-five. But I was aimless. One of the things I was always good at was fitness and going to the gym. I've always been athletic, but more a rugby player than a fitness model. So I concentrated on that. I started teaching myself and taking courses [in personal training, sports nutrition and online marketing] and making YouTube videos. I was doing the fitness thing on the side and then as soon as the side gig started making more than the day job - around the end of 2014 - I went into it full-time."
When he told his parents of his intention to become an "online personal trainer", as he says, half-mocking his own term, the announcement was not met with the warmest of responses. "They couldn't understand it. They're from a different generation. They started taking me seriously when I bought a new car and moved out."
Of course, it had also been a time of turmoil for the family. In 2011, a closure order for Rostrevor House was confirmed at Dublin District Court, with the owners consenting but without any admission of wrongdoing. Rob is blunt but not bitter about the fallout. And he clearly adores his mother, whom he refers to as his "hero" and his "entrepreneur inspiration". "I call her my Iron Woman because she's so strong. It was definitely a female-oriented family with my three sisters and my mum, and we're all still super close. But we had a really successful family and then the family business went under, and I was about 18 or 19. If you've ever seen the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - that was my life in reverse.
"We went through some really hard times and that really toughened me up. It was one of the reasons I went out and started on my own. But people would always say, 'Oh, you come from money. Your parents gave you this.' My parents didn't give me A. Single. Thing," he says, with emphasis. If they did, I wouldn't be making hundreds of videos like an absolute insane person going around recording myself.
"[After the business went under] I was like, 'You know what? Great. Good. This has burned the bridges. I've got nothing else to do. I've got no jobs lined up. I've got no connections. I've got no savings. It's time for me to just work my ass off.' I view it as a good thing. I wouldn't be the person I am today without all that happening."
Of course, what happened was obviously a financial setback, but you could never describe his background as anything other than affluent. He's had the benefit of a very expensive education and his family's network. Those caveats notwithstanding, his drive is impressive. Plenty would have let their anger curdle. He just got on with it.
While I can't even imagine him being nervous - he has too much sangfroid - he maintains he was "paralysed with fear" when he first posted to Facebook. "I wasn't always this confident," he says. "The first time I hit 'share' on a Facebook post, I was so afraid that I fell off my chair. It was one of those office chairs you spin around on and I legit fell off it."
During one of his talks posted on his channel, he does refer to suffering what sounds slightly like a panic attack during the episode. So maybe there are feet of clay there somewhere. He says he built his following gradually, over the course of two years, as he recognised what performed, developed his technique and improved his editing skills.
"My first YouTube video went live on September 1, 2014, and within six months I'd quit my day job; six months after that, I had quite a following. Then 2015/2016, I was laying the foundations and the last two years, it's blown up."
On YouTube, advertisers pay to place pre- and post-roll advertising (and sometimes mid-roll too) on creators' content. The advertiser pays YouTube per thousand views, based on a number of factors pertaining to subject matter and territory. YouTube keeps a portion of the fee and passes on the remainder to the creator. Commercially minded influencers will also use other revenue streams, such as affiliate marketing - using your channel to sell a product, usually with a discount code so that the company can track the sale. There are also limitless sponsorship and marketing opportunities. So really, the ad model is just the beginning.
Money, models and motors (in his videos he's driving a Mercedes with a distractingly lush interior)... there don't seem very many downsides to being Rob Lipsett. But, he intimates, this isn't entirely the case. He is currently single and has given some thought about whether he'll be forced to conduct his next relationship online.
"It's nice when you're going out with somebody who's also a YouTuber because they understand what you do. If I was like, 'Oh, I gotta do some photos for this brand,' or, 'I gotta make this video,' they're like, 'Oh, cool. I get it.'
"But if you're going out with someone in a more conventional job, then they'd be like, 'Can you just switch off your phone?' I think if I was to date someone again, it would be someone with an understanding of what I do for a living. But if you click with someone and they have a completely different line of work from you, then that's also great, you know. It depends on the person."
It's easy to underestimate Rob as a narcissistic vlogger - he loves the attention, obviously, and his Instagram attests to this - but in an industry in which one will always be judged on looks, he knows it won't last forever. And he's seen some of its downsides. "In what I do, there is no 'off' switch. Even when you're out in public, people are taking photos or videos on the sly. But I'm like: 'Rob, this is what you signed up for. This is what you wanted. If you were to go back to Rob with 1,000 subscribers, you would do anything to have all these people watching you, talking about you.' So it's kind of like: never bite the hand that feeds you.
"It's really important to keep the friends from before you had this audience because a lot of times people just want you for a favour. It's like, 'Hey, bro, I just opened a new restaurant.' 'Hey, bro, I just started this new project. Would you shout me out?' But they don't want you as a friend," he says, somewhat sadly. "They just want your audience. They pretty much just look at you as a billboard. So you've got to have your wits about you."
His long-term strategy is clearly looking beyond his personal output. He's already set up his own company, The Creator Agency, an event management business which organises seminars for fitness-focused YouTubers and social media personalities (he hates the word 'influencer' and refuses to call himself a celebrity) to talk about their experience. He also has a sponsorship deal with a fitness clothing brand, and now the move into books.
Ultimately, he's impressively grounded for somebody who has lived much of his life in the public eye. As he says at the end of our conversation, "It does get a bit annoying sometimes having hundreds of thousands of people judging your every move, but that's what I signed up for. You have to take it on the chin." He may just have persuaded me that even if his audience comes for the abs, they stay for the attitude.
The Rob Lipsett Game Plan: Transform Your Body With My 3-Point Mindset, Nutrition & Training Plan is published by Penguin Life, priced €20
Rob's anxiety busting tips
● Don't waste time complaining - it's annoying, and you can channel that energy into something positive
● Don't worry about what people think or compare yourself to others.
● Learn to handle rejection and laugh at yourself with grace.
● Identify your strengths and recognise that we all have them.
● Think of problems as obstacles instead of roadblocks.
● There's no perfect time to start your fitness and nutrition journey, so banish those excuses and stop putting things off.
● Try new things that challenge you.
● Accept that you're going to fail occasionally, and that it's okay.
Photographs by Fran Veale