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Laurie Potter's Health Clubs

Staged to Sell

In 1966, Laurie Potter made his first move into gym management when he took over the Milligan Street gym, where he had trained since 1958. Later, he described his first impression of this gym as ‘harsh’, ‘spartan’, ‘dirty’, and ‘strictly for bodybuilding fanatics’ and ‘competitive lifting’. While he grew to love training, he recognised that this sort of environment could be a barrier to anyone wanting to get started with non-competitive fitness training. This would be foundational to Laurie’s approach to health clubs as he built up a fitness empire in Western Australia. Few people living in Perth in the 1970s and ‘80s would have been unaware of Laurie Potter’s Health Clubs – they had become synonymous with modern fitness and the lunchtime workouts at Laurie Potter’s were a cultural touchpoint. He was a household name.

Laurie Potter's Health Club Cannington, 1980, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photography, State Library of Western Australia, 322100PD

Laurie Potter has taken health studios away from being havens for masochists and muscle freaks and turned them into acceptable clubs for everybody

-A ‘Fresh-faced executive after a lunchtime workout’, Western Mail, 6 March 1982

The Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photography collection features many promotional photographs taken for Laurie Potter’s Health Clubs, mostly during the 1970s. They were not the only corporate photography firm used by Laurie Potter, however they represent the largest collection held by the State Library showing the health clubs. Many of the photographs taken by the company were used in promotional brochures and pamphlets.

These photographs were taken to show the clubs at their best and sell them as well-appointed, modern places for recreation and fitness. Globally, health clubs like Laurie Potter’s were largely designed for and promoted to the white middle class who had disposable income and were responding to social messaging about the importance of “physical capital” for competing in job and relationship markets.

Jazz Ballet at Laurie Potter's Health Club Perth, 1979, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photography, State Library of Western Australia, 363164PD
Laurie Potter's Health Club, Tuart Hill 1979, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photography, State Library of Western Australia, 328787PD
It’s also becoming trendy to belong to a health club. By changing the image of health studios we’ve given people more incentive to join.

-Laurie Potter, Western Mail, 6 March 1982

Expanding fitness culture

Laurie Potter’s timing was fortunate, he was able to ride a wave of fitness culture that hit Australia in the 1970s. He took inspiration from the ‘wellness programs’ that were popular in America at the time and that focused on ‘lifestyle enrichment’. He followed the American model of opening up to gyms to the ‘general exerciser’, which for the first time included women. From the start, Laurie Potter’s Health Clubs had spaces for women to participate in fitness and beauty culture. By 1982, women made up 62% of the clubs’ membership. This 'feminisation' of the gym was crucial to a shift in gym culture and contributed to the fitness boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Laurie Potter’s Health Clubs offered a range of facilities and had a reputation for expertise through the employment of attendants with physical education qualifications. The Health Club sold itself on using the latest in health science and technology, which further supported its modern image.

Exercising at Laurie Potter's Health Club for Men and Women, Perth, 1973, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 359916PD
Fitness testing at Laurie Potter's Health Club Tuart Hill, 1977, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 328360PD

Upon enrolment members were put through a ‘vigorous’ health check, which included arm, leg, and body measurements; blood pressure; oxygen uptake; joint flexibility; muscular strengths; and somatotype and stress electrocardiograph tests. Blood and urine tests were optional. The data gathered from these tests was evaluated by a computer program and from that an exercise program was designed.

Somatotype Graph at Laurie Potters Health Club, 1972, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 359498PD
Having a fitness test at Laurie Potter's Health Club, 1977, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 328159PD

'A complete health and beauty plan'

The studios boasted the modern amenities and additional services that were expected of this new model of health club. This included hydrotherapy, massage, child-minding centres, and beauty treatments, such as facials, manicures, pedicures, and waxing. Clean, spacious, and well-equipped changing rooms were also a significant development in improved gym facilities.

Men's locker room at Laurie Potter's Health Club Tuart Hill, 1977, Stevenson Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 328362PD
Women at Laurie Potter's Health Club Perth, 1977, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 328154PD
Ultra Violet sun room, 344947PD; Men having massage, 342220PD; Man sitting in spa, 344945PD; 1970, Stevenson Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia.

Crèche at Laurie Potter's Health Club Tuart Hill, 1977, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 328358PD

Christine Williams giving a facial at Forme Divine, 1973, 359926PD; Lady using weight reduction machine at Forme Divine, 1970, 342533PD; A manicure at Forme Divine, 1973, 359927PD, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia.

Forme Divine

Forme Divine was the initial name of the women’s health club run by Laurie Potter. It was located on the floor above the men’s club at 918 Hay street, Perth. Later, it was simply called Laurie Potter’s Health Club for women, and then within a few years the gyms were rebranded in a more gender-neutral way.

W.A. Telephone Directory, Physical Culture, 1969
W.A. Telephone Directory, Health, 1987

Women exercising at Laurie Potter's Health Club, 1977, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photography, State Library of Western Australia, 328155PD

The women’s health club at Perth had an extremely feminine aesthetic with drapes, patterned-wallpaper, wall sconces, and decorative arches. Staff were fashionably attired for the time, often seen in the photographs with fishnet stockings and high heels.

Lying on the sun bed at Laurie Potter's Health Club Tuart Hill, 1977, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photography, State Library of Western Australia, 328357PD

'Pumping gold'

The rebrand of gyms to Health clubs and Wellness clubs gave a more luxurious feel to gyms and further diverted them from the harsh, competitive, and masculine associations. This was achieved through the amenities, interior design, and services offered by Laurie Potter’s Health Clubs. They were places where members could indulge in some luxurious pampering, while also engaging in ‘health’ pursuits. This was seen in its most extreme form at the International Wellness Club, owned by Laurie Potter and located at the Orchard Hotel.

After a trial workout at the new Wellness Club. I swam a few laps of the pool, luxuriated in a spa with a couple of young executive ladies and then took a sauna. Then, in a plush lounge, I relaxed in a lounge chair while (free) coffee was brought to me.

-Hugh Schmitt, The West Australian, 27 December 1985

Life Membership to Laurie Potter’s International Wellness Club was not cheap at $5000 - over $12,000 in today's money! The club was extremely exclusive, with only 400 members. It was reported that members received an 18-carat gold-plated set of dumbbells with their life membership. In 1987, Western Australian politicians were offered 90% off life membership at the Wellness Club; eighteen members signed up, including infamous former Premier Brian Burke.

'Just guys being dudes' Laurie Potter's Health Club Cannington, 1979, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photography, State Library of Western Australia, 329036PD

'The finest consumer object'

These photographs are designed to sell membership to Laurie Potter’s health clubs. They showcase the buildings, furnishings, facilities, and services, but more importantly, they feature members. In this context, the people in these photographs are effectively used as props to sell to the desired image of Laurie Potter’s Health Clubs. Their bodies are commodified and utilised as consumer objects to send messages about the benefits of membership at Laurie Potter’s. Contemporary advertising has made full use of the human body to promote all kinds of goods and services, however here the body is intrinsically intertwined with the service; it is the reward or outcome of paying for this service. In this context, the ‘idealised’ human body of the time is a product, obtainable through membership at Laurie Potter’s health club.

The patrons in promotional imagery are anonymous, only Laurie Potter and occasional high-profile staff or guests are named. The anonymity codes them as average, everyday people – making the brand and the clubs more accessible to a broader audience outside of the more niche, traditional gym-users of the 1950s and earlier.

Laurie Potter's Health Club Tuart Hill, 1979, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 328786PD

Advertising for Laurie Potter's Health Clubs discounted Life Membership in The West Australian newspaper, 1985

Brand expansion

By the late 1980s, Laurie Potter had eight health clubs throughout the Perth suburbs, in addition to an administrative centre named Laurie Potter's Health Academy located in East Perth and a club in Kalgoorlie. The brand had expanded to include a health food restaurant called 'Cravings' and an orange juice factory. He purchased Lord's Health Club in Subiaco and Fletcher's Family Fitness chain. These acquisitions took Laurie Potter's memberships to over 82,000. In early 1987, the Laurie Potter Group started to make its move into the leisure and travel industry, purchasing an ailing airline company, Avior, a large Perth travel agency, and the Trade Winds Hotel in Fremantle. Potter intended for these companies to support his planned development of resorts in Shark Bay, Kalbarri, Kalgoorlie, and Mandurah.

Advertising for Laurie Potter's Health Clubs in The West Australian newspaper, 25 July 1987, p. 23.
The Sauna at Laurie Potter's Health Club, 1974, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 327469PD

Laurie Potter also sold home exercise equipment and merchandise. Most of the Health Clubs had a shop, which sold clothing and equipment, as well as health foods. There were also gym equipment manufacturing facilities in Perth and Melbourne, under the name 'Fizique', which were also from recent business acquisitions.

Sports bags available from Laurie Potters Health Club, 1975, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 361690PD.
Fizique advertisement, The Canberra Times, 1 August 1987, p. 4.

Laurie Potter's Home Training & Recreational Equipment Perth, 1979, Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Corporate Photographers, State Library of Western Australia, 328923PD

The Collapse

After an astronomical ascent, everything came crashing down. To fund his rapid expansion, Laurie Potter had borrowed millions of dollars from the Western Australia Teachers' Credit Society. In August 1987, due to imprudent loan practices and inadequate accounting, the Teachers' Credit Society collapsed. Later investigations revealed that the Teachers' Credit Society had $159 million worth of bad or doubtful debts and, at the sole discretion of the general manager Alex Clark, had made substantial loans to four leading Perth businessmen - including Laurie Potter. Between the four businessmen, a total of $142.5 million was owed, with an estimated bad debt element of $54 million.

In September 1987, the Laurie Potter Group went into receivership, with its assets and liabilities equal. In the weeks leading up to this, 14 Potter Group cheques had bounced and formerly flexible credit lines from the Teachers' Credit Society were frozen.

... a very angry Mr Potter ... said he was writing to the bank to complain strongly about “the irresponsibility of returning cheques without notice”. Mr Potter said he hoped that R&I Bank would acknowledge its moral and business obligations in the matter and reopen the flexible credit line the group had enjoyed at the Teachers’ Credit Society. R & I Bank Chairman, Mr David Fischer has announced that this type of commercial lending is one thing he will axe.

-The Canberra Times, 28 September 1987. Premier Brian Burke appointed R&I Bank as administrator to the Teachers' Credit Society after it collapsed. A move that was estimated to cost the state $119 million.

Since the beginning of 1987, the Laurie Potter Group's assets had more than doubled through diversification and acquisitions. This occurred without the appropriate capital to back it up. At the time, Laurie Potter acknowledged that the Group had never really recovered from the membership discounting and health club price wars of the previous two years. This was the end of Laurie Potter's Health Clubs.

By the year 2000, many people will be working only 18 to 20 hours a week. living standards won't drop, so people will need an outlet for their leisure time.

-Laurie Potter in The West Australian, 6 March 1982.

Laurie Potter was a household name. His health clubs offered fitness, alongside everyday opulence; they epitomised 1980s excess. At the time, there was confidence that it would last forever, but now the story of Laurie Potter's Health Clubs is found only in these promotional photographs, a handful of newspaper articles, government records, and people's memories.

Further Reading

  • Collis, B. (1982, March 6). Flabby Kid who became King of Fitness. Western Mail, p. 18.
  • Health club boss buys WA airline. (1987, July 25). The West Australian.
  • Laurie Potter’s Health Club. (n.d.). Laurie Potter’s Health Clubs: Perth, Tuart Hill, Cannington [pamphlet]. State Library of Western Australia, 613.71 LAU
  • Laurie Potter’s Health Club. (1980, December 1). Fitness Feeling, 1. State Library of Western Australia, Q796 FIT.
  • Lynch, R., & Veal, A. J. (2006). Australian Leisure (3rd ed.). Pearson Education Australia.
  • Macdonald, C. (2013). Strong Beautiful and Modern: national fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935-1960 (2nd ed.). UBC Press.
  • Ramamurthy, A. (2015). Spectacles and Illusions: photography and commodity culture. In L. Wells (Ed.) Photography: a critical introduction (pp. 231 – 288). Routledge. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/deakin/detail.action?docID=1968918
  • Sassatelli, R. (2010). Fitness Culture: gyms and the commercialisation of discipline and fun. Palgrave Macmillian. DOI 10.1057/9780230292086
  • Schmitt, H. (1985, December 27). Pumping gold… what a feeling. The West Australian, p. 73.
  • ‘Western Australian correspondent’. (1987, 28 September). Political brawl erupts over WA Teachers' Credit Society. The Canberra Times, p. 13.
  • ‘Western Australian correspondent’. (1988, March 24). Spa Leaks put WA Speaker in Hot Water. The Canberra Times, p. 13.

This digital story is part of a series created for the online exhibition Staged To Sell: Iconic Advertising Images from the Stevenson, Kinder & Scott Photographic Collection.

Created By
State Library of Western Australia
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Credits:

Photographs - State Library of Western Australia Pictorial Collection