City

Trump, Sex, and G-Strings: The Juicy Story Behind Newtown Athletic Club

The NAC is so much more than a suburban gym.


Newtown Athletic Club

The pool scene at Newtown Athletic Club. Photography by Christopher Leaman

“How you make a G-string just disappear?”

This question, posed thoughtfully by the rapper Tyga in his song “Dip,” booms through the gym. I keep my eyes trained on the woman in front of me and try to mimic her movements: shimmy, shimmy, thrust, thrust, boob shake, BAM-slap-the-ground; shimmy, shimmy, thrust, thrust, boob shake, BAM-slap-the-ground. I’m not wearing a G-string, but if I were, I doubt I’d be making it disappear, as I’ve been in this Zumba class for 23 minutes and already my booty-shaking has become way less intense. I’m barely standing upright.

I send up a small prayer that this part of the routine will end soon, and, praise be, it does. Only it’s replaced by something far, far worse. To my horror, the attendees of this class — 112 women lined up like oversexed soldiers on an indoor basketball court — split in half and turn to face each other, like a West Side Story dance-off. The two sides begin to shake their way toward one other, then seductively jump back, butts in the air and blowouts bouncing. I’m somehow caught in the middle, always two moves behind and facing the wrong way, a tortoise in a stampede of spray-tanned gazelles.

The instructor, Rosalyn — known to her legions of followers as simply “Ros” — whips her long blond hair in circles. She’s a tiny firecracker, 47 years old, mom of five, in partially see-through black leopard-print leggings and a matching sports bra. She bares her teeth — literally, like a tiger — and every so often lets forth a primal yell. I can’t decide whether she inspires me or scares me.

Welcome, everyone, to the NAC.

For the uninitiated, “NAC” (pronounced “knack”) stands for Newtown Athletic Club, a 250,000-square-foot fitness complex that commands a 25-acre swath of land in Newtown. It’s a hulking, futuristic box of mirrored glass tinted the color of a Caribbean ocean, and it sticks out like a sore thumb on this sleepy stretch of Route 332 known as the Newtown bypass — part of a highway that snakes through much of Bucks County. In front of it stands a towering flagpole that lofts an American flag the approximate size of a Manhattan studio apartment high in the air, as if to say: Hello. We are America. Come join us.

Plenty of people have heeded the NAC’s siren call, paying up to $300 a month for entry into this elite place that fuels an ever-churning rumor mill. Live in these parts and you’ll hear it all: that everyone is sleeping with everyone (sometimes true); that the guy who owns the place is married and also has a girlfriend (true); that swingers flock here (unconfirmed, but likely); that the owner’s son was in prison for biting a guy’s ear off (yep); that the owner played a crucial role in Trump’s presidential victory (debatable, but more true than not); and that he’s planning to build a NAC-ian empire — a school! Apartments! A co-working space! — so that people won’t ever have to venture outside the gym’s campus, like a weird fitness-centric commune (slightly exaggerated but mostly true).

On its surface, the Newtown Athletic Club is a fancy gym. Members will tell you it’s a country club without a golf course. Non-members will tell you it’s a dividing line in town: “You can tell a lot about somebody just by asking what they think of the NAC. You’re either pro-NAC or against it,” says my friend Ashley, who lives in Yardley. (She’s against.) Employees will tell you it’s a “lifestyle center.” And NAC defectors will tell you that it’s basically high school, only with Botox and boob jobs. (“No, it’s worse than that. It’s like Tri Delts and frat houses,” says a current member we’ll call Claire, for her own safety.)

Members will tell you the NAC is a country club without a golf course. Non-members will tell you it’s a dividing line in town. And NAC defectors will tell you that it’s basically high school, only with Botox and boob jobs.

But none of these tells the whole story, because the NAC is more than a suburban gym on steroids. It’s an unlikely nexus of power, politics, money, sex and intrigue, a mini-city where thousands of people — including the area’s wealthiest, prettiest and fittest — go to work out and show off. It’s a social epicenter for a big slice of Bucks County, which flocks here to find a tribe (the Zumba girls, the weight lifters, the spin crowd, the yogis, the networkers, the monied stay-at-home moms, the poolside scenesters). They come here to connect with one another, either over preferred workouts and diets or over a shared love of the flashy side of fitness, where a trip to the gym is akin to a spin on a stage. (Some even bring their own tripods so they can film themselves working out. Don’t you?)

And, of course, the NAC is also the springboard from which Jim Worthington, its brash, bullish owner — the larger-than-life guy who created this larger-than-life scene — makes big waves. You know, stuff like solving the health-care crisis, finding a cure for ALS, electing Trump, and innovating until the NAC is known as the top fitness club in the world.

Back in Ros’s Zumba class, we’re on to the next move, which is just as awful as the last. I scan the room: There’s a cluster of high-school girls who look like Instagram influencers, all reed-thin and glowy. There are the Real Housewives, whose neon sports bras and grape-sized diamonds glow against their tawny skin. To my left is a woman in a very serious-looking knee brace and pearls, and over in the corner, a woman in her 80s is shaking her hips. In front of us, on the other side of a glass wall, are two little girls. They’re watching us, giggling, mimicking our movements: hip sway, booty shake, BAM-smack-the-ground.

A new song comes on, and everyone starts punching the air. Everywhere, butts, boobs, grinding, thrusting, sweating. I feel dizzy. This is terrible. This is the worst thing I have ever done. I never should have agreed to write this story. I should demand a raise. I hate this. I hate this place.

I need to join.

One morning last summer, Claire, the member whose real name shall not be known (hint: she’s a 40-something mom), visited the NAC pool. Claire goes to the NAC for its top-notch fitness equipment and instructors, but on this day, she was poolside, making idle chitchat with the nice 50-something woman next to her while stretched out on a lounge chair. (“Three thousand apiece for those chairs,” Jim Worthington says proudly.) Without warning, at precisely noon, the music, which had been low and chill, revved up so loud that you couldn’t hear the person next to you. The woman stood to leave.

“ARE YOU GOING TO STAY FOR THE FREAK SHOW?” she yelled to Claire. “IT’S COMING. I’M GOING TO GO BECAUSE I’VE SEEN IT.”

The infamous pool at the Newtown Athletic Club was Jim Worthington’s first real step in transforming the gym into a capital-L Lifestyle Club. Kevin McHugh, an industry colleague, remembers Worthington’s vision: “He said, ‘I’m not looking for a pool. I’m looking for a place that people are going to talk about.’”

And, oh, they talk.

They talk about the swimwear — the see-through crochet bikinis, the heels, the thongs. (“Maybe she wore it in Europe?” Worthington’s right-hand woman, Linda Mitchell, says tactfully.) “One of my girlfriends owns the bathing-suit store in Newtown. People come in and say to her, ‘Dress me for the NAC pool,’” says Stephanie Edelman, a 38-year-old mom of two so obsessed with fitness that she was working out at the NAC the morning she went into labor.

They talk about what’s happening — or about to happen — in those cabanas. They talk about the crazy Vegas-like parties that take place on weekend nights. (Worry not: The NAC offers on-site babysitting and will even call an Uber for you.) They talk about the drunken arguments at the pool bar: “It can get kind of crazy. You’re out there trying to separate these middle-aged women who are arguing over the same guy,” says Jimmy Worthington, Jim’s oldest son and a manager at the NAC. He was the one involved in the whole ear-biting incident, so he knows crazy. They talk about who’s single, who’s married, who’s having an affair. “It’s an incestuous cesspool,” Claire says.

Jimmy’s equally blunt. “Oh, we should have a reality show,” he says. “No question. We could. And it would be great.”

Like TV shows, the NAC operates in a bubble divorced from reality. It gives low-key suburbia a bit of glitz and flash and a buzzing central artery of action.

Like those shows, the NAC operates in a bubble divorced from reality. It gives low-key suburbia a bit of glitz and flash and a buzzing central artery of action. Sure, you could go here just to work out, but you could also drop your kids off, dance with your girlfriends in a sexed-up Zumba class, grab a kale smoothie, sit in a sauna, get a massage, change into a thong bikini, find a cabana, order a margarita, and pretend you’re in South Beach.

Or not.

“It’s like Vegas, but it’s weird,” says Claire. “Like, do you realize we’re off of a road here, people? We’re not in some beautiful place. Like, this is off the fucking bypass.”

Sure, it’s off the fucking bypass, but soon, if Jim Worthington’s plans go through without a hitch, “off the fucking bypass” will be the center of the universe.

On a Sunday morning in late March, Worthington waits in a lounge outside Studio 2, where a group is in the final butt-slapping throes of one of Ros’s Zumba classes. As the women file out, he springs to life, the eager ringleader of this circus.

“You guys want a tour? C’mon, I’ll show ya around and you can see what we’re doing. It’s gonna be the best club, seriously, in the world.” He’s talking about the $10 million-plus three-phase expansion that’s under way. (This expansion is called “Breaking Boundaries.” Each of his major renovations is named; the last one he did, in 2013, was called “The Big Build.”)

Tours seem to be a thing here. The whole complex is speckled with signs inviting members to see the expansion’s progress; I hear rumors of VR goggles. Worthington’s already taken me on a tour, but I follow him on this one, too, along with 19 other folks. He winds the group through the gym to the construction site like Moses leading his people to the Promised Land. Stephanie Edelman is here in her designer workout gear (bought at the NAC!), and so is Kim Levins, Worthington’s 31-year-old girlfriend, a statuesque blonde with faux eyelashes and long pink nails that are filed to sharp points. (Both the lashes and the nails are maintained at the NAC’s salon and spa, Urban Allure.) Levins is an amateur bikini fitness model, and she lives with Worthington in an old Bucks County farmhouse. It’s a normal relationship — lazy evenings spent hanging with their dogs and watching Fox News — except that Worthington is still married to Kathy, his wife of 30 years. They separated eight years ago and don’t live together, but they have an agreement: He pays for her lifestyle (she recently returned from safari in Africa), and they remain married-on-paper. That way, he explains, he doesn’t have to split his assets and decrease his net worth, which would limit his ability to “do big things.”

Newtown Athletic Club

Newtown Athletic Club owner Jim Worthington. Photography by Christopher Leaman

Jim Worthington is 62 but seems much younger. He’s short, only five-foot-seven, and often in a sleeveless NAC shirt, workout shorts and sneakers. He’s compact, with a wide nose, a perma-tan, and short hair that stands at attention on his head like a soft-bristled brush. His eyes crinkle at the sides when he smiles, and when he talks — which is a lot — he gestures wildly with his hands, which gives him a presence larger than he actually is.

When Jim Worthington talks, people listen. Some of it is because of the way he speaks — quickly, with a thick Philly accent. He starts a thought and then veers off-track, suddenly doubling back to something he mentioned an hour ago: “Did I ever finish that story?” But it’s also because you never know what he’s going to say next. Worthington is unpolished and unfiltered, a mix of unapologetic narcissism, bravado and refreshing frankness. He’s prone to exaggeration. It’s not that he doesn’t know he’s being controversial or how he might come off. It’s just that, well, he doesn’t particularly care.

“Jim kind of reminds me of President Trump,” says Larry Conner, the general manager of a Louisiana health club who sits with Worthington on the board of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, the fitness industry’s global trade organization. (Worthington is the chair, a hugely influential position.) “If he speaks according to the teleprompter and all, he’s going to be a polished guy. But I haven’t seen him do that yet. The way he talks and the way he rambles on, the entertaining he does — yes, he might get some PR firms to cringe, but that brings him home to us.”

If the NAC had a PR firm, it would certainly be cringing now, as Worthington has careened off-script during the locker-room portion of the tour. The men’s locker room is the first part of the expansion to be completed, and it’s a glimpse into the future of the NAC, which looks more like a five-star luxury resort than a fitness club. The place is beautiful, all soft glowing light and slabs of creamy porcelain. (“That porcelain? A thousand dollars a sheet.”)

“We could’ve opened this two weeks ago,” he announces to the tour group, spreading his arms wide before launching into a tirade about the building inspector and township officials and the petty political stuff you deal with when you’re a big character trying to realize an even bigger vision. He riles up the group; they’re angry for him. I imagine the gazelles hunting down the building inspector and trampling him to death.

“I’m a big fish in a small pond here,” Worthington said to me when we first met. “I’ve got a bigger footprint outside of here, with the IHRSA chairmanship and the President’s fitness council.” (Worthington’s on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, along with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, MLB hall-of-famer Mariano Rivera and Dr. Oz.) “I’m recognized in my industry as one of the top guys, right? But locally, people think of me more as a businessman and entrepreneur, as opposed to somebody who’s doing something unbelievable in a global industry. There are members here who say stuff like, ‘We have the best club in Newtown,’ and you’re looking at them like, no, we’re one of the best clubs in the world. It’s a little disappointing.” Worthington waves it off, but despite his swagger, you can tell it stings.

Before you dismiss his claim as exaggeration, consider this: The NAC, which began as a modest racquetball facility, is now a bona fide mega-gym that pulls in, he says, nearly $19 million in revenue annually. It employs up to 500 staffers and has 12,000 members. But the NAC’s influence goes beyond sheer size.

“If nobody heard of Newtown before, they know it now. It’s a huge name internationally. Everybody in our industry is watching Jim,” says Conner. Yes, you read that right. A global fitness leader. In Newtown. I’ve lived in Bucks County for more than 30 years and driven past the NAC countless times. I’ve watched as weird things were added to the complex, like 2013’s water-park slide whose blue-and-white twists and twirls can be seen from 332 and maybe space. I chalked the slide — and news of four pools, cabanas, an outdoor restaurant, a full-service bar, a lazy river, and crazy weekend parties — to the manic visions of a guy who couldn’t decide whether he was running a gym, a theme park or a Vegas nightclub. But it turns out his visions weren’t manic. They were changing the face of the fitness industry. And, for better or worse, the face of an entire town.

Before you can look ahead to where the NAC is headed, you need to understand how it got here at all. It started as a nondescript 11-court racquetball club, founded in 1978 by a bunch of area businessmen — mostly Wall Street guys who wanted to cash in on the growing fitness trend. By 1981, the racquetball fad was starting to cool, giving way to Jane Fonda aerobics, and the Newtown Racquetball Club, as it was then known, was struggling to stay afloat.

Meanwhile, 20 miles away at the Babylon Racquet Club in Horsham, Jim Worthington was the life of the party. He’d just graduated from West Chester with a degree in health and phys ed and was working as a manager at the club. Babylon held round-robin tournaments on Thursday nights, and Worthington, as he tends to do, had whipped the weekly events into a full-blown scene.

“We drew a good crowd — 20, 30 people — and we’d all hang out afterwards,” says Bill Wunder, one of Worthington’s longtime friends. “But Jim drew all of us there. For whatever reason, people follow him; people listen to him, and they feel comfortable around him. He just draws people.”

Worthington’s ability to attract a crowd didn’t go unnoticed. Charlie Minter, one of the original owners of the NAC, and his wife, Dottie, lured him to Newtown in 1981. Within two years, Worthington had converted some of the racquetball courts to aerobics studios, boosted the club’s annual revenue by at least $150,000, and inked himself a deal in which he could buy a quarter-ownership of the NAC with his earnings. (The other partners were mostly silent; Worthington ran the place and used their balance sheets to secure hefty bank loans for expansions. He bought them out last year for $5 million apiece.) By the mid-’90s, Charlie Minter had left, Worthington was a one-third partner, and the Newtown Racquetball Club was the NAC.

The gym progressed steadily after that. Over the next decade or so, Worthington wiped out all of the racquetball courts and added an indoor pool, a gymnasium, and a huge three-story YouthPlex, which offers kids’ fitness classes, a party area (they claim to make a killing hosting birthday parties), and a child-care room, so you can ditch the kids while you make G-strings disappear. In 2011, he tacked on a separate sports training facility and event center; 2013 brought that Vegas-style pool.

You can still see the ceiling beams of the original racquetball courts, and Worthington loves to point these out. He shows them to me as we walk back through the gym from the indoor pool, where he regaled me with his plans for the space. These include a “European spa” with a cold plunge, and a year-round heated pool stretching from the inside to the outside, separated by a giant glass partition you can swim beneath. (“Like, if you’ve gone skiing in Colorado, you see a small pool outside that they keep heated year-round, and you go, Oh my God, that’s really cool. Well, I’m going to do the same thing here.” Pause. “But like five times bigger.”)

“You see the beams?” he asks. “This was court six, this was court five — this was the original club. You can see, it’s not very big.” He pivots on his sneaker, off to show me something else, but I hang back. I study the beams and try to envision what this space was like before all the rumors, Real Housewives and Republicans. Jim Worthington isn’t a subtle guy, and this is the most subtle he’ll ever be in explaining to me just how successful he’s become. Because the beams are more than a blueprint of the old club. They’re a benchmark of how far Jim Worthington’s come.

Samuel James (“Jim”) Worthington Jr., the youngest of three, grew up on a farmette in Prospectville, a postage-stamp hamlet surrounded by Horsham. His dad worked in finance; his mom was a “five-foot-three, 160-pound stump of an Italian woman, strong as a bull.” The household was a raucous, unfiltered carnival, and Jim Worthington ruled it. He was a hell-raiser in school, needling his teachers until they begged him to quit showing up. We’ll give you a C, just please stop coming in and disrupting us. He graduated from Hatboro-Horsham High School ranked somewhere around 300th in a class of 350.

According to childhood friends, Jim Worthington was always the center of the universe. It might have had to do with his size: He grew faster than everybody else, one of the biggest kids in elementary school, the first guy to grow facial hair in junior high. “He was dominating, a super-competitive, aggressive, athletic guy,” says longtime friend Dave Tiller. But then a funny thing happened. As everyone else grew, Worthington stopped. And if he’d been aggressive before, now it was even worse. Now he had something to prove.

“He has a little bit of the Napoleon-complex thing going on,” says Wunder. “His temper — he’s had some issues here and there with scraps.”

“Scraps” is a polite way of putting it. Worthington’s temper is legendary in Newtown. His emotions are exaggerated, a series of violent flare-ups, like water tossed on a grease fire, followed by quick cool-downs. (On the flip side, he’s also a crier. The first time we talked, he welled up five times. Many of his fellow IHRSA board members place bets on when he’ll start crying during a speech.) Unsurprisingly, these volcanic eruptions have gotten him in trouble.

A particularly violent bar fight when he was 25 landed him on probation. (His probation officer had lived across the hall from him at West Chester. “I knew I’d get you eventually,” he said when Worthington showed up for his first check-in.) And in 2001, a fight with an employee earned him a lawsuit. He jumps out of his office chair to show me exactly how it went down — where the guy was sitting, how the guy lunged at him, how Worthington slapped him in the face.

Linda Mitchell, who’s worked with him for 38 years and is the closest thing he has to a PR person, covers her face with her hand and shakes her head. Jim, for the love of God, shut up. But Worthington is even more animated now: “I know how to fight and I know he’s right-handed, so my head’s here, and I know he’s coming at me” — he finishes with a victorious flourish — “and I turn my head and he never hits me.” Linda and I stare at him. Do we clap?

Worthington hired a lawyer who was a longtime member of the NAC. The lawyer advised him against settling for a few thousand dollars; the jury awarded the employee $250,000 in punitive damages (which was eventually negotiated down to around $150,000); a furious Worthington nearly sued the lawyer for malpractice; and, according to Worthington, the law firm ended up paying half the damages.

Worthington still sees the lawyer around. After all, he’s still a member of the NAC.

People can’t seem to pin down who, exactly, Jim Worthington is and what, exactly, the NAC means. Worthington has turned the NAC into a mini Mar-a-Lago of superficial wealth and excess, but he’s also used it as a serious platform to drive attention — and millions of dollars — to causes he supports, like getting the PHIT bill passed. (It would allow Americans to allocate funds from health savings accounts to items like gym memberships and youth sports — and would be a boon for health-club operators.) The NAC has donated hundreds of thousands ($500,000 in 2017 alone) to Augie’s Quest, an ALS research foundation, and was instrumental in securing passage last year of the Right to Try bill, which gives terminally ill people access to experimental drugs. His involvement with the bill was spurred by NAC members Matt and Caitlin Bellina, a couple in their mid-30s grappling with Matt’s progressing ALS.

“At some point, I don’t know why, Jim decided he was going to try and save my life,” Matt says from his wheelchair. He can’t walk anymore, but the experimental injections he’s been receiving have helped improve his speech. Caitlin was the woman in front of me at Zumba, hip-thrusting like her life depended on it, or maybe just dancing for the both of them.

It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Worthington is a selfless philanthropist or a spotlight-seeker looking to cement a legacy. He’s far from humble when speaking about his philanthropic work, holding it out like a badge of honor, proof he’s not as bad as some people make him out to be. It makes you question his motives, until you hear about the stuff he doesn’t advertise: according to friends, he has co-signed car loans for employees, given someone a down payment for a house, let a down-on-his-luck friend crash in his guesthouse for a while. Dave Tiller puts it best: “Jim tells me I’m fat while he’s sending me $2,000 to get me out of a jam.”

Another thing people can’t agree on: whether Worthington is a left-brained by-the-numbers businessman or a gut-feeling sort of guy. You could make the argument for either. He lives by to-do lists. He keeps a folder in his desk drawer of every to-do list he’s ever made, dating back to 1981.

The whole Trump thing, though? “That was originally just a lark,” Worthington says. He grew up watching the national conventions on TV with his dad. They looked like big parties, everyone holding up signs. What fun, he thought, to go to one and hold a sign! His dad passed away a few years ago, and Worthington wanted to honor him. A powerful Republican lobbyist who worked out at the NAC told him he could be a delegate for 2016 if he got the 250 signatures required to get on the primary ballot. He needed to campaign.

But when you own a gym that has 3,000 members coming in daily, it’s easy to get signatures. He blasted the competition with robocalls and a firestorm of lawn signs. The whole thing cost him, he says, around $30,000, an unheard-of sum for an unbound-delegate race, but it was worth it. He’d made it to Cleveland, baby!

He cast his vote for Trump and then, with Mitchell’s help, organized a grassroots campaign called People4Trump. It soon got serious: Worthington offered to host Trump at a rally in his sports training center. Thousands of people showed up. (“And another 4,000 outside,” he claims.) And then, well, let Kellyanne Conway explain it, via Worthington:

“I was on the south lawn of the White House at a Congressional picnic, and Kellyanne Conway was there,” he says; his friend, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, had invited him to come. Worthington introduced himself to Conway, told her he was from Bucks County, and reminded her that they were the only suburban Congressional district Trump won. “I know,” she said. “I was a pollster. You guys were key to Pennsylvania.” Really? Worthington said. You think that? “Absolutely,” Kellyanne Conway said.

Jim Worthington, center of the universe. And controversy.

“God, since he was a delegate, I can’t even tell you how much shit we went through. Article after article, people quitting. It was so stupid,” says Kim Levins. Especially because — as Worthington insists now — he’s not actually all that conservative. “I’m supposedly this hard-core Republican, but I’m not. Am I a Trump supporter? Absolutely. I think the country is doing better than it ever has.” Then a keen insight: “I have a problem sometimes with his messaging — I think he takes it a hair too far. I’ve been accused of being that kind of guy, who just lets it rip, so I get where he’s coming from. I kind of identify with him.” (As if on cue, an employee walks past us. “Hey,” calls Worthington. And then he lowers his voice: “That’s my only illegal.”)

“People felt that they wanted to go to the NAC for the purposes of training and working out, and they didn’t want politics to be involved,” says John Cordisco, a NAC member and head of the Bucks County Democratic Party. He’s good friends with Worthington; they partnered on a real estate venture. “It’s privately owned, privately run, he’s free to do whatever he so chooses.”

The reaction to the rally was swift, but not as brutal as you might think. Worthington says only 50 or so members quit. And those people are blacklisted. Forever.

“If you challenge my right as an American citizen to do something off the property” — this is semantics; the training center is technically separate from the NAC, as it’s a pay-for-use facility, but it’s next to the larger NAC campus, it’s owned by the same guy, and, well, it says NAC on it — “to advance a cause that I feel strongly about, I don’t want your business.”

Worthington did make one exception, though. As he tells it, a member-services employee found him while he was working out — Worthington works out every single day from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. — to tell him a guy wanted to talk to him. He’d quit the club over the whole Trump thing and wanted back in. No way. The employee came back a few minutes later: “He wants you to know it wasn’t his decision to quit, but his wife’s.” Tell him to grow a set. She came back a third time: “He wants you to know he’s getting divorced.”

Worthington stopped working out and gave the employee a message to relay: “Congratulations. You made the right decision. Welcome back.”

Oh, no. No, no, no, no. How did this happen, I think to myself, as the thumping beat of Tyga’s G-string song begins to pound through the studio. How did I end up here — again?

It was actually quite by accident: I’d been sitting in the lounge outside an exercise studio when the Zumba tribe walked by. I recognize some of them now: Stephanie Edelman, Caitlin Bellina, Kim Levins, and finally Ros, with her tiny Chanel bag and blond lion’s mane. “Are you here for Zumba?” asked Levins, excited. I explained, rather desperately, that I was actually just there to use the treadmill. She protested: “But you’re here! You have to try it again, the second time is easier, we’ll save you a spot!” There was nowhere to hide.

From my place in the back, I watch the women in the front row. It’s cutthroat to get up there, I’ve learned. Edelman worked for nine years to earn her coveted spot — first row, dead center. Bellina and Levins are next to her, dancing, laughing, forgetting stuff like ALS and politics and drama, making G-strings disappear.

Newtown Athletic Club

The after-work Zumba class led by Rosalyn Yellin (center). Photography by Christopher Leaman

Soon, they’ll have a brand-new Zumba room (“’Bout a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of lighting and sound in there,” Worthington says) complete with a DJ booth, a stage, and a balcony overlooking the pool. It’s part of the Breaking Boundaries expansion, which includes a new wing of rooms designed specifically for individual classes. Worthington described it on our group tour as a “fitness mall” — each room has its own unique “storefront” — and it’s his innovative way to compete with today’s trend toward boutique fitness studios like SoulCycle, Orangetheory and Barre3. Along with the Zumba room, the wing includes a yoga studio with a dome ceiling and a spinning studio with a fully immersive Imax-like screen. (“Just the screen alone cost a couple hundred thousand bucks.”)

“You’re on ground zero,” Worthington says grandly, “and I’m not just saying it because I’m me — well, maybe I am — but you’re on ground zero of the next trend in the global fitness industry.”

Jim Worthington’s plans for the NAC are sweeping. (And, if you’re not pro-NAC, potentially scary. Sample: He used his power and influence to help kill plans for a large YMCA complex in town. Unfair competition, he explains.) His NAC preschool is slated to open in January — a natural extension of the gym’s child-care service and youth programming and a possible death knell for other, smaller programs in the area. “It looks like a Disney set!” he says. “Nobody will be able to compete with us.” Also coming: a co-working space, a restaurant, a Starbucks, and physicians to provide concierge medicine to members. And he’s working with Live Nation to create an event center across the street, though this won’t be part of the NAC campus. He’s got plenty of other ideas, too: tennis, climbing walls, ropes courses, zip lines. Linda Mitchell keeps telling him it’s time to put a bar inside.

“It’s not a gym. It’s a lifestyle,” says Bill McAlister, the owner of a successful infomercial company and one of the NAC’s biggest spenders. On top of his membership, he throws down between $3,000 and $4,000 a month here. “On personal training, on season tickets for the Sixers, Phillies and Eagles” — the NAC houses a ticketing agency, too — “my wife and I get our hair cut there, I get a massage every other week, we’ll get dinner there. Pretty much everything that you want, other than sleeping, is there,” he says. “And he’s taking that on in the next two or three years, so … ”

McAlister is referring to Worthington’s idea for NAC apartments across the street. (All residents would get a free gym membership.) He already owns the land — he warehouses property surrounding the NAC so that he can nimbly jump onto his next grand vision — and his architect is working on plans to present to the township. He’s already had one setback, though: The township nixed his plan to link the apartments to the NAC via a pedestrian tunnel. We are in Newtown, after all.

“As we got bigger and bigger over the years, we would laugh and say, ‘It’s like going to the mall.’ Now, it’s like going to a town, a village, all in and of itself,” says Mitchell. She’s a lovely woman, polished and well-spoken — a perfect antidote to Worthington’s rough edges. “When I grew up in the 1950s,” she continues, “we all went to our churches. People don’t do that as much anymore. Although people do still go, and they have those communities, we’ve become a little bit more secularized. The NAC brings all of that together.”

“The church of Jim Worthington,” I joke.

She laughs and buries her head in her hands. “Oh my God!” Then she says it again, more thoughtfully, almost scared, as if this might be something that someday could actually happen:

“Oh my God.”

Published as “This Is a Gym?” in the June 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.