Kortney Olson: Top GRRRL
Addiction, trauma, powerlifting, muscles and overwhelming positivity… Kortney Olson is a true force of nature and a refreshingly open book! We speak to Kortney about changing the female fitness landscape for good
Kortney Olson knows what it’s like to drag yourself up from the bottom and thrive despite the odds. After surviving a rape, an eating disorder, depression and drug and alcohol addiction all before she was 21, Kortney understands how important it is to turn trauma, pain and despair into power, strength and confidence. The champion athlete and founder of the Grrrl movement and clothing brand talks to Glorious.
Glorious: Personal trainer, Olympic lifting coach, CrossFit champion, watermelon smasher, arm wrestler, Jiu Jitsu champion, bodybuilder, entrepreneur, author and so much more – you have done everything! How has this happened and do you plan on adding any other titles to the list?
Kortney Olson: That’s a great question! I’m sure I will. I’m a recovered addict/alcoholic and tend to get bored rather easily. I’m always thinking of new business ideas which are usually tied to social justice issues. My next big goal is opening a bunch of affordable sober living houses and helping addicts get off the streets.
Glorious: Have you always been active? Or when did you decide to change/begin working out?
Kortney Olson: I’ve more or less always been active. I started taking an interest in lifting weights when I was around seven. My older brother was my idol. I wanted to do everything and anything he did. Plus, growing up in Northern California, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by nature. I was a huge tomboy and was often the only girl in the circle of boys. I remember going to a tee-ball camp when I was five, and was the only girl out of 70 boys!
Glorious: What impact did bodybuilding have on your life emotionally and physically?
Kortney Olson: Bodybuilding was a great pathway for me to make my initial escape from drugs and alcohol. But unfortunately, it also came with a ton of baggage. Without working a 12-step program, I was just swapping one addiction for another. Instead of focusing on trying to control my drug use, I started obsessing on other things I could try and control like my calorie intake and output. So yes, although it was a lot more healthy not having a meth pipe hanging off my lip, mentally I was just as sick from counting calories and obsessing over whether or not I was ripped up enough.
Glorious: We love GRRRL and everything it stands for – it’s far more than just a label but a movement. How important is it for you to provide an inclusive space for all women?
Kortney Olson: Providing an inclusive space is imperative. I’ve personally grown so much through GRRRL that I will forever be indebted to the women who have helped create this brand. It wasn’t until a year after we launched that I realised we had very little representation of different races or abilities. We were a relatively straight cast of white women. It’s been a huge awakening since 2017 in realising how much stuff intersects when it comes to feminism. Without our customers (who we lovingly refer to as the grrrlarmy), I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn so much and unpack my unconscious biases.
Glorious: How did GRRRL Clothing come about? Why do you think more retailers don’t make their clothing inclusive for all?
Kortney Olson: GRRRL was originally a weekend wellness camp for teenage girls called Kamp Konfidence! Eight years ago, I’d decided that I wanted to teach teenage girls everything I wish I was taught in school. At 17, I was supposed to be the first female President of the United States. But instead, despite being the school president at a private Catholic high school, in a Christian rock band, a 4.0 GPA and several accolades, I started smoking methamphetamines because I was so desperate to be thin. Ever since I was a little girl, I was determined to have “sexy” legs like Kate Moss. By the age of 21, I had experienced a rape, was a full blown drug addict and alcoholic, with a diagnosis of depression and an eating disorder. I knew I could put together a curriculum that helped girls from going down the same path that I did.
At Kamp Konfidence we taught the 5 habits, lessons and principles that lead to the development of self-love. The theory was that once a girl could love herself, she’d no longer see her peers as competition. The Pledge, which is the cornerstone of the GRRRL brand, was written for Kamp Konfidence. The teenagers would say The Pledge, then put a silicone, turquoise Kamp Konfidence band on each other’s wrists with the idea being that they could spot other graduates out on the street, and know straight away that the other girl was their sister, and not their competition.
Today, The Pledge is on every single hangtag that’s attached to every piece of clothing. Instead of looking for a turquoise silicon band, women can now spot their sisters by a t-shirt or pair of leggings!
As far as other brands being more size inclusive, I think a lot of brands are hopping on the train now. Some days I get irritated when I see Nike trying to get on the bandwagon (a few years back they put up a post of some bigger-bodied baddies dancing, and left the comment section as a free-for-all for people to leave a bunch of nasty comments) and cash in, but then I remind myself that I’m doing God’s will, and I don’t need to have my ego stroked throughout the process, nor have things made easier. I quickly remember that I need to celebrate that we were there from the beginning as a mission-based brand and our time for exponential growth is coming.
Glorious: What does being a GRRRL/ being in GRRRL Army mean to you?
Kortney Olson: First and foremost, being a grrrl means fighting for other women. We believe that historically women have been held back as a gender by our own doing. Because society has programmed us to see each other as competition, or as a gauge of our own desirability or beauty, we felt as if we had to defend our status and cause drama. Being a grrrl doesn’t mean we have to like each other, but we know we have to love each other. We may not agree politically, or have different religious beliefs, but we refuse to let our differences separate us. Aside from the vision of creating a united network of women, we aim to help women be freed from the prison of body image so we can put our focus on real problems.
Glorious: How is GRRRL expanding?
Kortney Olson: We’ve decided to really focus on powerlifting and strongman as sports for the second half of the year. Our ultimate goal would be to launch our first dual sport meet. We’ve also kicked around creating local community grrrlarmy chapters that get together on a monthly basis and watch/support local women and girls sports team. Just need to figure out if drinking beer is a part of the vibe, lol. The last piece of this expansion plan is to take my watermelon crushing skills on the road and run half day events for women to come together and be inspired by the message of empowerment and community.
Glorious: You’re not afraid to shy away from sexual self-expression through your social channels. You obviously have a large male audience, so how do you manage this?
Kortney Olson: That is a good question. It’s certainly a slippery slope! I often feel conflicted as to whether or not I’m being “too” risqué for the younger generations, but at the same time feel it’s important to normalise our bodies.
The more we make things of sexual nature taboo and forbidden, the more they become toxic and obsessive. For example, when I was visiting Greece on business last year, lying on the beach topless with a pair of shorts on, was surreal. I laid back and watched women twice my age frolic around in the waves with their boobs bouncing around everywhere, having the time of their life, and no one cared. But here in the US, people get up in arms over a woman breast feeding her child in public. It’s truly mind blowing.
Glorious: What would you say to people that might look at your more ‘sexual’ Insta posts and say that this is not female empowerment?
Kortney Olson: I’d say: life’s complicated! I’m still processing how I feel about it myself and where I draw the line with how much I put out to the public. I found myself getting back into the muscle fetish industry during a hard patch with Covid. I figured I’d already written a 347-page memoir with a third of it talking about this industry, so why not pursue it and produce a docu-series on the subject! My goal with this upcoming project (I start filming June 10th) is to show women that beauty is not what’s on the cover of a magazine, and for men to know that it is OK for them to outwardly like traits and characteristics that society would otherwise cause them to feel judgement over.
Glorious: You have openly spoken of how your childhood experiences and addictions have shaped you into the empowering athlete and businesswoman that you are today. Tell us about this.
Absolutely. Because of 12-step recovery, I’ve been able to create a life beyond my wildest dreams. Growing up with an alcoholic parent without awareness of what alcoholism is, meant I walked straight into their shoes. I’ve spent 10 years in a state of not remembering much. It took me several attempts to finally get clean and sober. It wasn’t until I fully accepted that I was an addict that I was able to start the recovery process. The 12-steps have shown me how to let go of control, and turn my will over to something greater than myself, as opposed to being stuck in my limited, shallow ego-self. When I let go of trying to control the outcome of every person, place or situation, I’m in a state of flow and ease. Things just work! I now see addiction as a gift as opposed to a curse. Daily I do whatever I can to help carry the message that we do recover. My most important job title is ‘recovered addict’. Whatever I put ahead of that, I stand to lose. Every morning when I wake up, I ask my higher power for guidance and to put the people, places and things in my space to help me live out their will. (I have no idea what or who my higher power is- I simply know that there’s a God, and I am NOT it!)
Glorious: Self-love is key to the GRRRL movement, is this something that you struggled to find?
Kortney Olson: I didn’t find self-love (or self-acceptance as I like to say) until 2019! There’s a chapter in my book titled, “Fake it till you make it, but stay authentic”. While growing GRRRL, I would still have moments that would turn into days of self-sabotage. My main bug bear was catching sight of my “baggy” kneecaps in the mirror. I would then obsess on making sure I was working out enough, or try to control what I was eating. So even though I was shouting, “Screw Diet Culture!”, I was still struggling with it myself. I’m not entirely sure what lead to me “crossing the rainbow bridge” to finding contentment with myself, but it just gradually happened. Even today, right before sitting down to write these answers, I looked in the mirror and briefly had it out with myself. I stared back at the same “baggy” kneecaps I dislike, along with a patch of cellulite on the back of my leg. But it only lasted for roughly 3 minutes before I was able to detach myself from the thought and remember that I’m not my thoughts!
Glorious: In our society it’s often still a challenge for people to accept others for who or what they are, or for us to be truly comfortable in our own skin. What else do you believe can be done to support the GRRRL movement?
Kortney Olson: Money. Find us all the money, hahahaha! Truly, cashflow is our biggest challenge. The clothing industry is cash heavy. Because we custom make everything, there’s periods where most of our budget is tied up in thin air for 90-120 days. In order to support our growth, we have to order more inventory. It’s been an absolute grind for 7 years, but so worth it. Every time a new woman finds our mission and vision followed by reading The Pledge, a life is changed.
Glorious: You’ve published your memoir, Crushing It: How I Crushed Diet Culture, Addiction & the Patriarchy. How long did it take to write? Did you find the process cathartic or the opposite?
Kortney Olson: That book nearly killed me. The stress of publishing it caused my Graves disease to flare up which landed me in the hospital. So it certainly was a labour of love! I started writing it a decade ago, completely unaware that my story was really just getting started. After spending a few years in the muscle fetish industry, I was moved to start writing. I wanted every woman in the world to know that beauty is not what’s promoted on the cover of a magazine or what’s in an ad. Discovering that there were men all around the world who obsessed over female strength was a huge eye opener for me. A third of my book covers this section and dissects gender norms and self-acceptance.
Although I’ve been clean and sober for over a decade, I still struggle with the “never good enough disease”. Even though I wrote a best seller on Amazon, I’m pissed it’s not a New York Times best seller. This sense of things not being good enough is what drives me to keep doing more and more things, which eventually leads to disharmony and dissatisfaction. But I have the rest of my life to work on that. All I really have to do, is stay clean and sober and the rest will fall into place just as it’s meant to.
Glorious: You’ve broken numerous Guinness World Records – most famously you broke the record for the fastest time to crush three watermelons between your thighs. What attracted you to this challenge?
Kortney Olson: I actually heard back from them that my last record attempt was disqualified because I did it in correlation with launching our store opening! Evidently it’s a hard rule for GBWR that attempts not be affiliated with any brands or promotion! I was livid when I opened the email, but eventually calmed down lol. What attracted me to smashing watermelons is an entire chapter in my book. Don’t want to ruin it for ya! But as a little teaser, right before I crushed my very first watermelon, I thought I broke a guy’s neck by choking him out with my legs!
Glorious: What is your current training regime?
Kortney Olson: I’m currently on my own program called “Get Massive”. It’s a body-building style workout to add muscle. I want everyone to feel empowered as I do by having muscle. Having a hard body has given me so much self-esteem. I take up space everywhere I go. I launched my training app last year on my 40th birthday! I train five days a week for an hour a day on average.
Glorious: Do you follow any other sports?
Kortney Olson: Just women’s mixed martial arts. I semi follow a ton of sports inadvertently through GRRRL, but I’m not a die-hard fan of anything in particular. I think strongman is going to be a huge sport for women in the near future.
Glorious: You recently ran the Second Chance 5K. Can you tell us more about this charity and your experience of the run.
Kortney Olson: Firstly let me say that I am NOT a runner. As I said on stage (I had the privilege of warming up the crowd!), I’m not built for long distances and am more equipped for short sprints, such as running from the police, back in my using days! Second Chance is a charity that provides support for people afflicted with substance use disorder (we no longer call it substance abuse). Being clean and sober for over a decade, recovery is at the heart of everything I do and is a part of my daily life. I think I would have enjoyed the run more if I didn’t have a hole in my foot! A week and a half before the event I’d rubbed the skin off my foot from getting back on the mats (Brazilian Jiujitsu).
Glorious: Are you involved with any other charities that support recovery?
Kortney Olson: I’m not affiliated with any other charities in this space but attend meetings weekly and relatively active in my local community.
Glorious: You are always on the move. You’ve lived in Australia and you love to travel, where is your favourite place to visit?
Kortney Olson: My favourite place to visit now is Turkey. I fell in love with Istanbul. The people were so friendly, and my favourite part was that they have dog and cat food inside the train stations! Dogs and cats are chipped and left to roam the street where they’re looked after by the general population. Although I talk a lot about teenage girls, I really have a soft spot in my heart for dogs and seniors. I’m also a huge fan of Thailand and will probably end up moving back there sooner than later.
Glorious: What advice would you give your younger self?
Kortney Olson: I’d tell my younger self that everyone is wearing a mask. Every single person on this planet has something they’re not authentic about or feels like they have something to hide. Also, other peoples’ opinion of me is none of my business. Do the work, get to know yourself and no one can take anything away from you.
Glorious: What advice would you give young women who are just starting out in their sporting pursuits and business?
Kortney Olson: I’d tell them to get connected into a community of women! I believe that isolation is the root cause of all of our misery in this lifetime. So plugging in with a community of women who are on the same journey is imperative. That’s why we use the hashtag #grrrlarmy – so women can find other women who are in pursuit of being the best version of themselves.
Glorious: What are your plans for this summer?
Kortney Olson: See above haha! I’m truly excited to produce this new docuseries. Decades ago, there was an episode on Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends where he interviewed women bodybuilders and the men who are obsessed with them. Sadly the men who were willing to be on camera (this was way before the industry had become more normalised), weren’t a great representation of your every day men who could have been highlighted.
Glorious: There is an empowerment event taking place shortly in Las Vegas. What is this event and what are the key things that you hope to highlight?
Kortney Olson: Our annual conference is coming up the weekend of June 4-5. This will be our fourth event. It’s a massive undertaking and something I’m not great at (details lol!), but so worth it. Giving women the opportunity to come and meet their like-minded sisters in a supportive, loving, safe environment is priceless. We have incredible speakers and experiences on offer, from practical self defence to crushing watermelons to learning powerlifting, and hope to grow this into something we can just rinse and repeat all around the world.