How two girls in a male sport proved they could punch above their weight

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s never heard of CruCycle. The spin concept, which incorporates high-intensity cycling indoors on a stationary bike, opened in Duxton Road five years ago—and promptly sparked an entire wave of cycling studios. Behind it were Valerie (32), Bebe (28) and Calvin Ding (31), who had been inspired by their active life in Los Angeles to fill a gap in the fitness scene back home. Today, the siblings are credited with pioneering the trend here; all three have become celebrities in their own right.

Their latest venture, CruBox Singapore, is a boutique boxing studio that marries boxing techniques with strength training in its 50-minute workouts. In a tiny, dark room evocative of a nightclub, customers box to the beat of high-energy playlists, with Bebe and the other trainers at the head of the class spouting positive maxims. “(Leaving) your past behind in the studio today” doesn’t necessarily sound doable, but somehow works in the rush of adrenaline.

Valerie Ding, eldest sibling and head of business development for the Cru brand.

Much of Cru’s unique ethos stems from LA fitness culture. While they are Singaporean, all three Ding siblings went to high school and college in California, and consider the US their second home. Starting CruCycle in 2014 seemed an obvious solution to bridging those two worlds.

It wasn’t long till they decided it was time for a new project. In early 2018, as Calvin took over CruCycle’s operations full-time, the sisters started researching for a second programme—rhythmic fitness boxing. It had been an up-and-coming trend in the States, and completely unheard of in Singapore at the time.

Concerned that Singapore wasn’t ready for a concept like that, they decided to test their product in the States first; and started building CruBox in LA. Over the course of eight months, Valerie and Bebe took on the gargantuan task of searching for professional trainers, creating an original workout programme, and training in the sport of boxing themselves.

Put your money where your mouth(guard) is

Standing out in a sea of competitors proved to be their first, biggest challenge. In the city of West Hollywood, celebrity culture and the proverbial emphasis on appearances meant a saturation of fitness studios.

“Everyone there is obsessed with working out, because everyone is an actress or a model or someone trying to be famous, so they have to look good,” said Bebe, who is Head of Training at CruBox Singapore. “At the time, there were many studios in LA trying to do the same thing. Still we were the first, but many fitness boxing studios were trying to open at the same time.”

It didn’t help that the two girls, though not strangers in LA, didn’t exactly look the part. As twenty-something Singaporean Asians, Valerie and Bebe faced skepticism from professionals in the fitness boxing scene, who questioned both their legitimacy and their gender. Nobody had heard of their success back in Singapore—or even knew where Singapore was, pointed out Bebe.

“I think it was from seeing us actually be serious about wanting to open it, that’s when people started to change their opinion,” she said.

Youngest sibling Bebe Ding trains all the CruBox instructors

It took them eight months to train and create the programme from scratch, and another two to three months to even find a trainer to train them. Eventually, they acquired the help of professional boxer and coach Julian Chua, who worked with them to develop CruBox’s unique workout. Julian is now the master trainer back at the CruBox headquarters in LA.

“We were looking literally everywhere; I think we’ve had some sort of interview or connection with every single fitness boxing trainer in LA in the last three years,” deadpanned Valerie.

The Kardashian Konnection

Today, CruBox LA has no lack of celebrity clients. The likes of Usher, Nicole Scherzinger, and Riverdale’s KJ Apa have walked through their doors for a group bag class, ready to pound it out then post about it on social media. But it was one particular visit that catapulted CruBox into the spotlight. One afternoon, Kim Kardashian was photographed leaving the West Hollywood gym, after being introduced by her best friend and fellow reality TV personality Larsa Pippen. Overnight, media attention exploded.

Kim Kardashian leaving CruBox

“After it happened, the whole town was talking about it,” said Valerie. “Literally anywhere I went, it was like ‘I heard you saw a Kardashian’. Everyone saw; basically it did generate a lot of hype. It was kind of crazy.”

Other celebrities and everyday folk started streaming in, and CruBox became a staple name in the Los Angeles fitness scene. The most popular Kardashian still stops in from time to time, and posts about it on Instagram when she does. At this point, though, CruBox had learnt to stand on its own two feet.

Home soil

With things stabilised in the LA studio, it was finally time to bring their boxing concept back home. The Singapore studio, located directly above CruCyle, opened in February this year to much fanfare. Valerie, who lives in LA, flew in for the launch, but has since returned to oversee CruBox LA. Bebe continues to train all the Singapore instructors, and shuttles between the two cities to help with operations at both studios. It’s suffice to say they’ve come a long way since their early days of setting up.

“There are no shortcuts to what we were trying to do,” said Valerie. “It was difficult, and people saw that we were willing to put in the work to be as good as what we wanted our instructors to be. It wasn’t just two chicks like ‘hey they want to open a boxing concept, can we find trainers for them?’”

“We put in the work to really learn the product. It was really that which also helped with gaining some sort of respect from others—for us to put in that time and energy and work to build that entire foundation. And it worked.”

CruBox Singapore

Our interview with the Cru crew continues below.

Have you always been so into fitness?

Bebe: Since young I’ve always played tennis, but fitness became truly a part of my life in college, when I started to work out religiously. I went to a lot of fitness classes and looked for the newest thing; it just was something that I had to do everyday, and that continues today.

Valerie: I think a lot of the fitness influence that we have built our concepts off of is from us living in the States. California is a very healthy lifestyle/living type of environment, and it’s part of everyone’s daily routine. It’s just a very normal, regular thing that everybody does. When we opened CruCycle five years ago, there was nothing like it in Singapore—there were not a lot of people working out; not a lot of people living that same life that we saw there all the time. So we wanted to bring a slice of that back here.

How did the idea to start Cru even come about?

B: It was from us just going to college in LA and going to all these (fitness) classes, and being addicted to what a fun atmosphere it was—the dark room, the loud music. We were very social people growing up and we loved to go out and party, and that was kind of the same atmosphere, just in a healthier way.

We just realised there was a gap in the market here—every time we came back home to Singapore to visit, there wouldn’t be anything for us to do except go to Zouk every night, or maybe watch a movie in the daytime. We wanted to create an experience and a place where our friends and our community could come hang out and do these classes together.

So why LA before Singapore for CruBox?

B: The original idea was actually for CruBox to be opened here first. We were in LA getting all our resources; and as we were building this programme—writing it, creating it—we just realised that if LA, which I think is the fitness mecca of the world, didn’t have what we were trying to do yet, then we might be getting ahead of ourselves by bringing it to Singapore first, where the fitness industry is so far behind.

Were there any challenges you faced as Singaporeans trying to grow a brand abroad?

B: Definitely. I think there are challenges faced in opening a business in general, but for two young Asian girls to be opening a business in LA and in the area we were located in—West Hollywood—it was hard. 'A', you don’t really see a lot of Asians there and 'B', the entertainment industry is part of the city, which is also why we decided to do it there. There’s Koreatown, there are several predominantly Asian communities outside the city—(but that) was obviously not what we were trying to go for.

V: We’re not 100% from LA; we’re Asian, two girls, trying to do a male sport, trying to also compete with all the other American fitness studios and huge brands. Most or all of our competitors over there have private equity money behind them—they have a lot of money to blow if a concept doesn’t work out; they have a lot of money to do marketing, pay celebrities, do endorsements. Us going against that, in itself, was already a huge challenge.

How tough was it?

B: We even had trouble finding trainers, because nobody knew our brand, nobody knew where Singapore was. We thought that it would be so easy to find trainers in the first audition, because the entire city is full of trainers; but without that legitimacy, there was nothing to use as proof.

V: In the beginning, the trainer we hired didn’t want to do it; no one wanted to do it. It just didn’t make sense for anyone. We’re two girls who came from Singapore—everyone was like, where?—and we’re trying to look for a boxing trainer to create a programme for us. There was not much interest, and the people who had interest were just talking nonsense.

B: It’s also because LA is an entertainment city, there’s a lot of talk. It’s one of those cities where everyone’s just a talker; there are a lot of things and ideas that do not actually follow through. They had heard that many times—’Oh I’m trying to open this rhythm boxing studio’. So to see us actually be serious about it and put in the work, that’s what made everyone take us a bit more seriously.

How did CruBox LA take off?

V: It really did help for these celebs to come in the door. Thankfully in the year that we opened, because of all these celebrities who did come, it managed to get our name out there very quickly. And I think especially for the Kardashian thing—that sparked a lot more validity in Hollywood.

B: Trying to open such a big thing in LA as such young girls, we were questioned a lot about our legitimacy in the fitness world. Fitness is not something that can be just thrown into anyone’s hands; it does take a lot of knowledge to be a fitness professional. And because we were a new brand in the States, nobody knew us. A lot of people still didn’t know where Singapore was, and didn’t know what our brand presence in Singapore is like.

No one had seen our studio or come to the classes here, so to them it just seemed like ‘these two young Asian girls think they can come into the fitness industry and just do something like that’. But they didn’t see the work we’d already put in for three years here.

After spin and boxing, are there plans for another Cru concept?

V: Yeah, there’ll be other concepts under the Cru brand. We wanted to create lifestyle brands, different concepts, so we’re not just focusing on boxing or cycling. We didn’t know how to box before we did this; it’s not like we were professional cyclists—we learnt it in the process. For every concept, we’re going to take the time to research and learn the foundation of what we’re trying to create.

The beauty of our brand is that it’s not just about the workout—it’s about the full experience. You come in, you see the same faces; everyone here becomes friends of ours, all our friends become friends of our friends and the instructors. It’s really a community vibe that we’re trying to promote. It wasn’t so much about what sport or niche—it’s whatever we feel like doing tomorrow.