In 2006, Richie Lee was living in New Jersey, working in a high-pressure sales job, making a six-figure salary — and generally feeling unsatisfied with life. It was an experience that had haunted him for some time, a sense that despite the money and success, he was missing something very important.
“I was teaching martial arts part-time,” Lee says. “One of my students was a 9-year-old girl named Amy who was severely disabled by cerebral palsy. She would stand within the confines of her walker, and we would go through punches to help her limber up and to get her moving. One day, she came in, and she stepped away from her walker for the first time. Later that day, I went into my boss’ office at the printing company and said, ‘I’m leaving, and I’m moving to Nashville.’ It was the gift that Amy gave me.”
A decade after that life-changing moment, Lee sits in his East Nashville studio, Karisma Fitness, talking about the ups and downs he’s encountered on his journey. With his friendly smile, intensity of purpose, and charming manner, it’s easy to understand how he built a reputation as one of the most dynamic and popular personal fitness trainers in Nashville.
Born in 1970, Lee spent his early years growing up in Mississippi. “My dad was Asian and from Washington Heights in New York City, and my mom is a redheaded, green-eyed Irish Kelly from Mississippi,” he says. “She was a country & western singer, and we moved around a lot when I was very young. I never really got settled, and in Mississippi during the 1970s, you were pretty much white, black, or me. So I got picked on a lot.”
After his parents’ divorce, Lee lived with his father in Garfield, N.J. Located just north of Jersey City, and only a few miles from New York, it was a world away from Mississippi. Lee took to his new surroundings immediately, and he soon found a way to defend himself from bullies.
“I got into martial arts pretty early on,” he says. “I was a small kid, growing up in a poor neighborhood. My dad was a black belt, and he began teaching me some basics at a very young age. I joined the wrestling team when I was 12, and then I got seriously into martial arts and was never picked on again. At one point, I thought I would become a martial arts film star.”
Lee’s teenage dreams of an ass-kickin’ cinematic career never came to be. Instead, he attended college at Jacksonville University in Florida and then returned to New Jersey, finding work in the printing industry. Within a few years, he was one of the top salesmen in his company, working with such high-profile magazines as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and GQ.
“I was working with a lot of top-end accounts, hanging out with Victoria’s Secret models, wearing the finest clothes and driving the expensive cars,” Lee says. “I loved it at first, but life as I saw it drastically changed after 9/11. I lived right across the river from the World Trade Center, and I saw the second tower fall from my driveway. It struck a chord in me, even though it took me a few years to realize what I really wanted out of life.”
The feeling that he was missing out on something continued to grow for the next several years, culminating with the epiphany he experienced while training a young martial arts student. In the mid-1990s, his mother had settled in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., and Lee became a frequent visitor to the Nashville area. The charms of a simpler life in the Music City, and particularly East Nashville, seemed to be the answer. Buying a condo on Eighth and Woodland, Lee began a new career in real estate.
“That didn’t work so well,” he says. “For lack of a better phrase, I wasn’t good at kissing people’s asses, and around that same time the real estate market began crashing. I had kept up my personal fitness program in martial arts and people that saw me at the gym started asking me if I would train them. Then I was asked to fill in as the instructor on a kickboxing class because the instructor couldn’t make it. Everything just took off from there.”
Receiving his certification as a personal trainer in 2007, Lee made the career switch from hustling houses to teaching his students to hustle in the gym. Choosing a name that combined the appeal of “charisma” with the spelling of his goddaughter’s name (Karissa), Karisma Fitness was born. Working out of several gyms in Nashville, his fitness programs quickly gained popularity, and he was voted Best Personal Trainer in the Nashville Scene’s “Best of Nashville” poll in 2009 and 2010.
“I set down roots in East Nashville,” Lee says. “I loved it here, and I loved the people. I was renting space from East Nashville Martial Arts on Gallatin Road just for my morning boot camp class, and then in October 2011 I got the opportunity to take over the entire space.” Although it seemed Lee was in the fast lane to success, fate had a few punches to throw at him.
“I took this place over, moved my mom into an apartment in Madison, and lost my condo to foreclosure all in a weekand- a-half period,” he says. “I had invested in another gym. They had this huge business plan that looked great, but they had some very bad issues that were not obvious. When that fell through and the space in East Nashville became available, I had to make some decisions quickly — let my condo go or let my dream go. My condo was replaceable but my dream had yet to be realized, so I chose the dream.
“I was at a point of no return,” Lee continues. “I didn’t want to go back to working in corporate America, and I also couldn’t go back because of my age — the type of sales I worked in was all about being young. I ran Karisma without a glitch for four years without anyone knowing that I no idea where I was going to lay my head at night.”
The philosophy and mindset that gave Lee the strength to weather his personal financial challenges and stay focused on his bigger dream are the same principles that he seeks to instill in his students.
“I think I needed to be stripped down by a higher power to humble me and make me realize which path was truly important,” Lee says. “It’s a lot easier to choose when you have no choice. It was very tough at times dealing with that stress, but it all comes down to confidence. All I do is make people believe they can do what they already can do. They just don’t believe that they can do it. I don’t train people’s bodies. I train their minds, and they train their own bodies.”
Although Lee utilizes many standard fitness techniques like circuit training and weight training, his programs are primarily centered on the hybrid martial art of kickboxing, with a greater emphasis on philosophical traditions than is found in most mixed martial arts programs.
“I basically took the principles and discipline of martial arts and put it into a fitness program that makes sense in everyday life,” he says. “I’ve trained fighters, but I’m just not interested in doing that anymore. Programs can be tailored to the individual, but what we all want is to feel good about ourselves, and respect ourselves. You get to that point by respecting others. People come in and get a great workout, but they’re also getting a life skill. You’re not just walking on a treadmill or learning Zumba.” As Lee talks of his students, he never uses terms like “client” or “customer.” He has an emotional connection to them that goes much deeper.
“My introduction package is called ‘Welcome to the Family’ because that’s what it is,” he says. “I didn’t have a very strong family growing up, but now I have the opportunity to create my own. You don’t walk in here, take a class, and then walk out. You become part of the family. My people know that if they’re stranded somewhere at 3 o’clock in the morning they can call me, and I will do my best to get there. I wouldn’t operate under any other circumstances.”
That sense of family also extends to his love for the neighborhood he adopted when he made the decision to change his life.
“I’m definitely an East Nashville snob,” he says. “Those of us that have been here for 10 years or more are the pioneers of this neighborhood. When I first moved here, the friends I already had in Nashville all said, ‘Don’t move to East Nashville.’ That was the difference between people who have a vision and people who don’t. People that have a vision never know what to expect, but you’re committed to the ride, and that’s what East Nashville was.
“I love growth and I love new people coming in, but I don’t love it changing the things that are already good. I think East Nashville just needs to slow its roll a little bit. It’s a more grungy part of town, and I love that part of it. It’s a very unique village, and I think a lot of people moving in here now just don’t understand that yet. People who come here need to become a part of the community that was already here rather than closing themselves off into their own little sub- communities.”
One way that Lee is actively seeking to become a bigger part of the community is his work with child fitness programs. In addition to being a host at past Mayor’s Fitness Field Days, he recently launched a child fitness program at Karisma. As with his other programs, he sees child obesity as the symptom of deeper problems.
“You have to plant the seeds of a healthy lifestyle early,” Lee says. “I’m not saying everyone has to have a totally healthy, skinny child, but if you’re not teaching your child discipline and you think a candy bar is what will make them happy just because it shuts them up, that’s not good parenting.
“To watch how iPhones and iPads have become the inexpensive babysitter bothers me so much. Kids don’t know how to relate with each other. There’s a lot more to life than just looking at a screen all the time. I say this because I was an unfocused child, and without the discipline I learned from martial arts, I would be dead or in jail now. It’s a very emotional issue for me. We’re in the very early stages of the program I would like to build, but my vision is to accommodate all children into classes so they can learn respect for each other.” The kids’ programs that Lee envisions are just part of his future plans.
“I really feel like I’m about to turn a corner with what I’ve accomplished at Karisma,” he says. “I’d like to help as many people as possible on many different levels — weight loss, addictions, low self-esteem. I want to take Karisma’s philosophy and spread it further — speaking at schools, motivational speaking — doing things like I’m doing, just on a bigger scale.”
It’s been a long journey from that moment a decade ago when a little girl’s courage and resolve pointed the way to a new path for his life. Lee may have traded Armani suits for sweaty workout clothes, but he has also learned where true wealth resides and the incredible karmic dividends one receives from investing in the welfare of others.
“I’m so much happier now than I was 10 years ago,” he says. “It means so much more to me to know that I can give someone the gift of confidence than if I could give them a check for $50,000. Money can be lost, but that confidence can never be taken away.”