Up close and personal with James Lee Dawkins: Mr Mash Up Face

Ever wondered what your face looks like when climaxing at the gym? DOSE columnist, Ian finds out once and for all, via a man renowned for pushing his clients so hard that their faces contort into a sweat soaked grimace of pain and determination, aka “the mash up face”…

Like touching your right elbow with your right hand or sneezing with your eyes open, seeing your orgasm face is impossible. Yes, you can look in the mirror at the moment of arrival, but mirrors just encourage us to deliver up a sexy, slutty version of an orgasm curated from watching too many pornos or from Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally…

Last year, Brazilian Photographer Marcos Alberti somehow convinced 20 women to pleasure themselves on a stool in front of him so he could capture their orgasm faces. Respect to you Marcos, you should be a car dealer with those persuasive skills, but I’ve seen these photos and these game ladies all look far too composed. Their perfectly flushed cheeks, slightly parted lips and tossed back heads suggest they’re putting on a show.

Photo: Marcos Alberti – ‘O’ Project

I believe your true orgasm face can really only be experienced by others and we, ourselves, generally remain blissfully ignorant on the subject. That is until someone decides to tell you.

Recently some charmer in his wisdom, thought it appropriate to describe mine. Just minutes after the act, and whilst both flicking through Instagram on our phones (the modern day equivalent of a post coital cigarette), he likened it to a donkey that had been stung by a bee in the mouth. Why thank you kind Sir for being so specific. Yes, it seems my outward expression of this most awesome of feelings is one of confusion and pain accompanied by flared nostrils and an engorged tongue. I’m never having sex again.

So perhaps you can forgive me for not getting ‪overly excited about training with Gym Box master trainer James Lee Dawkins. A man renowned for pushing his clients so hard that their faces contort into a sweat soaked grimace of pain and determination. Coined by James as the “mash up face”, it’s what happens when we take our comfort zone, smash it into little pieces, and blow its back doors off. If my orgasm face is anything to go by I’ll bet my mash up face is going to be just dreamy.

Photo: Ian Steed. Gymbox

James and Gymbox are like Justin and Selena. They got history. A skinny teenager of 16 years old, he used his first pay cheque to become a Gymbox member. Having been bought up by his Nan in an East London estate before neither East London nor concrete high rises were something to boast about, he found solace in the sense of community Gymbox offered. Their ‘Play Hard, Train Hard’ motto particularly resonated with him as it was also during this period that he found out exactly how much trouble was on offer under the Vauxhall arches. After a brief stint making girls’ knickers wet as a boy band member, he decided fitness was where his passions lay.

He joined Gymbox as creative studio manager and set about inventing programmes that drew heavily on his club kid experiences. Inspired by the musical journey that DJs serve up, where you can’t help but lose your shit when it drops, the programmes James developed harness the power of music to get results.  Fast forward 10 years and James is now master trainer and head of Gymbox’s “Look Better Naked” initiative which includes classes such as Sweat to the Beat, Ripped & Stripped, Gains, BadAss and Hardcore. He also heads up dance fitness class, House of J, the idea of which came to him on a dance floor in Miami four years ago. And I’m standing in front of him now. Petrified my donkey face is about to come out.

I’d chosen to attend Ripped & Stripped on the basis that I would very much like to be both of these things. James, looking less boy band, more hot lumberjack these days, fixed eyes on each of us as he introduced the class.  “I’m from East London and where I’m from we scream, we shout, we get lairy. You’re not here to look pretty in spandex, you didn’t pay twenty quid to flick your hair and pout in that mirror. We’re here, in this room together, to get sweaty, to push past our comfort zones, to elevate higher. We’re going to reach a place where you’ll want to swear at me, and that’s good, that’s where the results are, and that’s where change happens”. Gulp.

It took less than 10 minutes before my mash up face turned up. Like my bladder after too many pints, I had no control over it. The high rep, low weight nature of the class meant the muscle burn came quick and it came hard. A combination of body weight and barbell work, all set to infectious beats, kept us at exactly the pace that James intended. There was nowhere to hide. But whilst my face looked like something out of the London Dungeon, my brain was flying. I hadn’t been as high as this since that time at Secret Garden Party in 2014.

Still buzzing from my exercise chemical overdose, I joined Mr Mash Up Face himself, clad head to toe in Puma, for a smoothie. Was this the gym bunny version of a post-coital cigarette? After all, “the workout ain’t complete until you eat”.

Trying hard not to think about the Sloth from the Goonies face I’d just pulled in front of him, I asked James about his Look Better Naked initiative. “It covers a wide range of classes but their common thread is how they’ve been inspired and how they drive results. Look Better Naked draws from icons who’ve bought about change in our industry. Change in our understanding of our selves and how we look at our bodies.

“It’s crucial to me that we understand the journey in our industry and celebrate what these icons have given us, whilst appreciating how we’ve evolved. Jane Fonder taught a whole generation that low intensity, high repetition, rhythm based aerobics could get results and be sexy, whereas Arnold Schwarzenegger was the 80s poster boy for big gains. And its not just fitness icons that have inspired us. Ballet dancers like Anna Pavlova and Rudolf Nureyev showed us poise and form through enormous muscle strength, flexibility and cardio endurance, all of which we work into our Look Better Naked classes.”

Photo: Ian Steed. Gymbox

My tinder profile states I have an “athletic build” but in reality I’m just plain skinny, so I asked James about how I could build muscle mass without getting too Arnie.

“The Ripped & Stripped class you just did is great for body conditioning, increasing strength and building endurance. Because I’m also a DJ, it helps me understand how to use music to push you harder. As all reps are to the beat and I build the music through the class, people lose themselves in the rhythm and go further than they thought they could. You should check out our Gains class too.

When I joined Gymbox I was too scared to go into the weights room and I think that’s the case for a lot of people. So I created Gains to give people confidence to lift, and to lift in a safe way. We put you in pairs which gives you that support and helps breaks down barriers so everyone ends up getting to know each other. Its tough but rewarding, and the community vibe and sick tunes means we all end up having a proper laugh together. The energy in the room, even on a Monday night, is incredible. More and more, I’m finding that people want to mix up their routines and keep it fresh. I see the same faces in so many of my different classes, so you should really come to them all!”

It was realising this need for variety in people’s approach to wellness that gave James the idea to launch a 5 day rhythm based retreat that includes body conditioning, HIIT, dance and yoga.

“You can do a lot in a 45 minute class but immersing yourself for 5 days on a private estate in the French sunshine allows you to access deeper and vibrate higher. The entire programme is designed around music and the power that it holds. Expect uplifting, energising tunes by day accompanying the HIIT and dance fitness elements, and chilled, reflective tunes by night, helping us unwind into gorgeous deep yoga poses before bed. It’s a space that will allow you to reconnect with your inner rhythm which so often gets drowned out by the external noise of city life. It’s only once we reconnect with our inner selves that we have the opportunity to go deeper, push further and elevate even higher. Plus they’ll be plenty of time to lie round the pool, top up the tan, eat amazing food and have a laugh with new friends so you’ll come back feeling balanced, energised and looking fantastic.”

Photo: Ian Steed, Maison de la Vaure, France

I’d stalked James’s Instagram before our chat. What I noted on there, and in person, is a realness that is not often displayed by trainers. There isn’t the stream of plant based meal close-ups or carefully lit, post workout selfies believed by most to be the key to building followers. There’s mostly just insanely fun dance videos from his House of J classes or photos of him and his clients pulling silly faces.

“They’re not my clients, they’re my mates. They’re my family.” he said when I pointed this out. And I can believe this. The way he talks about his life, including some of the bad choices he’s made, makes you instantly warm to him. “I’ve had some dark times but I’ve got through them and this has allowed me to understand myself, to understand how humans work and to understand how to get the most out of them. I don’t want people to see me as the perfect trainer with a perfect life. That’s not real. I love the occasional greasy burger and I definitely drink too much coffee, but I keep fit and I’m kind to myself. Its about balance. I want to be relatable and authentic. How can people trust me to push them outside their comfort zone, to that mash up face moment, if I’m not real with them?”

The guys got a point. But as I slurped the last of my smoothie and hugged Mr Mash Up Face goodbye I couldn’t help but think that maybe those big blue eyes and cheeky grin also played their part in the trust thing. “Every little helps” as my local supermarket tells me.

5 Day Rhythm Retreat, Bordeaux, France, August 2018 – From £995 including all classes, meals and airport transfers. Contact @Jamesleedawkins, @_houseofj_ or [email protected] for more details.

House of J classes – free for members. 12-1pm class on Saturdays at Covent Garden studio open to non members for £7. Contact @_houseofj_ to book.

Look Better Naked Classes including Sweat to the Beat, Gains, Ripped and Stripped, BadAss, Hardcore, and Thigh High – Free to members, £20 to non members including a one day gym and class pass.

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Hettie is the editor and co-founder of DOSE. A keen runner, she’s also partial to a blast of high-intensity and hot yoga. A country girl at heart, she divides her time between London and the lush rolling hills of North Devon. When she’s not jetting off on her next adventure, Hettie can be found in a candle-lit alcove with a laptop, a spaniel and a full bodied Malbec.

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