PASSING BY Beauty and weight loss must be approached in a scientific way, says VLCC founder Vandana Luthra in a chat with SHONALI MUTHALALY

Vandana Luthra's never been fat. “I believe in a healthy body,” she smiles, tossing back her gloriously healthy black hair with an assiduously moisturised and manicured hand. Judging by her glowing skin, deftly touched up with foundation and concealer, she's never had an ugh-day either like most mortals. But then, she does have one of India's largest health and beauty brands - VLCC - behind her every step of the way. Or perhaps it's the other way round. For Luthra clearly takes her position as the company's ‘Founder & Mentor' very seriously: keeping track of VLCC's every R&D report, ensuring the managers of her more than 230 fitness centres are on their toes and travelling constantly to stay in touch with her rapidly expanding team. Which is what brings her to Chennai.

At her suite in the Park Sheraton, she sits strategically positioned beside a photogenic bouquet of flowers, surrounded by a gaggle of meticulously-groomed women who direct her guests - mostly journalists - to a waiting room in hushed tones. After a 45-minute wait in the lobby, followed by another 15 minutes in her suite, we're finally ushered into her presence. She turns out to be astonishingly charming.

“I started in 1989, sweetheart,” she says, talking of how she began VLCC at a time when nobody spoke about obesity. “There were a couple of fitness centres. But I wanted something more holistic. I wanted to work with the medical practitioners.”

She leans forward and stage-whispers, “The health and beauty students then were all quite obese.”

All about wellness

Although VLCC has become a popular punching bag with the new wave of fitness enthusiasts, Luthra insists that her company's all about wellness. “Fitness, nutrition, cosmetology - everything done in a scientific way.” Unlike most conventional fitness centres, the emphasis here is not on intense cardio-vascular exercise. Instead they promote what they call “passive exercise” aided by an assortment of machines. Luthra defends their methods. “Unfortunately gyms don't have trained professionals. Weight loss is often unscientific,” she says.

“We get into understanding what a person wants. If you don't like to walk - I have a solution. Go up and down the stairs 8 times instead.”

Disputing the theory that VLCCs tend to appeal to people looking for easy solutions, she says “I don't see why a person should walk if they don't like it. Better not to do it, than to walk without focus.”

“Yesterday I was in Madurai and I met a boy who had lost 37 kilos at our centre,” Luthra says, adding, “People come in at 150 kilos and lose 40 to 50 kilos.” Some of them, her Chennai manager says, even come in wheelchairs because their weight causes arthritis. For all these cases, Luthra insists passive exercise - with machines like an electro muscle stimulator, where electronic pulses are directed to a part of the body to cause muscle contractions - are ideal.

Luthra says that her centres' strength is in tailoring individual programmes. “First we have counselling. You meet nutritionists, dermatologists, cosmetologists…”

Holistic approach

Since VLCC is a holistic wellness centre, it also does everything from microdermabrasion to chemical peels. Which means you can sign up just to lose weight, and end up being directed towards a range of other treatments. “Well, sometimes depression about bad skin makes you put on weight,” says Luthra, adding, “Our advantage is that we offer weight loss and beauty therapy. Otherwise, when you lose weight what happens to your double chin?” She personally draws the line at botox though. “I'm 51 and I've never had botox done. It makes your face look frozen. Cold.” (Thoughtful pause.) “We do it if a customer wants it - if we can't get rid of the wrinkles. But I'm not happy,” Luthra pouts. “I think, ‘why could I have not got that person 10 years ago instead?'

VLCC has undeniably had many successes. With centres across 75 Indian cities, they've also expanded to the UAE, and have helped a huge number of extremely overweight people get on their feet. On the flipside, they approach seems unnervingly simplistic, with its emphasis on weight loss. (They charge for every 5 kilos) when you consider that fitness experts now encourage people to concentrate on losing fat while gaining muscle. However, Luthra firmly believes that her customers are happy, stating that she hears few complaints. “Sweetheart, I would hate to hear that. I would take it very badly. After all that hard work. After all that R&D. We spend so much on technology. So much money… Inputs by 1000 doctors: Endocrinologists. Gynecologists, General physicians…” she says, adding that getting thin and beautiful the VLCC way works. “It gives you a new meaning to life. It improves your confidence. You are an absolutely new person.”

Especially now you've got that lovely new chin tuck to show off at cocktail parties.

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