Shawnee Harkins, Fitness at Sea


Photo: Kasey Scott

Lesbian work out guru Shawnee Harkins is a lot of things; she is fit, inspirational and a survivor. Now she can add, "hottest fitness instructor at sea" to her resume. Partnering with Sweet, the eco-friendly cruise line the for lady lovin’ ladies, Harkins will be running the Sweet Sweat Bootcamp on their Caribbean cruises. “I want to show you that fitness doesn’t have to be a bore or a chore. Empower yourself and let me show you how fitness can make a healthier, sexier you,” says Harkins, on the Sweet website. While we can’t help but remain skeptical about the “chore” bit, but at least with Harkins leading the class, you can enjoy the view. Below is a look back to a where she was a year ago with a classic Curve interview.


Shawnee Harkins is just 26 years old but already her life seems to be moving at an enchantingly beautiful pace. She hobnobs with lesbian A-listers at Hollywood parties, runs her own business, Toned Fitness, in Long Beach, Calif., and appeared on Showtime’s entrepreneurial challenge reality show, Hydra Executives.

The youngest and only gay person cast on the show, Harkins is far from intimidated. “I’ve always been open and quite fine with my sexuality, [and] pretty comfortable in my own skin,” she says, displaying the confidence that has allowed for so much success so quickly.

When Harkins talks, her infectious enthusiasm seems Hollywood charming. But Harkins’ life has been anything but charmed. As she peels back the layers of her story, it is clear she is not simply trying to ingratiate herself. She is a woman who has been through hard times, spent months methodically willing herself back to life, and without a moment to spare, she is making the best of it.

Hers is a tale of a small-town Texas girl who moved to California on her own at 17 only to be struck and nearly killed by a motorist months later. The accident left her physically devastated and temporarily paralyzed, and forced her to relearn everything she had ever known.

Rollerblading under the beautiful blue southern California sky, 18-year-old Harkins was hit by a Chevy Suburban. She flat-lined several times as she was rushed to the UCLA Medical Center, where she remained in a coma, paralyzed from the neck down. “My family was called by the doctors, ‘Come prepared to pick up your daughter. If she even lives, she’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of her life,’ ” Harkins says. “In my life, in my world, my life was over.”

But her life didn’t end. “I’m still part of UCLA miracle studies,” she says, as if searching for an explanation. “Every once in a while I’ll still get a call from them.” Stripped of all capability, she was forced to begin anew. “I went through so many, of course, emotional ups and highs and lows. And being an athlete, being someone very physical, being someone who wanted to come out and make a start for herself in California, and now getting into this accident…” Faced with paralysis and uncertainties, she drew on her inner strength and will to rehabilitate and take back the life she always hoped for.

Before the accident, Harkins had dreamed of one day being a firefighter. As she struggled to put the pieces of her shattered life back together, it was that hope that propelled her to push the boundaries and limitations of her wounded body. Her recovery is a testament to her perseverance. “I had to learn how to talk again, how to eat, how to make decisions…” The process was slow; she says it took six months to regain her strength and a year before she felt like herself again. She says it was the small victories along the way that kept her going. She remembers the first time she was able to do a push-up, four months after the accident. “I cried. I thought, nothing is going to get in my way now. I can do a push-up and I’m not even supposed to be alive.”>

As Harkins continued to mend, friends looked out for her, helping out with rent and running errands, but she recalls the lonely times and the very personal journey of recovery. She credits the accident with helping to put her life in focus. She tightened her circle of friends, cut out any drama and put in the work to try to make her dreams a reality. She held two jobs so she could hire a personal trainer to help her get into shape to pass the firefighter’s exam. And by the age of 21 she fulfilled her dream of becoming a firefighter.

But it was her time working with a personal trainer that opened her eyes to a whole new world of helping people. She had seen firsthand the emotional impact of losing one’s physical abilities. The difficulties she faced with her weight and mental health as she worked to regain her body’s abilities left a lasting impression. Shortly after becoming a firefighter she began training other women to help them pass the firefighter’s exam and quickly realized she loved training. “I decided I really wanted to pursue a business in personal training in a studio full-time,” she says. “I left firefighting, which I loved, but I felt more in my element and more satisfied away from being in crisis situations and helping people in a different way with their health and confidence.”

Harkins gained experience as a trainer at Gold’s Gym in Long Beach before renting a space with other independent trainers. She prides herself on working hard to provide the optimum opportunity for her clients to succeed. She says the two biggest obstacles for people in maintaining their health are time and money. She’s implemented an electronic funds transfer to help with the money aspect, eliminating the large upfront payment typical of most gyms. She’s also designed an online training program available on demand to help keep her busy clients on task.

Helping people feel better through fitness is something Harkins takes very seriously, she says. “I was there, I can relate, I’m going to show you how to change your life, and understand I know where you’re coming from. This tragic accident actually made me who I am today, because I can sit down in that chair with my client who walks in the door and understand where they are coming from and where they’ve been. And I can show them where they’re going to go, because I too have been able to go there.”

Harkins’ irrepressible spirit and toned physique have opened up some unusual opportunities. She was recruited by Playboy to potentially be one of the first out lesbian playmates. She did an interview before deciding being a playmate wasn’t right for her. She explains, “I’m in the art of health and fitness, sculpting bodies, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and if you see me unclothed, you can see that I walk my talk. I thought from a business standpoint that would be great. But then on an intimate level between my partner and I, I decided that I didn’t want to do that.” Playboy posted her interview online and that’s where Showtime spotted her. Showtime called, “out of the blue,” Harkins explains, and hand-selected her for the cast. She jumped at the opportunity. “My dream is to open up my own studio, so through Hydra Executives that can definitely happen.”

The show pit 20 potential entrepreneurs against one another to evaluate who has the best plan and the skills to run a successful business. The winner is awarded $1 million to begin a business. “I’m nervous, I’m excited, I’m all of it,” Harkins says. “It just seems like if any reality show was going to come knocking on my door, this would be the perfect one…Chance of a lifetime, really.” A life she almost lost, and she is thrilled to see where this next adventure will take her. In the face of almost certain death Harkins has proven anything is possible, and as good fortune comes her way, she says simply, “I’m a really lucky girl.” But for some reason, I don’t think luck has anything to do with it. 

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