In the center of Christmas Abbott’s new personal-wellness-focused self-help book, “The Badass Life,” there are dozens of photographs of the Raleigh author showing off her elaborate tattoos and chiseled abs, her face glowing with confidence and joy.
There are no images in the book of the person she used to be.
“Physically, I was almost like a shell of a person,” Abbott says. “I was about 95 pounds. You could see all of the bones in my chest. People thought that I had an eating disorder, but it was just from lifestyle choices and malnourishment. ... It’s funny, because I look back at some of those pictures and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I just want to feed me and hug me.”
But even though there’s no “before” photo to go with the “after” photos, it’s clear that Abbott has made a remarkable transformation: from a 22-year-old chain-smoking alcoholic and dabbler in meth and other hard drugs into a 35-year-old fitness guru who owns a CrossFit gym in Raleigh, has competed in the CrossFit Games and national weightlifting competitions, and can lay claim to being the only woman to ever work on a NASCAR pit crew.
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Look, I know that there’s a lot of pictures out there of me half-naked or implied nude, but that’s just because I love my body, and I’m proud of it, and I worked hard for it.
And while some might argue that half-naked photos are what made her Internet-famous (more on that in a minute), in fact she’s built her brand – everything from fitness programs to motivational speaking to “Be F------ Unstoppable” coffee mugs – on her lifestyle transformation.
In her first book (national bestseller “The Badass Body Diet,” published more than two years ago), Abbott focused on nutrition and fitness – and her present. In “The Badass Life,” published two weeks ago, she steps back, to delve deeper into her past.
She writes about how her descent into depression and addiction began in her early teens. She tells about cleaning up just long enough to pass a drug test for a job doing laundry for soldiers in Iraq, where her mother was working as a civilian contractor. And she describes how being in the middle of a harrowing mortar attack inspired her to quit all of her bad habits and start doing CrossFit with Special Forces soldiers.
Abbott says now: “It was like going from a caterpillar to a butterfly.”
After she returned to the United States in December 2007, she opened a CrossFit gym with a boyfriend in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. After they broke up, he kept the gym; she kept their dog and moved to Raleigh to start a fitness boot camp. She saved money for a year and, in December 2010, opened CrossFit Invoke on the edge of downtown.
Then NASCAR called. Or, rather, a Charlotte friend called and said, “Hey, want to come play NASCAR?”
That was 2012, and he was trying to get her to check out a NASCAR recruiting event; Abbott, without asking many questions, just assumed she’d be auditioning to drive. Instead, when she got there, someone shoved an air impact wrench in her hand and wanted to see how fast she could get five lug nuts off a race car’s wheel.
“My fourth time attempting it, my hand speed was 1.7 seconds for five lugnuts,” she says, “and the Sprint Cup average was 1.2 seconds.” (In the book, she writes: “They couldn’t believe this kind of performance came from me, standing only five foot three and weighing 118 pounds.”)
Three days after Danica Patrick became the first woman to win the pole in a Cup Series race, Cornelius-based Michael Waltrip Racing hired Abbott as a tire changer – making her the first full-time female member of a NASCAR pit crew for the Cup Series, the sport’s highest level of competition.
Both occasions seemed to mark huge leaps forward for the women’s movement in NASCAR, although – like Patrick – Abbott got as much attention for her looks as she did for her ability. And, like Patrick, Abbott played them up. One example: On the strength of her newfound fame as a pioneer, the then-30-year-old did a body-baring photo shoot for the November 2012 issue of Inked, a tattoo-focused lifestyle magazine.
“I don’t think (NASCAR) pulled me in and said, ‘Let’s put her here because she’s hot,’ ” she says. “I earned that spot, and I enjoyed it a lot.”
But she spent just one season in Charlotte.
Abbott explains: “I was going into a sport at an age when most people are retiring, so for me it didn’t make sense to keep pursuing it. ... I would have made this an entire career had I been in my early 20s.”
Back in Raleigh – along with running her gym, training and building her brand – she has also continued to find her way into photographs that might leave some people wondering about her priorities.
“Look, I know that there’s a lot of pictures out there of me half-naked or implied nude, but that’s just because I love my body, and I’m proud of it, and I worked hard for it,” Abbott says. “It looks the way that it looks because I demand it to work a certain way. I’m not working out to look a certain way.”
As for any notion that she might be considered a sex symbol?
“I don’t think I’m excited about it. Because there’s so much more. If that was all I had to offer, then I’d be like, ‘Yes, that’s my thing!’ ... I mean, people are like, ‘Oh, she’s a fitness model.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’ve never done fitness modeling. I’ve done photo shoots because of my athletic achievements.’ ”
And in the end, Abbott would much rather be remembered for her radical lifestyle transformation, no matter how painful it is to look back at her younger self, or to talk about those dark days as an addict.
“It’s kind of like breaking open an old wound,” she says. “I remember different things every time I talk about it. I still have these powerful memories, and they still invoke feelings, but I want to use those feelings – instead of for a negative – for a positive. ...
“I’m not ashamed of my past. Do I wish I had made different choices at the time? Probably. But now, I’m grateful that I had these tough experiences, because they made me tougher; they allowed me to appreciate the positive in my life and all the small things that built up to today.”
So when somebody describes her by using the word she’s worked into the titles of both of her books – “badass” – she considers it a huge honor, “because to me, that means they see me in a way that is inspirational to them.”
That’s really her hope, she says: “That my experiences help them see that they can do more positive with their life, too.”