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Future Shapers Community Billy Kokkinis
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Time Out's Community and Culture Future Shaper: Billy Kokkinis

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

In 1978, when gym owner Billy Moore offered Sydney’s LGBTQIA+ community the recently-opened City Gym as a safe space, at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in Australia, it’s unlikely he foresaw that this simple act of compassion would resonate for more than four decades. Likewise in 1986, when Moore took a 15-year-old from a Mount Druitt housing commission under his wing as a work experience apprentice, he may not have imagined just how far his young protege would eventually go to champion City Gym's inclusive legacy.

That teen was Billy Kokkinis, otherwise known as ‘Billy Junior’ during the many years that he worked as a trainer at City Gym alongside Moore. Today, Kokkinis is the Billy in charge at City Gym, after saving the business from closure in 2017 and rehabilitating it following several years in mismanaged decline. To honour his late mentor, who passed away in 2014, Kokkinis returned inclusivity to the heart of life at this community hub in Darlinghurst. He continues to celebrate Sydney’s vibrant LGBTQIA+ culture, just as Moore did. But Kokkinis is also building a legacy of his own, campaigning for better awareness for the mental health struggles that often go undetected, especially in young men.

Follow Billy Kokkinis here: @billy_j_kokkinis

Follow City Gym here: @citygymsydney

Other than the day-to-day skills of how to run a successful gym, what were the most valuable lessons you learned from Billy Moore?

Billy taught me that above everything, looking after the members came first. He underscored the importance of nurturing authentic personal relationships with them to deliver customized service. To this day, members know they can talk to me anytime, and i'll listen. Billy also emphasised how crucial it was that the gym be inclusive to all, a haven for the community to feel comfortable.

In 2017 you stepped in to save City Gym, when after 41 years the business nearly failed. What made you want to invest in protecting it?

City Gym was not just a gym. It meant everything to me; it was my world. It took me off the streets and saved my life.

I thought it was an absolute disgrace that an institution like City gym was brought to its knees. It was demoralising and I couldn't witness its demise, so I had to step up and do something. I came from poverty, and City Gym gave me everything I have today in my life. This is why I felt obligated to uphold the legacy of Billy Moore, and all the fantastic friends that I had there. I wanted to pay it forward by saving an institution that once saved me and so many others.

You’re very much a visible presence in the gym, driving the community-first spirit of the place. Why is being a very tangible presence on the gym floor important to you?

I'm a perfectionist and I want to make sure that everything is not only appropriately run but functions to 100% of its capacity. The whole gym was built on Billy Moore's presence, and that's how he taught me how to run it. I believe that's what makes it tick, by tending to every person's individual needs and personalities and managing the eclectic array of characters we welcome. City Gym is not like any other gym, and it needs my presence there to run smoothly.

Championing LGBTQIA+ rights has been a huge part of City Gym’s history, but it could easily have become something that was part of the gym’s past rather than its present. Why have you worked so hard to maintain that part of City Gym’s identity?

Billy Moore was a champion and activist of rights, and City Gym was an iconic hub for the community, who brought me up and contributed so much to my life and development. They were a huge part of making me who I am today. I didn't want to lose the gym's identity and what made it so original, and the LGBTQIA+ community was a huge part of that.

While support for the LGBTQIA+ community is very much part of City Gym’s heritage, you have more recently begun campaigning for mental health charity Beyond Blue. This came about due to the impacts you saw on your members during the 2020 shutdown. Tell me a bit about what prompted you to begin campaigning for better awareness around mental health?

The negative psychological impact that the lockdown had on the community was frightening. Many people struggling with mental illness come to the gym to find relief and improve their headspace. It was eye-opening for me to witness the severity of how people were struggling. It hit home hard for me. People were banging on the door, wanting to train because they were losing their marbles.

Devastatingly, we lost some great members to suicide. I felt compelled to roll my sleeves up and try and help these people because It was evident that the government wasn't providing many resources. As an authentic community gym, I thought I had a responsibility to step up and do something about it.

Given the impacts you witnessed during the 2020 shutdown, what advice would you pass on to those who may be struggling with their wellbeing during the current shutdown?

I can't stress how important it is to seek help. For many people, and sadly in our culture, it's still a very taboo subject to admit that you are struggling with a mental illness. I'm saying swallow your pride, swallow your ego, whatever it may be that's stopping you from talking to someone and receiving the help you need.

We have to get rid of the stigma. When I put on Fair Day [the Mardi Gras Community Day that was saved by City Gym after it was initially cancelled in 2021], I had psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health experts available to give free services and seminars on mental health. But very few people turned up. And I think that’s because people are too scared or too ashamed. So we have to get the messaging out to people that mental illness is not a weakness. It's a real thing that so many people deal with and I want to take the taboo out of it and make resources available.

People that are struggling now with the current lockdown should seek help through Beyond Blue. For our members, they can call me, email us; we don't want the community suffering in silence. From a day-to-day perspective, continue to keep some physical routine going outdoors, try and stay connected, interact with people as safely as you can, and stay busy.

What do you see as being the future of City Gym and what can other fitness businesses be doing to foster a better community ethos?

I genuinely believe we are Australia's most authentic community gym. The Future for City Gym is to continue to be the benchmark for the Australian health and fitness industry, which we've been since the '80s and '90s. We have to practice what we preach and continue to have credibility. Many Gyms claim to be community gyms, but they do nothing for the community, whereas we are different, and we pride ourselves on being different. We encourage other gyms to get involved in their communities. People come to gyms for all kinds of reasons. Some have a lot of insecurities, addictions, problems, and underlying issues. Gym owners need to know that there is a position where they can positively impact these people's lives by being attentive and not only worrying about your bottom dollar and your business but genuinely caring about your community.

I can't quantify what City gym has done for me, so it's easy for me to put the members and the community before my bottom line.

Meet the Future Shapers

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