Holidays are stressful—on your budget, your waistline, and overall wellness.
That’s why celebrity life and wellness coach AJ Johnson makes a point to advise her famous clients, from Emily Blunt to Anne Hathaway and Gabrielle Union, on the best ways to reduce their stress and blood pressure when good cheer is in the air.
“I look for unconditional ways to help my clients and ways that make sense for day-to-day living,” says Johnson. "Holidays are tough on everyone, which is why you have to think of the small ways to make big changes in your life. That's at the core of my business: finding ways to bring wellness to people's lives that isn't just about losing weight.''
Johnson says she regularly discusses with her clients simple ideas, such as the best way to pack for a trip during the holidays.
"You want to look good on your trip and you can without those three pieces of luggage!'' Johnson laughs. "Three pieces of luggage is more money and more stress on your wallet, so clients like Anne Hathaway shared with me her ideas for easy travel and then I share mine. We go back and forth.''
Hathaway, for example, packs all her own food for air travel in Ziploc bags. Johnson suggests doing the same to all her clients who avoid processed foods and instead choose raw nuts, protein bars, or fruit.
Another of Johnson's clients, Stevie Wonder, checks and rechecks his travel toiletry bag weeks before a trip to avoid forgetting a favorite item that could be tough to find on the road. "Stevie lives out of his toiletry bag, so he keeps it up to date and stocked. That avoids any running around looking for something you need right before you leave. You don't want to be in a different city looking for a shaving cream or lotion you can't live without.”
Johnson's other travel tips: keep a separate toiletry bag with your everyday items ready to go at all times; travel with dark-colored clothes for winter trips, and roll them neatly in your luggage so they can be worn immediately with no ironing; wear your heaviest clothing while traveling to avoid adding weight to your baggage; and bring little packets of detergent in case any items need an emergency washing. For shoes, bring one pair for men (plus a pair of tennis shoes for workouts if need be) and one pair of black and neutral-colored shoes for women. Johnson says some of her clients decline to check in luggage at all and only take carry-ons.
“I can't do that, but some people can,” says Johnson. "That forces them to take only the things that matter the most because there isn't room for anything else.''
Johnson has had years to learn all these tricks of the trade. As a well-known actress who achieved success during the early ’90s, the New Jersey native always knew she couldn't take her career or her health for granted if she wanted to survive in Hollywood.
Appearing as the fun-loving Sharane in the ’90s cult classic House Party to the stressed out mom in John Singleton’s Baby Boy, Johnson thrived as a frequently employed African-American actress during a period where pretty brown female faces were few and far between.
“Even before I graduated from college, I had a role in Spike Lee’s School Daze,” Johnson recalls. “I went to Hollywood as a break between undergrad and med school. I started working within the month I arrived and never looked back.”
While the New Jersey native’s college days in Atlanta were crucial in forging her future careers in dance and acting, they also served as a wake-up call healthwise. Her mother died of thyroid cancer just two weeks into her freshman year.
“She made sure I didn’t know [she was sick] before I left for school,” said Johnson, still hurt by the memory. “My dad told me that she wanted me to go to college and do well with no worries about her or her health. No one in my family told me about it at her request. It all happened so quickly. I was 17 and just leaving home. I never had a chance to say goodbye.’’
Her mother’s unexpected death took a tremendous emotional toll on the then-teenager. Johnson says she used her pain to dig deeper into her schoolwork and into her dual majors of chemistry and psychology. Through her classes, she began to realize the damaging impact the wrong foods could have on the body and mind and discovered the importance physical activity had on a person’s overall well-being.
“While others in those classes were there to get their degrees, I was there for much more,” remembers Johnson. “I was there in part to learn more about my own health and honestly, out of fear and to gain understanding of how my mother died.”
Johnson was dating an Atlanta local, boxing champion Evander Holyfield, when she graduated magna cum laude from Spelman and toyed with the idea of staying in Atlanta and attending medical school for a time. But the pull of Hollywood was just too strong.
Right on the heels of her appearance in School Daze, Johnson landed a gig that was destined to put her extensive background in dance on major display. Comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans chose her to cast, choreograph, and participate in the dance segments for his new television show In Living Color, a hip, urban comedy that would become an instant hit when it debuted in the early 90s.
The show introduced viewers to future stars Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx, while the dance segments showcased six dancers known as “The Fly Girls.” Johnson chose the girls—including another future household name, Jennifer Lopez.
But just as In Living Color was set to go into production, Johnson got the news that she’d been chosen for the lead in what would become the hip-hop classic House Party. She’d hoped to do both projects but the shooting schedule for the film and television show never meshed. Johnson chose to do House Party and actress/dancer Rosie Perez replaced her at In Living Color.
House Party was a huge box-office hit and Johnson continued to work steadily in movies with the likes of Julia Roberts, Sylvester Stallone, and Whoopi Goldberg. As her work schedule increased so did her dedication to health and well being. She began mixing her own green smoothies and nonprocessed food in the days before it was “the thing to do,” and brought them to set to avoid the less-than-healthy selections offered on location. It wasn’t long before her famous peers began asking questions.
“I remember doing the film Dying Young with Julia Roberts and I was eating my own food and my own smoothie on set,’’ said Johnson. “One day Julia teased me about how bad it smelled and then days later asked could she try it. It was a green smoothie I’d put together for more energy. She loved it. So green smoothies became our daily thing in the makeup chair during the movie.”
While Johnson didn’t immediately see the business value in her dedication to better health, her father back in New Jersey did.
“I remember I was so excited telling my dad about how everyone was so receptive to my healthy lifestyle! When I shared that Julia Roberts was enjoying my green smoothies he was like, ‘Did she pay you for it?’ He saw early on a future in my interest and passion in healthy living. And he was very verbal about feeling that’s where my professional attention needed to be.”
Johnson’s father was always supportive of his daughter but not a huge fan of her acting career. He was convinced she had much more to offer than reading lines from the pages of someone else’s story.
After her father died in 2001, Johnson also began to question the acting career that was becoming harder and harder to sustain.
“I was so used to being ‘that girl’ in high school and in college,” says Johnson. “So when I began not getting the jobs I wanted to get, it took something out of me. My dad said it dimmed my light and he didn’t like that. I didn’t either.”
As she grieved the death of a second parent Johnson gradually shifted her focus away from acting and towards developing an unconventional approach to health and wellness that used her background in chemistry and psychology as the template.
“So many people on the movie sets would constantly ask me to help them live in my zone of healthy, so they actually helped me create and name the business: The AJ Zone!”
A better health and wellness company, The AJ Zone includes individual counseling, customized wellness retreats, online programs for the noncelebrity and several individual programs that cater to the hottest of Hollywood stars as well as anyone desiring a healthier lifestyle. The AJ Zone’s programs offer a variety of services for people at any point in their better health and fitness journey. Not surprisingly, emotions and mental wellness play a key factor at every level of the programs.
“We focus on total wellness with emotional wellness being the core—because everything is emotional. Even with weight management, it’s so much more than food,” says Johnson. “Food is where we go trying not to deal with the issue. Zoners, as we affectionately call all living in our zone, start by fixing the issue and along the way we fix the components that have been thrown off balance. It’s coaching one into total wellness.”
Over the years Johnson has coached and counseled the likes of Beyonce, Terrell Owens, Mary J. Blige, and Stevie Wonder on everything from eating habits and fitness plans to finding the things that makes them smile on a regular basis.
“The first thing AJ gave me was a list asking for 10 things that made me happy,” remembers actress Gabrielle Union. “I got to about four or five things and was stumped. I had to really think about it and then I added crab made me happy—imitation crab at that. It was quite sad. But I loved that it made me think about what I was doing for myself to feel better all the way around.”
Johnson’s unconventional approach to overall wellness has made her a Hollywood go-to for all things health and prompted actresses like Emily Blunt to proclaim, “I won’t do a movie or attend an awards event without at least two weeks with AJ.”
“I have been there, and still experience life in Hollywood so I understand a lot of what entertainers go through day in and day out in full view of the public,” said Johnson. “I know the discomfort and insecurities they feel despite all the fame. They know I know how hard that can be.”
Johnson uses her website to offer tips, recipes, and comprehensive coaching programs starting at as a little as $40 for those not living a Hollywood life. She regularly uses Twitter and other social-media outlets to promote The AJ Zone brand of healthy daily motivations, the new exercise move of the day, new products, and to showcase how she follows her own healthy-living advice.