Cody Simpson is Working on His Toughest Challenge Yet: Becoming an Olympian - Men's Health Magazine Australia

Cody Simpson is Working on His Toughest Challenge Yet: Becoming an Olympian

Back on home soil after conquering the world as a teenage singing sensation, Simpson is hard at work trying to realise his next incarnation.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GREEN, STYLING BY TESSA LAW

As the hazy mid-afternoon sun illuminates Rainbow Bay on the southern Gold Coast, I wander up to the fuss unfolding around Cody Simpson.

The group of people working around him – photographers, stylists, and manager – hasn’t yet noticed me. But as he clambers over the railing beneath a lifeguard tower, Simpson’s gaze meets mine, and he shoots me a wry smile. A moment passes before he catches my eye again, and this time his smile broadens. I see the penny drop.

“How good is this weather?” beams the impeccably dressed Myer ambassador, nodding my way. The group, hitherto absorbed in their  tasks, now turn to take in the splendour of their surroundings. “Pretty picture-perfect, huh?”

Simpson’s not wrong. As the group disperses for a break, he leans in for a firm handshake – with a limb I know can seriously disperse water – and we begin to walk. He tells me it already feels like it’s been a long day – his began with a dawn yoga session and a training session in the pool, before he spent the last three hours in unforgiving sun chasing perfect pixel placement. You or I might be ready for a nap or at least seek a comfortable spot to lounge away from the heat of the sun. Not Simpson, though. 

“My itinerary at the moment is pretty hectic,” he says. “I’m always on the go. Stuff always going on.” By stuff he means the 16 separate workout sessions he does each week. “First thing tomorrow morning – before training even begins – I have a steroid shot in my shoulder to look forward to,” he laughs.

Sporting a deep cinnamon tan, muscled arms and that imperious jawline, Simpson fits this golden afternoon to a tee. The months of gruelling pool work he’s been doing behind closed doors have given his body a sinewy elegance. There’s an assured air about him that complements his steely, mature look – he’s a long way from teen heartthrob territory, in other words.

The chiselled exterior masks a laidback, larrikin spirit. It takes all of five minutes before I hear him comically impersonating my British accent with one of the stylists. He coyly looks over to gauge how I’ve taken the light teasing. I flash him a soft grin. When the camera points his way again, though, he cuts a composed and self-possessed James Dean-esque figure – minus the quiff, which he buzzed off for this shoot.  

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GREEN, STYLING BY TESSA LAW

“You definitely get used to it, the attention,” Simpson muses. “In the beginning, when I was younger, it wasn’t easy, but I’m comfortable with it at this point. I’m acclimated. The cameras, the styling. The more you get comfortable with something – whatever that is – the better the result.”

As a man who’s inhabited the spotlight since his early teens, Simpson knows a thing or two about navigating its glare. And with a skillset as long as his impossibly lengthy arms, he also knows a bit about getting comfortable with new things. The trick, which the 24-year-old seems to have mastered, is to do your best to handle the demands and occasional indignities of fame with grace and humility, while boldly pursuing new dreams with calculated, unselfconscious determination. And to do it all with a smile on your face.  

Coast to Coast

Often touted as Australia’s answer to Justin Bieber, Simpson’s rise to fame was swift.

After recording himself covering on-trend pop singles on YouTube in 2009, the baby-faced adolescent seemed destined for stardom. When you watch early videos of him covering Justin Timberlake’s Seniorita and Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours, it’s all there. The kid exudes charisma, complete with an impressive vocal range and a clean-cut aesthetic, which – from the music industry’s perspective    appeared almost too good to be true.

Within 12 months, he went from recording home videos in his bedroom to producing and releasing a single, to a five-week summer tour across the US. “Things took off quickly,” he says. The ensuing years would bring subsequent EPs, albums, tours, TV shows and even
a Cody Simpson doll. 

The cogs of the fame machine were spinning, threatening to send him down a familiar and predictable path: the dreaded curse of the childhood star.

“I think I was lucky in a way to come into the industry at a time when I was able to see people who had come just before me and perhaps made some wrong decisions, so in a way, I could see these were the type of things not to do,” Simpson says. “I was genuinely scared to make decisions that could potentially propel you onto such a level of ubiquity that your normal life is completely over, and you can’t go back. I’ve seen firsthand how it can destroy people, those close to me and who I’ve known well – it frightened me. I’ve always laboured to keep myself grounded with one foot firmly in reality.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GREEN, STYLING BY TESSA LAW

As a musician, Simpson remains the complete package, certainly in comparison with his lip-syncing, one-hit-wonder peers. He plays the guitar, will jump on a piano when called to, and can dance and move with rhythm – performing in front of millions on America’s Dancing with the Stars will do that for you. 

Today, though, the hordes of screaming teenage girls aren’t quite as large as they once were. Time has gone by – his sound has changed. And, as he’s shifted into a more comfortable indie space, his relationship to music has changed, too.  

“Music right now is highly cathartic for me,” he says. “It’s very freeing and will always be a roaring passion for me. However, I have this unusual relationship with it because ultimately it freed me from ever getting a ‘proper job’ [laughs]. It’s an interesting and provoking thing for me. I’ve had to come to terms with it. Music is something I feel like I owe a great deal to, and I’m grateful.” 

At the same time, Simpson says, finding fame at such an early age can distort people’s perceptions of you, something he actively tries to counter.

“Coming across people who have a certain image stuck in their mind surrounding you can be quite funny,” he says. “I’m often so far removed from what people expect. I have a strong belief that every time you meet somebody – even somebody you might know – you’re meeting an entirely new person. A lot can happen in people’s lives behind the scenes.” 

If anything, Simpson’s humility is perhaps his most striking trait. 

As the afternoon light fades, a surfer limps past us with blood gushing from a laceration across his shin. Between a hand clasped to his leg, a good deal of blood is streaming between his fingers. Mid-sentence, Simpson makes a beeline towards the surfer and urges him to lie on the grass as a lifeguard hurries over with a first aid box. He rejoins me, making his apologies before we chat some more about the way the music industry, rather than corrupting him, has actually made him reflect on his fortune and appreciate the opportunities he’s been given.

“I’ve been very fortunate to meet musicians that I grew up admiring and listening to and who I can now communicate with,” he says. “Incredibly self-effacing humans like Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, John Mayer are the types of talents I take great inspiration from – but the ability to connect with these people, take advice from them and be around them still feels crazy.”

Before returning to Australia earlier this year, Simpson was able to record a whole album of new music through his independent label, to be released in the new year. It’s his first album in almost six years.

“I feel like I still have a lot left to say and a lot of music still left to make,” he says. “I can sense there’s still a lot of incarnations I’m yet to grow or transition into. Although swimming is very much a priority in my life right now, I know music will be around beyond it.”

The act of spinning plates – and keeping them all in the air – is an analogy I offer to Simpson as a way of framing his state of mind and current lifestyle. He nods enthusiastically. “In a strange way, I love stacking my plate really high and then getting overwhelmed by it. I always come out stronger for it.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GREEN, STYLING BY TESSA LAW

Neptune she wrote

Between shots, Simpson is playful, pulling faces and eating potato chips. With the light fading, we’ve moved to a smaller cove and in the distance a whale and her calf are breaching, shooting up plumes of mist. This causes much excitement among the group, led by Simpson himself, as he jumps onto a nearby rock for a better view. He almost loses his footing, and in that moment, that one second, I’m reminded that this physically capable man does possess a grain of vulnerability. Certainly more than meets the eye. 

The last 18 months have been a whirlwind for everybody, Simpson especially. He’s endured difficult life changes, the end of a well-publicised and social-media saturated relationship being the biggest – not to mention the associated tabloid fallout surrounding it. He now finds himself removed from the LA lifestyle and back on home soil with a completely new focus.

“There have been some tumultuous times in the interim where I feel I transitioned from my old lifestyle to the one I’ve adopted now,” Simpson reflects. “It was hard to get my footing initially, but now I feel like I have a fairly good grasp. Settling into a routine has been important for me. I’ve found as I get older, I need to be constantly occupied and always have something to work towards each day.” 

It’s pretty well established that in Tinseltown a star can’t even grab a morning coffee in casual attire without the media and bloggers making insinuations or obscuring reality to suit a specific narrative. Hastily snapped photographs and fabricated headlines are par for the course. “In my eyes, culturally, California is so very different to Australia,” Simpson says. “Generally, you’ll find people will strive so hard to make a big deal out of themselves. Whereas here, people tend to be the opposite. Australians will be the first to downplay themselves.
I missed that.” 

Still, the craziness of his time in LA was creatively fertile for Simpson, stirring a long dormant childhood hobby: poetry. “The lawlessness and chaos of poetry are what makes it attractive to me,” he says. “All good music has elements of poetry in it. I feel like there is a lot more freedom in poetry, though.” 

Simpson quickly realised this creative outlet was not only a source of inner therapy – and a welcome escape during severe lockdown measures last year – but also a chance to show the world an entirely new side of himself.

Taking to Instagram, he created and released work under the alias Prince Neptune. After releasing a collection of poems – some dating back to when he was just 18 – under the same working title in April last year, he continues to develop the craft and explore this new identity.

He tells me how releasing Prince Neptune was a huge step in making a creative statement separate from people’s expectations. Intrigued, I press him on the matter of writing under a different name, a new guise. “There was a period when I got heavily into reading Greek mythology,” he says. “I was drawn to the character of Neptune with the strong connection and affinity to water. I wanted to write from the position of an alter ego – an exaggerated version of myself. I didn’t want people to know it was my writing initially, so the pseudonym Prince Neptune came about.” He pauses briefly. “I wanted to express things I would normally not say and take on a persona of somebody larger than myself. I took inspiration from Jim Morrison of The Doors and how he would proclaim himself the lizard king: I can do anything.  He would become completely detached from his usual character and adopt something completely new.” 

A healthy, legal and inexpensive form of escapism? Sure. But it’s not all swooshing of quill on parchment and staring off into the distance, at turns starry-eyed and brooding. “I’ve had a lot of mixed reviews with my poetry,” Simpson admits. “And then there’s been times where I’ve just fallen off things. I’ve been through creative dry spells and it has a dramatic effect on me – I feel claustrophobic almost. There’s nothing worse than facing the blank page.”

The conversation turns to our own personal attachments, both healthy and unhealthy, and we reflect on how these can, and often do, influence everyday life. After all, a creative slump can drive even the most sound mind to despair, if enough importance is attached to the endeavour. “Healthy attachment is important to me,” Simpson says. “I read somewhere that even if you’re attached to something positive for you – you’re still attached. It gave me food for thought.  I’m looking at slowing things down. It’s great when artistic expression demands your utmost, though, but I’m beginning to see power in the adage, less is more, at this point in my life.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GREEN, STYLING BY TESSA LAW

Emerging from the depths

At 12 and still living in Australia, Simpson was swim-training at 5.30 each morning before attending high school, returning to the pool when the final bell rang. He was a national champion and garnering siginificant attention from swim coaches across the country. At 13, he had secured a record deal and was recording an album in California. What a difference a year can make. Yet, swimming never went away.

As his teenage years went by, he would still swim and even seek out pools whenever he found himself in a new place on the road. “I juggled these different talents well as a youth, and I think it set me up well for now,” he says. “Sure, swim training these days is a lot more demanding than when I was younger, but for me, swimming and music will always complement each other. One is physically demanding, but the other is incredibly relaxing. And although they take up all my time, they always balance me.” 

Released earlier this year, Head Above Water is an Amazon Studios and Swimming Australia documentary featuring Simpson alongside three other swimmers, all at different junctures in their journeys toward the Olympics. The documentary is an intimate portrait of Simpson and his motivations, delving into the reasons why he finds himself back on the starting blocks. In it, Simpson describes how he knew he always had “unfinished business with it” [swimming] and was acutely aware he had stopped short of reaching his potential: “that fire never died in me”.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GREEN, STYLING BY TESSA LAW

Simpson surprised many by stepping back into the ranks of competitive swimming. His performance at the Adelaide Olympic qualifiers in June may not have made the grade for Tokyo but was respectable nonetheless.

“I was happy with my result,” he says. “It was my goal to hit 52 seconds for the 100-metre butterfly and make the final. It was a two-edged goal, hitting that time and getting into the final, so I was very pleased and relieved when I did both of those things. If I’m honest, I didn’t expect to be anywhere near competitive until next year. I’m content with where I’m at right now. I’ll be super happy if I can continue the rate of progression that  I’ve had over the last 12 months.”

To be in competitive shape for Olympic-level swimming is incredibly tough. Nothing less than monk-like commitment and a military-level workload is going to cut it. “My training is pretty hectic right now,” Simpson laughs. “I’m currently training in the pool nine times a week for between an hour and two hours. Then I’m doing three intense weight sessions for a good 90 minutes each. I’ll also throw in two spin-bike sessions before I even get in the water some mornings, plus there are core circuits in there, too.” He’ll also “sprinkle” in at least one yoga or pilates class, he says.  All up, it amounts to around 25–30 hours per week.

It’s a gruelling workload by anyone’s standards and between the pool, writing poetry and playing music around his home at Mermaid Beach, his downtime isn’t as glamorous as you’d expect for a young celebrity living on the Gold Coast.

“It’s hard for me to do anything really because in my downtime I’m normally napping, visiting the physio, getting a massage – essentially unloading so I can then reload. I must remain engaged; a slip-up can have a domino effect on my whole training. I love nothing more than getting in the ocean. I live right on the beach, so I’m constantly just going and jumping in. I find if I don’t get regular saltwater therapy, I can tell. It certainly elevates my mood.” 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GREEN, STYLING BY TESSA LAW

As dusk approaches, we head off the sand and grab a seat together. Lorikeets chatter noisily overhead, as weary beachgoers begin their migration to dinner. It’s peaceful. I’m still curious about what Simpson sees on the horizon and the type of attitude it will take for him to achieve that. He doesn’t rush his answer. And, as collected as he is eloquent, he imparts a final sentiment that hints at the scale of his ambition and the strength of his drive to achieve it.

“I admire athletes who are unapologetic and perhaps walk that fine line between arrogance and brilliance and pull it off,” he says. “Muhammad Ali was a perfect example of this. I’m certainly not outspoken. But I do know life is about perspective. Ultimately, I want to achieve greatness.”

Alex Mitcheson

By Alex Mitcheson

Alex Mitcheson is a Gold Coast-Australia based freelance feature & content Writer. Specialising in outdoor lifestyle and travel.

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