Sheila Cluff’s path to founding The Oaks at Ojai health and fitness destination spa in Ojai, California, was a journey full of more ups and downs than many people face throughout an entire lifetime. Before Cluff even graduated from high school, she performed in the Canadian Nationals, a national figure skating competition, and was invited to tour the United States with the Sonja Henie Hollywood Ice Revue. After a year of touring, she enrolled in college. She graduated from Ottawa Teachers’ College in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, in 1959, and began teaching health and physical education.
Cluff found that her junior high students were bored with physical education, so she formulated a plan to get the girls interested. She convinced the school’s principal to purchase a piano and hire a pianist to play the music of the time, and put ice skating patterns on the floor for her students to learn, calling it “cardiovascular dance.”
“Before I knew it, not only were the girls having fun and wanting to come to my classes, but they were also explaining to their parents how much fun they were having, and the parents wanted to do the same thing,” says Cluff. She started a company called Fitness Inc., teaching cardiovascular dance to adults. In 1960, after getting married and moving to Plattsburgh, New York, Cluff restarted her company—it held health and fitness classes for every group, including a teen fitness class where she found that teens had no idea how to care for their skin.
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“I became very interested in the lack of knowledge that the teenager had on how important it is to cleanse the skin, how important it is to wear sunscreen … they would literally go to sleep with makeup on.”
At the time that Cluff became interested in skin care, facials were still considered an indulgence for the extremely wealthy, not a health necessity, and “massage” was a dirty word, she explains. “I was really bucking the trend when it came to cleansing, moisturizing and putting on the right ingredients. At that time in the 60s, a teenager would go out and bask in the sun using baby oil and iodine on her face to get a tan, not realizing that the baby oil clogged the pores and the sun was so damaging,” says Cluff.
In 1969, Cluff and her family moved to Ventura, California, and restarted her company once again the following year. She had to begin training fitness teachers to help keep up with the demand. Soon after, in 1972, Health Holidays was born. Cluff and her staff planned trips all over the world. “The philosophy is, if you travel with a like-minded group of people, you’re more apt to take the advice in the dining room of making good food choices, and you’re more apt to stay physically active,” explains Cluff.
“Europe was far ahead in recognizing the value of body treatments—massage and oiling of the skin, scrubbing, cleansing and sun protection … but they knew nothing about health and fitness. And America was starting to grasp making good food choices and being physically active, so I decided to combine the best of Europe and the best of America,” explained Cluff. “I couldn’t be all things to all people—I was the fitness person—but when I opened The Oaks [at Ojai] in 1977, that philosophy came together, and I hired experts in nutrition, skin care and massage. I think it’s really important to know that you don’t have to be an expert in every single aspect of health and wellness, provided you surround yourself with the experts and people who are trained to know exactly what they’re doing, and how to make a difference.”
The Oaks at Ojai is now in its 37th year with a team of about 40. “We’re not glamorous at The Oaks. Our focus is on health and wellness and moving—becoming an activity-oriented person, and making good food choices. We have 15–20 fitness programs a day—there’s a program for the marathon runner and one for the client who is brand new to fitness,” says Cluff. “Then the client books treatments based around the fitness programs they choose.”
The Oaks at Ojai carries G.M. Collin and jane iredale, but personalizes their scrubs to match what is in season in Ojai. “When we do a seasonal scrub, we take a basic scrub and add maybe orange peel and aroma,” says Cluff.
Cluff has hosted television shows for both NBC and ABC, has published five books, and has founded and led multiple successful companies—and is still diving into new endeavors and challenges. “I’m not retired; I’m reinvented. I returned to competitive figure skating, after a 50-year absence, on my 71st birthday. I’m [now] raising money for foster children through figure skating,” says Cluff.