Concentration is hard when you’re Luci Romberg. A walk to dinner with friends near her Sherman Oaks home in California becomes a recon mission; a family trip to Turkey turns into a filming opportunity; a glimpse of tightly grouped rooftops, an abandoned building or a concrete wall sets her mental wheels turning and ignites her imagination. “They call it Parkour goggles,” Romberg says. “You can’t walk down the street like a normal person. You’re always thinking about the tricks you can do off everything you see.”
Romberg, 34, is a Hollywood stuntwoman and the top female freerunner in the world. A more creative, acrobatic offshoot of the French training discipline of Parkour, freerunning is rapidly gaining in participation numbers thanks in no small part to the popularity of TV shows such as American Ninja Warrior and the sport’s almost non-existent barrier to entry. “You don’t need equipment,” Romberg says. “You don’t even need shoes.”
In October 2015, seven years after discovering freerunning through a fellow stuntwoman, Romberg was named Best Female at the prestigious Red Bull Art of Motion in Santorini, Greece, for the 11th time (there are multiple events per year). She is the only woman ever to make finals at the event, something she’s accomplished six times and she’s twice finished in the overall top five. In 2008, Romberg’s powerful, aggressive and daring style earned her a spot on LA’s esteemed Team Tempest Freerunning squad and the nickname Luci Steel.
Her videos, which garner hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, have made her a star. In each, she displays truly incredible feats of acrobatics and gymnastics across impossible gaps, at frightening heights and almost always over concrete. She moves quickly and powerfully, but not exactly gracefully, to high-energy, beat-thumping tunes. It is impossible to take your eyes off her.
“Freerunning is like dancing or urban gymnastics. You let your environment dictate your movement”
“I can see a new location and within five minutes know what skills I want to do off each structure," Romberg says. "To stand on a ledge and look over the side and think, ‘if I don’t make this gap, I might die’, and have so much confidence in yourself and your abilities to have the courage to overcome that fear is a freeing feeling. That’s what I love, the freedom.”
As Romberg performs inward front flips off buildings and backflips off handrails, what becomes more apparent than her gymnastics background — she was the 2004 NCAA Division II national all-around champion — is her absolute excitement for what she is doing. Her personality shines as brightly as her skills and if, for most people, the camera adds 10lb, for Romberg, it adds 10ft. In person, she is tiny, 5ft 1in and 105lb of solid muscle beneath uncombed auburn hair, high cheekbones and an endless constellation of freckles. But on the small screen, she is a giant.
“YouTube is really big in our community,” she says. “It’s intelligent design. Once you see something is possible, everyone can do it. I get super inspired by seeing other women doing crazy cool stuff. If she can do that, then I can do something cool, too. I want to keep pushing and putting out content and inspiring other girls. It’s about leading by example.”
In person, what Romberg lacks in vertical gifts she makes up for in personality. She is inquisitive, self-deprecating and honest. She swears without apology and describes dangerous stunts she’s performed in freerunning videos and for blockbuster films with the nonchalance of someone who is decidedly unimpressed with her own skill.
On doubling comedy actor Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief, which required Romberg to don a body suit that added size to her frame and take a head-on hit from a car travelling at 20mph, she says only, “It’s not like I was driving. I just stood there and got hit by a car.” The truth, of course, is more complex. There is an art to becoming a flying pedestrian. And while the stunt left Romberg with a two-inch gash on her forehead that required 14 stitches to close, it also earned her a 2014 Taurus World Stunt Award and the respect of the actor and stunt coordinator with whom she worked. Romberg has since doubled for McCarthy — with whom she shares the same almond-shaped eyes and a love of fight scenes — in Spy, The Boss and Ghostbusters, which premieres worldwide in July.
“It’s amazing to be a part of team McCarthy,” Romberg says. “She’s amazing and smart and just as funny in person. She’s an amazing boss. She’s changed my life in so many ways. I’m grateful and proud to tell people I’m her double.”
A decade into her career, Romberg’s resumé reads like a stuntwoman’s dream checklist. She’s worked in commercials, on television and in film, on action megahits (Transformers, Divergent, Green Lantern), in thrillers (The Conjuring, Changeling) and comedies (The Boss, due out this year, Spy and Ted). She travels the country and the world and is in high demand. But when she moved to Los Angeles six months after graduating from Texas Woman’s University in 2005, Romberg found the industry was tough for a young woman to break into.
“It’s a boys’ club,” she says. “Early on, the people I surrounded myself with told me, you need to lose weight, you need to wear makeup, you need to present yourself as a woman. The guys, the stunt coordinators, want to be around cute, pretty girls. And they’re the ones who hire us. I’m a tomboy and I was like, nope. I’m not going to change. I’m going to be me. But as I watched my friends who were badass, but also pretty and skinny, get work, I wondered if I was ever going be employed.”
In college, Romberg struggled with body-image issues and spent much of her collegiate gymnastics career battling the eating disorder bulimia. Away from gymnastics, happier and more mature, she didn’t want her new career to dictate the way she viewed herself. And she didn’t want to have to starve herself or be tempted to purge to make a living. “It was a nightmare to get over bulimia and I still struggle with it every day,” Romberg says. “But once you get that good positive head space going, life is better, regardless of the way you look. I just want to have a healthy mentality.”
Romberg found that positive headspace through freerunning, which offered a way to express the elements of gymnastics she once loved — flipping, spinning, inventing new movements — without being constrained by the need for perfection. “In gymnastics, I always had a hard time keeping my legs straight, my toes pointed,” she says. “I was all power. I had no grace. Freerunning is great because nothing has to be perfect. There is a safe and an unsafe way to do something, but not a right and a wrong way."
"I love stunt work, but freerunning has an extra special love in my heart. It’s my passion.”
Two years ago, bolstered by how much the sport helped her to find strength, self confidence and freedom of expression, Romberg shot and produced a short film with her fiancé, Chad Bonanno, titled Tru Beauty, in which she candidly discusses how freerunning helped her to overcome her eating disorder. It is due out this year. Today, she is fit, strong and proud of the body that allows her to work in an industry she has grown to love.
“In the 11 years I’ve been trying to do [stuntwork], it’s gotten a lot better for women,” she says. “There are a few women coordinators now. For the non-descript spots, which would usually go to men, they’re bringing in women. I’m grateful for being in stunts right now. I think it will continue to grow and get better for women.”
In addition to her day job and competing on the pro team at Tempest, Romberg is also one of eight owners of Tempest Inc, which includes three training academies in Southern California, a clothing and a shoe line. When Romberg was invited to join the team seven years ago, she was the only woman. That is still true today. “I thought the growth of girls in the sport would be faster, but it’s been slow moving,” she says. “There are some incredible girls now, but they’re few and far between.” Romberg is often the only woman at competitions and video shoots and the number of men still far exceeds the women who sign up for open gym at Tempest.
“A goal of mine is to do more for women in the sport, to put together women’s events and have a blog or website where women can go and be a part of a community,” she says. “When I look around, it’s such an empowering time for women in media and sports and entertainment. It’s really exciting. It’s the age of the woman.”