Collected Outbursts, in original form, both published and unpublished, in defense of the Sisterhood…
FIERLESS ON FIFTY-SECOND
(Musclemag International, June 1994)
At the theatre next door to the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan the marquee trumpeted Richard Chamberlain in My Fair Lady. As Professor ‘enry ‘iggins, Chamberlain would perform the Galatean transformation of a street waif into an upper-crust bombshell. From the disdained to the divine. A daring experiment, and in the eyes of the credentialed, utter folly. The credentialed never learn, do they?
The irony was doubtless missed by most of the throng, later numbered at over 1300, lined up before the Roseland to witness Laurie Fierstein’s “Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World.” What the hell was this outrageous display of female sinew doing on 52nd Street, so close to Broadway, the province of High Art and linchpin of New York’s international greatness? The presumptuousness of conducting such a vulgar masque here! And these are women?
One could cite Arnold’s appearance many years ago at the Whitney Museum as a precursor to this exhibit, and expect a greater receptiveness to the idea of presenting muscular hypertrophy as art. But no, this is different. These are women!
Laurie Fierstein, a bubbly, human cyclone whose dense muscularity packed onto a 4’10” frame causes whiplash at the Big Apple’s sidewalk cafes and belies her artistic and cultural achievements, was not without support during her brave experiment. But it was mainly from those who champion muscular women in any milieu: the Women’s Physique World crowd, some of the “non-aligned magazines, local gyms, The Valkyries, and other friends of the sport. The big money, which routinely prostrates itself in sponsorship for the major contests, wouldn’t touch this. After all, it was not a “sanctioned” competition, but a collection of skits, posing routines and strength exhibitions, even if it did include names like Hannie Van Aken, Christa Bauch, Gabriella Sziksay, Karla Nelson and Nicole Bass.
I had the opportunity to see the project from behind the scenes, occasionally assisting Laurie’s staff in her jammed apartment, where faxes, phones and computers vied with one another for the attention of a never-ending stream of volunteer help. Working the curtains at the show, I saw the chaos of the backstage and tuned via headset into the frenzied chatter among the stage manager, sound-man and light-man. They’d never seen this stuff before and owing to the lack of rehearsal time and last-second rearrangements necessitated by a few no-shows, were frantically contending with a juggernaut which had assumed a life of its own. Damn, I wish I’d captured that traffic on tape!
No. it didn’t work out perfectly. Some of the skits by the teen actresses were too metaphysical and barely audible. The presentation to Bev Francis lacked conciseness. And there were rough edges resulting from the lack of available rehearsal time. But at its best moments it was superb.
There was something for everyone: Ronnie Coleman and Linda Wood-Hoyte passionately playing Antony and Cleopatra, Vicki Steenrod’s 500-pound deadlift, Christa Bauch with Wagner and chain-mail, Paula Suzuki, who must have steamed up more than one view-finder, Doughdee Marie’s show-stopping acrobatics capped by a baton-like twirling of her man overhead, and so much more which other writers like Steve Neece, that Howard Stern of bodybuilding, who finally emerged from his Southern California lair, will relate in detail. In every instance here was a visual onslaught of female muscle let loose and making the most of it.
Despite the capacity crowd, and enthusiastic reviews in the Observer, Daily News and other New York media, he aftermath saw Laurie physically and financially exhausted, even driven to sickbed for a day afterwards, but no less enthusiastic for next year’s show. And rest assured, folks, it’s gonna happen again.
This is the showcase that muscular women have needed for so long, away from the competition, with its politically-charged landscape and questionable purpose. Here women do not vie to be judged better than one another, but are free to create, to express their whole personnae without the arbitrary constraints which have made competitive bodybuilding a crapshoot. And without WBF hype they’re wholly believable and engaging. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but the absence of the ogre crowd from the audience will scarcely hurt things. Here is the road to the sky -perhaps, as I wrote once before, the Met or La Scala. Not a contest, but a Happening.
To Laurie, to the women who performed, to the people behind the scenes, to those who came to look, to all who believed, drive on! Broadway’s half a block away, and by George, I think we’ve got it!
THE AGONY AND THE EVOLUTION
(Unpublished, November 1995)
You can’t keep a Hard Woman down. The physical and financial exhaustion of birthing a production like A CELEBRATION OF THE MOST AWESOME FEMALE MUSCLE IN THE WORLD two years ago would have wrecked nearly anyone other than Laurie Fierstein. But then no one else has the conviction and fortitude to even try anything so bold as showcasing the muscular woman as epochal art, certainly not more than once. Laurie’s one of a kind. With EVOLUTION F; A SURREAL SPECTACLE OF FEMALE MUSCLE, performed 11 November at the Manhattan Center she would return and offer a vision at once obvious, yet inconceivable, necessary, yet uncommercial, utterly grand in its design, yet woefully small in its audience.
Again there would be no sponsors. There’d be imposing names like Gregory Hines and Susan Sarandon involved, but the moguls and money of bodybuildingdom would stay away. Hardly surprising -like many seminal efforts, these productions are about ideas, not profit. The support comes from THE VALKYRIES, Excel Chiropractic, some local businesses and a few hundred dedicated volunteers from all walks, believers all. You don’t get the big shots’ attention til the venture takes off and is demonstrably profitable. Then everyone wants a piece.
Laurie disdains commercialism and focuses on art. She’s hard-headed about this, and however admirable, her uncompromising stance on purity and non-collaboration also chases away sponsors. It obviously hurts the production if there aren’t the bucks to bring the key players in a few days earlier to rehearse together or to take care of publicity, costumes, lighting, music, props and other logistics.
These things hurt CELEBRATION in 1993, and they hurt EVOLUTION too. the tickets were $100, which ensured a small audience. The show was an hour late in starting, and the finale was an ill-paced fashion show which commenced with the longest pregnant pause I’ve ever witnessed (owing to costume-change uncoordination). Some of the skits, which might have been totally incomprehensible without the synopsis included in the program, would have benefited with tighter choreography, again, a function of available rehearsal time.
These things aside, EVOLUTION F was still a triumph. It followed a unifying narrative thread (unlike CELEBRATION, which was essentially a “do your thing” proposition) and if this epic seemed grandiose in its classic mythology with Morphians, Pseudogenes, Anthropomorphias, Monsteria and Aureole, isn’t the “larger than life” thing what bodybuilding as spectacle is really about? Surely the glory of muscular woman should offer us more than the static and stultifying mandatory poses of a prejudging lineup. Or is that lost on the multitudes content to slobber over Dorian Yates and onanize over Amy Fahdli (or vice versa)? For if it’s lost on them, it’s lost on Weider, Twinlab, Hammer Strength et al whose disposable resources might give a production like this a shot at the respectability of Broadway or a road tour. And that’s a shame, because not only does this kind of thing make a case for women’s bodybuilding, it’s jammed with visual spectacle you’ll never see at the Olympia.
In a healthy dose of role reversal, brawny blonde Caron Hospedales flings her male partner about her as easily as she would a scarf, and the phenomenal Linda Wood-Hoyte, at nearly 53 as ripped and bulging as ever, turns the tables on a macho escort in a candle-lit dinner vignette. How about those two crazy show-stealers, Yolanda Hughes and CEEJAY onstage at the same time, laying their flamboyant gravity-defiance on us from atop a tubular scaffolding? Or a set of butt-to-floor squats with 405 by Vicki Scaffe, a bone-crunching boxing demonstration by Golden Glover Tanya Dean, or a flying quarter-staff square-off between two martial-arts champs? And let’s not overlook amazons like Christa Bauch, Nikki Fuller, Laura Bass, and Gabriella Spuhn versus a collection of bad guys straight out of a Batman film?
The best productions turn on a single moment, which crystallizes the entire show. That moment belongs to Nancy Lewis. Possessing perhaps the finest symmetry in female bodybuilding (a sentiment shared by Robert Kennedy, who waxes rhapsodic over her perfect, straight clavicles) and striking facial features, she’s got a stage demeanor quite the opposite of the bouncy excitement exuded by Yolanda Hughes (another underrated treasure who can win over the hardest audiences). Nancy is the grim, but proud stoic, which makes her perfect as Joan of Arc. Juxtaposed against the glamour of Barbie, who represents Society’s ideal, she disappears while battling hordes of male degraders. Near the end, she re-emerges to face Barbie, with whom she exchanges her sword for some of Barbie’s adornments. It’s a simple act, but given all that precedes it, and given Nancy’s persona, the sight of this warrior-woman accepting an ornate earring and quietly placing the white mink stole over her shoulder is one of the most poignant moments I’ve ever experienced in theatre.
As Maria Torres, a world-class dance performer and instructor who joined the production at my urging said to me that evening: “This is great stuff! It’s wasted here. Everyone should know about it.” Amen, Maria!
For with all the hand-wringing over the future of female bodybuilders as competitive athletes, take consolation in knowing that their futures as performers has been largely unexplored. While the marquees of Broadway are not likely to blaze with HELLO DELTOID, LATS and PHANTOM OF THE OLYMPIA, there has to be something more rewarding, more meaningful for these ladies than they’ve been offered as athletes. If there’s a path to the screen, the theatre and the mainstream media for those whom the moguls have not blessed as “marketable,” it more likely will lead from showcases like EVOLUTION F than from the prejudging stage. But not until the art and money stop ignoring each other.
TELL IT TO YOLANDA
(Unpublished, for obvious reasons, March 1997)
They huddled in chummy congregation, one of similar knots in the Spago’s of bodybuilding, which the Columbus Doubletree Hotel restaurant becomes on the eve of the Arnold weekend. Their venerable doyen presided over this ritual almost glumly, despite the decorative flaxen-tressed new Fitness-find at his side. Skirting the edge of this solemn assemblage, I inquired of the Editor if one of the Ms. International competitors would appear along with the bevy of Fitness women at the magazine’s expansive exhibit booth during the weekend.
‘She’s gawt a shaow to do, man!” snapped the Editor. Then loudly, demonstratively, for the benefit of all within spittle-range, he fleered my suggestion that any contestant would do anything but hunker down in grim seclusion with distilled water, rice-cakes, and all the rest of the ritual self-abnegation that goes with becoming a champion. Oops! Stupid me. I smiled and excused myself. He was right, of course; some of us clueless galoots have no business casting our shadows in such august councils.
I wonder what he’d tell Yolanda Hughes. She spent a good chunk of the next day before the show in an exhibit booth (ours), meeting her fans. Just as she had last year. Quietly, patiently, without fanfare, her dignity and warmth always intact. Graciously too, as though her presence here was a favor received, rather than granted. This is Yolanda. In 1995 she went to New York to catapult herself about the stage at Laurie Fierstein’s unheralded EVOLUTION F, where magazines and money feared to tread, thus where exposure and financial gain would be nil. Her reward was in her own sense of contribution. For her, that was ample. And now, in 1997, after this show, after she’d become Ms. International, she came by the booth again. Quietly, without fanfare.
If you know Yolanda, you know she’s always this way. Always accessible. Pleased to be here. Never sounding off about the judging or other competitors. And reciprocally, you won’t hear anything negative about Yolanda Hughes from anyone. But as press coverage is generally reserved for the flamboyant, the whining and the centerfold-templated, you should hardly be surprised that the only exposure Yolanda ever gets is a mention of her placing at the Ms. O or the Ms. I. And that’s a shame. For in addition to being a lovely person, Yolanda’s one of the most entertaining performers competing today.
Who else has so much energy and surprise to share? Even without those breathtaking flips and contortions (which she was doing long before Fitness women came on the scene) Yolanda projects excitement the way Diana Dennis projects pathos. Have you ever seen anyone else look so damned happy up there? Not forced-grin-happy, but “you’re all mine and you’re not gonna believe what I’ve got for you” happy which reaches out and grabs you every time, no matter whom you were planning to root for. And those eyes, those cat eyes; when she gets them going, you’re either mesmerized or fleeing to the lobby.
What’s it all about, anyway? Sport, art -all things considered, isn’t the bottom line entertainment? And if, having won the mid-day lump-count, Yolanda can entertain us better than anyone else, isn’t it time she got some recognition for it? She’s Ms. International now, so maybe the magazines will finally make her a space amongst the ‘commercially-viable.” And maybe they won’t. Merit’s no longer a governing factor. Ask Lenda. Ask any woman who’s a bodybuilder now.
Whatever happens, count on Yolanda to accept it with perfect equanimity. She knows who she is, who her fans are, and what she’s up against. She doesn’t need to hide, whine or get regal. She hasn’t forgotten that having done your best in the gym and onstage doesn’t excuse you from doing your best as a human. And being Yolanda, she never will.
WOMEN OF STEEL; FEMALE BODYBUILDERS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR SELF DEFINITION
(Women’s Physique World, Dec 1998)
Looking for a resolution of the muscularity/femininity conundrum which has plagued women’s bodybuilding since it began? the answer is…you won’t find it here. Nor will you find the dazzling prose and exposition of Charles Gaines’ Pumping Iron II: The Unprecedented Woman or the third-wave feminist passion of Leslie Heywood’s Bodymakers. But not to worry. Maria Lowe’s Women of Steel has a lot of other things going for it, not the least of which is enough hard data to fuel your arguments (no matter which side you choose) and quantify your frustration. And it’s a damn sight more readable than its male-focused precursor, Alan Klein’s Little Big Men.
This is a study of competitive female bodybuilding through a collection of statistics and quotations form its players at every level from local to pro: competitors, promoters, judges, and “officials.” All use assumed names for obvious reasons. We are constantly reminded of this necessity throughout; indeed what comes across more loudly than the futile muscularity/femininity debate is the ruthless wielding and exercise of power politics within the sport.
Okay, so we already know all this, because it’s all we talk about at shows and in between. But isn’t it cool to see it gathered all quotable in in hard copy, attributed to folks you probably know? Too bad Maria couldn’t get Joe, Ben, Wayne and Jim to interview: then the party’d really be complete!
Maria Lowe is a professor of sociology, and it shows. Her language is clinical, dispassionate and scholarly, her chapters framed with “we will now examine’s” and ‘let us explore’s,” a healthy dollop of footnotes and appendices. These include an explanation of her methodological tools and theoretical perspectives as well as a glossary and a “Muscularity Continuum” for the uninitiated.
Yet, despite this objectivity, Lowe’s sympathies with the women of the sport are evident. She includes over a dozen black and white photos from WPW‘s archives which well represent competitive female bodybuilding’s grace and power without sacrificing one for the other. She’s not an insider, so her descriptions of the 1991 Ms. Olympia and the 1992 Ms. International (could anyone ever choose back-to-back shows like those two?) are refreshingly perceptive while free of the baggage of personal involvement, but she can’t be immune to the agony of the “female apologetic,” whose quest for concomitant strength and acceptance is laughingly negated by the real Powers.
Well worth the effort and highly recommended, Women of Steel is for all of us who venture opinions about this sport and bandy about the coexistence of profitability with purity but know better than to expect the answer.
HOLD YOUR HEARSES!
(Flex, Sept 1995)
Here we go again: women’s bodybuilding is dying! and this time they mean it!
Do you want evidence? The Canada Pro Cup in 1994 drew a smaller gate than a state-level amateur show. The Ms. Olympia, with attendance shrinking yearly, was tacked onto the Mr. Olympia as a sideshow, the winner jeered by much of the crowd. Top competitors like Shelley Beattie and Diana Dennis have announced their retirements from the stage.
Forays of female bodybuilders into the celluloid world have been underwhelming and, in some instances, embarrassing. We have yet to field one cinematic bombshell, but that’s another story. Even most TV appearances tend to push the freak-show angle: “Wanna laugh? Look at these, uh, women in lingerie…”
Our own press isn’t helping any; bodybuilding publications that can’t get over mourning the deceased Debbie Dobbins refuse to give so much as a blurb to Linda Wood-Hoyte, whose drug-free muscularity at age 52 has an importance worthy of Cosmopolitan or Newsweek. This is the ultimate disgrace. If female bodybuilders’ own periodicals have to hide them from public view, the iron maidens have got some real dragons to slay.
Still, nothing seems as threatening as the financial lure of fitness competitions. Catering to the insecurities of male spectators who are cowed by anything more physically- challenging than a Sports Illustrated swimsuit pinup, these pageants are enticing defections from bodybuilding’s upper echelons. Raye Hollitt, Sharon Bruneau, Sandy Riddell and Tazzie Colomb are the vanguard of what may be a mass (sorry!) exodus to more rewarding climes.
Ironically, the sport is taking a stabbing from one of its founders, who condemns the present practitioners as ‘she-males” and is spearheading the fitness assault with magazines and an extravaganza of his own in Florida. While much of what he says and does is laudable, his published doctrine that “women should stop training like men because they’ll look like men” is the regressive pap of women’s mainstream magazines.
We’ve been hearing for years that women’s bodybuilding has been on the edge of imminent collapse. Charles Gaines (Pumping Iron II) attributed this to a “hereditary and untreatable confusion of purposes” -12 years ago! Wayne DeMilia, IFBB pro division chairman, and others like Barb Stadelman, whose delightful but poorly-attended Canada Pro Cup cost her heavily, may admit there’s presently no money in it. A Masters Olympia competitor who rode to the Atlanta airport with me last September said the women’s sport was doomed. Still stillborn after all these years.
After all, the public continues to say “Ugh!” when faced with a lineup of female physique competitors. That might not concern too many of the sport’s most hardcore followers, who tend to forget who pays the bills, but it’s a dismal coda.
We had expected better after some 15 years. We at least hoped that women of the sport would have supplanted the flaccid “babe” types who adorn magazine covers in proper squishy submissiveness to the featured male bodybuilders. But hoochy-koochy still reigns, and it might seem that the mid-80’s represented a kind of high-water mark for women’s bodybuilding. If the promoters, the public and the competitors themselves are disenchanted, it would seem that there’s no one left to carry the flag. Maybe “fitness” is the future. Maybe we should turn back.
Don’t believe it! The show’s far from over. If, for the sake of assurance, you want a parallel, you needn’t look any further than the hiatus men’s bodybuilding experienced in the late ’70s. With women’s bodybuilding, there is a difference; the cause of this apparent lapse is not the absence of stupendous muscle or inspiring characters, but the manner in which that muscle is presented to the public.
And there’s another factor, something that no one likes to talk about. As hard a pill as it might be to swallow for us devotees of female muscle mass, the message inherent in the judging criteria points to a reasonable proposition: The winner must have a total package, with an emphasis on the natural achievement of muscle. Am I hypocritical to touch on the drug thing? After all, a lot of people actually believe that real muscle, and hence women’s bodybuilding, cannot be achieved without a syringe.
Wrong again. If anything is holding women’s bodybuilding back, it’s not muscle mass; it’s obviously “pharmacodynamics” gone wrong. I bristle whenever outsiders use the phrase “women who look like men” in response to any female with any visible sinew, but it’s hard to defend gender-benders with beards, James Earl Jones voices, gargoyle faces and Alcatraz demeanors. To those who don’t believe you can get “real” muscle without chemicals, look again at Linda Wood-Hoyte. And she didn’t even start weight training until she’d almost reached the age of 40!
Linda Wood-Hoyte, age 54
As for this furor and vacillation over judging standards, let’s look at the bright side: It’s a growing pain, but an eternal one. This means that when the pain stops, the growing’s over. Plateau. Who wants that?
Women’s bodybuilding is not only here to stay, it’s destined to revolutionize the physical concept of women in the near future. I have argued for years with hardcore enthusiasts that the public will embrace women’s bodybuilding if it’s presented in gradual doses, but they’re not going to accept a Bev Francis or a Paula Bircumshaw overnight. Tolerance levels are developed by progressive exposure, the way muscles are developed by progressive resistance. You begin with the Rachels, the Anjas, the Sharon Bruneaus and yes, the fitness types. They’re (sorry about this) “marketable” and if you don’t think that has any bearing on the future of women’s bodybuilding, then you need to get out of rectal defilade.
It is the legion of women bodybuilders, along with Linda Hamilton (Terminator II) and Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do With It?), who have pulled countless women away from the aerobics nonsense and into the weight rooms. You might think that fitness will swallow our future, but keep in mind that for every woman who defects from bodybuilding to fitness, there are a hundred fitness women who are looking wistfully at Lenda’s delts or Lei Lani’s calves.
If you despair over how far we have to go in extending the range of what is “marketable,” just look at how far we’ve come. Those gaunt women bodybuilders of the early ’80’s were considered so extreme at the time that even the great muscle pundit Rick Wayne was horrified, declaring that “women simply were never meant to look like that.” Yet they look anorexic next to fitness competitors like the lovely Renita Harris, who also competes as a bodybuilder and is every bit as marketable as the Marla Duncan clones.
Nothing says that crossover is a one-way proposition. As fitness women get more muscular, they will expand the borders of acceptability. The line between bodybuilding (drug-free) and fitness competition may smudge sufficiently now that the Rayes, Sharons and Renitas cross it at will. Regardless what happens to the judging criteria, the important thing is the gradual conditioning of public taste for muscular women.
This is a land desperately seeking superlatives. We are quickly bored with the average. We are always looking ahead to the bigger, the stronger, the faster, the better. Once you’ve learned what a developed calf looks like, it’s hard to be satisfied with the “clinically-atrophied” look of those models whose only outstanding features are derived from silicone and cosmetics. The fitness competitor is a step forward, but she is to Sue Price and Michele Ralabate what a bicycle is to a Maserati. and the public’s still on training wheels.
Rejoice over the fitness boom. It may be the best thing ever to happen to women’s bodybuilding. If this be death, let us have more. But we’ll take a rain check on the last rites.
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