“It’s about a lot of hard work” “I was living out of home, eating lots of chocolate and pizza, drinking and smoking, and I’d never set foot inside a weights room”
It’s four o’clock on a tomb-cold Melbourne morning. It’s the kind of cold where batteries fail and frost covers anything left outside. The sun won’t be up for another three hours. But Laurel Downes is out the door by 4.15am, downing a pre-workout combo of caffeine and fat burners in the car. She’s ready for her gruelling morning session at the gym known as “the mecca”, Doherty’s Gym in Brunswick.
Less than two weeks out from her 12th competition in three years, 31-year-old Downes starts with “fasted cardio” on the stepper for 40 minutes, followed by an hour of weight training – today it’s back and shoulders, her favourite. Later, she’ll post a photo of her epic “pump” to her 17,000 Instagram followers. For Downes, this is the best part of every day.
An increasing number of women are hitting the weights room. They squat heavy, they chase a good pump, and they follow a diet that makes prison food look like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Since 2013, when the International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) Australia added a bikini division, what was once a male-dominated, relatively unknown sport has grown in popularity. Competitors aim for the perfect “bikini body” of around 10 per cent body fat, and they train (and eat) like athletes to get there.
Downes is currently in prep for the IFBB Amanda Doherty All Female Classic in Melbourne’s Moorabbin on Saturday. It’s popular with newbies because it’s all-female, and therefore less intimidating.
Mark Ottobre, a personal trainer who specialises in 12-week body-building comp preparation courses, says bikini competitors are his fastest-growing clients. “It’s like an entry-level category – it’s not easy, but it’s achievable,” he says. “You can lose body fat relatively quickly with the right training and nutrition. Muscle takes longer to build. The hardest part for me in training females is teaching them to eat properly, and healing that relationship with food.”
Women’s relationship to food, and training, reflects not only their mindset and emotions, but how they cope with stress. Downes says there is no room for relationship dramas when she’s in comp prep, as emotions affect her body. Even if she doesn’t eat any extra kilojoules, her body will “hold onto” food if it’s producing more of the stress hormone cortisol. Learning about the interrelationship of food, life, training and feelings is what the majority of bikini competitors will tell you is the most interesting part of a prep.
Judges focus on strength and symmetry. The weights room is crucial – you can only get so far with cardio, and it does nothing for muscle definition. Trainers such as Ottobre like to ban cardio until the last few weeks of prep just to drop that last bit of fat “when you’ve used up everything else”. He also stresses the importance of a good coach to prepare the competitor for the post-comp comedown. “You’re never going to look as good as you do on comp day, and that’s OK.”
For Downes, who takes her prepared barramundi and greens in sandwich bags to her full-time job in a childcare centre every day, it’s a lifestyle choice. Unlike others chasing sponsorship or international championships, she has no desire to turn pro. Prize money in Australia is almost non-existent, anyway. Jaz Correll, who hired Ottobre to prep her for her first competition and has placed in five since, does want to turn professional. For Correll, the hardest part was also the most satisfying: posing onstage.
Like most competitors, Downes has a weight-loss story that led to the bikini division. “I was living out of home, eating lots of chocolate and pizza, drinking and smoking, and I’d never set foot inside a weights room,” she says. After meeting Amanda Doherty (wife of Tony Doherty, who runs the Doherty’s Gym chain and IFBB Figure Pro), Downes lost eight kilograms in eight weeks on a diet plan Doherty wrote for her (no sugar, minimal carbs, eating every three hours) and daily sessions on her spin bike. Soon after, she joined the gym, and then began competing in the bikini division. Unlike Correll, Downes found posing onstage fun, and now teaches the poses to new competitors.
THE FIRST THING you notice upon arriving at Kingston Arts Centre on competition day is the smell of spray tan. Backstage are four tanning tents, and the women must be naked for their fourth and final “top coat”. Modesty has no place here, but there’s a strict no-males policy. There are smears of fake tan on the toilet seats. Make-up artists have set up camps in the coffee stand downstairs, and I know which ones are competitors by their blackened skin and false eyelashes.
A friendly man with huge arms waves me into the competitors’ room. During the show, I’ll hear him shouting encouragement to his “clients” onstage (“Smashing it, Steph!”). He’s one of a growing number of professional body builders being hired by aspiring bikini competitors for their first show.
At 10am, a dozen or so competitors are in the back room, which is freezing cold.
Heating, apparently, would melt the tanner. Lying on the floor near eskies full of chicken, rice cakes and other body-building staples, with blankets covering their darkened skin, the women remind me of kids camping out overnight for concert tickets. Some even have pillows. Simone Collins, a figure competitor who also helps out backstage, says, “Blankets work better than clothes – they don’t want to smear their tan.” A smattering of barbells litter the floor, ready for competitors to pump up their muscles before they go onstage.
Probably the weirdest thing is the treats table, which covers the entire back wall. Platters of cupcakes, brownies, chocolates and slices are laid out for the competitors – Amanda Doherty, who doesn’t eat sugar, made them the night before. “You don’t see this at the Bendigo Classic [mixed competition],” someone says. “Amanda only does this for the girls.” Collins says the sugar fills out the muscles that have been depleted over the pre-show prep. It still seems odd.
With tiny legs, huge fake lashes and blackened skin, the competitors resemble Oompa Loompas from Tim Burton’s version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Some have support crews to help them – the bikinis require superglue to stay put. There’s a strange camaraderie, everyone semi-naked, the tanning assistants honing in on a smear on an inner thigh here, a strap that needs adjusting there.
Downes’s division, the Bikini Open, is last onstage at 4pm. Her friend Jade, who’s competing in Bikini Novice, spreads almond butter on a rice cake as we chat, and they display their custommade bikinis, which can cost up to $1000. It’s hard to know which bit is the front and which is the back.
The Bikini First-timers are first onstage. Of the 50 entrants in today’s competition, more than a third are here for this division. One by one they file out, taking around 10 seconds to make their entrance and pause on their poses. One entrant has to be taken backstage halfway through as she’s falling out of her bikini top. A handful of women make “first call-outs”, and the judges ask them to turn to the back of the stage and walk in unison. All their legs are shaking, possibly because of the heels, or possibly because they’re wearing a few centimetres of fabric on a stage with strobe lights and five judges assessing their flesh. With glute and hamstring definition so important, it’s easy to see why they all train on the squat rack.
The winner, a slender Eva Longoria look-alike, has long shiny hair which she swishes as she does each pose. After