Excess All Areas
Diamanté bikinis, false eyelashes and fake tan paired with bulging biceps, solid quads and rock-hard abs – a new sort of beauty pageant? WH has a backstage pass to the increasingly mainstream world of the bikini fitness competition
We got a backstage pass to the exploding sport of bodybuilding
II am backstage at a creaky, ageing theatre, watching fake-tanned women – in huge false eyelashes and plumped-up, painted lips – queue. They queue to sign in; they queue to be painted with oil; they queue to collect their competitor numbers, which they pin to their bikini bottoms and, finally, they queue to go onstage. Today, they live to queue. As they stand in line, I initially think they look like extras in a bad science-fiction flick – a battalion of female soldiers seconded as sex slaves – muscular, fetishised Disney princesses. But that is only a first impression; later I am dazzled by their commitment to the possibilities of their own bodies. Even so, the cognitive dissonance is extraordinary: the fittest women I have ever seen, painted like dolls. A glittering army. As they wait to compete (they’re in the national finals of a bodybuilding championship), they are at once nervous and excited. They have trained a whole year for this day – for some, even longer. For them it is more than just a hobby or a vocation – it’s salvation. “This is the only thing I’ve found that I’m good at and that I enjoy,” says competitor Amy Madeley (22), a callcentre worker, who says her love of training helped her overcome body issues. Madeley is at the softer end of the scale, with chestnut skin stretched neatly over hard curves. While for Barbara Kiss (28), a receptionist, her entry into this world was the result of a chance conversation at the gym. “I’ve done sports all my life,” she says. “But it was a PT who introduced me to weightlifting; I was scared that it would make me look bulky. But I began to enjoy seeing how far I could push my body and knew I wanted to compete after seeing a photo of a female competitor.” A peroxide blonde, she’s in purple today – purple lips, purple eyes and a teardrop jewel hanging from her purple embellished bikini pointing directly to her ab crack. It is the status symbol of the strong-not-skinny brigade, overtaking the thigh gap as the new body part du jour to be fetishised and demonised on social media. Waiting for their moment, these women, plus the other 420+ competing here today, browse their smartphones, groom each other or do the “pump-up” (tensing their muscles to warm them up). Tomorrow there will be more than 600 competitors vying for a platform. In the past 10 years, as gym culture has exploded, the number of entrants has doubled. For women, the Bikini Fitness category signalled a new era in the sport (yup, it’s a sport – the International Federation of Bodybuilding South Africa is a member of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee), which focused more on being toned than overtly muscular. The category is now so popular that there are height and age classes to enter. There are also other competitions to enter, including Body Fitness, emphasising softer curves. The winners in the Bikini Fitness competitions will be eligible for the World Championships; assuming they pass the drugs test. (They are looking for steroids and growth hormones.) The winner will get the opportunity to turn professional and travel the world: to win prize money, start a fitness brand, compete in professional shows. “I’m really glad more women are realising that building muscle isn’t going to make them look manly,” says Kiss, adjusting her jewelencrusted bikini. “It creates shape and curves and is also incredibly beneficial for your health. I think social media has played a huge part in the growing popularity of the sport – there are so many motivational fitness pages online that promote the beauty of a strong female body and celebrate the hard work it takes to achieve one.” As Megan Prescott (25), an actress and fellow competitor admits: “The world of competitive bodybuilding is crazy – I mean, a whole year prepping for one day? But I love it.”
Judges want to see skin tone, condition and tan.
Backstage, I investigate exactly what it is that women need to do to win at national level. Krish Kataria (29) won a Bikini Fitness class last year; she looks gloriously strong and healthy. She's a business development manager from London and trains 12 times a week – a morning HIIT cardio session at 6am and an evening weights session six days a week. “There’s not a lot of time for anything else and it requires a lot of planning,” she says. “There are no shortcuts. It’s about consistency.” The discipline is astounding; brutal, some might say. For up to three months before a show, a competitor can drop her kilojoule intake to around 4 200 to 5 000 a day, fuelling twicedaily workouts with a strict macro regime. Chicken, beef, salmon, green vegetables, oats and avos are staples. “You can’t go to the gym six times a week [rather than 12] or eat 1 000 extra kilojoules a day or eat cheap food and look like Krish,” says Kataria, using the third person. I like the way she objectifies herself. “You just get used to the diet,” admits Kiss. “It’s a mind game. You decide that you’re going to do it. The hardest part is always having to be prepared, to take your food with you everywhere and to know that is the only thing you can eat,” she says, pointing to the Tupperware in her bag that’s filled with snacks for today – lean chicken, rice, almond butter and jam, which I’m told helps plump up the muscles before stepping on stage. You may expect food stalls full of protein bars and shakes, but there’s only one food outlet in the building, a sweet shop, and it’s queue-free. They’ve come this far, they’re not going to ruin it now with a bar of chocolate.
For the past week, competitors will have been “water-loading”, forcing themselves to drink up to 10 litres of water a day, only to drink nothing – aside from, perhaps, dehydrating coffee or red wine – from the night before the show until it finishes. It’s all about ridding the body of muscle-masking fluids so they can show their gains in high definition. Devotees can report blurry vision and plummeting body temperature. But everyone here insists they feel great, filling up on a last-minute carb fix to give those muscles a final pump. Meanwhile, the auditorium fills with gym buddies, trainers, parents and grandparents. The nine judges – all former bodybuilders – sit at a long table in front of the stage. They watch as the girls come on, herded by a compère, flex their muscles and smile. The women face the audience, hand on hip, then rotate through a series of poses; turning to the side, the back and front. Considering how little they’re wearing, it is unsexy. “Come on, that girl!” screams one father. I meet Dianne Bennett, a judge rumoured to be friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Tierney, president of the bodybuilding federation hosting the competition. They are polite and very formal in their black suits; an old-fashioned touch to a terribly modern pageant. “The ideal,” says Bennett, pointing towards Kiss, “is to have symmetrical muscular development.” Tierney agrees: “You are looking for a female shape where everything is in balance – as well as having a healthy appearance, condition, skin tone and tan.” Bodybuilding, he says, is one of the biggest sports in the world and it’s growing fast. There are now 191 member countries in the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, but its first competition drew 500 people. In South Africa alone, there are 70 competitions a year; worldwide, there are more than 25 000, with four World Championships a year to compete in. “It’s subjective, of course,” continues Tierney. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But some girls are obviously dieting too hard. We don’t want that.”’ Indeed, as it states in the competition guidelines: “Entrants must be viewed with the emphasis on a healthy, fit, athletic physique.” I ask Tierney about the tan. I saw one girl with green hands – her fake tan had gone awry and given her goblin fingers. “Some competitors listen to the wrong people,” he says calmly. “They think the darker the better. It’s supposed to look natural.” Really? Looking around, “natural” isn’t an aesthetic target that anyone seems to have aimed for, let alone hit. The hair, the nails, the make-up. And the bikinis. I was told couture was mandatory by a group of girls backstage; they think no one will win with an off-the-peg number and they pay up to R10 000 for a bespoke alternative. “People think judges are going to notice the best and most expensive outfit,” says Tierney. “That is not the case. Plus some bikinis are too small. It looks indecent. This is a family show.” And the diamanté? He sighs. “You cannot stop girls exploiting the diamanté. It’s contagious.” I watch as Kiss is crowned winner of her Body Fitness class. She’s crying – her efforts finally recognised. She clutches her trophy in disbelief. The smiles of her fellow competitors don’t waver – professional to the end. The first thing they do when they step off stage? Eat. “I’m so hungry!” I hear one girl cry. She’ll eat whatever’s in her bag now – but pasta, desserts and sweets later. “It’s tiring,” Kiss admits, as she changes to go home. “But it’s always nice to socialise with the other women.” Indeed, the camaraderie has been evident throughout the day, as I watched them celebrate with and console each other backstage. “Everyone’s in the same boat,” says Prescott. “We’re all hungry, tired, nervous.” I ask her how she feels about all the glitter; the looking like a weaponised doll and she says this: “Everyone has this preconception that women shouldn’t be muscular. But we’re proof that women can be toned, strong – and feminine. We are creating our own rules. Glitter, sparkle, make-up and bodybuilding. We can do it all.”
We spend a year prepping for just one day.
Above Every second counts: cramming in those final preshow raises. Top Barbara Kiss gets into her stride. Top right Pumped and ready to go.
Above English actress Megan Prescott has completely transformed her body. Left and top Let the judging commence.