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.

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