Physique contests for women date back to at least the 1960s with contests like the Miss Physique and Miss Americana. However, these early “bodybuilding” contests were really not much more than bikini contests. The first U.S. Women’s National Physique Championship, promoted by Henry McGhee and held in Canton, Ohio in 1978, is generally regarded as the first true female bodybuilding contest – that is, the first contest where the entrants were judged solely on muscularity (Todd, 1999).
More contests started to appear in 1979. Some of these were the following:
- The second U.S. Women’s National Physique Championship, won by Kay Baxter, with Marilyn Schriner second and Cammie Lusko third.
- The first IFBB Women’s World Body Building Championship, held on June 16, won by Lisa Lyon, followed by Claudia Wilbourn, Stella Martinez,Stacey Bentley, and Bette Brown.
- The Best In The World contest, held at Warminster, PA on August 18, featuring a $5,000 prize fund, with $2,500 awarded for first place. Patsy Chapman was the winner, followed by April Nicotra, Bentley, Brown, and Carla Dunlap. (Levin, 1980)
- The Robby Robinson Classic, held at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles on August 25. Bentley finished first, also winning best legs and best poser, followed by Brown, Lusko, and Georgia Miller. (Roark, 2005)
Although these early events were regarded as bodybuilding contests, the women wore high-heeled shoes, and did not clench their fists while posing. Additionally, they were not allowed to use the three so-called “men’s poses” — the double biceps, crab, and lat spread. The contests were generally held by promoters acting independently; the sport still lacked a governing body. That would change in 1980.
1980 – the start of the modern era
The National Physique Committee (NPC) held the first women’s Nationals in 1980. Since its inception, this has been the top amateur level competition for women in the US. Laura Combes won the inaugural contest.
The first World Couples Championship was held in Atlantic City on April 8. The winning couple was Stacey Bentley and Chris Dickerson, with April Nicotra and Robby Robinson in second. Bentley picked up her third consecutive victory in the Frank Zane Invitational on June 28, ahead of Rachel McLish, Lynn Conkwright, Suzy Green, Patsy Chapman, and Georgia Miller Fudge.
1980 was also the year of the first Ms. Olympia (initially known as the “Miss” Olympia), the most prestigious contest for professionals. Initially, the contest was promoted by George Snyder. The contestants had to send in resumes and pictures, and were hand-picked by Snyder based on their potential to be fitness role models for the average American woman. The first winner was Rachel McLish who had also won the NPC’s USA Championship earlier in the year. The contest was a major turning point for the sport of women’s bodybuilding. McLish turned out to be very promotable, and inspired many future competitors to start training and competing. Stacey Bentley finished in fifth place, in what turned out to be her final competition.
Rachel McLish became the most successful competitor of the early 1980s. She lost her Ms. Olympia crown by finishing second to Kike Elomaa in 1981, but regained the title in 1982. A new major pro contest, the Women’s Pro World Championship, was held for the first time in 1981 (won by Lynn Conkwright). Held annually through 1989, this was the second most prestigious contest of the time. McLish added this title to her collection in 1982. George Snyder lost the rights to the Ms. Olympia in 1982, and after this the contestants were no longer hand-picked, but instead qualified for the Ms. Olympia through placings in lesser contests.
As the sport grew, the competitors’ level of training gradually increased (most of the competitors in the earliest shows had very little weight training experience), and the sport slowly evolved towards more muscular physiques. This trend started to emerge in 1983. With McLish not competing in the big shows, Carla Dunlap took both the Pro World and Ms. Olympia titles. Dunlap possessed a much more muscular physique than either McLish or Elomaa, and though she never repeated her successes of 1983, she would remain competitive for the rest of the decade.
In 1984, a new force emerged in women’s bodybuilding. Cory Everson won the NPC Nationals, then defeated McLish to win the Ms. Olympia. At 5’9″ and 150 pounds, Everson’s physique set a new standard. She would go on to win six consecutive Ms. Olympia titles before retiring undefeated as a professional, the only woman ever to accomplish this.
The Ms. International contest was introduced in 1986, first won by Erika Geisen. The contest was not held in 1987, but it returned for good in 1988. Since the demise of the Pro World Championship after 1989, the Ms. International has been second in prestige only to the Ms. Olympia. The 1989 Ms. International was noteworthy for the fact that the original winner, Tonya Knight, was later disqualified for using a surrogate for her drug test at the 1988 Ms. Olympia contest. Consequently, runner-up Jackie Paisley received the 1989 title. Knight was suspended from IFBB competition through the end of 1990, and was forced to return her prize money from the 1988 Ms. Olympia and 1989 Ms. International, a total of $12,000 (Merritt, 2006).
The American Federation of Women Bodybuilders was also founded during this time period, representing a growing awareness of women bodybuilders in America. Winning competitors such as Laurie Stark helped to popularize the federation.
Mainstream exposure in the 1980s
During this period, women’s bodybuilding was starting to achieve some mainstream exposure. Pro competitor Anita Gandol created a stir by posing for Playboy in 1984, earning a one year suspension from the IFBB. Erika Mes, a Dutch competitor, posed nude for the Belgian issue of Playboy in September, 1987, also earning a one year suspension (Flex, 2003).
Lori Bowen, winner of the 1984 Pro World Championship, appeared in a widely broadcast commercial for Miller Lite beer with Rodney Dangerfield. Additionally, competitors Lynn Conkwright (1982) and Carla Dunlap (1984) were included in ABC‘s Superstars competition.
In 1985, a movie called Pumping Iron II: The Women was released. This film documented the preparation of several women for the 1983 Caesars Palace World Cup Championship. Competitors prominently featured in the film were Kris Alexander, Lori Bowen, Lydia Cheng, Carla Dunlap, Bev Francis, and Rachel McLish. At the time, Francis was actually a powerlifter, though she soon made a successful transition to bodybuilding, becoming one of the leading competitors of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
For several years in the mid-1980s, NBC broadcast coverage of the Ms. Olympia contest on their Sportsworld program. The taped footage was telecast months after the contest, and was usually used as secondary material to fill out programs featuring events such as boxing. Typically, the broadcasts included only the top several women. Nevertheless, Cory Everson and some of her leading competitors were receiving national TV coverage.
1990 – a fresh start in the new decade
Sharon Bruneau, a Canadian bodybuilder whose background in fashion modelling brought a new dimension in posing and style to the sport.
Normally, competitors must qualify for the Ms. Olympia by achieving certain placings in lesser pro contests. However, the cancellation of the Women’s Pro World contest in 1990 left only the Ms. International as a Ms. Olympia qualifier. Consequently, the IFBB decided to open the Ms. Olympia to all women with pro cards, and a field of thirty competitors entered. Lenda Murray, a new pro from Michigan, earned a decisive victory and emerged as the successor to Cory Everson. Murray became the next dominant figure in the sport.
A new professional contest, the Jan Tana Classic, was introduced in 1991. The contest was named for its promoter, a marketer of tanning products, and ran annually until 2003 with the departure of Wayne Demilia (it was later revived in 2007). The inaugural event was won by Sue Gafner. The Jan Tana filled the void left by the Women’s Pro World contest, and occupied the number three slot on the pro circuit throughout its lifetime. 1991 also saw Tonya Knight return to competition, winning the Ms. International.
Early 1990s controversies
The 1991 Ms. Olympia contest was the first to be televised live. Lenda Murray faced a serious challenge from the 1990 runner-up, Bev Francis. Francis had started bodybuilding in the mid-80s, converting over from powerlifting. Over the years, she had gradually refined her physique to be more in line with judging standards. However, she came to the 1991 contest noticeably larger than in previous years. Francis was leading going into the night show, with Murray needing all of the first place votes to retain her title. Murray managed to do just that, winning a somewhat controversial decision by one point.
1992 saw more controversy, this time at the Ms. International contest. In response to the increased size displayed by Murray and Francis at the previous Ms. Olympia, the IFBB made an attempt to “feminize” the sport. The IFBB, led by Ben Weider, had created a series of “femininity” rules; one line in the judging rules said that competitors should not be “too big”. The judges’ guide to the competitors stated that they were looking for a feminine, but not emaciated physique. The contest winner was Germany’s Anja Schreiner, a blue-eyed blonde with a symmetrical physique, but who weighed only 130 pounds at 5’7″. The announcement of her victory met with so much booing that Arnold Schwarzenegger had to step on stage to address the audience, saying “the hell with the judges”. Many observers felt that the IFBB had instructed the judges to select the most marketable contestant, not the best physique.
The 1992 Ms. International is also famous for an incident involving British competitor Paula Bircumshaw. Bircumshaw was the same height as Schreiner and possessed a similar level of symmetry and definition, but carried significantly more muscle, weighing in at 162 pounds. She was the clear audience favorite, but was relegated to eighth place. Normally, the top ten contestants are called out at the end of the show when the winners are announced, but the judges only called back the top six, hoping to keep Bircumshaw back stage. This resulted in an uproar from the crowd. With the audience chanting her name, Bircumshaw returned to the stage along with the top six competitors.
Advertising in Muscle & Fitness for the 1992 Ms. Olympia featured Schreiner prominently, relegating two-time defending champion Murray to a small “also competing” notice. Nevertheless, Murray apparently met the “femininity” requirements, and managed to retain her title; Schreiner finished sixth, and promptly retired from competition.
Lenda’s reign continues
Following the 1992 debacles, the judging rules were rewritten. The new rules retained provisions for aesthetics, but allowed the contests to be judged as physique contests. Lenda Murray continued to dominate the sport through 1995, matching Cory Everson’s record of six consecutive Ms. Olympia titles. Murray’s closest rival was probably Laura Creavalle, who won the Ms. International title three times, and twice was runner-up to Murray at the Olympia. During this time, some additional professional shows were held, in addition to the three mainstays. The 1994 schedule included the Canada Pro Cup, won by Laura Binetti, and the first of three annual Grand Prix events in Prague, won by Drorit Kernes. 1996 saw an additional Grand Prix in Slovakia. Besides providing the competitors with extra opportunities to win prize money, these contests also served as additional Ms. Olympia qualifiers.
A new Ms. Olympia
1996 was notable for another reason – after six consecutive victories, Lenda Murray was dethroned as Ms. Olympia by Kim Chizevsky. Chizevsky had been the runner-up in 1995 and had two Ms. International titles (1993 and 1996) to her credit, but her victory came as something of a surprise, since many had regarded Murray as virtually unbeatable. After an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the title from Chizevsky in 1997, Murray retired from competition. Chizevsky successfully defended her title again at the 1998 Ms. Olympia. The 1998 contest was held in Prague, the first time the competition had been held outside the United States.
1999 Ms. Olympia controversy
The 1999 Ms. Olympia was originally scheduled to be held on the 9th of October in Santa Monica, California. However, one month before the scheduled date, the IFBB announced that the contest had been cancelled. The main cause was the withdrawal of promoter Jarka Kastnerova (who promoted the 1998 contest in Prague) for financial reasons, including a low number of advance ticket sales for the 1999 event. The backlash following the announcement led to a flurry of activity, with the contest being rescheduled as part of the Women’s Extravaganza (promoted by Kenny Kassel and Bob Bonham) in Secaucus, New Jersey on the 2nd of October. Last minute sponsorship came from several sources, most significantly in the form of $50,000 from Flex magazine. Amid all the turmoil, Kim Chizevsky won her fourth consecutive title.
Changes in 2000
The IFBB introduced several changes to female bodybuilding in 2000. The Ms. Olympia contest would no longer be held as a separate contest, instead being incorporated as part of the “Olympia Weekend”. Weight classes, long a standard part of amateur contests, were introduced in the pro ranks. Also, new judging guidelines for athlete presentation were introduced. A letter to the competitors from Jim Manion (chairman of the Professional Judges Committee) stated that women would be judged on healthy appearance, face, makeup, and skin tone. The criteria given in Manion’s letter included the statement “symmetry, presentation, separations, and muscularity BUT NOT TO THE EXTREME!”
Of the three pro contests held in 2000, only the Ms. International named an overall winner - Vickie Gates, who had won the contest in 1999. The Jan Tana Classic and the Ms. Olympia simply had weight class winners. With Kim Chizevsky retiring from bodybuilding to pursue fitness competition, the Ms. Olympia title was shared by class winners Andrulla Blanchette and Valentina Chepiga.
Two legends return
The 2001 pro schedule opened routinely enough, with Vickie Gates winning the Ms. International title for the third consecutive year. However, the Ms. Olympia featured a “surprise” winner, as Juliette Bergmann returned to competition at age 42. Bergmann, the 1986 Pro World champion, had not competed since 1989. Entering the Olympia as a lightweight, she defeated heavyweight winner Iris Kyle for the overall title. In the five years that the Ms. Olympia was contested in multiple weight classes, this was the only time that the lightweight winner took the overall title.
In 2002, six-time Olympia winner Lenda Murray returned after a five year absence. Bergmann (lightweight) and Murray (heavyweight) won the two weight classes in both 2002 and 2003. Murray won the overall title both years, setting a new standard of eight Ms. Olympia titles. Another noteworthy event in 2003 was the thirteenth and final Jan Tana Classic, won by newcomer Helle Nielsen from Denmark.
Two titles for Iris Kyle
Murray was unseated as Ms. Olympia for the second time in 2004. Iris Kyle, a top pro competitor since 1999, defeated Murray in a close battle in the heavyweight class, and bested lightweight winnerDayana Cadeau for the overall title. Kyle became only the second woman to win both the Ms. International and Ms. Olympia titles in the same year, matching Kim Chizevsky’s feat of 1996.
2005 rule changes
In a memo dated December 6, 2004, IFBB Chairman Jim Manion introduced the so-called ’20 percent rule’, requesting “that female athletes in Bodybuilding, Fitness and Figure decrease the amount of muscularity by a factor of 20%”. The memo stated that the request “applies to those female athletes whose physiques require the decrease”. A further change was introduced in a memo from Manion dated April 26, 2005, which announced that starting with the 2005 Ms. Olympia, the IFBB was abolishing the weight class system adopted in 2000.
The 2005 contest season saw another double winner, as Yaxeni Oriquen won her third Ms. International title, then edged out defending champion Iris Kyle to win the Ms. Olympia. Also notable in 2005 was the return of Jitka Harazimova, who had last competed in 1999. Harazimova won the Charlotte Pro contest in her return to competition, qualifying her for the Ms. Olympia where she finished fourth.
2006 and 2007 events
In 2006, Iris Kyle won both the Ms. International and the Ms. Olympia, repeating her accomplishment of 2004. Kyle won the Ms. International and Ms. Olympia for a third time in 2007, tying the Ms. International record for most wins shared by Laura Creavalle, Vickie Gates, and Yaxeni Oriquen. 2007 also saw the revival of the Jan Tana Classic, which featured two weight classes for the female competitors (and also included a figure contest). The class titles were won by Stephanie Kessler (heavyweight) and Sarah Dunlap (lightweight), with Dunlap named the overall winner.
IFBB Hall of Fame
- 1999 – Carla Dunlap, Cory Everson, Rachel McLish
- 2000 – Bev Francis, Lisa Lyon, Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton
- 2001 – Kay Baxter, Diana Dennis, Kike Elomaa
- 2002 – Laura Combes
- 2003 – Lynn Conkwright
- 2004 – Ellen Van Maris
- 2005 – Stacey Bentley
- 2006 – Claudia Wilbourn
- 2007 – Laura Creavalle
Fitness and figure competition
There are two other categories of competition that are closely related to bodybuilding, and are frequently held as part of the same event. Fitness competition has a swimsuit round, and a round that is judged on the performance of a routine including aerobics, dance, or gymnastics. Figure competition is a newer format, judged solely on symmetry and muscle tone, with much less emphasis on muscle size than in bodybuilding.
- List of female bodybuilders
- List of female fitness & figure competitors
- Amazon feminism
- Bill Dobbins
- “Rewind: review of February issues from five, 10 and 15 years ago”, Flex, February, 2003
- Levin, Dan, “Here She Is, Miss, Well, What?”, Sports Illustrated, March 17, 1980
- Merritt, Greg, “15 Biggest Controversies and Shocking Moments in Bodybuilding History”, Flex, February, 2006
- Roark, Joe, “Featuring 2005 Hall of Fame Inductee: Stacey Bentley”, Flex, August, 2005
- Todd, Jan, “Bodybuilding”, St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, Gale Group, 1999
- Women’s Physique Publication, published from December, 1976 through 1991 (also appeared under the names WASP and WSP)
- Women’s Physique World, published two to six times per year since 1984