Factoids & Anecdotes from the Pioneering Days of Women's Bodybuilding - Part 2

There's an old saying that goes, "You can only be the first to do anything once". And in women's bodybuilding, first time events and the winners of those events were frequent as women's contests sprang up across the country and throughout the world in the years from late 1977 to 1981.


Everyone who has followed women's bodybuilding closely over the years knows that Rachel McLish won both the first United States Women's Championship and Ms. Olympia in 1980, and that Laura Combes won the first American Women's Championships the same year. And while Lisa Lyon gained worldwide attention in winning the 1st Women's World Bodybuilding Championships, there were, nonetheless, many contests springing up in every corner of the country that didn't always gain the same level of recognition.

Rachel2 LauraCombs LisaLyon (1)
Rachel McLish Laura Combes Lisa Lyon

Here are a few examples:



Few would disagree that the 1st Women's World Bodybuilding Championships was an overblown title for a contest that took place at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles on June 16, 1979, but at the time it served its purpose as a first-time event in bringing a notable level of attention while helping to jumpstart the sport for women prior to 1980. Promoted by Gold's Gym and held in conjunction with the AAU Jr. Mr. America, the women's contest drew just eight contestants, and all were from California.


The women at the first ‘Worlds' ranged in age from 18 to 43, but it was 26-year-old Lisa Lyon who was the overwhelming favorite of the judges and fans in attendance. At 5-3 and weighing just 105 pounds, Lyon displayed a superior level of overall structural balance, proportion and muscletone in LisaLyon (2)her physique, thus making her the unanimous choice. Lyon stepped aside from the competitive stage after that contest, but her singular effort at this event brought considerable media attention to women's bodybuilding and was invaluable in the progression of the sport. Lyon also made frequent appearances on television and her savvy with the print media reached the highest levels becoming a favorite subject of Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as appearing on the pages of Playboy, Artforum, Spy and many other publications. Said Lyon of the competition at the time, "The reason I participated in this contest is because I felt it was an historic event. I'm glad that I won and hope I can serve as a responsible spokeswoman." She added, "I feel strongly that whatever I can do with my body as a woman is innately feminine, and I would like to prove that there is no border closed to women."

Following Lyon in the final placings were Claudia Wilbourn in second, Stella Martinez third, Stacey Bentley fourth, Bette Brown fifth, Corinne Cunningham sixth, Shirley Patterson seventh and Ginger Stone eighth.

(L-R) Stella Martinez, Bette Brown, Lisa Lyon, Stacey Bentley


The first bodybuilding contest in South Carolina where women joined the men on stage was held in Charleston on May 24, 1980. The Southern USA Classic was staged at the Palmetto Recreational Center and promoted by the Charleston Barbell Club.

In a field of eight contestants, the winner of the event was Carla Kay York of Swannanoa, North Carolina. York dominated the contest by also claiming the trophies for ‘Best Muscletone', ‘Most Symmetrical', and ‘Best Poser'.


Carla Kay York

News media including the local television station and newspaper covered the event giving special attention to the women's competition, while showing little interest in the men's contest.


Following York in the top five was:


2-Eve Pennington, Macon, Georgia.

3-Lisa Webb, Athens, Tennessee.

4-Connie Roberts, Liberty, South Carolina.

5-Debbie Bickford, Raleigh, North Carolina.


Doris Barrilleaux served as head judge of the women's event, and the men's contest was won by Charleston's Phil Outlaw.



Mary Roberts



On June 14, 1980, Jimmy Gaubert organized the Ms. New Orleans in Belle Chasse, Lousiana. It was a first-time event in the Crescent City and most of the women entered were competing for the first time. The eventual winner was Susan Stelly of Lafayette, Louisiana, and she also won the ‘Best Poser' award. Second went to Liz Vest, with third going to Charlene Russell.


Of course the state of Louisiana would quickly produce a number of outstanding bodybuilders in the years following 1980 including future pros Mary Roberts, Tazzie Colomb, Clare Furr, and Lisa Lorio.









To Sit in Judgment



When the first Ms. Olympia was staged on August 30, 1980 in Philadelphia, most everyone knows Rachel McLish won that inaugural event. But who judged it?


The panel consisted of eight judges led by Christine Zane as head judge. The remaining seven included Doris Barrilleaux(USA), SvenOle-Thorsen(Denmark), Dan Howard(USA), Cathy Gelfo(USA), Harold Poole(USA), Valerie Coe(USA), and Mike Katz(USA).


And who were each of these distinguished individuals? Head judge Christine Zane was, of course, the wife of Mr. Olympia Frank Zane, and had just promoted the Frank Zane Women's Invitational just two months before the Ms. Olympia. She also served briefly as the chairwoman of the IFBB Women's Division.


Doris Barrilleaux was actively involved in organizing the women's side of the sport in its early days, and would become the president of the AFWB (American Federation of Women Bodybuilders). Shortly after the Ms. Olympia, she was elected chairwoman of the IFBB Women's Division in 1980.


Cathy Gelfo was, at the time, Mike Mentzer's girlfriend.


Valerie Coe was the wife of pro bodybuilder Boyer Coe.


Mike Katz was an active bodybuilder who also became a judge and promoter and is currently active as a judge to this day. Katz competed in two Mr. Olympia contests and played pro football with the New York Jets before a leg injury ended his career. He was also appeared in the films Stay Hungry and Pumping Iron.


Harold Poole was also a top bodybuilder who, in a career that lasted just over 20 years, placed second at the 1965 and '66 Mr. Olympia contests, and was the IFBB Mr. Universe winner in 1963.


Dan Howard was a bodybuilder primarily in the 60's and 70's and competed in several Mr. America and Mr. USA contests. A gym owner in Orange County, California, he last competed in the NPC Masters Nationals in 1982.


As the only foreign judge on the panel, Denmark's Sven-Ole Thorsen was a bodybuilder, actor, and stuntman and has been a longtime friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Danish star also appeared in several of Arnold's movies including Conan the Barbarian, Running Man and Twins.




.....and speaking of judges at a ‘first-time' event



When the first American Women's Championships took place in Santa Monica, California, on September 5-6, 1980, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium - and held in conjunction with the Mr. America, American Mixed Pairs Championship, and Mr. Universe USA Team Posedown - the judging panel for the women's event was led by head judge Cathy Gelfo with Gail Ovis, Valerie Coe, Pam LaMarca, Rita Brown, Clark Sanchez, Vicki Smith and Jim Manion making up the seven scoring judges.


Laura Combes

Florida's Laura Combes edged Californian Claudia Wilbourn by a single point to win the first American Women's title. But sometimes forgotten in the prestige of the Mr. America and the inaugural women's event is that fact that John Brown and Shelley Gruwell won the first American Mixed pairs contest, followed closely by runner-up pair John Kemper and Carla Dunlap. The third place spot went to Jeff Everson and a girl named Cory Kneuer who would make a far bigger splash four years later.

Shelley Gruwell & John Brown




Muscle Inside the Beltway



Deborah Diana

A week before the Ms. Olympia on August 23, 1980, Kim Cassidy promoted the first contest in the Washington DC area and called it the National Capitol Championships. The event was staged in the Empire Room of the Shorham Hotel and was filled to capacity with an estimated 800 fans. Many attendees at this event stood along the walls of the room and an estimated 200 were turned away at the door.


Twenty contestants competed in this inaugural event with Pennsylvania's Deborah Diana winning the title unanimously and adding the ‘Best Muscletone', and ‘Best Presentation' trophies. The runner-up finisher was JoDee Tharrington from Norfolk, Virginia, who also won the ‘Most Symmetrical' award. Third went to England's Carolyn Cheshire, who had been given permission by her British Federation to take part in an open amateur event. Cheshire would compete a week later at the Ms. Olympia. The fourth place spot went to Pennsylvania's Ginny McMichaels, with Delaware's Cindy Williams rounding out the top five.





West Coast Contests in 1979


With contests adding a women's division at a rapid rate as the 80's approached, the west coast was actively encouraging women to enter existing events. Four of the major contests in 1979 that added women's bodybuilding with good success included the Northwest Championships in Seattle, the Orange County Muscle Classic in Southern California, the Robby Robinson Classic in Los Angeles and the Western America Championships in Oakland, California.


Corrine Machado

Inaugurated in July of 1979 and staged in Oakland, the Western America saw Corinne Machado of San Leandro, California, win the first women's title. Machado would move on to compete at the 1980 Ms. Olympia placing fourth. She competed in three more Ms. O's and enjoyed good success in many of the mixed pairs competitions offered during those early years.

Mary Roberts

The most notable winner at the Western America was future pro Mary Roberts in 1981. After winning the Western America, Roberts won the lightweight class at the ‘81 American Championships which moved her into the IFBB pro ranks. Roberts' best year as a pro came in 1985 when she won the IFBB Pro World Championships and finished second to Cory Everson at the '85 Ms. O.

Stacey Bentley

The Robby Robinson Classic was held only twice, but the event drew much attention and a big crowd being staged at the Embassy Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. Held in September of 1979, the contest was won by Stacey Bentley and featured a group of contestants including Cammie Lusko and Georgia Fudge, among others, who would quickly become familiar personalities nationally. As an encore to the 1979 event, the 1980 Robby Robinson contest saw fan favorite Kay Baxter win the show with fast-rising Mary Roberts finishing second.

Mary Roberts & Kay Baxter

Both the Orange County Muscle Classic and the Northwest Championships have been running continuously since 1979 offering a women's bodybuilding division. Karen Colmer won the first Orange County Muscle Classic, with Joanne Tudor winning the first Ms. Northwest.


North America Comes to New York City



With little fanfare, but nevertheless earning its place in bodybuilding lore, the first-ever North American Championships were staged in New York City on October 1-2, 1982. Reasons for the North American Championships flying somewhat under the radar had to do with the fact that the American Women's Championships had been held just a week earlier, and the North American was being held in conjunction with the Men's National Championships. The entire event was promoted by Wayne DeMilia and Physique Productions.


With the New York Sheraton Hotel serving as the contest headquarters just a few blocks from the Town Hall auditorium (where the prejudging was held on Friday) and the newly renovated City Center Theatre ( the site of the finals on Saturday), 22 contestants were divided into lightweight and middleweight classes. Both divisions drew very

Shirley Kemper

competitive fields with a majority of contestants coming from the east coast.

An added perk to this event also included the first North American Mixed Pairs Championships.


New Jersey's chiseled Shirley Kemper won the lightweight class, with Californian Agi Balogh taking the runner-up spot, and 1981 World Games gold medalist Pam Brooks claiming the third position.

The middleweight class was won handily by the newly married Cory Everson. Second went to Maro Bchakjian, with Wisconsin's Jeanne Splittgerber in third.


The final posedown was spirited and close by the judge's tallies. Everson got the nod over Kemper on a 4-3 vote of the seven judges.


Cory Everson

Everson doubled up on her victories when she teamed with new husband Jeff Everson to win the mixed pairs title - an event they also won at the '81 American Championships.

Californian's Agi Balogh and Randy Souza finished second, with Floridians Pam and Terry Brooks taking third.


Two years later Everson would win both the NPC Nationals and Ms. Olympia launching her into bodybuilding superstardom.



.....Did You Know?



The sum total of contests entered by the first two Ms. Olympia winners - Rachel McLish and Kike Elomaa - totaled only 15 contests.

Rachel McLish and Kike Elomaa

McLish's career included just eight contests, but when she competed she made them count. With only one amateur contest on her brief resume - winning the first 1980 United States Championships - the remaining seven contests all earned her prize money. McLish entered four Ms. Olympia contests finishing first twice and second twice. She also captured the 1982 IFBB Pro World Championship, and she added a runner-up finished at the Zane Women's Invitational in 1980 and a third (the lowest placing of her competitive career) at the 1983 Caesar's World Cup - the contest that was filmed in conjunction with the Pumping Iron II movie.


Meanwhile, Finland's Kike Elomaa entered only seven contests with a similar level success that McLish experienced. Elomaa's first year of competition in 1981 was a blockbuster as she won the Finnish Championships, IFBB European Championships, a gold medal at the first World Games, and the Ms. Olympia. In just three more pro contests she finished third at the '82 Ms. O, second at the '83 IFBB Pro Worlds, and fifth at the '83 Ms. Olympia before calling it a career.


Kike Elomaa

Both women pursued a career in entertainment after their bodybuilding days, with McLish turning to movies and television work, while Elomaa became a very popular singer in her native Finland.



......and speaking of Finland, only three bodybuilders have competed in the Ms. Olympia from that country. Kike Elomaa was the first non-American to win the Ms. Olympia title. But fellow Finlander Marjo Selin became a familiar face and physique at the Ms. Olympia competing in the contest eight times in succession from 1982 to 1989 while finishing as high as sixth in both 1987 and '88. The third Finn was the mega-muscular lightweight Marja Lehtonen who competed in 2004 and '05. Lehtonen finished third in the LW class of the 2004 event.

Kike MarjoSelin MarjoLehtonen
Kike Elomaa Marjo Selin Marja Lehtonen


And finally, did you know longtime competitive bodybuilder Linda Wood-Hoyte, who currently serves as an IFBB judge and American delegate to many international events where the United States women have competed, appeared on the Regis Philbin Show in 1985? Philbin devoted a portion of his show to women's bodybuilding that year by including Wood-Hoyte, Adrienne Foster, Nina Schoenbaum and Maureen Casper to discuss the explosion in popularity of the fast-growing sport for women. And as the PR representative for the syndicated show pointed out, "They proved, quite convincingly, that you can combine beauty, brains and muscle".

Linda Wood-Hoyte

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