Interview with Doris Barrilleaux – The First Lady of Bodybuilding (Part 1/3)

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    Few people in different aspects of life can claim for themselves the role of a “pioneer”. In bodybuilding, the term is sometime used for those that won the very first contests. But competing is only one aspect of bodybuilding. How about those who not only were among the first, but also devoted themselves to bodybuilding, engaging at all levels of the sport (or in a sense “creating” it), and essentially walking in terra incognita?

    Doris Jean Barrilleaux is a woman that could rightfully claim that role. Already a grandmother at age 36, she was there when modern female bodybuilding came into existence. Perhaps due to her maturity, as well as her unique dynamic personality, she was not only a competitor, but also an organizer, a promoter, a publisher, an author, an administrator, a judge, a photographer, and most importantly one of the philosophical leaders of this new activity called female bodybuilding.

    Her significant influence guided female bodybuilding during its baby steps. She had a clear view on her mind on how women’s bodybuilding should be governed, judged, and look like. After following men’s bodybuilding contests for many years and competing herself in the very first pageant-like athletic female contests of the time, she took matters into her own hands and organized one of the first serious female bodybuilding contests in the US (the first one in Florida), the 1979 Ms. Brandon Physique. She was elected IFBB Women’s Representative in 1980, and head-judged in a Ms. Olympia contest for the first time in 1981. An eloquent writer in books and in bodybuilding magazines as well as a successful physique photographer for many years, Doris Barrilleaux has an enviable archive of thousands of photos covering most of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

    During the early ’80s, Doris worked with Ben Weider and Oscar State, trying to set the proper framework for the acceptance of female bodybuilding. She fought for the right of women to govern their own sport and she was a huge fan of the aesthetic and more feminine appearance of female bodybuilders. Those very views that turned female bodybuilding from a beauty pageant into a well-organized and independent branch of bodybuilding, those very views had her eventually marginalized from this same sport.

    Doris Barrilleaux with Arnold Schwarzenegger during her induction in the National Fitness Hall of Fame in 2011

    Doris Barrilleaux will become 82 years of age this summer. She is still a very active person, both physically and mentally. She bikes every day, and she posts on her Facebook profile daily little gems about bodybuilding history, extracted from her huge archive. A sample of these can be found in her DVD “And I Did!“, Vol.1, and she is currently busy preparing Vol. 2

    We contacted her and she agreed to give the following interview to us. As many of you understand, this is not your usual type of interview. It is a real joy for the bodybuilding enthusiast to talk with someone like Doris. She radiates so much energy, even via usual email messages. She has interesting and unheard stories to tell for just about everything bodybuilding-related, and provide rare photographic material to prove her point. This makes it twice as difficult for us to pick questions to ask, if we could, we would ask a million of them! Nevertheless, I have tried to condense the interview in three parts, more or less in a timeline fashion.

    In the first part of the interview to, Doris Barrilleaux talks a bit about her personal life and its relation to bodybuilding. How she started lifting, what were her influences, etc. Then we get into the interesting 1978-1979, when female bodybuilding emerged into existence as we know it today. And who better to convey the “atmosphere” of that fascinating period of time, than the woman who was essentially leading the female bodybuilding movement. Enjoy!

    On personal life related to bodybuilding

    GRF: Dear Ms. Barrilleaux, it is our honor and pleasure to have this conversation with you, we would like to thank you very much for your time. Let me start this interview by asking you when and where did you start lifting weights? Please tell us how you first joined your first gym.

    DJB: It was after the birth of my 4th of 5 children that was born in 1955. He was 9lb 4oz and after taking the 3 younger ones to a play ground 3 weeks later, I was shocked to find that I lacked the strength to hang by my knees on the trapeze. I knew I had to do something to get back my strength. I picked up magazines Strength & Health and Muscular Development, bought some 10 & 15 pound weights and began working out as shown in the men’s magazines. I then got the idea of joining a gym. I had never heard of a woman in a gym and called a number of times before I ventured into one. There, behind a curtain was a handful of women with small weights being trained by the gym owner’s wife. I continued reading the magazines and even got my husband interested in weight training.

    There was a single column for women by Vera Christenson for the Ladies. I sent her a double biceps photo posed as I’d seen the men do. She returned it asking for a more feminine pose!

    Doris Barrilleaux sent this photo of herself to Vera Christensen in 1962 for use in Strength & Health magazine. It was rejected it as "too masculine."

    I took another sitting and it was published along with my children in the magazine in 1963.

    GRF: You grew up in a time where there was practically no “fitness” or “bodybuilding” for women. What were your role models at the time?

    DJB: I was born in 1931. The first Johnny Weissmueller movie “Tarzan The Ape Man” was produced in 1932. Perhaps my love of the jungle stems from my dad taking me to the circus with the wild animals. I even have an ancient photo of my maternal grandmother sitting on an elephant in Europe. As a little girl, I always played that I was, Sheena – Queen of the Jungle and was always climbing trees. In grade school, I preferred to play the physical games with the boys rather than with the girls. As a teen, I loved the old movies about the tropics as well as the jungle. Actress, Esther Williams, as a swimmer had a beautiful, athlete body with broad shoulders that I admired.  There were also dancers, Cyd Charisse and Vera Ellen, with gorgeous bodies and beautiful shapely legs. In high school, my favorite classes were Art and Physical Education with volleyball, baseball and basketball played in gym class.

    Between the ages 18-28, I had 5 children. There was no time for sports, but I took care of the yard, grew my own vegetables, painted the house inside and out, and bowled for sport. I once hired help with the weekly 30 white starched shirts to iron plus clean the house, until I realized that for the $6 I paid the woman I could afford to bowl three leagues a week, so I joined a forth. In 1961, I won the Halloween prize at the bowling alley for a jungle costume I made. Over the years they became more elaborate. Also won prize in 2008.

    I even restored a 1954 Corvette by myself. Repairing the fiberglass fender, repairing the floorboard and carpeting it. It was the first time I used a paint sprayer and was so proud there was not a run nor orange peel on it, nor the hard top.  So you might say that I’ve never been sedentary.  In 2002, while sitting in a restaurant, Lou Ferrigno, admitted to me me that, Johnny Weissmueller, was his first inspiration as well. Photo is us 20 yrs apart. 30 & 50 and 50 & 70.

    Doris Barrilleaux and Lou Ferrigno, 20 years apart (30 & 50 vs 50 & 70)

    GRF: Could you tell us in a few words what was your diet and training like at the time and where you had obtained that information from? Were there any supplements around at the time and did you use any?

    DJB: This is the question that I always dread!  My diet was a normal American diet and I was always very active. My weight always remained at 125 at 5’4″ ft. When I decided to enter that first bodybuilding contest only three weeks away in Canton, OH in 1978, I wanted to drop a few pounds. I knew nothing about diet. As I live on the river, for the three weeks prior to the show, I ate boiled blue crabs and yogurt, for no particular reason. I was shocked when I returned home and discovered I only weighed 116. I immediately set up my camera and tripod in the bedroom, hung flash on the closet door, jumped across the double bed, and hit this black & white triceps pose that to this day is used worldwide.

    The well-known black & white triceps pose of Doris Barrilleaux after the 1978 Canton contest.

    I recall once my husband chiding me for lying on the floor watching TV and eating ice cream. I replied, “Yes, but I’m doing leg raises at the same time and you’re just lying there”. Never in my life have I counted a calorie nor carb. Once I became so involved in bodybuilding, I was constantly around the top pro and amateur male competitors so I just learned by osmosis. I also reported on their seminars for the various magazines.

    Perhaps, I have a good metabolism as well as good sense. Today, if I go a couple pounds over my preferred 123, I back off for a few days, or increase my five-mile-a-day bike ride. Before taking a 54 day cruise around South America in 1998, I decided to lose extra pounds fully aware of the amount of food consumed at sea. I actually lost more than planned and became concerned when it continued to drop the first few days. I was able to enjoy the cruise and only gained back five pounds. I made a “Photoshopped” 8×10 to hang inside my cabin door as a reminder each time I left the cabin. I gave two slide show/seminars that were very well received.

    While on dead heads as a flight attendant, I wrote Forever Fit. After publishing my book, I produced my own vitamin line called Forever Fit. I had no way to promote it, nor could I compete with the drug store chains.

    The cover of the famous Forever Fit book by Doris Barrilleaux

    The Forever Fit vitamin line of Doris Barrilleaux

    As for my training, we had a home gym with enough equipment for both my husband and myself.

    On beginnings of competitive bodybuilding

    GRF: In 1978 you competed in McGhee’s First National Physique Championship. Please tell us a bit about your first time on stage, the way you were judged and how that led you to organize in April 1979, (and also competed) in the first-ever female bodybuilding contest in Florida, and probably the first competitively organized contest in the USA that resembles today’s contests, the Ms. Brandon Physique 1979. I read that in the latter contest there were 13 competitors, that was great for such an initial step. What exactly was the venue of the contest? How did you advertise the event and what had been the athletic background of all these women since there were practically no previous contests of these type, other than the ones organized by Henry McGhee? Who were the judges and is it true that after you competed yourself, you cooked for all the competitors?

    DJB: When I read in a 1977 Muscular Development about something billed as a Women’s Bodybuilding contest scheduled by Henry McGhee at the Canton, OH YMCA, I immediately contacted, John Grimek, my idol at the time.

    A clipping of a 1977 issue of Muscular Development announcing McGhee's contest at Canton, OH

    Both he and Henry McGhee encouraged me to enter.  With only three weeks to prepare, I did. Henry made a gallant attempt, but apparently lacked the experience of running a contest. Perhaps I had attended more than he. It was a surprise when he required us to wear sweat tops to judge the lower body, and sweat pants to judge the upper. Naturally his judges had no experience, so he perched on their table and explained what to look for.

    At McGhee's 1978 First National Physique Championship, women had to wear sweat tops to judge the lower body, and sweat pants to judge the upper.

    I was terrified.  Even in school, I could only look at the teacher and not the class when giving a report. Here I was, 46 in a two-piece bathing suit, on stage with all the women half my age, in a strange town, in front of an audience. My whole body shook. In my class 1st place was 22 and 2nd was 17, I was 3rd!

    After the 1978 Canton contest. Photo by Bill Jentz.

    Back stage there was utter chaos. I knew that I could run a better organized contest. But I give Henry credit for trying to start something.  Soon as I returned home, I was asked to Guest Pose at major upcoming men’s contest. Afterward, Suzanne Kosack, approached me and asked why we couldn’t have something like that for women. I gathered a group of local women and we were on our way. On April 29, 1979 my Superior Physique Association sponsored and held The Ms. Brandon Physique competition after a local men’s contest.

    The flyer of the 1979 Mr. and Ms. Brandon Physique contest

    We had 13 contestants. One woman jogged 13 miles to enter! Another came from Louisiana. We were all surprised when, Laura Combes appeared as the most muscular woman any of us had ever seen, and thus the controversy began. The contest flowed flawlessly and we had a celebration party following.

    1979 Ms. Brandon Physique contestants. From left to right: Georgia Fudge (5th), Pam Brooks (3rd), Laura Combes (4th), Kathy Lewis (1st), and Suzanne Kosak (2nd)
    1979 Ms. Brandon Physique contestants. The winner Kathy Lewis is seen 4th from left, while Doris Barrilleaux poses at the far right. The most controversial contestant was Laura Combes (2nd from left) whose level of muscularity was considered unheard of at the time.

    The media was quite receptive and I was touted as being a Bodybuilding Grandmother appearing in many newspapers and magazines ever since. The thing that really catapulted us into the spotlight was when I contacted the highly popular TV program Real People. They sent a crew to Tampa to film our Ms Tampa Physique and women’s bodybuilding was on the way. But not without years of struggle to be accepted.

    Our SPA rules called for a majority of women judges, 4 women and 3 men for obvious reasons. Two of the male judges were competitors and Guest Poser, Richard Baldwin and Peter Potter, now Vice President of the NPC. I honestly can’t remember the females. Perhaps because I was also competing, helping the inexperienced female emcee, and had cooked for a big celebration party following.

    Our rules soon fell by the wayside as there were too few women for judges.  Now, occasionally I may see a “token” female judge on the panel. I became a National and International judge for the men.

    GRF: After the Ms. Brandon Physique 1979, many other contests emerged around the US during that year, probably a very famous one being the first IFBB Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Championship in Los Angeles, CA on June 16, 1979, won by Lisa Lyon. I know that you could not attend that particular contest, but you organized a significant number of contests during that year with the Superior Physique Association. I would like you to convey to us the “atmosphere” that was evolving during that year, it was a new thing and you, of all people, were not just a lucky (or should I say competent) witness, you were actually “creating” the sport. Tell us a bit about the reactions that you got from women who contacted you and were interested in competing, as well as the crowd and media reactions during those first contests.

    DJB: Two months after we held the first SPA contest in Brandon, FL, Lisa Lyon won the first IFBB Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Championship in June, 1979 in California. She also sponsored the United States Women’s Bodybuilding Competition (USWBBC) in Atlantic City.  She was the IFBB Women’s Representative until I was elected to replace her at the 1980 IFBB International Congress in Manila.

    Lisa Lyon (Photo: IFBB)

    Once we appeared on the Real People TV show the news of our new organization spread like wildfire. Both men and women contacted me very excited about the new concept. Most of the media was very favorable, but a few made a joke of it or were downright against such a thing. At that point very few women had a desire to emulate the male bodybuilders. We just wanted to be recognized for sculpting our bodies and showing the great health benefits of weight training. My idea of athletic and fit women were the athletes, swimmers, and gymnasts. Although actress Marilyn Monroe was known to use weights she had the soft, round, voluptuous pin-up figure. I attended a male competition in New Orleans one year that also had a women’s contest even before starting SPA. There was one particularly attractive, well toned and tanned young woman that I was certain to be the winner hands down. I was so disappointed that the male judges picked the Marilyn Monroe type!

    We had our own discrepancies to deal with.  Some judges picked a very lean and ripped woman, others picked one with masculine lines, and being mostly male judges some the most sexy.

    In 2010, Steve Wennerstrom, IFBB Women’s Historian published on-line a wonderfully accurate article on the history of the women’s State Bodybuilding Championships. He stated, “One element was certain, Doris Barrilleaux and her fledgling SPA organization had jump-started a state-wide contest that has run continuously to this day – the longest running state contest in the country.”.

    Bill Dobbins, from Muscle & Fitness published “Muscle amid the magnolias”, a 10-page article covering our Ms. Florida Physique.

    (continued in Part 2)

    “And I Did!” is a multimedia presentation on the life of Doris Barrilleaux, and how she founded and spearheaded the growth and acceptance of women’s bodybuilding in a DVD based eBook like no other. A multimedia autobiography, comprising 159 chapters and 63 video clips. Length approximately 46 hours of reading and viewing. Includes published magazine articles and newspaper clippings as additional reading. The price of this “autographed encyclopedia” is $45.00 US. There is no shipping charge within the USA.  Contact Doris Barrilleaux for information at [email protected].

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