Interview by Ben Yosef
Rachel McLish is a woman who should need no introduction. What Rachel has achieved in the sport of Bodybuilding is epic. What she has accomplished within the fitness industry in general is simply incredible.
The fact that she was the first Women’s Bodybuilding star is amazing. And, there was, and still is, a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with that kind of notoriety.
As we all know, women in pursuit of super-sized muscularity is not exactly the most popular phenomenon today. It was even less so in the 80’s. Add to that, the fact that for her entire career, Rachel shunned and publicly spoke out against the use of performance enhancing drugs. All of this, while competing in a non-tested organization.
Throughout my research and interview with Rachel McLish, I could not help but feel deeply moved by the tales and triumphs of this real life Super Woman.
Ben: Rachel, you are an absolute living legend in the sport. What you have done, and continue to do is incredible. The fact that you promoted the “natural way,” and even fought for this cause is deeply moving, especially at a time when you felt like you were alone in the mission. I have you on the cover of the next issue (#13) of Natural Mag.
“…it’s also nice to be remembered for the struggles and the bigger picture rather than just the glitzy images.”
Rachel: Thank you! Sometimes it’s also nice to be remembered for the struggles and the bigger picture rather than just the glitzy images.
Ben: Well, you are quite stunning. A symbol of beauty, grace, and strength. However, many people only care about “pix” and what is on the surface. In the process, they can actually lose sight of the person in those photographs. Rachel, what motivated you to pursue bodybuilding at a time when it was even less popular for women than it is today?
“It was always a thing of strength and beauty for me.”
Rachel: I had the good fortune to be in a household where my dad was working out regularly with a set of weights. He had dumbbells, two barbells, a bright red wooden flat bench with a barbell restraint, and accessories. He even had some sort of head gear to connect to plates in order to exercise his neck!
I loved it all, and thought my dad was the coolest and the strongest! As a kid, I enjoyed the bragging rights about my dad. I would prove it by having kids come over to watch my dad lift weights.
As I got older, I understood the value of being fit and in good condition for ballet classes or cheerleading. It was always a thing of strength and beauty for me.
“I was Bodybuilding long before I knew it was called Bodybuilding.”
I think every interview I’ve ever had began with this very question, “what made you get into bodybuilding?” The best answer I had was this, “I was Bodybuilding long before I knew it was called Bodybuilding.”
Working my way through university at a health club until I graduated, was the singularly most important and influential aspect of my young life. It established my love for weight training.
Working at a health club at a time when exercise, much less bodybuilding, wasn’t popular, inspired me to fully embrace it. I felt that this was the best way for women to be happy in their bodies, even though body-building for women wasn’t yet established.
Ben: Your vivid memories of the times with your Bodybuilding father are absolutely wonderful. And your early enlightenment is inspiring. When did you first complete? And what compelled you to take your physique to the stage?
Rachel: By the time I had graduated from college, my life was very much involved in the budding fitness industry. I became part owner of a beautiful fitness /sports club complex called The Sport Palace. It was a luxurious facility designed to entice people to enjoy a country club environment while getting healthy and in great shape.
I spent long hours teaching, training, nutritional counseling, promoting, advertising, along with going to various luncheons giving speeches on the benefits of fitness. My goal was to reach as many people as possible to expound the good news about working out and enjoying the many benefits of this healthy lifestyle.
This went on for a couple of years, and we were proven right, because we needed to expand to two other locations!
My first competition was in 1980, and as many bodybuilding aficionados know, this was when the first ever women’s bodybuilding competition took place. It was on April 10th, 1980, in Atlantic City, to be exact.
I remember that first United States Women’s Bodybuilding Championship win, vividly. Later that August, came my first Ms. Olympia win.
Ben: You won the first ever official Women’s Bodybuilding contest. You were also victorious at the inaugural IFBB Ms. Olympia, your first of two Olympia titles. These wins would forever solidify your place in history as one of the most distinguished figures in the sport. At the time, did you have any idea of how much of a long-lasting effect you would have?
Rachel: The timing was perfect for me to utilize this platform to continue to spread the word about working out and getting healthy! I am the epitome of “being prepared when the opportunity arises!” I had been primed for this. Bodybuilding…rather, I should say, ‘competitive bodybuilding,’ gave me the worldwide atten-tion, and also the voice to promote it. I had acquired this platform, and I proceeded to set the record straight about how great bodybuilding is, no matter that it was being looked at as somewhat of a freak show!
The term “bodybuilding” was relatively new to me, and it was confusing many people because of the baggage that came along with it, namely the extremely muscled men’s competitions, and how the women wanted to do the same!
“I worked hard to make bodybuilding palatable at a time when it was regarded as unsavory. It was a do or die situation for it! ”
My talk show appearances, interviews, and seminars once again, had me educating people about the benefits of bodybuilding. I was making the clear distinction between “competitive bodybuilding” and the “bodybuilding lifestyle” in order to put fears and misconceptions to rest. I worked hard to make bodybuilding palatable at a time when it was regarded as unsavory. It was a do or die situation for it!
Ben: There are many opinions on why you were such a great bodybuilder. When it came to the stage, what do you think gave you such an edge over your competition?
Rachel: Well, it certainly wasn’t my extreme muscularity! I understood that any time a competitor stepped onstage, they immediately became a performer. The moment the audience sets their eyes on you, you are judged! No one cares about what you believe in, what makes you happy, what makes you sad. All that’s important is how you look on stage.
All the months of preparation leading up to your moment. The hard training, the long hours in the gym, the extreme dieting, the posing, remembering to take all of your supplements, super foods, hydration, dehydration, rehydration, proper carb loading, the bikini, your skin conditioning, tan, hair, make up, posing routine, music. All of it!
“You have to enjoy your experience on stage. If you don’t enjoy it, it will show and do you a terrible disservice.“
So much can be said about stage presence, but what I will also mention here is the illusive quality known as the X factor, aka charisma. Some say it can be acquired, others say you have to be born with it. But I say that if you do everything in your power to be fully prepared on the day of the competition, you will be more likely to summon it easily from deep within you. But you can’t just depend on this magical fairy dust. I think Arnold is probably the only one who ever won on charisma fueled prep, alone!
You have to enjoy your experience on stage. If you don’t enjoy it, it will show, and do you a terrible disservice. It will make the audience uncomfortable. Instead, make the audience feel good about you, because you feel good about yourself. I always did. [smiles]
Ben: At what point did you realize that performance enhancing drugs were beginning to play a big part of the sport?
Rachel: Anabolic steroids were already a huge part of the men’s competition. It was only a matter of time before more women took to the stage and realized that steroids do, in fact, make one look more muscular.
Fortunately, the early days of women’s bodybuilding brought with it the fierce argument about aesthetics, symmetry, and the pleasing beauty of the body as a whole. It was never about being the biggest or the most muscular.
“I believe that Women’s Bodybuilding was not given a chance to come into it’s own magnificence.“
I suppose the temptation for some women to use steroids was understandable when some were being overlooked in lineups because they were too ‘skinny’ or the ‘fullness’ of their muscles was underdeveloped, in spite of pleasing balance. I believe that women’s bodybuilding was not given a chance to come into its own magnificence. It was not allowed the natural progression of the sport, given all the controversy about “bigger muscles,” an issue that became tiresome and boring.
I don’t usually enjoy talking about the past, especially in regards to the drug abuse of steroids in women’s competitions. I say “abuse” because any use of anabolic steroids, such as has been seen in bodybuilding competitions, is gross abuse of the actual drug, gross abuse of their bodies, and gross abuse of their conscience.
“It’s no secret that steroids have never had a part in my belief system.”
It’s no secret that steroids have never had a part in my belief system of Bodybuilding, competitive or not. And I would also add that anabolic steroids is the single most destructive aspect that can be attributed to everything negative about competitive Bodybuilding.
When I won the first ever U.S. competition and the first ever Ms. Olympia, the mass media was frenzied about what this weird thing that women were doing was all about. I was the ‘go to’ person as the reigning champ-ion, but there was an undercurrent of confusion and perhaps resentment by some competitors as to why other ‘more muscular,’ hence, more ‘deserving’ women were not getting the attention they desired.
I didn’t ask to be a household name the world over from one day to the next, nor for my picture to be on the front pages of newspapers and magazines all over the globe after I won. I followed my heart to do the thing that God had placed in me when I stepped on stage. And, I had a good message to give the women of the world. That message had nothing to do with building one’s body to the point of absurdity, even though, ironically, that is primarily how the ‘average’ person initially saw me.
Ben: How did you manage to navigate around all the drugs and remain “natural”?
“I felt very strongly about drawing the line in the sand regarding steroids. It had to be done. It was a no brainer.”
Rachel: The easiest thing for a person to do is to stay true to yourself and to your beliefs. As the first women’s champion, I felt a great responsibility to expand that truth onto the sport that I had no doubt, would catch on like wildfire. It was an easy duty to share the best fitness philosophy, as exemplified by this new sport, for the benefit of all who would listen. There was no way around it. I had to be a living example of what I was preaching, and I felt it was a privilege to do so. I felt very strongly about drawing the line in the sand regarding steroids. It had to be done. It was a no brainer.
Ben: The fact that you chose to abstain from using performance enhancing drugs is commendable. What is particularly touching is that, for you, this “choice” was more of an organic occurrence. You did not have to fight with yourself, or weigh the pros and cons of “using.” Instead, it was just obvious to you that putting these drugs into your body for the sole purpose of muscle gain was not the way to go, nor the message to send. I love that.
Rachel, I feel tremendously honored that you have opened yourself up to me and Natural Mag with such candor and detail. Featuring someone of your caliber and stature will offer tremendous motivation and inspiration to many. I am particularly excited for the effect this will have on the new generation that may not be fully aware of what a trailblazer you were, and still are, for women’s bodybuilding, natural competitors, and health and fitness in general.
What’s next for Rachel McLish?
Rachel: So many people, not just women, don’t fully believe that being fit, healthy, and beautiful is available to them. The fact is, that they can enjoy the benefits no matter what their genetic predisposition is.
As a Bodybuilding educator, I like to simplify the process in spite of so much noise and confusion about it. My philosophy remains intact, and my love for fitness is as fresh as it ever was. I will continue to be, first and foremost, an example of what can be expected when one truly embraces the fundamental elements of fitness and the bodybuilding lifestyle.
“My philosophy remains intact, and my love for fitness is as fresh as it ever was.“
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