Lisa Lyon, women’s bodybuilding pioneer, died on September 8 of pancreatic cancer at age 70. This is her story.
LISA LYON: BODYBUILDING TRAILBLAZER
Lisa Lyon was born in Los Angeles, California, on June 1, 1953. While studying at UCLA, she took up kendo, and when she felt her lack of upper body strength was holding her back in the Japanese fencing art, she turned to weight-training. It’s difficult now to comprehend how rare it was for a woman to train hard with weights in the 1970s, but bodybuilding was still underground for even men until Pumping Iron and its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, brought it into the light at the end of the decade.
The first women’s bodybuilding contest was only held in late 1977. Then, on July 16, 1979, the first and only Women’s World Bodybuilding Championship was staged in Los Angeles. Despite the “world” title, the 12 competitors were all from California. The winner was 26-year-old Lisa Lyon. A woman bodybuilder?! The press loved the story. On August 18, Patsy Chapman won the Best in the World contest in Philadelphia and $2000. That was the first women’s contest with prize money (Stacey Bentley was third, future Ms. Olympia Carla Dunlap was fifth). However, the media had already latched onto Lisa Lyon, who never competed in a second bodybuilding contest, as the avatar of female muscle.
LISA LYON: MEDIA SENSATION
Lisa Lyon appeared in magazine, newspaper, and TV stories, promoting weight-training for women. She guest-posed at the 1979 Mr. Olympia, staged on October 6. Schwarzenegger, who co-promoted that Olympia, recently said: “She is the best. I love her.” She posed nude in the October 1980 Playboy magazine. And she posed in and out of clothes for some of the world’s best art photographers then, including Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethrope (then her boyfriend), and Marcus Leatherdale. She thought of herself as a performance artist, using her body as a moving sculpture. Comic artist Frank Miller initially based the Marvel assassin Elektra on Lisa Lyon.
Her 1981 book, Lisa Lyon’s Body Magic was sold as “A Total Program of Body Conditioning by the First Women’s Bodybuilding Champion.” Maplethorpe’s photobook Lady Lisa Lyon was published in 1983. Before and after her one bodybuilding contest, Lisa Lyon acted in small roles, most notably as “Pilar Jones” in the 1984 TV movie Getting Physical, about the by-then less-shocking world of female bodybuilding.
LISA LYON’S LEGACY
The 5’4″ and 120-pound Lisa Lyon does not appear particularly muscular by today’s standards. There may be dozens of women in your local gym with more muscle and cuts than the Lisa Lyon of 1979. The mainstream media could’ve promoted some other flexing woman then. In 1980, Rachel McLish won the first Ms. Olympia, and was for years the face of female muscle in the bodybuilding press, including eight Muscle & Fitness covers. Lisa Lyon was virtually absent from muscle magazines. But by virtue of that first “world title,” she was the face of female muscle in the mainstream press and the art world, too—spaces where bodybuilders, woman or man, even now, rarely appear.
When Lisa Lyon was inducted into the (virtual) IFBB Hall of Fame in 2000 it was because she was “a one-woman media-relations activist on behalf of the sport and for elevating bodybuilding to the level of fine art.”
The Barbell team offers our condolences to Lisa Lyon’s family, friends, and fans.