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She’s the Queen of Flex and Form : Bell Canyon Body Builder Defines Best in a Sport Struggling With Its Image

Times Staff Writer

MTV talk show host Steve Skrovan greets champion female body builder Cory Everson with a cup of holiday jeer on Thanksgiving Eve. Doing a bad Stallone impression, Skrovan notes with surprise that “you don’t talk like, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ ”

Weary from a 7-hour trip from her Bell Canyon home, the 5-foot-9, 148-pound Everson ignores the remark, which only encourages Skrovan to ask whether she developed all those muscles because “somebody kicked sand in your face.”

“No,” she says, still smiling into the camera. She rises to the occasion when he asks if she has ever beaten anyone up. “Not until now.”

Everson doesn’t deck Skrovan. She has come to New York for something more challenging, a record fifth straight title as Ms. Olympia, the world’s best-built woman. And perhaps a little respect for female body building in general. Excelling in a sport that the sports pages won’t cover, that many people don’t even think is a sport, well, it takes something out of being a superstar.

Ticket Sales Slow

After hitting a peak of interest several years ago, female body building is in danger of dying. In fact, until Everson was coaxed into coming back, promoters were having difficulty selling tickets to last Saturday’s Ms. Olympia competition, the sport’s most glittering event. Now that she was in town, and on nationwide television no less, they were beginning to breathe easier.

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As she emerged from the studio, her husband, Jeff, was smiling. “Good job, ace,” he said.

Across town at Madison Square Garden, however, they were not clapping. She somehow failed to say where the Ms. Olympia competition would be held.

“She never said anything about the Garden, or New York,” fumed Nancy Moon, director of Madison Square Garden public relations. “It could have been in Peoria.”

The Comeback was getting off to a rocky start--"I’m an athlete more than a promoter,” she would say--but moaning businessmen, botched publicity and her own mercurial stubbornness would be forgotten if Everson succeeded in overcoming injuries and a 6-month layoff to win another title. Only Arnold Schwarzenegger exceeded five straight, winning seven Mr. Olympia titles in a row.

Her accomplishments have not brought her the success of a Schwarzenegger, however. While he has made millions of dollars as a kind of Testosterone Ted of the movies, Everson is sent scripts oozing with slime that would portray her as a “slut with muscles,” Amazon-like, going to bed with teddy bears such as John Ritter. She says she has sent them all back.

Touring skateboarders earn more money than top women body builders and don’t hear people call them “grotesque.” By her own wits, Everson has moved up in income to a nice house in the San Fernando Valley area, having launched a workout show on ESPN, the sports network, and a line of oversized sportswear for athletes. But at the pinnacle of her success, she may be America’s least-known superstar.

Off in its own corner of the sporting world, female body building has been undergoing an identity crisis. Historically, a female body builder would have seemed self-contradictory, like a bird trying to become a fish. The sport, as a result, has had difficulty deciding whether its participants should be women first and body builders second, or whether femininity should even be a consideration.

Everson gripes about “men with presumptions about what girls look like.”

The confusion shows up in the contests when the women, many of whom have undergone facial surgery and had breast implants, paint their faces with as much makeup as a Miss America contestant, wear skimpy bikinis and flounce around the stage. At the same time, they keep throwing monster flexes at the crowd, creating a disorienting amalgam of beauty and the beast, of Revlon and jock itch.

She Reigns Supreme

In the kingdom within this dichotomy, Cory Everson, 29, reigns supreme. “She’s tight, she’s lean, she’s not scary,” said Bert Perry, a photographer for a Canadian muscle magazine. “She’s got the package.”

The Moses who might lead female body building out of the wilderness is prideful and opinionated. On camera or when talking about athletics, she can be effusive and buoyant. She can also be as abrupt as an ice bath, donning sunglasses and clamming up in the middle of a conversation during a limo ride to her hotel. Meeting her plane at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, her promoter anxiously whispers to a companion, “Is she happy?”

At the same time, she is without pretense, referring to some of her competitors with big egos as “snots.”

A competitor from childhood, she was beaten up in the sixth grade for besting the boys in the 50-yard dash. She went on to become a Big 10 champion pentathlete at the University of Wisconsin. An energetic woman who crackles with intensity, she became interested in body building after meeting her husband, a former track and field athlete whom she calls her “swan” for his inner calm, not to mention his willingness to do housework. Beyond that, she enjoys working out.

‘Like a Life Style’

“It’s like a life style,” she said. “I love to train. The people in the gym are good people.”

It is harder to understand why people like Cathey Palyo would get involved. The Santa Rosa woman works out more than 2 hours a day to build a muscular frame featuring huge trapezius muscles that people ridicule in front of her husband, Bill. She was the third highest moneymaker in the sport this year. She earned $7,500 in prize money.

“I know I’m a freak,” Palyo said without embarrassment. She is willing to pay the penalty of a rigid diet of rice cakes, fruit and vegetables for the joy that comes from training.

Beyond the esprit de Nautilus, many of the female body builders hope that the rest of the world will come to see their vision of fitness competition as the natural heir to the anachronistic beauty pageant. They see the training of stars such as Cher, who asked Everson to be her personal trainer and who has developed some muscles of her own, as a trend in that direction.

The “future woman” will design and shape her body, not just recline in it, Everson said.

In a gleaming, candy-apple red outfit, she evokes those fantasy auto shows where General Motors rolls out exotic, muscular vehicles of the future. No one expects to ever see them mass-produced; they are a vision of transportation raised by a power of 10. So is Everson’s 148 pounds of muscle and makeup an example of femininity taken to a higher power.

“The word feminine shouldn’t be in there,” Everson said. “I don’t go to training to become more beautiful.”

Judges Take New Tack

Unknown to the competitors, the judges were about to put the word feminine back into the sport with something of a vengeance. Concerned that the sport is in danger of dying after just 9 years--the first Ms. Olympia competition was in 1980--the judges were intent on deciding that when it came to muscles on women, biggest was definitely not best.

“We don’t want men in bikinis,” said Ben Weider, president of the International Federation of Body Building, which sponsored the competition. The goal is to reduce the “oh my God” factor, the reaction from people who see the competitors and gasp in shock.

In 1987, a tiny woman with very large biceps, Ellen Van Maris of the Netherlands, placed second. Palyo said the Van Maris finish set the tone for the new competition, causing the women to come in even “harder” and more muscular this year. Van Maris, 30, was privately confident, saying this year she was even more “ripped,” that the definition between her various muscles was even better.

But the judges did not appear impressed.

“This will be a watershed,” judge Lydia Cheng predicted.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2 days before the competition, Cory Everson went to the gym. It is an establishment near Greenwich Village run by Nicole Bass, a 24-year-old, 6-foot-2, 220-pound body builder who calls herself the female Schwarzenegger. Bass’ husband, Bob, brags that when Schwarzenegger met her he exclaimed: “You are Schwarzenegger!”

Genetics Her Secret

Nicole Bass calls Everson’s condition the best ever. Her secret, according to Bass and others, is genetics. That means Everson can put on muscle and not lose the look of a female body. Genetics also are the secret to her diet, which includes such banned substances as tacos and hamburgers. She would be the only competitor here nursing a candy bar injury, having broken a tooth on a frozen Milky Way.

“The official food of the Ms. Olympia contest,” she says, joking sardonically.

Her genetics make her the perfect “ambassadress"--Weider’s word--to take the sport of female body building beyond the hard-core “muscleheads,” as one contest judge referred to the fans who would pay up to $100 for seats in the Felt Forum, one of the venues at the Garden.

Selling Everson is both easy and difficult. She gives a great TV interview, especially when she can touch and caress with her eyes a studio audience, as at MTV.

But she sometimes seems to value dealing with the media somewhere below developing phlebitis on her list of favorite activities, referring to one journalist who wrote something she didn’t like as a “stupid ass writer.” Over an airline mix-up she could have easily rectified, she missed a chance to appear on the Today show and reach millions of Americans. “Jeff and I, we have jobs. We don’t just jump at things,” she said simply, explaining why she didn’t make the extra effort.

In television interviews, she refuses to do posing routines. “They don’t ask Mary Lou Retton to do a back flip,” she said.

Pride Refreshing

But if she is stubborn and occasionally brittle, her pride is refreshing in a sport that sometimes seems to delight in shackling itself to the bearded-lady carnival image.

One of the promotional events arranged in New York for the contest was a tug of war between some of the contestants and a group of Wall Street brokers, staged for the tabloid New York Post.

A half-time appearance at a basketball game takes on elements of a burlesque show when five of the women--they didn’t bother to ask Everson--are called out and introduced to the crowd.

“How about a sample?” the announcer asks. As many of the 5,000 fans leap to their feet, the women strip to their bikinis and start prancing and flexing as they move around the floor, while a disco tune thunders through the hall.

“I would never do that,” Everson said. “Everything I do is to promote the sport. And everything I don’t do is to promote the sport.”

On Friday morning, the day before the contest, the women troop over to Dr. Robert Goldman’s makeshift office in a room at the Southgate Hotel. Everson talks to Goldman about a sore leg, then picks up a cup and disappears into the restroom with a witness, a female friend of Goldman’s. Drug testing has been a part of the women’s professional competition since 1985, but still has not started for men, causing anger and resentment among some of the female competitors.

“Body building is the only sport where you find women tested and not men,” Palyo said.

Drugs and Body Builders

Goldman, who wrote a book about steroid drug use called “Death in the Locker Room,” said an “extremely high” percentage of male body builders use drugs.

Weider and other officials said steroids are masculine drugs, and therefore not as dangerous to a man’s body as to a woman’s, something Palyo heatedly disputes. Excessive use of these drugs has been known to cause liver damage.

Weider said testing of the men will start in 1990. But some observers fear what testing will do to interest in that sport.

“If you took the drugs out of men’s body building, you wouldn’t have much of a sport,” said Kenny Kassel, a promoter.

The women’s sport also could have conflict of interest problems. Everson’s manager, John Traetta, is a co-promoter of the contest. His partner in the contest, Wayne DeMilia, helped select the judges.

Asked about the appearance of a conflict, Traetta said, “People throw around a lot of different terms but don’t understand what they mean.”

On Saturday afternoon, the women gather for the prejudging competition, when judges look at the general physique and muscularity of the women. Everson appears in a flashy red bikini. A flustered federation official says it’s too flashy and will be banned next year. For the moment, however, she is like the only Christmas light working on a string as she stands next to the 16 other women in flat colors.

On stage, “I think of pretending to do an exhibition, relaxing my mind. Then I can touch the audience,” she said.

Draws Loud Cheers

She is touching them today, drawing loud cheers when she jiggles the muscle on the front of her thigh, which is about as libertine as any of them get. The muscle flops around like a loaf of bread shaken in a bag. Van Maris also gets a loud response.

A few hours later, the fans pack the 4,000-seat hall for the evening show, a sequence of 3-minute posing routines to music. Ticket sales have built in the past few days, but the gate will still finish below last year.

“Look at the muscle on Ellen Van Maris,” says host Jan Hutchins, inadvertently damning her with praise.

That brings it down to Everson, who abandons her bouncy dance of the previous year for a dramatic sequence of muscular poses to The Who song “Baba O’Riley.” In a touch of fancy, or high art, she includes in the performance rumbling train noises at the end of the song, lying flat on her face on the stage as the noises roll over her.

When it’s all over, Everson is champion again. When Van Maris is announced in fifth place, boos fill the hall. “They didn’t like that,” said Weider, smiling.

Meanwhile, Everson poses for pictures. “We done good,” she says, holding up five fingers.


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