The First Lady of Bodybuilding


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By Thomas Becnel

Published Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007

RIVERVIEW — Arnold Schwarzenegger once called her "the sexiest grandmudda in da world."
She organized and competed in some of the first female bodybuilding competitions in America. She appeared on TV shows and in the movie "Pumping Iron II." She photographed hundreds of bodybuilders and judged dozens of competitions around the world.

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A glowing image of Doris Barrilleaux

This is why Doris Barrilleaux is recognized as the "First Lady" of women's bodybuilding. Her shelf of trophies includes several lifetime achievement awards. She's writing an autobiography in her home office on the Alafia River near Tampa, Florida. At 76, she might be the sexiest great-grandmother in the world. Barrilleaux meets a reporter wearing a black tank top, jungle-print shorts and black sandals. Short gray hair and bright pink lipstick. She's tanned and toned from cycling in her neighborhood and swimming in her pool. Even in the summer, she doesn't like to run the air conditioning. "I'm not an AC person," she says, laughing. "I'm a natural outdoor person. Tarzan is my idol." Tim Gardner, a Tampa coach and promoter, remembers Barrilleaux from his bodybuilding days. "She wore a lot of hats," he says. "She was a judge. She was a photographer. She took pictures of thousands of athletes on stage around the world. "She got females on stage to be judged as bodybuilders. That's it in a nutshell." Gardner will recognize Barrilleaux's contributions at the Hurricane Bay bodybuilding competition today at Gaither Auditorium in Tampa." At all my shows," he says, "I mention to the female athletes that if it wasn't for Doris, they might not be here." Son Tran, a Sarasota bodybuilder and promoter, says Barrilleaux is well-respected, especially in Florida. "She's like an icon in women's bodybuilding," he says. "She was there at the start."

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This is one of Doris Barrilleaux's favorite photos by Russ Warner

Magazine Scrapbook
In the 1980s, Barrilleaux co-wrote books such as "Forever Fit" and "Inside Weight Training for Women." When drugs began to take over bodybuilding -- even female bodybuilding -- she wrote a chapter on women for a book called "Death in the Locker Room: Steroids and Sports."Her scrapbooks include cover photos for Muscle Mag International, Strength & Health, and Muscular Development. Also Playgirl and a French bodybuilding magazine called Pleine Forme. Pleine Forme? "Durn if I know," Barrilleaux says. "I don't speak French." Then there's the spring 1984 issue of Body Talk, a magazine she published -- once -- during the boom years of bodybuilding. She photographed three competitors the day after an international show in Norway. "I told 'em if they posed in the snow," she says, "I'd be sure to get them on the cover." When Barrilleaux wasn't covering big shows, she was appearing on TV programs such as "Real People", "20/20", "What My Line", "I've Got A Secret", "To Tell The Truth", and "Sports World." She saved her travel schedules and appearances from those years. Here's a sample from 1981: Montreal, Cairo and London. Honolulu, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Tampa, Titusville and Miami. She was often the only female judge at early competitions. She remembers a Lebanese bodybuilder confronting her after she gave him a disappointing score: "You stay in the kitchen."

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Doris guest posing in New Orleans with 2 of her granddaughters in 1980

Mother of five
Doris-Jean Barrilleaux spent years in the kitchen before she got into bodybuilding. She was born in 1931 and raised in Houston. Her father worked for the American Can Company. She got married at 16. Her husband worked for the American Can Company. Barrilleaux had five children. (At last count, she was up to 21 grand and great-grandchildren.) After her fourth child was born, she found herself out of shape. She'd always admired a muscular physique -- Tarzan, remember? -- so she started weight training. She and her husband had a picture taken of themselves posing, their arms flexed in a double-biceps pose. She sent it in to Strength & Health, where it was rejected.

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Doris Barrilleaux's ground breaking book "FOREVER FIT"

"When I think of what happened to women's bodybuilding," she says, "that's pretty funny." When her family moved to New Orleans, Barrilleaux worked as a stewardess for Sky Adventures. The company led weekend excursions to Mexico and the Caribbean. She enjoyed the travel. When her family moved to Florida, Barrilleaux began her career in bodybuilding. She still gets requests for reprints of photos from the old days. Now she and one of her daughters remodel houses together. Barrilleaux and her husband divorced in 1987, after more than three decades together, but she shrugs off that story. "I'm still single after 22 years," she says, "and happy as a bug." In 1978, Barrilleaux traveled to Ohio for a women's bodybuilding show, but she thought the production and judging were amateurish. "I thought, 'I can do better than that,' " she says. On April 29, 1979 -- she remembers the date -- Barrilleaux and a few friends organized the Ms. Brandon Physique competition. It was at the Disco Inferno nightclub. There were 13 competitors.

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76 year old Doris Barrilleaux exercising to stay forever young

Soon, there were female bodybuilding competitions all over the country. Sports Illustrated covered the trend in a 1980 feature called "Miss What?" The story commented on Barrilleaux's 48-year-old physique and quoted her on the new world of competition. "I never understood why they had bodybuilding competitions for men and not for women," she said. "I believe there can be a happy medium between women with extreme definition and the body-beautiful type." In 1980, a woman named Rachel McLish won the first Ms. Olympia title. Barrilleaux had her moment of glory, too, thanks to the promoters of the show. "When Joe and Ben Weider invited me on stage in recognition of what I had done," she says, "that was great." A few years ago, Barrilleaux had rotator cuff surgery, but that hasn't slowed her down. She just finished painting the exterior of her house. Did it herself, of course. Next to be painted is the barn that holds many of her old trophies and magazines. She hasn't lifted weights in a while, she says, but she still has an old bench, leg press and pulley machine. The seats are covered in a leopard print.

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This photo of Doris is from a 1978 competition in Canton, Ohio

Barrilleaux once had an old-fashioned dark room in her house, these days she's up to speed with the latest technology. Her home computer features dual monitors, printers and scanners. One of her neighbors was an old physics professor. His nickname for her was "Tachyon," because she's always moving. Barrilleaux still goes to Florida bodybuilding shows. Earlier this year, she appeared in a senior bodybuilding segment for a Canadian TV show. Part of the year, she spends in Franklin, N.C. , where one of her daughters lives. It's an 10-hour drive to her cabin, but she makes it in one day, by herself. For Barrilleaux, 76 is a number, not an age. She likes to quote Satchel Paige, the timeless pitcher from the Negro Leagues, about longevity and state of mind. "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?" she says. "I can't believe I'm that old."

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An inspirational collage of Doris Barrilleaux through the decades


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Georgia Fudge, Deborah Diana, and Carla Dunlap flex for BODY TALK