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Co-workers rarely interview each other, even in magazines. But in April of this year, I held an extended, on-the-record chat with my boss, Shawn Perine. At the time, Perine was the editorial director of Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness Hers, and Flex magazines. He was also my friend.
The interview was for a feature called “Fit Jobs,” in which we planned to do mini-profiles of six people with cool jobs in the fitness industry. There was a celebrity trainer, an NFL strength coach, a bodybuilder, a fitness model, and a fitness entrepreneur. For the final job—fitness editor—I talked to Perine for more than an hour one Friday night in his office, tape recorder rolling.
Then a couple of things happened, one ordinary and the other tragic. The ordinary: The feature never ran. Instead, we split up the parts. (You may remember seeing some of these.) The tragic: In September, Perine was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He remained unbelievably positive during his fight with cancer, but a few days ago, on December 11, he passed away. He was 51.
Perine was a special dude. He was smart and funny, and, as one colleague put it, quirky. As a leader, he had a little Michael Scott from The Office in him. He was like Michael Scott with better biceps. What happened to him was and is incredibly sad, but as you’ll see in this interview, some of the things he experienced in his life—and the friendships he formed—went beyond anything he could imagine.
This is Perine’s story.
M&F: Did you always want to be the editor of Muscle & Fitness?
SHAWN PERINE: What should I say? No? I started reading Muscle & Fitness when it was called Muscle Builder magazine in 1979. I was 13 years old.
You got a subscription?
My dad bought me my first copy, and it was magical. It really changed my life. I had seen the film Pumping Iron prior to that. I fell in love with the idea that I could build my body up through resistance training and nutrition, and so this magazine was a revelation, and I read it religiously from that point on, and later Flex magazine as well when it came out in 1983. I bought the first issue and began reading that. I could never have dreamed I’d be running these magazines ever, not in my wildest dreams; so no, I never thought I would, but I’m glad that I do.
Did you ever get a subscription?
Absolutely. What year? I’m not sure, but sometime probably in the mid-’80s when I was finally able to afford a subscription. Definitely the first magazine I ever subscribed to was Muscle & Fitness, and the second would’ve been Flex.
From the time you were 13, you were bodybuilding and lifting weights frequently?
That’s right, yeah.
Did you want to be a bodybuilder?
I did. I wanted to be Mr. Olympia. I wanted to be the best bodybuilder. Like I said, I had watched Pumping Iron, I idolized Arnold and the top bodybuilders of the day, and that was my goal. When I joined my first gym as a member, it was in 1982. I was 16, it was Mr. America’s Body Shop on Long Island, and it was owned by a former Mr. America, Steve Michalik. I’ll never forget. It was late August, 1982. I walked in and I shook his hand, and he said, “What’s your goal? How far do you want to go?” I said, “I want to be Mr. Olympia.”
Wow. At 16?
At 16. I didn’t play sports really. When I was younger I did, but by that point I was just like, “I’ve got to focus all my attention on bodybuilding, because it requires all my attention.” Obviously, that didn’t work out. What I didn’t account for is that genetics play a huge role in your ability to be tall or have a certain hair color or eye color, and also to build muscle. I had very little ability to build the amount of muscle needed to compete, so I did other things.
At what age did you realize, “I’m not going to be Mr. Olympia”?
It probably started sinking in when I was, like, 18 or 19. I still had this dream that I would compete and that I would win and I’d be great, but something didn’t seem right because I’d watch other guys who grew much more quickly than I did, and I rationalized, “Well, they’re probably doing things I won’t do—extra things—to get there.” The truth of the matter was, the biggest limiting factor was my genetics. Once I was in college, those dreams were done, and I focused on my major, which was architecture.
You wanted to be an architect?
I did, yeah.
You were still lifting?
I never stopped lifting the whole time, but my priorities changed. I lifted for myself. I lifted to get as big and strong and defined and everything as I could, but competitions were off the table at that point. I promoted a competition, though, after college. In 1990, at Hofstra University, I promoted an NPC competition called the Diamond Cup Classic. That was interesting.
Did you compete in it too?
No, I ran it. I was like the Robin Chang [VP AMI Events] of the contest, so that was really interesting. I had my Mr. America’s gym owner, Steve Michalik. He got a lifetime achievement award, and my friend whose gym I trained at, an NPC Nationals winner, Tom Terwilliger, who was also an IFBB pro, he guest-posed at it. Interestingly, I had an over-50 division guy, a guy named Elliot Gilchrist, competing in it. There were exactly two guys in the over-50 division, this one guy, Billy something, and this other guy, Elliot Gilchrist, who is in the book Pumping Iron. He was in his 70s when he competed in my show. So I thought, “How interesting. All these years later, this guy from the book is competing in the show I’m promoting.” That was kind of nice.
But in college you wanted to be an architect?
I got a degree in architecture, yes.
From what college?
New York Institute of Technology. On Long Island.
Then what did you do?
I decided I didn’t want to be an architect. I got my degree, it was a five-year degree; I completed it, but I had always been a bit of an artist, and I wanted to incorporate design into whatever I did moving forward, so I started designing furniture. Anything I could design and sell to make ends meet, I did. I designed jewelry, I designed lamps, and I built them myself. I learned how to do some soldering, some welding. I did woodworking because my dad did it. I did some gallery shows of my furniture. Then it wasn’t really going anywhere, so I saved up all my money and I bought a Mac.
What year is this?
This is probably ’94. I bought an old-school Mac, and I think I got some black-market versions of Photoshop and Illustrator, the Adobe suite at the time, and I taught myself the programs and I became a graphic designer. Somehow I lucked into a graphic design job at a magazine, and I was a designer for a while. Then I worked my way up to being an art director over the years.
Videography. It was like, sound and engineering video magazines. I worked as a graphic designer/art director for almost 10 years, and I wound up working as an art director with companies like Brooks Brothers, Polo, Ralph Lauren, Hanes. I did some stuff.
Then what happened?
This was 2001, 2002. The Web was becoming a thing, but I didn’t know how to design for it. I only designed for print. I had to learn, but I didn’t want to take a course. I just figured I’d teach myself, so I gave myself a project to build my own website. I had no idea what it would be about, but I said, “If I put myself to this task, I’ll finish it and I’ll have learned something when I’m done.” I said, “Well, you know, I loved bodybuilding when I was a kid.”
So you designed a bodybuilding website?
Bodybuilding had changed by that point, between the late ’70s when I was interested in it at first, and by this point, the early 2000s. Big shift. I think a lot of people were reminiscing. But there was no place on the Internet where you could read about that stuff. I said, “OK, I’m going to build a website, kind of an ode to these classic days of bodybuilding.” I called it “Iron Age”. It was a glossary of all the bodybuilders who competed between the ’50s and the ’80s.
You wrote articles for this site?
I wrote articles about different bodybuilders and contests and all sorts of stuff. Then I created a forum for it, and lo and behold, people started finding my site and they joined the forum and they started discussing this. As it turns out, a lot of people were interested in it. We built it up to 4,000 or 5,000 forum members, and Greg Merritt, who was the senior writer for Flex magazine, stumbled upon my site. Greg reached out to me, and he said, “Hey, you’re a decent writer and you know this stuff. Would you mind if I refer you to Peter McGough, who’s the Editor-in-Chief of Flex?”
Peter reaches out and says, “I like what you’re doing. Would you care to freelance for us? Try it out?” I said, “It’s a dream come true. I bought the first issue of Flex on the newsstand in ’83.” I freelanced, and it went well. I got a few articles in and everything gelled. Then about a year and a half later, Peter said, “I want to bring you out to LA. I want you to work here.” In May of 2004 I finally moved out to L.A. and became the senior writer for Flex.
He offered you the job and you moved out there?
Yeah, and I was actually contending for a very good position at a New York fashion company—it might have been L’Oreal—for an art director position. I was in contention for that, and I told the recruiter, “No, take me out. I’m moving to LA, I’m becoming a writer.”
Even though that job would’ve paid more?
It would’ve paid a lot more, but I was following my passion. I just thought there was a bit of a kismet here. I had been reading these magazines since I was a kid. I’d put the whole dream on the back burner; I’d never thought I’d achieve any kind of notoriety, fame, success in this field, and lo and behold, when I least expect it, this is offered to me. I said, “I can’t pass it up.”
You took a pay cut from what you were making?
Yes I did, but it was worth it.
So then you’re writing articles for Flex and Muscle & Fitness?
I was out there in L.A. for seven-and-a-half years. I would get Muscle & Fitness assignments from Peter every now and then—some features. I did a couple of cover stories. That was always an honor.
Have you been with them ever since?
There was about a year between 2010 and 2011 that I wasn’t with the company at all. The company was undergoing a transition, moving the base of its operations from L.A. to New York. During that transitional period, I wasn’t with the company.
Then almost exactly a year later, I got a call: “Do you want to come to New York and interview to be Editor-in-Chief of Muscle & Fitness?” I said, “Yeah, I always enjoyed it.” It felt about time to move back to New York. It was a little over seven years. Then the rest is history.
You interviewed and got it, and then you became editor of Flex as well?
Yeah, over time, I guess that I did a good enough job that my boss had faith in me, gave me more responsibility.
When did you become editor-in-chief of Muscle & Fitness?
That would’ve been in November 2011.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of the job is working with the team. It really is. I always say, you spend most of your waking hours with your co-workers—not necessarily with the people you love, with your children, with your spouse. It’s with your co-workers, and you have to gel with them. You have to have a good relationship with them. Fortunately, I think we all have a really good relationship on this team. I look forward to that. Sometimes on the weekends—I don’t know how many people think, “Oh, I can’t wait for Monday so I can go back to work for the week”—I do look forward to seeing my co-workers during the week, so that’s a big plus.
The other best part of the job is the finished product. When we get the boxes of the new issues here in the office and we open them up and there’s that fresh cover looking back at you, and you flip through it and you see your month’s worth of work in print, it’s a really satisfying feeling. It’s great.