Catching up with bodybuilding’s First Lady

by Allan Donnelly

April 23, 2008


Almost before there was women’s bodybuilding, it seemed, there was Rachel McLish. From the inception of the first-ever issue of FLEX magazine in April of 1983, no other athlete – male or female – graced the pages of this publication more in the early-to-mid 1980s. But McLish’s exposure wasn’t just limited to FLEX – she was a phenomenon, to put it simply, appearing in newspapers and television stations across the globe.

She won the first Ms. Olympia contest, in 1980, and then won the title again in 1982. She made her acting debut in the film Pumping Iron II, as both the main attraction and the main antagonist in a movie that centered around the Ceasar’s World Cup in Las Vegas in 1983, a contest which was arranged specifically for the film, which pitted the two extremes of women’s bodybuilding – McLish and the ultra-muscular Bev Francis – against each other. (In the end Carla Dunlap won, whilc McLish finished third and Francis eighth).

McLish competed one more year, in 1984 at the Ms Olympia, where she placed second to Cory Everson, before walking away from the stage, but not out of the limelight. In the ensuing years McLish would author two books – Flex Appeal by Rachel (1984) and Perfect Parts (1987) – both of which made the New York Times bestseller list, and appear in a number of commercials. She also appeared in two more movies as the female lead, Aces Iron Eagle III in 1992 and Raven Hawk in 1996. In 1999 she was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame.

Today, the 52-year-old McLish lives in Southern California with husband and movie producer Ron Samuels. She is currently working on her second clothing line, Flex Appeal, which will be out later this year, and her third book, tentatively titled Tighter and Leaner to the Core, and tentatively scheduled for release later this year.


FLEX: You burst onto the scene as the face of women’s bodybuilding in the early 1980s – were you ready for all the attention that came your way?
Rachel McLish: I just felt quite fortunate to be the ambassador for female bodybuilding and that’s basically what I was. I won the first world championship … in Atlantic city, and then a few months later was the first Ms. Olympia. But basically I became a household name based on the very first competition in Atlantic City. My picture was plastered on newspapers all over the world, I had film crews … from Japan and Sweden and all over there. So that’s really what made me the ambassador for this weird, new phenomenon. People just wanted to hear what this new weird form of exercise that women were doing.

FLEX: Why did you decide to start competing?
McLish: I was living in Texas, and the reason I competed was to promote my health clubs. I had one very successful club with a partner and 10 investors and we were getting ready to expand. I thought it was a fabulous way to get on TV and just really promote it that way. So I had the background. My [college] degree was in exercise physiology and health and nutrition.

FLEX: How was women’s bodybuilding received by the general public in the early 1980s?
McLish: I know the freak factor was involved. It was kind of a novelty but I knew in my heart and I told them I said this is here to stay, this is not going to go anywhere because it’s solid, it’s real it’s based on science and fact and it’s enjoyable.

FLEX: What was the general feeling about women’s bodybuilding during that time?
McLish: It was curiosity number one. It was just very enticing because you had these women in bikinis – I mean skimpy bikinis – going up there flexing. We just needed to educate the people on what it was we were doing.. We had to always distinguish between the sport of bodybuilding and the activity of weight training/bodybuilding and getting in great shape. People were always very, very afraid because even back then you had the Laura Combes and the Claudia Wilborns and a couple years later Bev Francis Â- they were trying to emulate the men. And I said No, no, no, this is not the way you should do it. Don’t try to be a man. My big platform for bodybuilding was to include bodybuilding as an added dimension to womanhood, not to try to be like a man. And I still do that. I always had to make the distinction that there is a difference between a muscular-looking woman such as a ballet dancer, an ice skater, an athlete – and a manly looking woman. And of course steroids were an issue even back then.

FLEX: In 1985, Pumping Iron 2: The Women was released. How did you feel about that vehicle?
McLish: Well Pumping Iron II unfortunately you get someone who has the vehicle to really reach a lot of people with the hype … they basically utilized what Joe Weider had built and FLEX magazine and all of us women .. they utilized all of our hard work and everything and they slanted it. It’s their story, their script, their editing, their everything. So no one really had any control over it except George Butler and he was at odds with just about all of us. Except maybe Bev Francis, who he plucked out of Australia as a world-class powerlifter, and her body was a product of powerlifting. And they said OK lets put her on the stage and compete. And he tried to make an issue and a controversy where there really was not one. He created one.

FLEX: So you weren’t happy with the finished product?
McLish: I was just so close to it. It was filmed over the course of a year and a half. The edited version had very little to do with the actual process and being filmed while you’re trying to compete and prepare for a competition. But I do know this – the week before the actual competition on stage in Vegas – I mean George Butler was trying to do everything to get me off kilter. He said, Oh, we need to film some footage of you in Singapore. So the week before [the contest] guess who gets to go to Singapore – because I’m under contract – to do some throwaway shots at the Mr. Universe competition there? I have to go there and it was like Oh OK, I gotcha. But I was very disciplined. It was like all-out war but that’s what I had to put up with. It wasn’t a real competition although it was, but it was slanted more for the movie, and that’s basically the way it was. I just really think that movie triggered the new phase of women – the ultra muscular women – because they had had never seen anything like Bev Francis. But they didn’t give the whole story, the whole picture. It didn’t do anything to change it except to stunt the growth of women’s bodybuilding.

FLEX: You retired from competitive bodybuilding in 1984, after only five years and eight contests. Why did you retire?
McLish: I always believe a person needs to know when to get off stage. I felt maybe it was a little premature. But the last time I competed was 1984 [at the Ms. Olympia] and I came in second and I should have come in last really. Because Cory [Everson] was huge. I looked like the poor little stepchild up there. It was like, Why? You know? Why? And we had the conversation that If I wanted to keep competing I was going to have to put on some size and I thought, You know what? Nope. Because then that means all of you are right and I’m wrong and no. This is what I believe in.

FLEX: What is your level of involvement in the sport of bodybuilding today?
McLish: To this day I’m the biggest supporter and advocate of weight training because with all the many types of fitness – pilates and this and that – weight training truly should be the foundation of everybody’s fitness program. So I’m happy to say that I’m still doing what I’m always done.

FLEX: Are you still bodybuilding today?
McLish: When it’s wintertime and snow in the mountains I take advantage of my season pass and I hit the local mountains as often as I can because I really love snowboarding and snow skiing. I run hike trails along the local mountains here, I love that and I just maintain that base. OK, life gets in the way, you have to go here, you have to travel – so I don’t get as wigged out when I don’t go to the gym for a week. For a while there it was kind of like the experiment – I said I want to see what my body does when I don’t weight train for a while and just do runs or hikes three or four times a week. Just the lowest base level – and you know what, muscle memory – I got a little smaller, I looked great in my clothes, but it comes back so fast. It is just the best foundation I was so happy. Because I had never not worked out for two weeks, there was no reason not to. So that’s an exciting thing. But I always maintain that base level I love going to the gym I love the energy I love the weight training.

FLEX: How many days a week are you in the gym?
McLish: Three times a week, that’s what I’m doing right now. I love all the basic power movements. I take ballet classes so my calves are good. I really like the Power Plate. And of course I stretch, stretching is so important. But weight training is the foundation and that’s never going to go away.

FLEX: What did you weigh when you competed?
McLish: My competition weight went up like two pounds [a year]. I never fluctuated more than five pounds above that, ever. I competed at 128 pounds. At my last Ms. Olympia I was about 128 1/2, and I’m just under 5-7.

FLEX: What do you weigh today?
McLish: I’m about 126. I basically look the same. I’m going to go into training and be more disciplined with my meals and supplementation. I think that’s the toughtest thing. And push the weights a little heavier, because it’s good to do that every once in a while. I look forward to it.

FLEX: If you were going to compete today, you obviously wouldn’t be a bodybuilder. Would you compete in figure?
McLish: I think when you commit to compete you have to have the passion and the drive and the motivation and the excitement. I mean I love competing. When I was there I lived for it, I loved it. So if you don’t have that fire, don’t even make the attempt because your whole life has to be directed toward that. I would be very interested in figure competitions. Absolutely. I think it’s exciting, it really empowers a woman, you look fabulous and I think it’s a wonderful thing to do. There are so many great looking gals out there and I think it’s great that they’re doing it.