The Orleans is about a mile from the Strip, near a Déjà Vu adult emporium and a Budget car rental. This weekend it’s the site of Joe Weider’s Olympia, the biggest bodybuilding event of the year. The place teems with thousands of bodybuilding fans: men with arms like vine-choked tree trunks, women whose skirts reveal remarkable quads. They come from Southern California and Florida, the coastal epicenters of the sport, but also from Sydney, Seoul, Oslo, and all across the midsection of America. To them, Kaltwasser is something of a celebrity. Whenever she walks through the lobby, at least three people ask to take her picture. Sometimes it’s gawking men who smell like Axe body spray, but more often it’s those guys’ girlfriends. “My coach says I have the same body type as you,” says one starry-eyed woman. The elevators are decorated with life-size photos of the top competitors. Kaltwasser is thrilled when she discovers this. For the rest of the weekend, she takes “her” elevator almost every time.
Kaltwasser is quickly becoming the LeBron James of the bikini division, a new, more accessible and relatable category of bodybuilding. Long the provenance of MTV Spring Breakers and a close relative of the wet T-shirt contest, these competitions are gaining legitimacy as a sport and attracting legions of participants and fans. The number of professional competitions has more than doubled since 2010, when the professional arm of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness added bikini to its roster of female divisions. (Those divisions, in order from most to least jacked: bodybuilding, physique, fitness, figure, and now bikini).
The addition is part of the IFBB’s effort to change bodybuilding’s image from freakishly strapped ectomorphs to something sleeker, more modern, and, well, sexier. On a broader scale, bikini competition culture is changing the conversation about what health and fitness should look like. It’s a conversation that’s taking place largely on Instagram, where women like Kaltwasser — and women who want to be like Kaltwasser — get advice, give support, and pose in their underwear.
Advocates of this “bikini body” say it’s opening up the world of weightlifting to women who wouldn’t otherwise think of approaching a squat rack. “They’ll come and they don’t even know how to pick up a weight,” says Shannon Dey, who goes by Momma Bombshell. Her company, Bombshell Fitness, is one of the largest professional fitness coaching businesses in the country, and 80% of her competing clients are in the bikini division. “This type of body is gorgeous and fit, yet it’s attainable,” she says.
That word “attainable” comes up a lot when people in the industry talk about the bikini fitness trend. It’s being offered up as an antidote to thinspo culture — instead of thigh gaps, it’s “strong not skinny”; instead of pro-ana, it’s “eat to grow.” Kaltwasser, a former all-state athlete who professes her love for steak and pizza, is the poster woman for this trend.
But another story is playing out on social media. A search for #BikiniCompetitor on Instagram brings up endless reels of selfies at the gym, food weighed to the gram, quotes like “fail to plan, plan to fail,” and memes about not being able to walk after “leg day.” They chant their mantras in hashtags: #BeastMode, #NoExcuses, #RiseAndGrind. In profile after profile, women describe themselves as “recovered” from disorders like bulimia and compulsive exercising. All of it raises the question: Is the lifestyle that Kaltwasser literally embodies really a new and healthier attitude toward the female body, or is it a new expression of sexist old ideas and dangerous standards of beauty?
Bikini competitors are quick to say that they aren’t just girls who go to the gym; they’re athletes who train. Or, as Kaltwasser says on more than one occasion, “This isn’t just some bar contest. It’s a sport.” The 26-year-old from Akron, Ohio, has always competed in sports that were about individual performance — gymnastics, swimming, running. In high school they called her AK-47; she broke six track and cross-country records and qualified for state championships in both sports. Another thing she likes to say to reporters: “I worked for this body my whole life.”
She started training for the brand-new bikini division in 2010 after deciding that college wasn’t for her. She found Summer Montabone, a personal trainer and the owner of a local gym who runs Team VIP (Very Impressive Physique), a coaching group for bikini competitors. “You knew she was an athlete,” says Montabone, who is still Kaltwasser’s competition coach. These days Kaltwasser works out six days a week, doing an hour of weightlifting and a half-hour on a cardio machine when she’s preparing for a show. Sometimes she’ll do another session of cardio in the evenings.
Kaltwasser doesn’t have a boyfriend. In high school, boys were intimidated by her. “You could just feel the atmosphere change when she was around,” her former running coach tells me. “She’s so hardworking and so dominant in whatever she does.” This is the part of Kaltwasser that made her a track star, and it’s what makes her a bikini competitor now.
Even on the amateur level, a lot of competitors are like Kaltwasser. They have the mind-sets of CEOs; they push themselves to extremes in all aspects of their lives. Bikini competitions are seductive to these kinds of women: They seem to promise that perfection is possible if you put in the work. As Liz Ortiz, an Army soldier, bikini competitor, and mother of three told me, “I set my standards so high, and [competing] is just part of that.”
Kaltwasser’s competitive drive has propelled her to the top in very little time. She was a rookie when she won last year’s Olympia, an event that has grown from a three-man competition at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1965 to become the fitness industry’s Super Bowl, a four-day event in Las Vegas that draws more than 55,000 fans. Since last year’s Olympia, Kaltwasser has entered six shows and won five. She estimates that she’s earned over $100,000 in prize money, along with endorsement deals, modeling gigs, and paid appearances. She has the forgivable egotism of a small-town girl who’s still a little starstruck by her own life. “Winning the Olympia changed everything for me,” she says. “Who goes to seven countries in a year?” She liked Sweden the most because there were no “trashy areas, no homeless people.” She’s still learning how to talk to the press. “When I don’t know what else to do, I smile,” she says.
Kaltwasser (@ashleykfit) is starting the weekend with 80,000 followers on Instagram, the majority of whom came after last year’s Olympia. She’s hoping to break 100,000 this time, which will likely only happen if she wins. Many bikini competitors use Instagram like a high school cafeteria, chatting, bragging, stirring up drama, gushing about their “swolemates,” all with plenty of emojis and exclamation points. But Kaltwasser and her fellow Olympia competitors are pros. They’re building brands, not making friends. Their images are more polished, the self-promotion more blatant. They have endorsement deals that require them to post about their sponsors. Kaltwasser, for example, has agreements with Gaspari supplements, Muscle Egg liquid egg whites, Liquid Sun Rayz spray tanning,FitnessRx for Women magazine, and Better Bodies fitness apparel.
For Kaltwasser, social media outlets like Instagram have brought exposure, but they’ve brought critics too. Those followers can determine whether she gets a sponsorship or modeling gig; they can determine the future of her career. “I try not to go out in public without my makeup on because you never know when someone’s going to ask for a picture, and then it’ll be on Instagram,” she says. Her Instagram has plenty of beauty shots, most of which feature her prominent glutes. Recently she’s been hard-selling Fuel Meals, a food service that ships premade meals tailored to bodybuilders’ diets. Still she tries not to come across as an adbot in a bikini. Her account also features dogs in sweaters and a photo of herself in a pepperoni-pizza-print onesie.
It makes sense that bikini competitors and wannabes would flock to Instagram, a female-dominated social media platform where image matters most. Their presence there is hard to ignore; it’s turned the site into a 24-7 forum for tips and tricks. Competitors’ accounts are littered with questions, some from girls as young as 14: “How many calories and carbs do you eat and stay this lean?” “How can you get veins on your abs?” “What does your typical diet consist of?” “What moves are you doing to get all that hammie definition?” “How do you dry ure stomache out like that????” “What sorts of things do you eat? And how many meals a day?” “What are your butt workouts??”
In her hotel room that afternoon, Kaltwasser opens the mini-fridge and plucks a doggie bag of mush from a mound of other bags. She brought enough meals for the whole trip, divided and frozen. There’s little variation: chicken, sweet potato, asparagus, broccoli. Ground oats and egg whites cooked into patties. She often eats things cold right out of the bag. “I like the taste of simple food,” she says. “I never really want to eat crap.”
“Abs are made in the kitchen” is another much-repeated Instagram line. Bikini competitors’ feeds showcase elaborate meal preps, and debates rage on about the etiquette of taking your food scale to a restaurant. Some competitors stick to strict quantities of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, which they tweak obsessively in the weeks leading up to a show. Kaltwasser doesn’t track her calories or grams. She follows a meal plan that she writes herself with Montabone’s help. She eats six or seven small meals a day and drinks two gallons of water. She cuts out sodium the week before her shows and drinks cups of dandelion root tea, a natural diuretic. She “eats clean” but doesn’t worry about things like pesticides or artificial sweeteners. She likes the blue packets more than the pink. The yellow ones are just OK. Real sugar is not a concept she knows. After every show, she allows herself to have a cheat meal. Right now she’s craving salad, one with the works: apples, cranberries, walnuts, and blue cheese dressing. “A real salad,” she says.
Not everyone agrees. “People see photos of competitors and think that’s how they look year-round,” says Layne Norton, a bodybuilding coach in Florida. Norton has a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and considers himself a renegade for his less restrictive approach to dieting. According to him, “stage-lean” is a fleeting state, one that women peak for just like any athlete peaks for a competition. The idea that anyone can maintain that kind of physique has created a black market of sorts in the coaching industry. It can seem like every bikini competitor on Instagram sells a “bikini body” diet and workout plan. Some of these women have certifications but most probably don’t. “It’s gotten really terrible,” says Norton. “A girl goes and wins a show and has abs and so now she’s a coach to make money.”
These coaches can wreak havoc on their clients’ lives. Ruthie Harrison is 5-foot-10, blonde-haired and blue-eyed with a disturbingly symmetrical face. She looks like a fitness model because she is. For nearly a year and a half, she was also a client of Momma Bombshell, aka Shannon Dey of Bombshell Fitness. Harrison, who is 25 now and works as a mechanical engineer, signed up with Team Bombshell in 2011. “I saw all these photos of women in bikinis on her website and thought, Wow, if I could be a part of that, that would be really cool.”
The meal plan took some getting used to — she had never measured cups of rice or counted asparagus spears before, and she didn’t understand why salt and seasonings were forbidden (spices cause cravings, she was later told). “[Dey] would always tell everyone, ‘Follow the plan, stick to the plan,’ and if you asked why she’d say, ‘Why are you asking why; just do it. Your mind’s in the wrong place if you’re asking why.’”
Harrison’s training plan had her doing an hour and a half of cardio six days a week on top of weight training five days a week. All told, each day she was spending three to five hours at the gym and eating an estimated 1,500 calories. Sometimes she’d fall asleep at the table in front of her last meal of the night — a tiny steak and salad greens.
Harrison says Dey had her clients wear rubber corsets called Squeems, meant to narrow women’s waists. “We wore them all day,” she says.
Dey says that if Harrison was spending that much time in the gym, it was “due to her own physical limitations, not our recommended plans.” (The Bombshell website refers to a workout program of one and a half to three hours a day of gym time, five to six days per week.) Dey doesn’t recall Harrison’s meal plan, but says that a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet was not uncommon during prep. She recommends Squeems to clients, she says, because “they have proven very effective in creating the hourglass shape competitors desire.”
Harrison went pro within a year of joining Dey’s team. She lived for the trophies and for Dey’s positive feedback week after week. But she also developed a secret habit of binging and purging, which only got worse the better she performed. After one show, she spent a week in total isolation, eating and throwing up seven times a day. When Harrison qualified for the Olympia in 2012, she realized she couldn’t survive another prep. She confessed everything to Dey, who told her she was having a reaction to “a self-imagined stress.” Harrison competed in the 2012 Olympia in the midst of a full-blown eating disorder and didn’t place.
Layne Norton, the coach from Florida, says he’s seen “an enormous amount of women who had normal relationships with food before fitness start to have eating disorders.”
Dey confirms that she and Harrison spoke “at length” about Harrison’s eating disorder, and that she may have told Harrison that she was putting too much pressure on herself. When asked about the prevalence of eating disorders among her other clients, Dey wrote: “Several studies have shown that eating disorders are not a result of calorie restriction, rather they are often triggered by trauma and stress … In a sport where much of the emphasis is on food manipulation, individuals who have such issues to begin with may find dealing with these issues while manipulating food to prove difficult.” But Layne Norton, the coach from Florida, says he’s seen “an enormous amount of women who had normal relationships with food before fitness start to have eating disorders.” He estimates that up to 70% of the women who come to him have had an eating disorder in the past.
Harrison stopped competing after the 2012 Olympia, and things got worse for a while. “I had no idea how to eat on my own,” she says. Eventually she found a therapist who helped her see how much she’d let competing affect her self-image. Last year she wrote a blog postabout her experience on Team Bombshell. “Competing brought out a savage underlying weakness,” she wrote, “to sacrifice all happiness and reason for the sake of succeeding.” According to Harrison, Dey asked her to take it down. Harrison refused, though she did remove some details about her time as a Bombshell.
Kaltwasser’s physique is her product and her livelihood, and she’s under enormous pressure to maintain it. Despite this, she says she doesn’t have a history of eating disorders and that she’s indebted to her coach for all she’s done. She talks about starting her own training and nutrition business when her career on the stage is over. “Right now I feel like I’m building up credentials,” she says. “When the time comes and I can’t compete anymore, they’ll look at my resume and it will make me seem more credible.”
It’s past 10 at night by the time she gets to the ninth-floor hotel room, where the illicit spray tanners have set up shop. Kaltwasser’s face is bare and freckled, and in her track suit she looks like the high-school runner she once was. Hotel management strictly forbids tanning in the rooms, so one woman keeps her eye on the peephole while another hoses a naked Kaltwasser with a spray gun attached to a turbine while she stands in a tent-like pod. In the room next door, a half-dozen women in bathrobes wait their turn. They eat out of Tupperwares and scroll on their phones. The Biggest Loser blares on TV, and it’s hard not to see a parallel world: the dieting, their exercise regimens, the obsession we seem to have with watching bodies transform.
To walk through the Olympia Expo, which sprawlsacross the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, is to do battle with an army of broad shoulders, tens of thousands strong. Women in tight-fitting fitness garb stand with trays of protein bites. Ice cream machines churn out protein soft-serve; Sylvester Stallone promotes protein candy chews. This is maybe the only place in the world where you will ever sidestep someone throwing up from too many protein samples. Bodybuilding forums are full of complaints about “protein farts,” and, in the crush of the expo floor, the problem is clear. Stallone is whisked around by bodyguards and hidden behind sunglasses and a frozen smirk, but miraculously Jen Selter (@jenselter), the “Butt Selfie (or #belfie) Queen” of Instagram, is standing alone, almost blending into the crowd with her velvet sweatpants and her Louis Vuitton bag. Selter, who has more Instagram followers than all the bikini pros at the Olympia combined — 5.1 million — says that she has a lot of respect for the bikini division and wouldn’t rule out the possibility of competing one day. “I love that clean, healthy lifestyle,” she explains. According to Kaltwasser, Selter would probably not do well in a bikini competition. “Symmetry is important,” she tells me, tactfully.
Prejudging for the women’s divisions happens on Friday morning, on a makeshift stage near a booth selling Isobags, which are the most intense lunch boxes you’ve ever seen. Kaltwasser has been up since 5, doing the tanning, the makeup, the hair routine. She’s eaten mostly carbs today — rice cakes, oats. The glycogen from the sugar will fill out her muscles in these last crucial hours. She’s in a silk bathrobe with her name embroidered across the back above the words “IFBB Pro.” She opens the bathrobe to reveal a tanned, waxed body and the bikini: emerald, her trademark color, and studded with first-cut Swarovski crystals. Kaltwasser says it’s worth about $3,000 but the company gave it to her for free, along with some serious bling for her fingers and wrists.
Kaltwasser is jittery as she puts the final touches on her makeup. For her and the other bikini competitors, prejudging is the most important part of the day. It’s when the judges make their decisions, and those decisions rarely change at the finals show. The women are judged on their bodies, of course, but also on their walks, their smiles, their skin tones, and how they interact with the judges. “Hooker makeup” will detract from the score, they tell me. Kaltwasser’s weakness is her presentation. Sometimes her legs shake or she forgets to smile. “I get nervous because I care so much,” she says.
The competitors strut out one by one and pose to a frenetic mash-up of club songs. They’re allowed to pose however they want to show off their figures, and the results are sometimes bizarre to the untrained eye — hips popped out, waists dramatically torqued, backs arched and legs spread like a farm animal doing its business. Butt-wiggling and shoulder-shimmying are frowned upon, one judge tells me, but they happen a lot.
Yeshaira Robles comes out toward the end in a pink suit with gold-highlighted hair. She looks ripped and gorgeous, of course, but maybe a teensy bit bored. Her gaze doesn’t smolder so much as say, “Just give me the trophy and let’s get this over with.”
Because she’s the defending champion, Kaltwasser goes last. She looks poised and confident. Her legs stay steady, even when she crosses them for the back pose. There’s something refreshing about her routine; she doesn’t wink or pout at the judges but keeps her smile wide. The judges bring six women to the center, including Kaltwasser and Robles. This is first callouts, and it means these are the six women in the running for a top spot. The judges move the women around to compare them. Robles gets moved to the far end — that means she’s out of the running for first. Kaltwasser gets moved to the middle. They move a first-time Olympia competitor named Janet Layug next to her. The thing everyone seems to know about Layug is that she won a Hooters pageant of some kind earlier this year. She’s stunning in a Victoria’s Secret runway model-type way, long and lean with a face that one webcast commentator described as “a pillar of beauty.” She poses with a winner’s cockiness, smiling just enough to show she’s having a good time. Here, next to Layug, Kaltwasser looks almost (almost) stocky, her smile like Miss Ohio’s at the state fair.
“[Layug] had the stage presence that I didn’t have,” Kaltwasser tells me later. Based on prejudging, Kaltwasser thinks she has a spot in the top two, but second won’t make history. She spends the afternoon glued to her iPhone, reading comments and predictions on social media. All the events are live-streaming, and people are weighing in from around the world. A popular bodybuilding Twitter account @musclephone thinks Kaltwasser “won it from the back,” but will the judges agree?
Kaltwasser’s manager is J.M. Manion, owner of the Fitness Management Group and a man whose influence in the bodybuilding world is both obvious and hard to quantify. His father, Jim Manion, is president of the IFBB Pro League in the U.S. The younger Manion manages not only Kaltwasser but also Robles, Layug, and every other top contender at the Bikini Olympia. Every Bikini Olympia winner since the division began was managed by Manion at some point in her career. It seems like an unspoken rule that no one has a shot at the top spot until they sign with FMG.
Manion’s email address is also registered as the owner of two active porn sites devoted to IFBB competitors. One, called “Lacey D.” (tagline: “For All Of You To See”), features Lacey DeLuca, an FMG client who competed alongside Kaltwasser on the Bikini Olympia stage. According to DeLuca, 26, Manion photographed her for his porn site in 2012, soon after she became a bikini pro. “Everything that J.M. does with me like that is very classy,” she says. She adds that, as a manager, Manion “always steers us in the right direction,” telling them which shows to enter and which to avoid. DeLuca declined to comment on whether she’s seen any profits from “Lacey D.” Manion did not respond for comment about the relationship between his bikini competition endeavors and his pornographic ones.
The bikini division is a blatant attempt to revive the sex appeal that women’s bodybuilding had in its early days, before a steroid-fueled arms race turned the division into a carnival show of the impossibly huge. Back then, most female bodybuilders looked like the women in the bikini division today. For evidence, look no further than 1985’s Pumping Iron II: The Women, hornball sequel to Pumping Iron, the film that helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. For over an hour and a half, the camera ogles them up and down: in spandex at the gym, in bikinis by the pool, naked in a communal shower, all set to a synth-pop soundtrack. “Well I’ve always considered myself a powder puff, but I consider myself a really strong powder puff,” says one woman who looks like Jennifer Beals inFlashdance. “Got to get that fat off,” says a male trainer to another competitor. He pushes her through some T-bar rows, then they make out.
Iris Kyle, the 10-time Ms. Olympia whose quads are thicker than most horses’, is not going to get a GQ spread anytime soon, but Ashley Kaltwasser very well could. (Standing behind her at the podium, the male emcee jokes about having “the best seat in the house.”) Kaltwasser got breast implants in 2011, not long after she started competing. Most women at the pro level do, because, as Kaltwasser put it, “when your body fat gets down, your boobs go.” Kaltwasser wanted to stay athletic-looking and she was aware that the judges don’t go for the “bimbo look,” so she went for a sensible D-cup. But she also says she’s not interested in being a sex symbol for guys. “What are boys? I’m all about the Olympia,” she jokes. The posing, the getup, the hour-long makeup routine: She treats it as seriously as the training and the diet. She treats it all like a job, because it is. When I ask if there’s a hookup scene at the Olympia, she gives me a strange look. “Probably [among] the fans,” she says.
A few hours after the morning’s prejudging, Kaltwasser heads to the arena for the bikini finals. Tonight’s show feels a bit like a warm-up to Saturday, when Phil Heath and rival Kai Greene will pack the arena with fans paying over $200 a seat. But the arena still sparkles with smartphone flashes, and the TV cameras swoop and soar. NBC’s sports channel is planning to air two 90-minute specials about this year’s Mr. Olympia, the competition’s first major television coverage in 30 years.
As the bikini competitors parade out one by one under the bright lights, I can see why Kaltwasser calls these competitions “Miss America for the fit girl.” It is a pageant in its purest form, a beauty contest without any of that fuss over saving sea lions and tap dancing. And the women are lovely, but the whole thing is a little mind-numbing. Twenty-seven pairs of breasts, round and high, twenty-seven flat bellies, twenty-seven winning smiles. Say what you will about performance-enhancing drugs; the most arresting moment of the night was watching a strapping, square-jawed female bodybuilder lip-synch to Cat Power’s cover of “Sea of Love.”
Kaltwasser looks relaxed onstage, strutting and posing to the brassy beat of “Timber” and working her All-American, girl-next-door vibe. When it comes time to award the top six, Robles takes fourth, smiling gamely. Layug and Kaltwasser are the final two. When the emcee names Layug as the runner-up, Kaltwasser gasps and starts clapping just a second too soon.
Commentators on Bodybuilding.com’s live wrap-up remark that the judges went for the athlete over the model, that Kaltwasser’s body is setting an attainable standard, and that this is a good thing for the sport. But they’re wrong. There will never be a truly mainstream physique on a professional bodybuilding stage, because there’s simply no place for “maintainable” in a world where bodies must be built, sculpted, and improved. It’s the bodybuilding mind-set, the body reflecting the inner self, that’s gone mainstream, not the other way around.
From the smoking balcony of The Orleans Arena you can see the whole Strip, all that sparkle and sex laid out from head to toe. Inside, Kaltwasser will stand for the next two hours in her green bikini and heels, giving interviews to NBC and the muscle press. Tomorrow she’ll work all day at her sponsors’ expo booths; she’ll go to the Victory Gala and eat her real salad and some rolls with butter too. Sunday she’ll get back in her bikini and pose for a Norwegian magazine, then she’ll drive to a Gold’s Gym and do hamstring exercises for another photo shoot. This year she may not have an off-season at all. From Vegas she flies straight to South Korea for the Korea Pro. Then there’s a competition in Russia in November. (She will win them both.) The 2015 season starts three months later with the Arnold Classic.
But, for now, all Kaltwasser has to do is raise her arms up and smile. Stars glitter on the screen behind her as another pop song plays. She’ll get $25,000 for her win, the most ever awarded to a bikini competitor. In a Bodybuilding.com wrap-up video, Kaltwasser will say that her goal is to prove that the bikini division is about more than “genetics and diet and cardio.”
“I know firsthand we’re athletes,” she’ll say. “I’ve worked for this body my whole life.” By this time tomorrow, her Instagram followers will hit 100,000.