By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
Nick Delgado has a tube of the testicle cream in his pocket. He is the author of eight books, including How to Look Great & Feel Sexy, and he's scouting the room packed with muscular hardbodies at the Olympia competition and product exposition.
"I want you to tell you about this product called 'Strength and Romance,'" Delgado says quickly. "It stops testosterone from turning to estrogen. [Bodybuilder] Brian Sutton gained six pounds of muscle in one week! You rub it on your neck. You rub it on your scrotum. Within about twenty minutes, it kicks in. Within about two weeks, you're getting the best gains of your life."
Delgado pushes a vanilla-colored tube toward Everson.
"Take this," he says. "It gives you better vascularity, better muscle density, all within about two weeks. Guaranteed."
Everson, an enormous fifty-year-old former bodybuilder, takes the tube. He hears these sorts of pitches all the time, but Delgado is on his magazine's "advisory committee," so his recommendations require consideration.
"All right," Everson says quietly.
"Thanks," Delgado says. "I appreciate, you know, that people like your articles."
After Delgado leaves, Everson shakes his head at the tube.
"You can't promote a cream that changes your basic hormone levels significantly through the skin; otherwise it would have to be a prescription item," he explains. "That's the whole thing with our industry, these sort of claims. And 99.9 percent of these people believe what is coming out of their mouths. Most of these people are not sophisticated enough to be hustlers. They honestly believe that everything they read in magazines about their products is real."
When Everson says "our industry," he is actually referring to two industries.
The first is muscle magazines, those glossy periodicals stuffed with photos of grimacing super-sized humans and beastly biceps. Everson owns one, a free, bimonthly Littleton-based journal called Planet Musclethat's distributed across the country and in several major gym chains.
The second industry is sports supplements -- dietary and performance-enhancement products such as creatine, protein powder and fat-burning pills. Everson owns one of these companies as well: Everfit, a modest line of massage oils and herbal products.
Now, if owning both a supplement company and a bodybuilding magazine sounds like a conflict of interest...it is.
But these two industry branches are so grossly intertwined, so blatantly cross-promotional, so dependent on each other for survival, that Everson may be correct to think of them singularly. And Everson is more openly critical of this industry than just about anyone.
"Fifty percent of our supplement-industry revenues are earned selling horseshit -- nothing less than outright hogwash," Everson wrote in one Planet Muscle editorial. "The whole industry is saturated with too much snake oil slithering down the toilet bowl... [but] if the magazines only printed workout information, they'd go out of business."
Nowhere is this conjoined relationship between muscle mags and supplements more apparent than here, at the annual Olympia Expo at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The scene is like the contents of a muscle magazine come to life. There are pro bodybuilders, fitness trainers, supplement pushers, muscle-mag editors, bodybuilder fans and, of course, products.
Samples of products, their names in bold block letters, are handed out everywhere by smiling models. Products that promise virility and energy and strength and -- most of all -- big muscles. Major bulk. Shredded shoulders and pumped pecs.
Narcissism is big business. And the business is not pretty.
You know, I spend millions of dollars on stuff that doesn't work," says forty-year-old Damon Rosenaur, a car dealer and self-described "wannabe bodybuilder" from Dallas.
Rosenaur is holding a plastic bottle of "Extreme Ripped Force Hyper-Thermogenic Drink" while staring skeptically at a supplement company's sign promising to "Grow Muscle While You Sleep."
The man behind the Expo booth assures Rosenaur that this product, unlike similar products he may have tried, most assuredly does work.
Rosenaur turns away. He doesn't buy it. But he does buy practically everything else. His typical purchases include protein powder, amino acids, meal-replacement bars and fat-burners.
"I spend between $700 and $1,000 per month," he says. "I eat more supplements than I do food, probably."
Rosenaur's girlfriend leans forward. "He's not kidding," she says.
The tricky thing about supplements, as the muscular Rousenaur has discovered, is that they are every bit as much of a gamble as the slot machines above the Expo. Some pay out, many do not. And thousands of bodybuilders and athletes are letting their health ride on powder, pills and drinks whose ingredient lists sound like a chemist murmuring in his sleep.
According to a study by Blue Cross/Blue Shield's Healthy Competition Foundation, 9 percent of adults take performance-enhancement supplements. One million adolescents between the ages of twelve and seventeen have also tried them.
"There's a misperception that if you buy something at a health-food store, you don't face serious health risks. Some of these things, the only reason they are not classified as drugs is because of the Dietary Supplement and Heath Education Act," says Iris Shaffer, executive director of the Healthy Competition Foundation.