Prime Cut

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During a lull, Julia, a supplement representative at GNC, walks over. "Why don't you eat something," she says, more directive than question.

"I know, I know." Pomponio-Pate takes out a tape measure that's sitting on the card table in front of her. "Let me see how fat I am," she says, winding it around her 24-inch waist.

A middle-aged man walks in. He's scruffy, unshaven, dressed in holey jeans and carrying a large, dirty backpack.

"How are you?" Pomponio-Pate asks.

The man stares. "Well, I'm seein' what I come to see," he says, adding, "I'm unemployed right now." He asks Pomponio-Pate where she works out. She answers vaguely: "Oh, different places."

"If you ever want to, you know, just work out or something...or maybe go out to dinner..."

"Oh, I couldn't do that," Pomponio-Pate says, showing him her wedding ring. "My husband wouldn't like it. But thank you. Thank you."

"I get that quite a bit," she sighs as he walks out with an autographed picture. "I just try to be careful."

She prepares for a snack: oat-bran cakes made with egg whites and sprayed with non-fat imitation butter. She's allowed two of them a day. She stays up preparing all her food for the following day, although it doesn't always look wonderful in the light of day. "I get sick of chicken," she says. "That's what I get sick of most. I mean, you can use spices -- until it's time to stop the sodium."

The supplement rep comes back with a Starbucks tea for Pomponio-Pate and a big whipped-cream confection for one of the men.

Pomponio-Pate looks longingly at the frothy drink. "What's that yummy-looking thing?"

On his website, Wally Boyco, a former marketer for Sears and Montgomery Ward department stores and current bodybuilding promoter, describes the start of what has come to be known as women's "fitness" competitions:

Back at the bodybuilding scene, female bodybuilders had discovered "the juice." The muscle mass needed to win contests was increasing rapidly. In 1984 the only options for a female physique competitor were bodybuilding, wet t-shirt, beauty and bikini contests, and a fledgling new sport called aerobics. Seeing the need for an alternative for the well rounded, drug free woman, Wally created the Ms Fitness(r) contests by the introduction of his Ms National Fitness contest.

Because the new category scored women on how fit they acted as well as how fit they looked, contestants added dancing and gymnastics routines to their posing. The event proved enormously popular, and other promoters took the idea and ran with it. In 1993, Snyder, who'd left the business for nearly a decade, started the Galaxy Competition, which combined a bathing suit competition with an obstacle course.

He hadn't changed his mind about what he thought constituted the perfect woman people would pay to watch, and he knew how to round up the right sort of contestant: "I had a photographer friend in Santa Monica who took pictures of beautiful women who exercised. So I flew out there and looked at hundreds of photos. I found seventeen that I liked. All of them were very attractive, with great bodies. Not muscular, but feminine, shapely, symmetrical." He flew the group to Florida for the inaugural Galaxy show.

Before too long, however, women's fitness competitions faced the same problem as bodybuilding had. The women -- many of whom had moved to fitness from bodybuilding -- started getting larger and more muscular. Their routines also became more and more professional.

"If you're not doing double and triple back flips on stage," says Newingham, "the judges consider that you suck. It's become a competition for gymnasts who didn't make the Olympics."

This wasn't what Snyder wanted at all. Shows like the Galaxy "started attracting the wrong kind of girls. In the Galaxy, we started losing the pretty girls because of the athleticism required in the obstacle course. They started looking wrong -- boxy, muscular. Nobody wants hard-looking girls; they're not commercially viable. Women look at girls in these shows and they start to think, 'That's what happens if you work out.'"

Men who like a certain type of woman tend to gravitate toward the publishing business, where they can show off the exact model of woman they prefer (Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione come to mind). Like many bodybuilding promoters, Snyder is also in the publishing business, where he makes his real money on magazines like Muscle Media and Women's Fitness. When it comes to women's bodies, he knows what sells.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer