Summertime, and the winning is easy — if you've got a hot bod and the right bikini.
As swimsuit season gears up, women are preparing to compete in lucrative bikini contests across the state. Here in Tampa Bay, hopefuls turn up weekly for their chance at the $500 top prize in Gators Cafe and Saloon's bikini contest. The competition started in 2007, with a half-dozen ladies strutting their stuff at the back bar for 50 spectators. Today, it's held under Gators' big tent, with up to 18 competitors and 700 spectators.
Here's how it works: Contestants fill out a bio that host Casey Turner reads for the audience as the ladies work the catwalk. There's no talking, dancing or booty-shaking allowed. This is strictly about looks. Some bikini contests are determined by applause, but at Gators, judges score each girl.
Every week, Turner selects a new panel of 10 judges — a mix of audience members, rappers, pro athletes and radio personalities. Turner aims for a mix of ages and races — and yes, a female or two — because every judge has a different definition of what's hot.
"Just because they're not the typical hot-model type, doesn't mean that one of the judges might not say, 'I like 5-1 girls with a little meat on their bones,' " said Turner, a.k.a. DJ Mingle Mixx, who also deejays at the Sunday bikini events along with the The Spin Doctorz.
Changing up the judges also levels the playing field, since in any given week, half of the competitors are repeats. Women who win first place must sit out only a week before they're eligible to compete again; ladies who win the $300 second-place prize or $200 third-place prize are allowed to return immediately, so some women rack up hundreds of dollars week after week.
Like Marie Butler. She's been entering Gators' bikini contest since its inaugural year, 2007, and estimates she's won 15 or 20 times since then. At the time, Butler modeled for Hooter's (she's now a server at the Tyrone Square Mall restaurant) and saw the Gators contests as practice for bigger gigs. It paid off. In addition to her regular winnings, and $1,000 for being named Miss Gators on the Pass 2007 in an end-of-summer finale, Butler earned the title last year of Hooter's Best Damn Dream Girl 2009, netting $10,000. She used all this prize money to pay for a down payment on her St. Petersburg house, credit card bills and college. She recently got her online degree in fitness and nutrition.
"A lot of girls are born naturally small, big boobs, the whole thing. It wasn't like that for me," said Butler, 25. For Butler, who was overweight as a teen, bikini contests are "a way to show people what you can accomplish if you really set your heart to it, because it's hard." Last swimsuit season, she worked out at Gold's Gym six days a week and followed a strict diet.
Organizer Turner said this type of preparation pays off. He sees repeat contestants step up their game each time.
"They've got their hair done different, or you can see that they've been eating broccoli and chicken breast for a month," said Turner, 42, a self-described "bikini ambassador" who has been organizing bikini contests throughout Florida since 1996.
This season, Butler is prepared to work harder than ever for her bikini body. On April 18, she gave birth to her first child, Logan. Butler is already attending baby boot camp and doing laps around the Pier with a jogging stroller. She plans to be a Gators regular again by June.