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Pioneer female bodybuilder still an iron maven at 79


Doris Barrilleaux can barely reach the steering wheel of her champagne Honda anymore, not without one of those humiliating little pillows.

She used to be 5 feet 4. Now she's 5-3. This seems to irritate her far more than all the other reminders of her 79 years.

More than the silver tufts that were once bouncy curls or the crinkles around her eyes. More than her occasional forgetfulness and even more than the slight downgrade in the weight of her dumbbells.

These small changes, she can handle.

But shrinking? Certainly not.

She is, after all, the widely recognized godmother of female bodybuilding — a woman deemed sexy by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Shrinking means growing old, feeble, weak.

Doris doesn't do "weak."

• • •

Bodybuilding is a sport without a game, where you play for your team and against it. You compete with yourself.

For Doris, the battle began in 1955.

Birthing four babies had made her slender, athletic frame alarmingly cushy. So, following advice in men's magazines, she picked up weight training.

When she was pregnant the fifth time, you didn't know it until she turned sideways.

In the years that followed, Doris, then working as a flight attendant, entered photos of herself into fitness magazines. She strutted on stage in fledgling female bodybuilding contests and in 1979 organized the first known competition for women, the Ms. Brandon Physique.

With a couple of friends, she founded the Superior Physique Association and put out a magazine to foster the budding women's industry.

She published a few books, appeared on TV and traveled around the world photographing and judging professional competitions. Back then, female bodybuilders were more sleek and toned than today's brawny competitors. "In my day the women looked like women," Doris explains.

Local fitness promoter and professional bodybuilding judge Tim Gardner calls Doris his second mom. "She is the main reason why we have female bodybuilding," he said. "She's legendary."

"She was a mentor to us," said former competitor Deborah Diana, now an art teacher in Pennsylvania. "I hate to say motherly, but she did take care of the girls, made sure they were in a good place."

"It's kind of sad. Sometimes the person who starts it all never gets the just reward," said former bodybuilder John Schleicher, now a Chamberlain High School teacher, noting that Doris' vision grew into a multimillion-dollar industry. "There's nothing they can give her that's undeserved."

Just this month, Doris was inducted into the National Fitness Hall of Fame along with eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney, jump-roping world-record breaker Mark Rothstein, fitness video guru Cathe Friedrich and the late floor-exercise pioneer Joseph Pilates.

"(Doris) was able to elevate the whole fitness industry to include this whole untapped population," said Hall of Fame director John Figarelli.

"Don't tell me I can't do something," said Doris.

• • •

When Doris hit her 50s, her body amped up the offense. Skin drooped in places; she noticed lines in her face.

Those hurdles were the manageable ones.

Outside her personal competition, her husband of 37 years — her high school sweetheart — wanted a divorce.

Her son, Gary, was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Another son, Jerry, died of AIDS.

Then her mother "just dropped dead." Doctors suspected a stroke.

Wondering why wouldn't do any good.

Doris went out to the barn-turned-weight room beside her house and cranked out lateral pulls and calf raises.

• • •

If you know Doris, you know she doesn't dwell on the tough stuff.

Oh, she'll talk about it — sit there in her gold velour sweat pants and offer you a sugar-free tropical punch as she lists the tragedies like bullet points. But a few minutes into the conversation she'll be showing you a photo of herself with Lou Ferrigno and complimenting your calves.

"It happened, and you can't change it," she said. "You can't lie down and die, too, you know?"

She seems to live in the present almost to a fault, flitting between unfinished sentences and continually leaping from her chair to find some document or picture.

Somebody once called her a hummingbird, which she liked. Somebody else once suggested she "age gracefully," which she did not like.

Doris still rides her bike at least 5 miles a day, does nearly all her own home repairs and lifts 10-pound dumbbells while she watches television.

Her diet is simple: cereal, soup, chicken pot pies from the freezer, a good many salads, a fistful of vitamins. She allows herself chocolate in moderation, but abstains if she begins to exceed 124 pounds.

She won't say if she's had any cosmetic surgery, besides the permanent lipstick and eyeliner tattooed on her face.

She says her doctor loves her.

"I always feel good," Doris said. "How can I feel old?"

An issue of Parade magazine sits on her coffee table, the cover story promising "the secrets to a long life."

Doris hasn't had a chance to read it.

• • •

Age is one of those things that settles in slowly, like tarnish on a shiny trophy.

You don't see it until one day you do.

On Doris' 70th birthday she tried too hard to start a weed trimmer and tore a piece of her right biceps. Five years later her rotator cuff ripped as she tried to pedal her bike through a particularly thick hunk of grass.

At 77 she woke up with a weird aching in her left arm and went home from the hospital with a stent in an artery.

It's not easy to accept. Not with so much left to do.

"Well, I've got to pressure-wash the roof, paint that side of the house. I want to work on my flower beds," Doris explains.

And then there's the book.

• • •

For the past five years, just about all day, every day, Doris has sat at the computer in her cluttered home office working on an autobiography titled And I Did, which she'll release on DVD to accommodate photos and videos.

All over the walls, shelves and in five bulky filing cabinets are awards, magazines, negatives and newspaper clippings. An old poster of an impossibly strong Tarzan hangs nearby.

"I'm the oldest in my family," Doris said. "If I don't write the book, all this will be lost."

She's just about finished with the last chapter, and thank goodness.

Sometimes she'll start telling a story, then forget what she was saying. She swears it doesn't bother her, though — it happens to her 10-year-old great-grandson, too.

When it happened the other day, she scurried over to the computer to scroll through pages and pages of memories, hitting "Save" when she was through.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at or (813) 661-2442.

Pioneer female bodybuilder still an iron maven at 79 03/15/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 10:18am]
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