Nancy Lewis has been a competitive bodybuilder for 25 years. Born and raised in Berkeley, she started competing in northern California in the mid-eighties and turned pro by winning the overall at the USA in 1991. She competed as a pro throughout the nineties and made five appearances on the Olympia stage. In 2004, she won the Show of Strength in Atlanta in what she thinks was her best ever shape.
However, although she was on a roll, Nancy was disappointed by the lack of respect for female bodybuilders within the sport. She spoke out when Flex published disrespectful remarks about female bodybuilders by men's pro representative Bob Cicherillo. When she retired the following year, she wrote an open letter criticising the IFBB for the unequal treatment of male and female bodybuilders and urging female pros to come together to make a change.
Now in her forties, Nancy Lewis is back. In May she competed at the New York Pro, where she still had her beautiful structure but didn't perfect her condition and placed a disappointing 14th. However, she still hopes to qualify for the Olympia in September. We talked to her about her future plans, her idea of the perfect female physique and the state of women's bodybuilding.
Q: What made you decide to come back after five years away from the sport?
When I left the sport, I felt like I was on a roll. But there was a part of me that said, you know what? You're really not getting the exposure that the women should get, in addition to the prize money and things of that nature. At that time my state of mind was like, go on to do something else, live your life and enjoy other things that you didn't have the opportunity to do since you were so focused on bodybuilding. Looking back at it now that I'm older and more mature, it was a long hiatus with the intention of one day coming back into the sport and finishing where I left off.
Q: How did you feel about how you did at the New York Pro?
I was definitely not pleased with my condition. My intention was to come back and win that New York show to go on to the Olympia. I wanted to come back into the sport in good condition. However, it is what it is. Now it's up to me to come into my next show and show I have still the ability to come in in great condition. I came back because I haven't reached what I want to reach in the sport, and that's what I'm working on.
Q: Your structure still looked as incredible as ever. Was your waist as small as before?
Actually I think it's a little smaller! My back and chest are definitely a little bigger and thicker than they were before so that also gives you the illusion that my waist is smaller. I never take measurements as long as everything is pleasing to the eye that's the main thing to me. But if I had to put money on it, I'd have to say it got a little smaller.
Q: How do you think the athletes have changed since you last competed?
They have really perfected their conditioning. Female bodybuilders now really are true athletes who are able to manipulate their bodies into getting into that condition. The women have come a long, long, way when you're looking at conditioning and what they manage to achieve with their physiques.
Q: As always there is a lot of discussion right now about the judging and ideal look. What is your idea of the perfect female physique?
When I'm looking at competitors I'm looking at insertions and origins and I'm looking at the condition they've achieved. I like nice, symmetrical lines and I like to see separation. Everything needs to flow. That's a feminine package something that flows. Is she hard as nails? No, but she has nice, deep separation and she's dry. When she does a side chest, I can see separation. When she's posing, things are happening. Her hair fits her and her make-up fits her. Her structure and the way she's displaying it is really working for her. That's a feminine package. It's not about face. You can have a pretty face, but if you don't have anything else going on, you're not going to win.
Q: Is women's bodybuilding in a better or worse place than when you used to compete?
I'm still slightly undecided. As far as opportunities, I think the women have to hustle more now because you don't have the exposure you used to have in the magazines. I remember when I would go down to LA and shoot for a training article they don't do that anymore. Even if you go to their websites, they don't cover the women like they used to. They cover the shows, but they don't cover the women, they don't have the training articles. So you have to step outside the box and be creative - and you have to be on top of your game.
Q: What changes would you like to see in the sport?
The publicity in the magazines is not what it was in the Lenda Murray days but I don't see why that can't be again. There's obviously still a fan base for the sport. If there was no interest, why do people still come to shows? There's also a whole population outside of bodybuilding. I understand that not everyone wants to look like a female bodybuilder but there are a lot of women that aspire to look good and feel good. So you have to look at the bigger picture. There just has to be a different way of marketing. If you can market skateboarding, why can't you market female bodybuilding?
Q: What can fans do to support women's bodybuilding?
I'd like to see them write in to the magazines: How come you don't have more female bodybuilders? I'd like to see them in the magazine, I'd like to see how they train. I'd like to see an article about Iris, I'd like to know how she stays consistent in the off-season and how she lives. How come you guys don't do that more often? How come you don't have a female bodybuilder on the cover like you used to? Fans need to push for that. If the magazines get enough letters, then they'll say, Wow, there must be a need for that.
Q:How do you see the future of the sport?
The future of women's bodybuilding is going to depend solely on us. I think it can have a good future, but everyone has to step outside the box and take chances. You can't stay in the safe zone and get where you need to get to. You gotta jump in the water and swim!
Q: Could you see yourself being the women's athlete representative?
I'm going to leave that open. I think Betty [Pariso] is doing a wonderful job. But if she were to step down, and she and I spoke and she felt it was her time to move forward, it's something that would interest me. And the women would need to have my back!