Written by Peter McGough
24 June 2015


When Rachel McLish was Queen

Celebrating the First Lady of Bodybuilding


The most vibrant and exciting period in female bodybuilding history was its first five years from 1980 to 1985. One woman dominated and defined that era, Rachel McLish. Earlier this week (June 21) the first lady of bodybuilding celebrated a milestone birthday. Here we celebrate the lady herself.

Oh, What a Night!

November 30, 1985 was, and still remains, the greatest night in the annals of women’s bodybuilding. A sold out auditorium of 5,000 souls crammed into the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in New York to witness that year’s Miss Olympia contest. Manhattan had never seen anything like the scenes that surrounded the event. Hundreds (including bronzed muscular beings from both genders and more normal sized dudes in yuppified Miami Vice type suits and glamorous big haired babes in super-sized shoulder padded garb) were locked out trying to buy a ticket for the hottest show in town.

In the press pit photographers from The New York Times and Sports Illustrated banged elbows with the more regular lensmen who attended bodybuilding contests. NBC cameras were also there filming the event for later nationwide broadcast: An exposure that was not accorded to the long established annual, battle for the Mr. Olympia title. Here it was, proof positive, that the popularity of female bodybuilding had overtaken its male counterpart.

Six months previously Pumping Iron II: The Women had been released and attracted massive mainstream attention, with famed feminist writer Gloria Steinem declaring that the film, “redefined the boundaries of femininity.” Rendered myopic by the frenzy of that November night the muscle-building faithful were not to know that from here on the sport, like a slalom skier, would meander downhill. At that point in time they just savored this epochal moment. A moment that one woman above all others had been responsible for bringing about. She, like the sport itself, had been unknown five years earlier.

To be sure prior to 1980 there had been beauty type (high heels et al) contests, but female bodybuilding - wherein flex appeal, supposedly, overwhelmed sex appeal - was warming up for lift-off. As the new decade dawned, the spontaneity of the number of ladies eager to hit a double biceps shot with competitive intent, caused the spectacle to be heralded as revolutionary, and a further step forward for women’s emancipation. The mainstream media fastened on to this new phenomenon and suddenly images of the softer sex working out to be a harder sex were everywhere. To maximize and fully exploit such attention what women’s bodybuilding really needed was a beautiful, effervescent, striking looking female who was PR savvy. An individual with that most nebulous of talents --charisma. An “It” girl who would inspire and assume the mantle of role model. Someone whom the camera loved, which in turn bequeathed an ability to generate magazine sales, and put bums on seats. In short, the distaff side of the sport needed their Arnold: someone who would eventually be instantly identifiable by first name only. Cue Rachel McLish

Becoming “Rachel”

Rachel McLish was born as Raquel Livia Elizondo in Harlingen, Texas on June 21, 1955. She was from the day she drew breath the babe of the family with two older sisters and one older brother. Her mother is of Mexican/German descent with some Apache blood mixed in. Her father is of Spanish origin.

As a child she was a self-confessed tomboy, “Playing baseball and football with my older brothers.” The high school the teenager attended didn’t encourage women’s sports so she became a cheerleader, which entailed joining training camp. It was our subject’s first experience of having to undertake physical preparation with a view to making a visual impact on an audience.

It was at The University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, that this future Hall-of-Famer’s involvement with barbells began. Finding herself putting on a little weight and “hating it” the 24 year old went to a local health club in an effort to get back in shape. She immediately, “Fell in love with the place and the feel of lifting weights.” This new convert sucked up all the weight training and dietary knowledge available and eventually worked part time, “about ten hours a week” at the club.

The first bodybuilding contest Rachel witnessed was the 1980 Mr. Pan-American University contest. “I loved it. I was so emotionally charged by the whole process that I was screaming for every contestant.” That same year she graduated University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition.

Women’s bodybuilding was mushrooming and inspired by the sight of others flexing onstage Rachel entered the 1980 United States Bodybuilding Championships and came away the winner. A few months later she finished second to Stacy Bentley in the Frank Zane Invitational. In September of 1980 George Snyder staged the first ever Miss Olympia contest in Philadelphia, to decide, “The best woman bodybuilder in the world.” Total prize money was $10,000 with $5,000 going to the winner. At 5’ 6 ½’ the 128 pound Rachel was crowned Miss Olympia and suddenly became the most famous female pumper of iron on the planet and the focus for unprecedented mainstream media attention. Women’s bodybuilding had their Arnold.

In the 12 months following her 1980 Olympia victory Rachel found herself traveling the world following a crazy schedule that disrupted training and regular eating habits. As a result the defending champ arrived onstage at the 1981 Miss Olympia a few pounds heavier than she wanted to be. Eventually she finished second to Finland’s Kike Elomma but in her heart knew she probably “deserved fifth” and felt more than a little shame in losing her title. However, no longer being Miss Olympia did little to diminish the runner-up’s popularity and she maintained her status as the first lady of bodybuilding with demand for her services only increasing.

This particular Texas rose had by now attained icon status wherein the use of “Rachel” was enough to identify her. Still on the name front, legendary bodybuilding journalist Rick Wayne dubbed her Delish and the sobriquet stuck.

The 1981 defeat ignited the combative fire in the delectable contours of the Delish’s tummy and training like a she-devil for the 1982 Miss Olympia being staged in Atlantic City, she demonstrated the competitive beast in the beauty by, in dominating fashion, reclaiming her crown.

Lights, Camera, Action!

In 1983 Rachel bypassed October’s Miss Olympia (which was won by Carla Dunlap) due to a movie contract she had agreed with George Butler and Charles Gaines, the architects of 1977’s Pumping Iron which brought international fame to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie Butler and Gaines planned was Pumping Iron II: The Women, which would follow proceedings at the Caesar’s World Cup contest in Las Vegas scheduled for December 10, 1983. In fact the contest was created solely to act as a vehicle for the movie that Butler called “A semi documentary.” The whole affair was big time with a $1 million budget, $50,000 in prize money (with $25,000 going to the winner) and A-list celebrity journalist George Plimpton undertaking emcee duties.

Butler didn’t merely want to stand back and film a fly-on-the-wall account of the contest. He wanted to introduce some drama into the movie and so (picking up on the debate that was already raging) implanted the storyline of what level of muscularity was acceptable on a women’s physique? Rachel represented what, for most, was the ideal. Butler wanted someone to showcase the other extreme of the muscular spectrum. Thus he sought out Australia’s world powerlifting champion Bev Francis to fill that role. Francis had never competed in a bodybuilding contest, and in the months before the Las Vegas showdown she reduced her 180 pounds to 140 pounds so that when she finally walked onstage she was, up to that point, the most muscular woman in history. The movie focused on the battle of Rachel vs. Bev and the “what is too muscular?” question. In the end Carla Dunlap won the contest, Rachel was third and Bev was eighth out of fifteen. The latter result being something of a cop out as even Francis said, “I should have been first or last – not slap in the middle.”

Upon release of the movie in March 1985, Rachel was fairly outspoken in stating that gratuitous editing had caused her to be portrayed unfairly as something of a diva. Those in and around the contest agreed with her. Despite reservations about the film overly exercising a sense of poetic license it was a hit, and Rachel’s fame and exposure, and that of women’s bodybuilding in general, only grew.

Moving On

The 1984 Miss Olympia contest was staged in the Place des Arts, Montreal on November 24. The former champ entered that contest because she “loved bodybuilding”. But her concept of bodybuilding, of how far a woman should take it, was fast becoming redundant. How redundant was proved by the spectacular 145 pounds on a 5’9” frame that earned the 1984 Miss Olympia title for Cory Everson. Still Rachel’s physique and presence saw her finish runner-up and she showed her feisty competitiveness by at one point using a strategically aimed elbow to block Everson from moving center stage during the posedown.

Everson’s dimensions and emergence proved to the first ever Miss Olympia that the sport had outgrown her. It would also be true to state hat she had outgrown it. She had no wish to accumulate any more muscle than the 128 pounds package that saw her become the queen of bodybuilding and her future now lay in other non “abs and thighs” fields. She had already started to diversify when in 1982 she appeared in the video Shape Up With Arnold with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Two years later in 1984 she appeared in the TV Movie, Getting Physical. That same year she had released her first book Flex Appeal and three years later she authored Perfect Parts: both made the New York Times best seller list. In 1990 she married Hollywood film producer Ron Samuels and in 1992 played an action heroine in Aces: Iron Eagles III in which she co-starred with Louis Gossett Jnr. 1995 saw the release of her full body workout video, In Shape with Rachel McLish. In 1996 she assumed the lead role in Raven Hawk in which she played the part of a Native-American out to avenge previous wrong doings.

Rachel currently lives near Palm Springs in Southern California and still keeps in touch with her bodybuilding roots. She loves snowboarding in the winter, hiking in summer and works out three times a week. She remains stunningly attractive, incredibly fit and weighs around 126 pounds. Although she is now 60 and it is more than three decades since she last flexed in competitive mode Rachel McLish remains the first lady of bodybuilding.

Epilogue: Closing Night

When considering the ramifications of the 1985 Miss Olympia at the Felt Forum it is ironic to reflect that the person who above all others had been the catalyst for ushering in female bodybuilding’s greatest ever night was not there. Rachel’s flag waving, drum beating, promotional blitzing and unique “Wow!” factor had propelled her sport from anonymity in 1979 to this November 1985 peak. And it truly was the peak, the crowning moment for women’s bodybuilding. Things would never be the same again.

On that legendary – never to be forgotten night for those that were there – the consensus was clear: Even greater times were ahead as women’s bodybuilding was booming like a Pavarotti aria. But, sadly, the fat (or maybe fit?) lady was about to sing. It is a fact – whether coincidental or causal – that once Rachel McLish left the scene, the popularity of women’s bodybuilding decreased. And it’s a truism that no one has replaced her. For those that witnessed her career, she is still, and forever will be our “Rachel”, our “DeLish”. While it is a matter of public record that the 1980 and 1982 Miss Olympia is recognized as the first real women’s bodybuilding champion, Rachel McLish’s greatest and most telling legacy may be that, for many that lived through her time in the sun, she will be forever celebrated and revered as also the last real “how it should be” women’s bodybuilding champion.