Doris Barrilleaux: Visionary. Trailblazer. Pumping Iron Since 1956

By Valerie Solomon, CEO GORGO Women's Fitness Magazine and

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“Know from whence you came.  If you know from whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” –James Baldwin

My love for strength training, the sport of bodybuilding, and my quest to learn the history of it led me to the book “Pumping Iron II: The Unprecedented Woman.” When I came across the name “Doris Barrilleaux” several times as a key player in the start of the sport, I knew I had to find her.

After we emailed and I dug into her autobiography, I had this gut feeling that I needed to go see her. I asked for an hour, and Doris, then 82 years old, offered a few days.  That weekend will go down as one of my favorites (ever!).

There is something weaved through the fabric of Doris Barrilleaux that is weaved through millions of women…and most likely weaved through our Spartan Queen, Gorgo.   Strong women with a desire to live and do things a little bigger than their stature might lead you to believe is possible are nothing new.  We’ve always been around.

a self portrait doris took on her 82nd birthday (august 2013)

a self portrait doris took on her 82nd birthday (august 2013)

We are not the first generation to discover the power of the barbell.

I experienced her remarkable energy first hand (often noted in articles about Doris). Doris has always been the type of woman that can do it all and that hasn’t changed one bit.  She is confident, empowered, strong, and seems not a day over 62. She has a deep passion for women’s equality and is quite annoyed by images of helpless women in real life or media.  You could call her a Feminist.  “Not the man hating kind” she says with a laugh, “I only hate a few of them...just a few of those that were determined to control the women's sport from the very beginning”

Doris raised a family, worked as a flight attendant, became a successful photographer, pioneered women’s bodybuilding and worked hard for female control of it. She also put a tremendous amount of energy into spreading the news of the sport as well as promoting the benefits of strength training to the masses.

Doris is called “the First Lady of Body Building” for her tireless work spearheading the movement to make women’s bodybuilding competitions a reality, but I’ve also dubbed her “the Original Busy Mom Gets Fit”. Doris is an amazing example of what a healthy and active lifestyle looks like at 82.


The Original “Busy Mom Gets Fit”

I think so often we, as modern women, feel like our struggles are unique to us.  We are trying to raise a gaggle of children, maintain our passion for fitness, keep our families running smoothly, work, support our husbands in their work, go after our crazy dreams, and deal with life’s challenges.  This is Doris’ story too…  50+ years ago.

IMAge denied by s&h magazine for being "too masculine"

IMAge denied by s&h magazine for being "too masculine"

In 1956, after her 4th (of 5) child was born, Doris was dissatisfied with her post-baby body and took the advice found in men’s magazines to strength train. She taught herself to lift weights on her own by reading Strength & Health magazine.  Doris was thrilled with the results of her efforts.

“This improved my health and looks to such a great extent, that I wanted to get this message out to all women. But I was just a grandmother and homemaker and had no way to spread this news. I corresponded with Vera Christensen who had a Women’s Column in Strength & Health and my first picture was published in 1963 (after they denied her first submission for it being too masculine!).”

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Doris has kept fitness a part of her life to this day.  At 82, she swims, rides her bike daily, does floor exercises, and works very hard in her river-front yard.  Doris laughs about her daughter once saying, "Mama, why don't you sit back and grow old gracefully?" (The same daughter now spends hours in the gym everyday!)

Life hasn’t been easy for Doris.  She lost a son in a motorcycle accident, lost another son to AIDS, and has spent many years as a single woman after divorce. 

Doris says, “Life is what you make of it,” and she has certainly made an inspiring life.

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The Bodybuilding Era

Doris has always had an appreciation for a well-developed physique (she says that started with her love of Tarzan as a child), so when she began a photography hobby, it naturally led her to men’s bodybuilding competitions.  She was often asked to give out the trophies at these competitions because she looked so great.

“I could not understand why only men were recognized for being in good shape.”

So in June of 1978 at the age of 46, with just three weeks of preparation and some encouragement from friends, Doris entered what was billed as The First National Physique Championship, at the YMCA in Canton, Ohio.

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“I was terrified. I had never been on stage in front of an audience, except to award trophies. Henry Magee, who organized the contest, made a gallant attempt, but there was utter chaos. He sat on the judge’s table, and told the judges what to look for. We were required to wear sweat pants to judge our upper bodies, and then sweat shirts to judge our legs. I deliberately chose the music, “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy to stress that I was not attempting to look like a man. The lyrics fit perfectly. In my class, the winner was 22 years old, second place 17, and I was 46. Upon my return home, my photo was published in the Tampa Tribune. I was invited to guest pose the following month at the Mr. Southeastern and Mr. Tampa competitions. Suzanne Kosak approached me backstage, and asked why we couldn’t have something like that for women. The rest is history.”

The first national physique championship, 1978, canton, ohio

The first national physique championship, 1978, canton, ohio

Doris barrilleaux and granddaughters guest posing in 1980

Doris barrilleaux and granddaughters guest posing in 1980


Doris’ Vision for Women's Bodybuilding

Frank Zane, a famous Mr. Olympia, told her, “Doris, the world’s not ready for women bodybuilders.”

Doris says, “Maybe it wasn’t another 'scorn', but definitely a challenge.” She felt the world was ready for her vision of bodybuilding for women. In October, with Suzanne Kosak and Linda Gleason, she formed The Superior Physique Association (SPA).

The SPA organized the first real women’s competition on April 29, 1979, in Brandon, Florida. There were 13 competitors. After that, Doris successfully played a primary roll in spreading the sport across the world. Femininity was at the forefront of her vision.

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Doris says that from the very start, there was controversy over women’s development. Many of the men argued that as a sport, there should be no limit to the women’s size.

“As it was, I was struggling to promote even the idea. As a woman, I knew that most women had no desire to look identical to the male bodybuilders.”

“In my eyes, this was supposed to represent a healthy lifestyle. One of my goals in starting the sport was to recognize women as healthy and fit.”

The ideal physique Doris envisioned for the pinnacle of women’s bodybuilding is much different than the steroid enhanced bodybuilding champions today.

DOris as ifbb head judbge at the 1981 ms. olympia

DOris as ifbb head judbge at the 1981 ms. olympia

“While I cherish the title 'First Lady of Bodybuilding', the steroids caused me to feel uneasy thinking that people blamed me for women trying to look like men. That was never in my wildest dreams but maybe what Frank Zane could see happening.  I didn’t.”

Doris’ vision for women’s bodybuilding was decades ahead of those also making decisions in the sport at the time.  Doris called her contests “Physique” not "Bodybuilding" to set a clear distinction between the men and women’s sport ideals. But says, somehow that changed at the very beginning. She saw a need for different classes for women to compete in so that there was a place for women aiming for different builds.

“I opted for splitting into two classes, Body Sculpture and Bodybuilding. No one listened.”

Now the sport has many classes: Bodybuilding, Physique (Doris says, “What took them so long?!”), Fitness, Figure, and Bikini.

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The original Miss Olympia had a much different build than modern Miss Olympias.  The 1980 Miss Olympia would more closely compare to the Miss Figure Olympia now.

Rachel mcLish wins 1980 Ms. Olympia

Rachel mcLish wins 1980 Ms. Olympia

Bodybuilding Competitors Today

Bodybuilding Competitors Today


1980, Doris Helps Start AFWB and Politics Creeps In

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"When Ben Weider asked me to form the American Federation of Women Bodybuilders, we often spoke on the phone several times a day. I remember that one of his favorite sayings was “When you want something done, give it to a busy person,” and he was right. Up to this point, the National Physique Committee governed the men’s amateur competitions, and the women were not recognized. Therefore, I welcomed Ben Weider’s request to form the AFWB for the amateur women’s competitions. When the AFWB had spread throughout the United States with a significant bank account ($30,000) in 1983, I was shocked when Ben told me that it was suddenly illegal to have two national federations, although it was upon his instruction that we all worked so hard forming this women’s federation. The AFWB was absorbed by the NPC, along with our funds.  One of the officials told me, “We’ve got the only game in town; you play it our way or else you don’t play.”  After 1984, I was no longer involved with the evolution of the sport that I worked so hard to establish. It was most likely because I always stood my ground."

Doris continued to be involved with the sport in some capacity for many years.  She photographed bodybuilders, wrote many articles and a book “Forever Fit”, and traveled the world doing so.  She had many of her images on covers nationally and internationally.

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Doris Inducted to the National Fitness Hall of Fame

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In 2011, Doris was inducted into the National Fitness Hall of Fame at the Arnold Sports Festival for playing such an important role in pioneering women’s bodybuilding.  Arnold Schwarzenegger said to her, “YOU DESERVE IT!”

“I’d devoted 34 years of my life to the formation and promotion of women’s bodybuilding, and photographing the competitors. Although I am still constantly surrounded by it, I’d been out of the mainstream for seven years so this came as a shock. Here I was being recognized with my peers and friends, eight time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney, and eight time Miss Olympia, Lenda Murray, and other well known fitness celebrities. What a perfect way to end a long career!”

What Doris Hopes for the Future of Women’s Bodybuilding:

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Doris envisioned a sport in which women were recognized for being in superior ‘natural’ shape and still very feminine.  She envisioned a respected sport in which women were recognized for being strong and healthy women.  Many times in her autobiography she says things like “the men took over” or that was the “man's version”.  The quest for bigger and the over sexualized poses in some classes… are these what women want for their sport?  She saw the sport as art and one that symmetry and aesthetics were awarded, not merely size or sexiness.

Is Doris’ vision for the sport your own vision?  Are there any advocates out there for the woman athlete or is it all about money?


“Know from whence you came.  If you know from whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” –James Baldwin


We came from a mother of five with a passion for telling the world about the healthful benefits of strength training and a fit lifestyle.  We came from a woman that wanted healthy and fit women to be recognized in a sport that celebrated the art of the developed female form.

Doris Posing at 82 - A Video Tribute


Here are MOre Notes About Doris Barrilleaux:

  • Doris has put together a DVD/multimedia autobiography for purchase.   This is a fantastic source for those interested in her life (she holds nothing back!) and the sport of bodybuilding. "This is a multimedia presentation on the life of Doris Barrilleaux, and how she founded and spearheaded the growth and acceptance of women's bodybuilding in a DVD based eBook like no other".  A Multimedia Autobiography, comprising 159 CHAPTERS and 63 VIDEO clips. Length approx.. 46 hours of reading and viewing. Includes published magazine articles and newspaper clippings as additional reading.
  • Doris has generously given her very large and invaluable collection of correspondence, magazines, posters, videotapes, audiotapes, and many thousands of photographs to the Stark Center for Physical and Cultural Sports at The University of Texas.  A note about that here.
  • Doris saw the negative effects of and is against steroid usage.  Her thoughts can be read here.
  • Once a competitor came to Doris for advice when the competitor's husband said he did not like her fit physique.  Doris’ advice: “Why don’t you build the body you like?”
  • One question she always hated: “How much can you lift?”  Her reply, “I don’t know.  I’m a bodybuilder not a power lifter!”
  • “It’s great to look good, but it’s better to feel good.” -Doris Barrilleaux
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  • How did she eat for competitions?  She knew what types of food to eat from being around bodybuilders but never counted a calorie in her life.
  • Chocolate is her weakness.  She once went 3 months without it to prove she wasn’t addicted.  Since she decided she is not addicted, she still eats chocolate.
  • She never believed in pushing past what felt comfortable when lifting weight.  She never felt like a real competitor or desired big muscles.  She just did it to encourage other women.  She was shocked to win best poser at a competition once.  She once entered a beauty pageant in the over 50 class to see how they differed from running her bodybuilding contests.  A judge told her in confidence that she would have won if her suit hadn’t been so risqué.
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  • Doris seemed a little confused when I kept snapping pictures of her around the house.  Look how limber she is.  Unbelievable!
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  • Doris has a fun love for all things jungle and animal print.  She is pictured many many times rocking out the cheetah and zebra look!
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  • She has retired her home gym, but I had to take pictures when I realized that she had covered the bench cushions in leopard print fabric.




Love Doris?  Here is an extensive interview you may like.


"The First Lady of Bodybuilding"
Founder of Women's Bodybuilding

  • 1978 Founding President of Superior Physique Association
  • 1978 Publisher SPA News
  • 1978 Co-author Inside Weight Training for Women
  • 1979 W.B.B.G. Hall of Fame
  • 1979 Promotor Competitor 1" Women's State Competition - Florida
  • 1979 Ms. Gold Coast Over 35
  • 1980 Elected Chairwoman I.F.B.B.
  • 1981 Elected SPA Woman of the Year
  • 1981 Founding President A.F.W.B.
  • 1982 F.B.B.A. "Man" of the Year
  • 1982 Nominated Healthy Fitness Leader Award
  • 1983 Author FOREVER FIT
  • 1984 Editor-in-Chief BODY TALK
  • 1986 Photo Editor FLORIDA MUSCLE NEWS
  • 1987 Ms. Senior Citizen
  • 1983 Thank you letters from President and Hilary Clinton for book
  • 1983 Van Wanderham Achievement Award
  • 1999 Richard Collis Memorial Awards
  • 1999 Two Lifetime Achievement Awards
  • 2004 A.O.B.S. Vic Boff Award
  • 2009 Collections donated Sports Museum University of Texas
  • 2011 Inducted to National Fitness Hall of Fame Photo/Journalist ~Physique Photographer 188 Covers

"She is my inspiration an amazing woman. She simply wanted for women to have some say in their own sport (which was female bodybuilding). She kept a group of us going into a direction of gaining a voice. It was just a hand full of us, and believe me, we took some beatings, but we were determined and kept pushing. Doris, was the person to go to. What a lot of people may not know is underneath that tough " kick butt " attitude is a lady with a heart as big as all out doors. She feels for others, and she's what I would call A freedom fighter. The woman can get more done in one day then some of us can do in 3. Like me, she can't stand bullies and she tries to do something about it. She's sassy as hell and a proud woman. She's consistent and steadfast in her efforts. I joked with Joe Weider when I would refer to her as momma bear (he would so laugh); he simply knew that I looked up to her.  I never thought she got all the love and honors that she SO deserved. I remember having to call to vent and not one time did she not make time for me. She reminds me a little of Gloria Steinem, a little of Mother Theresa, a little bit of Arnold and a whole lot of woman. For she is LOVED." -Rosemary Campbell, AFWB's PR, Virginia's State Representative

"Doris was an ambassador for the sport of women's Bodybuilding.The pioneers of women's BB were the first and it started with Doris." Georgia (Fudge) Acosta

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Valerie is the Editor of GORGO Women's Fitness Magazine and is Busy Mom Gets Fit. Valerie is the mother of four boys and is a military wife.  She has a passion for empowering women and a deep, burning desire to better herself and the world through health.