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Lisa Lyon, pioneering bodybuilder and performance artist, dies at 70

by Harrison Smith, The Washington Post | September 15, 2023 at 10:00 p.m.

Lisa Lyon was a bodybuilding pioneer, a onetime dancer and competitive sword-fighter who, at 26, became the first winner of the Women's World Pro Bodybuilding Championship. She stood only 5-foot-3 and weighed 105 pounds, but by the time she claimed the title in 1979 she could dead lift 265 pounds and hoist a man into the air - even if that man happened to be bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, "The Austrian Oak," who was photographed sitting on her shoulders and flexing as they both smiled for the camera.

Ms. Lyon would become one of the world's most famous female bodybuilders, although she considered herself less an athlete than an artist. She turned her body into a living sculpture while performing at art galleries and museums, and while posing for photographers including Marcus Leatherdale, Helmut Newton and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe.

Through her pictures and performances, she said, she hoped to champion a strong yet graceful new standard of beauty, one in which a woman's body was "neither masculine nor feminine, but feline."

Ms. Lyon, who died Sept. 8 at 70, never entered another bodybuilding competition after winning her world title. But for a few years in the early 1980s, she was an eloquent and inescapable spokeswoman for the sport, helping to demonstrate that weightlifting was for women, not just men.

She served as a bodybuilding commentator for NBC, was interviewed by talk-show hosts Merv Griffin and Phil Donahue, performed in Paris, Munich and Stockholm, and was featured in magazines including Vogue and Esquire.

She also posed for Playboy in 1980, later telling The Washington Post that she had grown tired of appearing in muscle magazines and wanted to introduce Playboy's readers to a different kind of femininity.

"In the '50s you had women like Marilyn Monroe who were strictly sex objects," she said. "In the '60s you had Twiggy, who started the undernourished, androgynous style. In the '70s there was Farrah [Fawcett]. Now, in the '80s, health is a reality. Women are building up their bodies without sacrificing beauty or femininity."

Ms. Lyon had taken up bodybuilding in the mid-1970s, intending to improve her upper-body strength after a few years competing in kendo, the Japanese martial art, while studying at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"She liked to pursue things nobody else pursued," said her sister, Duffy Hurwin. "You didn't hear about a lot of women kendo sword-fighters, and you certainly didn't hear about women bodybuilders. Anything that wasn't conventional for women appealed to her."

Her inspiration was Schwarzenegger, who would later elevate the sport's popularity as a star of the documentary "Pumping Iron," and who had recently appeared in the 1976 film "Stay Hungry," directed by her friend Bob Rafelson. A meeting with Schwarzenegger led Ms. Lyon to Gold's Gym, the center of the American bodybuilding scene (the gym was then located in Santa Monica, Calif.), where she began working out six days a week.

"A lot of the men bodybuilders there resented being invaded by a woman," she told The Post in 1981. "They thought I'd be in the way, and they thought I wasn't serious. Some, I'm sure, thought I was there to pick up guys, not weights. And some just wanted to watch me in a sexual way."

But in time "they became very helpful," she added, if a little jealous when photographers and television crews arrived to document her workouts.

Ms. Lyon made her public debut in 1978, at a Los Angeles exhibition alongside bodybuilder Tony Pearson, and a year later became a "demi-celebrity," as she put it, through her victory at the inaugural women's bodybuilding competition.

While many of her peers had bulky physiques with pecs and lats that seemed on the verge of bursting, Ms. Lyon's figure was less intimidating. She was more svelte than brawny - comic book artist Frank Miller would later cite her as a visual inspiration for his Marvel Comics character Elektra, an expert assassin - and immediately attracted Mapplethorpe's attention when they met in 1980 at a loft party in Manhattan.

Over the next few years, Mapplethorpe took dozens of black-and-white pictures of Ms. Lyon that appeared in magazines and were collected for a 1983 book, "Lady: Lisa Lyon," with an introduction by author Bruce Chatwin.

The photographs were precisely staged, by turns playful and dramatic, with Ms. Lyon posing in Jamaica, Paris, New York and the Mojave Desert, wearing haute couture or nothing at all. She was a bride, a cowboy, a mermaid on the rocks of Palm Beach, Fla. In one picture she was photographed nude in a throne chair, petting a snake. In others she was dusted in graphite and covered in green clay.

"Mr. Mapplethorpe's best pictures show her in various body-building poses, her torso unadorned and unshackled by any conventions except those of Greek sculpture," wrote New York Times photography critic Andy Grundberg. The photographer, he added, seemed intent on capturing the tension "between living inside and living outside of society's norms and values."

Ms. Lyon was more blunt in her assessment. "The pictures are a little hard," she told Chatwin, "like us."

The younger of two children, Lisa Robin Lyon was born in Los Angeles on May 13, 1953. Her father was an oral surgeon, her mother a homemaker.

"My childhood was dark," she said in an interview for the Mapplethorpe book, describing struggles with recurring nightmares that she tried to treat with rituals that included "counting, touching things" and "running round the house three times counterclockwise." She later told Spy magazine that she was "diagnosed as manic" when she was 16, and would attempt to treat the condition with the drug PCP, which can cause hallucinations.

Ms. Lyon studied ballet, flamenco and jazz dance before enrolling at UCLA. She received a bachelor's degree in ethnic arts and interdisciplinary studies in 1974.

Following her success in bodybuilding, she published an instructional book, "Lisa Lyon's Body Magic" (1981), with writer and photographer Douglas Kent Hall. She also acted in a few films, including as a vampire in the horror comedy "Vamp" (1986), with Grace Jones, and worked in Japan, where she became a fixture of advertising campaigns for the Seibu department store.

Ms. Lyon's first, early marriage was to Richard Keeling, an ethnomusicologist who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the 1975 death of singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. Authorities said that Keeling offered heroin to Buckley, who snorted what he believed to be cocaine and died of an overdose.

That marriage ended in divorce, as did her second, to French singer-songwriter Bernard Lavilliers. In 1986, she met John C. Lilly, an eccentric neuroscientist whose research with isolation tanks and efforts to communicate with dolphins inspired a pair of Hollywood movies, "The Day of the Dolphin" and "Altered States." They had a romantic relationship, and he considered marrying Ms. Lyon, according to Spy, before legally adopting her in 1987.

Ms. Lyon was later married for more than a decade to Alan Deglin, who worked in construction and died in 2020. Ms. Lyon's death - from cancer, at her home in Westlake Village, Calif. - was confirmed by her sister, who is among her immediate survivors.

In 2000, Ms. Lyon was inducted into the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation Hall of Fame, which credited her with "elevating bodybuilding to the level of fine art." The sport had transformed her self-image, she once told the Baltimore Sun.

"I felt stronger, less like a victim," she said. "I had swallowed the '50s image of a woman being something frail and delicate, of needing to be protected. I created my own image in the '70s. It is an image of strength and survival."

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