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Middle East Muscle: Sagi Kalev

Sagi Kalev, a 33-Year-Old Israeli Transplant, Has a Different Take on Bodybuilding Success


He hasn't competed in a bodybuilding show since 1999, but he's one of the most sought-after cover models in the business today. Unlike most competitive bodybuilders, he manages to keep his weight within a 10-pound range year-round. He also chooses to live in Dallas, Texas, rather than in the one or more traditional bodybuilding and modeling meccas'New York, Los Angeles or Las Vegas.

Sagi Kalev, a 33-year-old native of Israel, has charted his own course with determination and creativity since he began modeling and competing as a teenager. His consuming passion to become a top-level physique model, however, didn't kick in until the spring of 2003. Within six months he landed a significiant contract with a nutrition company and a cover on one of bodybuilding's major publications.

Although Sagi continues to spend most of his time on his personal-training business, his newfound popularity has brought him international recognition, five more magazine covers, guest-posing appearances, video and theater opportunities and sponsorships and partnerships with several fitness-related companies. He attributes his success to a variety of factors: genetics, discipline, a marketable look and the ability to bridge the gap between bodybuilder and fitness model. As far as he's concerned, the best is yet to come.

JR: Describe yourself in up to 10 phrases.

SK: Independent, grown-up, mature, self-centered, good-looking, muscular, generous, open-minded, kind, educated.

JR: A couple of those terms'self-centered and generous'seem to be somewhat contradictory. Are they necessary attributes of a successful physique model?

SK: Yes and no. Self-centered means being successful in a lot of different ways. It means doing a lot of sacrificing. One of my sacrifices is making sure I come first. From experience I've learned that if I don't make myself happy, my surroundings aren't happy, and I won't be as successful as I can be. That's what I mean by being self-centered. I'm not saying I'm egocentric, because I do care what other people do or think. But in this sport, which is 24/7, it's very important to know exactly what you need to do each day. You have to build your day around your food and your training and your sleep.

JR: I've heard that people who see you for the first time often try to guess your ethnic background. What is it?

SK: Most people that I meet have no idea where I'm from. Until I speak, they think I'm from the United States. I'm from the Middle East. I was born in Israel in 1971. My background is Eastern European'Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and some Bulgarian.

JR: Give us a short synopsis of your experiences in that part of the world.

SK: Growing up in Israel is very similar to growing up in the U.S. The main difference is that we know growing up that we go into the military at age 17 or 18 to protect our country and our families. Our education is important. Our health and physical education are important. Otherwise we're very much the same in terms of clothes, music and the foods we eat. ALL JR: Were you active in sports as a child or teenager?

SK: I was active in any sport you can think about, from swimming to rock climbing to Ping-Pong, volleyball, tennis, sprinting, weightlifting, soccer and basketball. We didn't play baseball and football. Those are the only sports I wasn't familiar with.

JR: When and why did you decide to turn your attention to bodybuilding?

SK: When I was 15, my dad took me to a gym for the first time. I was always athletic, and I was good in chins and pullups. I used one of the machines, and one of the trainers approached me and said, 'Wow! You're pretty strong for a little guy.' And I said, 'Little guy?' That's something that really caught my attention. I said, 'No more little guy!' And that's when movies like 'Conan' and 'Rocky' and 'Rambo' came out. It was what the trainer said and movies like that that helped push me over to the bodybuilding world.

JR: What role did genetics play in your decision to be a bodybuilder?

SK: Genetics is about 80 to 90 percent of it. When it comes to genetics, I'm not just talking about the body. I'm also talking about the mind and spirit. To be successful in anything, you've got to have drive and be persistent. That's part of your genetics. I have the genetics, I believe, that enable me to achieve the goals I want in the bodybuilding and modeling worlds.

JR: You competed in Israel as a teenage bodybuilder. How was that?

SK: That was the first time I'd ever been onstage by myself. That was a unique and very special moment for me, and when I first realized that it wasn't about just the bodybuilding. It was about the attention being centered on me. I liked the attention. As far as competing goes, I had no clue what I was doing, but because of my genetics, I looked pretty good considering what I was eating. Because as we all know, bodybuilding is mainly about what you eat.

JR: What role did the military play in your life then, and does what you experienced play a role in your life now?

SK: The military was a huge, huge influence in my life'from the beginning of every day to the end of the day the discipline, the timing, the drive and knowing what you were supposed to do. And knowing always what your life is all about and how important it is to protect your friends and your family. Number one was being disciplined, which is the bodybuilding lifestyle. The second thing is always knowing timing, being on time, and doing the right thing at the right time. There's also playing the role of a team player and being a leader when necessary. I'm trying to do the same thing in my career.

JR: How, when and why did you decide to move to the U.S.?

SK: I finished the military in 1992. After four years you're very confused'coming from a very strict lifestyle, from morning to night knowing exactly what you're going to do. There's always someone who gives you orders. You know that there will be disciplinary action against you if you don't do what you're told. So I thought the next step in life would be school because in Israel life is a lot different than it is here. You can't get anywhere there without an education, so I started college there.

It just so happened that a friend of mine had a father who worked for TWA, and he could get us some cheap tickets. I came to Dallas. I flew to New York, L.A., Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida. I had so much fun. I decided when I got back to Israel that the U.S. was the place I wanted to live because I saw that my future as a bodybuilder, with the passion I had for the sport, would be here in the U.S. I saw supplement stores and big gyms'things that would make me improve and learn more about the lifestyle.

What happened is I went back to Israel, finished the semester in college, sold my car, gathered up all the money I had saved and took it with me to the U.S., first just as a tourist for a few months. Then I got my student visa and went to college at the University of Central Florida in 1994. Then the show started. JR: What was the toughest thing about leaving Israel?

SK: Leaving my family and knowing that it was going to be a while before I would see them again. I came here without a place to live, without a job. It was going to be a new journey. I knew that I had only myself to count on.

JR: What surprised you most about the U.S. when you arrived?

SK: How looks affect everything. The moment you walk into a restaurant, the moment you want to get a job, it's about the way you look. It could be good, or it could be bad. It's not that way in Israel. There it's who you are, where you're from, what your education is and what you've done in the military. Here it's basically how you look. After that, maybe they want to get to know you.

JR: What influenced your higher-education choices?

SK: I decided to choose something that was going to help me as a bodybuilder. I never really liked to study for school. A lot of the subjects were boring to me. So I chose to study nutrition'something that was going to affect my life and my future and something I could use to help people.

JR: How did you end up in Dallas?

SK: I performed in Chippendale's male review in Vegas and Hawaii in 1995. I moved to L.A. after thinking that I was going to become a movie star. Things didn't work out the way I wanted, but for the tools I had, I think I did pretty well. I appeared in several magazines, including one cover, and I was in a few TV shows.

But the fact is that it's very hard in L.A. not knowing anyone, not having connections, starting everything from the beginning and not having a base of financial help. What happened was that I had a couple of friends who were opening a gym here in Dallas, a company called Body Opus. They needed someone to help them nutritionwise and with advertising the company. They said that I could make a lot more money and a lot more friends in Dallas than I could in L.A., which was very true. So I moved to Dallas in late 1996. Right away I had an apartment and an income, which was a relief at the time.

JR: Were there any bodybuilders or physique models that you viewed as role models or whose physiques you particularly liked?

SK: As a kid I had a poster of Berry de Mey. I really liked his physique. Bob Paris, Lee Labrada'those are the guys I always thought I could look like. I thought the way they looked wasn't too overboard or intimidating. I had the thought in the back of my mind, 'I can do that.'

JR: For a while you competed in shows in Texas. Tell us about that.

SK: The first show I did was the Southwest USA in 1998. I had a friend who'd just moved here from Israel, and he'd just won the Mr. Israel at that time. He kind of brought the fire back to my heart. I heard that there was a show here in town, and I had six weeks to get ready. We started training hard, and I won. Getting back onstage was something I had a passion to do. Being the center of attention brought back memories. Competing was part of it. Winning first place makes you feel special. So I did a couple of more shows the following year. JR: Your last competition was in 1999. Why did you stop competing?

SK: I couldn't think about another day of dieting. I was starving myself. I had nightmares in the middle of the night. I would wake up and go to the kitchen to eat, and it took me almost two years to slowly get back to eating right.

JR: Was there a contract involved in your decision?

SK: I had a contract back in 1999 with Spencer Gifts, a major retailer now owned by Universal Studios. I had a contract with them for five years. My pictures, posters and gift cards were in their stores, and some are still around. That pretty much got me started getting back in shape and back to looking as I always have'very lean and proportioned.

JR: When and why did you decide to restart your modeling career?

SK: About two years ago I started working with some figure competitors and bodybuilders to get ready for some shows. One of the shows I took a competitor to was the '03 Ronnie Coleman Classic. At that show I met Joe Lobell, who approached me and said he remembered me from the show I did in '98. It was pretty shocking that he would remember me from so many years back. He asked me to do a photo shoot with him. I twisted my ankle right before the shoot, but I thought, 'Sure. Why not.'

I think the reason he approached me was that I was in good shape at the show for no particular reason. I'd just decided that that was the way I wanted to look. So that was the beginning of my new beginning, and things started flowing from there. From Joe's influence and from meeting other people, like photographer Irv Gelb, I met other people in the business and got a contract with Impact Nutrition, which still sponsors me. From that point things kept on rolling.

JR: You've been on a lot of covers and in a lot of ads over the past two years. What accounts for your success?

SK: Most magazines, when they ask you to do a cover, they ask you to send photos a few weeks before the shoot so they'll know what shape you're in. I think I gave myself the reputation that you can count on me when you call me for a photo shoot. You know that I'll be in the best shape possible. You ask me to come in my best shape, and I will do that.

JR: Lots of people with great physiques never really succeed in modeling. What makes the difference?

SK: What makes the difference is that I can appeal to a lot more people. I can come to a shoot as a bodybuilder, or I can come as a fitness model. I can also look like any one of a number of ethnic groups, or as an all-American model. I think I have the gift of being in front of the camera. Some people look good in pictures and not as good in person. Others look good in person but not in front of the camera.

JR: Modeling is about selling your look. Pornography is taking that sale to a different level. Where do you draw the line between sexy modeling and porn?

SK: I draw the line where I think my mom would think it is too much. That's very simple. Money would not make any difference to me. I've been offered plenty of money to do that, and I didn't take it. What I care about most is what my family would think, and I won't jeopardize that for any amount of money.

JR: Can a male physique model be successful without resorting to what many people consider to be porn?

SK: Yes. And I don't think that crossing that line will make a person more successful. I think it would hurt a career. I've been approached by different people and corporations to represent them. The first question they ask is, 'Have you done porn?' And the second is, 'Do you have any felonies?' So that's the answer. JR: Tell us about your diet.

SK: I eat what most bodybuilders eat. To be more specific: oatmeal, egg whites, chicken, fish, vegetables, potatoes, protein powder, supplements and all kinds of nuts. I change my calories on a daily basis, and my cardio changes on a daily basis. If I'm close to a photo shoot, my calories will be lower, and my cardio will increase.

JR: Do you cheat on your eating plan? If so, how often, and what are your cheat meals?

SK: I don't like the word cheat. If you go to a party and want to have fun, you just choose food that will be close to what you normally eat. I enjoy eating sushi, but I make sure I don't overload myself. I stay away from fried foods because I don't like the feeling after'the cramping and the pain. My body is not used to a lot of fat and sugar. But once in a while I eat pizza or foods other people eat. I just make adjustments. My feel-good foods are things like sugar-free pudding from Sylvester Stallone and sugar-free Popsicles.

JR: How much does your weight vary throughout the year?

SK: I've been weighing from 195 to 205 the past two years. The lowest is 195, when I come in the most ripped, and 205 is when I try to look the biggest'a different style of bodybuilder. So my weight only fluctuates by 10 pounds.

JR: What supplements do you regularly use?

SK: I use a lot of supplements from Impact Nutrition, the company that sponsors me. I use DermaLEAN, Maxteron, Equi-Bolan and protein powder, especially low-carb varieties. I use powders from other companies with different flavors that I like. I use branched-chain amino acids and glutamine for recovery. And I like the way nitric oxide makes me feel'the pump and the strength.

JR: I also understand that you have a three-year contract with Lifewave. Tell us about that.

SK: Lifewave is a new company that will have a major impact, not just on the sport of bodybuilding, but on the public in general. It's a new technology. If you want to learn more about it, go to my Web site and follow the Lifewave link. Other bodybuilders Lifewave chose to represent their product are Ronnie Coleman and Monica Brant. I consider myself to be in pretty good company.

JR: I assume you've used the patches. What do you think?

SK: The patches do work. It's not like taking ephedra or caffeine. It's more about what you don't feel than what you do feel. The main effect I got from it had to do with working out'what happens during the workout and afterward. I don't have to rest as much between sets, and I recover more quickly. My days flow more evenly; I don't have as many ups and downs during the day when I use the patches. My joints don't click or creak as much. I sleep a lot better. I'm more awake during the day. Those are the major things I've noticed.

JR: Tell us about your Web site, www.sagikalev.com.

SK: It started about two years ago because I had so many photos and got so many remarks from different people about showing them. A fan created a Yahoo fan group that has almost 3,000 members, and another created one on MSN. Joe, my business partner, surprised me one morning with a phone call and said, 'Your Web site is up.' Links from www.mostmuscular.com and from mentions in the magazine articles helped the site grow tremendously. We have more than a thousand pictures and hundreds of video clips on my membership site that the special fans get to see. We update the site weekly. That makes it easy for people and companies to learn about me. It's a good way to learn who I am and what I'm doing and what's going to happen with me in the future. JR: Do you do consultations over the Web?

SK: We have general answers about nutrition and training on the site. If someone has a complex question or needs more detailed answers, we charge for it, and I work with them either through e-mail or over the phone. Some clients have driven or flown to Dallas to either train with me one-on-one or sit down face-to-face for information and advice.

JR: At last count I believe you have eight DVDs for sale on the site. What's on them?

SK: The first one, 'Photoshoot: Behind the Scenes,' is about my first major magazine cover shoot. It shows what I did before the shoot'how I got ready for it. There were long shoots and long days. That shows how hard it is to stay in top shape for all the shoots and how you manage what you eat and drink to make it work.

In 'Photoshoot 2' we did much the same thing a year and a half later. I also have four DVDs that focus on my workouts and a couple with Chad Martin, a friend who's a very popular bodybuilder. Our second DVD, 'Showtime in Texas,' showed what we did at guest-posing appearances a week apart. 'Photoshoot 2' also shows my preparation for a cover shoot with IRON MAN last year. I've always wanted to be on the cover of IRON MAN because of the legends that have been featured on the cover'Lee Haney, Dorian Yates and Lee Labrada. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to shoot with Mike Neveux and to do this interview. It's really exciting for me.

JR: What can someone learn from the workout DVDs?

SK: The main thing people can learn is having the right form and using different techniques in their workouts. The DVDs were shot at different times, three to six months apart, so people can see the pro'gress and the changes in my phy'sique. They can also see how work, dedication, consistency and changing the workouts lead to the results.

JR: You have other major DVD projects?

SK: I'm shooting one for Wal-Mart. It will be a DVD that will appeal to the general public. The second one will be for the Hilton hotel chain. It will be for the businessperson who has only a short time for a short workout, to give him or her some ideas about what to do. The Wal-Mart video will be more for beginners, to let them know what you can accomplish outside a gym. The third video will be for Lifewave. It will be about how to use the patches and how they work on a daily basis, from the time you get up until you go to bed. I will also talk about the right nutrition and the right exercises to get the most from the patches and how their use can help you just doing what you normally do every day.

JR: Speaking of workouts, what's your basic philosophy on weight training?

SK: It's about safety and having fun. It's about doing it for yourself and not for show. Also switch what you do from time to time, and don't try to be the center of attention by screaming and trying to lift the most weight.

JR: Give us an idea of your workout plan during a typical week.

SK: My workout changes every week, but I try to keep it to the basics. There are months I train five days a week and months I train four days a week. It depends on what I'm getting ready for. Most of the time I'm going to choose what I think my weakest bodypart is and train it twice a week. Sometime I do a split morning and night if I have time, and sometimes I split cardio if I have the time. If I'm close to a shoot, I make time.

JR: How do you vary your workouts?

SK: One thing I do is try to change training partners. Sometimes I go to different gyms. Sometimes I open a magazine, look at a workout and just try it.

JR: Are there any lifts or other training techniques you do that are unusual or unique?

SK: Check out my videos. My basic suggestion is to always be safe. Do what you know how to do, and if you don't know, ask. If you can afford it, also get a personal trainer. If you can't afford a trainer, check out the magazines. JR: How do your knowledge and experience as a physique model help with training your clients?

SK: It's like everything else. You build a reputation. If you do a lot of movies, you become a movie star. If you do a lot of covers, you become a cover model. So it helps your business from recognition because if you've accomplished enough to be on the cover of IRON MAN, a very recognized magazine, you're building a reputation, and the clients like that.

JR: At the pro level in bodybuilding today there seem to be two different types of physiques that are winning'take Ronnie Coleman and Darrem Charles as examples. Is there room in the sport for both?

SK: There's room for everybody, from Darrem Charles to Dexter Jackson. Dexter is my favorite. I've never seen anybody like that. He's just amazing. He also represents the sport very well, especially the way he speaks. I also like the way Darrem Charles performs. He's a great entertainer. He can dance, he can move, and they give him credit for that. He always comes in in top shape. He's consistent, and that's a big plus. That's what the judges like.

JR: Do you plan to compete again, and what will influence that decision?

SK: If I compete again, first of all, it will be for me, for no one else. It will be for me to see if I can do it'and I'm sure I can. But at this time I'm so busy doing other things. The only way right now I would compete is if a company came to me with a huge contract that said I have to win to get this or that. That would get me onstage. In a way I feel that I'm onstage doing what I do. I represent the sport in a different way. For example, next year I'll be onstage in London playing Hercules in a play to benefit charity. Again, that's bodybuilding onstage, but I don't have to compete with other people. There's sometimes politics in bodybuilding, too, which I don't like.

JR: Do you have any contracts with any companies besides Impact Nutrition and Lifewave?

SK: I've opened my own company, Hot Abs USA, which focuses on being lean and muscular at the same time but not playing the size game. That's why we call it Hot Abs. It's about having an attractive, sexy physique. You can go to www.hotabsusa.com for information. One of my good friends, Steve Fuentes, is a police officer and president of the company. One day he asked me, 'Hey, I'm doing this project. Would you like to join me?' That's how it all started. It's a big, big deal for me because it's about concentrating on proportion and being lean.

The last contract that I'll be signing will be with the company Smart Snack. It distributes protein cookies all over the country. So for me it's not one specific contract with one specific company or product but a variety. That will give me the chance to go to a lot of places, do a lot of seminars, do different kinds of appearances, and speak about the things I like the most.

JR: If you could write a script outlining what you'd like to see happen to you in the next three years, what would that include?

SK: Things will change because I'll get older. The script will be Sagi Kalev getting better at what he does, getting more educated in what he does, helping more people achieve their goals, representing the sport as best he can, and getting into bigger things'maybe even politics. The joke is that with my accent I'll be the next governor of Texas. Maybe it's a joke; maybe not. It happened in California, and it could happen here.

JR: Any final words for your fans?

SK: You guys are what make me better. Because just seeing your remarks and your e-mail means a lot to me. Thank you so very much. And I have some fans who have become special friends. There's Mark from Alabama, and Pat, who's my oldest fan at age 100. To all the other fans I haven't mentioned, I want to say thank you for your support. You guys keep me going on the days when I feel down. For all those fans who have had something in their lives that have made them disabled, depressed or otherwise, I hope I can motivate you and make you smile. That means everything to me. I want to express my appreciation from the bottom of my heart.

I want to add a special thanks to Mark Foster, my manager and attorney, for his belief in me and for all the time he's spent working on my behalf.

Editor's note: Contact Sagi Kalev through his Web site, www.SagiKalev.com. IM

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