Lee Priest, with a smile as big as his biceps, pulled into the parking lot of Twohey's, an Alhambra, California, eatery located about 27 miles east of his Venice abode, during the first week of March. Priest had no problem making the lengthy drive to one of his favorite bistros, but, with Lee and wife Cathy entering early-season contests, Twohey's had been off-limits since mid-December. Four days earlier, Cathy had placed fourth in the Ms. International competition in Columbus, Ohio; now it was time to attack the tasty ribs, barbecue chicken and desserts Twohey's is noted for.
Lee was supposed to compete in Ohio as well, in the Arnold Classic. Ditto for the weekend before, at the San Francisco Grand Prix. After finishing a disappointing seventh at the IRONMAN Pro Invitational on February 17, however, he decided to pull out of the latter two events.
Two years before he had dropped out of the Arnold because people close to him had, unwisely, convinced him he was being 'screwed' by the judges much too often, an act that resulted in a suspension and a $5,000 fine; this time his choice was a prudent one. A midnight trip to the emergency room a month out from the IRONMAN produced test results that caused much concern. His doctor put him on heart medication, informing Lee that competing in the IRONMAN was out of the question'and that his career could be over.
The gossip writers had a field day with the Priest story, with the obligatory retailored reports hitting Web sites immediately. One said the story about Priest's having heart problems was 'crap'; another had him dying in his living room after stretching in preparation for an evening workout. The only question in the Blond Myth's mind was how quickly he could return to the gym; the only thing out of the question was the possibility of sitting out the event. A day after the competition, however, Priest determined he would rather be safe than sorry and recognized that it would be best to take a rest.
LT: Okay, let's get it from the horse's mouth. Tell us about the hospital run.
LP: I had been sick for about a couple of weeks after the first of the year. I had that flu that was going around. On the night of January 18, I was lying in bed around midnight. I still had a high fever and also some tightness in my chest, had some difficulty breathing and was just feeling lousy. Cathy was on the phone to my mother in Australia, and she told Cathy to call an ambulance. In about five minutes the ambulance arrived, with flashing lights, fire engine, the whole bit. I was rushed to the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center, where they did a series of tests. Tests showed I had a virus that went to my left ventricle; one test show it was operating at 45 percent capacity; another exam showed 37 percent capacity. The doctors told me I couldn't train'perhaps light cardio but no more. One doctor told me if I kept up the training, it could kill me. But they also told me that 50 percent was normal and that the first test'resulting in 45 percent'was more accurate. All of my other test results were normal. I didn't want to pull out of the show, so I decided to do the best I could with the heart medication, Coreg, the doctor put me on [laughs].
When I got out of the hospital, I did something silly'I went to the gym [Joe Gold's World Gym, Venice] and put 1,200 pounds on the leg press. I did 20 reps, figuring, If this doesn't kill me, I'm okay.
LT: Weren't you scared stiff getting back to the gym after being told such news?
LP: Yes. I thought I could kick the bucket, but, thinking I'm Superman, I'd give it a shot. I did the IRONMAN because it was in my hometown, I had trained so hard for it, dieted so long. I thought I could hold on, although I had to back off on the intensity of my training. I had flown my grandparents [Owen and June Kelly] over from Australia to see the show, and a lot of people from the gym were coming to see me. But I wasn't 100 percent, mentally or physically.
LT: Something happened the next day to make you see the light, right?
LP: Yes. At first I was still planning to do the San Francisco and Arnold shows. But I saw [NASCAR champion] Dale Earnhardt hug his wife and son before getting into the car, and I woke up the next morning to find out he had been killed during his race. That made me realize this wasn't worth it, that I needed to take the time off, like the doctors told me. I called Wayne [DeMilia, the IFBB vice president and Pro Division head] and told him about my situation; he agreed that my health was more important than any contest, and he called the promoters for me to explain my situation. God knows I couldn't afford another suspension [L.T. and Priest bust up]. I went onstage at the San Francisco show and hit a few poses; I went to the Arnold to watch Cathy compete. I just figured, things happen for a reason, and I'll wait for the Olympia.
LT: You just had a follow-up visit with the internist who saw you in the hospital. What's the latest?
LP: He said my results were great: My resting heart rate was 57; he advised me not to train, then winked as I left and told me to have a good workout. I guess he had to cover himself. He told me lots of people are functioning at 45 percent and that he didn't think I would have any problems. So at this point I plan on doing the Olympia. But he did add that ephedra-type products could cause similar problems; I would recommend that everyone who takes this type of product get checked every six months or so.
LT: I predicted you would win the IRONMAN if Chris Cormier or Flex Wheeler didn't do the contest. After the show Melvin Anthony [the second-place finisher] let me know how wrong I'd been.
LP: Big deal. I wasn't nearly at my best. It's like kicking a dog when he's down. It would be like me posing against you.
LT: Wait a minute'I'm too aesthetic for you.
LP: That's true. Anyway, if Melvin can beat me when I'm at my best, I'll congratulate him.
LT: You've been known to do 20 to 25 sets per bodypart. Do you think that overtraining had something to do with your illness?
LP: Hard to say. Maybe it did have an effect when I was dieting. When you're on limited energy supplies, training twice a day, doing cardio twice a day, doing all those sets with heavy weight'maybe it did play a role, but that's the way I've always trained.
LT: Have you gotten the green light to train for the Olympia?
LP: Pretty much so. The doctor said there shouldn't be a problem. He just wants me to come back in for a checkup before I start the diet again.
LT: And DeMilia says he's going to initiate full physical exams in August for those competing in the Olympia. I think it's a great idea.
LP: So do I. The general attitude is, What I don't know can't hurt me, so competitors never get checked. If they do go to a doctor, they don't disclose the truth about whatever they're using. It's best to be honest, so the doctor knows what he's looking for. Better to be safe than sorry'a couple of thousand dollars isn't worth risking your life.
LT: You just saw Ronnie Coleman win the Arnold Classic easily. Can anybody beat him at the Olympia?
LP: [The defending] Mr. Olympia is going to win it pretty much no matter how he looks. I really liked Dorian [Yates] a lot, but there were a couple of years when he shouldn't have won it. Once you win the title, you have a few points' advantage going in, so you can slack off a bit and still win it. But I'll be the best white guy onstage.
LT: Glad you brought that up. I heard Craig Titus, who has had a good year so far, has that epithet in mind. What do you think of that?
LP: As long as I'm breathing, it will never happen. Craig should have hoped the heart condition killed me; as long as I'm standing, I'll be the best.
LT: Any predictions for the O?
LP: I don't like to predict how I'm going to do; it's out of my hands. Well, I will predict one thing'Craig won't be ahead of me. Or Melvin. I'd like to be in the top six again. But as long as I come in at my best, that's all I can do. I'll take whatever I get.
LT: You're the best example of the fact that you don't have to win titles to be a major star in the industry. At the Arnold Expo no one was more sought after, with fans lining up all day long waiting for the opportunity to meet you. Word has it you pocketed 10 grand on Saturday.
LP: Shsssh, the IRS may be listening. Let's just say some rumors are true. As long as you are true to your fans and treat them with respect and be nice to them, they're going to like you. Some of these bodybuilders who have won shows are some of the biggest jackasses around. They show up late, they're rude and arrogant'they think their shit don't stink. I just consider myself someone who trains like anybody else. I don't expect to be treated any different than anyone else because I'm Lee Priest. So what? If people see my tapes, they'll see me acting stupid much of the time. I like to have fun. Training bores me.
LT: On the subject of tapes, you've released only one to date, right?
LP: Yes, but I started working on my second one 16 months ago. I think Mits [Okabe, the videographer] was deported back to Japan for a while. He's promised that the new one will be out by May'it's the year I'm worried about. This will be the greatest one ever'nearly two hours long, including never-seen-before footage of the death of Elvis, backyard barbecues, along with a lot of other silly stuff. You'll probably get 10 minutes of training and an hour and a half of me being a jackass.
LT: On the subject of barbecues, you have quite a rep as a chef. You're a pretty domestic guy.
LP: I was four or five when I started cooking. I like cooking for Cathy, especially banana cakes and banana bread. When I'm dieting, I get bored and make different desserts. Cathy and I eat them, then do more cardio to take it off.
LT: Let me guess. You got your penchant for cooking because your dad's boyfriend is a pastry chef.
LP: Probably. When I was about seven or eight, he used to go to work at two in the morning and I'd go to the pastry shop and watch him make little cakes. I'd help cook 'em, then help eat 'em. Later on he'd make cakes and pies at home, and I'd watch him. From a young age I was always cleaning the house'I would always make my mother and stepfather breakfast in bed before he'd go to work in the coal mines.
LT: Are your dad and his partner still a couple?
LP: Yes. My dad's name is Winston McCutcheon, and is partner is Gregory Picard. They've been together for nearly 20 years. No kids, though.
LT: You and Dennis Rodman have something in common other than height: You both got married at the Little Chapel of the Flowers in Las Vegas last year. We know how many minutes Rodman's union to Carmen Electra lasted. Even though you stunned the bodybuilding world with a whirlwind engagement, then marriage, to Canadian pro star Cathy LeFrancois on July 1, you seem to be very happy.
LP: Yes, more than ever. I always liked Cathy but was too shy to talk to her. I found out she felt the same way. We would pass each other at contests and other events and just smile and keep walking.
LT: Then you hooked me into playing Cupid. I told her after the Arnold Classic last year that you were a big fan of hers. Her big, beautiful baby blues widened, and she said that was great, that she was a big fan of yours too.
LP: It worked, didn't it? A couple of weeks later a magazine came out with her e-mail address. I wrote her and figured if I got told where to go'but she e-mailed back, and I called her up. A couple of weeks later she came down for a photo shoot, and we've been together ever since.
LT: It was a nice wedding.
LP: Yes, you were there. I had to drive to my own wedding because Cathy was posing in front of the limo. I almost had to marry you. We had the longest wedding kiss in history. Right in the middle of it, I heard this voice in the background'it sounded like you, actually' say, 'Knock it off, Priest, I wanna go eat.'
LT: I hear Cathy may be hanging up the posing suit for a maternity dress soon.
LP: Ah'could be, could be, at least for the time being. It's time to have a child and carry on the legacy of the lack of height. We do know a few things about the baby: It will be called Lee Junior, have blue eyes'and be short.
LT: Your grandparents have made two trips here in the past year. You seem really close to them.
LP: Yes, they came for the Olympia, then came out again prior to the IRONMAN. I spent a lot of time with them when I was growing up. Owen was a workout fanatic, and he'd knock on my window at four in the morning, rain, hail or shine, and get me up to go to work. I worked for a friend of mine, Barry Street, who owned Newcastle Fire Extinguisher Service. Which was good, since he was into bodybuilding, and we'd go train before and after work. He's still competing now'he won the Masters Australia.
LT: Is there anything the fans would be surprised to know about you?
LP: Well, I went to magician's school for eight months when I was a kid. I learned all kinds of neat tricks, but I'd be too shy to perform when I got onstage. That's why my family told me I'd never get onstage when I told them I wanted to compete in bodybuilding.
LT: Could you pull a great physique out of a hat and give it to me?
LP: I said tricks, not miracles.
LT: Hey, doesn't hurt to ask. Anyway, you were able to get onstage as a bodybuilder and started racking up titles when you were barely into your teens.
LP: Yes, I was 13 when I first competed, and I won three shows that year: the Sydney Bodybuilding Classic, the Newcastle Classic and the state classic. I was probably 150 pounds'shredded though [laughs].
LT: Could you have beaten some of the competitors of today in that shape?
LP: Probably'my waist was a lot smaller. Considering what some of the guys look like today, I think I should stop worrying about dieting, get back up to 280 and compete at that weight. My waist would be the same size as theirs. There's a few bloated stomachs out there, eh? We may have a birth onstage yet. Joe Gold said he can't believe how many gorilla bellies are in the sport now.
LT: Seems to me too many bodybuilders are still more concerned with size than they are with quality, and it's ruined their physiques.
LP: I'm going to stamp Maytag on their chests; they look like fridges. What happened to symmetry'or taking points off for distended stomachs when they turn to the side? The rule may be applied to some but not others. I'm not saying I have the greatest symmetry, but it's a lot better than some of these guys who are beating me in the symmetry round. When people talk about me, it's always, 'He's got a long torso,' or, 'His legs don't get cut enough,' or, 'Priest doesn't have the chest of such and such,' but maybe such and such doesn't have Priest's arms, or Priest's hamstrings, or Priest's calves or Priest's delts.
No one's perfect. Yes, I have short legs'no shit, Sherlock. I'm 5'4'. How long do you want my legs to be? I know bodybuilding is subjective, but we need more consistency. You may have one huge guy win, then have smaller, symmetrical physiques take the next three spots. Or have someone with an aesthetic physique like Flex Wheeler win, then have someone like Nasser [El Sonbaty] second and another shape guy, like Chris Cormier, in third.
LT: There's been some new blood in the sport this year. One guy who has stirred up many of the veterans is irrepressible rookie Shari 'King' Kamali. What do you think of him from what you've seen?
LP: I've seen a few people get upset at Kamali's comments, but sometimes the people who are getting upset'the truth hurts. I've noticed the ones who got upset at the things Kamali was saying used to say the same type of things themselves when they turned pro. How they weren't scared of anyone on the pro level except Dorian or Nasser. Kamali's just saying stuff to get attention. I think it's funny'it makes the sport more interesting. Kamali has a good physique and has shown up in great shape in the two pro shows he's done. And he's beaten the West Coast guys [Craig Titus and Melvin Anthony] who were talking shit about him at the IRONMAN and the Arnold. [Kamali placed third behind runner-up Anthony at the IRONMAN, but he beat him at the Classic; and he beat Titus at both shows.] Some of these guys I see around Venice who are supposed to be friends talk about the other one as soon as they leave.
LT: What areas need the most attention in pro bodybuilding?
LP: Prize money and marketing. You rarely see anything on the sport on TV or in the newspapers, and I think part of that problem is the IFBB doesn't have anyone in a public relations position to try and get that accomplished. If there is enough money to spend $80,000 on comedians or acts at the Olympia every year, there is enough money to make the prize money better and to hire professionals to try and bring the sport more mainstream status. We all know that [Joe] Weider has the money to do this, but he likes to keep a monopoly on the sport.
LT: These are good financial times for you. You have contracts with Prolab and TuffStuff, a gym equipment company. You were with Weider prior to signing with Prolab. How's your relationship with Prolab?
LP: Really good. There have been some new people I work with since Natrol bought the company'Rich Stanley, Ryan Allen and Elliot Balbert'and they were very understanding when I got sick and had to pull out of the two contests. There were a few things we didn't see eye to eye on in the beginning, which is understandable, since some of them were coming from a GNC background, and they've been talking about re-signing me. That would be good, but if not, hopefully another company would pick up me and Cathy. The photo of both of us together was one of our biggest sellers at the Arnold Classic.
LT: Last year you became the second couple in the history of bodybuilding to compete in the Mr. and Ms. Olympias together'Steve and Ellen Davis were the first. What's it like training with Cathy when you both have tunnel vision about a contest?
LP: We find it pretty easy. The hardest part is the diet, but not because we're stressed out. We both like to eat junk food'we both like to eat, period. When we're both dieting for a show, we'll both eat some chocolate if we want to; if only one of us is dieting, we'll stop the other person from having that treat. We don't get angry at each other'well, sometimes she gets a bit angry with me, but I'm the quiet one [Lee smiles at Cathy, who's reading a magazine nearby]. I just say, Yes, dear, I love you. [L.T. rolls his eyes as Cathy laughs].
LT: First, you had to pull out of the Arnold; Cathy almost passed out during the judging. What was your comment to Wayne DeMilia as you came to her assistance?
LP: I said Cathy was trying to take away my limelight; I'm the one who's supposed to get sick. But it turned out okay'I just shook her up and sent her back onstage, because one of us has to make some money [L.T., Lee and Cathy bust up]. Seriously, she got a bit dizzy from the stress and the dieting, but she went back out there and looked good.
LT: Have you changed anything in the last few years, trainingwise, that stands out?
LP: It's been pretty much the same stuff. I've listened to people tell me to do this or do that; a few so-called gurus out there want to make a name by being associated with a top bodybuilder. But basically, I've trained the same way for years.
LT: What's a typical workout for you?
LP: I follow a three-on/one-off or a four-on/one-off program while preparing for a contest. In the off-season I usually do five days on and one or two days off. Or perhaps a one-on/one-off type of system. I'll do one bodypart per day in the off-season, two per day precontest. I only do cardio in the precontest phase, twice a day. My only cardio in the off-season is walking from my house to McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or walking the dogs at a real slow pace so I don't get tired.
LT: Any final words of wisdom for your opponents?
LP: Watch out, I plan on being at my best when I come back at the Olympia. And I want to thank the fans for all their support. I also want to emphasize to anyone involved in bodybuilding on a serious level to get checkups on a regular basis. If you feel something is not right, go to a doctor. The way we push our bodies, the way we take in so much protein and other supplements, we need to keep closer tabs on things. It's nice to look good, but you want to be healthy on the inside as well. Make your training fun and don't take things so seriously.
LT: Don't you want to tell them to get health insurance as well?
LP: [Laughs] Yes'I still have a couple of thousand dollars in bills to pay from my trip to the hospital.
LT: You had to write a check for $2,500 just to be admitted, correct?
LP: Yes. I'd never seen that on TV when watching 'ER.' I was so delirious, I thought it was another suspension and was thinking, What did I do now? On the positive side, I thought I didn't look too bad at the IRONMAN considering all that happened. Maybe the beta blocker adds muscle and I should include it in my precontest supplement list. Think I'll have Prolab bottle it, and we can sell it at the Olympia.
Editor's note: To contact Lee Priest for guest appearances or advice on the quickest route to an emergency room near you, write to him at P.O. Box 2752, Venice, CA 90294, or at his Web site, www.leepriest.com. IM