She’s the woman in the barbed iron mask in ads for something called Muscle Elegance. Or maybe you’ve seen her as a lingerie-clad damsel in distress, bound tightly to a wooden chair. But don’t let appearances fool you’Denise Masino is no exploited sex slave. In fact, she owns the company.
Under the banner of Muscle Elegance Inc. Denise and her husband, Robert Masino, publish a quarterly magazine in which the unclothed Denise is often the star attraction. The company also produces videos, and in those, too, Denise is usually featured, sometimes in erotic costumes, sometimes in no costume at all. Then there’s muscleelegancemag.com, where, for a minimal fee, you can see still more images of Denise’also naked.
When it comes to hardbody nudes, Denise Masino is the reigning queen, both in front of the cameras and behind them. In just four years she and her husband have built a mini-multimedia empire, and though she won’t talk numbers, it’s clear the business is expanding by leaps and bounds. But even monarchs have their insecurities. Denise talked about some of hers one night after returning to her Fort Myers, Florida, condo from an all-day photo shoot. She was tired and began the interview by discussing what her magazine means to her on the most personal level.
Denise Masino: I’m giving Muscle Elegance everything I’ve got because I want to know what people think of me. Do they like me? I’m always interested in what people think, especially the guy next door with the 2.3 kids.
I’m also doing it because muscular women need more societal acceptance. Many people still believe that if a girl is a jock or a tomboy, something’s wrong with her. If she doesn’t primp and hang at the mall with her girlfriends, something’s off.
IM: Are you describing yourself as a youth?
DM: No. I was very, very feminine. I loved to shop. I wore dresses, heels and makeup. But I was also very athletic. I loved to play cops and robbers with my male cousins. I’d wrestle with them, get down and dirty, and I loved softball. I did it all. I was actually more empowered as a female by doing all those things.
My desire to look like a bodybuilder came early. My father had a weight bench and a couple of dumbbells, and whenever he felt the urge, he would pump some iron. He had some muscle magazines, and I remember seeing them and thinking, Wow, this is great! I was turned on by them.
IM: When did you first realize that you were going to be a businesswoman too?
DM: I was brought up in a home with no brothers and three sisters’I have a fraternal twin’and my father decided that his daughters were going to be independent women. From a very early age I was taught, you go to school, you develop a sense of pride about who you are and a sense of independence, so you are self-sufficient.
IM: Was Muscle Elegance your first entrepreneurial effort?
DM: The magazine evolved as a result of other businesses and the pursuit of bodybuilding as a business. We didn’t start off wanting to be publishers. I wanted to compete in bodybuilding; I met my husband, Robert, at the gym he owned, and I eventually told him about my desire to compete. He helped me pick a show, I competed, and I was very successful. So much so that before I knew it, I was pro.
Because I had a business mind and because my husband was always an entrepreneur, we looked at bodybuilding as a great way to make a living. But it’s impossible. You don’t make enough to live on. The bubble burst very quickly.
IM: So what did you do?
DM: I was already putting together a database of every person who ever sent me fan mail’bonding with everyone who took the time to let me know that they thought I was special.
I wanted to do something for the fans, a little magazine on me. News items about me, pictures, training tips. I wanted to give them titillating, sexy stuff. It was a 16-page black-and-white magazine that had pictures of me that were kind of topless from the side. To me they were far sexier than most of the stuff I’m doing now. Most of the stuff I’m doing now is in your face.
Anyway, Robert did such a good job with it that I said, ‘I think our fans would want to see other female bodybuilders who are just as awesome, like Gayle Moher and Tazzie Colomb. Why don’t we send a questionnaire to the fans’the people who buy this tiny magazine’and ask them if they’d support it?’
The response was so positive that it prompted us to put together the first official Muscle Elegance magazine.
IM: Do you get jealous when your husband is out shooting nudes of other women?
DM: I have never felt jealous. Not that I haven’t experienced the emotion, because I have. But Robert has never given me any reason to feel jealous. He is the consummate professional.
IM: Does he ever get jealous of all the attention you get?
DM: Because we’re business partners, we do everything as a team, which gives us a heightened level of security and comfort. I think it would be normal for him from time to time to experience some insecurity, possibly based on our age difference [Robert Masino is 50, Denise is 33] and the publicity I get, some of which is over the top: marriage proposals, offers to travel, even some of the stuff that goes on at our booths at the shows, which could make him feel very uncomfortable.
As his mate it’s my responsibility to create the kind of comfort and security that he needs so he doesn’t feel threatened by any of that.
IM: Were you and your husband worried that the bodybuilding establishment might not approve of the nudity in your magazine?
DM: There was some concern. As independent as I am, I have a respect for authority and protocol. Long before I started the magazine, I contacted [IFBB vice president] Wayne DeMilia and discussed with him the possibility of my appearing in Playboy’s ‘Hardbodies’ pictorial. [Playboy eventually decided not to use her.] I also talked with him about the sexy eight-by-10s I was selling. We talked about IFBB rules I might need to know. He was very supportive. He recalled a time in the ’70s or ’80s when a couple of athletes were suspended for posing nude. But that was before Flex magazine’s ‘Power and Sizzle’ segment made its debut, and that had plenty of nude photos. Not frontal nudity, because they couldn’t get away with it, but they pushed the envelope as far as they could.
IM: You ripped the envelope open.
DM: But I crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s first. I made the phone calls.
IM: So you never got any static from the bodybuilding world?
DM: I did get some feedback from one bodybuilder. She said she felt that what I was doing was unnecessary. We agreed to disagree. But I was impressed because she had the balls to say that to my face. Then the conversation quickly turned because this person was involved in a vocation in the world of bodybuilding that everybody knows about but doesn’t talk about: private sessions, where people would look at the development of her physique and eroticize that. She was making a living selling that, yet something about the magazine didn’t sit right with her.
IM: She was doing in private what you do in public.
DM: Hypocritical, isn’t it? I’m not talking about whether you get involved in the fantasy. I’m talking about whether you understand that it’s a fantasy and you’re selling it. It’s not necessarily a fantasy for me, either.
IM: What are your fantasies?
DM: I’m living out a fantasy now. I’m a model, and as a young girl I fantasized about being a model. I’m a bodybuilder, and as young girl I fantasized about being a bodybuilder. And I’m an entrepreneur, and I fantasized about that too.
As for the future I want to make Muscle Elegance as big as Hefner made Playboy.
IM: Does ME wield as heavy an airbrush as Playboy?
DM: We do some but not a lot. We want to give you a sense of who you’re looking at. Somebody has a scar, somebody has a zit, you do want to get rid of that.
IM: What do you think of private sessions? Some of your models participate in them.
DM: I don’t know much about sessions, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. In most cases the fans give these women tremendous support. It’s a way for the fans to connect with the athletes.
If the fans meet with these incredible women behind closed doors, it’s because they don’t want to be attacked by people who think their interest is inappropriate.
I think it’s great that the fans are helping these women, and as long as everyone is comfortable with what they’re doing, God bless ’em. IM: Some might argue that those same fans, by supporting the biggest and most muscular women, are encouraging drug use among the athletes.
DM: I have never felt pressured by my fans to do drugs. But fans of all sports have very high expectations. The general public likes to see athletes as superhuman. But the athletes on the professional level put a tremendous amount of wear and tear on their physiques. The average fan couldn’t begin to comprehend what a person’s muscles, bone structure, ligaments, tendons and tie-ins go through in order for that person to achieve and maintain her appearance. And they don’t appreciate the need for a special diet, extra sleep and supplementation.
IM: Is it worth it?
DM: It is for me. I’m constantly in pursuit of what makes me happy, and I don’t want to blend. I’m very comfortable with that decision.
IM: What are your ambitions?
DM: When I started bodybuilding, my dreams were more traditionally wholesome. They were about being a fitness role model: having fitness tapes, videos and supplements. But that’s not how it worked out.
IM: Can’t you pose nude and still be a role model?
DM: Absolutely. I think I am a role model. There’s a certain sense of freedom and satisfaction that comes with being real. And my reality is, there’s something highly sexually charged in the developed human physique. It’s been my experience that the fans have always gotten that kind of charge out of looking at my development. It’s innate, it’s animal, it’s part of who we are, and we’re trying to suppress and deny it. It’s something I accept. I say, okay, this is how it is, and I’m going to market it.
IM: How’s your video business going?
DM: Because of the risk of pirating and duplication, we encourage the women who are involved in our productions to become wholesalers of their own videos. We sell videos to them at discounted prices, and they then have something to sell.
IM: Do you also pay them to appear in the videos?
DM: Yes. Flex magazine never paid me for any of the modeling work I did for it. I pay my models because I’m creating a product that I’m going to retail, so it’s only appropriate that they profit too. We compensate them in as many different ways as we can. We encourage them to not just take a crumb and walk away. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s still a paycheck. But we encourage them to be more entrepreneurial in their careers. We offer them advertising space in the magazine for free if they’re featured, and we promote their Web sites.
IM: You have a very broad spectrum of physical types in your magazine. Is that intentional?
DM: Absolutely. Muscle elegance comes in different sizes and different forms.
IM: Is there any one model who’s stood out as the most popular among your readers or viewers?
DM: There have been a couple. Karen Konyha is very popular. She’s a muscular fitness pro. Dayana Cadeau is very popular too. She’s absolutely beautiful.
IM: Do you have a wish list of women you’d like to see in the magazine?
DM: [Long pause] Lenda Murray. She was one of the greatest. We featured her in an early issue. Jennifer McVicar. Cathy LeFrancois. Gladys Portuguese in her day. Denise Rutkowski would have been great.
IM: Do you have a hard time finding models?
DM: No, but I’ll tell you what’s been the most frustrating thing for me: We have submissions coming out of the woodwork from fitness-type models. They’re very aggressive, but there are fewer submissions from bodybuilders. We do have enough bodybuilders to put in the magazine, but I get frustrated because I don’t see the bodybuilders being as aggressive about [promoting themselves] as the other women.
IM: Any theories as to why that is?
DM: I think a lot of times the bodybuilders don’t have the self-esteem necessary to propel them into being more aggressive in their careers.
IM: Maybe it’s because their figures are so unconventional, so unlike fitness girls’ physiques.
DM: But the fact that they’re unconventional is what makes them such an incredible commodity. I have to tell you that the most popular models in the magazine are always the bodybuilders, and I love that because it reinforces what I think.
IM: Are you ever going to pose couples in Muscle Elegance?
DM: You know, I never like to say never, but that doesn’t mean I’m saying yes, either. We’ve gotten requests from lots of people to do that, but the next thing the readers would want would be [hardcore photos]. They’re constantly asking for it. But I don’t see the magazine ever turning into a Penthouse.
IM: Any plans to expand on the Internet?
DM: Our online version of Muscle Elegance’muscleelegancemag.com’has a free section that provides information about who we are and what we do; it has ordering information for our video line, coming attractions, my travel schedule and things like that. Then there’s an online version of the magazine [available].
IM: I’ve noticed that Muscle Elegance is showing up at increasingly more newsstands.
DM: Our biggest struggle has been getting the people involved in distribution to become more aggressive. You give the magazines to a distributor, who passes them to a secondary distributor, who gives them to God-knows-who. You don’t know where your magazines are going to end up or how many copies a store or even an area is going to get. When you’re a quarterly magazine, it takes a while to get any numbers back. Fortunately, the overall sell-through for Muscle Elegance is averaging close to 70 percent, which is a nice figure for any magazine.
IM: Would you like to see the magazine come out on a monthly or bi-monthly basis?
DM: Please no! [Laughs] I shouldn’t say that. Muscle Elegance is still in its infancy, and I tend to treat it like a baby. So I’m very hands-on. We’re just a small group of people doing a lot of work. The thought of expanding now, with all the other projects we have going, is something I don’t want to think about. I’m more interested in increasing the number of pages in the magazine and expanding our distribution. Eventually, I’d like to see it go monthly. Maybe by then I’ll sell it to somebody [laughs].
Editor’s note: For more information on Muscle Elegance, call 1-888-513-6800. IM