Ruth Silverman: What was the public’s reaction to the sport and also to the female bodybuilders when you first started putting on shows?
Wayne DeMilia: Women’s bodybuilding was started in the late ’70s because television was looking for events to put on. George Snyder had been running a women’s event in Warrington, Pennsylvania, and there was always some kind of women’s contest’I wouldn’t call it a beauty pageant, but just some sort of girly show’held at the Mr. Olympia. They decided to make it women’s bodybuilding, and the first event was held at Caesars Boardwalk Regency in April of 1980 and taped for television. It was the USA Pro-Am Championship, I believe. Nothing was sanctioned. We just wanted to see what would happen. What we saw was that about 40 women entered, and about 400 people showed up on a Tuesday afternoon to watch it. We said, You know, there’s something here. So the next thing you know, Snyder said he’d put on the first ever Ms. Olympia, which was held in August of 1980 at the Philadelphia Sheraton Hotel. Rachel McLish won both of those events, and women’s bodybuilding started to take off.
RS: What was the response to Rachel?
WD: Everyone loved her. She stood out. She had nice tanned skin, dark hair, and she wore a white bikini. She was very attractive, and she had enough tone and muscle, but there was hardly any muscle back then in comparison to now. Women’s bodybuilding started to take off because women thought, ‘Well, if I train with weights, I’ll look like her, and that’s the way I want to look.’
RS: What was the attendance at those first shows, and what was the prize money?
WD: There were about 1,500 people. The original prize money at the first Ms. Olympia was $10,000. Remember, it was 1980. And then it jumped to $25,000 the next year.
RS: In ’84 Cory Everson won for the first time, and then in ’85 you began holding the contest at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, correct? WD: Yes, John Traetta and I promoted it. The movie ‘Pumping Iron 2: The Women’ came out that year. We got an eight-page article in Penthouse and an eight-page article, with photos, in Playboy, and we were in Glamour and Cosmo and other magazines. We sold 4,800 tickets’totally sold out. Women’s bodybuilding was a phenomenon at that point.
Then in ’86 we were about 150 short of a sellout. In ’87 it dropped down to about 4,200. And then ’88 we were about 3,800’about a thousand empty seats.
To me the correlation was, as the women became more muscular, more extreme, the attendance started to drop. We held it at the Beacon Theatre in New York in ’89 and ’90, and each year we just barely sold out’about 2,800 people. Cory Everson won in ’89, retired, and Lenda Murray won in ’90. In ’91 the show was moved to L.A. David Zelon promoted it, and paid attendance was probably about 2,000. So it dropped again, but prize money kept going up. Ben Weider kept pushing the prize money higher. It was about $115,000, with $50,000 to the winner. The show fell back into my lap in ’92, and I put it in Chicago, because we had a very successful Mr. Olympia there in 1990. We drew about 1,600, and we lost money.
In ’93 I moved it back to New York, and we drew about 2,000. We just about broke even. We decided to put the Mr. and Ms. Olympias together in ’94 in Atlanta. We had the first Masters Olympia too’on Friday night, with the Ms. Olympia. The attendance went up to about 3,000, but you can’t say how much was for which contest.
In ’95 we added fitness, but attendance dropped to about 2,000, so we moved the show back to Chicago. The men’s show was on Saturday night, and the other three were on Friday. Attendance dropped again. In fact, only 900 people paid on Friday, but we had 4,000 paid on Saturday. Our attendance didn’t even cover the prize money, and then on top of it you have hotel, airfares, food allowances, etc. So we lost, and it was the Mr. O that covered the cost. So in ’97 we split the shows and put the Ms. and the Fitness Os in New York. We just about broke even.
RS: Then the next year, ’98, was the big shift.
WD: Yes, all of the sudden Jarka Kasternova comes along and says, ‘I want to run the Ms. O in Prague.’ And someone came from Monaco and said he wanted to put the Fitness O in Monaco. For me it was a relief because I’d been running these shows and putting in the time and effort and getting paid nothing, sometimes taking a loss. The contest in Prague was a sellout. She had 1,200 seats, and she had sponsors. She should’ve made money, but she was overly accommodating with banquets and cocktail parties. So even though the show should’ve made a profit, I don’t think it did. But Jarka decided she wanted to run the ’99 show in L.A. We all said, ‘Don’t do it. Just amend your expenses here, and you’ll come out ahead.’ Well, at six weeks out from the show she pulled the plug’with only 46 tickets sold.
So we had to shift gears quickly. We stuck it with the Women’s Pro Extravaganza, last minute, and it didn’t even seem like an Olympia. Joe Weider put up the prize money’about $50,000.
So now we get to 2000. We saw that as the physiques became more extreme, we couldn’t market it. Rachel McLish was in mainstream magazines 20 years ago. Now these women are not. They’re not even in the muscle magazines. There were some people who were suggesting we eliminate the sport, but that affects all amateur promoters because there are women who want to be bodybuilders. We just had to reestablish a fan base.
RS: So what did you do?
WD: At the beginning of 2000 we sent out a criteria that the athletes had to come in with more of an emphasis on symmetry and muscularity and that the face would be judged. We also switched to weight divisions so that the smaller women wouldn’t have to try to get big like the larger girls. Those suggestions came from the athletes themselves in a meeting we had in ’99.
RS: How’s it working?
WD: There’s an increase in amateur participation, so that’s encouraging. And in 2000 the Ms. and Fitness Olympias covered their costs. Now we’ve got to stay on this track. Like I’ve said to everyone, this is not going to turn it around in six months. If we’re lucky, we can turn it around in three to five years.