…. When Laurie opened the door to greet me, I was only partly flummoxed to shake hands with five feet of pure muscle. Standing together in the glow of the foyer lamp, me so much taller than her, I could look down at the part in her hair as I tried to return the grip of her handshake, smiling through our greeting, working to maintain my composure. Having attended art school, I’d been exposed to my fair share of arty types and extreme freaks, so I wasn’t completely green. But, truth is, to look at her was to be in shock.
The dialogue inside my head started with “Wow!” and then went to “Oh my,” and then back to “Wow!” I was strangely surprised to hear a sparky yet honey-smooth “Hello” emit from that body—if a superhero action figure started speaking, you’d look for the ventriloquist. But when she spoke, she was just another person, and I ceased to think about her body. I simply related to her directly. Then, she turned to take me into her apartment, and there was her body again, dressed in knee-length, black athletic tights, thick, gym socks, sneakers, and a T-shirt with rolled up sleeves. Her skin, tanned and cured, was stretched taut over pectoral muscles, deltoids, biceps, and triceps that were cities thriving just beneath the surface: hard, tough, and unyielding, asserting themselves on the world. But that’s not right, not cities. Nations. No, not nations. Whole continents. Each muscle group was a landmass jutting up and out, demanding evolution.
The apartment was a first-floor studio, but in New York terms that means a shoebox with a bathroom and, if you’re lucky, a closet for a kitchen. New Yorkers are masters of “cross-purpose” living. The spaces are so small they’re forced to use one room for many functions. Laurie was one of the lucky ones, with a studio of approximately five hundred square feet separated into two rooms by an arched walkway that probably prompted the landlord to advertise it as a one-bedroom, even though there was no door to the second room. By day her apartment was a full-fledged production office. In one half of the apartment, let’s call it the living room–dining room area, a round wooden table piled high with papers and stuffed manila folders monopolized the center of the space, leaving little room to pass. A computer and telephone obscured a small desk that was crammed into a corner. The walls were covered with large month-at-a-glance erasable calendars, typed schedules, and to-do lists, and at least two-dozen 8-by-10-inch glossies of female bodybuilders she was considering for the show. In the next “room,” a floral comforter–covered bed doubled as a couch where one could sit to chat with people sitting in the living–dining room area or to watch TV. The set sat precariously on a small stand in the far corner. Light squeaked in from the barred window behind the TV. A bureau narrowed the short hallway leading to the bathroom and kitchen closets. By night, Laurie probably just pushed the stuff aside to make way for dinner and sleeping. I would learn that’s the way it is in New York; if you want something, it’s up to you to make it happen no matter what gets in the way.
“Have a seat. I’ll be just a second.” Manicured fingernails extending from her mountainous arm pointed me to a chair that was occupied by a cat. “That’s Mr. Kitty. Just shove him off.” Mr. Kitty, however, was not shove-off-able. His sheer mass convinced me that he was fed protein shakes in his kitty bowl. He wasn’t having any part of my moving him. There wasn’t another free chair in the place, and I was not going to stand, so I squeezed into the space left on the chair, intending to intimidate him off by virtue of being at least twenty times his size.
“You’ll have to forgive me.” She returned from the kitchen munching a hunk of skinless chicken breast wrapped in tin foil. “It’s feeding time.” She giggled a surprisingly girlish giggle. “So, you must be wanting to know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
I did, but the buzz from the cosmic occurrence still lingered and had a similar effect as laughing gas. I was giddy and happy and not as concerned as I should have been about details.
Laurie was a sparkplug perched on the edge of a chair, unfolding her vision. “I am an intellectual physique artist,” she began. Her musculature prohibited her from lounging lazily, and I’d swear she had puffed up her chest as if she were holding her breath, except that she was breathing normally. Shoulder-length brown, gently wavy hair curled around a face that was round like a full moon with shining dark eyes and a wide mouth that willingly produced an even wider grin. She talked about ancient matriarchal Amazon cultures and roaming robust Dianas and the absurdity of limiting anyone who wants to better themselves the way some people talk about the weather. So very la-dee-da. Yet, you could feel her conviction like bedrock and almost hear an anthem playing in the background. Her particular kind of charisma made it all sound so simple and so obvious that it was easy to be folded into her vision and I found myself arriving at the same conclusions she did. “But of course! A Broadway extravaganza is the perfect way to win the war over femininity in competitive bodybuilding.” Everything was eminently achievable. And then she broke the spell with her laugh that was silly and infectious and manic and softened her.
“What I’m basically trying to do here is remove the constraints that have been applied to the female, bodybuilders and nonathletes alike. How women are viewed in the competitive bodybuilding world is a reflection of the way we view women in every facet of society: they’re only allowed to go so far,” she explained.
The smooth flow of her thoughts made it sound as if she’d said the words many times before, if only to herself, as if by repeating them the ideas would grow as large and solid as her body.
“The way it shows up in bodybuilding is by telling them they can be muscular, but only up to a point. What I am saying is that there is no point. There are no limits. We have to allow each woman to be whatever and whoever she wants to be. She should never have to ask anyone, not judges, not anyone, how she should look. That’s only for her to decide.”
As she spoke, I didn’t want to gawk, but I couldn’t help staring at her shoulders and arms. My eyes struggled to meet hers, but I found myself following the contour of her rounded shoulders, the bulging tributaries of her veins, wondering if she ever felt small inside herself, if she ever felt she had to yell to make her voice louder than her body.
“It’s been such a sorry state of affairs for women that we’ve been told how to look,” she continued. “The Celebration will break down those barriers. And it’s your job to help these women transmit the magic of their personas to the audience.”
And that wasn’t all. Laurie wanted to celebrate strength in the intellectual realm as well. She wanted me to adapt literature from writers like Alice Walker and Edna St. Vincent Millay and write original material for the emcee segments between performers. It was to be a theatrical extravaganza. Eighteen of the world’s strongest and most muscular women were already on board, including power lifters and Olympic athletes. She was working on signing up another ten. She boasted support from Hollywood and interest from publications the likes of Ms. magazine and The New Yorker. It was already getting big. It was also September and The Celebration was scheduled for the first week in November. The women would not be in New York until two days before the performance, so I would have to plan and direct the entire show over the phone.
By now, a private panic had set in, and I decided it might be a good idea to take notes. Over the course of our meeting, Mr. Kitty curled up in my lap, giving me more room on the chair. His purr rattled into the bones of my thighs as I balanced my note pad on the chair’s arm, scribbling to keep up with Laurie’s plans.
“It’s amazing! These women can finally reach for the stars. The combination of physical strength, the theatrical layer, and the literature—well,” she paused for a moment, her dark eyes flashing, transfixed by the vision in her head, “it’s unprecedented.” Then the laugh started cranking its way up. “It’s nuts! It’s just crazy. I can’t believe this is happening.”
I couldn’t either. I had no idea how I was going to pull it off, but I was a sucker for big ideas, and it felt like Laurie’s magic carpet had specifically stopped to take me along for the ride. Listening to her, I believed I was sitting in the middle of a great historical moment: that I had been chosen for this position to represent a new female voice, a voice that took the torch of feminism and carried it for a new generation. What that voice would say I had no idea about either, but I figured I’d come up with something.
I pictured myself on the cover of Ms. magazine with the headline “The New Female Voice” printed in large, bold, white letters. Gloria Steinem smiled down on me while I sat squarely facing the camera with a confidant half-smile.
At that point, swept up in the aura of her vision, I gripped Laurie’s hand, smiled bravely, and said, “I don’t believe in accidents. I know that I am meant to work on this show.” And I honestly said, “I understand,” when she explained there would be only a token amount of money to pay me. “I wouldn’t be doing this for the money anyway,” I said….