Lisa Lyon, pioneering bodybuilder and performance artist, dies aged 70

Lisa Lyon was a bodybuilding pioneer, a former dancer and swordsman who became the first winner of the Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Championship at age 26. She was only 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 105 pounds, but when she won the title in 1979, she could dead-lift 265 pounds and lift a man into the air – even if that man happened to be bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger: “The “Austrian Oak,” who was photographed sitting on her shoulders, bending over as they both smiled at the camera.

Ms. Lyon became one of the most famous bodybuilders in the world, although she considered herself less an athlete than an artist. She transformed her body into a living sculpture while appearing in art galleries and museums and posing for photographers such as Marcus Leatherdale, Helmut Newton and her boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe.

Through her images and performances, she hoped to advocate for a strong but graceful new standard of beauty in which a woman’s body was “neither male nor female, but feline.”

Ms. Lyon, who died on September 8 at the age of 70, never competed in a bodybuilding competition again after winning her world title. But for several years in the early 1980s, she was an eloquent and inescapable spokesperson for the sport, helping to show that weightlifting was for women, not just men.

She served as a bodybuilding commentator for NBC, was interviewed by talk show hosts Merv Griffin and Phil Donahue, appeared in Paris, Munich and Stockholm, and was featured in magazines such as Vogue and Esquire.

She also posed for Playboy in 1980 and later told the Washington Post that she was tired of appearing in muscle magazines and wanted to introduce a different kind of femininity to Playboy readers.

“In the ’50s there were women like Marilyn Monroe who were purely sex objects,” she said. “In the ’60s there was Twiggy, who pioneered the undernourished, androgynous style. In the 70s there was Farrah [Fawcett]. Now, in the 80s, health is a reality. Women build their bodies without sacrificing beauty or femininity.”

Ms. Lyon had started bodybuilding in the mid-1970s and wanted to improve her upper body strength after taking part in kendo, the Japanese martial art, for several years while studying at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“She liked to pursue things that no one else pursued,” said her sister Duffy Hurwin. “You haven’t heard of many female kendo sword fighters, and certainly nothing of female bodybuilders. Anything that wasn’t conventional for women appealed to her.”

Her inspiration was Schwarzenegger, who would later increase the sport’s popularity as the star of the documentary “Pumping Iron” and had recently appeared in the 1976 film “Stay Hungry” directed by her friend Bob Rafelson. A meeting with Schwarzenegger led Ms. Lyon to Gold’s Gym, the center of the American bodybuilding scene (the gym was then located in Santa Monica, California), where she began training six days a week.

“Many male bodybuilders there resented being attacked by a woman,” she told the Post in 1981. “They thought I was getting in the way and they thought I wasn’t serious.” I’m sure some thought I was there to lift guys, not lift weights. And some just wanted to watch me in a sexual way.”

But over time, “they became very helpful,” she added, if a little jealous, as photographers and television crews came to document her workouts.

Ms. Lyon made her public debut in 1978 at a Los Angeles exhibition alongside bodybuilder Tony Pearson and became a “semi-celebrity,” as she put it, a year later by winning the first women’s bodybuilding competition.

While many of her peers had powerful frames with pectoral and lat muscles that appeared to be on the verge of bursting, Ms. Lyon’s figure was less intimidating. She was more slender than brawny – comic book artist Frank Miller later cited her as the visual inspiration for his Marvel Comics character Elektra, a skilled assassin – and immediately caught Mapplethorpe’s attention when they met at a Manhattan loft party in 1980.

Over the next few years, Mapplethorpe took dozens of black-and-white photographs of Ms. Lyon, which appeared in magazines and were collected for a 1983 book entitled “Lady: Lisa Lyon,” with an introduction by author Bruce Chatwin.

The photos were precisely staged, alternately playful and dramatic, with Ms. Lyon posing in Jamaica, Paris, New York and the Mojave Desert, wearing haute couture or nothing at all. She was a bride, a cowboy, a mermaid on the rocks of Palm Beach, Florida. In one picture, she was photographed naked on a throne chair, stroking a snake. In other cases it was dusted with graphite and covered with green clay.

“Mr. Mapplethorpe’s best images show her in various bodybuilding poses, her torso unadorned and unfettered by conventions other than those of Greek sculpture,” wrote Andy Grundberg, photography critic for The New York Times. The photographer, he added, seemed intent on this to capture the tension “between life within and life outside the norms and values ​​of society”.

Ms. Lyon was more explicit in her assessment. “The pictures are a little difficult,” she told Chatwin, “like us.”

Lisa Robin Lyon was born in Los Angeles on May 13, 1953, the younger of two children. Her father was an oral surgeon and her mother was a housewife.

“My childhood was dark,” she said in an interview for the Mapplethorpe book, describing struggles with recurring nightmares that she tried to treat with rituals that included “counting, touching things” and “running around the house counterclockwise three times belonged. She later told Spy magazine that she was “diagnosed as manic” when she was 16 and that she was trying to treat the illness with the drug PCP, which can cause hallucinations.

Ms. Lyon studied ballet, flamenco and jazz dance before enrolling at UCLA. In 1974, she received a bachelor’s degree in ethnic arts and interdisciplinary studies.

After her success in bodybuilding, she published a textbook with writer and photographer Douglas Kent Hall called Lisa Lyon’s Body Magic (1981). She also appeared in a few films, including as a vampire in the horror comedy Vamp (1986) with Grace Jones, and worked in Japan, where she became a fixture in advertising campaigns for the Seibu department store.

Ms. Lyon’s first, early marriage was to Richard Keeling, an ethnomusicologist who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the 1975 death of singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. Authorities said Keeling offered heroin to Buckley, who snorted what he thought was cocaine and died of an overdose.

This marriage ended in divorce, as did her second marriage to French singer-songwriter Bernard Lavilliers. In 1986, she met John C. Lilly, an eccentric neuroscientist whose research with isolation tanks and efforts to communicate with dolphins inspired two Hollywood films: “The Day of the Dolphin” and “Altered States.” They had a romantic relationship and he considered marrying Ms. Lyon before legally adopting her in 1987, according to Spy.

Ms. Lyon was later married for more than a decade to Alan Deglin, who worked in construction and died in 2020. Ms. Lyon’s death – from cancer, at her home in Westlake Village, California – was confirmed by her sister to her immediate survivors.

In 2000, Ms. Lyon was inducted into the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation Hall of Fame, which credited her with “elevating bodybuilding to the level of fine art.” Sports changed her self-image, she once told the Baltimore Sun.

“I felt stronger and less like a victim,” she said. “I had swallowed the image from the 1950s that a woman was something frail and delicate and needed to be protected. I created my own image in the 70s. It’s a picture of strength and survival.” Lisa Lyon, pioneering bodybuilder and performance artist, dies aged 70

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