Bill Pearl's contributions to out sport, both artistically and historically, simply boggle the mind. His competitive wins spanned almost 20 years, from the '53 Mr. Southern California to the '71 NABBA Mr. Universe, he has been inducted into a half a dozen halls of fame - Pioneers of Fitness, Gold's Gym, Heidenstam Foundation and the American Powerlifting Federation among them - and he received the AAU Lifetime Achievement award in 1995. Champion, trainer, teacher, philosopher - he is all of those and more. He's also articulate and honest and often voices opinions both caustic and outrageous.
IronMan: How'd you get started?
Bill Pearl: I grew up in Yakima, Washington, where my father owned and operated a restaurant. We all helped out; it was kind of a family affair. Every day after school I'd lug 100-pound bags of grain and beans over and over, and that eventually built up my endurance.
IM: Which brought you to bodybuilding?
BP: In a roundabout way. I had to get bigger and stronger just to survive - my older brother played the villain in my life. Not a day went by without his doing something to make me cry. Self preservation can be a great motivator.
IM: How old were you then?
IM: Ten! Incredible!
BP: It was the right choice at the right time. I immediately fell in love with bodybuilding. I've always admired strength, always wanted to be a muscular guy. Everyone involved in bodybuilding has some type of inferiority complex; mine came from my brother. Believe me, no one fools around with you when you're big as a house.
IM: Did you finally get to push him back?
BP: Oh, yeah. I pushed him back - a whole lot harder too!
IM: Turnabout's fair play, right? Your rugged size must have come in handy for school athletics as well.
BP: I wasn't what anyone would call a good athlete. I certainly wanted to be. I could play soccer, football, basketball and baseball, but I had to work at them with diligence and focus. Weight training has helped me in every aspect of my life, including sports - and that means hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. When I won my first Mr. Universe title, in 1953, I weighed 192 pounds. When I won it in 1971, I weighed 242. It took me almost 20 years to put on 50 pounds of muscle. Right now I weigh between 227 and 230. I'm about 5'11" and stay in good shape because I train every day without fail.
IM: What was bodybuilding like when you started?
BP: It was almost a cultish thing - a backyard or basement sport. It wasn't dignified, not by a long shot! There's been a tremendous change in how it's handled and presented to the public. When I started, people thought bodybuilders were either narcissists or homosexuals. Grimek, Reeves, Reg Park - only people in weightlifting circles knew those names. Nowadays, kids can name popular bodybuilders like Schwarzenegger or Shawn Ray.
You have to remember, in 1950 competitive bodybuilding had only been around for about 10 years. The contests themselves were very crude. They were held in conjunction with a weightlifting event and would start around midnight. Somebody would attach a light to a basketball hoop, and we'd pose under it without music. I think I was the person responsible for putting music to posing routines. I started doing that in the mid-'50s.
IM: Did you just jump into competition, or did someone help you negotiate those choppy waters?
BP: Leo Stern was my mentor. He had an excellent eye for symmetry and proportion. He'd say to me, "Bill, work your calves for a while and hold off on the delt work." It was good advice. A great physique should be aesthetically pleasing. I'm all for mass, but some athletes take it to extremes. Mass should never overwhelm. Two of the most classically put together bodybuilders I've ever seen are Frank Zane and Chris Dickerson. They presented their physiques in the optimum way, with class and grace. I loved their posing routines.
IM: Let's talk about your first major win, the Mr. America.
BP: I've only entered 13 contests in my entire career. I'd placed third in the Mr. San Diego and won the Mr. California in 1953, and there I was, just some fresh kid in the Navy, being named Mr. America. No one was more shocked than I was. Until that moment I hadn't given competition serious consideration; my only real goal was to gain strength and size. Winning that contest changed me in a fundamental way. It opened up a door to another world. After the service I went into the gym business and began living and loving bodybuilding 24-7.
IM: You won the Universe four times as a pro, but you never entered the Olympia. Why was that?
BP: I didn't compete in the Olympia because I considered it a Mickey Mouse affair. Hell, there was one Olympia where only Arnold and Sergio competed, and some guy from the audience jumped up and started to pose, so they gave him third place. [Note: An inebriated man got lost looking for the washroom, wandered on stage disoriented and received an honorable mention that night. His contest training routine was presented in Muscle Builder magazine. I'll try to find that issue soon.] I'm not knocking the IFBB, but at the time I thought the Olympia was created to promote the Weiders and their organization.
IM: A lot of people were shocked when you entered the Universe in 1971 at the age of 41. What made you go back into competition after a four year layoff?
BP: I was being badgered by the Weiders and Arnold to compete, so I took their challenge. I wanted to prove I could win it without drugs. Arnold backed off at the last minute - guess it wouldn't have looked good if Joe's boy had lost, especially after making so much noise. For me that contest was the greatest. I remember when they announced my name, a little old man yelled, "Bill Pearl is king!"
IM: You retired after that, right?
BP: Yeah, I did - from competition. I switched gears and started training for life instead of competition. You can't eat trophies and titles. Besides, I didn't feel comfortable on stage anymore. I was up against kids who were 20, 22, and there I was, 41 years old. The age difference really bothered me. I've stayed active in the sport. I do exhibitions and seminars, and I write extensively.
IM: I reread my copy of Keys to the Inner Universe a few times. I eventually fell apart.
8.5 x 11 inches, 638 pages.
BP: That's what I like to hear! I designed Keys to the Inner Universe as a comprehensive manual on bodybuilding and weight training. I wrote Getting in Shape with Bob Anderson and Burke, and Getting Stronger, which is basically three books in one - sport specific, general conditioning, and bodybuilding.
IM: At the risk of opening up a can of worms, does the contemporary muscle scene impress you?
BP: Just the opposite. I'm extremely disappointed. In the '50s there were hardcore black-iron gyms, where the athletes committed themselves to building muscle and staying healthy. They would swear real sweat. In the '60s everything was sophisticated - chrome-filled gyms with mirrors and all that showbiz glitz. Since the '70s aerobic equipment and really fantastic machinery have been gym mainstays. The industry has grown like mad, and that's great. Unfortunately, so has drug use among bodybuilders and weightlifters.
IM: You mean steroids or recreational drugs?
BP: No, I don't mean just steroids. It's a shame really. That's not how I envisioned this sport. It sickens me to even talk about it. I don't like what I'm seeing. I marvel at the development of the guys today, but because of their lifestyles, I could never admire them. I don't blame the competitors as much as I blame the promoters and magazines. They want to take out every drug but steroids because the freaky look is in. And why is it in? Because the magazines promote it. I'd say they're probably responsible for 98% of this attitude.
IM: Would you agree that most people think of steroids when bodybuilding is mentioned?
BP: Of course they do! Bodybuilding cannot be viewed seriously as long as Joe Public perceives bodybuilders as steroid junkies. In Germany they shun the kind of physique that's so popular in America today. They think it's obscene because, obviously, some kind of drug use goes into such unusual development.
IM: Do you think bodybuilding can be a healthy activity?
BP: When done properly, without drugs, yes. I like the growing movement toward drug free bodybuilding. Let's hope that particular trend catches fire.
IM: Are you recommending across-the-board drug testing for all contests?
BP: It would be the perfect solution, but I doubt that many of these champions would know how to go about building their bodies without drugs. Today's youngsters want immediate gratification. It's our fault - we were deprived, so we gave them everything. And look what's happened.
IM: Well, we do seem to have lost a certain perspective. There's such heavy emphasis on becoming a bodybuilding personality. Love of lifting seems to have retreated into the shadows.
BP: Exactly. It's flash over substance. They want to be stars, and it just isn't going to happen. Wanting to be the very best is admirable, but they don't look very happy about it. In the pictures they're either grunting or grimacing. It's showbiz. Bodybuilding for me was a life lesson, not a stepping stone to becoming an actor or, as you say, a personality.
IM: Arnold blasted a trail. His example has been the one others want to follow.
BP: His influence has been a double edged sword. True, he's brought bodybuilding to the forefront, and he should be commended for that. But his success outside bodybuilding is the exception, not the standard. Hot every good looking bodybuilder can become a movie star. Bodybuilders today don't care about our sport. The one exception is Lee Labrada - Lee's great.
IM: I'm kind of surprised you never tried to make it in movies yourself.
BP: It was a different era. There was no such thing as an action hero, except maybe James Bond.
I did TV stuff here and there - the Steve Allen show and Hollywood Palace. They'd call us in for stunt work. Usually, that meant catching somebody like Buster Keaton during a skit. I met some legendary entertainers, but career-wise the whole Hollywood thing left me disillusioned.
IM: What about "Muscle Beach Party"?
BP: You've done your homework. Yeah, I went out for a part in that one. I asked the producers if they were going to portray us as morons, and everyone said, "Oh, no, Mr. Pearl. Of course not." Well, you've seen "Muscle Beach Party." Need I say more?
That's why I want nothing to do with showbiz or its sidelines. For bodybuilders those things can be hazardous and oftentimes degrading. I've never prostituted myself for my sport.
IM: If you had to name one individual who exemplifies bodybuilding as sport and art, who would it be?
BP: Grimek will always be my idol. The guy was ahead of his time. He would've measured up to the champs in the '70s; he was that good. Grimek never got back his due. He was a great poser - very masculine - and his lifestyle was one of quality. I can't say enough about him.
McNote: Check out Plague of Strength for all kinds of good stuff. Really! I mean, REALLY.
IM: You've trained a number of national champions.
BP: I've trained Chris Dickerson, David Johns and Dennis Tinerino, to name a few. They're topnotch guys. We were training partners so it was mutually beneficial. I followed their routines, and we were all in super shape. I appreciated the opportunity to work with such extraordinary talent.
IM: You're still in exceptional shape.
BP: I'm very comfortable with my life. I reserve quality time for my workouts and have for half a century. I have a good marriage - an extremely understanding wife. We've been married 35 years. Keeping stress out of my life is a priority. I'm a LifeFitness consultant and I do trade shows and motivational seminars.
IM: I always try to sneak in a question or two that's off the subject. Would you classify yourself as a political conservative or a liberal?
BP: I'm a right-winger and damned proud of it. I'm sick to death of the few having to support the many. When I got out of the service, nobody gave me anything. My whole family realized the benefit of work, of being self-supporting. In my opinion, welfare is one of the worst things to develop in this country. People have to get off their butts and stop expecting others to pick up the slack for them.
America was formed on a work ethic. It's just like bodybuilding. you have to work for your physique. Nobody gives you those muscles.
You have to put in your time; otherwise, you'll have nothing.
Ms. Powerlifter (yes that is the only name she gave us) is shown doing a 200-lb. one hand dead lift. She tells us she has been a lifter for 15 years. She states that she does not use a barbell and that she is not a follower but a leader, and this is her ideal of lifting. She is from McKees Rocks, Pa.
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