Sunday, December 23, 2007


(Left, photo from Bodybuilding Fanatic)
(Right, photo © Copyright 2003 Chris Gulker)

Mystery solved.

I was baffled at first. I have Google Analytics installed on this blog, and it was telling me that no less than a third of the hits I was getting was on the essay on Robert Mapplethorpe. Okay, fair enough. If you want a lot of traffic on your blog, put up a photo of a gorgeous woman wearing only a snake.

But what really got me was that if I went to Google Images and put in "Lisa Lyons," my essay came up right at the top of the list, despite the fact that I was hot-linking the image from another web site.

Well, to my acute embarrassment, it seems that it's a good idea to spell the name right. It's "Lisa Lyon" not "Lisa Lyons." I am chagrined and apologetic to Ms. Lyon, and will try to do right by her forthwith.

The histories I can find on the Lady give the story that she took up weightlifting and bodybuilding in order to assist in her practice of kendo, then won the first World Women's Bodybuilding Championship in Los Angeles in 1979. That, plus guest posing at a number of other bodybuilding competitions that year, put her on the pop culture map. She appeared on talk shows, describing herself as a performance artist and body sculptor. Was this the first use of the phrase, or was it first applied to the likes of Schwarzenegger et al.?

In any case, Lyon sponsored a bodybuilding competition in 1980, Lisa Lyon's United States Bodybuilding Championships, which was won by Rachel McLish (photo at right), who also won the first Miss Olympia competition, which was part of the more established network that organized men's bodybuilding competitions.

There's an interview with Doris Barrilleaux, another of the pioneers in women's bodybuilding that fails to mention Lyon at all, which is interesting, and probably revealing, but I can think of too many different explanations for the omission, and I'm going to leave all speculation to my readers on this one.

Lyon connected with Robert Mapplethorpe in the early 1980s, and Lady was published in 1983. It was quite a revelation, to both the art world and the world of popular culture, including bodybuilding. Lyon was clearly exactly what she claimed to be: a performance artist, who could project a hundred different moods through the photographer's lens.

The story then gets stranger still. Lyon met John C. Lilly, the counter-culture hero, talker-to-dolphins, and inventor of the sensory deprivation tank. She wound up on the board of advisors to Lilly's Association for Cultural Evolution, and more than that, she became one of his four adopted children (if that is the right phrase; all four were adopted as adults).

Ah, doesn't the imagination runs riot here? Lilly wrote extensively about altered consciousness, and regularly used both LSD and ketamine to achieve some of those altered states. (Quick aside: the movie Altered States was inspired by Lilly, as was Day of the Dolphin).

When drugs enter the narrative, the narrative becomes all about the drugs. With Lisa Lyon, sex was already front and center in the narrative (woman wearing snake, remember?), so the narrative hits a pretty turbulent air pocket, right about here, doesn't it? Nor does it help matters that one finds references to Lyon being just out of a psychiatric institution at about the time of Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.

Maybe this all amounts to some sort of flameout, but I'm not buying into it. Lilly entitled his autobiography, Center of the Cyclone. I'm thinking that Lyon was more like a cyclone all by herself. When there is a zeitgeist, there is bound to be a lot of geist during the zeit.

Lisa Lyon and Patti Smith


Anonymous said...

kzuhtDoes anyone know where Lisa Lyon is now ? Where she is living and what she is doing? I would be very appreciative to find some update on her.



Anonymous said...

Lisa Lyon, google "I Spy, 1991, Lisa Lyon" and you can see what she was doing at that time. It's interesting but very sad to see what became of her. My heart goes out to her.

Anonymous said...

You can also see how she looked in 2005. go to and look up the list of you tubes and under RObert Maplethorpe - A Tribute there are a series of interviews the first if by Patti Smith, followed by Lynda Cheng then Lisa Lyon.

Anonymous said...

Back in the day she was the mainstream face of female bodybuilding. But there was kind of a short-term "slumming" vibe about her, like she had too many intellectual interests to be confined to bodybuilding. I wouldn't be surprised if that (and jealousy) led to friction among her peers. Soon other women came along who fit the existing paradigm, competing more often and developing greater muscularity, so she became a "pioneer" footnote.

Anonymous said...

Lyon as many stars like Munroe or Stone were transform into some kind of subways for the VIP males of the time. In her case I was surprised, I thought she was with Bernard Lavilliers and simply left the limelight to relax. I saw her recently on a video talking about her career. She's around 60, looks good, but talk like a 90 year old woman, clearly affected by... brocoli abuse ?

Unknown said...

Lisa Lyon was only married Lavilliers till 1983...big mystery 'where is she'...b