McLish, Rachel: 1958—: Bodybuilder

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Rachel McLish: 1958: Bodybuilder

When Rachel McLish earned the inaugural Ms. Olympia bodybuilding title in 1980 she brought the much-misunderstood sport of women's bodybuilding to the international spotlight. Her physique was well-defined, muscle-packed, and yet still very feminine. A 1981 Muscle & Fitness article describing the competition noted that up until that point female bodybuilders had "been accused of being masculine, androgynous, or even grotesque." McLish was none of those things. Blessed with olive-skinned natural beauty due in part to her Native American ancestry, she looked as much fashion model as she did bodybuilder. Combined with her passion for the sport, McLish's physical appeal made her a role model for women's fitness. Though she only spent four years competing, according to a 2001 Muscle & Fitness article, "Rachel redefined the rules of the feminine physique." In the process she helped make physical fitness as much the domain of women as it had always been for men. "See, my whole philosophy at the very beginning was to share this great secret with women," she told Muscle & Fitness, "if you put forth some effort, good eating habits combined with weight training, you can really have control over your body. You don't have to say, 'I'm doomed to look like my mother when I'm older.' Having both strength and beauty is attainable."

Exchanged Ballet Shoes for Barbells

McLish was born Rachel Livia Elizondo on June 21, 1958, to Rafael and Rachel Elizondo. Raised in Harlingen, Texas in the Rio Grande border country, a career in bodybuilding was not in her plans. Instead she dreamt of ballet. She began taking ballet classes when she was seven and continued until high school, when she chose the popularity of being a cheerleader over the solitary rehearsals of a budding ballerina. By the time she entered Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas, she regretted her decision, fearing that at 17 she was too old to begin dancing again. Without ballet and cheerleading to provide an outlet for her high energy, McLish sought out the only other sport she knewweightlifting. As a child she often watched her father spend hours lifting weights and remembered being awed by his strength and muscularity. She soon found the Shape Center. An interviewer writing for the Los Angeles Times noted that when McLish discovered the fitness center, "she felt it was almost a mystical experience." However, as a poor student paying her own way through college, she could not afford to pay the center's membership fees. Fortunately fate stepped in pointing her towards her future career. She was offered a job at the center. She started out giving exercise classes and eventually moved up to become a manager.

At a Glance . . .

Born on June 21, 1958, in Harlingen, TX; daughter of Rafael and Rachel Elizondo; married John McLish (divorced); married Ron Samuels, 1990. Education: Pan American University, Edinburg, TX, BA, health and physical education, 1978.

Career: Sports Palace, founder, 1978; professional bodybuilder, 1980-84; author, 1984-87; actress, 1984-96; Rachel McLish for The Body Company (sportswear line), founder/designer, 1990; lecturer and model, 1984-00.

Awards: Ms. Olympia, International Federation of Bodybuilding, 1980, 1982; US Women's Bodybuilding Champion, 1980.

Address: Home Palm Springs, CA.

When McLish began working at Shape Center she was far from muscular. "I didn't exude a fit quality," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I was what I call 'skinny fat.'"meaning that, although she was thin from years of ballet and cheerleading, she was not firm. That soon changed as she began to spend hours working out with weights. "I used hard work as a chisel," she told the Los Angeles Times. Soon she had sculpted a Ms. Olympia-worthy body. Along the way, she found her calling. She graduated in 1978 with a degree in health and physical education and went on to found South Texas's first health club. The Sports Palace opened in 1978 to great success, and soon there were branches in Brownsville and Corpus Christi.

During this time she was briefly married to her school sweetheart, John McLish, whose name she retained after they divorced. She also continued working out with a passion. She explained her dedication to the Los Angeles Times, "The point of physical fitness is not narcissism or egotism. It's well-being. Most people have no idea what it's like to feel good all over. All the time. People unfortunately take drugs to do it part of the time. But the ultimate rush is the feeling you can get from intelligent exercise. It's addictive. In the best way." McLish was a very happy addict and her commitment soon paid off.

Became the First Ms. Olympia

In 1980 the first United States bodybuilding championship for women was announced. McLish decided to enter the Atlantic City competition to promote both her sports club franchise and her ideal of the female bodybuilder. When she walked away with the title, becoming the first American female bodybuilding champion, she vaulted to national fame. However, McLish had precious little time to enjoy her celebrity. She immediately went back into the gym to train for the International Federation of Bodybuilding's (IFBB) first annual Ms. Olympia competition to be held later that year in Philadelphia. The IFBB's Mr. Olympia contest had debuted in 1965 and was considered the most prestigious bodybuilding event in the world. The contest had spawned bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger, who earned the Mr. Olympia title seven times.

At the women's inaugural event IFBB planners were unsure what to expect. They had billed the contest as only one event in a weekend packed with bodybuilding seminars, exercise equipment displays, and health product demonstrations. Schwarzenegger was one of the featured speakers. However, both the media and the public were more interested in Ms. Olympia. "The turnout is fantastic," the event producer told a journalist from Muscle & Fitness. "I have had to turn away almost 1,000 people. And more requests keep coming in!" When McLish and her 20 competitors took the stage it was obvious that she was the one to beat. Her superior physique easily won her the pre-judging contest and at the evening pose-down in front of a packed auditorium, McLish won the title.

After she became the first Ms. Olympia, the fame McLish had experienced following the American championship multiplied exponentially. She appeared on the covers of magazines that focused on everything from fitness to beauty to lifestyle. She was booked on national television shows and was a hot topic on sports news programs. Speaking engagements, training seminars, and photo shoots dominated her life. Her stunning physique graced calendars and wall posters. She had become a new American icon, firmly debunking the myth of the female bodybuilder as unattractive and unnatural. Despite her hectic schedule, McLish continued to train and in 1982 she won her second Ms. Olympia title. She competed in several more competitions, never placing lower than third.

During the 1983 Caesar's World Cup, McLish and the other competitors were the focus of a documentary film crew. Pumping Iron II: The Women was released in 1985 and helped make McLish a household name outside of the bodybuilding world. The film explored the differences between McLish, who epitomized the ideal feminine bodybuilder, and Bev Francis, an Australian power-lifter whose body looked more like that of a man. The filmmaker wanted to answer the question of what the ideal female bodybuilder should look like. It was a timely question and one that McLish had already begun to face. An advocate of overall muscular tone natural to a woman's physique, she had become increasingly disillusioned by the sport's new emphasis on muscle size and the subsequent increase in steroid use by female bodybuilders. McLish was a staunch advocate of natural training and opposed any use of drugs. By the time Pumping Iron II hit the airwaves, she had decided to retire from competition following the 1984 Ms. Olympia contest.

For several years McLish was an outspoken opponent of steroid use. In a 2001 interview with Muscle & Fitness she lamented, "Women's bodybuilding missed the whole point. Pardon the pun, but women's bodybuilding wasn't allowed to grow naturally." Instead McLish looked toward the late 1990s appearance of fitness competitions as the rightful successor to the type of bodybuilding she espoused. Reflecting on this new field she continued, "in a way, this makes me feel like I won, in the long run."

Produced Books, Videos, and Clothing

Though McLish had left the competitors spotlight, she was still much sought after by the public. She was a regular on the training seminar circuit and served as a spokesperson for many fitness organizations. In 1984 Warner Books published her acclaimed strength training book Flex Appeal. She followed it with 1987's Perfect Parts which focused on "spot changing" different areas of your body through weightlifting. Both books worked on the premise that physical fitness was attainable by any woman. "Not everyone can have expensive furs, precious jewels, silk dresses or designer suits to put on," she explained the Los Angeles Times. "But everybody can have a body that anything will look good on." Both books were well-received by the public and are still selling nearly 20 years after publication.

In 1990 McLish partnered with K-Mart to release a line of workout clothing. Having learned to sew as a child from her seamstress mother, McLish was closely involved with the design of the clothes. The line "Rachel McLish for The Body Company" appeared in 2,200 K-Mart stores in January of 1990. The following year, sales of her line accounted for over a quarter percent of all sportswear sales in the country.

Unfortunately her budding acting career did not fare as well. In her acting debut she played a bodybuilder in the critically trashed 1984 made-for-TV movie Getting Physical. In 1992 she had her feature film debut opposite Academy-Award winner Lou Gossett, Jr. in the action film Aces: Iron Eagle III. That was followed by a starring role in 1996's Ravenhawk in which McLish played a wronged Native American woman out for revenge. It was notable only in that she performed all of her own stunts. Both films were produced by her husband Ron Samuels whom she had married in 1990. She found more success when she returned to fitness and in 1995 released a very popular workout video, In Shape with Rachel McLish.

By 2001 McLish and husband Samuels were enjoying a comfortable life in Palm Springs, California. Though she had long since given up professional bodybuilding, she still maintained a very active lifestyle, including a return to her old loveballet. She was also planning to release a line of aloe-based skin products and a new line of fitness wear. Meanwhile she and her husband had begun pursuing a new hobbybuying, refurbishing, and selling homes. "We really enjoy design," she told Muscle & Fitness. "We put our heart and soul into it and we're passionate about it." The parallels to her years of weight training did not escape her. "A sense of aesthetics comes naturally to me, but you have to work on that ability, just like in bodybuilding," she continued. "You might have the potential, but if you don't work at it, and read up and be aware of what's out there, you won't fulfil that potential."

Selected works


Flex Appeal, Warner Books, 1984.

Perfect Parts, Warner Books, 1987.


Getting Physical, 1984.

Pumping Iron II: The Women, 1985.

Aces: Iron Eagle III, 1992

Ravenhawk, 1996.



Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1987.

Muscle & Fitness, February 1981; January 2001, p. 156.


"Rachel McLish," International Federation of Bodybuilding Website, (March 25, 2003).

Candace LaBalle

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McLish, Rachel: 1958—: Bodybuilder

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