May 28 – Culver City, CA


By Bill Dobbins

Figure was supposed to be the NPC/IFBB answer to the complaints among women competitors that fitness competition was just too hard, too dangerous and required too much specialized training (gymnastics). 

Mary Elisabeth Lado - 1st
Amber Littlejohn - 2nd

Figure was supposed to be fitness without the performance, but it hasn't worked out that way.  Witness the two winners at the California Pro - Mary Elizabeth Lado was first, Amber Littlejohn second and both have long-legged, long-proportioned model-type bodies rather than the more compact physiques you find rising to the top in fitness.   Figure women in general don't have the kind of bodies that are suited to gymnastics.  They look more like dancers, which many are.

Or fitness models – which most also are.

Of course, figure judging is nothing if not inconsistent.  Although there is now a style of figure scoring that most judges tend to follow, there is really no kind of objective standard that applies, certainly not anything like as objective as that of bodybuilding.  So different groups of judges in different part of the country can and will differ in their assessments.   As a matter of fact, last year's contest was the "beginning of the end" for several figure competitors who had done well in other areas of the country but whose low scores in California seems to have lead judges to reevaluate them in subsequent contests and score them much lower in each event.

Michelle Adams - 3rd

In addition, a given judging panel can be highly inconsistent in their choices in a specific contest. Mary Elizabeth and Amber have physiques reminiscent of Davana Medina and Jenny Lynn, the two most successful IFBB figure competitors.   At the 2005 Cal Pro,  3rd place Michelle Adams had more-or-less the same type of body but the women who placed 4th (Tara Scotti) and 5th (D.J. Wallis) definitely did not.  Tara and D.J. are two of my favorite models and I think they look terrific, but their body types are much different than the Davana-Jenny-Mary Elizabeth-Amber standard model.  They do not have long-proportioned, leggy bodies.  On what basis did the judges pluck these two out of a stage full of relatively comparable beautiful faces and physiques?  None I can figure out. 

On the other hand, once you accept that there really isn't any standard in figure - other than choosing women who look like competitors who have won in the past - then no explanation is necessary.   With no standards there can be no justifications or critical analysis.  But this kind of takes the fun out of it for the audience and tends to kill the motivation of would-be competitors.

One judging decision that did bother me (to the point where I was reprimanded for questioning call-outs where judges could hear me – sorry about that) was the treatment of Mascha Tieken of the Netherlands.  Mascha has exactly the long-legged, long-waisted look of the top figure competitors.  And yet she finished in the last group – tied for 17th.  In part this happened because Mascha is slightly more muscular and defined than competitors like Mary Elizabeth and Amber.  Not bigger or more massive, just more ripped.  It might be that she is a year or two ahead of the "sliding scale" used by the judges to assess what is "too muscular" or not. 

Tara Scotti - 4th
D.J. Wallis - 5th

It may also be that the judges haven't seen her before and didn't really look.  That is not unheard of.  In fact, it is much heard of.  At the Emerald Cup Pro Fitness Competition the judges almost totally ignored IFBB World Fitness Champion Rose Mena – who had exactly the kind of attractive but compact kind of body the judges liked in the winners.   Again, with no real standards in place you can't criticize the judges for anything except consistency – and placing Mascha in a group with women who, however fit and attractive they were, did not look in any way like champion figure competitors – was highly inconsistent indeed.

Of course, while consistency and predictability are usually positive factors, sometimes they are not.  As far as I could see, there was very little to separate Mary Elizabeth Lado and Amber Littlejohn.  You had blond all-American beauty vs. gorgeously exotic, but both with the requisite "fitness supermodel" kind of body.  Mary Elizabeth had lost a little muscularity and Amber had gained back some of what she lost last year so they were much alike in this regard as well.  A very close decision, you would think.  And yet it seems as if every judge voted for Mary Elizabeth in every round.  This seems rather odd.  You'd have thought the outcome should have been much closer.

Mascha Tieken

Of course, when I talked to some of the competitors backstage after the contest few seemed surprised by the results.  Most said the same thing: Mary Elizabeth is managed by J.M. Manion and Amber is not.  Of course, there is no evidence that this kind of political influence had anything to do with the scoring.  Certainly, no judge could be criticized for scoring Mary Elizabeth first. She looked terrific.  But it is significant that most of the competitors seem to take for granted that politics routinely dictates the outcome of competitions.  So even if there is not a word of truth in this accusation it certainly has caused NPC/IFBB figure and fitness women to believe they are not being judged accurately.  And that's a shame.

Another thing in the contest worth pointing out was the participation of former bodybuilder Cathy LaFrancoise Priest.  As a bodybuilding competitor, Cathy was a terrific lightweight and was capable of winning contests when there were three weight divisions used so that genuine lightweights could compete among themselves rather than against middleweights, as happens when there are only two weight divisions.

Cathy Priest

But unfortunately Cathy's appearance in the contest once again proves the rule that good bodybuilders and fitness competitors – with compact physiques rather than elongated ones – simply have no chance in genetically-specific figure contests.   But even more unfortunately, the IFBB has recently – and misguidedly – eliminated weight divisions for female pro bodybuilders.  So somebody with a wonderful but very small bodybuilding physique like Cathy would not have a prayer in contests with only a single weight divisions – as would be the case with Juliette Bergmann and will be true for other outstanding but smaller competitors like Dayana Cadeau, Valentina Chepiga, Joanna Thomas and Denise Masino.

So the IFBB has effectively closed the sport to women like Cathy Priest – and others like her.  But one thing women like this can not do successfully is switch over to figure competition.  Of the three categories – bodybuilding, fitness and figure – the latter is the most genetically-specific and the one in which competitors have the least ability to change and improve if they don't happen to have the right kind of shape and proportions to suit the judges.