The Mr. America pageant is a piece of American lore that few people have closely examined at length. That’s too bad, since it is the longest continuous running bodybuilding competition in the country and it was partly founded on ideals that link us back to the Greeks. Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon, a thoroughly researched and in-depth history of its rise and fall, is a tale rife with a complex cast of characters and set against the backdrop of ever-shifting American ideas about masculinity.
It’s also a book that John Fair is well-suited to write. Currently Adjunct Professor of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin’s Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, Fair has competed in nearly 80 weightlifting and powerlifting meets, was a judge for the 1973 Mr. America and wrote six other books, including Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. Fair’s insight and interest in probing these questions is personal: What brought Mr. America to prominence? And, perhaps more interestingly, why did it fade into obscurity?
The answer to the latter question was partially provided by Fair’s teaching and his own experience growing up in the 1950s and 60s (he was a senior in high school in 1961). “America was no longer the same place as it was during the first half of the 20th century, and bodybuilding seemed to provide a microcosm of some of the changes that were taking place in society,” says Fair. “It was a showy and at times flagrant example of how far America had strayed from the idealism—and naiveté—we had when I was a child in the ‘50s. Depictions and appraisals of the body were part of this larger process.”
The fall of Mr. America happened at the same time as students across the country were spurred by feminism and the civil rights movement to question the idea of what it means to be American. “Within this cultural environment, the existence of the Mr. America title, whose existence implies meaning and identity to the world American, was fatally jeopardized,” Fair writes in the introduction.
The book’s thesis, which Fair harkens back to throughout the tome, is about the loss of the Mr. America pageant’s original motivating ideals, which had its roots in ancient Greece. Mr. America is nothing if not comprehensive in scope. Having interviewed nearly 100 major figures in the physical culture movement, including 25 Mr. Americas, and brought many printed and manuscript sources to bear, Fair’s survey begins in the late 19th century and moves all the way through bodybuilding’s scandal-ridden decade, the 1990s.
I asked Fair if he learned anything that truly surprised him over the course of his research and writing: “A phenomenon that somewhat surprised me was how much homosexuality and hustling was part of the bodybuilding culture. I already knew about it generally, but what surprised me was its extent,” he says. “It’s a subject that for many years was very hush-hush, and for that reason it has been very difficult to research. More information is starting to come out as times have changed, but I’m not sure we will ever learn anything approximating the whole truth.”
Fair also devotes a chapter to the impact of professionalization—and how amateurism was brought into the fold of bodybuilding. This is a precursor to the later rampant commercialization that, in many ways, is the sport’s undoing. Although now it’s commonplace in a range of industries (see: reality show competitions, YouTube music stars and the like), back then this was a new trend. One of his sources for this chapter, Wayne DeMilia, was a promoter for two decades who had a huge impact on bodybuilding. “He not only made Mr. Olympia the most prestigious title in the sport but was largely responsible for professionalizing bodybuilding and professionalizing amateurism,” Fair says.
Without spoiling Fair’s conclusion, it’s safe to say that he does have some interesting ideas about how to restore Mr. America and the ethos behind it to their former glory. As it turns out, the Greeks—with their focus on maintaining a healthy balance between body and mind and virtues like function, moderation and beauty—were on to something. “Mr. America at one time embodied all of these properties as an honorable symbol of the greatest nation on earth.”