Words by Michelle Stiles
Photo by: www.kirstinprisk.com
Long brown hair, a year-round tan, big boobs and a tiny waist. All this, plus enough muscle to wrestle a man to the floor without chipping her French manicure. Michelle Stiles meets Joanna Thomas, Cornwall’s very own Miss Universe.
The world of professional bodybuilding is seen by many people as, well – a little bit odd. The contests are viewed not so much as a sport, but rather as an extreme beauty pageant, populated by muscle-bound, self-obsessed, steroid-addled meatheads. For most of us, it’s hard to fathom what could possibly drive a person (particularly a woman) to want to look that muscular.
But for one particular Cornish woman, bodybuilding is a way of life. At 29, Joanna Thomas (originally from Camborne) is one of the UK’s most successful female bodybuilders. Having recently been featured in a Channel Five documentary, Supersize She, as well as various other TV, radio and magazine items, Joanna now receives hundreds of emails each week from admirers all over the world.
Like me, at this point, you’re probably wondering if there was some terrible childhood trauma that sparked her desire to beef up. But according to Joanna, her reasons were pretty straightforward. “When I was born, I was premature, and I had severe asthma as a child. I couldn’t really do PE or compete in sports, and I wasn’t very fit. One day a student who was staying in my house showed me a bodybuilding magazine, and I knew I wanted to be like that. That was what started me off.” Jo began bodybuilding at 15. At 21, she became the youngest ever female body builder to win professional status in Britain, before moving to America to compete in international competitions including the Jan Tana Classic, the GNC Classic and Miss Olympia.
Standing at just 5 ft 2”, with long hair, blue eyes, an all-over tan, big boobs and a tiny waist, Jo (also known as Buff Barbie on her rather saucy website) has cultivated the Barbie-doll look favoured by her profession. But while she might conform to the stereotype in terms of appearance, that’s about as far as it goes. I find Jo to be anything but dim – in fact, she’s articulate, likeable and media-savvy. She’s aware that her chosen profession is viewed by many as quirky at best, and at worst, freakish. But she remains unconcerned by the fact that her appearance challenges accepted notions of what a woman should look like: “I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘you look like a guy’. I say to them, ‘Number one – okay, which guy in this room do I look like, and number two - if I’m masculine because I’ve got a bit of muscle to me, does that mean those guys sitting over there with skinny arms are feminine?’”
She also has no problem talking openly about her sexuality. “I’m attracted to personality more than anything else. I don’t look at it in a black and white way. To me it doesn’t matter whether someone’s gay, straight, bi, male, female, whatever. I’ve tried pretty much everything I can think of and I don’t regret a thing.”
On the subject of steroids, Jo admits that their use is widespread in bodybuilding, but she also (quite rightly) points out that performance-enhancing drugs are used in most other sports, too. When it comes to the question of her own use, she prefers not to answer directly. “The thing is, I can’t win whatever I say. If I do [take steroids] I’m a cheat; if I don’t, I’m a liar.”
“Everyone knows what goes on in sport. We do what we need to do to compete. The fact is, if you lined up a hundred men and gave them all steroids, they wouldn’t all run like Carl Lewis. You’ve got to have the right genetics; you’ve got to have training. Most top bodybuilders have spent ten years plus in training – a lot of them have been training for 20 years by the time they get to the top. You can’t buy a magic answer – you can’t buy time in a bottle. Steroids will just enhance what’s already there.”
But, having been at the top of her game for some years, Jo is beginning to tire of the competition circuit, and the intensive training and diet regimes that go with it. Despite the current flurry of media attention surrounding her after the Channel Five documentary, she’s considering retiring from the competition circuit. “I’ve got lots of ideas. I’m thinking about becoming a personal trainer or opening a gym, maybe here or in the States.” And good luck to her – after all, no one can stay buff forever. Apart from Barbie, obviously. But she’s plastic.