Bev Francis: Disruptor

Bev Francis was introduced to the bodybuilding world by the 1985 film Pumping Iron II: The Women. Bev was a successful and celebrated athlete, a champion powerlifter and a national shot put champion. She also had more muscle and was stronger than the other female bodybuilders of the time. But to understand why she was such a disruption in the sport, one has to look at the history of female bodybuilding up to that point.

When Bev Francis first appeared on the scene in PUMPING IRON II, she had the body of a champion powerlifter. After a few years of bodybuilding training, her physique was more symmetrical and aesthetic Bill Dobbins

The first competitions for modern female bodybuilding began in 1977, according to IFBB women's archivist/historian Steve Wennerstrom. But competitors back then had not trained long enough or seriously enough to build much muscle mass. Back then, it was all about women dieting hard enough to get very slim. Until the first Ms. Olympia in 1980, these were basically diet contests. In the beginning, in many cases, women were discouraged from doing bodybuilding poses, and in some, they were forced to wear high heels, like in a beauty pageant.

Muscular woman Bev Francis performs a dumbbell workoutBill Dobbins

Well, we now understand that it takes many years of serious training to create what we recognize as a true bodybuilding physique. For example, it was decades before men's bodybuilding saw bodies like Steve Reeves or Bill Pearl in the 1950s or Arnold or Sergio Oliva in the 1960s on the scene. Actual sports are, by definition, more progressive than skills like billiards or darts. Today's athletes are always better than those of the past. So the earliest female bodybuilders didn't have a lot of muscle mass, but as more women got involved, trained more years, and set higher goals, by the early 1980s, female bodybuilders began to show more and more bulky muscle mass and physique on stage.

But not much more. This kind of development takes time. And a problem in those early days was that the federations and the judges tended to react negatively to a woman

Bodybuilder showed more muscle than the set standard for the day. As Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines has noted, women developing their muscles primarily for aesthetic reasons is a new archetype, something not seen before at any time or place in history. Their appearance challenged common notions of femininity, morphology, and sexual and gender identity. So much of the culture frowned upon these women as they began to develop more muscle, and of course federation officials and judges are part of that culture.

Cool old school image of Bev Francis sitting on a pedestal This type of photo helped convince her critics of the aesthetic qualities of Bev Francis' body. Bill Dobbins

In the 1980s, Rachel McLish started the decade by winning the first Ms. Olympia. Rachel was slim, elegant and beautiful so she was a great example of being the first famous female bodybuilder to introduce the sport to the world. Then Rachel followed Cory Everson a few years later. Cory was tall, 5ft 9in, with a physique developed through years of athletic competition as a heptathlete. Cory had a lot of very aesthetic muscles, but not the level of musculature that would soon characterize female bodybuilders like Lenda Murray. Cory won the Ms. Olympia title for six consecutive years beginning in 1984, and her physique and good looks helped her find success on television and in several films. Because of this, Cory was the face of female bodybuilding as far as the public was concerned during this period in the late 1980s.

It was in this context that Bev Francis came into play. With a powerlifter's physique, including lots of muscles, Bev only trained as a bodybuilder for a few months before filming Pumping Iron II began. So her body didn't have the aesthetics that we associate with bodybuilding. This presented the competition judges with a dilemma. Bev, to be on stage alongside someone with so much less muscle like Rachel McLish was a matter of apples to oranges. The judges had never seen a woman with so much solid musculature on stage. So there wasn't really a lot of precedent for such a ruling. That was completely new territory.

Female bodybuilding legend Bev Francis poses in a one-piece suit From the very beginning of her bodybuilding career, Bev Francis was capable and confident when it came to poses. Bill Dobbins

If you watch the film, you will see that Bev took eighth place in the competition. This was controversial in part because many proponents of women's bodybuilding thought Bev would face the same kind of rejection for having so much muscle as other competitors like Laura Combes or Kay Baxter have experienced. But that wasn't really true. A good way to demonstrate this is to compare Bev's physique in 1985 to what she looked like when she won the IFBB World Championship in 1987, defeating the amazing Anja Langer. After several years of real bodybuilding training, Bev showed much better symmetry and proportions, a smaller waist and excellent condition. In other words, an ACTUAL bodybuilding physique. With these enormous physical improvements, Bev also overwhelmed Anja with the quality and dynamic of her presentation. Anja seemed hesitant on stage, while Bev exuded energy and confidence.

Bev Francis was the first to showcase impressive size and definition on the competition stage. She paved the way for those who came in the '90s like Lenda Murray, Kim Chizevsky, Yaxeni Oriquen and Iris Kyle, and for our champions today, Andrea Shaw, Helle Trevino and Margie Martin. Women with a lot of aesthetic musculature and musculature have become the norm and standard in the industry. It might be difficult for younger fans to appreciate the extent to which Bev Francis was a disruptor in those early years, but she definitely was.

Bev Francis Career Achievements

Australian Athletics Team Member: 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982

  • (Missed track season 1980 due to knee injury)
  • Disciplines: shot put, discus throw, javelin throw and 100m reserve
  • Brought the Australian shot put record: 1977

World Powerlifting Champion: 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985

  • Broke more than 40 world records in powerlifting

Bev Francis: First woman to bench press 300 pounds

  • Best Lifts: Squats - 500 pounds, bench press - 335 pounds, deadlifts - 501 pounds
  • Star of the movie Pumping Iron II - The Women which was made in 1983 and released in 1985

IFBB World Professional Bodybuilding Championship: 1st Place - 1987

  • Ms. Olympia Bodybuilding Championship: 3rd place – 1987, 1988, 1989
  • Ms. Olympia Bodybuilding Championship: 2nd place – 1990, 1991

Opened Bev Francis Bodybuilding Gym in 1987 - Long Island, New York

  • Expanded gym to Bev Francis Gold's Gym in 1990 - Syosset, New York
  • In 2005 the name was changed to Powerhouse Gym, Bev Francis

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