Bodybuilding was once considered the manliest of the manly sports, but thanks to changes in attitudes, health and perceptions about beauty there are countless female bodybuilders in the world (both amateur and professional). Having covered the top male bodybuilders in a previous video, it was only natural that we followed up with a list of the top ten female bodybuilders of all-time, breaking things down in a similar fashion by analyzing their physique first and then also taking other things into account like the number of accolades they’ve received and/or the amount of fame they were able to gain. So, get your spray tans, thong bikinis and supplements ready as we break down the top 10 female bodybuilders of all-time!
10. Jodie Marsh
We begin our list with Jodie Marsh, who is the youngest female bodybuilder on this list and one of the few who weren’t a part of the “Golden Age of Female Bodybuilding” that occurred in the 1980’s). Like most women on this list, she came from a background in modeling in her native Britain, where she is now relatively famous as a media personality, columnist, model and actress. While she may have never reached the size or bulk of some of the women on this list, it’s safe to assume that the “culprit” (if you want to call it that) behind that is the fact that she’s always prided herself as a “natural bodybuilder”, meaning that she abstains from using any performance enhancing drugs to enhance her physique to or add bulk. So, while a lot of the women on this list have been huge proponents of body positivity, they were all looking at it from a different perspective than Marsh, who wasn’t attempting to be as bulky as a man in order to be taken seriously as a bodybuilder or fitness competitor. It’s that combined with her fame in the UK that places her as the first entry on this list and while some may say she’s unattainable attractive, at least she’s doing things the right way which should help keep both active (in the world of fitness competitions) and alive (in general), something that sadly cannot be said for everyone on this list.
9. Sharon Bruneau
Sharon Bruneau is a retired French-Canadian bodybuilder who was born in Timmins, Ontario in 1964. The most decorated and famous female bodybuilder in Canada, a country where few women pursue sports in general (especially bodybuilding), it’s safe to say that she was a trailblazer for women in the bold/cold North. Like others on this list, she started out as a model, something she found success until she contracted a serious case of pneumonia, which ended up lowering her weight to a near gaunt level. To regain that weight she began training with weights and after finding that she was both adept at putting on muscle and landing gigs as a fitness model, truly found her calling. She ended up putting on over 50 pounds of muscle during her peak and has been on a lot of fitness magazine covers for rags like Muscle & Fitness as well as Flex. Did we mention she was a trailblazer? Well, we meant it, as she was one of the first ever female bodybuilders to be signed to Weider Health and Fitness publications as a representative (from 1991 to 1998). While she retired from bodybuilding in 1994 she had an equally impressive career as a fitness competitor and then as an actress, making her one of the first triple (or quadruple) threats in the bodybuilding arena and also on this list!
8. Yaxeni Oriquen
Yaxeni is one of the most famous international bodybuilders on this list, as she was born in Cabimas, Zulia, Venezuela as the youngest of nine children. A natural beauty, she grew up as a model and had dreams of becoming an actress. At the age of 23, though, she decided to dedicate her life to bodybuilding and by 1993 found that she was a natural, winning four amateur contests and winning her professional card after winning the Ibero/Central American Championships. She decided to use that as an opportunity to pursue the American dream not long after that and did just that, moving to the US and piling up accolade after accolade over the years, with her most impressive showing being her Ms. Olympia title in 2005. That makes her the most decorated and successful Venezuelan bodybuilder of all-time and also one of the most decorated female bodybuilders of all-time, as she’s won five Ms. International titles as well (in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2012), proving that she’s as consistent as she is great.
7. Tonya Knight
If there’s a golden age of female bodybuilding, Tonya Knight has to have been a part of it, as she competed during the 1980’s, an era in which most of the women on this list were active and in their primes. Knight loses a few points, though, because she has a controversial history as someone who has apparently circumvented the rules (which, to be fair, is more common than not in the world of bodybuilding, especially in the 80’s). IFBB officials presented “strong evidence” that she was using someone else’s urine to pass tests before competitions which lead them to revoke some of her placements and championships, namely the 1989 Ms. International competition where she placed first (and the 1988 IFBB Ms. Olympia where she placed 4th). Beyond that, she also had to return her prize money which totaled over $12,000, which is a lot of money now but was especially a lot of money in the 80’s, especially for female bodybuilders. The reason she is on this list at all, though, is that she overcame that bad press and got back on the right path, winning the Ms. International title in 1991 “without incident”. She retired not long after, but she had already proved her point, that she didn’t need to cheat to win in an era where everyone was cheating to win.
6. Rebekka Armstrong
If this list proves anything it’s that there are a few different paths that one can take to make it into the professional bodybuilding realm, from those that came from the wrestling world or those that came from playing sports in their youth. Rebekka Armstrong didn’t follow the typical path, however, but she was definitely a household name before she began her career as a fitness competitor, depending on which house you’re asking, as she was a Playboy Playmate. As Playmate of the Month in September of 1986, it seemed like the world was her oyster, however, things took a bad turn when she found out that she was HIV positive in 1988. After she attempted to escape dealing with her newfound status for a couple years by doing drugs, she eventually came to grips with her sickness and decided to become an advocate for those less fortunate than she was. She announced to the world that she was HIV positive in a September 1994 issue of The Advocate magazine, and with the help of Hugh Hefner and Playboy helped create an AIDS-awareness campaign. She actually didn’t start bodybuilding until about a decade after that, placing first at the 2004 Muscle Beach contest (and winning her first three contests), which is part of her plan to stay healthy and to continue to beat her disease. As an open lesbian, she’s also been a huge role model for people everywhere and considering that she contracted HIV in the 80’s is a definite success story from a time when there were so few.
5. Nikki Fuller
Female bodybuilders aren’t as well known for their bulk as their male counterparts, that is, most aren’t, but there are always exceptions to the rule and one of the biggest exceptions to that rule is Nikki Fuller. Born in 1968, Fuller was an absolute beast at her peak mass, coming in at over 240 lbs., with biceps that reportedly measured over 20 inches. To attain that mass she lifted tremendous amounts, with some of her best lifts coming in at over 315 lbs on the bench press and over half-a-ton (1,100 pounds) for multiple reps on the leg press back in the day before fake plates were even an option. A highly decorated fitness competitor, she also transitioned into wrestling like many women on this list and while she never quite became the household name that other bodybuilder turned wrestlers like Nicole Bass or Chyna did, she did have a respectable career as an actress appearing on television shows like Ally McBeal, Arli$$, Just Shoot Me! and Nikki. She was even in a commercial for Right Guard Extreme deodorant with Dave Chapelle, which makes her one of the biggest triple threats on this list (bodybuilding, acting and wrestling), with the most impressive IMDB to boot!
4. Betty Pariso
Betty Pariso is a legend in the world of bodybuilding and of all the women on this list definitely had the longest and most storied career. Born in 1956 in Kentucky, Pariso (who was born Betty Slade) was a natural athlete that grew up on a farm where she excelled playing sports in high school and attracted the attention of numerous track and field scouts at different colleges around the area. A natural athlete who was always in shape, Pariso didn’t start actually bodybuilding until later in her life when she was in her 30s, something that she initially did to stay fit and put some weight on her body as she felt that she was too thin and “stick” like. She first competed in amateur bodybuilding competitions in 1988 and by 1996 had earned her pro card (at the 1996 NPC Nationals). In doing so she became the oldest (at the age of 40) women to earn an IFBB Pro Card, proving that age isn’t anything but a number and that it’s never too late to pursue one’s dreams. Beyond that, Pariso didn’t actually retire from professional bodybuilding until 2010, meaning that she was competing well into her 50’s but not only that, excelling as she ended up winning her second pro title in 2009 at the age of 53. Thanks to her amazing career she’s won numerous accolades as well, like winning the NPC Nationals or receiving the LifeTime Achievement Award at Europa Dallas. As a pure bodybuilder she’s probably the most decorated on this list but because she never made the switch over to professional wrestling she isn’t as high on this list as others simply because she doesn’t have the name recognition that others have, but in the world of bodybuilding you can’t get much bigger than Pariso.
3. Nicole Bass
Nicole Bass was perhaps best known for her membership on the “Wack Pack”, a loose collective of interesting guests that appeared on The Howard Stern show back during its heyday (if by heyday you mean the days in which Stern was extremely politically incorrect). Bass’ physique was so impressive that the re-occuring gag on the Stern show was that she had to be a man, something that clearly upset her as she tried many times over the years to prove that she was in fact born a woman. She joined the Stern show back in 1993 after appearing in the pay-per-view television event The Miss Howard Stern New Year’s Eve Pageant but what many fans of that show didn’t know was that she was also a decorated bodybuilder and wrestler, like many women on this list. Perhaps more than a lot of the bodybuilding wrestlers, though, she was extremely decorated as a fitness competitor, winning the NPC Nationals in 1997 and also participating in basically every tournament possible between the mid-1980’s and late 1990’s (including the Ms. Olympia contest). She began her wrestling career after retiring from bodybuilding in 1998, joining Extreme Championship Wrestling during the first half of that year, which lead to a contract with the then World Wrestling Federation (where she debuted as the bodyguard for fellow female wrestler Sable during Wrestlemania XV). Sadly, like other women on this list, Bass died a premature death but because of her wide and varied career, it’s safe to say that she’ll never be forgotten.
2. Lisa Marie Varon
Lisa Marie Varon like many women on this list made her living as a bodybuilder and female wrestler but what differentiates her from people like Nicole Bass or Chyna is that she had a lot more accolades in the world of bodybuilding and fitness competitions than she did in the ring (as it typically works the other way around). Varon started her career in fitness competitions back in 1997 when she joined ESPN2’s Fitness America Series and within a couple years was placing high at competitions around the United States, including a second place finish at a fitness event in New York (which lead to her earning her International Federation of Bodybuilders Professional Fitness Card). It was through those competitions that Varon happened to meet Chyna, the number one entry on this list, who encouraged her to join the world of female wrestling and from there the rest is history as Varon became a two-time WWE Women’s Champion (as well as gaining accolades in the then rival Total Nonstop Action Wrestling where she wrestled under the name Tara), where she became a five-time TNA Knockouts champion.
Now, Chyna is definitely the most famous name on this list but because she was obviously a lot more well known for her professional wrestling career than her career as a bodybuilder, we’re sure that some of you will take issue with her spot on this list. Regardless of whether or not Chyna, whose real name was Joan Laurer, had a lot of accolades as a bodybuilder she still will forever be remembered as one of the most physically impressive women to walk the planet. Laurer was so physically imposing that she often wrestled against men or was a bodyguard for other female wrestlers or even men, which meant that she (like a lot of other women on this list) had to deal with accusations of whether or not she was a “real” woman. Beyond her wrestling and bodybuilding career, Chyna did a lot for the body positivity movement, appearing in Playboy twice. She was also a pioneer in plastic surgery, as her original breast implants actually ruptured during a wrestling match, which combined with her sad final days prove that while she was a beacon of hope for women everywhere she was never completely comfortable in her own skin which is really just so sad considering the fact that she’s on top of a lot of lists like these out there. RIP, Chyna.