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Thursday, July 5, 2012
Updated: July 13, 10:45 AM ET
Built to spec

By Kayleen Schaefer
ESPN The Magazine

Jodie Marsh
Marsh trained for eight short weeks before her first competition in 2011.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 23, 2012 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

JODIE MARSH HAS arrived too soon for another round of Botox shots.

"Jodie!" says Brigid Hickey, a nurse at Dermaspa in Milton Keynes, England, after Marsh appears wearing heaps of hot pink lipstick and hair that's dyed the same crimson color as the Little Mermaid's. "Why am I seeing you again? I had you in March."

"I need a bit more Botox," Marsh says, wrinkling her forehead to prove it.

"I don't know what you've been doing with it," Hickey says disapprovingly.

"Mine doesn't last as long as everyone else's," Marsh insists. "My body just eats it up. Maybe it thinks it's food. It's like, Oh, that'll do."

Jodie Marsh Food Chart
Oats, protein shakes, eggs, brown rice and water make up Marsh's diet during competition prep.

That Marsh is hungry is understandable. The 33-year-old is working out three times a day -- two hours of cardio, one hour of weights -- and forbids herself from eating anything but unsweetened oatmeal, brown rice, protein shakes and egg whites, in portions so small they wouldn't satisfy Victoria Beckham.

Marsh, who is famous in part for going to London nightclubs wearing only a belt as a shirt, is a reality-TV star and a "glamour model," what the British call the barely dressed women who pose with parted lips for tabloids and laddie magazines like Zoo and FHM. But that's not why she's being so abstemious. Last October, Marsh shocked the country by going from pinup to pumped up overnight. It was the equivalent of Coco Austin taking up bodybuilding.

The first shots of Marsh's new physique, in a string bikini with a dark-mahogany tan highlighting every muscle, made national news. In those pictures, Marsh, who has 32GG silicone implants and a sleeve of tattoos on her left arm, looks like the love child of the Incredible Hulk and Jessica Rabbit drawn even badder. "Some negative people in England said: 'She's trying to get attention. It's a publicity stunt,'" Marsh says. "But you can't do this as a publicity stunt. Shaving your hair off is a publicity stunt. I've stuck two fingers up at everyone who doubted me."

Whether she's seeking attention or not, Marsh likes the press she's been receiving these days and has indeed flipped her countrymen their version of the bird. She's competing -- and winning. Marsh placed fifth at her first competition, in October in Sheffield, England, and she claimed her first title in May, winning the Fit Body category at the International Natural Bodybuilding Federation Championships in Washington, D.C.

At Dermaspa, Marsh is not the same beast as seen onstage or in photographs. She's dressed in a black lacy bra and turquoise sports bra with a baby-pink tank top layered over it, and red skintight Abercrombie & Fitch sweatpants. Her shoes are red high-heeled Nike Dunks. "I got them in America," she says. "I love them so much. I ordered six more pairs. I trained in them the other day and the whole gym was like, 'You're crazy.'" She's midway through her training for the United Kingdom Bodybuilding & Fitness Federation Muscle Talk Championships in late June and looks lithe and tiny, more like a dancer than a competitive weightlifter. Most bodybuilders carry themselves in a sort of squat way, as if it hurts them to lurch around, but the 5-foot-2, 112-pound Marsh moves gracefully and quickly.

Before lying on Hickey's table, Marsh scarfs down a lunch of 25 grams of brown rice and a protein shake. The nurse has agreed to more Botox, fillers and a collagen treatment, and two of the needle punctures in Marsh's left cheek start to drip blood. But Marsh is in pain only because of how much weight she lifted a few days ago. "I'm aching," she says, rubbing the top of her chest. "I maybe went too heavy. I was feeling really strong."


IT'S DIFFICULT TO understand how famous Marsh is in the U.K., where the number of celebrities minted because of their tabloid antics might sink the small island. "If Jodie went into city center right now, every person would know her," says one of the estheticians at Dermaspa.

"I'd get harassed by people with girls going, 'Oh my god,' " adds Marsh.

The country first met her 10 years ago on a reality-television show called Essex Wives, about families in a bucolic region northeast of London known for flaunting both its wealth and its daughters. There, white Range Rovers clog the back roads, and towering heels are the most substantial thing girls wear on the weekends. At the time of the show, Marsh was 23 and working as a lap dancer at a gentleman's club called Stringfellows. "People found it fascinating," Marsh says. "My mom and dad have their own scaffolding business, and they had all of this money and houses, and I was a lap dancer. I wanted to earn my own money. It was good money at the time, about 10,000 pounds a week in cash."

Jodie Marsh
For Marsh, bodybuilding is a way to legitimaze her fame and silence critics.

The notoriety from Essex Wives nabbed her a top spot for young British women interested in instantly upping their exposure -- The Sun's Page 3, which she graced six times, only once with a top on. She also turned herself into her own genre, appearing in an endless string of talk shows and more than 10 other reality series and becoming a regular on gossip blogs. Her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother 4 in 2006 was supposed to raise her profile above being just a model and club regular. It did not go as planned. After her open conversations about her sex life and being routinely humiliated by housemates, Marsh was the first person eliminated by the viewers and became an instant target for the media. She started to hate her infamy, but she still blames the tabloids more than her exploits. "When the British press writes nasty things," Marsh says, "people are nasty to you." Following her elimination, strangers even shouted "slag" (the U.K. version of slut) at her in the street and, if she didn't respond, occasionally threw beer cans or bottles at her. "It's hard being famous," she says. "I wanted to kill myself. I was going to drive my car off the road."

But Marsh knows how to bait the public and the media with the very things they criticize, fueling her celebrity by feeding the tabs with outrageous outfits and salacious tidbits. She hates fellow glamour model Jordan! She's a lesbian and wants sperm donors! She's becoming a bodybuilder! Yet for someone who trades on her appearance and antics, Marsh spouts the same things about fame as other press seekers who don't like the attention they're getting (we're looking at you, Kardashian). One moment she brags about making the home pages of gossip sites, then she laments how terrible the press is. This scrutiny was not what she dreamed of as a preteen who idolized Pamela Anderson. But really, who dreams about reality?

It took Marsh a couple of years to figure out that being infamous was not the same as being adored. In December 2008, she'd decided it was the end of an era -- being a drunken party girl just wouldn't be the same once she turned 30. So she planned her last big hurrah, a rock-'n-roll-themed birthday bash with 500 guests invited to the Sugar Hut in Brentwood. She wanted to wear a cheetah-print bikini with huge circles cut out of the top and sparkly pasties, her then-platinum hair shaved into a Mohawk. "I hired a trainer and said: 'This is my outfit. Make my abs look flat,'" Marsh says. "And he said, 'Okay, no problem.' "

It was the mere suggestion of stomach muscles after just a few weeks that got her hooked on being fit. "From the minute I started, I never looked back," she says. "I stopped partying and drinking. I used to take my coffee with five sugars, and overnight I went to black coffee. I stopped pizza and chips and went to fruit and protein shakes."

But it's one thing to have a come-to-the-gym moment and another to turn into someone who smears on fake tan and clenches muscles for judges. As she spent more time working out and trying to figure out her life, Marsh started thinking about competitive bodybuilding. And predictably (if you're Marsh), that final kick in the arse came in the opportunity to film yet another reality show in 2011. Men's interest channel DMAX, which had produced her wildly popular tattooing reality show, gave Marsh eight weeks to become meet-ready.

"Jodie Marsh: Bodybuilder," which ran on DMAX on Jan. 24, begins with a disclaimer that the program includes profanity. Then the screen goes dark before you hear heavy breathing and Marsh's uncensored voice gasping, "Oh, f-- me." As she's revealed to be doing biceps curls, the narrator says, "Jodie Marsh is about to swap her famously minimalist wardrobe for 55 days of blood, sweat and absolutely no beers." In the time it took to film the show, Marsh's body fat went from 25 percent to 10 percent; she lost 20 pounds of fat and gained 8 pounds of muscle.

The show was so successful that a follow-up ran on June 20, focusing on her competition in America. Called "Jodie Marsh: Brawn in the USA," it includes Marsh, in a child's-size Hulk tee, interviewing Lou Ferrigno. "You think of fitness as being a bit boring," she says, "but I think I break the mold a little. I have a six-pack, but I'm still good fun."


WHEN SHE STARTED trading cocktails for protein shakes, Marsh was warned by her modeling clients against getting too scary-huge. "She still looks great," said an editor of Zoo magazine to the DMAX crew, "but if Jodie starts doing her best Arnie impression and looks like she could squash a guy like a grape in bed ... I don't think guys want to be frightened."

Clearly they aren't. The musclewoman makes news whenever she puts an exposed body part on Twitter (which is often, usually her abs or boobs; she recently wrote the name of her 250,000th follower in black marker across the latter). "Initially a lot of people were shocked," Marsh says of her new body. "They were like, 'What has she done?' England can be quite bitchy. I got girls saying: 'You look like a man. Why would you want abs that look like that? They look horrible.' Obviously I disagree. I love my abs."

Jodie Marsh
Marsh was the first person kicked off the U.K. version of Celebrity Big Brother 4.

Marsh still lives in Essex, in the tiny town of Brentwood, in a cottage that's decorated as if a gay pride parade just ran through it. Every surface is covered with glitter, a cheesecake picture of her or a piece of Harley-Davidson memorabilia. (She bought herself a Harley Nightster 1200 last year.) Her home is about 400 yards from her parents'. They also worried initially about all of the heavy lifting she was doing. "My first reaction was total horror," says her mom, Kris. "She says that I say that about everything she does, but I was concerned because of the regimen. What she could eat seemed awful to me. It's not really food."

According to Marsh, 80 percent of bodybuilding is about your diet, and the discipline it takes to limit what you eat is why more people don't do it. Hers is devised by Eddie "the Savage" Abbew, one of her three trainers. The phase she just finished, called bulking, lasts for several weeks and starts the cycle. The food is still bland but in larger amounts -- four portions of 100 grams of brown rice per day, plus six egg whites or a protein shake at every meal. She's also allowed the occasional piece of bread or cheese or even a complete face stuffing. On Pancake Day, the Tuesday before Lent (aka Shrove Tuesday), when an Englishman's patriotic duty is to eat flapjacks, Marsh had 12. "I loved it," she says.

Currently, she's in the dieting phase of training: For 10 weeks, she consumes as little food as possible to lose fat. That explains why she looks smaller now than she will during competition. Her daily meals, precooked and packed neatly into a Harley-Davidson bag, are pretty much always the same: 30 grams of oatmeal and a protein shake for breakfast; 25 grams of brown rice and a protein shake three times during the afternoon; and three whole eggs for dinner.

"You get bored of it," she says, grimacing. Before bed, she has a casein shake, which is supposed to release protein into her system as she sleeps. Throughout the day, she drinks four liters of water. "When you drink that much, it's not like a normal pee," she says. "It comes out like a flood." And to break things up, she smokes Marlboro Golds, though she calls the habit disgusting. "Loads of bodybuilders smoke because we can't eat much," she says. "We're hungry, so we say, 'I guess I'll have a cigarette. I've got to have something.'"

Jodie Marsh
Before a meet, Marsh's trainer smears on Dream Tan and Bikini Bite glue.

A common assumption is that bodybuilders always lift as much weight as they can. But Marsh says her current sessions aren't supposed to be too taxing because she's consuming so few calories. "I'm not trying to smash myself to pieces," she says. "It's about maintaining what's there."

At her local Brentwood gym, Fitness First, for her morning workout, Marsh sports a pair of pink rhinestone-encrusted Converse sneakers and is focusing on her back, starting with three sets of 15 pull-ups. "What I love about these is most men can't do them properly, and I can get on and do 15," she says. "You see really manly men, and they can't do it." She looks as if she's starting a lawn mower as she does three sets of 15 bent-over rows with 90 pounds. She isolates her lats by pulling 70 pounds down to her chin, as if working a tire pump (three sets of 12 reps).

When Marsh lifts, she exhales, but in a girlie way that sounds like a toddler sneezing. "Just somehow you can do more when you're breathing right," she says. "It's weird. My trainer was like, 'Spit it out.'"


BEFORE HER FIRST time on stage in Sheffield, Marsh was terrified. "S--ing myself is not the word," she says. But in the U.S., the nerves were gone. "When I came out in America," she says, "I felt like I deserved to be there, like I'd earned it. I was bouncing off the walls. I loved it. All of the women in every category were screaming and high-fiving each other."

Marsh prefers to enter only "natural" competitions, which means she is given frequent drug tests and even polygraphs to make sure she isn't using steroids. In these meets, contestants are judged on muscularity, leanness, balance and symmetry during multiple phases. One phase is quarter turns; a second, compulsory poses like "chest pulls" and "relaxed"; and another consists of the same poses again but done in a dance routine. All of it looks about the same in real competitions as it did when Hans and Franz did it on Saturday Night Live. "At first I was like, Wha?" Marsh says. "It's a bit weird." Now she has embraced the awkwardness. In fact, she and her best friend, Lauren Roberts, a secondary-school teacher she's known for 10 years, have taken it off the stage. Says Roberts: "We did it on New Year's when I was dressed as the queen and Jodie was dressed as Natalie Portman's character in Black Swan. And once, at 3 a.m., we did it on the side of the motorway. The urge just overtook us, and we got out of the car and did it."

Most female bodybuilders want to look as intimidating as possible, especially in what can be a drab scene in England. But when Marsh goes onstage she draws from the old Jodie -- the one who knows how to get people talking. She styles herself as if she's doing a soft-core photo shoot -- in a custom-fit, neon string bikini with high-volume hair and piled-on fake eyelashes. "I'm like Arnold Schwarzenegger but pretty," she says. "What people don't like about female bodybuilding is that women look like men. It amazes me that the other women work so hard on their bodies and don't make an effort with their hair and makeup, because it's really hard to do all of that work. I would argue that you should look good all over."

To that end, she won't be toning down her hair color -- she wants it cotton-candy pink next -- or downgrading to smaller implants anytime soon. "I did them the right way," she says, "just before I started training so I could let them settle in. Some of the women who got them after they started training look wonky. One woman had one boob up here and the other down there." But she's not going to return to the days when she cinched a belt around her chest and went out either. "I don't miss nightclubs at all," she says. "There's just no part of me that wants to do it. I'm so happy staying in and doing my cardio."

For Marsh, this transformation is about more than her T&A. Sure, she may have come to bodybuilding as a way to put herself on display once again. But this time, she feels less like a bimbo and more like a badass. "People don't respect you as much for the reality shows and the modeling; it's a bit of a joke," she says. "But now that I do the bodybuilding, they respect me. I have a purpose. I'll still do topless modeling, but I feel more womanly, like a grown-up. Then, it was all I could do. It was my job. But now I do it because I have a good body and I want to show it off. And I can."

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