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Confessions of a Priest - Lee Priest Interview
A Mindblowing Interview from 1998
This interview is between Max Muscle (MM) and Lee back in 1998, with a foreword by Mike Falcon. It is a great read, as you see the humor and seriousness of Lee. Enjoy.
Lee Priest is one of bodybuilding's great enigmas, and a study in contrasts. He loves thecrowd, the fans, and speaking with members of the audience after shows, sometimes spending hours with them. But outside the bodybuilding beat, he's reserved and shy until he feels completely comfortable. He appears initially as a "typical" Australian: upbeat, devil-may-care and non-chalant, with enormous amounts of humor and general good will. Watch him in the gym or listen to storiesabout his training, however, and a deeply serious side' emerges. At just 26 years old, Priest has plenty of time remaining in his career. When it's completed, many observers agree that he will replace Franco Columbu as the greatest "short" contender ever...although Shawn Ray may have something to say about that. Both men believe that they will rank with the best ever, regardless of height, and few can dispute that. But their approaches are entirely different, with Ray always close to contest condition, a dark diamond that is constantly refined and polished, while Priest becomes "freaky" (his favorite adjective), putting on truly enormous amounts of muscle each successive season -- making his recent off-season weight of 285 pounds all the more impressive at his height. It's this ability to put on, chisel, and reframe enormous amounts of hard muscle mass on a short frame that separates the 2. Couple this with Priest's youth and the prognosis turns decidedly upbeat. There may not be any limit to his rise and ascension to strings of major titles, because when it's all said and done, Lee Priest has accomplished what most serious bodybuilders pursue endlessly; the drop-dead, staring-in-disbelief looks that he gets from BOTH the accomplished lifter and the uninitiated. At a recent photo shoot, where Priest wore a priest's robes, passersby literally stopped in their tracks, dumfounded. A bus full of Japanese tourists pulled over to allow the visitors to take rolls of pictures. Even the real priest who came out to see what all the fuss was about was impressed, inviting Priest to come back whenever he liked. (Photographer and Barbarian legend David Paul, who has a deep commitment to The Lord, engaged the priest in a lengthy conversation about the concept of the shoot, which wound up with the cleric endorsing the concept: After all, this mild send-up of The Exorcist does reflect that God and good eventually triumph over evil.) What's the "real" Lee Priest like? Fundamentally decent, with a deep and subtle sense of humor and a lot of complexities it takes a while to discover. So, read on...and meet a truly remarkable and thoroughly unassuming bodybuilding great.
Now, on to the interview!
MM: For the uninitiated, why don't you take our readers on a little Lee Priest historical retrospective. How did it all start?
Lee Priest: I did my first 3 bodybuilding shows when I was 13 years old.
MM: How did that go?
Lee Priest: I won the 3 of 'em. I had begun training 8 months earlier, when I was 12. Then when I was 14, I placed third in the men's open division in Australia. When I was 15, I won the state titles and a few more shows, and then I took a year off when I was 16 to just train to put some more muscle on. When I was 17, I won the state title and won my first overall Mr. Australia. My mother was training then, so we teamed up and won the nationals couples title, and then I won the Mr. Australia title when I was 18 and 19 again, plus some others.
MM: That story about your mother, teaming up with her for the couples title when you were 17, has got to be one of the most unusual stories I've ever heard.
Lee Priest: Well, she followed my training and then she said to me one day,. "Lee, if I were to get in shape, would you do the couples with me?", and I said something like, "whatever", and 8 months later she was, amazingly, in shape: She won her division and placed second overall for the Miss Australia title. She was 38 years old when she started and had some good testosterone levels going, and had been on estrogen therapy to keep the testosterone levels down, so she just stopped taking the estrogen pills for a while, her testosterone went up, and -- poof! -- she won. That only added to the rumors that I had taken growth hormone when I was real young, because of my height, but the truth is that I'm the tallest one in my family: My sister's 5' 2", my mom's 5'3" and my dad's 5'5". My mother's father was 5'4". So everyone wants to believe that I've taken growth hormone, but the simple truth is that my family is not tall and I've worked out long and hard to make this work and get to this size. If I had taken growth hormone I probably would have been somewhat taller, don't you think? I got a job when I was 14 so I could train seriously: I never did drugs, I never partied like they did, but I trained and worked our seriously and put everything into it. There are some guys who are built for the sport of bodybuilding, and there are just a limited number of these guys who are freaks and destined for the sport. That's my calling and what I was meant to be, so that's pretty much it.
MM: You were a promising young rugby player in Australia as well. What happened with that?
Lee Priest: I enjoy the sport, but there are a lot of nagging little injuries that come along with it, and they impeded my training for bodybuilding, so I stopped.
MM: What's your take on 1998?
Lee Priest: I just did the one show, The Olympia, this year. I didn't want to do any other shows. I just wanted to eat, bulk up, and make a push for that show.
MM: How would you compare yourself, rather than your placing, at the last 2 Mr. O shows?
Lee Priest: In 1997 I was 217, and this year I was 223 in just as hard condition. Some magazines questioned that, but the people who know me and who really count, and who know my body fat percentage, know that it was right on.
MM: Sometimes these comments and the judging have got to drive you mildly nuts.
Lee Priest: It does, especially when people who aren't even in shape place ahead of you because they kiss ass with the judges or even sleep with the officials...that sort of stuff. You know it goes on and people say it's not biased, but when you see it and hear about it, you know it's a factor sometimes. People say we shouldn't talk about judging, because then we'll get lower placing, but I don't care, because I'm not there to necessarily win shows. That's wonderful, but my goal is to come into that show in the best shape I can be in, but as far as kissing the judges' asses and the promoters' asses goes, I'm not going to take them out to lunch or dinner just to get on their good side.
MM: If there are any really attractive women judges, and you're really tired or something, I'd be happy to sleep with them for you.
Lee Priest: (laughs) They're not normally that way.
MM: That additional 7 pounds of muscle you put on: In terms of body parts assessment, where would you say that went on this year? Were there any parts you particularly wanted to concentrate on?
Lee Priest: It really went all over, but perhaps a little but more went to the back and chest. It's hard to say.
MM: What contests are you looking at in 1999?
Lee Priest: The Pro Ironman, The Arnold Classic, The Night of Champions, and then the Mr. Olympia.
MM: So you're getting ready for the Ironman and Arnold right now (interview conducted the last week of 1998 -- editor)...What are you looking at in terms of a goal weight for those early 1999 shows?
Lee Priest: I haven't really thought about a goal weight per set. I don't try and really diet down to get to a specific weight; it's whatever the correct weight is after I've dieted down and look my best. Whatever the weight is that has me at my best is where I want to be. Too may guys get too obsessed by their bodyweight, rather than what they look like. But these successes are so much determined by the judges anyway, that you have to concentrate on what you look like rather than what you weigh. Even then, it sometimes seems strange: I took second at at the Ironman and the next week I was in even better shape and took seventh, so...who knows? What was even more interesting was that I did the San Jose show the week after that and beat 'em all again: In 3 weeks I went from second place to seventh place, and then back to fourth place. So, how does that happen, especially when you're in the same condition?
MM: To the casual observer, at any rate, this appears a little haywire...
Lee Priest: The fans have been great, though. Sometimes the judges will miss it, but the knowledgeable fans have a good sense of what's been happening. I almost always stick around after the shows and sometimes you'll have hundreds of fans you talk to; and they have a good honest sense of where everyone belonged. They'll say, "Well, you actually should have taken third, and so and so belonged in second because of this or that." But for the people in the front row it can be a lot different. I think that whoever looks the best that day -- not who has the biggest reputation -- should be the person who won. If it's an unknown from sub-Saharan Africa, or a guy from Finland, if he's in the best shape that day he should win. But sometimes it's a name game, or sometimes it's politics. They say it's not, but you've seen shows where the placing were way off; where one guy was out of shape and another was in fantastic condition. Aaron Baker's a good example: He should have won a few shows, and a number of his placing were ridiculous. Then you start to think, "Well, if this guy was in terrible shape and he still beat me, just what do I have to do to beat him?"
MM: Speaking of being in great shape: When we did that photo shoot (Lee Priest dressed as a priest, in early December, when traffic on the adjacent busy thoroughfare literally stopped, and drivers' jaws dropped in disbelief)), every one of the onlookers -- and they were all fairly experienced bodybuilders or fans -- said that this period shows the largest amount of muscular mass you've ever carried. I mean, you are huge! Are we looking at Lee Priest coming in at the high 220's somewhere for the Arnold?
Lee Priest: Probably in their 220's somewhere, but I'm not absolutely certain. Before I was in the Olympia I was in the 230's and in just great shape, as hard condition as I was for the show. John Caylor, Max Muscle Venice store manager) took some pictures and they're proof positive. You begin to think, before a contest, that you can lose just a little more weight, so I came in lighter, but I may have sacrificed a little fullness for what I thought would be extra hardness, and I was just as hard. So, maybe I can come in at the high 220's.
MM: You're looking at a 10-pound gain from 2 years earlier, which is really significant at your height.
Lee Priest: I've been pretty lucky, actually, gaining 7 to 12 pounds annually, but coming into shows in great shape, regardless. I'll see it in the weights at each show, year after year, and it's been very consistent. I'll look over my performances and reevaluate what I've been doing and how I can improve and I make those improvements. Then you look over your placing and try and figure out what happened. You look over the lineups, and Nasser's improved and Ronnie's improved, and Shawn's roughly stayed the same. But Shawn's a great competitor. When he comes into a contest in great shape he looks incredible. But he hasn't really changed dramatically in the past 10 years. And when you improve you should be rewarded. When I was with Weider, if you improved your placing you would likely have your contract improved as well, but that didn't happen for me. But with Roland and Gunter, even if I placed higher and improved, they'd get $20,000 or $30,000 more than I did. That's why I started up with ProLab.
MM: How do you like working with the ProLab people?
Lee Priest: Really good. The working relationship is just superb. They're really genuine. Weider's got a lot of guys, and ProLab has just a couple, so you tend to get more attention.
MM: I think for everyone, Coleman's victories at The Night of Champions and The Olympia have got to be eye-openers, in that a non-Weider athlete won both.
Lee Priest: That's interesting, because so many people have said that if you don't sign with Weider you're not going to do well in shows and in this sport, but for me it doesn't matter in one important sense: Whether there's a lot of additional sponsor money or very little as a reward, I compete because I enjoy it and I enjoy training. If I didn't have a sponsor and I didn't win shows, I would be working a normal job and still be training, because that's what I love to do. And you look at Lee Haney, and he was with TwinLab and he did very well, so I think there's a sense with most of the judges in wanting to do what's right. Politics might come in sometimes, but who's to say whether it does or it doesn't? It's all speculation, and everyone's got their ideal of what the ideal body looks like, including the judges.
MM: What would Lee Priest look for if he were a judge?
Lee Priest: Personally, if I were judging a show I'd go for the freaky type. Compared to the Flex or Chris Cormier look, I'd go for Dorian or Nasser type of bodies. You're always going to have controversy and mixed opinions in anything that's judged, though, so who really knows?
MM: Getting back to your training, you've said that you've put on 7 to 12 pounds a year, but it's a lot more difficult to do that as your career progresses. Since you've been in the upper echelon of bodybuilding for quite a while now, what sort of changes have you made in your training in the past 2 years that allows this progress?
Lee Priest: It hasn't really changed much ever since I began. I stick with the basic stuff, and in the off-season I train really heavy and bulk up big. and put a lot of body fat on. This last time I got up to 285 pounds and people said that I'd never be able to train down and lose it, but when I've bulked up heavy I've always wound up with 10 pounds of muscle. But you've really got to force-feed the muscles. Eating "clean" all year, you'll be able to put on a couple of pounds of muscle, but I think that outside influences and paranoia play a part in this, especially in greater Los Angeles where the guys are so concerned with what they look like -- not for contests, but to look right for the girls, to get that chiselled jaw line they feel helps them in social situations -- that they're afraid to put weight on. But I'm concerned with my weight at only very specific times, and those times are contest times. That's when it counts. Off-season, I don't care how I look. They can call me a fat pig, which they do, but then it comes to contest time and they're kissing my ass and saying that they knew I could get in shape. Whatever...You see Dorian and Nasser bulk up heavy and come out in superb shape, so it works, audit has worked for a long time. You see guys like Shawn who look good throughout the year and stay lean: When they come in shape they look good, but their musculature really hasn't changed much over the years. I can't help how I look in the off-season: I train heavy and stick to the basic work. Which is hard basic work. Some people get lazy. When I first came over here, I was dazzled by all the machines and so I began to ignore the basics and figured that the machines would work just as well, but I could see that the results were not the same, so I had to go back to basic free-weight movements, like barbell rows, curls, squats, dumbbell presses, etc. But everybody these days would rather do use a leg press machine than do squats, or an arm curl machine than do heavy barbell curls.
MM: You're just 26 years old. We look ahead 3 or 4 years now, to when Lee Priest is 29 or 30. What are you like then? How long will you compete as a bodybuilder?
Lee Priest: The key for me is that I enjoy doing this, so I'll continue in bodybuilding as long as I enjoy it, so long as I'm successful at it and it's not tedious or boring, and as long as the fans want me to. But even then, I won't stop training. I love lifting.
MM: You mentioned the influence fans have for you, and it's apparent that you have one of the most rabid and loyal set of fans anywhere. How many times have we heard bodybuilding fans who come out as tourists, stop at the Max Muscle store in Venice, and say they're looking for Lee Priest?
Lee Priest: I run into bodybuilding fans probably once a day, and after prejudging at shows I usually head for the foyer and talk with them for an hour or 2. I enjoy them, and I'll try and do that whenever I'm a guest poser as well. While we're not getting paid what other top-flight athletes earn, we still earn a good living and it's not that hard to come out and meet the people who make it possible. The only difference between me and many other people working out at the same gym is that I have a pro card. That doesn't mean I belong to another class of people; it just means that I work out and have happened to make a success out of bodybuilding as a living. But it does not make me a "better" person. I can't stand bodybuilders who complain about the work and the fans and how everything is just so difficult. It's a good job and the fans are great. We all knew that some people would follow our careers closely and get involved on some level. That comes with the job. The least we can do is meet them and find out what they want and believe.
MM: You're so dedicated to this sport, and you've sacrificed so much for it, including giving up rugby. Is there anything else you passed up or miss?
Lee Priest: Believe it or not, when I was younger I used to do magic, going to magician classes at magician's school. But when it came time to perform in front of people I'd get nervous. I also took karate for quite a while, but the same thing happened; I'd get very nervous when it came time to grading. In fact, because I was so shy my mom waited for me to give up bodybuilding, figuring that somewhere along the line I'd have to stop because I would have to go in front of crowds. Sometimes whenpeople meet me outside of a show lobby they think I'm arrogant, because I'm the type of person who can sit in a room of people and not say a word, but when someone starts talking to me I'll start talking to them, and then they probably think I'm talking so much that they wish I'd shut up.
MM: Well, that was my first impression too, that you really didn't like to say much, but after we got going on that church photo shoot where you were dressed like a priest, I began to change that, thinking that here was a guy with a very well developed, and decidedly dark and wry, sense of humor. We're shooting in front of the church and you're standing there in the Priest's garb, and all of a sudden that congregation which had entered only through the side doors, was scurrying past you as they opened the front doors. There you were, trying to decide what to say after they said, "goodnight, father."
Lee Priest: That was tough and kind of awkward, because the concept was that it worked because of my last name, and I didn't want anyone to think that I was making fun of what they believe or taking their religion lightly. I make fun of myself, rather than others. But thankfully, nobody asked me for a blessing or any deep advice. I can do stuff like that, but I want to make sure nobody's hurt by it. I don't want people to say, "That Lee Priest, he hates religion... or anything else, for that matter. But being from Australia, I'll tell jokes about any group, which isn't exactly P.C. But people can take almost anything way too seriously. I mean, because I tell a joke that has another race or religion in it does not mean I'm racist or anti-religion. The same thing for not liking someone who's another race or religion. It's not their race or religion I don't like...it's them as an individual.
MM: It's funny that you bring up humor and race, because your relationship with Paul Dillett is, from all the accounts I've heard, both hysterical and interracial. The 2 of you living together was the bodybuilding version of The Odd Couple. meets a big version of The Little Rascals. Both of you are Commonwealth athletes -- you from down under and Paul from Canada -- but you're 5'7" and white, while Dillett is 6'4" and Afro-American (the Americas include Canada --- editor). I've heard the stories of the 2 of you inside your cars listening to the newest piece of audiophile stereo equipment with each others for hours...while the cars are locked in the garage. Amie (Lee's girlfriend) likes the story of your dieting conversations with Paul as the 2 of you prepared for a contest: You guys would eat the broiled skinless chicken breast and white rice together, but then talk about your favorite foods, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hot fudge sundaes, or exactly what type of chocolate candy was the best, for hours.
Lee Priest: Well, it wasn't exactly that way to begin with. Paul mentioned that I was from Australia and kind of hinted that Australians were racist. I kind of threw up my arms and said, "pleeeeeez". There's racism and a lack of racism everywhere. You can be whatever you want to be and it doesn't bother me. I come from a family in which my cousin, who was like a brother to me, was a transsexual. He ended up killing himself. My father was a homosexual, but my mother thought she could change him. But I'm the first one to make jokes about it: I told my father that I was glad he married my mom, because otherwise I could have been wasted as a blow job. I think people are just a little too quick to judge sometimes, because I couldn't care less if someone is gay. As for religion, it's pretty strange over here sometimes, because I'm finding that the people who talk the most about religion are the first to condemn someone. All I'm concerned about is how they treat me, and how they treat others.
MM: Now that you and Dillett no longer live together and you have a girlfriend, what do you do for fun? How do you spend your time away from training? What's a typical "fun" event for Lee Priest?
Lee Priest: Hanging out at the Max Muscle store in Venice. I'm pretty much of a homebody, but I like meeting the people there. But don't count on my being there in the early afternoons: I like to watch Days of Our Lives at one, and then there's Judge Judy at 2. I'm not real big on parties, but I like Disneyland and I go to Toys 'R' Us a lot. They get a little disturbed when I tell them all the toys are for me, however.
MM: You seem like a perfect candidate for the first Annual Max Muscle Guerrilla Miniature Golf Tournament, with prizes for fastest completion of the course, hitting the wooden clown, and best poser at the bridge. We're hoping fitness pros Lena Johanessen and Cynthia Hill, along with competitor Cathy Miller, enter in their swimsuits.
Lee Priest: I could judge that round, because when I was at Toys 'R' Us last week I got a great portable toy microscope. Maybe a Best Skin Pores award or something like that?
MM: If anybody could do it, it's you.