Muscular and feminine, the new face of bodybuilding

The contestants in next month's national championships have a point to prove as well as a competition to win.

For three days before the competition, Vicky Bradley's boyfriend layered on her fake tan. Then in the moments before the final showdown, the 26-year-old and her fellow competitors helped each other with make up, hair dos, gluing on eyelashes and smoothing on posing oil before adjusting their bikinis and slipping on their stilettos.

It is a far cry from the macho image of bodybuilding but Ms Bradley and her counterparts are determined to convince the world that a muscular woman is a thing of beauty. The female side of the sport has seen a rise in popularity in the "figure" discipline over the past two years. Unlike the "physique" event, entrants are not expected to perform the same clenched fist, bicep-curling poses as men and can express themselves in more "girly" costumes.

It was the appearance last week of Hollie Walcott, 26, sister of the Arsenal winger Theo, at the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation regional qualifiers that cast the spotlight on to a largely ignored side of the industry. However, while Ms Walcott excelled in second position in the "figure" discipline, Ms Bradley walked away with the top prize in her first competition.

Now the pair, who have a firm Facebook friendship, are both set to go head to head at the national championships next month in Glasgow.

Behind the bamboo blinds of her fitness studio, sandwiched between the genteel shops and pensioners' hairdressers of a sleepy seaside town, Ms Bradley demonstrates her skills.

A diminutive figure at 5ft 2in and a little over 8st, she steps forward to a barbell before gingerly resting it on her back. Slowly she squats, the muscles of her back, arms and legs rippling as she confidently lifts a weight that would leave most men red faced and defeated. She can "dead lift" two-and-a-half times her weight (135kg) from the floor. "I get teased a lot in the gym by the guys. They see what I am lifting and try but can't do it," she said.

Both women insist they are battling the media-fed image of grotesque women pumped up on steroids. It is one of the reasons they have chosen to compete in the BNBF, an association that not only insists that competitors are urine tested but also expects them to undergo a polygraph test.

With her tousled blonde hair and carefully made up eyes, Ms Bradley is adamant there is nothing unfeminine about taking part in bodybuilding. Her tiny waist would be the envy of most women but from there her body rises up in a triangle to wide, well-defined shoulders. In one of her key poses, she stands on tiptoes and flares her bulging arms, like a ferocious bird of prey poised to attack. A size 8, she has to buy larger shirts unless they are sleeveless.

"I know the look is not for everybody but it is feminine and gives you curves. I am really tiny and healthy. I look at my body as a project," Ms Walcott said. "At first my partner [gymnast Ryan Amos] was not sure. He thought it was too much but now he loves it."

It was Ms Bradley's boyfriend, Jean-Pierre Ulldemolins, who got her into the sport. He is a bodybuilder, too.

While she concedes that her older brother took some convincing, her parents were cheering at the front of the qualifying round she won last month.

Theo Walcott has been similarly supportive of his sister: "I shocked him," Hollie Walcott said. "He knew I trained but I don't think he realised how serious I was. We talk on the phone but go months without seeing each other. He was shocked when he saw me but he is really proud of me. He wants to come to a competition but they are always when he is playing football."

Vicky McCann is chair of the BNBF and one of the country's top female bodybuilders at 41. A competitor in the more muscular physique section, she is adamant it too is feminine but acknowledges it has yet to shake off taboos.

"It is harder for women; we are not genetically designed to get lean and it takes a long time to build muscle. Women are afraid to do it but it is the best way to get leaner. You are not going to turn into a man. I am tiny. People often say to me, 'I don't want to look like a bodybuilder but I wouldn't mind looking like you,' which is a bit deflating," she said. "Bodybuilders don't get the respect they deserve. In America it is seen as positive but in Britain it is a bit stigmatised."

Ms McCann is determined to shake off the image that it is a drug-induced, body-abusing discipline and set up the BNBF in 2000 to promote a healthier image. It is one of the reasons, she believes, that more women have been attracted, though she admits she is worried that many female competitors feel the need for breast implants.

"In this year's competition we have eight male competitors over 60 and one over 70. They are testimony to how natural bodybuilding is a healthy lifestyle. These guys are fit," she said.

Certainly, Ms Bradley observes her regime with the obsession of an Olympic athlete. At just 20 years old she set up a personal fitness business in her father's old art gallery in Broadstairs, Kent and speaks with Spartan-like determination about the 10-week programme before a competition.

Ms Bradley dropped a stone in weight before the recent qualifier, on a strict regime of oats, turkey, salmon, egg whites, broccoli and apples, consumed about every three hours. Should she be invited to a celebration such as a wedding, she explained, she takes a packed lunch and forgives herself a small diet drink. Like Ms Walcott, she very rarely drinks alcohol.

Four times a week she goes through a gruelling hour-long session lifting weights, alternating between lighter fast reps and fewer lifts of weights from 72.5kg to 135kg.

For Walcott, a strict vegan, her regime is entirely different but equally dedicated, despite having two children, five-year-old Seb and three-year-old Aurora. "I train when I can find time," she said. "My son and daughter love it and stand next to me and do poses. Seb says to other children, 'My mum's really strong.'"

Their male counterparts have welcomed them into the sport, Ms Bradley said: "I have had so many comments from men saying well done, great shape, you look great. There is good professional respect. We have had to work as hard as them if not harder. Women have more body fat than men and we don't have the testosterone levels."

Competitive and sporty from school, where she was called "rugby legs", Ms Bradley has always been the girl that offered to arm-wrestle boys.

"If people think it is masculine it doesn't bother me," she says. "I love the way I look. It says health and strength and I am comfortable in my body, proud of it. I get compliments from men all the time. If people have said [negative] things, I have not heard them."

Buoyed by their new success and the prospect of competing in next month's national finals, both Ms Bradley and Ms Walcott believe adamantly that the time is ripe for Britain to embrace female bodybuilders.

"There are still a lot of taboos around women bodybuilding," Ms Walcott said. "It is not about getting muscular and taking steroids. It is a competitive sport and it needs to be taken seriously. I train like an athlete, I train hard."

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