Iris Kyle is arguably the greatest bodybuilder the sport has ever seen. That’s a big claim, sure, but a claim that can be backed up. Case and point: Kyle is the only bodybuilder in any division — man or woman — to rack up 10 Olympia titles. She’s also won seven Ms. International titles, which is considered the second most prestigious competition behind only the Ms. Olympia.
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Like men’s bodybuilding, women’s bodybuilding is defined by dominant champions. Kyle won Ms. Olympia 10 times, Lenda Murray won it eight times, Cory Everson six times. When athletes make it to the top, it can often be difficult to displace them — and Kyle was a near-immovable force after defeating Lenda Murray to win her first Ms. O.
The Early Years
Born in Benton Harbor, MI, in 1974, Iris was the second youngest of six children. A self-professed sports addict, Kyle’s early and high school years were dominated by various sports — softball, cross country, and basketball. (1) Like Phil Heath, the man with seven Mr. Olympia titles, she excelled in basketball as a point guard and earned All-American status in the sport.
Such was Kyle’s skill that she was offered numerous college scholarships. She eventually settled on Alcorn State University in Lorman, MS, studying business administration and accounting. When she graduated, Kyle moved to California, where her life as a bodybuilder began. (2)
It wasn’t until Kyle moved to California that she began bodybuilding in her early 20s. Yes, Kyle was athletic — a fantastic athlete — and yet she entered bodybuilding at a very late age relative to others.
When Kyle moved to Orange County and signed up for a gym membership, she began to take lifting weights seriously. From the perspective of bodybuilding, the time could not have been more opportune. It was only around the 1980s and 1990s that women’s bodybuilding became popular.
Kyle thus came to bodybuilding at a point when more and more women were entering the gym and, more importantly, bodybuilding magazines were catering to and covering women’s bodybuilding regularly. She started her fitness journey and bodybuilding when six-time Ms. Olympia Cory Everson and Lenda Murray were celebrated for their muscularity.
For these reasons, Kyle quickly transitioned from recreational gym-goer to dedicated trainee. Speaking to FLEX magazine in 2018, Kyle said:
“When I lived in California, my friend and I soon realized that everyone around us was buff … they all had fit, sculpted physiques, so my friend and I decided to join a gym in a bid to look buff too. We bought every book and magazine possible to learn about nutrition.
Suddenly it dawned on us that we spent so much time in the gym, we may as well both get a job there.” (3)
From there, Iris grew more and more interested in training. Seeing a photograph of Lenda Murray in FLEX, Kyle “knew I wanted to sculpt a body like hers.” (4) As Kyle trained, others began to take notice. Butch Dennies, a local promotor, met Iris at the gym and suggested she compete.
Iris entered her first show, the NPC Long Beach Classic, in 1994 and won. It was the first of many bodybuilding titles. In 1999 Kyle competed in her first pro show. Within a brief period, Kyle was making a name for herself.
Before delving into Kyle’s bodybuilding career, it is important to briefly discuss some of the barriers she faced from an early age. The prejudices facing women bodybuilders are well established. Due to her growing size and conditioning, Kyle faced negative comments based on her appearance. To cope, Kyle insulated herself from friends and family, training three to four hours away (by car) to focus on her goal of becoming Ms. Olympia. (5)
Struggles and Success at the Ms. Olympia
Writing in Women’s Physique World in November 1996, women’s bodybuilding journalist and historian Steve Wennerstrom cited Iris Kyle as the sport’s next up and coming star. “Keep an eye on Iris Kyle,” Wennerstrom wrote to readers. (6) He wasn’t wrong. From 1996 to 1999, Kyle competed in a series of regional and national competitions.
It was in 1999, however, that Kyle first began competing in the major bodybuilding contests. That year she finished 15th in the IFBB Ms. International show, which, at that time, was the second most significant event in women’s bodybuilding. More importantly, she competed in her first Ms. Olympia competition, where she finished an impressive fourth place.
The following year, 2000, marked a down moment in Kyle’s trajectory. She was disqualified from that year’s Ms. International contest when it was discovered that she had used diuretics. Only Kyle and Tazzie Colomb failed their testing protocols. (7) She then went on to finish in fifth in that year’s Ms. Olympia.
Kyle’s placing at the Olympia was not without controversy. Women’s bodybuilding journalist, photographer, and enthusiast Bill Dobbins later claimed that Kyle was discriminated against by the Olympia judges based on her size and muscularity. For Dobbins, Olympia judges were reluctant to praise Kyle’s body based on the idea that she was too muscular for women’s bodybuilding. (8)
This alleged criticism came when the Ms. Olympia contest was struggling to attract enough funding and interest from fans to continue. Both the 1999 and 2000 shows had been at risk of not running until external funding was found.
Kyle bounced back the following year when she won the heavyweight division of the Ms. Olympia but lost the overall to Juliette Bergmann. While Kyle believed she won the overall, it was clear to fans within the sport that Kyle was likely going to be a contender, if not an outright champion in the coming years. (9)
The Murray/Kyle Years
Comebacks are rarely successful in bodybuilding. Yes, some may point at Arnold Schwarzenneger’s victory in the 1980 Mr. Olympia, Franco Columbu’s victory in the 1981 show, or Jay Cutler’s reclaiming of the title in 2009. Still, these returns are often the exception that proves the rule.
In women’s bodybuilding, Lenda Murray was a notable exception. She is an eight-time Ms. Olympia and the bodybuilder who first inspired Kyle to take to the stage.
Murray was also the bodybuilder who prevented Kyle from winning the Ms. Olympia competition in 2002 and 2003. Murray initially retired from bodybuilding in 1997 as a six-time Ms. Olympia champion. She returned from 2002 to 2004 and added two more Olympias to her record (2002 and 2003, placing second in 2004). (10)
While the two women now appear to be friends or at least hold mutual respect for one another, this was not the case in the early 2000s. During this period, Murray was often quoted in fitness magazines and interviews criticizing Kyle’s approach to the sport and her physique in discussing her rivalry with Kyle during this period. (11)
Murray was not the only person who felt this way. Bill Dobbins, who was most certainly a Kyle fan, later commented that one of Kyle’s limiting factors as a bodybuilder came to her use of makeup and hairstyling on stage, more so than her physicality. (12) Without discounting Kyle’s muscularity and symmetry, Dobbins claimed that clever cosmetic use helped push Kyle to the top.
Murray and Kyle’s rivalry on stage, however, brought a renewed interest to the sport. It was the returning legend versus the new prospect. In 2002 and 2003, Murray succeeded. In 2004, Kyle had the upper hand. What changed?
Put simply: Kyle brought the perfect package. The 2004 Olympia report from Ironman highlights as much:
“They said it wouldn’t be done, that the IFBB pro judging panel would never pick Iris Kyle over defending and eight-time champ Lenda Murray in the heavyweight class at the Ms. Olympia competition. That Murray’s superior intangibles lines, looks, and the ability to exude charisma while just standing in the lineup would carry the day even though Kyle, arguably, had the more complete body. They obviously forgot that the adage about Olympia champs having to be knocked out cold to lose the title doesn’t apply to the women. Or maybe you-know-what has finally frozen over. Kyle scored a solid class victory over Murray at the ’04 IFBB Ms. O competition.” (13)
After 2004 Murray retired from competing as an eight-time Ms. Olympia. Kyle won her first overall Olympia — the first of many.
The Dominant Champion
It is difficult not to believe that Kyle has been unduly targeted within bodybuilding because of her appearance. Everyone has different philosophies on bodybuilding. Some believe that mind and body health must be developed in equal measure. Others care only about muscularity and aesthetics above all else.
Upon ushering in the “mass monster” phase of bodybuilding, six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates also faced criticism. The difference between Yates and Kyle is that Kyle’s division actively attempted to stop the drive for muscularity in competitors.
In 2005, the IFBB introduced the “20% rule,” which asked female athletes to decrease their muscularity “by a factor of 20%.” It was an astonishing request and one which was combined with the news that the Ms. Olympia was no longer split between a heavyweight and lightweight class but instead as one large division.
Kyle lost the 2005 contest to fellow heavyweight Yaxeni Oriquen-Garcia (who won her sole Ms. Olympia title). In his contest report, Bill Dobbins explained that while Kyle was impressive, Oriquen-Garcia was simply better. (14) Kyle’s downfall, according to Dobbins, was not her muscularity or conditioning but rather her stage presence. Kyle’s posing and presentation needed an improvement.
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The ability to accept disappointment and continue is inherent to a bodybuilding champion. As a sport, bodybuilding is subjective. Judges may want someone else to win, and it doesn’t matter what the individual does. Kyle accepted the 2005 decision and came back even stronger the following year.
From 2006 to 2014, Kyle dominated women’s bodybuilding. She won nine consecutive Ms. Olympia titles and conducted herself as a champion despite increasing calls for women’s bodybuilding to be reformed among organizers and judges.
Near the end of her reign, Kyle was a phenom. From her stage presence to her posing, all aspects of her game were meticulously planned and brilliantly executed. Many wondered what would stop Kyle’s dominance.
The answer wasn’t a new competitor but the end of women’s bodybuilding at the Olympia. Kyle’s last and 10th Ms. Olympia title came in 2014 when the IFBB announced that they would no longer host a Ms. Olympia show. The show was canceled, with the Olympia citing growing disinterest among fans and unease among organizers and judges about the muscularity being exhibited on stage.
So Kyle did not retire out of choice but rather necessity. In the years between 2014 and 2020, women’s bodybuilding found respite in the Wings of Strength competitions which, in effect, became a highly popular substitute for Ms. Olympia among fans and competitors. Kyle briefly announced that she would take part in the 2016 contest but, owing to disputes with the IFBB and contest organizers, she withdrew from the contest. (15)
And while her 2020 Ms. Olympia comeback was eagerly anticipated by fans, Kyle withdrew the night before the contest due to illness. This is not to say that Kyle’s career ended on a whimper — her last contest was her 10th Olympia, after all — but it did not end on her terms.
Kyle in Bodybuilding
At the time of writing, Andrea Shaw has won her second Ms. Olympia title. The kind of muscularity Kyle was criticized for throughout her career is not only normal in Women’s Bodybuilding no, it is the norm.
History will remember Kyle as one of women’s bodybuilding’s most influential figures. Highly controversial by dint of her muscularity, Kyle achieved a level of dominance that the men’s division has never seen.
Ten Ms. Olympias and multiple other IFBB titles to her name, Kyle was lean, muscular, symmetrical, and, most of all, determined. Her competitive career featured setbacks, barriers, and critiques that few other athletes had to face. That she preserved and succeeded tells something about the athlete but even more about the person.
- ‘Biography,’ Iris Kyle.com, http://iriskyle.com/
- ‘The Best Bodybuilder Ever,’ Flex Magazine UK, November (2018). Available at https://www.magzter.com/stories/Mens-Interest/Flex-Magazine-UK-Edition/The-Best-Bodybuilder-Ever.
- Steve Wennerstrom, ‘Keep an Eye on Iris Kyle,’ Women’s Physique World, November (1996). Cover image available at https://www.musclememory.com/mags.php?mag=wpw
- Bill Dobbins, ‘Ms. International 2000,’ Bill Dobbins.com. http://www.billdobbins.com/PUBLIC/pages/contests/2000_contests/Arnold/msinrpt.html
- Bill Dobbins, ‘Iris Kyle’s Unlikely Rise up the Bodybuilding Mountain,’ Flex magazine. https://www.muscleandfitness.com/flexonline/flex-news/iris-kyles-unlikely-rise-up-the-bodybuilding-mountain/.
- ‘Iris Kyle,’ IFBB Pro. Web Archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20131106033404/http://www.ifbbpro.com/features/iris-kyle-ms-olympia/
- ‘Lenda Murray,’ International Sports Hall of Fame. https://sportshof.org/lenda-murray/
- ‘The Lenda Murray and Iris Kyle Feud,’ Female Muscle Blog. https://femuscleblog.wordpress.com/2021/04/12/the-lenda-murray-and-iris-kyle-feud/
- Dobbins, ‘Iris Kyle’s Unlikely Rise up the Bodybuilding Mountain.’
- Ruth Silverman, ‘2004 Ms. Olympia,’ Ironman, March 1, 2005. https://www.ironmanmagazine.com/2004-ms-olympia/
- Bill Dobbins, ‘2005 Ms. Olympia Report,’ Bill Dobbins, http://www.billdobbins.com/PUBLIC/pages/contests/2005_contests/Olympia_05/MsOlympia-05.html
- Joe Pietaro, ‘Did Wings of Strength Push Iris Kyle Out?’ Muscle Sport Mag, September 9, 2016. https://www.musclesportmag.com/2016/09/09/iris-kyle-wings-of-strength-issues/
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