Deadlifts and Selfies: How Social Media Shaped the Modern Bodybuilder
We are a long way from 'Pumping Iron.'
Photo by Natasha Gairy
In an eight-minute YouTube video that has attracted over 28,000 views, Renaldo Gairy prepares himself for an excruciating workout at the Olympia Fitness gym in Mississauga, Ontario, as electro-dubstep blasts heavily in the background.
With biceps that each measure wider than his head, the 36-year old bodybuilder grasps onto the bar of a lat pulldown machine, forcing it towards and away from his collarbone.
Each back-and-forth motion reveals bulging veins and deeply-chiseled muscles, as Gairy feels the intensity of the bar, connected to a stack of weights on the opposite side of the machine.
He turns to the camera and says, "Don't do this. It's bad for your shoulders, OK? Don't say I didn't warn you."
Gairy has made a name for himself in the Toronto bodybuilding scene, earning the nickname "Razor" for his sharp physique and tiny waist.
With an Instagram following of 10,000 and counting, he is part of a new generation of athletes that is driving the renewal of the modern bodybuilding industry through social media, regularly updating fans with body selfies, training videos, and pictures of protein powder.
The professional bodybuilder is also determined to go where few of his Canadian counterparts have gone before: to compete for "Mr. Olympia," the most prestigious bodybuilding title in the world, previously claimed by names such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Phillip Heath.
"Getting to that Olympia stage, you're talking the best in the world," Gairy said in an interview with VICE.
But while the Olympia remains his ultimate goal, Gairy, like many other aspiring bodybuilders, is taking advantage of "prizes" that exist beyond the competitive stage.
Once a niche scene that has ebbed in popularity, bodybuilding has entered the digital age, and bodybuilders—aspiring, amateur and professional—are navigating an industry where "success" comes faster and is more attainable than ever before.
Bodybuilding has always been shrouded in some form of controversy, fighting to be taken seriously as a professional sport.
But Oliver Bateman, a historian and professor at the University of Texas, says bodybuilding subculture has hit the mainstream, thanks in part, to the rise of "Instagram lust heroes."
"Social media has enabled the sale of the self to happen on a level that we've never experienced before," he told VICE.
"Instagram, Facebook, Twitter—they've all magnified the ability to present yourself. Yourself is what you're always selling [and] bodybuilders are just very obvious about that."
Social media has also largely democratized the industry's playing field, allowing amateurs who would "never be conventionally successful bodybuilders" back in the day, to get sponsorships and build a name for themselves.
"These guys are hustling at every level," Bateman said.
"They may never win Mr. Olympia, but they have dedicated fan bases of people who think they're gorgeous."
Gairy recalls a moment when he saw the full magnitude of social media marketing.
"There was a girl I knew..she never did any contests, she was in shape but not killer shape. I remember her social media had like 1,000 [followers], and then one day I looked back and [within] less than a year she got over 100,000 followers," he said.
"I noticed the first booty photo she posted got a ton of likes, and then she started posting more and getting a ton of likes and followers. She started posting exercises about what she does in the gym, and next thing you know, she's selling [workout] programs, a lot of them, and she's making a lot of money."
In recent years, the "sponsored athlete" has become a sought-after marketing tool for sports supplement companies around the world.
Gairy made it there, but it wasn't easy.
Back when he was still an amateur athlete competing in local, small-league shows, Gairy pursued a sponsorship opportunity with Mutant, a brand that caters to the hardcore bodybuilding scene.
Gairy says many companies require athletes to do "demos" for them, otherwise known as part-time sales or promotional activities at supplement stores and shows, before they even consider sponsoring them.
He started as an employee for Mutant in 2007, and was paid with a monthly supply of supplements delivered to his door.
"I was taking the loss of money to take time out of my day to promote the company, so basically, I would set up a [booth] in a supplement shop, like a GNC, and give out protein samples and talk to people about it," he recalled.
Gairy says some of his friends would even sell the supplements they were paid with to make extra money on the side.
It wasn't until he earned his IFBB pro card in 2011, which qualified him to compete for cash prizes as a professional bodybuilder, when the company offered him an official sponsorship and paid salary.
Aaron Smith, a business professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT) in Australia, told VICE that athlete sponsorships have "inflated immensely" with bodybuilders over the past few years.
Today's sports nutrition industry provides an enormous market for companies to get a slice of the action, he says.
For instance, Canada's sports nutrition industry is expected to reach $307 million by 2020, according to a recent report by Euromonitor. Part of its growth is fueled by demand from an expanding group of "average consumers."
Winston Roberts, a former competitive bodybuilder and director at the Ontario Physique Association (OPA), says social media has helped the bodybuilding scene widen its appeal and become more socially acceptable over the years.
"A lot of our competitors are being chosen by supplement companies to represent their products," he says.
Roberts adds that there was a time between the late 90s and mid-2000s when the industry was on the decline and "needed some reinvigorating."
But today, a small bodybuilding event can attract 600 to 700 audience members and 150 to 200 competitors. The Toronto Pro SuperShow, which hosts a number of professional and amateur bodybuilding events, including Canada's largest fitness convention, draws about 15,000 audience members each year.
"It's really huge...we never had numbers like that back in the day," he said.
Roberts adds that successful professional bodybuilders who have not reached the Olympia level can earn up to six figures a year from opportunities like sponsorships, personal training businesses, and personal appearances at bodybuilding events.
Gairy says getting a sponsorship with Mutant changed the course of his bodybuilding career.
Today, he is a sponsored athlete for the brand, relying on the "social media trio"—Instagram, YouTube and Facebook—to sell Mutant products with his own image.
The company also pays him to do workout videos on its YouTube channel and make promotional appearances at various events.
Gairy's sponsorship doesn't stop in daily life, where he regularly sports clothing from the company to promote their brand.
When I meet him, Gairy wears a Mutant hat and shirt. "Proceeds for the shirt go to a dog shelter in New York, that's why you see the bulldog on it," he says.
"If I'm in the gym, I always have [on] some kind of gear."
Ron Partlow, marketing specialist at Mutant, says sponsored athletes help to positively represent the company as it adapts to changes in the bodybuilding industry.
While Mutant sponsors professional bodybuilders like Gairy, who are paid a salary, it also recruits "brand ambassadors" who promote the brand through their social media pages in exchange for free products and social media support.
Partlow says ambassadors are mostly recreational bodybuilders that don't compete in the industry, but "look freaky and have some sort of mutant thing about them."
One of the company's most popular ambassadors is Don Capo, a bodyguard and former MMA fighter in California.
While the six-foot-six, 350-pound athlete may never compete as a bodybuilder, he brings in a new audience that is fascinated by his social media antics, among them, deadlifting 700 pounds and "eating 300 dollars worth of sushi at a time," Partlow said.
He admits that social media sponsorships have set the company apart from other brands in an industry where many compete to produce tubs of protein powder that in reality, don't vary that much.
"Protein powders are a massive part of the market—the fact remains that there's only a handful of places in the world where they're sourced from...you're trying to make it your own."
But while companies are benefiting from the sponsored athlete, Partlow says aspiring bodybuilders risk being taken advantage of.
Some companies have slashed their sponsorship budgets, opting to recruit fans to do their entire social media marketing for them at a small expense.
"What they do is they take on say 200 people on social media that are really just super fans...then they give them a little bit of product and tell them [to] post five posts a week, and one post has to be product posts [of] them holding the product, that sort of stuff," says Partlow.
"A lot of those people have high hopes that one day they'll be signed on to something but in most cases nothing ever comes out of that."
Gairy says some amateur athletes end up getting the "short end of the stick" in the pursuit of sponsorships.
"I know one person working for a company, she's considered a sponsored athlete, but for her to go to Vegas for the Mr. Olympia to work the booth, she has to pay her own way. They demand it out of her," he said.
"Some people are so desperate for it, they want to be sponsored because that will validate them...that they're willing to be slaves."
While Gairy has achieved a level of success that many athletes are working towards, he is determined to be at the top of the ladder, where the sponsorship money is greatest in an increasingly competitive fitness industry.
When I ask him why bodybuilding matters to him so much.
"I enjoy looking like this," he said.
"It's a little bit of masochism where you're enduring pain, and then there's the reward everyone sees. I don't do this to brag or think I'm better than anyone, but it's definitely something I have that people can see and know I worked for this."
Gairy admits that selfies and followers don't carry the same passion he has for competitive bodybuilding. But in the meantime, social media promotion remains an "absolutely important" part of growing his bodybuilding career.
"It's almost like your best commercial is standing in front of your phone, taking a selfie and writing a little blurb," he says.
"It seems more into everyone's individual hands."
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