This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Kate Ovens can eat more than you. Much more. That isn't a boast, just a fact. The 24-year-old, who has more than 48,781 YouTube subscribers on her personal channel, has conquered dishes that would make most average people's intestines convulse upon impact: 3kg [6lbs] kebabs [gyros], 2-foot Philly cheese steak sandwiches, 27-inch pizzas, and 35 ounces of fish and chips, each one fairly light work for one of the leading British folk who compete in the competitive eating world that has exploded in popularity and potential profitability over the past half-decade or so.
You might well know some of its most famous names, as well as their exploits. The likes of red baseball-capped American bodybuilder Randy Santel (544,419 YouTube subscribers), Joey Chestnut (11-time winner of the prestigious Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, which translates to 72 dogs in ten minutes), and the Diet Coke-chugging Miki Sudo—people earning sometimes considerable livings through the pursuit of sheer excess. The more excessive the spectacle, the bigger the audience and larger the revenue.
This might all sound like yet another strand of characteristically modern absurdity to either attack or joyously consume, depending on personal taste, but "competitive eating" is nothing new, either on the badlands of the internet, or as part of a much longer, even more surreal history that can be traced all the way back to the 17th-century English proletarian hero Nicholas "The Great Eater of Kent" Wood (seven dozen rabbits consumed in one sitting, or an entire dinner feast intended for eight people). It was the Canadian video series Epic Meal Time that blasted a trail through YouTube in the early years of this decade, but arguably the success of Man v. Food that really propelled the "scene" into mainstream consciousness during the same time period.
I catch up with Ovens on a late summer Saturday morning to discuss the realities of working in a world that seems inconceivable to an outsider. How does one stumble into this line of employment, particularly in Britain, which—despite housing a thriving community of online personalities—doesn't come close to the established enormities of the US and Japanese live shows which often draw hundreds of spectators?
It’s been something of a manic morning already, she says, with preparation for a pitch to a major food brand later that day. In fact, it’s been frantic since late 2015, ever since her first challenge attempt went viral when she was still studying for an undergraduate degree in Business Marketing at Newcastle University.
"I found [a challenge] that seemed doable," as she modestly puts it. "It was a 24oz burger with a load of cheese and wedges dotted around the side. You had to finish it in 20 minutes. I was the only one of my friends to finish it, at 20 minutes on the dot. I put up a 'before and after photo,' which went up on social media, and the rest was history. I was approached by companies asking me to do similar challenges, and I quickly clocked on to the fact that it was great marketing for the restaurants involved."
Soon after graduation, Ovens became a full-time presenter at LADbible [a social media and entertainment company] for around six months, before plunging into a full-time freelance existence.
Though the greatest joy of online competitive eating might be its democratic ease of access—with the only real barriers to entry being the need for a laptop with a built-in webcam and the confidence in your own capacity to eat large quantities of food in 15 minutes—it also presents challenges for those with serious ambitions of carving out a living in a rapidly competitive world.
Adam Moran is one of the UK's best-known eaters, having a built a vast following as BeardMeatsFood while tackling previously "impossible" feats of gluttony. With more than 420,000 subscribers, there are few better placed authorities in the country to discuss the scene in detail.
"Personally speaking, I don't want to be eating 50 hamburgers on YouTube when I'm in my 60s, so I'll certainly try to diversify," he tells me. After all, it isn't just a matter of having a God-given ability for inhumane levels of food consumption at top speeds. To stand out requires various, more subtle talents. Moran references the central importance of video production, "which is a skill in and of itself, with the scene being so dense now. You have to learn about photography and videography. Things that aren't just highly sought after skills [in the competitive eating world]."
True, Moran’s videos are noticeably slicker than the standard dining room fare of more amateur competitors. Watching several in succession is a disconcertingly familiar experience. The slick edits and chummily reassuring screen presence is reminiscent of any other corner of the professional vlogosphere: a kind of hard-earned commercial intimacy that you’ll find everywhere from ASMR to aspirational, "life goals" obsessives.
It's a different kind of work that goes into sustaining Eating Challenges London, a community blog that details the biggest and best live-action challenges in London and occasionally further afield in the UK. Coming from the carefully honed professionalism and unrelenting schedules of Ovens and Moran's world, there’s something almost Corinthian about the enterprise: a purely volunteer-run celebration of the city’s most powerfully over-the-top events, including The Hot Dog Challenge at Blues Kitchen and "The Tharitto Challenge" (two 1.5kg [52-ounce] veggie burritos) at The Vaults, London. It's a labor of love operated by keen amateur Andrey Sidorov, who agrees to chat with me over email.
Taking over the site was the result of a spur of the moment decision; Sidorov had been visiting the blog while testing his appetite at events across London, so when the opportunity came up to succeed the site's founder a couple of years ago he jumped at the chance. "It gives me a canvas to be silly on," he tells me. "There's no point trying to be serious when you're writing about something as ludicrous as trying to eat cartoon-sized portions of food." He's noticed something of a drop-off in the last few years, something he attributes to the popularity of Man v. Food having peaked. "I've noticed some long-standing challenges disappear, and also the frequency of competitions go down," he says. "[Though] there are still pockets around London that have challenges, and the occasional new one will pop up, or a new competition here and there."
Whether or not competitive eating retains a place in the mainstream consciousness doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to Sidorov, or similar hobbyists. In a way, it’s like the vagaries of trainspotters or determined Mexican Wrestling fans in the UK: as long as there's a scene, however small, that's the important thing. And though Man v. Food returned for a new series in January (its first in five years), it felt significant that former host Adam Richman was nowhere to be seen: An era-ending absence keenly felt by both diehards and casually awestruck (or repulsed) fans alike.
But talk of demise and decline is easy when your living doesn't depend on the scene's success. While all of Ovens’s talk and practice of diversification has one eye on the future, as she wants something to be able to point to "when the current wave bursts," Moran is slightly more bullish about its prospects.
In his view, "eating as a means of visual entertainment is only getting bigger. The YouTube scene is competitive and always growing, and I don't see that changing any time soon." He concedes that the interest in physical contests could well be in decline, at least in this country, with viewers more inclined to view them as freak shows than sport. "A shame," he says, "because those of us who dedicate some serious time to improving at the endeavor do really treat it as much, and it's a great spectator activity in my opinion."
Preemptively apologizing for the glibness of the question, there's just one more thing I’d like to know. Despite the potential for rewards, career, or just the thrill of competition, do you actually enjoy it, putting yourself through all the grief? Of turning food into a Herculean struggle to be overcome rather than the necessity or casual enjoyment most of us experience it as?
For Moran, it's not so much the punishment of the eating itself, but the entertainment he manages to provide to an online audience of millions. It sounds weird for him to say, he admits, but there are fans, and he's "met so many people who love watching my videos and what I do, that it's hard not to enjoy it." Whether they laugh, cringe, gag, or cheer doesn’t really matter. What does is that they keep on coming back for more.
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