In streetwear, Molli Oliver doesn't look like a bodybuilder, nor does she look her age, 49.
Wearing a sleek black Dolce & Gabbana shirtdress, her blond hair pulled back in a neat French twist, she looked more like a librarian than a woman with a passion for free weights.
But when she slipped off her dress at the Venice Classic Physique Contest in Muscle Beach Monday and stepped on stage in her royal-blue string bikini, there was no question. Her arms, legs and back were perfectly toned, her skin evenly oiled and tanned.
It was the first bodybuilding competition for Oliver, a United Airlines flight attendant for 29 years, who "got a little more serious with weights two years ago.
"I looked OK, but I wanted to be better than average."
Oliver, who was alone in the masters' over-40 class, was one of eight women and 20 men who competed in the annual Memorial Day event for bodybuilders at Venice Beach, ground zero for the health and fitness movement. Unlike other competitions, the Venice Classic, which started in 1969, is less about strength than health and body proportion.
"I wanted to take my body to another level," said Annalissa Amillah, a fitness supervisor for the Los Angeles Athletic Club. "I saw other people do it and figured: I work out just as hard as that person, I should be able to get my body like that."
Amillah, who has been bodybuilding for nine years and competing for four, got her weight down to 119 pounds for the Venice Classic. Next week she anticipates weighing 135, "just from eating normal," said the 32-year-old with a weakness for "hot breakfasts."
Amillah has been on a low-carbohydrate, low-sugar, high-protein diet and has worked out three hours a day, six days a week for the last eight months. The payoff: She won the lightweight division's "most sculpted" trophy. Her reward: a stack of pancakes.
A year ago, Jeannie Sanden had a beer gut and weighed 173 pounds. But the 39-year-old hairdresser was down to 123 pounds for the competition, having spent the last year working out four hours a day at Gold's Gym in Huntington Beach. Her biceps were so large it looked like she could have bench pressed Jack Lalanne, who was sitting in the front row during the event, though Sanden said her calves are her best feature.
It was Sanden's first time in competition, as it was for her friend Madeline Henkels. The pair started training together at the same time. Sanden took second in the lightweight competition, and Henkels won the heavyweight competition.
Henkels, a 38-year-old mother of two from Irvine, started training because she had "put on a lot of weight being a mother and just kind of let myself go. Then I realized, no, I don't like this. . . . Taking care of my children was always my first priority, and now that they're teenagers it was time to get back into mom doing her thing."
Her two sons, 17 and 18, were not only in the audience to watch Henkels' one-minute medley of bicep-, quad-, back-, stomach- and chest-muscle poses, but were the leaders of a very large cheering section, screaming with every flex. Henkels seemed to radiate from the stage, and it wasn't just the healthy coat of "instant vasolidation optimizer oil" her trainer, Mike Dunn, had applied minutes before she hit the stage.
Henkels, who works as a counselor for abused children, had clearly found her calling. Still, even though her stomach was firmer than a Sealy mattress and her legs were thick as logs, Henkels said, "I'm never satisfied. I would like my legs to be a lot bigger and more defined. I'm going for a lot bigger bulk, so OK, another year."
Susan Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.