Brooklynn Peters, 6, right, and Sandahl Blake, 7, wave as they watch the… (Katie Falkenberg / For the…)
In between competitions at Muscle Beach on Wednesday, Heidi Anderson's fiance tried to get her to eat lunch. But each time she reached for a bite of boiled chicken, she was interrupted by another stranger who wanted a photo.
Beachergoers who flocked to the Venice Boardwalk to celebrate Independence Day couldn't resist the exceptionally tanned and toned Anderson, who wore nothing but a turquoise bikini and a gold toe ring. Anderson, a Palm Springs hairdresser, happily indulged them, flexing her arms and flashing a smile.
Elsewhere across the Southland, people celebrated the holiday in different ways. Huntington Beach's annual parade drew some 250,000 people, organizers said. Huge crowds turned out for fireworks at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, over the water off Marina del Rey and in many other communities.
And then there was the Mr. and Mrs. Muscle Beach competition. Anderson, 33, placed second in her category. She said the Fourth of July is about more than celebrating the nation's birthday.
"It's about freedom of expression," she said. Looking toward the street performers on the boardwalk, she added: "Especially in Venice Beach."
Down the coastline in Long Beach, Thu-Huong Nguyen was handing out T-shirts at the Great American Kid's Bike Parade.
Several hundred children and their parents braved gray skies and a light mist for the waterfront procession, which kicked off with the "Star- Spangled Banner" and ended with a watermelon seed spitting competition and a costume contest.
Nguyen, 37, has been volunteering at the event since 2009. She was born in Vietnam and said nobody appreciates the United States more than she does. She looked the part, with a red Tina Turner wig, white-tipped false eyelashes and blue stars painted on her cheeks.
"I was so excited to get dressed, I got up at 4:30 a.m. without an alarm clock," Nguyen said.
"I'm so grateful to be in this country," she said. "Here you can be who you are and speak your mind."
Nearby, Eric Haley pinned an American flag on his son Matthew's scooter. The pair had a big day planned, with a barbecue later at their home followed by watching fireworks with their church group.
A stranger asked Matthew what Independence Day meant. The 4-year-old looked up shyly at his father. "God?" he ventured.
His dad shrugged his shoulders and laughed. "It's about celebrating the birthday of our country and giving a shout-out to our military," said Haley, 39. He has several family members who have served in Iraq.
Messages of appreciation for the military popped up everywhere Wednesday, even at the Farmacy, a medical marijuana dispensary on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. The owners had written "Support our troops" in the window, and offered holiday specials.
A few blocks away, back at Muscle Beach, Clemence Nourrit and Helene Boinot were standing near the outdoor gym, taking pictures of the preening body builders and looking very amused.
Both are French but live in Los Angeles. This was their first Fourth of July celebration.
They said the contrasts with Bastille Day, France's national holiday, were striking. Back home, the military stages a large parade on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. But in the United States, July 4 seems to be "about doing crazy things," said Nourrit, 26. That morning, she said she had watched a hot-dog eating contest on television.
Boinot, 28, smiled when asked what she thought of it all. "Well," she said, "this is America."