American Beauty: Colette Nelson
Interview by Hans, Powerdiva'

Colette Nelson steps out of the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and is immediately approached by a guy with a camera who asks if he can take photos of her. It is a hot, sunny June afternoon in
New York , and Colette, here to watch a friend in the pre-judging of the Bev Francis NPC Atlantic States, is wearing a red spaghetti strap top that shows off her big upper body, and black calf-length pants. She smiles, takes off her shades, puts down her gym bag, and hits a front double-biceps pose. Within a few seconds she is surrounded by a crowd of admiring guys snapping away as she flexes.

"She's so hot!" gushes one photographer.

"I'm having trouble getting her whole back in!" jokes another, as she hits an impressive lat spread. Colette often has this effect on people. At 5-foot-5 and 160 pounds, her physique is unmistakably hardcore, with huge shoulders and arms, sculpted pecs, and an incredibly thick, v-shaped back that would make most men envious. But Colette, a bubbly 27 year-old with steel-blue eyes, dirty blonde hair and a cheeky smile, also exudes an effortless, all-American beauty that almost makes you forget she is a national-level bodybuilder - until she hits another pose.

Of course, that combination of muscle and femininity is exactly what bodybuilding judges are looking for, so Colette's future in the sport looks bright. She placed sixth in the middleweights at the Nationals last November, her first national-level show, and later this summer she will compete in the USA in Las Vegas . With the show seven weeks away, Colette looks fantastic, though of course she herself is not yet satisfied. "I'm still a little on the chunky side," she insists, after ending her impromptu posing session.

For Colette, who alongside competing works as a nutritionist and personal trainer, this year has been all about adding serious mass as she goes all out to gain her pro card. At the Nationals last year she competed as a middleweight, but had to diet down severely to make her contest weight of 132 pounds. "I think I ended up sacrificing too much size last year to make it to middleweight," she says. Still, as Colette's placing suggests, the judges were impressed. Sandy Ranalli, the head judge at the show, told Colette she looked incredible. She needed more size in her quads, but everything else, she said, was there.

Since then Colette has been lifting heavy and piling on size, bulking up to 175 pounds at one point in the off-season. She is now leaning out and plans to compete as a heavyweight at around 142 pounds, a full ten pounds heavier than last year. Colette says she will look bigger and fuller but still "ripped and shredded." She has added an inch to her legs, creating a more dramatic thigh sweep and enhancing her overall symmetry. "I'm gonna make sure the judges notice me," she says.

On a sultry evening three weeks later, Colette is relaxing in her sixteenth-floor apartment in
Greenwich Village . The USA is now exactly a month away and the cuts are beginning to show on her body, hinting at how she will look onstage in Las Vegas . She has her hair up and is wearing a sleeveless t-shirt that shows off her 16-inch arms, and tiny shorts. Barefoot, she sits on the couch with her legs tucked underneath her, clutching a bottle of water.

It has been a tough day for Colette. 10 days earlier she had injured her back while doing hack squats, which has made heavy leg training difficult in a crucial phase of her contest prep. Today she squatted for the first time since the injury, and unsurprisingly she is exhausted. "I'm going to feel it tomorrow," she laughs. In addition to her own training, she also had a hectic schedule of personal training, beginning at 5.30 a.m. - all on a pre-contest diet of 2000 calories a day.

But despite her tiredness, Colette seems to come alive as soon as she starts talking about bodybuilding. Her steel-blue eyes light up, oozing enthusiasm, as she describes the thrill of being onstage in contest shape, posing for an audience. "I love getting up there and performing," she says. "It's just you, in a tiny bathing suit, and your body." Colette has been performing in one way or another since she was a child, and she says it has all been the perfect preparation for bodybuilding. "I feel like I've been working for this since I was six years-old," she says.

As a child, growing up in Royal Oak , a suburb of Detroit , Mich. , Colette Nelson's first passion was dance. "As soon as I could walk I could dance," she says. "That's all I did through elementary school and junior high." As a teenager, she got into aerobics, becoming an aerobics instructor by the age of 17, and was also a cheerleader. But even then, Colette already had one admiring eye on female bodybuilders like Cory Everson and Rachel McLish, who she had seen in the magazines. "They were my role models since I was 12 or 13," she says. "I loved their physiques."

After high school, Colette went off to Michigan State University , where she majored in dietetics and did a minor in dance. And there, at the age of 19, she got inspired. Looking for somewhere to teach aerobics, she walked into the local Powerhouse Gym in East Lansing , and laid eyes on Judy Moshkosky, a national-level bodybuilder, who, it turned out, owned the gym. "She was the biggest woman I'd ever seen in my life," Colette remembers. "She had forearms the size of my head!" She was shocked, but intrigued. "I was totally in awe of her. I was thinking, 'How you get like that?' It was so interesting."

Inspired by Judy's hyper-muscular appearance, Colette dropped the aerobics and began lifting weights. She found a training partner, and was soon pumping iron five days a week. Lifting made her stronger, which made her a better dancer, which in turn motivated her to train harder and get bigger. When she arrived at college she had weighed 120 pounds; she left weighing 140. "My parents thought I was crazy," she laughs.

Of course, being a bodybuilder ruled out the typical student social life. Although she was in a sorority known for partying, Colette never drank - except once. "At my 21st birthday my friends were buying me shots, and I wouldn't drink them. They were like, 'You have to do one shot,' and I was gagging, thinking, 'Oh no! My muscles are deteriorating!'" But although it set her apart, her friends soon got used to her lifestyle. "I got shit for a while but then people pretty much accepted me with my Evian bottle."

After graduating from Michigan State Colette moved to New York to do a master's degree in clinical nutrition at NYU, started training even more seriously, and began to compete. Her knowledge of nutrition gave her a head start in dieting, and with her performing background, she immediately took to being on a bodybuilding stage. She progressed quickly through local shows, qualified for the Nationals at a show back in Michigan , took a year off to get bigger, and then competed in the Nationals last year.

Colette's goal now is to turn pro within the next three years. Bodybuilding is her top priority right now, around which she juggles her other commitments - personal training, nutritional work, and working part-time in a diabetics clinic. In the few spare moments she has, she somehow also manages to maintain a website, which is updated almost daily.

New Yorkers are not known for being easily-shocked, but Colette says she still gets her fair share of stares and the occasional comment in her neighborhood. "When I walk around it's non-stop," she says. "You know I'm going to get somebody saying something. It's usually along the lines of, 'You look fabulous!' or 'Your arms are bigger than mine!' Every once in a while people are taken aback, and they just don't think it's right, and this is New York , so they say it. But that's more of a rarity."

Colette's parents have also gradually got used to the idea of their daughter as a female bodybuilder, particularly after coming to watch her qualify for the Nationals in Michigan - the first show they had seen. "They know it's part of me now," she says. "They didn't really think it was going to be a reality, and now they just know it is and they have to deal with it." These days, when Colette goes to visit them, her mom even stocks up on chicken breasts, egg whites and protein powder.

Colette's goal now is turn pro within three years. She says that if she succeeds she wants to use her muscular yet feminine look to challenge stereotypes about female bodybuilders and to help bring the sport more into the mainstream. But as badly as Colette wants a pro card, it's obvious that what keeps her going, in spite of all the sacrifices that come with life as a competitor, is her sheer love of bodybuilding. "Life is what makes you happy," she says. "And for some reason this makes me really happy.