scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Lisa Lyon, bodybuilding pioneer and Mapplethorpe muse, dies at 70

Lisa Lyon, a bodybuilding pioneer, performance artist and one-time muse of Robert Mapplethorpe, died Friday at her home in Westlake Village, Calif. She was 70.

Jay Schwartz, her stepson, said the cause was cancer.

Standing at 5-foot-3 and weighing barely more than 100 pounds in her heyday, Ms. Lyon could lift more than twice her weight and once posed with a fellow body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, atop her shoulders.

When she won the first International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Championship, held in Los Angeles in 1979, she became a minor celebrity. Women’s bodybuilding was still in its infancy, and women’s fitness had not yet become a cultural phenomenon. (It would be two years before “Jane Fonda’s Workout Book” was published, and American women were not yet wearing leg warmers as aspirational fashion statements.)


Before she was a regular at the original Gold’s Gym, the muscle hub in Venice, California, Ms. Lyon was an anthropology major at the University of California in her native LA. She had studied ballet, jazz and flamenco dancing before joining an all-male kendo team in college. Despite or maybe because of the intensity of the practice — a Japanese martial art involving bamboo swords and body armor — she took to it.

“It was the first time I was not being treated as a woman,” she told travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin, “and I was not being treated as weak.”

Ms. Lyon was interested in exploring new archetypes of femininity, different from the Marilyns and the Twiggys who had come before her. When she posed for Playboy magazine, appearing in the October 1980 issue, it was a strategic move.

“The fact is, I didn’t need another picture in Muscle Magazine,” she told The Washington Post. “The people who read Playboy are the ones that need to be educated to this concept of femininity.”


Ms. Lyon saw herself as a performance artist, not a muscle star. She met Mapplethorpe, a photographer, at a party in New York soon after winning her world title, and he was taken with her look — leather jacket, rubber pants. He invited her to his loft, and they began to collaborate.

Over a two-year period beginning in 1980, Mapplethorpe took scores of photographs of her, work that came together as a show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1983 and a book, “Lady: Lisa Lyon,” published the same year.

“In session after session,” Chatwin wrote in the book’s introduction, “Lisa posed as a bride, broad, doll, playgirl, beach girl, bike-girl, gym-girl and boy-girl; as frog-person, mud-person, flamenco dancer, spiritist medium, archetypal huntress, circus artiste, snake woman, society woman, young Christian and kink.”

He added: “The photographer and his model have conspired to tell a story of their overlapping obsessions. Their glorification of the body is an act of will, a defiance of nihilism and abstraction, a story of the Modern Movement in reverse.”

There was Ms. Lyon in a wide-brimmed hat, veiled in black, like a John Singer Sargent portrait but with bulging biceps and a leather bustier. There she was sheathed in satin, like a 1940s movie star, although her tufts of armpit hair signaled otherwise. Mapplethorpe photographed her naked in bodybuilding poses, but also in softer stances. A close-up of her arched throat looks like a sketch by Michelangelo.


“‘Lady’ has the virtue of presenting Mr. Mapplethorpe’s considerable visual acuity and range without being burdened by his penchant for shocking us into submission,” Andy Grundberg wrote in his review of the show and the book in The New York Times, adding, “Mr. Mapplethorpe seems most intent on describing the conflict between acculturation and innocence, between living inside and living outside of society’s norms and values.”

Lisa Robin Lyon was born May 13, 1953, in Los Angeles. Her father, Leonard Lyon, was an oral surgeon, and her mother, Roslyn (Robin) Lyon, was a homemaker.

Ms. Lyon told Chatwin that she had a dark childhood and created rituals — counting, touching things — to self-soothe. Before she found bodybuilding fame, she wanted to be a film star or an artist or a medical illustrator. She worked for a time writing script synopses.

After her early fame as a bodybuilder, she mostly left that world behind, although she published a book, “Lisa Lyon’s Body Magic,” in 1981. In 2000, she was inducted into the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation Hall of Fame.

Mapplethorpe was not the only artist to memorialize Ms. Lyon. She was photographed by Helmut Newton, Marcus Leatherdale and Lynn Davis, among others, and rendered in bronze by Barry Flanagan, an Irish-Welsh sculptor. She also appeared in several movies, including “Vamp,” a cheerfully panned Grace Jones vehicle about a vampire; Ms. Lyon had a bit part as a stripper.

In addition to Schwartz, she is survived by her sister, Duffy Hurwin. An early and brief marriage to an ethnologist and part-time bodybuilder ended in divorce, as did her marriage to Bernard Lavilliers, a French singer-songwriter. She had a romantic relationship with John Lilly, an eccentric neuroscientist and author whose work with isolation tanks and studies of dolphin communication inspired two Hollywood movies, “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973) and “Altered States” (1980); he adopted her in 1987. Ms. Lyon’s third husband, Alan Deglin, an actor she married in 2009, died in 2020.


In the Washington Post interview, Ms. Lyon said her aspiration was to look like an animal, “a sleek, feline animal.” The ultimate compliment to her look, she said, would be “if someone asked, ‘What planet did she come from?’”