One of the all-time true legends in female bodybuilding did not really want to get into the sport, at least not initially.
But thank goodness Playa del Rey resident Lenda Murray did, because she helped take the sport to a whole new level and left her indelible mark on it, becoming a member of the National Fitness Hall of Fame in Columbus, Ohio in March of 2011 and receiving the award by none other than the most famous bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Think of the 50-year-old as a real-life Forrest Gump of athletics – world-class professional bodybuilder. Plus she’s a wife and grandmother of 11, stepmother of four, former ESPN commentator, professional cheerleader, former gym owner in Virginia and currently a physical fitness trainer at El Segundo’s Los Angeles Air Force Base, along with private trainer to professional wrestlers, athletes and countless others. Plus she even tried out to become a professional wrestler, but more on that later.
“I thought bodybuilders were weird,” said Lenda Murray an eight-time Ms. Olympia winner. “They would sleep, eat, stay inside, eat egg whites, chicken and brown rice all day. But I stopped fighting what my body wanted to do, stopped fighting who I was.”
On July 28, at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va., the 8th annual Lenda Murray Bodybuilding, Figure and Bikini Championships were held.
Murray became a bodybuilder whose grace, strength, agility and ability to wow the judges were nearly perfected. Her first victory came as a then-28-year-old in 1990 in New York City’s Beacon Ampitheater, in what Murray called an upset over then six-year veteran bodybuilder and Australian Beth Francis, who finished second. Watch the sheer joy on her face, as she won her first-ever title. That ignited an unprecedented six-year run in which Murray earned bodybuilding’s highest honor.
“My life changed overnight,” Murray said. “I earned $300,000 per year, doing about one show a year. I think what it was, if you look at my past, I had a versatile background. It’s not about who crosses the finish line first, it’s whoever has the better day. I make myself pretty, wear makeup, but be just as muscular in my own way. Some of my competitors missed that one component or another.”
Murray’s initial lack of experience helped her, in some ways. Growing up in Detroit, she initially wanted to become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and she was very close to officially becoming one. But despite making the squad in 1985, for some reason the team didn’t really find out she was also cheerleading for the United States Football League’s Michigan Panthers. That team included eventual National Football League stars like wide receiver Anthony Carter, who became a Minnesota Viking, and quarterback Bobby Hebert, who played for New Orleans.
Murray also served as a cheerleader up until 1984 with Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., earning her B.S. in political science and she took pre-law courses at the college as well.
“Our season was in the spring, and of course Dallas’ season was in the fall,” Murray said. “I thought it was fine. Their coach said, ‘I’ll let you come back next year.’ That was disappointing. I did not try out in 1985. I had to change my (athletic) physique, trying to conform to their look. I had to sacrifice my body for a softer, bikini look. I had to lose muscle. I knew to maintain that was tough.
“My friends were like ‘Why are you being someone you’re not?’ That’s how I became a bodybuilder. I spent the next four years working toward being a professional. If I had made the team, I probably would not have been a bodybuilder. I would’ve been in a whole different mindset.”
At the time, Murray’s parents did not buy in 100 percent.
“It was a good thing for my body, but it was difficult for my family to accept back then,” Murray said. “All of them knew me as this cheerleader and they said ‘Have you lost your mind?’ My father would not go to my first bodybuilding competition. I finished fourth in 1985 at Eastern Michigan. Then I won the Michigan State bodybuilding title from 1986 to 1988.”
But dear old dad would eventually come along with several fans who came to appreciate Murray’s newfound skills.
While at the peak of her career, Murray also worked as an ESPN commentator from 1993-1996. At first she was very positive – again, think Lisa Leslie, commentator of KABC in L.A. who also served as a commentator for NBC in this summer’s London Summer Olympic Games for women’s basketball. She had to learn how to give honest critiques of her fellow professional bodybuilders.
“I suck at it,” Murray said of being a little critical at times back then. “But our producers told us, ‘Everyone can’t look great all the time.’ I’m better at it today. I just played the role.”
Murray also appeared on daytime talk shows like Geraldo, The Montel Williams Show, Jerry Springer (before Springer went into sensationalistic-style mayhem) and she was even mentioned by a woman in her 70s on The Oprah Winfrey Show, saying Murray inspired her.
“All of it that came with that was stressful,” Murray said. “I enjoyed it. I’m an introvert and you want to be the best. I was there at the height of the media attention. All of a sudden, later on, we were being replaced by The World Series of Poker, things like that.”
Nowadays, Murray remains a busy woman. Over the past several years, she has trained well-known pro wrestlers like Ric Flair, Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, daughter of Vince McMahon, plus personnel and athletes from the National Basketball Association, like a vice president of the Detroit Pistons. Plus there’s been clientele like the Black Eyed Peas, a wildly famous band whose roots are in Los Angeles as well.
And there was that one audition for World Wrestling Federation back in 1997.
“It was brutal,” Murray said. “I was 34 at the time and I just didn’t want to do it. But it was a great opportunity.”
On Feb. 22, Schwarzenegger gave Murray a cake for her 50th birthday, from one legend to another.
At L.A. Air Force Base, Murray trains primarily older or retired veterans and civilians, along with those hard-core soldiers who want to be tested in the early mornings.
Murray even met her future husband through bodybuilding, fellow bodybuilder Urel McGill, who is now the Chairman and chief promoter of the Lenda Murray Championships.
“We met in Guam at Anderson Air Force Base,” Murray said. “It was at the Mr. Universe competition. I made a guest appearance in 1994 and I met this guy with this unique name. I was invited back in 1995. He was competing that year and he said, ‘Remember me?’ He placed eighth out of 21 competitors, which is a big deal. We married pretty soon after that.”
In another of life’s funny twists, Murray never really felt an initial need to move to California.
“I thought I’d never move here,” Murray said. “I worked here three weeks, and I went back to Michigan. I never got the flavor, what the people really are like. One of my regrets was I didn’t move here sooner. When you first move here, you have to take control.”
From 1999-2005, Murray and McGill owned a gym in Virginia Beach, Va. called The Fitness Burn, an 18,000-square foot facility across from a major mall that earned about $400,000 per year.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Murray said. “I thought I’d have all this expertise and that running a gym was natural. It was a ton of responsibility and a lot of pressure. We did not renew the lease when it came up. It wasn’t what we thought it was. It was an OK economy. You really need deep pockets. Places like Bally’s, L.A. Fitness and those guys can offer lower membership monthly costs. When you’re a Mom and Pop, you can’t do that for long periods of time. We were happy when we had $25,000 per month, we charged $29 per month.”
Murray said personal planning and private sessions are “where it’s at. I got more satisfaction from that. I earned about $100,000 a year, I charge $200 a session.”
Pricey, sure, but not too bad considering that clients are working with the sport’s all-time great. And Murray has proven that hard work and athletic talent can lead to long-term success.