The Masculine Femme - Lisa Lyon

Behold the lady who marched against the current, the Californian body builder Lisa Lyon, whose glamor shone through her masculine build.

Portrait of Amanda Lear

Image rights to Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Lisa Lyon owned an atypical build figure that translates a different kind of “femininity”, neither was she runway-model-skinny nor hourglass, she leaped across definitions of a “woman” by making history: becoming the first ever IFBB female champion.

Always an agile woman, Lyon began learning Kendo – the traditional Japanese style of fencing – when studying in the University of California in 1971. Training in a fierce environment, she was well aware that she wasn’t robust enough to fight with her peers. Her need for stronger upper-body strength drove her to an obsession with weight training, and thereafter, body building – that’s when she had her fondest desire of the championship of the International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness’s first women’s contest.

Lyon’s all-out effort paid off, not long after, in 1979 as she championed the first IFBB Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Championships in Los Angeles. Her dazzling victory stunned the crowd into an introspection of what it means to be “feminine”. Unlike the endless urge to attain unrealistic physique standards among most females, Lyon went the other way round, blurring and challenging gender binaries. Lyon’s body was almost like an in-your-face statement of women empowerment, which, thereafter, made her an inspiration for all.

Her body was almost like an in-your-face statement of women empowerment.

Following her triumph came her cover on Playboy – she became the second female bodybuilder to appear on the magazine – dressed in a red bodysuit Lyon stood erect in a classic bodybuilder pose, revealing her muscles. Amid the frenzy of media features, who would expect Lyon getting off the bodybuilding stage? But yes, indeed, she really did. Off she went taking on another direction into acting – a farewell to bodybuilding contests. During her brief acting career, Lyon’s face and body were omnipresent – be it on television shows or magazines – where she advocated the art of female bodybuilding. 

Portrait of Amanda Lear

Image rights to Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

It was merely an understatement to say Lyon was Robert Mapplethorpe’s muse, the legendary photographer who once asserted “photographing women is not the experiencing I am seeking”. Entranced by Lyon’s masculine femininity, Mapplethorpe, turned out, created over a hundred portraits of the bodybuilder. The portraits, nevertheless, depicted Lyon in elegance, drifting away from her usual route à la Playboy. As much as Lyon stood out as a more masculine figure, in Mapplethorpe’s work she is not as much. 

Strewed with fearlessness, her glare whispers nary a doubt.

Dressed in lacy lingerie, bridal veil and couture, the feminine attribute of Lyon is writ large through the astonishing images, sparking off an interplay between masculinity and femininity. In some photographs, even, Lyon is utterly topless – yet nowhere close to pornography – and strewed with fearlessness, as her glare whispers nary a doubt. 

Portrait of Amanda Lear

Image rights to Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Paying tribute to Lyon, NOIRANCA presents LISA, a bag that radiates the beauty of a non-binary woman, one that blends masculinity with femininity. The structured handle speaks to the masculine side of women whereas the paddings radiate with softness and the female sensibility. With its unique silhouette, LISA reminds us of the infinite definitions of femininity. 

NOIRANCA handbag Amanda in Dusty Rose

As a pioneer, Lyon laid the foundation of not so much female bodybuilding as bodily autonomy. It is not her body that awed us most but her grit to make decisions about her physical self despite the scorn and ridicule we can easily imagine that she had encountered.