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Beauty and the Geeks

It's a strong bodybuilding tradition for Penn

Alexa DePasquale adheres to a strict schedule both as a student and as a bodybuilder.
Alexa DePasquale adheres to a strict schedule both as a student and as a bodybuilder.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

In her house near University City, her long, brown hair rolled up in curlers, her entire body painted with Pro Tan spray, Alexa DePasquale has two hours before showtime.

She removes her black sweats to reveal her new metallic-blue bikini, so her housemate, Kate Panarese, can roll sticky Bikini Bite on her skin to keep the suit in place.

Earlier that day, Panarese brushed on the final coat of the Pro Tan spray, the last of five coats she applied to her friend - a job that required DePasquale to strip naked each time.


Such behavior has caused some people DePasquale knows to think she's "a nutcase," but she says it's necessary. "You get washed out under the [stage] lights," she says. "You have to be a darker color. It also helps to show your definition more."

Several times a week for the last two months, DePasquale has adhered to a grueling - and, for a college kid, unusual - schedule. She has spent two hours almost every day in the gym, zealously following a strict weightlifting and cardio regimen: Five days of lifting - shoulder presses, bench presses, leg presses, squats and lunges - plus low- and high-intensity cardio. She has eaten healthier than ever. She hasn't drunk alcohol, and she has made sure she has gotten eight hours of sleep each night. Her life, basically, has revolved around her attending classes, working out, sleeping and eating.

In a couple of hours, she will find out whether it has been worth it. That's when DePasquale, a senior at Penn, would be onstage in front of a screaming crowd of students at the Annenberg Center's Zellerbach Theatre, participating in what might be the Ivy League's least likely tradition: The Mr. and Ms. Penn Bodybuilding Contest.


When assistant women's track coach Tony Tenisci started work at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-'80s, he had an idea. Tenisci - a bald, stout, athletic-looking Canadian - had worked at Washington State University, where he had also coached track and run a student bodybuilding competition.

He wasn't sure a similar contest would fit in at Penn. "It was an Ivy League school; I didn't really know if an idea like this could take place," he says.

Penn, at that time, didn't have a sophisticated fitness center. But as he worked out himself, lifting weights in the basement of a campus gym, Tenisci "saw a lot of talented kids here," he says. "Then, I just felt like I could do this ...  I saw there are fit kids here and thought I could encourage this kid and that kid."

The night of the first contest, in February 1994, a heavy ice storm hit Philadelphia. The weather, however, did little to deter spectators. The then-500-seat theater where the competition was held sold out. And 200 more people who wanted in had to be turned away. That's when Tenisci thought, "Maybe I have something!"

Today, about 20 to 30 students compete in each show: some to improve their fitness, others because they're hard-core competitive athletes, and still others who want to be pro bodybuilders.

Tenisci works with the students for two months before the event, giving them a grueling weightlifting regime, discussing nutrition and proper dieting, practicing the bodybuilding poses they need to perform, and mostly, encouraging them to participate in what many come to consider a unique journey.

For some participants, like DePasquale, the goal is just to be in the show, part of her last year at Penn, and to get her body more fit. "It really is about fun and friends," she said.

For others, like Jesse Carlin, the goal is to win. A doctoral student in pharmacology of neuroscience, Carlin already has won the Ms. Penn title three times - twice as a Penn undergrad, and once as a Ph.D. student. Last year, she won in the short-class women's division, but got toppled for the overall Ms. Penn title by Cydney Gillon, a freshman who had already turned pro bodybuilder. "It always is tough to lose," said Carlin, 25, a pretty and petite blonde. "It was good for me to lose because I'll just work harder this year."


It's Sept. 14 at the Pottruck gym on Penn's campus, and students are filing into a fourth-floor studio for the first meeting of the bodybuilding competition.

Tenisci, 62, enthusiastically greets everyone. "I can tell you're really into this," he tells one male student. "Once you do this, whenever you look at food, you'll never look at it the same way again."

Thirteen students attend the session. On competition night, 23 students - 11 of them women - will take the stage. "The audience and the competitors are like nothing you can imagine," Tenisci says at the first meeting, preparing them for the show. "It's not about the outside world; it's not about professionals. It's about us. This is your Warhol 15 minutes of fame. When you're up there, you get a lot of respect from your peers. They're looking at you, thinking 'Damn, I wish I could be there.' "

Most of the students on this first night look like regular college kids: normal, in other words. There are no bulging muscles ripping out of clothes.

The coach tells them they will undergo a journey, a journey that will include working out, of course. But working out will not be enough. They will also have to eat properly to give them the fuel they need to be at their best for the competition. Then, "you can really see what God gave you," he says.

Tenisci focuses a lot of his talks with the students on eating right. "No deep-fry, limit your dairy, get away from the sweets," he says. He tells them they can even get healthy meals at the ubiquitous food trucks around campus by ordering egg-white sandwiches or steamed chicken and white rice. He tells them to buy cartons of egg whites from the store. And he tells them to drink water - and to change from drinking tap to distilled water two weeks before the contest to help them look even more ripped.

At a second meeting, on Sept. 27, Tenisci takes out a Styrofoam takeout box from an Asian food truck filled with steamed broccoli, chicken and plain white rice. "In there is my protein; that's all I need," he said. "No T.G.I. Friday's. Not the mega-meals." He then shows them a shopping bag full of other foods they can easily buy: Birds Eye Steamfresh veggies; large cans of white chicken and tuna; frozen white roughy and organic brown rice from Trader Joe's. He takes out a package of fresh mushrooms and a bag of salad-ready lettuce, holds up the tuna can, and tells the students to add carrots, celery and the tuna to make a salad. With a meal like this, "I'm living a dream," he says.


DePasquale, a communications major with a minor in Italian studies, admits that the diet part of the training is the "100 percent most difficult thing."

At her private high school in Long Island, N.Y., she was also a three-sport varsity athlete - squash, tennis and lacrosse - and graduated as the school valedictorian. "I am extremely disciplined," she says. "I like having regimens; I like having schedules."

But she also likes knowing there's an end date. "Knowing there was a finite end and you could put yourself through it, it just makes it all the more rewarding," she says.

She was always a healthy eater, but during the training, she missed eating out at restaurants with friends. While they were eating pizza and drinking beer, she had to abstain. "I found a couple of foods that I love - sweet potatoes and beans," especially lentils and black beans, she says. She ate tons of veggies, brown rice, chicken, almonds and pistachios, stayed away from dairy, and really missed having sweets. She discovered that Reddi-wip fat-free whipped cream curbed her sweet tooth. Diet cream soda "took the edge off" in the beginning. And she found that drinking a lot of flavored hot tea before bedtime helped stave off cravings at night.

Carlin also describes herself as "a very disciplined, crazy person" and "very competitive."

Right now, she's sitting at Gia Pronto, a sandwich shop across from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, on the Thursday before the show, explaining her eating regimen. For breakfast, she has three scrambled eggs, including yolks. "I don't believe in that egg-white thing," she says. "I want the full egg." For dinner, she'll make herself grilled chicken, fish or steak, with veggies like asparagus or Brussels sprouts. She'll also have half a potato, a little couscous or rice.

Carlin, who jokes that she's had sixpack abs since her sophomore year in college, considers the bodybuilding contest "a side hobby." As an undergrad, the Staten Island, N.Y., native was a two-time All-America in the 800-meters as part of the Penn track team. She's now on the professional track circuit and is trying to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

On a typical training day, she wakes at 6:30 a.m. and runs four to six miles, then goes to work at a medical-school lab, where she does experiments with mice on high-fat diets. In the afternoon, she goes to the track to run sprints, or lifts weights at a Center City gym, before heading home to her place near Rittenhouse Square, where she cooks her own dinner. After some reading or writing for work, she heads to bed early enough to get eight to nine hours of snooze time.


It's about 6:30 p.m. on the night of the competition, Nov. 8, and the female bodybuilders have begun arriving backstage at the Zellerbach Theatre. Carlin, dressed in a red bikini and black sweatpants, practices her poses in front of a hallway mirror, then puts on a last-minute coat of Pro Tan. She then does a series of push-ups and sit-ups in the hallway.

In a dressing room, DePasquale helps another competitor, Genevieve Barnard, with her makeup.

Meanwhile, audience members have been filtering in for the 7 p.m. show, displaying their support for their favorite competitor. One group sports T-shirts declaring "Asia's Crew," in favor of Wharton senior Asia Lampley.

There are four judges - head judge Vince Faust, who writes about health and fitness for the Philadelphia Tribune; Al Bagnoli, Penn's head football coach; Charity Payne, a Penn track alumna; and Samantha Crook, another Penn track alumna who won the bodybuilding contest in 2004.

The competitors are split into four categories: short-class men; short-class women; tall-class men; and tall-class women.

DePasquale and Carlin are both short-class women. When it's their turn, they line up onstage with the four others in their class. Carlin and DePasquale stand next to each other, in the middle of the pack.

The students get up to 10 points during this first part of the competition: the group pose. At Tenisci's commands, they go through the six mandatory poses; they turn to the side, to the back, to the other side, and back front again, showing off their biceps, chest and abdominal muscles, thigh and back muscles. DePasquale gives the audience a big smile with each pose.

"Oh, oh, oh! Love it!" screams one man in front.

Each of the women then does a minute-and-a-half solo routine. This counts for up to 20 points, for a total of up to 30 points.

DePasquale's routine - set to LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It" - combines the poses and some hip-shaking. In the audience, DePasquale has a loud cheering crowd among her Tri-Delt sorority sisters, other friends and her father, John, who has driven down from Long Island to Philly for the contest.

Carlin immediately follows with a routine set to Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me." Under the lights, her back and abs look like they're made of corrugated metal, while her legs have the sinewy definition of a racehorse's thighs. As she goes through her routine, friends and former teammates on the track squad cheer loudly.

After the judges put in their scores, Tenisci calls the top three women in the short-class category to come back onstage: DePasquale, Carlin and Jordan Brown, another member of the Penn track team.

Even though the winner of the division has already been determined, the trio pose before the panel one more time before Tenisci announces the winner.

Brown is No. 3.

DePasquale and Carlin wait.

"Runner-up: Alexa DePasquale!" Tenisci says.

DePasquale's smile deflates, but she continues to stand tall. After Carlin accepts the short-class-women's trophy, she gives DePasquale a hug.

Moments later, she goes back onstage to go against the winner of the tall-class women's category, Paige Madison, to vie for the overall Ms. Penn title. The two women stand onstage, flexing their muscles before the judges.

After the pose-down is over, the two stand next to each other. Tenisci announces that Madison is the runner-up. Carlin has won her fourth Ms. Penn title.

Sitting in the audience at the end of the competition, DePasquale, who won for best choreography from the coach, says, "It's fine. It's over. I'm just focused on the pizza I'm going to be eating."

Knowing she gave a great performance, she says of the judges' scoring: "It's out of my control."