“What a man, what a man, what a man…What a mighty good man…” –Whatta Man,” by Salt-n-Pepa with En Vogue.
When I was growing up—as my gay identity was forming and burning brightly within–that’s what I ascribed to African-American bodybuilder Chris Dickerson, an IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness) Mr. Olympia legend. On a number of levels, I was intrigued by and enamored with him. And being a bodybuilder enthusiast intensified my “crushing” on the handsome and virile competitor, known for his heavily muscled, symmetrical physique: at 5’6”, he had a competition weight of 184 pounds.
And then there was Dickerson’s “mad” skills on the posing dais that elevated his impeccable musculature, and helping him excel as a bodybuilder. His study of acting, dance, music and gymnastics always made his routines pure theatre. As a result, he’s widely considered as one of the best posers the sport has ever known.
Actually, “Whatta Man” fits Chris to a tee because he was the very first bodybuilder to come out as gay/SGL (same-gender-loving). That took such amazing chutzpah, intestinal fortitude and “brass balls” because of the era: the late 1970’s.
One of the world’s most titled bodybuilders, Dickerson’s competitive career spanned 30 years and 50 contests. And, he became one of the greatest ambassadors the sport has ever known.
This maverick, this man before his time, turns 77 on August 25. So, Happy
B-DAY, Mr. Henri Christophe “Chris” Dickerson! This is your life.
Chris was born on August 25, 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama, the youngest of a set of triplets, which included Alfred and John. His mother, Mahala Ashley Dickerson, was a legend in her own right. Counting the Civil Rights trailblazer Rosa Parksas a lifelong friend, she chalked up a number of firsts: Alabama’s first Black female attorney in 1948; Alaska’s first Black attorney, admitted to the bar in 1959; and the first Black president of the National Association of Women Lawyers, from 1983-1984.
Mahala remarried and the family moved to Indianapolis when Chris was 13. According to www.davidgentle.com, a website dedicated to the history of physical culture, “Chris attended Quaker school. And after high school in 1957, he went to the New York Academy of Dramatic Art and studied acting, dramatics and music, aiming to sing opera. His singing coach later suggested that weight training would help to improve his chest and lungs, and therefore his singing voice.”
The website continued, “He then went on to California to visit his aunt, and saw a photograph of Bill Pearl (the iconic bodybuilder champion of the 1950’s and ‘60’s; named “World’s Best-Built Man of the Century”) in a muscle magazine. The picture inspired him enough to take the plunge into the world of weights, and visit Bill’s gym to seek guidance from the top.”
Now 24 (which today is considered rather “late in the game” to start a bodybuilding career), “Chris first began his quest for the impossible dream of a short, black man to win the top bodybuilding accolades,” stated the site. “So in September 1963, Chris went from his L. A. home to Bill Pearl’s gym on Manchester Boulevard where he was personally coached and also encouraged by Bill, at first training three times a week, whilst then working at an L. A. hospital as an orderly.”
The Competitive Life
“’Sometimes, I feel disappointed with bodybuilding. To be able to have such big muscles, I feel, should make man’s character strong, but sometimes, this is not the case’.”
Now, fast forward to October 1965. Chris entered his first contest—The Mr. Long Beach—and placed third. He later said, “’To this day, this trophy remains my sentimental favorite. I was never to be the same again after winning my first trophy’.” After returning to the East Coast in 1966, he captured a total of 12 titles in 12 months, including the Mr. New York State, Mr. Eastern America, and Junior Mr. USA.
And according to davidgentle.com, “All the while, his acting abilities, dance and mime from dramatic arts complemented his posing to make the most of presenting his ever improving physique, along with his now famous diamond-shaped calves, which Chris admits were a gift of genetics. Asked then of his views on what constituted an award-winning physique, he said, ‘The ideal physique is one with broad shoulders, a small, tapered waist, shapely and developed legs. The neck, arms and calves should all measure the same or close to it. It is equally important to work on your posing in order to show off what development you have attained to your best advantage’.”
While emerging as a successful competitor, Chris worked as a physique model, appearing in all the physique mags. As well, he posed for a multitude of nude photos–including some for the iconic Colt Studios. Of course, this was a huge factor in his popularity within the gay/SGL community.
In 1967, Chris won the Mr. California—assisted by those FAB-U-LOUS calves, which caused a considerable stir. Rarely did this competitor train his lower legs; instead, he devoted most of his efforts and energies to abs, arms—and, of course, posing.
“It was after his Californian win that his real dream began, that of winning Mr. America,” according to the site. “He tried at first in 1967 placing 6th, and in 1968 placed 3rd. In 1969, Boyer Coe beat him by the closest margin in bodybuilding history—just a quarter of a point!”
“(But then in 1970) his dedication, persistence and long training under Bill Pearl had come to fruition, and Chris had achieved his impossible dream to become the first Black bodybuilder to win the Mr. America.” The win allowed Chris to travel extensively, give lectures, and book guest appearances and TV spots. Along with that came an invitational posing tour of Japan.
His advice to beginners? “’Be prepared, have your poses down pat, practice, practice and practice. Expect to be nervous, but try to enjoy yourself on stage; and if you do not place number one, blame yourself and not the judges. Keep in mind no one will remember your losses. People only remember the winner’.”
The Mr. Os: The Controversy and “The Vindication”
“’Being a competitor can be really rough. Physique competitions are difficult to judge. Learning to win is easy but knowing how to lose is a much truer test of the stuff we are made of. Being a competitor can bring out the very best and the worst in our nature’.”
In 1980, Chris had to really cling to that statement after the Mr. O (Olympia), the most prestigious–and the ultimate–bodybuilding tournament. You see, Arnold Schwarzenegger–who was retiring and “in less than perfect shape” and still riding the crest of the success of “Conan the Barbarian”–beat out Dickerson. Actually, many observers believed Chris should have won the title. According to bodybuilding.com, Bill Reynolds of Muscle and Fitness magazine stated, “’Arnold wasn’t in his best shape but fairly good shape at the 1980 Olympia’.” He added, “’Not bad after a five year retirement…whipping himself together in such a short period of time’.”
And in the following year, Chris placed number two. Once again.
But ahhh…the winds of change were a-comin’…
For finally in 1982, at age 43, Dickerson became the first African-American, the oldest, and first openly gay Mr. Olympia. Although he had lots of fame and was living rather comfortably (his own line of gym apparel, lectures, travel, etc.), he stated that “the real money” never came. Unfortunately, the advertising contracts and lucrative deals eluded him.
In 1994, Chris won first place in the 50+ category at the IFBB Masters Olympia, his last contest. Discontinued in 2003, the competition was designed as a venue for former champs past the age of 40. And in 2000, he was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame.
What’s Chris up to today? Well, he’s an active Florida retiree writing his memoirs (having had three serious relationships). A personal trainer, he works with an older, more mature clientele looking to live a longer and healthier lifestyle. And, he continues to lecture.
Even after seeing much and having been through a lot (he’s undergone knee, hip and shoulder replacement surgeries), he maintains his optimism.
As I stated in the intro: “What a man, what a man, what a man…What a mighty good man…!”