Bodybuilding Icon Bev Francis Reveals Real World Behind ‘Love Lies Bleeding’

With the release of Rose Glass’s new film, Love Lies Bleeding, this month, I think it’s safe to say that female bodybuilding is having a moment. By the mid-1980s, which is when the film is set, female bodybuilding was just beginning to crest the peak of its popularity. Gyms and health clubs were opening up in every corner of the U.S. and competitive bodybuilding federations were finally including women’s competitions. When George Butler’s 1985 documentary Pumping Iron II: The Women premiered at Cannes, it became apparent that the niche sport was becoming a little less niche, at least for a little while.

The film introduced the world to professional female bodybuilding and, in turn, introduced the world to the women — both seasoned professionals and the newcomers to the sport — who compete. One of those newcomers, Australia’s Bev Francis, an accomplished professional powerlifter turned bodybuilder, took the bodybuilding world by storm. Francis, who was the most muscular competitor in the film, had a physique that people weren’t used to seeing in the sport and, subsequently, didn’t know how to handle. Following the release of the film, Francis would become one of the biggest stars in bodybuilding, not because of how many times she won but because of how jacked she was and because of how she kept competing, despite what people thought about her.

As someone who’s obsessed with strength sports and strength sports history, I was immediately enamored with Francis’ athleticism, tenacity, and “Say whatever you want, but I’m doing me” attitude. I reached out to Francis to see if she’d be interested in talking about her career, her involvement in the film, and her future in strength sports, and, thankfully, she agreed.

Our conversation was long and had many diversions — mostly about the excitement of getting stronger! — but here you’ll find the highlights so you can get to know this legend a little better.


Stef: I think our community of readers might be learning about you for the first time, so I think it’s good to start with the basics. You began training in track and field in college, and then you branched out into powerlifting after. And on top of that, you were going to school to be a physical education teacher. How did you get interested in sports in the first place, where did the obsession begin, and what were your early experiences playing sports like?

Bev: I’ve just always loved physical movement. I started with dance, which was the first organized thing I did, because my mom was a dancer when she was young. And my sister, who is my closest sibling in age, but still seven years older than me, was in dance class. My mom used to take me along in the little stroller, and as soon as I could walk, basically, I was dancing on the sidelines, and I obviously loved that. So Mom enrolled me. I was like three and a half, four, that’s when I started dance. It was ballet, classical ballet, tap, and some ethnic dances. We did things like Highland Flings, Irish Jigs, and Polish mazurkas, and all those things. I just loved all that, and I continued doing classes until I was about 15.

Once I was at school, I was playing any sport that was available. I was always good at physical education, I was always a fast runner, I always had really good hand-eye coordination, and I was just good at sports. I was always doing something athletic, physical. And at school, I really loved track and field. I wasn’t fabulous at it, I was fast, but not the fastest. I could throw well, but not the furthest. I was always up there, but not the best at anything. So by the end of school, I had to choose a career. And again, I’m talking graduating in 1972 from high school, so careers for women, if you were going to be out and doing a job, you had to wear stockings, skirts, and heels. That wasn’t me.

So, I chose the only thing I thought I could wear casual clothes doing, and also that I was interested in, and that was physical education teaching. And my family was a bunch of teachers. I mean, Mom had been a dancer, but she taught dancing after she stopped. My father was a teacher, one of my brothers was a teacher, and my sister was a teacher. It just ran in the family. And it was also a way for me to get a tertiary education, because I could get what’s called in Australia a studentship. The education department is run by the state government, and they gave scholarships to do the teacher training, and you had to teach for a certain number of years. We didn’t have enough money for me to go to university, but with that studentship I could.

It was perfect. I got paid to do a course that I wanted to do, and get into a job that I wanted and felt comfortable in. And when I went to university, you did every sport imaginable in your physical education course. Ones that I’d done before, and ones that I hadn’t. And while I was at the university there was a coach, he was a world renowned coach, and I started training with him just for fitness. I told him straight out, “I’m not an athlete.”

Stef: Wow, you were so wrong.

Bev: Yeah. And I wanted to learn from him, because as I said, he was a genius coach. He was the coach for Roger Bannister, the first four-minute miler. Franz Stampfl was his name. And he was the person who saw something in me. He thought that I could be better if I trained specifically for throwing [shot put], and told me to do that, I would have to weight train.

I said, “I’ll do anything that I have to learn.” So he started me off with weight training, and I found my niche. I just got stronger and stronger, and I loved it and just fell in love with the whole idea of strength training and everything that went with it. My throws got further, my sprinting got faster, my jumps got better. I saw that everything was helped by strength, and that flowed into life…your confidence, everything gets better as you get stronger. Strength just became a lifelong love for me.

Stef: I know in your powerlifting career, you broke records. And not only that but you were able to get totals that people are still aspiring to lift right now. You mentioned your coach got you into weightlifting, which I think is kind of common for people who played other sports and then become strength athletes. Can you tell me a little more about that training transition?

Bev: The two main lifts that he regarded as essential for power training, for the throws, were the squat and bench press. They were the two basic movements. And of course, you’ve only got to add deadlift to that, and you’ve got powerlifting. So, it was a little bit later that we did some deadlifting, as well as curls, leg extensions, lat pull downs, and everything else. But the basis of the training was massive amounts of squats and bench press.

Stef: What drew you to eventually competing in powerlifting in the first place? Can you talk a little bit about your experiences as a female powerlifter in the 1970s and early 1980s?

Bev: It was actually very easy. I didn’t choose powerlifting…powerlifting chose me. My teammates [the other women Stampfl trained alongside Bev] and I were getting strong, and we were breaking shot put, discus, and javelin state and then national records. We were getting publicity in the papers over two years, and one of the things the articles were saying and we said is, “We’re stronger. That’s why we’re breaking records. We’re doing all this lifting.”

It was probably in the end of 1976 or early 1977, the Powerlifting Association in Victoria, that’s the state in Australia where I live, contacted our coach and had seen the articles in the paper, and they were trying to get women’s powerlifting going. They called up our coach and said, “You have some strong girls. Would they like to compete in a powerlifting meet?” They had to explain what a powerlifting meet was. And we thought it sounded like a fun activity to do. The three of us went along, and we all broke the Australian records. And there were no world records ratified at that time, but they informed me that my lifts were the best on record in the world for my weight class. So it was like, “Okay, this sounds like the sport for me.”

After that, I just started winning. I won every contest that I went into, which is kind of nice when you find you can win something. That’s how I got into powerlifting. And I stayed in it until I’d already moved to the U.S. I did my last two contests for Australia while I was living in the US. And then by that stage, I’d done [Pumping Iron II: The Women], and the movie had been released.

I got a couple of injuries, and I’d won six world championships, and this bodybuilding thing was all around me. And people were saying, “You can’t do it.” At the same time, I had all these fans saying, “You’re the best. Come back and do more.” But I felt like I’d conquered the world in powerlifting, and it’s hard on the body to keep going year after year at that level. So bodybuilding, even though it’s hard, it’s hard in a different way. It’s just pain, but it’s not that heavy. It’s pain of reps after reps and the burning and the intensity, but it wasn’t putting that heavy load constantly on my spine. I thought, enough with powerlifting, and let me give my full attention to bodybuilding now, and show all these non-believers that a powerlifter actually can sculpt their body and become the best bodybuilder in the world.

Stef: Your bodybuilding career began with that invitation from George Butler, right?

Bev: Yeah, because I had no intention of getting into bodybuilding. When he asked me to do the movie, they wanted that extreme body to give the movie some punch, and it sure did. I mean, if you’re asked to be in a movie, you do it. I was an amateur athlete! A schoolteacher! A world-class athlete, but still, it’s a very exciting prospect to be asked to be in a movie. And it came at a perfect time because I had partially torn my Achilles tendon, and recovery from Achilles tendon surgery is very long. It’s basically a year. I knew I was going to be out of action from throwing, from running, from even squatting, because I didn’t have the flexibility after the surgery. My ankle was pretty much locked, and I had to gradually get the flexibility back.

My training was completely different. And I had this opportunity, and my coach was like, “Yeah, take it.” So that’s what I did. And as I said, I threw myself fully into it. I had to learn how to diet and everything, because I had no idea how to diet. And also, I had no respect for bodybuilding at the time. Bodybuilding doesn’t take the effort of running, jumping, throwing, lifting. I thought it’s not athletic, it’s just posing. Of course, I soon learned the training for bodybuilding is really, really tough, and especially when you throw in reduced calories. My respect for bodybuilding grew. And as I said, I was coming to this stage where I was getting injured, and it was getting tough on my body. I preferred to retire while I was ahead, while I was a winner.

Stef: You were originally doing both, and then you made the official switch, right?

Bev: That’s what I did. 1983 was when I tore my Achilles tendon and couldn’t do anything. And that’s when the movie came along, so it was perfect timing. I was still able to do the World Powerlifting Championships in 1983, and in 1984, I moved to the US just before the World Powerlifting Championships that year. During that time, in 1983 and 1984, I was doing bodybuilding, and I was doing exhibitions. And after the movie wrapped, I came back to contests in 1986. That’s when I started bodybuilding and no powerlifting.

It took me three years of training to reshape my body, to get that V-taper, to bring my waist in, to bring my back out, to bring my shoulders up, to do the things I had to do for bodybuilding.

Stef: How would you describe your experiences in the bodybuilding community? I’m interested in how it was interacting with other bodybuilders, even your direct competition.

Bev: My track and field group was a family and we still are. And that was one of the genius moves of Franz [Stampfl], creating a group dynamic and to have a group that trains together. But with bodybuilding, I was in my gym, and everybody else was in their own gym. It’s rare to have someone who’s a competitor who’s in the same gym, especially at the professional level, because they’re all over the country. For example, in the movie, Rachel [McLish] and I were cast as direct antagonists, but we’d never met. And, in fact, we did not have a conversation during the time of Pumping Iron II. We never spoke.

However, after the movie we were both called for guest posing, and sometimes we went to the same place. We spoke, and I actually wrote her a letter just to tell her I had nothing but the greatest of admiration for what she’d done for women’s bodybuilding, and that it was certainly not my choice that we were cast as enemies. And she responded very positively to that letter. At one stage over the next couple of years, when I had to go to where she lived in Palm Springs for an exhibition, she had called the Gold’s Gym there and left six messages for when I got in there for me to contact her and her husband. Steve [Bev’s former husband and training partner] and I ended up going and meeting them for lunch, going to their house, and going out with them. And she’d visit our gym in New York.

I also always got along really well with Cory Everson, she was Ms. Olympia when I finally came into Ms. Olympia in 1987. She’s kind of goofy like I am, we both like to goof around and have fun, and she’s very down-to-earth. We just loved each other from the time we met, and we stayed friends. I still have cards that she would send me before the contest saying, “You and me first and second.” Or, “Equal first, let’s beat all the others.” And, “I’ve got an idea, let’s mess around in the posedown.” Which we did. I would jump in front of her and pose, and she’d pick me up and push me aside. The audience loved it. We’re still friends today. Leanne [Bev’s partner] and I went and stayed at her house in LA a couple of years ago on our way to New York.

But as I said, it’s harder in bodybuilding because you don’t have a group that you train with every day who you also compete with. The people I train with every day in the gym are just regular people. Steve was my training partner, and other people in the gym would come to the Olympias and support me.

Stef: I’ve learned a lot about how much sacrifice and hard work it takes. I know you’ve spoken about how much training you had to put into it, and on top of that, being a bodybuilder can be really expensive. Given how much you had to give to the sport, what kept you coming back year after year?

Bev: Well, I mean, it’s pretty simple. I wanted to win. That’s pretty much it, I wanted to be Ms. Olympia. I mean, I was really happy that I won the World Championships, because I was world champion in two sports, that’s pretty cool. World champion powerlifter and world champion bodybuilder. I’m in two Hall of Fames. I’m in the Bodybuilding Hall of Fame and the Powerlifting Hall of Fame, which is pretty cool, too. But yeah, I wanted to win.

I mean, and that was the thing that allowed me to do the part of the training that I didn’t like, the part of changing, becoming more “feminine.” I mean, it’s nice to have someone actually say, “You look pretty.” Or to look at pictures and go, “Wow, you actually look gorgeous in this picture with the makeup.” Because I never used makeup, and I had short nails. I looked like a classic lesbian, even though I wasn’t a lesbian. I was straight as a ruler until just a few years ago.

For years, I tried to make sure that my hairstyle and my makeup appealed to the judges. Even my body, I had to bring it in, I had to lose muscle every year. I had to diet, not only to lose body fat, but to lose some muscle, to bring my body into more feminine lines. Because as it’s been quoted at and many, many times, the rule book states that judges must remember they’re judging a female bodybuilding competition. So I had that thrown at me.

Stef: We’re still having these conversations about what female athletes can and can’t do, and I think that that’s in every sport. People often talk about how you were ahead of your time. How do you feel about that? What does that mean to you?

Bev: I’m very proud of that now. I certainly didn’t go out to change the world. From the time I was a little kid, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I was a very determined little bugger. I was a difficult child, and I was a complete tomboy, as they called it. I never wanted to be a boy, I wanted to be a girl on my own terms. I wanted to be a strong girl, I wanted to be a brave girl, I wanted to be a smart girl, I wanted to be an achieving girl. And I could see no logical reason why any of that shouldn’t happen, I couldn’t see any reason why I couldn’t do anything that any guy could do.

And that’s just how I thought from the time I was little. I mean, I was the perfect client for Franz because he was totally for women being so much better than they were, and he believed that the key to it was women getting strong. He said, “Women are nowhere near their potential, and the one thing they can do to increase their performances is weight train and get strong.” And I didn’t see limits. Just, How strong can I get? There was no limit, and it was very encouraging.

My family was good about it. I had a very traditional family, Dad was a school teacher, Mom was a homemaker. She cooked, sewed, knitted, crocheted, preserved, made jams, all the things that a really traditional housewife would do. And Dad would never let her work, even though we had five kids in the family and were struggling on one salary. Very traditional in that way. And yet, I mean, when I was a kid, always, I wanted to go rabbit hunting with him, shooting. I would go chopping wood with him and help in the backyard when he was doing his concreting and everything. All the boys had to learn how to cook basic meals and iron their shirts. And it’s like, “You’ve got to learn to take care of yourself, and you’ve got to be able to do everything.” When I started lifting and getting strong, Dad was just proud, his strong daughter. And Mom, the only concern Mom had was, “Be careful, make sure you warm up right. Don’t hurt yourself.” That was all. Otherwise, they were proud as punch of me. I had the support of my family, and I was very, very fortunate, because so many people, when they’re going into the world to do what they want to do, they don’t have that.

I guess I was never scared, I was just, “Fuck everybody.” But I had enough support that I could do it. And women should be allowed to look whatever they want to look like, and do whatever they want to do. God’s sake, men do. I just wanted that freedom. I wanted freedom for myself and for me to feel that I’ve helped free other women, or give an example of what you can do and be happy about it. That has made me feel good.

Stef: I think that that’s interesting, especially in terms of something like female bodybuilding, where gender presentation is heavily policed. I can see how you coming in during that time and saying, “No, I’m going to look this way, and I’m still going to compete. And you’re not going to push me out until I say I want to be out.” That is extremely important. I have a feeling that it impacted not just female bodybuilding, but also just female sports in general.

Bev: I hope so. I mean, when I was competing, Martina Navratilova was a very muscular woman, and she was the only other one that I really looked at who looked… Not similar to me, but looked like she didn’t give a fuck what people thought of her. And I liked that. But beyond that, I didn’t have any role models. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.

Stef: It’s important to just go forward anyway. I imagine that’s how you kind of coach your clients now.

Bev: Oh, yeah. I mean, you’ve got to decide what you want. I tell kids, with social media and everything the way it is these days, I tell them that, if you’re into sport as a career, first of all, make sure you’ve got a backup. Because unless you’re the best in the world, there’s not a lot of money in it. But if you’re into sport as a career, don’t go into it because you think you’re going to be famous or rich, don’t go in it for those reasons. If you are going into it for those reasons, you’ll never be able to put in the work that you need to be the best in the world. The only way you’re going to be able to put in the work that you need, is if you love it. If you’re willing to do that work for nothing, even pay to do the work. If you’re willing to pay to do the training and to go through what you have to do to do your sport, that’s the only way you’ll ever be able to put the effort in to make you the best that you can be. And that’s all you can be, the best you can be. If you don’t love it, if you just like it, but you think you’re going to be famous, then you may as well go get another degree right now. Go for something else, and just do your sport for fun, because you’ll never be on top.

Stef: That’s a really good point. And could be said about a hundred things outside of sports, too.

I’m going to switch gears a little bit. When I first started learning about who you are, I didn’t expect to find out that you’re now in a relationship with another woman. I know you’re not into labels, so I’m not going to use any. But I have to say just personally as a queer person, it’s always a little bit of a relief to find out there are people like you involved in the things you love to do. So, finding out about you, and other strength athletes who are openly queer or trans, like Rob Kearney who is a very famous gay strongman and Laurel Hubbard who is a trans woman who competed in the Olympics for the New Zealand lifting team, is helpful in feeling that there’s a place for us in the sport. I know that you just kind of kickstarted your powerlifting career again and technically, you’re not in the kind of profession where you would need to come out. But I’m just wondering how you feel about being a queer athlete. Do you feel proud to be a queer athlete? Does that ever come across in your mind that you are now part of our very small pantheon?

Bev: If it had been 30 years ago, it would’ve been very awkward, because it wasn’t accepted. I hate categories, I don’t like names for things and categories. And it’s just that people are different. And there’s this whole black gray, dark gray, lighter gray, white in both gender and sexual preference. And I don’t know, I don’t like it being chopped up so much. I’m very happy that it’s a much more accepting world. But as I said, personally, I don’t like all the labels, I don’t see a necessity for them. Other people do, and that’s their choice. So what am I? I’m a woman.

Stef: You don’t even have to define that if you don’t want to, I’m not asking that.

Bev: Yeah, no, but I’m happy to. I’m a female who has a girlfriend, has a female lover, and I have had male lovers in the past, and that’s about it.

Stef: Listen, you’re not alone. That’s pretty common.

Bev: Well, that’s just it, I know. And I love the diverse world. Wouldn’t it be boring if everyone was the same?

Stef: Yes, it would be. And yes, it is accepted to a certain degree. I live in the U.S., so I don’t know the differences between the U.S. and Australia. But it is accepted to a certain degree, and there’s a lot more freedom now to a certain degree. But I still think there’s a lot more change that needs to be made, obviously.

Bev: Absolutely. Yeah, I was going to say, it depends what area you’re in, it depends what town you’re in. I do think the LGBTQ community is a fun community to be in because they’re more open and accepting of differences in so many ways. I really like being in that community. I like being queer.

Stef: Yeah, me too. All right, last question. So, like I said, you recently jump started your powerlifting career again in 2022. And you broke records again, because you’re older.

Bev: Yes, it was the age group as well as the weight class.

Stef: So, what’s the future? What’s your plans? Are you going back into that now?

Bev: I think I will. After that year I was feeling good and strong, but the next year, Leanne, my partner, wanted to do the Great Victorian Bike Ride. It’s at the end of the year, and it’s a five-day bicycle ride, and you camp on the way. It’s over hundreds of miles, and you’re riding about 70 miles a day. I had to train for that, because I’m not an endurance athlete, I’m a power athlete. I’ve been a sprinter, a shot putter, a powerlifter, and a bodybuilder. I’m not a long distance runner or a cyclist, so I really had to train for that. You can’t train for bike riding, ride miles and miles, and then come and do a heavy squat workout. So, I lost some of that strength over that year, and I had a couple of bad bouts of bronchitis and COVID, which knocked me around a little bit.

I’m just building back up now. I just turned 69, and I’m hoping I can wait until next year when I’m 70 and go into the younger part of the age division and compete. Try and break maybe some records in that division, also. I really would like to go back and try a little bit of shot putting again, but I have to get a little bit more spring in my legs before I go for that. So yeah, I’m not ready to lie down and die yet.

I had always wanted to do a marathon, and that’s what I said when I was young. I wanted to start training when I was 40, I’d put 10 years, and at 50, run a marathon. But during those years, my knees deteriorated rapidly. I had six arthroscopic surgeries, three on one knee, three on the other, and then finally had two full knee replacements. My legs took a battering in terms of losing strength, losing snap and power. I’ve also had chronic Achilles tendon problems my whole life. And if I run too much, my Achilles pain flares up. I just decided that, unfortunately, that dream probably won’t ever come true. That’s why I was happy to do the bike riding. At least I did the Great Victorian Bike Ride, which was to me quite an accomplishment.

Now, I’d like to go back into more powerlifting events and see what I can do.


See Bev Francis in Pumping Iron II: The Women now available on YouTube

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 86 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you and Bev Francis for this interview! So exciting and inspiring! It makes me feel like going to the gym to get stronger myself, even though my relationship to sports is tenuous at best.

  2. I second the comment about loving all your fitness/lifting content lately, Stef! I’ve always enjoyed strength training, and I’m feeling so inspired now…especially after reading this iconic interview.

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