Marie Ann “Mo” Newman took her first steps onto the women’s bodybuilding stage two decades ago.
On Friday, she will compete in the Wings of Strength IFBB PBW Championships Tampa Pro in Tampa, Florida, with high hopes.
When the 43-year-old International Federation of Bodybuilders figure pro started her journey, social norms defined the sport as male-dominant. It slowly gained popularity with women — though women not fitting a specific body type struggled to be competitive.
“I was the skinny, tall, lean girl with a little muscle,” Mo says, referring to her first National Physique Committee bodybuilding show.
She began to change her physique. She learned how to build muscle, but she learned that wasn’t for her.
Events sanctioned by the NPC, the largest amateur bodybuilding organization in the U.S., are first stops for athletes wanting to become professional bodybuilders.
With women’s bodybuilding growing in popularity just as Mo began her career, the NPC introduced a fitness division giving women with less bulk an avenue to compete.
“It favored my physique, but girls were doing backflips and cartwheels all over the stage,” she says. “I competed for two years. It was fun, but I was done.”
Once again Mo struggled to find her niche in the sport that she enjoyed so much.
Years later when the NPC introduced a figure division, she found her home. She fit the criteria.
It became apparent when, in 2006, Mo won the very first local figure show she entered, sending her on a quick path to the national competition level.
“At the national level you’re aware of how many pro cards are available, you know where your placement has to be during a show to qualify to be a pro,” she says.
That journey for Mo — three years, nine national shows and four local shows — was tedious and one she says she wouldn’t recommend to any NPC athlete. She finally earned her pro card in 2009 after winning the 35-and-over masters division at the Masters Nationals.
“I was lucky because I had a husband who was there with me,” she says of husband Jim. “He’s my coach. He’s my rock.”
The tedious stint of shows, training and travel took a toll on Mo, and in 2011, she retired from the sport of bodybuilding to focus on her career as a hair stylist and bodybuilding coach.
But not for long.
Mo’s interest in staying healthy really began in childhood.
Because of complications at home, she was raising herself by the age of 16.
“I come from a long background of alcoholics,” she says. “I knew that was a path I didn’t want to go down.”
Team sports gave Mo an outlet to stay focused on the life ahead.
“When I played basketball, I was always the smaller girl that played big,” Mo says, referring to time spent on a small college team in California. “In order to keep my strength up, I needed the weight room.”
She remembers seeing a woman in the gym who was muscular but not too big. She looked strong both internally and physically. At the age of 20, Mo says she felt empowered.
“It was hard to leave team sports behind but when you’re an adult, you cannot afford to get injured,” she says. “This sport of fitness and bodybuilding helped me to keep the competitive edge in my life.”
From 1993 to 1995 Mo competed in two bodybuilding shows in Kalamazoo, Michigan, placing in both, and shortly after moved to South Carolina to begin competing in the newly sanctioned NPC fitness competitions.
After she decided to take a leave of absence from the sport in 1997, life happened fast.
She got involved with her career, she says. “I learned a lot about myself and grew up.”
She found her second passion in being a hair-color specialist and make-up artist, and in 1998 she met Jim Newman, her future husband.
Mo traveled to salons all over the U.S. and taught the chemistry of hair color.
Ultimately, her career and her husband would take her back to the team atmosphere she had a hard time leaving years earlier.
When a mutual friend introduced Mo to Jim, they quickly realized they were a perfect match.
Jim, a bodybuilding coach, was involved in the sport behind the scenes.
“Ironically, he was in the audience when I first started competing in fitness in South Carolina,” Mo says.
Hours-long car trips to fitness and bodybuilding shows turned into brainstorming sessions between two business-minded people.
“I’ve competed up and down the East Coast from New York to Florida,” Mo says. “I told him one of my dreams was to help ladies better themselves from the inside out.”
In 2008, the couple started The Dream Team, a business that coaches both women and men in contest preparation.
They work with amateurs and professionals of all ages and sizes in nutrition choices, training schedules, on-stage posing, hair and makeup and choosing the right suit for the stage.
But it’s not all about the sport.
“When you’re lifting weights and eating right and you feel strong, you carry yourself different,” Mo says. “So you’ll be a better mother, a better sister, a better grandmother, a better partner.”
The Newmans hope that even if their team members do only one show they will learn a lot about themselves.
“When you’re on stage and you’re only wearing four triangles of fabric and asking judges to judge you, it’s hard,” Mo says. “If you can do that, you can do anything.”
Critics are going to be critics
Jim understands the perception that women in fitness, figure and bodybuilding carry more muscle than the general public wants to see, but he says that the image of women’s bodybuilding might be skewed by magazines.
“All those shots of bodybuilders and fitness girls in the magazines are shot right around a show,” said Jim. “They don’t stay like that all the time.”
Mo says she gets the stares and understands critics are going to be critics.
Men and women stare from their ellipticals and row machines inside Mo’s home gym, Gold’s Gym on North Pleasantburg Drive.
Mo disagrees that Western culture suggests women should be skinny, weak and always wearing high heels.
“I’m proud to be strong. I’m proud that I’m standing tall. I’m proud I’m 43 and still kicking butt,” she says. “I do more by 9 a.m. than most people do all day.”
With only a week until her show in Tampa, Mo was approached by a woman recently who asked if she felt she was depriving herself of food.
“I asked her how many times she had eaten that day,” Mo says. “She said she had only had a cup of coffee. I told her I already ate three meals, so who was depriving herself?”
The road to pro status took its toll on Mo’s body, but that didn’t stop her.
After years of placing in numerous shows against girls younger than her, she finally gained her pro card in 2009 while in the masters division, and went on to compete for another two years.
With the Dream Team starting to take off, it was a perfect time to end her show career as a figure athlete and focus on coaching.
Or so she thought.
In 2014, when Gary Udit organized the Pro Masters Championship in Pittsburgh, Mo decided to “hop back in.”
Once again, she started hitting the gym, and in her first show back in three years, she placed.
“That whole show up there was just remarkable,” Mo says. “Not only getting first call outs and placing fourth, I got to meet Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who is my godbrother.”
Mo’s father asked the parents of “The Rock,” Rocky and Ata Johnson, to be her godparents when she was born.
“They were best buddies, but eventually my father and Rocky lost touch. We didn’t know they had a son,” she says. “Jim was reading the newspaper and found out Rocky had a son named ‘The Rock’ and I said, ‘Holy crap.’ How do I get ahold of this guy without him thinking I’m a lunatic?”
At the show in Pittsburgh word got to Mo that “The Rock” was in town and at the show in support of his workout partner. That’s where she finally met “The Rock.”
Ata was in the front row and welcomed her with tears, held her hand and couldn’t believe she was there.
“It was really cool how we got to chit-chat and reconnect,” Mo says. “We send each other texts, she is such a loving person.”
Mo, who now sits on the South Carolina NPC board of directors as the women’s representative and is an NPC show judge, has the opportunity to give back to the sport that gave so much to her.
With the sport’s growing popularity, she is hopeful the IFBB will create a Olympia Masters aside from its popular Mr. and Ms. Olympia titles.
“That would be a total dream come true, so I’ve got to hold on tight for a few more years,” Mo says. “So this local girl is here to stay for awhile.”