Women Competitive Eaters Take Over The Table

It’s October, and Michelle “Cardboard Shell” Lesco is trying to decide whether to compete in the World Championship Bratwurst Eating Contest in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For the world’s #8 professional competitive eater (as ranked by Major League Eating, the international organization that oversees professional eating competitions), this decision should be a no-brainer. But Lesco just had a tooth pulled and is still on painkillers. Eventually, concerns about dry socket and the impact on future contests compel her to cancel her trip (the inimitable Joey “Jaws” Chestnut goes on to to claim Tulsa glory by inhaling a whopping 66 brats in 10 minutes).

Standing at 5’4” and 115 lbs, Lesco has had a strong 2015 season. In June, she was crowned the rib champion of Chicago’s Ribfest, after eating 3.2 lbs of meat in eight minutes. She placed fourth in the women’s contest at the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4th, eating 26 HDB (that would be hot dogs and buns, for those uninitiated in the competition lingo) in 10 minutes. September found her in Ireland slurping 214 oysters in three minutes in a valiant, but ultimately failed, attempt to dethrone Colin the Oyster King. In early October, she ate 8 pounds of pumpkin pie in 8 minutes, outdone only by Miki Sudo — the top female in the sport — and that legend Joey Chestnut.

But just before the World Pasta Eating Championship in Las Vegas, a root canal filling dislodged in her mouth. Despite intense pain, the formidable Cardboard Shell rallied, eating 6.25 pounds of pasta and placing third in the contest, behind Sudo and Matt “Megatoad” Stonie (the current #1 eater in the world).

Before the tooth catastrophe, I caught up with Lesco and Sudo by phone to shed some light on the inner-workings of the competitive eating realm. Having just finished a whirlwind trip to Sacramento to eat pumpkin pie, Lesco was traveling in an RV with her family, Sudo catching a ride with them on the way home — a testament to the friendship the two women have forged since Sudo’s arrival on the pro-eating scene two years ago. The pair shares a wacky sense of humor, a down-to-earth nature, and a humbling dedication to the athleticism of their sport.

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In any eating contest, there are two minutes of high drama — the beginning and the end — and about six to 10 minutes of awkwardness in between as hundreds of slack-jawed observers watch a line of humans gobbling food on a stage. There are all types of noises and body movements erupting from the tables — head shaking, hair flipping (Sudo has a move that’s been dubbed “The Angry Pony”), and bouncing in order to move the food down. Some eaters wear face paint or dress in costume (Lesco wore a bear suit at Ribfest), while others show up looking relatively normal, dressed in contest T-shirts, laser-focused on the task at hand.

Michelle and Miki competing at RibMania VI at Ribfest Chicago XVII
Michelle and Miki competing at RibMania VI at Ribfest Chicago XVII

This hybridity of spectacle and sport is part of what makes competitive eating unique. Fans (like myself) who follow the epic trail of MLE-sponsored eating contests grapple with the big questions, like:

Can a human being really eat 18 pounds of pumpkin pie in eight minutes?

Will that girl with the green eyelashes and the tutu puke all over the table?

What are the long-term consequences for such routine stomach-stretching?

Why the hell am I so into this?

Lesco and Sudo both fell into this wild and woolly world by accident. Lesco was encouraged by friends to attempt a Tucson restaurant’s notorious 3 lb OMFG burger, becoming the first female ever to finish it, and beating Adam Richman’s time (of Man V. Food) by over 10 minutes. In a similar incident, Sudo’s friends dared her to enter a Las Vegas “Phozilla” contest. She surprised even herself when she inhaled a 12-pound bowl of Vietnamese pho and won a jackpot of over $1,500. Now, Lesco and Sudo are two of MLE’s most ferocious female competitors, along with Juliet “The Lovely” Lee and Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas.

According to the MLE, Sudo ranks third overall and is the number one female in the sport. And though she only recently appeared on the scene in 2013, she’s become a serious threat to the other competitors — both women and men. In this year’s July 4th Nathan’s hot dog contest, she ate 38 HDB in 10 minutes “with a flourish that emphasized strategy rather than condiments,” leading the women and coming in third overall. Other 2015 feats include eating 18.5 pounds of burritos in 10 minutes, 9 pounds of buttercream cake in 8 minutes, 14.5 pounds of gumbo in 8 minutes, and 13.75 pounds of pumpkin pie in 8 minutes.

During high season, there are dozens of such contests all over the United States. Eaters meet over the table and afterwards, over beers at the bar. They might share hotel rooms or rental cars to cut down on expenses. After Sudo came onto the scene in 2013, she and Lesco began coordinating their travels. Now they visit each other and road trip together — highlights include feeding ostriches, rock-climbing, and visiting the Breaking Bad house. They schedule hot-dog-eating practice sessions in person or by Skype, and hang out before and after contests.

Nathan's Hot Dog Contest, 2014
Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest, 2014

When I ask what it’s like to have a friendship that revolves entirely around eating food, Sudo said she appreciates having someone who understands her world. Her other friends don’t understand her framing of food as an event — they “make fun of me, because I talk about corn like it’s a destination.” Lesco, however, gets it.

And for them, food really is a destination, so much as each contest represents an entire experience in a different locale. Traveling to a new place, engaging with competitors and fans, doing TV interviews, training before a contest, the intense intimacy and battle of wills between an eater and her own body — it all constitutes a complexity that can only be fully understood by other pro-eaters.

In her blog, Sudo discusses her victory in this year’s Nathan’s contest. “It’s been a roller coaster of emotions,” she writes. “I can’t even count how many times I cried this weekend.”

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Sudo admitted to enjoying the spectacle of competitive eating. She has empathy for the fans, who stand in the hot sun for hours, waiting for the competition to start, and she feels obligated to give them a good show. But the drive to win trumps everything:

“I’m not there to look pretty. I’m not there to have perfect hair . . . It’s not competitive prettiness — it’s competitive eating. There’s cash at stake. And I hate losing.”

As for those of us who follow competitive eating, we’re fascinated by the idea that bodies are able to take in such massive quantities of food. That such small bodies can take in that much food is even more captivating. The key is in practice rounds and stomach stretching. Eaters regularly ingest large volumes of liquid to increase stomach capacity — Lesco, for example, gorges on watermelon or drinks a gallon of chocolate milk in one sitting.

As the sport has matured, it’s become clear that eaters compete better when they’re at healthy weights. Sudo and Lesco both say their weights fluctuate throughout the contest season, and they have to actively exercise to stay in shape. They work out at the gym, go running, ride their bikes. Even so, they don’t stress about body image. They’re much more concerned about how the extra pounds slow them down during contests.

“If I allowed a number on the scale to determine my happiness or mood, I’d be a mess,” says Sudo, “It’s not how I look that bothers me. If I’m not physically fit, and my endurance isn’t up, and I’m slow because I’ve put on 10, 15, 20 extra pounds . . . that’s what upsets me.”

In 2013, Sudo and Lesco filmed a hot dog practice run in the backyard of Miki’s Las Vegas home that captures their commitment to training. In the video, Lesco’s brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail and Sudo’s is piled on top of her head in a messy blonde bun. Wearing t-shirts and athletic shorts, they look like college girls about to play beer pong. They hover over a patio table, expressions focused, feet planted apart. As the clock ticks along, the video speeds up. Sudo and Lesco morph into machines. They move in a kind of robotic dance of knees, arms, and shoulders, dunking buns into cups of liquid and stuffing hot dogs into their mouths. There is something oddly beautiful about it, graceful even.

The result of videos like this and other social media engagement is that pro-eaters seem accessible. They could be one of us — we could be one of them. With the exception of Matt Stonie and Chestnut (who make six-figure salaries eating full-time), most pro-eaters are regular people holding down day jobs; Sudo works in PR and Lesco is a high school math teacher. They just happen to be really efficient eaters.

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As the sport has begun attracting women and more athletic competitors, gone are the days when an eating contest meant watching a bunch of sloppy dudes. And currently, with four women in the top 10 MLE-ranked eaters, the women are the ones to watch.

Both Lesco and Sudo say that MLE’s 2011 creation of a female category within the Nathan’s contest has been important in giving women the opportunity to get to the table. They also credit our culture’s obsession with shows like Man V. Food, as well as the visibility of other women succeeding within the pro-eating circuit.

Michelle Lescoe wins RibMania VI at Ribfest Chicago XVII
Michelle Lesco wins RibMania VI at Ribfest Chicago XVII

Lesco especially remembers feeling encouraged after watching Sonya Thomas. “I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself,” Lesco admits, “But watching Sonya win a couple of contests — I was like, okay, it’s not a bigger guy thing. This girl’s kicking ass.”

Sudo and Lesco agree that competitive eating is not just a male sport. “I don’t think men’s stomachs or throats are that much different than women’s stomachs or throats,” says Lesco.

Sudo backs her up: “With competitive eating, it’s not how big or strong you are, or how much you lift. It’s really how much of a competitive drive you have, how determined you are.”

Lesco and Sudo also believe that women are capable of taking over the top spots in the sport. “If you look at the numbers, Matt Stonie and Joey Chestnut are on top by a longshot,” says Lesco, “And some people might look at that and say ‘Guys are better.’ But those two individuals are better.”

“It’s been a male-dominated sport, but that’s changing,” says Sudo, also noting the unbalanced airtime given to the men’s and women’s contests on ESPN. The Nathan’s contest is the only MLE-sponsored contest in which women and men compete separately. It’s also the most televised, which means the media can choose to cover the men’s competition and leave out the women’s.

“Personally, I would like to see the women’s contest covered on ESPN. Like actually on TV, not just the highlights,” says Sudo, emphatically. “Because there are great competitors out there. They zoomed in on Sonya and I, but there are other women up there that definitely deserve camera time and attention.”

Regardless, victory is always sweet. Sudo and Lesco both remember standing on the stage at the 2013 Ribfest, having taken the first and second spots in the contest — a line of guys, including Joey Chestnut, finishing behind them.

“We were like, ‘This is kind of awesome,’” remembers Lesco.

Sudo laughs. “I don’t know if I weirded her out, but I actually held her hand as they were about to announce us.”

“It was like Miss America,” says Lesco, sarcastically.

With a few slight differences, of course.

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Lead image: RibMania VI at Ribfest Chicago XVII, Northcenter Chamber of Commerce