By Dan Whicker
This webpage is a tribute to bodybuilder Paula Piwarunas (1968–2001). Paula has served as an inspiration for patrons of BodyWorks Gym at Cypress Cove Nudist Resort since 2006 when a gym member graced an empty gym wall with a stunning photo of her. That photo was from the book Bodies and Souls: The Century Project by the late Frank Cordelle, who photographed Paula when she was exploding onto the bodybuilding scene in the early 1990s.
In Bodies and Souls, Cordelle wrote:
Paula is a tad more than just another weekend “gym rat.” At 19, she was the US National Teenage Bodybuilding Champion. Is she proud of her body? Of course! She is equally proud of being completely drug-free—no steroids—just a lot of hard work. Yet there is a price one must seemingly pay in order to compete at this level: in the weeks leading up to major competitions, losing all weight that isn’t muscle becomes a real priority. Paula’s diet at those times is hardly healthy: she is on the edge of being eating-disordered in spite of her magnificent physique.
Were the photographer’s words at the time of that photoshoot an omen? Perhaps Cordelle meant them as a partial warning. By the time he published Bodies and Souls, however, Paula’s life had taken a dark turn. Cordelle said at the time of publishing:
That was the description I used with Paula’s picture for over ten years. Then while poking around the Internet, I came across some other information which demands inclusion.
Paula left New Hampshire, where I had met her, to pursue a career in southern California where there was a bigger body-building community. She achieved some success as a competitive body builder, including a first-place finish in the lightweight division at the 1990 North American Championships. Eventually she wound up in Las Vegas.
A writer in the on-line body-building media stated that she “would be a perfect or fitness model today if she were allowed to have that much muscle. Sadly, she continued to diet down to get thinner, never to compete again…”
Two other body builders went to a strip club in Vegas where by chance Paula worked as a waitress, among other things. They each paid her to do a lap dance on the other, and described her as “so bone skinny we feared she was anorexic.”
On November 14th, 2001, Paula was found dead in her apartment. She was 33. The coroner said she died of “natural causes.” The likely truth is that anorexia killed her.
Those are the words of Cordelle, who knew Paula when she was happy and full of vigor and promise. We at Cypress Cove choose to remember her that way—as a continuing inspiration for all of us to keep fighting, to pursue our dreams, but also to seek help when we get stuck in life’s quagmires of despair.
The following text appears in a photographic memorial that now hangs in BodyWorks Gym in place of Paula’s old, worn picture:
October 28, 1968 – November 13, 2001
Strength, Beauty, Fragility: Paula Piwarunas’ life exuded all three. At age 19, she won First Place Lightweight Division and also Overall Winner in the NPC Teen USA Championships, marking a strong start to her dream of competitive bodybuilding. In a few short years, she joined the pros and placed 1st in the Lightweight Division of the 1990 IFBB North American Championships.
Paula continued to compete into the early 90s, during the heyday of women’s bodybuilding. She also did some modeling, appearing as the cover model for Ironman, Sport & Fitness, and other bodybuilding and fitness magazines. She appeared in books as well, such as Kinesiology of Exercise by Michael Yessis and Bodies and Souls: The Century Project by the late Frank Cordelle. The photo of Paula that Cordelle chose for Bodies and Souls has hung on the wall of Cypress Cove’s BodyWorks Gym since 2006, serving as inspiration for gym patrons who appreciate the natural beauty of the human body.
The 90s were a great time for female athletes, but also awkward. With the growth of the Internet came the ability to criticize others from a place of anonymity. Female bodybuilders were often harshly attacked for developing muscular bodies. Such ignorance and meanness caused many competitors to drop out. Sadly, some like Paula never recovered from the abusiveness of unappreciative and judgmental critics. Paula left competitive bodybuilding, took a job as a waitress in Las Vegas, struggled with anorexia, and died in 2001 at the young age of 33.
Putting one’s body on display for others to judge takes bravery and confidence. Paula was strong and beautiful, but also fragile. How can a woman who had once been so proud of her natural body and fitness accomplishments develop such a deep depression and anorexia? Perhaps harsh criticism contributed to Paula’s problems. For that reason, we honor the memory of Paula Piwarunas here—her strength, beauty, professional accomplishments…and also her fragility. The strongest-looking of us can also be among the weakest inside. Everyone has hang-ups about their bodies. We should be striving to build each other up, appreciating one another as human beings, and not tearing each other down. Let Paula be a reminder of the good we can do for ourselves and others. A healthy body image is beautiful, but it is also fragile.
1988 – Overall Winner – 1988 NPC Teen USA Championships
1988 – 1st Place, Lightweight Division – NPC Teen USA Championships
1989 – 6th Place, Middleweight Division – NPC Junior Nationals
1989 – 3rd Place, Lightweight Division – IFBB North American Championships
1990 – 4th Place, Lightweight Division – NPC Nationals
1990 – 1st Place, Lightweight Division – IFBB North American Championships
1991 – 9th Place, Lightweight Division – NPC Nationals
1991 – 5th Place, Lightweight Division – NPC USA Championships
1992 – 8th Place, Lightweight Division – NPC Nationals
1992 – 2nd Place, Lightweight Division – NPC USA Championships
Below is a gallery of photos for you to enjoy that we gathered from all over the Web. We do not claim to own the rights to these photos, and if anyone objects to their being posted here, please let us know and we’ll remove them. Also below are links to YouTube videos of Paula. While watching, maybe you’ll get a better appreciation for the hard work that bodybuilders like Paula put into their sport. Competitive women’s bodybuilding has changed a lot since Paula’s time. Muscular physiques have all but been replaced by “bikini,” “fitness,” and “wellness” competitions. Perhaps one day, we’ll see a return to the natural body sculpting of Paula’s day.
(Click to Enlarge)
Special thanks to the Naturist Education Foundation, which provided photos of Paula from its Frank Cordelle Collection to enhance our Bodyworks Gym tribute.
About Bodies and Souls: The Century Project
Buy Bodies and Souls: The Century Project
**We do not own rights to these photos. They appear on our site as educational material.