A friend of mine saw a guy walking two dogs downtown. He had the biggest arms she had ever seen. The guy is Paul-Jean Guillaume: Mr. Universe in 1987. The same year, he competed in the Mr. Olympia contest in Sweden. I called him to ask if we could talk about weight lifting and fitness.
It surprised me that he wanted to meet at Extraordinary Desserts. I think of this guy eating raw eggs, like Rocky.
I sit down and wait, and when he walks in, I recognize him immediately. In a room full of pot bellies, it’s not hard spotting a guy covered in muscle.
As he sits down I say, “What can you possibly eat here?” He laughs and says, “I’ve actually had these stomach pains. My doctor told me it’s a virus and that I should eat less lettuce.”
“I wish my doctor would say that.” I tell the waitress I’d like a turkey panini.
Guillaume orders only tuna on a plate with some bread sticks. The waitress, used to taking dessert orders, has a look on her face, as if she smells bad fish. She tells him she isn’t sure how they’ll prepare the tuna, and he says he’s ordered it raw here before. They’ll know it’s for him.
When she comes back, she’s excited. Earlier, when she’d spotted my notepad, camera, and pen, she’d told me she was also a writer; now she tells Guillaume that they have something in common too. I say, “I’ll bet $50 he can beat you arm wrestling.” She ignores me and says to Guillaume, “We’re both title holders. I’m a Miss La Mesa.”
After she leaves, I ask about his diet.
“I’m strict about every food I put in my body, even vitamins. I don’t take any type of vitamins, because you don’t know what’s in there.”
Cutting to the chase, I say, “What about steroids? I’m sure that has been asked.”
“Why would I want to damage my liver and the rest of my body? People always think weight lifters take those things, or supplements. A lot of my build is genetics. My dad had huge shoulders. My mom had really muscular legs. When I did judo at nine years of age, I could do more push-ups than anyone. Eventually, I started weight lifting. I sometimes say my body is like a work of art. But at every competition, people have accused me of steroids. I would let them test me, even though it wasn’t required. I never once failed. Other times, lifters will accuse me. I throw my keys to them. I tell them to look at my hotel room, or my house. They actually have. In Nice, France, they went up to my room and looked through everything. They saw my hot plate, the chicken, turkey, rice. You see, I can’t eat in restaurants and tell them, ‘No butter, no salt.’ I can’t take the chance. And in a few days, they’re eating the same things and have bought a hot plate.”
Does it bother you that Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted taking steroids? And that Barry Bonds broke a record in baseball having taken illegal supplements?
“I don’t say that about Bonds. You don’t know for sure. And those are the types of accusations that I’ve always had against me. In weight-lifting competitions, after I proved I didn’t take steroids, I had to deal with politics. I thought I should’ve won Mr. America one year. I overheard a judge say I don’t have to work hard. I work out in the morning and at night. And I do it year round. Other lifters look flabby when they aren’t competing. They might have to work harder before a competition. They are surprised by me. But I enjoy it. It’s healthy. Arnold took this stuff, and who knows what kind of damage he did to his body in the long run.”
Do weight lifters get injuries that other athletes do?
“You can have back problems if you don’t lift properly. But that can happen if you just bend over to pick up a newspaper, because you’re using half of your body weight wrong. Doing a lot of reps causes wear and tear on your joints.”
I saw a child on the news a few years back, covered in muscles. Is that safe? Or does that stunt his growth?
“It won’t stunt his growth. That’s a myth. But having any child lift weights is crazy. Again, it’s bad for the joints. The best thing kids can do is use their own body weight: sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups.”
I had looked into Guillame’s weight-lifting competitions and saw that in the ’80s, he won a number of them, starting with Teen Mr. America in 1980. Since he has a thick accent, I ask him about being American. He says he’s originally from Haiti. When I ask if he ever goes home, he tells me it’s too dangerous there.
“I’ve been in San Diego since 1989. I had a brother that lived here. I also lived in Germany and spent time in Chicago.”
Guillaume was in Mr. Olympia, a competition started in 1965 for the winners of Mr. Universe in order to help the sport of bodybuilding grow. The founders also hoped they could earn the kind of money that other pro athletes got. Schwarzenegger won six titles; the movie Pumping Iron covered one of the events. I ask Guillaume if he has any Arnold stories. He laughs and says, “Yeah, but I can’t say. Too many people like him.”
I prod and he tells me, “When I lived in Venice Beach, we worked out together for about eight months.”
When he adds nothing more to the story, I ask if he gets bugged while he’s lifting from people that want advice. He says, “Oh, yeah. I’ll talk to them between my reps. Sometimes they’ll comment that they tried my workout after watching me and that it was too hard.”
But you train people for a living. Does it bother you that they want the advice for free?