Growing up in Oslo, Norway, International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) Pro Figure star, Lena Johannesen enthusiastically participated in soccer, basketball, and various aerobic activities. At nine years old, Lena was a competitive swimmer and focused on this activity until age 16. During the early 80's, looking for a new physical challenge, Lena turned to weight training and joined the same gym as her mom, who coincidently was one of the first woman bodybuilders in Norway.
Lena cultivated a real love for developing her body and began competing in bodybuilding competitions. In 1995, she switched to fitness and placed 5th in the Norwegian Championship. In 1996, the IFBB held a Pro Fitness competition in Norway with the top five athletes from the recent Norwegian championship receiving a special invite to compete. Some of the leading stars in fitness such as Mia Finnegan, Dale Tomita and Saryn Muldrow competed for the title. Lena came in 4th place barely missing a qualification to the Fitness Olympia.
"I was very excited to be able to compete with the girls I had only seen in the fitness magazines. During the competition I was very nervous but found the girls to be very friendly and helpful," commented Lena.
"I was fortunate enough to receive an invite to compete at the Arnold Classic in '97. I received 10th place," she said. "A month later, I received 2nd in Prague and qualified for my first Fitness Olympia where I came in 3rd! Boy was I happy!"
Lena's first attempt at the Ms. Fitness Olympia title was a huge success. "I was so delighted that I totally forgot that we received prize money (laughing)!" commented Lena.
Thanks to her early success, Lena became one of the first fitness girls to be signed by Weider and was under contract for four straight years. "They paid me a good monthly salary, which made it possible for me to live here and pursue my dream - it was great! I will always be grateful for such a wonderful opportunity," commented Lena.
I recently contacted the "Nordic Knockout" to see what she thinks about the industry and find out what is going on in her busy life.
Wilkins: I'm sure it must have been a huge culture shock coming from Norway to the bright lights of Los Angeles, California. Please describe that experience?
Lena: After I competed in the Fitness World Pro in NY '97, Joe Weider asked if I could come directly to LA to shoot for a cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine. I could not at the time but it never left my mind. After my 3rd place finish in the '97 Fitness Olympia, I decided to move to LA for five to six months to get more publicity and compete. I had done everything I could in little Norway, so if I wanted to advance within the industry, I would have to move to where the action is, Los Angeles, California.
I told my Mom, "Don't worry - I'll be back in a few months." I guess I was wrong. Six years later and I'm still in L.A. I was very fortunate to be signed by Weider nutrition/publication that made it possible for me to make a living from my sport while living in LA.
I was in heaven. I love the US and the opportunities available here. Of course it was a bit scary too, being so far away from all my friends and family. I did experience trying times like finding an apartment, getting my driver's license (I never had one back home), and establishing things such as a social security number, bank accounts, visa/green card, etc. This experience made me a lot stronger and today I consider America my "home."
Wilkins: What was it like meeting Joe Weider the very first time?
Lena: I first met Joe Weider in 1998. I had been in LA for four weeks and was fortunate enough to arrange an appointment to meet him in his Woodland Hills office. Accompanying me to this important meeting was Robby Robinson's former wife, Ramine (who also is Norwegian). Mr. Weider had already noticed me at the NY Pro show, and I guess he liked my looks (smiling).
At the end of the meeting he said, "Of course I will sign her to a contract!" I was flying and I could hardly believe it. After just six weeks in LA, I had a contract in my hands and was able to make a living here. Joe has always been sweet to me and I will always be thankful for that!
Wilkins: What is your feeling on the current state of women's bodybuilding (BB)?
Lena: Women's BB has gone though a LOT of criteria changes. I feel really sorry for them, because it's as frustrating for them as it is for us. We never really know what the judges are looking for. It changes from year to year or even contest to contest. I know they want the women's BB to be more feminine and not so huge, but that is like telling a runner not to run so fast... so I would guess bodybuilding should be bodybuilding since we now have both fitness and figure which demands smaller more "feminine" lines without such hardness.
Wilkins: If you could change anything about the sport, what would it be?
Lena: I would love to get more exact judging criteria. We never really get to know how we should come in for a show. It changes from show to show.
Wilkins: Have you ever considered judging?
Lena: I judged a couple of amateur bodybuilding shows in Norway and also a Venice Beach show. I haven't really considered it a lot, but hey - you never know (smile).
Wilkins: Who are your favorite competitors?
Lena: If it's current competitors it will look like this: Fitness would be Kelly Ryan and Jenny Worth. In figure I like the physiques of Monica Brant, DJ Wallis, and Dina Al-Sabah. Women's BB would be Lenda Murray's perfect lines, Valentina for her femininity and also Juliette Bergman for a flawless physique and Yaxeni Oriquen for mass and symmetry. Men's BB I always liked Flex Wheeler's physique the best followed by Shawn Ray. I have many other favorites too, but they are no longer competing.
Wilkins: Do you feel there is a difference between the camaraderie of the fitness and figures girls?
Lena: Not really, but I can tell it's a bit different since I first started. Lots of new girls and I almost feel like a stranger after coming back from a two year break. But the girls were sweet at the last two figure shows I did, so I'm not complaining.
Wilkins: Do you feel that having received a lot of publicity helps or hurts you?
Lena: Interesting question. I don't think it hurts to get lots of publicity. It might not help in my placing, but I get more model work and even picked up a national commercial after having a huge 19 page spread in Ironman Magazine! But, on the other hand, some might think that "we've seen enough of her--let someone else get a chance."
Wilkins: Can you make a living on sponsors alone?
Lena: Today I can't live off sponsors and actually don't have any cash coming in from any company. I receive free supplements from Muscle Link and my travel expenses are covered. I'm also sponsored with suits from Jagware, that I am grateful for.
Wilkins: What national commercial did you recently appear in?
Lena: It's a Sprite remix commercial running in theatres and on cable TV. I've only seen it once myself and I've heard there are different versions of it. I'm posing and flexing to rap music. It's quick so you must pay attention to really see it's me. If I like, I can apply for my SAG card now, so I guess it's worth a try to land some more commercials.
Wilkins: What advice would you like to share with amateur competitors striving to reach pro status?
Lena: Always strive to be the best that YOU can be and follow your dreams and goals. Don't give up! Pay attention to details. Not only on your body, but hair, make up, suits and shoes, and stage presentation. Ask questions and read articles on Bodybuilding.com.
Wilkins: Do you regularly log on and read what the fans think on the various bodybuilding web sites? What are your favorite sites?
Lena: Yes, I usually browse through www.getbig.com and www.chadnicholls.net to see what's new. I recently had a huge thread running on Getbig that I think got up to over 45 pages. I try my best to interact with my fans by answering their questions and posting my photos. I think that's the least thing I can do for my fans and it's good for my business as well.
Wilkins: If you were not involved in this industry, what do you think you would be doing?
Lena: I would maybe do something that involves animals, because I just love them. I had three birds, two guinea pigs, one rabbit and two dogs. Due to allergies I will have to pick my next pet wisely (maybe a black giant Schnauzer). I also might have been a scuba instructor or swimming coach or a make up artist or photographer. (Laughing) So much to choose from, right?
Wilkins: Please share with us five fun things that the fans don't know about you:
- I planned on staying in LA for five to six months; I'm now at six YEARS! Sorry, Mom.
- I love sweets... not so much chocolate, but the gummy stuff... sour, sweet, licorice etc.
- Monica Brant was the first one to show me real hospitality here in LA. She invited me to her home and showed me how she organized her business matters. Then she took me sightseeing along the beach cities and we had lunch at Rocky Cola's and ice cream at Ben & Jerry's... ummm. She also introduced me to cookie dough which I never had tried before (smile). Thanks Mo!
- My first ever photo shoot was in 1996 and I appeared on the cover of Vi Menn, a weekly publication in Norway. My first international cover was the June 1998 edition of Muscle & Fitness. It was a full body back shot holding two dumbbells. I remember being a bit bummed because you couldn't see my face but I've received tons of positive feedback from that cover and it ended up as one of their best sellers to date.
Wilkins: Please describe your favorite vacation spot?
Lena: I really enjoyed Hawaii (Oahu). I've been there three times and my wedding might even be on one of the Hawaiian Islands. I've been to Boracy which is an island just outside Manila, Philippines. Beautiful, quiet and an ocean as blue as you can imagine.
Wilkins: What is your favorite holiday?
Wilkins: Since you live currently in California and also came to America from Europe, what are your feelings on Arnold running for Governor?
Lena: I think that's great! Arnold is such a great, interesting person and he has tons of fans, so I actually think he will win! If not -- He'll be back!
When asked where she would like to be in five years, she commented, "Hopefully I will be happily married and have a house with a few kids running around. I also plan on helping others achieve their goals through my personal training business "FITBIZ." I would love to see more of the world and spend more time scuba diving since I'm a natural in water. I became certified last year and I totally fell in love with it.
If you plan on attending the Olympia weekend (Oct 23-25, Las Vegas, NV) make sure to visit Lena at the Ironman magazine/Muscle Link booth. "Please feel free to stop by and say hi. Bring your camera too. I won't charge you $10.00 for taking a photo with me," Lena said laughing.
"Jeg vil takke mine fans for deres utrolig stotte og jeg onsker hver og en av dem det beste livet har a by pa."
Translation: "I sincerely thank my fans for their awesome support and wish each of them the best life has to offer," Lena said.
Lena has competed in 25 Pro Fitness shows (including 2 Figure shows) some of her competition highlights include:
- European Pro Fitness Classic - 1st ('98)
- Norway Pro Fitness - 1st ('97)
- Mid West Pro Fitness Classic - 1st ('98)
- Finland Pro Fitness - 2nd ('99)
- Czech Pro Fitness - 2nd ('98)
- France Pro Fitness - 2nd ('98)
- Jan Tana Pro Fitness - 2nd ('98)
- Ms. Fitness Olympia '97 3rd place finish
- Ms. Fitness Olympia '98 5th place finish
- Ms. Fitness Olympia '99 7th place finish
- Ms. Fitness Olympia '00 9th place finish
- Fitness International '98 4th place finish
- Fitness International '99 3rd place finish
Check out www.lenajohannesen.com!
About Rob Wilkins
Rob Wilkins is a Special Assistant to the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) and a recipient of the IFBB Gold Medal. To contact Wilkins e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.