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One-On-One with Legendary Journalist Peter McGough
Peter McGough has been touted as one of the greatest bodybuilding journalists of all time. He is unquestionably one of the top journalist in the industry. Having worked with over 7 different magazines, Peter has had a 40-year involvement in the fitness industry, and has spent over 30 years in bodybuilding journalism. Last year, at the 2016 PBW Championships/ Tampa Pro, he was honored by the IFBB for his involvement in the industry when he received the Ben Weider Lifetime Achievement award. Past recipients include Lee Haney, Lee Taylor, and Lee Labrada, among others. Mr. McGough has interviewed most of the past Mr. Olympias, in addition to Arnold Classic winners, and dozens of other IFBB Pros. He got into the industry in the 1960's, even before Arnold was on the scene. Pete joined Weider Publications in 1992 as FLEX Magazine’s Senior Writer, and was the cornerstone of FLEX magazine’s editorial team during bodybuilding’s Golden Era of the 90’s. In 1997, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of FLEX. In the 2000’s, he left to join their competitor Muscular Development. After spending many years with MD, Peter decided to go back to FLEX purely as a writer, which everyone was very happy to see.
He's had an incredible impact on the industry, and fitness journalism as a whole has been changed forever because of Peter's charismatic style, dry British humour and wit, and overall humility. His reputation goes far above and beyond awards. He's a legend, and deserved to be recognized as such. I had the profound honor of being able to sit down with Peter at his home in Fort Myers, and interview him about his life, and the past, present, and future of bodybuilding as a whole.
Jaime Filer: When you first started your career in journalism, why did you pick bodybuilding? What did you hope to get out of, or contribute to, our little niche sport?
Peter McGough: When I was at school, I wanted to be a journalist, and I was qualifying for that. But I screwed up my exams when I was 15/16, so that wasn’t in the cards. I was into bodybuilding, but not as a bodybuilder; I just ran marathons. I hung out with a lot of bodybuilders though. I did local freelance stuff, but it was never about fitness. It wasn’t under 1980 that I got into writing about bodybuilding. I’ve been in bodybuilding since 1969, when I had my first workout.
Since then, your career in bodybuilding journalism has spanned over 3 decades. You’ve seen the Arnold and the Olympia change hands dozens of times. You’ve seen different divisions come and go, and even some IFBB Pros and friends pass away throughout the years. What would you say are the three most defining moments of your career?
- Editor in Chief of FLEX in 1997: Working so closely with Joe Weider was an incredible experience. This was the job of a lifetime. That was my baby – I couldn’t do enough for that magazine. We had a great team. Back then, in terms of publishing, it was now or never. People weren’t getting their news from 100 different sources. They were relying on us for new and different information. I wanted to take the readers where they couldn’t go. They could see so much from images, but there’s a story behind everything. There should be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I used the magazine to narrate the bodybuilding stories. The personal relationship I had with Joe, Ben, and Betty was like having a second family.
- My first workout in 1969: I just got a pump, and I was off. It was that simple.
- Meeting Anne: Honestly, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. We were going to start our own newspaper called ‘Pumping Press.’ The bank reneged on giving us money, but Anne went around and raised the money herself making calls. Without her, we wouldn’t have come to America, I wouldn’t have had the FLEX job, and we wouldn’t be sitting here. At Weider, she was in charge of all the international editions. She headed up the processing of the international editions; taking the digital editions and sending them to Romania, Italy, etc.
What has been one of the most fun or entertaining aspects of what you do? Where do you get your enjoyment?
I love everything about it. The foibles and gossip behind bodybuilding is fun for me. It’s a massive subculture, really. The great thing about woking with a magazine has always been that I’m able to hold it in my hands, and feel the sense of accomplishment of doing something. I can hold something in my hands. I have a stack of stories, especially regarding the drama. There are some serious life and death issues, but also many humorous things.
You’ve always been prepared to, and able to, defend everything you’ve written. Which article or interview stands out in your memory as the most controversial?
One of the most controversial is that I’ve been accused of favoritism with Dorian Yates. Truthfully, I’ve backed off. I do think he’s amazing though… and not just because he’s British. His drive and the way he conducts himself has always captivated me. You need to see him in the gym to believe it and understand it. My articles about the WBF also started some small fires. They gave me something to write about (in a satirical way), and that really put ‘Pumping Press’ on the map, because I went after the WBF. I’ve taken a bash at the NSL, too. Again, this isn’t malicious, but I don’t believe another organization can hold a candle to the IFBB.
You’ve written your own book, run your own magazine, been Editor in Chief, Group Editorial Director, and host a number of other titles. What has been your favorite role throughout your 30+ years?
You’re probably the first person to ask me that question. That’s difficult, actually. Without Pumping Press, there wouldn’t have been a FLEX.
My top title was Editorial Director of Muscle & Fitness, Flex, and Muscle & Fitness HERS. I only took on the other two titles because there were difficulties in the management structure. So my approach has always been hands on, I need to be involved. But FLEX was my baby. I got to work with guys like Flex Wheeler, Kevin Levrone, and Shaun Ray when they first came on the scene, and we could mold them. We built on their personas. Dorian too, we built on the whole Shadow aspect. We cultivated their personalities, which made things more exciting.
What would be your advice to someone who wants to get started in bodybuilding journalism, but might get discouraged because the market is so saturated due to online columns, e-zines and blogs?
You just have to start somewhere and get involved. Get attached to somebody. Make a name for yourself. When I used to pitch articles to the previous Editor, I wouldn’t tell him what I was doing because I didn’t want to spoil it. I wanted him to read it for the first time as a reader would. You have to write, to produce, to keep pushing things through. Just keeping mashing things together. It’s more difficult today because in my day, you could send an article in, and by and large, you’d be judged by that article. There were no blogs, social media numbers, or anything fancy coming in. It was just your words.
What are the biggest changes or evolutions you’ve seen in bodybuilding as a sport?
The way the guys look. The new classes have fragmented everything – there are just too many. Overall, the quality of the guys today is not as good as it was 15 years ago. I stand by that because all you have to do is look at the pictures. Just look at Dorian; those guys were ultra competitive. When I look back on it, there was a Golden Era in the 70’s with Venice and Gold’s and Arnold, but I think there was also one in the 90’s. No one can challenge Phil now, even if he comes in at 95%. But in the 90’s, even though everyone knew what Dorian looked like, there was a wonder if Flex could take it.
Is there anything you would change about the sport?
- I wish the Classic Physique was the Open Men’s bodybuilding class. That’s what the men should look like. What we’ve done now is brought the Classic Physique out with the shape and the lines, and then put all the freaks in their own category. If I was in charge of a magazine now, I probably wouldn’t put Big Ramy on the cover. You’re looking at a freak, but no one wants to look like that. People want to look like Men’s Physique and Classic Physique guys. They’re sculptures. Each division should have rigid lines about what the judges expect, and not have any grey area.
- There are just too many classes, and they’re being judged too quickly. People spend weeks, months, or years getting ready, and they should have time to show it off.
- I also think they should get rid of the posing round for bodybuilding if they’re not going to score/judge it.
Have we seen everything there is to see in bodybuilding by this point, or can we still be surprised?
In some ways, I think it might be. When Men’s Physique came 7 or so years ago, it exploded. More people were brought into the sport in general when they started diversifying the categories. Seeing some of the older guys (like Flex and Kevin) come back, is also a really big deal for the sport. All the Gurus are new to the sport as well; having so many different coaches.
Lightning round: What comes to mind when I say the following?
- Rachel McLish – Gorgeous. She could stop a room in a dress, all eyes would be on her. She was absolutely captivating. There could be an entire room full of IFBB bodybuilders, but the only thing people would remember is Rachel McLish in a dress. Those would be the only photos. Cory (Everson), Rachel, and Lenda (Murray) were absolutely perfect.
- The 1980 Mr. Olympia – I honestly thing Arnold deserved it. He wasn’t at his best, but he was still good enough to win. His main opposition would have been Frank Zane, and though Arnold came off, so did Mentzer. He wasn’t the same as we’d seen in the past, but he was street smart about what he presented on stage. So he deflected his weaknesses, and still looked the best on stage.
- Arnold – The first time I ever saw him, I knew he was going to do something great. I’ve interviewed him several times, but didn’t think he would remember me from one time to the next. I hadn’t spent more than 5 minutes with him until the late 80’s, and even used Rich Gaspari’s name to let him know I had credentials. We’ve built up a relationship since then, but what was interesting was when he won the gubernatorial race, he invited us out to California, and gave us front row seats. He’s also sent us Christmas presents, so apparently we’re closer than I thought.
- Backstage at the 2017 Arnold – That was just a mess. The first thing I think is poor Ahmad Ashkanani. He’d just won the 212, and now, his win turned into a melee that went viral. Shaun and Dave got in each others’ face, and it went from there. Next thing I know, I’m in the middle, and Dave is accusing me of being alcoholic. I could see that no one was pushed out of the way. It shouldn’t have escalated. I said to Dave, “It’s not all about you, Dave.”, and that’s when I really got angry. They didn’t need me there in the middle, but I couldn’t have done nothing.
Do you think you’ve left your legacy on the sport? What more can someone like you accomplish?
That’s a difficult question to answer. To be honest, I’ve gotten to the top of the ladder of my career. I’ve done things I never set out to do. I just went in every day, and did my best. I kept going in everyday, everyday. The Weiders always made me want to do better and be better. Like I said, earlier, all you have to do is write. Write, write, write. Get it out there. With work, you have to enjoy it. You can’t just float around miserably. In terms of what I’ve achieved, I’d still love to keep going. There will always be more to write about. My journey is just about done, and I’m happy with it. I might think about writing a book though, actually. Maybe jot down my memoirs…