THE REAL FRANCIS BENFATTO:
The life and times of a bodybuilding superstar!
Whilst preparing for the 1990 Mr. Olympia, all Francis could think about was his daughter and how much he missed her. She gave him balance when times were hard and helped him through the tough times. He was still in a deep depression following the previous year’s Grand Prix and was battling to face up to the truth about everything that had happened to him.
He knew he couldn’t carry on with the preparation on his own and needed a coach to guide him so he called René Même, not knowing at the time if it was a good thing or not! Little did he realise that Même would help him through the hardest contest preparation of his career and, in fact, his life! The training and dieting almost drove Francis crazy. He lay in bed at night and wondered if it was all worth it. Some nights he wanted to quit; he was tired and mentally exhausted. Quitting seemed like the only answer, but somehow he managed to keep it together.
DRUG TESTING IN CHICAGO
Eventually it was contest time, and they arrived in Chicago, where it was announced that for the first time there was to be drug testing at the Olympia. Many guys failed the test and some dropped out of the show at the last minute. Mohammed Benaziza and Berry de Mey failed the drug tests. Vince Taylor only did pre-judging, then never went back for the finals because he was so out of shape. Francis knew he was a threat to Lee Haney and a contender for the first place trophy. No one would look him in the eye. Mike Quinn walked right up to Francis backstage and threatened to beat the crap out of him if he so much as looked at Lee Labrada.
The air backstage was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Everyone knew that Francis was in the shape of his life and the insecurity was starting to work its way around the warm-up area. Six-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney was out of shape and Francis overheard him talking to Albert Beckles whilst they were warming up about how great Francis was looking. As the history books have it, Lee Haney won for the seventh time, but Francis knew it was not a true reflection of what should have been. He knew Haney was out of shape.
The drug testing forced everyone to come to the show ‘cleaner’ than usual and this could be seen in the conditioning of the athletes. The judges didn’t even call Francis out in the first comparisons. Lee Labrada had just signed a million dollar deal with TwinLab so there was no way in hell they could place him anywhere else but second. Francis eventually got a few callouts and ended up in the top six posedown. If you watch the video carefully, you can see the other competitors trying to jostle Francis offstage. It was an all-American posedown except for the French man, who was then too naïve to realise that this was an American sport and this was their stage. There was no way he was going to beat their ‘stars’ of bodybuilding.
A WEIDER CONTRACT
After the trophies had been presented, Joe Weider walked straight up to Francis and told him that everything was fine. He told him that the next time he came in in that condition, he would win the Mr. Olympia! Joe then took the Sandow trophy and medal from Lee Haney and placed them in Francis’ hands whilst the photographers snapped shots of Francis standing with the gold medal. But Joe Weider forgot one crucial point: the next Olympia would have twice as many competitors as the drug testing was dropped. The show immediately doubled in size and so did the prize money. Joe offered Francis his first American contract with a monthly salary of $5,000 that same day, and told Francis that he was to move to Los Angeles.
It was very good money and it came with the privilege of doing front cover photo shoots and articles – it was work, but it was great work! In the back of Francis’ mind he knew that the drug testing had been dropped because the show had presented a less than amazing quality of athlete conditioning. Francis knew he had the edge when it came to knowledge and training principles. He trained harder than ever and was determined to show the world that it wasn’t about the drugs, but rather the effort and the hard work.
Francis learnt much from that show and he began to understand the bodybuilding game and how the politics had a huge influence on everything that happened in the world of muscle. He realised that it wasn’t about being the best and most conditioned athlete onstage, but rather how much publicity or celebrity status you had. It broke Francis’ spirit and his passion for bodybuilding began to fade.
THE GIRL OF MY DREAMS
Francis also met Reg Park at the Olympia and although he could not speak a word of English, Reg made the conversation easy as he spoke fluent French. Reg invited Francis to go to South Africa to perform an exhibition. Francis was thrilled because he had always wanted to go to South Africa ever since he was a kid when he had watched Arnold live in Pretoria at the 1975 Mr. Olympia and had thought about going to South Africa to live out that dream.
Arnold was Francis’ idol and it was because of Arnold that he drove himself to excellence as a bodybuilder. In 1991, Francis arrived in Johannesburg where he met up with Mike Jacobs, the organiser of the show. Mike was living in Boksburg and he owned a gym by the name of Blood, Sweat and Tears. It was then that Francis met his dream girl, Adele. She was given the task of looking after Francis and after only a week together they were considered a couple. Francis asked Adele to go back to America and share his dream with him, and she agreed.
Francis returned to America temporarily alone and Adele arrived six weeks later. Joe Weider paid for them to stay at the Marina Pacific Hotel for three months and during his stay Francis met Gary Strydom. Gary had made a deal with the chef at the hotel so he was always there. Gary ate a lot of food, and it was very interesting for Francis to see how American bodybuilders lived. Gary would sit at one specific table but always sat askew because of his size, and would be there for hours trying to get his food down. Francis used to watch in awe and amazement as Gary fed himself!
BACK FOR THE OLYMPIA
The Olympia was scheduled for September, so Francis was immediately back into contest preparation. It was overwhelming for him to be training at Gold’s Gym with all the pro bodybuilders, but being under contract with Joe Weider was very exciting and he now felt closer to his dream than ever before. The gym sported superstars like Samir Bannout, ‘Crazy’ Mike Quinn, Tom Platz, Shawn Ray, Berry de Mey and the Barbarian brothers – so there was a never-ending celebrity presence.
"HE SOON REALISED IT WASN’T ABOUT BEING THE BEST ATHLETE ON STAGE, BUT RATHER HOW MUCH PUBLICITY OR CELEBRITY STATUS YOU HAD!"
Even Jean-Claude Van Damme trained there! Francis would occasionally train at World Gym because it was just around the corner from Gold’s and was also owned by Joe Gold. Joe used to arrive every morning to open up and it was there that Francis met Arnold: he used to walk through the doors, go straight upstairs to the changing rooms, change and then come down to train just like a normal guy. Arnold was always telling jokes at every opportunity he had. On Tuesday nights you could always catch Arnold at his restaurant with Franco Columbu and a few of his other buddies having a ‘cigar night’. It was easy to tell if Arnold was around because the bodyguards would be on duty when he was at work, as his offices were in the same building as his restaurant.
It was strange for Francis at times because he had given his gym overseas to his wife in the hope that it would provide security for his daughter. The last time he had been in LA was with his wife and his trainer at that time, Lambert Bernard, but now his wife was with his best friend Jean Michel, and Bernard had disappeared. It was a situation that was completely different from the last time he was there. Again Francis found it tough to be 100% motivated because of the disappointment he had experienced the year before. He also felt completely burnt out from 1989 and 1990. Those two years had taken so much out of him from an emotional standpoint. But it wasn’t the time to lose faith, he was under contract with Weider and he had a lot to prove! Joe Weider and Francis had established a strong bond and Joe called Francis “François” and often invited him to go to his house to discuss photographs and visit in general. Joe would always be present at cover shoots to help set up and direct, ensuring that everything ran smoothly.
The photographer who was in charge of Francis’ cover shoot had only ever shot one other bodybuilder before and that was Arnold. Francis felt honoured! The shoot took place one week before the Olympia when Francis was on low carbs. The studio had its own chef but there was nothing on the menu that Francis could eat, so Joe sent someone to organise him a steak. Betty Weider could not cook to save her life and Francis remembers the night he was invited to Joe’s house for dinner. Betty served carrot sticks and celery amongst some other ‘stuff’, as Francis would call it. Joe had just bought a new car and he insisted that Francis go with him for a drive to show him how well it went. Francis thought Joe was incredibly funny and he loved every moment that he spent with him.
RENÉ TO THE RESCUE
Francis brought René over to America to help him with his contest preparation, but the pressure of knowing that it was going to be a tough competition without drug testing took its toll, as he knew that everyone was going to be there. The preparation was a full-time job Adele did all of Francis’ cooking and weighing of his food and she also took care of his entire supplement regime: he was obsessed with vitamins, minerals and aminos, and after he had eaten he always had a lot of pills to take. One of the main advantages of being a Weider athlete was that they were always the first to receive the latest supplements and they were delivered to the door every month. Francis used to have enough supplements to open a small shop but he used them all because he knew that it would make a difference with his preparation. He trained twice a day, seven days a week even though it was a difficult routine to follow. During depletion phases, Francis could easily reduce his calories to below 1,000 a day, and although he was on such a low intake, he still managed to train three times a day.
NEXT STOP... DISNEY WORLD
The Olympia was in Disney World, Florida, that year and all the athletes flew in together four days before the show. Francis was in great shape and felt good about the up and coming show. The weather was great, and he even managed to spend some time at the pool. The night before the show, Francis carb loaded every three hours. He wasn’t worried about the lack of sleep because he didn’t normally sleep well anyway; even so, the combination of hard dieting, intense training and the pressure of the event meant that he didn’t sleep much. The following day bodyguards came and collected each athlete room by room. All the athletes were guided underground to the auditorium. Security was very strict and each athlete was only allowed to have one person accompany them backstage. Francis made the decision to take René with him. He was using cream tan which was very new in those days and it was not easy to apply. No one had ever seen a tan in a pot, and the results were unreal. Backstage was an overwhelming experience, standing with a bodyweight of under 80 kg and being amongst the best bodybuilders in the world was a tremendous experience. Francis was immediately aware of his inability to focus as the pressure was huge. Backstage became a game of psychological warfare.
The judges called out the obvious three: Labrada, Haney and Yates. It was tough because Francis ended up standing and waiting for around an hour before being called out. The Olympia stage was amazing and there was a turntable that brought each athlete out one by one so that they could perform their posing routines. During Francis’ posing routine the DJ screwed up on his music and he was only onstage for around 30 seconds. He knew his chance had passed as the posing routine counted towards the overall points. So, he had lost his opportunity to perform the perfect presentation that he had worked so hard on. Francis ended up seventh and was very disappointed. But given where he had come from and what he had been through in the years building up to the show, he now knows that the result was not that bad.
TIME TO TAKE A BREAK
After the Olympia, he performed many guest appearances in the months leading up to the Arnold Classic. The show was six months away and the constant appearances helped Francis keep in contest condition. The Arnold Classic soon came and went and Francis managed to cling onto seventh place. It was now March 1992 and with six months to go before the Mr. Olympia show, Francis decided it was time to take a break. He went to Honolulu, Hawaii, to enjoy a holiday away from bodybuilding and training. It was a point in Francis’ life when he realised that he had had enough. He hadn’t taken a break since 1976 and he was beyond tired. But he knew he was under contract with Weider which meant that he had to compete and perform photo shoots. It was at this time that Francis decided to continue with bodybuilding on a natural level. He met a Chinese doctor called Chen Li and they began preparing for the Mr. Olympia.
ICE COLD IN HELSINKI
When the time of the Olympia finally came around, Francis arrived in Helsinki and was not in great shape. He knew that his condition was off and he was nowhere near the condition of the past two Olympias. He didn’t enjoy the show at all as the stage was set above an ice rink and was freezing cold. It wasn’t an environment conducive to bodybuilding. Lou Ferrigno fell down some stairs and cut his leg open and no one seemed impressed with the venue. Francis placed 15th with Ronnie Coleman 16th. Dorian Yates had arrived in amazing shape and from that day, bodybuilding has never been the same. A few days later Francis’ close friend Mohammed Benaziza died suddenly. Francis was devastated and it affected him badly. His faith and belief in the sport was beginning to slip. The sport wasn’t the same for him anymore and the passionate feelings and dreams he had for bodybuilding since he was a young boy in Toulouse began to change.
A TIME OF BIG CHANGE
A new federation called the WBF had been founded around that time and Weider stopped all contracts. There was a new look for the sport and things started to alter. It was during this phase that a French company offered Francis a lucrative contract. Francis and Adele thought long and hard about the offer, and decided to accept and move back to France. Francis received an invitation to compete in the 1993 Arnold Classic and although hesitant, he decided to give it one more shot as the Olympia had been such a disaster for him. He felt he needed to end his career on a high note and that’s exactly what he was going to do. Adele wanted him to rest and take some time away from bodybuilding but Francis, being the bodybuilder that he is, went head first into contest preparation once again. It was during that period that he experienced his biggest fear of all time. It was a defining moment in his bodybuilding career: one rep too many on the bench press and he tore his chest. He heard it go – just like the sound of jeans being torn! It was a tragedy that few bodybuilders ever recover from mentally, but Francis was different. Adele and Francis returned to South Africa while Francis recovered, staying with Adele’s parents in Port Alfred. Although recovery was very slow he managed to do a small amount of training to try and keep in shape, and after a month they returned to France. His chest tear wasn’t as visible as he had initially thought and he was still able to perform seminars and exhibitions around France and Spain. But they were no longer happy in France, so Francis made a call to Joe Weider to see if he would be interested in resigning him. Joe agreed and once again they sold everything and moved back to LA. They stayed in Marina del Ray at the Oakwood, and felt at home again. Francis felt he could no longer compete with a torn chest and although competing was in his blood, something told him he just couldn’t do it anymore. He continued to stay in shape, however, whilst under contract with Weider. Photo shoots, including the occasional cover shoot became the normal course of events, but Francis’ morale was low and everything was different. It took its toll on Adele and Francis’ relationship and they eventually broke up and went their separate ways, and he returned to France yet again. After a few years Francis created the Francis Benfatto line of supplements whilst promoting the sport of bodybuilding in France through seminars and exhibitions. He also re-married and he and his wife had a daughter, but the marriage was not destined to last. Eight years later Francis and Adele were again reunited and are now living happily in Cape Town, South Africa.