Out African-American Body Builder Chris Dickerson Dies at 82

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 11, 2022

Openly gay body builder Chris Dickerson, who made history with Mr. America and Mr. Olympia wins, has died at age 82, reportedly of heart failure, according to the New York Times.

Though Dickerson died Dec. 23, his passing, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was not reported in the Times until Jan. 10.

Dickerson's presence in the gay world included modeling work with influential photographers, the Times recalled. "In the 1970s, he modeled nude for Jim French, a photographer who specialized in gay erotica. He also posed, in a t-shirt, for a portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1982."

Dickerson made history as the first African-American to win the Mr. America title in 1970. Wikipedia lists him as the Mr. Universe Overall Winner in both 1973 and 1974.

Being an out gay man, Dickerson admitted, "along with being Black, was a barrier," the Times noted.

Dickerson was born one of three male triplets in Montgomery, Alabama, on Aug. 25, 1939, The Barbell.com recalled. Initially an aspiring actor, Dickerson moved to New York to study opera (along with ballet and acting), but he found a new vocation — bodybuilding — at age 24, when it was recommended to him that he "strengthen his chest to strengthen his voice," The Barball.com said. He subsequently moved to Los Angeles, where, in 1963, he took third place in his first competition, Mr. Long Beach.

A slew of victories followed, and his success continued right up to his Mr. America win, which he accomplished at the unusually mature age of 43.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was among those against whom Dickerson competed, the Times noted, recalling that he lost the top spot to Schwarzenegger at "the 1980 Mr. Olympia competition in Sydney, Australia," coming in at second place.

The following year he lost again, this time to Franco Columbu, who, the Times said, "came out of retirement to win despite an ostensibly poorer figure."

"The promoter of the Mr. Olympia contest, [Dickerson] said, 'was a real low life, a bigot, who had a real dislike for me — partly on racial grounds and partly for my sexual orientation,'" the Times reported.

But Dickerson went on to win Mr. Olympia in 1982 — as an out gay man.

Dickerson was smaller of stature than champions tend to be today, but, The Barbell.com explained, he "sported a crisply conditioned, densely muscled, and aesthetically pleasing physique. He was always on."

Thanks to his "dance and gymnastics backgrounds," the site added, he was able to "display his muscles to best advantage. He looks much better flowing through poses in contest videos than alone in studio shots.

"And in comparisons on stage, he always had that certain something — back detailing, quad separation, colossal calves — to draw eyes to him."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.