STANDING at Heathrow Airport in London after weeks away from his family, Lee Priest-McCutcheon considered dumping one of bodybuilding’s most prestigious awards at the baggage counter.
The freshly crowned Mr Universe, who has lifted weights twice a day almost without fail for 29 years, was about to be charged $1600 for a few extra kilos in his luggage.
“I’m not tight with money but that was money I could have spent on the family,” he says.
It’s not the first time he’s had problems in the terminals.
With a distinctive tribal tattoo covering part of his face and a rippling physique, the 41-year-old stands out.
“When I go through the airport, a lot of security and police know me but I always have to ask them to take a photo,” he says.
“I’m standing here covered in tatts and there’s five police standing around me and people walking past are thinking I’m a bloody bikie.”
Among the tatts covering Priest-McCutcheon is a phoenix marking the comeback that saw him crowned the 64th Mr Universe in October after seven years in retirement.
“Physically it was OK, but mentally it was hard,” he says. ‘‘Comebacks are a hard thing. I was questioning myself a lot, why am I doing this, that sort of thing.”
Returning from his victory, he could be forgiven for seeing parallels with movie hero Rocky Balboa.
But for all the Hollywood qualities of Priest-McCutcheon’s win, there was no glamour in his preparation.
Eating six meals a day trapped him between home and the gym. Among his options were boiled chicken, lean steak, salads and vegetables. Restricted diet desserts included a mix of rice, egg whites and strawberries that taste “just like strawberry pudding”.
“People would look at my diet and say it’s not too bad, but it’s the same food every day for months,” Priest-McCutcheon says.
“You have to get a bit creative.”
PRIEST-McCUTCHEON made for the United States in 1993 after working odd jobs in the Hunter and Brisbane.
It was the beginning of a career as a ‘‘giant killer’’, a bodybuilder known for knocking over much taller opposition.
“There was never really anyone my height [165 centimetres] who had the mass I do,” he says. “When it comes to the height thing, it’s never really bothered me.”
“The tall guys seem to get more worried about it, saying I don’t have to push it as far and that sort of thing. Gravity’s still the same down here though.”
Courting controversy, he paid more than $17,000 in fines for criticising the sport’s politics and was threatened with a life ban in 2006 after refusing to accept inequities in the industry.
One of a handful of bodybuilders who didn’t require other work, Priest-McCutcheon says he felt he needed to stand up for aspiring athletes in his sport.
But the same sentiment that earned him the penalties and led his mother to dub him ‘‘Mouth Almighty’’ also brought him a devoted, even rabid, fan base.
“The Priest” still receives artwork and jewellery from fans around the world, with some writing to say he was an idol they inherited from their fathers.
“Normally in this sport if you didn’t compete for a year or two, people forget about you [but] I’ve always been sort of a fan favourite. Most of them are really hardcore, die-hard fans.”
Inspiring up-and-comers isn’t a task that Priest-McCutcheon can easily relate to, finding Schwarzenegger through movies rather than muscles.
His inspiration to bodybuild was He-Man, the Master of the Universe.
“I never got into bodybuilding to compete, I just wanted to look muscular,” he says.
“I’ve never really liked a bodybuilder as a hero.”
His off-the-cuff honesty holds when I ask the inevitable questions about steroids.
Priest-McCutcheon admits he’s “used them but never abused them”. But he scoffs at any suggestion they stand in for hard work. More common among amateurs than pros, he says he “won everything he could” without them but believes the problem lies in a lack of understanding for how they work.
“Young kids these days are getting them off the black market,” he says.
“I’m not advocating go do it, but at least under a doctor’s supervision you can do it properly.
“When I used to use testosterone back in the day they used to give me 200 to 300 millilitres a week. These young kids now are going through 2000 to 3000 millilitres a week.”
SUPERHEROES bleed into the reality of Priest-McCutcheon’s world.
He is named after Six Million Dollar Man TV actor Lee Majors, and comic book heroes the Punisher and Superman figure prominently among his tattoos.
Though He-Man was the starting point, late in his career Priest-McCutcheon stands as one of the most successful Australians on the worldwide bodybuilding stage.
He’s sort of a hero in his own right – after all, he was the Incredible Hulk. In peak ‘‘contest shape’’ and a few weeks away from a bodybuilding event, he was secretly appointed to perform the movements that would later become the green-skinned monster in the 2003 film starring Eric Bana.
“You could pretty much see every muscle moving,” he says. ‘‘I was swinging sandbags for that scene when the Hulk is swinging a tank, it was a lot of fun.’’
His claims to fame are numerous. He’s a champion drag racer in the US, a sport he says is much more clear-cut than the subjective judging in bodybuilding. George W. Bush made him an honorary Texan and he has shared a gym with actors Jeff Goldblum, Dennis Hopper and TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno.
One name stands out, though.
‘‘This is Arnold’s favourite exercise,’’ he tells me, stretching out and lifting his body off a horizontal bar.
“I used to see Arnold [Schwarzenegger] every day and joke around with him because I used to train at Raw Gym [between about 1998 and 2006],” Priest-McCutcheon says.
“He would come and watch me train sometimes and he would say, ‘Do you really need to do that much?’”
“I’d say, ‘Well, I remember how you used to look and now you look like that, so, no, I’m wasting my time.’”
LIVING overseas to chase his dream, Priest-McCutcheon’s distance from his family was the hardest part of professional bodybuilding.
They couldn’t afford to visit him in the US and leaving would mean giving up his residency and ending his dream of succeeding at the top level.
“My mum used to call me up and say, ‘You used to be such a loving child, but you never say you love me any more’,” Priest-McCutcheon recalls.
“I said if I did, I’d think about it and want to come home.”
Among all the heroes scattered through the bodybuilder’s life, there is one that towers above Rocky Balboa and even Superman: his grandfather, Owen, an army trombonist, who introduced him to weightlifting.
Priest-McCutcheon says he admired Owen and grandmother June’s generosity immensely.
‘‘They were my biggest fans,’’ he says.
Tragically, it was his beloved grandparents who delivered Priest-McCutcheon the type of heartbreak that drives his cinematic heroes. Finally flying home from the US five years ago, he arrived shortly after his grandfather’s unexpected death.
The memory of his grandparents is still so vivid for Priest-McCutcheon that occasionally he will still pay the bill for elderly couples he spies in restaurants.
He says he tried to train for shows after the loss but “didn’t have it in” him.
Up until that point, bodybuilding was omnipresent in Priest-McCutcheon’s life.
At 17, he trained his mother, Lyn Butterworth, to join him on stage as a bodybuilding team.
‘‘No one had ever heard of a mother-son pair,’’ Mrs Butterworth says.
Quietly spoken and elegantly dressed, Mrs Butterworth says her decision to start bodybuilding was driven by a simple motivation.
“I was overweight,” she says. “At first I didn’t like bodybuilding at all [but] it turned out to be a good sport for a woman. It just gives you so much self-confidence.”
Priest-McCutcheon says he got on well with his father, Winston McCutcheon, despite 16 years of not speaking to each other.
His father had been in a same-sex relationship most of his life, Priest-McCutcheon says, and the pair had not spoken for about 16 years after he chose to compete as Lee Priest.
Taking his then-stepfather’s surname had been a sore point, Priest-McCutcheon says, though his father’s homosexuality was a non-issue between them.
‘‘We get on good now,’’ Priest-McCutcheon says.
A class clown at school, Priest-McCutcheon left in year 9 to train.
He tried a variety of sports and hobbies, including magic, but he never found a good fit.
Bodybuilding was ever present in his teens. It meant family holidays were plotted within driving range of a gym, and weights often went camping with the teenager.
One of his early training regimes was pushing the car around in the driveway with the handbrake on.
Having trained with her son, Ms Butterworth says his drive was fearsome.
“I have had to walk out of the gym because I can’t watch,’’ she says.
Even Priest-McCutcheon concedes he sometimes overdoes it.
“I’d push my body to a point where I can keep going, but I have to think, ‘Can my heart do it?’,” he says.
After a shoulder injury lifting a flat-screen TV, a nurse told him swimming would be a good way to maintain his muscle.
‘‘Maybe if I towed a boat in the harbour, ’’ Priest-McCutcheon tells me with a grin.
BY mid-morning, Priest-McCutcheon already has hours of training under his belt.
He has paced about 15 kilometres of Newcastle beaches by the time we meet at the gym. He’ll go again this afternoon.
Heaving weights in the corner, he’s oddly easy to miss for a man with 56-centimetre biceps.
The 41-year-old trains in near silence, unassuming as uni students and shift workers hit the treadmills around him.
No grunts. Just the casual precision of a tradesman’s millionth swing of the hammer.
Between sets, Priest-McCutcheon is candid and friendly as he responds to every subject I bring up. His answers are sometimes blunt or short but never rude.
When he starts lifting weights though, that side of him disappears behind a vacant expression.
It’s a window into the mind of a man who’s only failed to turn up at the gym a total of nine months in nearly 30 years.
There is no secret, no shortcut to success in this sport. It is judged on muscle definition, size and symmetry.
And it is Priest’s arms that make him a legend.
Snapping out of his trance state, the reigning Mr Universe patiently chats to cleaners and gym members.
The tournament comes up only when they ask, often wondering when it is, and a combination of jubilation and embarrassment when they find out he came, saw and conquered.
If Priest-McCutcheon wishes his victory was more widely known, he hides it well.
When we discuss how people respond to Priest-McCutcheon’s hard-won physique, it turns out funny looks aren’t isolated to the airport.
He’s been called a freak, a steroid junkie and worse more times than he can remember, usually to his face.
It’s not the kind of response that drives you to the gym.
Instead, it’s a cage of his own making.
He tells me he swims at the far end of beaches in summer, and leaves his shirt on if he can.
His fiancee, Jade Ashe, says she left Facebook because of some of the comments directed at her partner.
‘‘I don’t care what anybody else looks like,’’ Priest-McCutcheon says.
“The woman trying to lose 30 or 40 pounds, that’s just as important to her as Mr Universe is to me."
‘‘But I’ll walk down the street and I’ve had overweight people say to me, ‘That’s disgusting’.’’
Though he has ascended to join bodybuilding’s elite, it’s clear those closest to Priest-McCutcheon would rather the Mr Universe trophies were sitting at Heathrow and the man in the street gave him some respect.
“There should be more ‘freaks’ like him around,” Mrs Butterworth says.