Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
VIA store 300x100
Join our Newsletter

Author Jenn Farrell adds muscles to body of work

Writer puts down pen for barbells, bikinis and Lucite heels

She takes small steps in silver five-and-a-half-inch heel platform shoes while rotating her pelvis to keep her hula-hoop in motion. It rotates around her tanned midriff, below her turquoise sports bra that matches the short shorts that cling to her tight tush.

Jenn Farrell, two-time winner of the Courier’s fiction contest and author of two books of short stories, has left the days agonizing over words and sentences in her pajamas firmly behind.

Jenn Farrell
Jenn Farrell. Photo courtesy of Wendy D Photography

At least for now.

The 44-year-old writer-turned-fitness instructor, trainer and now bodybuilder is preparing for the World Beauty Fitness and Fashion show at the River Rock Casino and Resort, July 25. She’ll compete in the diva bikini model category for the chance to win a T-shirt, swag bag and the confirmation that hours of training, posing and subsistence on chicken were worth it.

But about those heels.

“Oh f***. I can run for a bus in these,” she said. “Kids today. It’s funny because some of the young girls, they’re out there in their shoes in the posing practice and they’re like, ‘Oww, oww, my feet hurt.’ I was like, ‘Did you not spend your entire 20s in shoes like this?’ I would stand in nightclub lineups in a skirt as short as these shorts and a pair of shoes and a little coat and be, like, smoking. ­And it’s really paid off.”

Chicken breasts plunk against a plastic container lid as Farrell metes out four-ounce portions that will fuel her calorie-hungry body on a recent Monday.

She’s to eat four ounces with cucumber as a post-breakfast snack, four ounces for lunch with broccoli and half a cup of brown rice, and then four more ounces for a snack between lunch and dinner.

She fills her cooler bag with a post-workout smoothie and intra-workout water laced with amino acids. She sorts her multiple supplements and later downs a bar that will raise her body temperature and an immune system booster that tastes like sour milk.

Before she leaves for the gym it’s breakfast time: a mixture of six egg whites, oats and blueberries, which the nutritionist who emails her weekly meal-plans permits her to eat with one teaspoon of peanut butter.

“I’m definitely not supposed to have what happens next,” Farrell says and then drizzles what she judges to be 15 calories worth of maple syrup on her “oven puff pancake.”

The breakfast of this wannabe bodybuilding champion also includes coffee with coconut creamer.

“If they took coffee away from me, even if it was like four days before the competition, I’d be like, ‘I’m out. I’m out,’” she says.

This, despite having spent $385 to register for the competition, and a couple of hundred dollars each on a bathing suit, evening gown and matching shoes, not to mention a small fortune on nutritional supplements.

Four years ago, Farrell’s life was all about writing.

But her third book of short stories wasn’t going well. The former editor and creative writing instructor felt like she had nothing to write about, nothing to say. When she was productive, solitary work felt fine. But when her creative juices weren’t flowing, her happiness shrivelled.

At her 40th birthday lunch, she asked her friends for advice.

Hearing fitness classes brought her the most joy, they suggested she become a life coach or fitness trainer. Farrell is great at building people up, says her friend, poet Elizabeth Bachinsky.

So Farrell, who quit gymnastics and figure skating by age 10 and was always more of a reader, enrolled in fitness training and swore off writing.

She taught one cardio class and then her teaching career exploded. She’s been known to get gym members shaking their rumps with wild abandon to a song that repeats “sexy bum” and to orchestrate “crunk offs.”

She teaches classes in the West End, at the Jewish Community Centre and in New Westminster, her favourite one being the class that accommodates all genders, shapes and abilities at Hillcrest Community Centre.

Life took another turn last August when her father fell ill and then died. Farrell, an only child, travelled to Ontario before Christmas to clear out her childhood home.

But before she left Vancouver, she met trainer Yelena Yermolenko.

Mimicking Yermolenko’s Russian accent, Farrell says Yermolenko took her aside and told her, “‘In spring I am training girls for bodybuilding competition. You will do it. It will be easy.’”

Yermolenko says Farrell confided she wanted to get in better shape but was too busy training others.

“It’s very difficult to say no to Russians,” Farrell says.

But there are moments when she wonders whether training for bodybuilding competitions was the right choice.  

“I’m like this maybe wasn’t the best way to process grief, by restricting your food intake and stuff,” she says.

But she also didn’t feel like entering therapy as she had done after her mother died in 2006.

Yermolenko believes every woman who exercises should compete to provide the extra motivation to see what she can achieve. She believes learning to control your body gives you more control over your mind.  
Farrell is ultimately glad she gave into Yermolenko because bodybuilding has given her a focus and a sense of control.

“It’s good to reacquaint yourself as an adult with some of the stuff that we’re supposed to be teaching our kids about, like self-discipline and delayed gratification and consistency and hard work is its own reward,” she says.

To prepare for the B.C. Amateur BodyBuilding Association’s Western Canadian Body Building and Fitness Show in Kelowna, in May, Farrell trained six to 12 hours a week, on top of teaching up to six cardio classes. She slashed her intake of sugar, white flour, dairy, carbs and her beloved diet Pepsi, bought a pink lamé bikini and Lucite heels, frequented a tanning salon, got spray tanned and hunted down makeup, including a powder foundation created for women of colour, that would work with her darker complexion.

Bachinsky, who helped style Farrell to emulate a late-’90s Pamela Anderson, feels inspired by her friend who’s so adept at writing stories about gritty young women and now flexes her muscles in bedazzled lamé.

“I’m particularly interested in strength and power,” Bachinsky says. “A lot of people have a misconception about body building, that it’s all about how you look, and that’s a big part of it, too, but it’s also pretty amazing when you can see this, like, 120-pound gal doing a dead lift, [lifting] their body weight or more.”

Farrell placed ninth out of 13 in her master’s age class for women aged 35 to 44 in Kelowna. She was disappointed until she met a woman who told her she’d competed in 18 shows in 10 years and it was the first time she’d placed in the top five.

Farrell took two weeks off and then started training for the July 25 event.

If she wasn’t talking to the Courier while warming up with the hula hoop and breaking in her bikini contest shoes, Farrell would be listening to Mötley Crüe.

She casts the hoop aside and demonstrates what she’s learned in posing practice.

Farrell tenses the bulk of the muscles in her body, arches her back, pushes her bust forward, her butt back, pulls her shoulders down and back, her ribs up and back, stretches her torso long, all while balancing on heels with her legs spread far apart, smiling and attempting to look natural.

Jenn Farrell
Jenn Farrell. Photo courtesy of Bam Studio Photography.

She explains the importance of shifting her legs before she swivels so they’ll get the message that it’s time to turn on competition day. She’ll drink seven litres of water until 4 p.m. the day before the show and then stop so her skin will cling tightly to her muscles.

Leg cramps caused by dehydration are a definite possibility.

Yesterday’s workout targeted legs. Today’s her “rest” day and she’s focusing on arms and abs. The toughest workout is the one she does with Yermolenko, the one where she bench presses up to 150 lbs.

Before she leaves the gym, Farrell performs split squats. She balances a 40-lb barbell across her shoulders, legs bent in a lunge, and then bends one knee to the floor.

An hour workout in, she skips off to a pole-dancing class with her 21-year-old daughter.

Farrell and her husband, Rob Hughes, share a rare dinner together that evening.

They eat halibut topped with salsa with a side of yellow pepper, instead of the usual chicken. Hughes eats rice and Farrell a mix of kale, spinach and arugula.

Hughes usually fends for himself and conceals dessert.

“Once I bought brownies, and that was, like, the worst,” says Hughes, who wears a plaid shirt and has salt and pepper hair.

He hid the treats from his wife for three days.

“And then I actually had to eat one at the same time she was in the apartment with me and I was like, ‘You cannot come in here,’ but she smelled them,” he says.

The pair met at a professional writing program in 2000, got together in 2001 and married in 2007.

Hughes had high hopes for his wife’s two collections of short fiction: The Devil You Know, published by Anvil Press in 2010, and Sugar Bush and Other Stories (2006).

But he says Farrell is happiest when she’s in front of people.

She’s more fulfilled now, but it’s not all spandex and sparkles.

Well-meaning friends have suggested Hughes must be proud of her, the subtext being he must be proud to have a wife who’s in such great shape.

“I’ve always been proud of Jenn with whatever she’s been doing, with her time and with her life, so it’s not like thank God she finally has great abs,” he says.

Farrell puts it this way on her Witness the Fitness, or WTF, personal training blog: “And as anyone who’s ever lived with a fitness competitor knows, there’s the crankiness, fatigue, and perhaps the two least-sexy words in the English language: protein farts. Yikes.”

Then there are her questions.

“When I’m asked for my opinion on something I’ll give it to her, but, honestly, I don’t know how high her heels should be, or what kind of straps her bikini requires or how dense the bedazzling should be,” says Hughes, who works as technical writer.

Farrell dumped her first live-in boyfriend at age 20 after he suggested she could lose a few pounds. She says she’s always had a positive body image.

But judges reward an hourglass figure in the bikini category and that’s just not how she’s shaped. If Farrell continues in that class, she might consider plastic surgery.

“If I do continue to compete, it will be a consideration, which is something I never thought I’d say out loud,” she says. “When I was fatter, I had great boobs. I miss my boobs. I still have the bags they came in…”

The alternative would be moving to the figure category, a better fit for her shape, but she’d need to achieve a new level of “jackedness,” something she would do without steroids, which she believes are commonly used by bodybuilders at the professional level.

“Natural body building is very important to me,” says Farrell, who has written about her bodybuilding experiences on her WTF blog and has recently done a “teensy” bit of fiction writing. She’s frequently written about young women who can identify, but still make, the wrong choice, preferring characters who don’t find redemption, “the muddlers.” As for bodybuilding, Farrell looks forward to becoming the baby of the grandmaster category when she turns 45 next year. She’s got her eye on top 5 placing, not the page.