By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009; A01
Juliet Lee's first bite of the day is a doozy. With elegant little fingers, she jams half a beefsteak tomato into a mouth that looks better sized for an olive on a toothpick. Only by leaning over does she spare her satin blouse from a jet of seedy juice.
And this isn't even for money.
"I get hungry in the evening time," says Lee. At least, that's what it sounds like through the garble of tomato pulp. "I could eat 20 tomatoes."
She's not exaggerating. Standing just over 5 feet tall and weighing slightly over 100 pounds, Lee has a quirk for which she is becoming increasingly famous: being a diminutive beauty with the appetite of a linebacker.
Lee, a 44-year-old Germantown mother of two and a busy hair salon owner, is also the 11th-highest-ranked professional competitive eater in the world. The weekdays she spends logging minivan miles to school events and tending to other people's hair are followed by weekends filled with inhuman quantities of food, not so much eaten as shoved down her esophagus under strictly timed conditions. This yoga-practicing suburbanite, who wears size zero jeans and shops the junior racks at Kohl's, has eaten, for example, 34 hot dogs, 48 tamales, 22 pork barbecue sandwiches and nearly five dozen miniature hamburgers. All within minutes.
Find that hard to swallow? Try five pounds of ribs, 43 inches of cheese steak sub, 31 dozen raw oysters, 13 slices of pizza, 13 pounds of cranberry sauce, and 13 date-nut-bread-and-cream-cheese sandwiches. It's all documented, much of it having aired on ESPN, Spike TV and YouTube.
"I've always been able to eat more than anybody else," Lee says in an accent still heavy with the Mandarin of her native northwest China. During summers with her grandparents, Lee's 20 cousins would ridicule the chow-time dominance of the pint-size girl with the pigpen appetite. "It was embarrassing. I was smaller, but I ate more even than the boys."
On the other side of Lee's Germantown kitchen, her husband, Joey Callow, is chopping vegetables and shaking his head. Her voracious ways are all too familiar to him.
"This is why it's so hard to cook," he calls out as another tomato evaporates. "You cut it, and it just goes away."
The two fix dinner together nearly every night, often with the help of their two teenage daughters. As Callow rinses and chops for tonight's menu of asparagus omelets, salad and shrimp stir-fry, Lee brings in end-of-the-season produce from the backyard garden, a few more tomatoes, the year's last green onion (which Lee rinses, rolls into a ball and pops, whole, into her mouth).
It's a scene domestic and normal, but it also highlights Lee's offbeat metabolism: At 5:30 p.m., this is her first food of the day. Since she was a student at Nanjing University keen to make more time for the library, she has been condensing all her meals into one big one at the end of the day.
"Not all of it!" Callow cries as his wife inserts a bouquet of freshly picked basil into her mouth. Too late.
Lee thought of her daily binging three years ago when she heard about a local pizza-eating contest. She had never heard of competitive eating, but the concept spoke to her.
"I thought, 'I can do that,' " she says, cutting shiitake mushrooms. "That's me. I love to eat and love to compete. It's natural, like a cat knows he can jump from the top of the stairs."
Her family was supportive but quietly skeptical as Lee bellied up to the big table at Greenbelt Three Brothers Pizza in August 2006. "We were debating her odds, and my daughter said, 'What's between zero and nothing at all?' " Callow recalls. But by the time Lee stopped working her jaws, theirs had dropped. She won, downing 11 slices in 10 minutes, beating men more than twice her weight and setting an amateur record.
"I just had no idea," Callow says. He is now her manager, making the arrangements for about a dozen stops on the pro circuit a year. She's been averaging $5,000 in prize money a year, he says, a little more than enough to cover their travel expenses. "She's not getting rich," he says.
Lee, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1992 after working as a college chemistry teacher, still eats mostly seafood and vegetables. She shops mostly at the Asian market in Germantown. (Strangely, Lee is not the only tiny Asian woman in this area renowned for eating well above her weight class. Sonya Thomas, who was born in South Korea and lives in Alexandria, is nicknamed "The Black Widow" for her ability to eat more than men five or six times her size.)
On stage, many of the foods Lee faces are new to her. Not that it matters.
Sitting down last Memorial Day at a seafood restaurant in Island Park, N.Y., she had never eaten a cherrystone clam. When she stood up six minutes later, she had eaten 23 dozen of them, a world record.
Callow, a Germantown-born technical writer who has since tested his own eating skills in a pizza contest ("I had the shortest competitive eating career in history -- it lasted 12 minutes."), says his wife's fierce competitiveness is what explains her success.
"My body says, 'Stop.' Her mind says, 'You can do some more.' "
Lee thinks a lifelong habit of eating most of her daily food in one meal has conditioned her to be able to consume championship quantities of food in one sitting.
Soon after her Greenbelt win, Lee was on the Krystal Burger and Nathan's Hot Dogs circuits, eating with the big guys on national television. Much to the surprise of her neighbors and clients.
"My son said, 'Hey, Dad, I saw your haircutter on TV,' " says Claude Magnuson of Germantown, a client of Lee's for the past 11 years. "That was wild. She's not really what you expect in a competitive eater. She's shy."
Her daughters have embraced their mother's strange new celebrity as a master masticator, traveling with her to competitions across the country. Not many students at Roberto Clemente Middle School are asked for their mom's autograph, says Lily, 13.
"At home, she still asks what words are in English, but eating is a universal language," Lily says. "She doesn't even have to think."
In fact, Lee has quickly learned a third language: trash talk.
Right now, she is getting ready for her next major event, a meatball-eating contest Nov. 8 in Las Vegas. But Lee pointedly says she is not getting ready. She doesn't do test runs or drink stomach-stretching amounts of water or train in any way for an eating outing. "If I ever start training, they going to be really scared of me," she says.
To which her competitors respond: "She's lying. Everybody who's semi-decent in this sport trains in some way," says Tim "Gravy" Brown, a 205-pound Chicago eater ranked ninth in the world. "You can't just show up and eat 60 hot dogs."
Brown and Lee, who have dogged each other in the standings during the past two years, are friendly rivals, battling it out in many settings. Hours after a 2008 oyster contest in New Orleans, the two fell into an impromptu chicken-wing eat-off at a French Quarter bar, followed by a foot race and light pole-climbing contest. Both claim to have won.
"He lies," says Lee. But then, okay: "He cheated. I was in high heels."
In fact, Lee is the one being increasingly cast as the rule bender. At last year's Krystal "Square Off," with a $20,000 first prize on the line, Lee was socked with a 30-burger penalty for dunking her buns in water and leaving a mess of soggy bread on the table. The International Federation of Competitive Eating subsequently banned dunking, and Lee has been hearing a whisper campaign about her eating ethics.
"They say I hide the food in my bra," Lee says with a laugh. "They just don't like to lose to a woman."
Lee seems to enjoy the tumult and everything about her success in one of her adopted country's stranger subcultures. High-stakes feeding, she says, satisfies her biggest appetite of all, a taste for novel experiences. "I like new things," she says.
At that moment, Callow leans over from the sink.
"Are you wearing Harley-Davidson earrings?" he asks in surprise. "Did you get a tattoo, too?"
Lee smiles and fingers her lobe while gnawing on an asparagus stalk.
"I'm not telling," she says.