Juliet Lee, barely 5-foot-5 and a mere 100 pounds, doesn’t just have a knack for eating hot dogs — she’s one of the best in the world at it.
Saturday afternoon in Northwest Washington, the 52-year-old Germantown, Md., hair salon owner displayed her talents as one of 10 participants in this year’s D.C. qualifier for the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island. But Lee wasn’t feeling the weight of the moment.
“I like to eat and I have fun,” said Lee, the 11th-highest ranked major league eater in the world. “I don’t try to put too much pressure on myself. Too much pressure is no fun anymore.”
Lee has been a professional eater for 11 years. She made her jump into the sport when she saw a competitive eating competition on TV and immediately decided she wanted to give it a try. She won her first amateur competition in August 2006, downing 11 slices of pizza in 10 minutes.
“It gave me more confidence,” said Lee, a mother of two daughters both in their 20s. “I was nervous when I started. You have to eat in front of people and I was embarrassed the first time. Then I won the contest and all my competitors, they were all half my age and twice my size, they were big kids.”
Since then, Lee has competed in more than 100 competitive eating contests. She’s downed six dozen clams in six minutes, 13.23 pounds of cranberry sauce in eight minutes and 165 Peeps in five minutes, among other things. But so far, her favorite contest was in April 2008, when she ate 32 dozen oysters in eight minutes.
“I think I just like seafood,” said Lee. “I pretty much eat everything. I prefer seafood. When we were young we didn’t have many choices. We ate what was available.”
Growing up with little money in northern China, Lee and her family would often eat whatever they could find in the ocean or along the beach. Lee immigrated to the United States from China in 1992 after working for five years as a college chemistry teacher at Nanjing College of Chemical Technology.
Now in the United States, Lee has a plethora of food choices, but despite all the unhealthy food she eats during the competitions, Lee remains a very healthy person. She goes to the gym “eight days a week,” as she puts it, and tends to do at least two-hour workouts that can include yoga, Zumba, body workouts and weight training. Her diet also consists of fresh, healthy foods, including up to 10 egg whites a day to refuel after workouts.
To help stay in top shape, Lee doesn’t practice eating the foods before competitions.
“It’s not the best thing to eat that much food and practice all the time,” Lee said. “I can’t. I don’t want to push myself too much and it takes too much time.”
For Lee, time is something she cherishes, but her work seemingly never stops. Even on competition days.
Before the hot dog eating contest on Saturday, Lee awoke at 6:30 a.m. to help a handful of customers at her salon. When work was completed, she swung by L.A. Fitness for a half-hour Zumba class before hopping in the car with her husband, Joe, for a traffic-filled, hour-and-45-minute drive to the competition.
But Lee didn’t have any time to slow down once she arrived. Quickly jumping into her pre-contest routine, she took out five stainless steel thermoses from her backpack.
“This is the secret,” she said in a hushed tone.
Filled in the thermoses was hot tea. It’s one of the many things Lee does differently than her competitors. While most dunk their hot dog buns in water during the contest, Lee uses the tea because not only does she likes the taste, but she claims it breaks down in her body better than water.
And Lee’s secrets don’t stop there. While other competitors often wait around for the contest to begin, Lee goes through a routine of stretches that show off her impressive range of flexibility as well as keep her loose and relaxed.
And on Saturday, all of Lee’s pre-competition techniques proved to be her secret to success. Three minutes in, Lee had already eaten 15 hot dogs. And by the time the final horn sounded, Lee was declared the winner for the women, consuming 28 hot dogs — only two shy of her goal.
“I can do better,” said Lee, as she walked off the stage with a hot dog in one hand, her trophy in the other. “I know I can.”
And while Lee didn’t achieve her goal, said she will push herself to get ready for her 11th straight trip to the Finals at Coney Island. Just not quite yet. She has a hair salon to run, workouts to get in and her everyday life to manage. But come July 4, eating hot dogs will again be on the top of her busy to-do list.