The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chris Dickerson, champion bodybuilder and first Black Mr. America, dies at 82

Bodybuilder Chris Dickerson in 1970, with his Mr. America trophy in his New York apartment. (Marty Lederhandler/AP)

Chris Dickerson, who rose from a childhood in the Jim Crow-era South to become one of the world’s greatest bodybuilders, breaking barriers as the first Black Mr. America and the first openly gay Mr. Olympia, died Dec. 23 at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 82.

The cause was a heart ailment, said his friend Bill Neylon, a gym owner and retired amateur bodybuilder who had trained with Mr. Dickerson. He added that Mr. Dickerson had lived at a Fort Lauderdale rehab center in recent years, after being hospitalized for a broken hip in 2020 and having a heart attack and covid-19.

In a career that spanned more than three decades and 50 titles, Mr. Dickerson was known for his diamond-shaped calves, dense and symmetrical physique, and graceful posing style, in which he seemed to transform into living works of classical sculpture. His friend and rival Samir Bannout, the 1983 Mr. Olympia champion, recalled pinning pictures of Mr. Dickerson on his wall as a teenager, and being blown away years later when he saw him pose in person. The difference, he said, was like that of seeing a Ferrari or Lamborghini on the racetrack rather than in a photo.

“He was masterful,” Bannout said in a phone interview. “He had more confidence than anyone out there.”

Mr. Dickerson was overshadowed at times — literally, as he stood only 5-foot-6 — by rivals such as Lou Ferrigno, who appeared on “The Incredible Hulk” TV show, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appeared in the documentary “Pumping Iron” decades before he was elected governor of California. “I’m somewhat used to being overlooked,” Mr. Dickerson joked in a 2007 interview with Flex magazine. “At least it’s happened enough in my career that I’m not shocked by it anymore.”

But in his own way, he helped broaden the sport of bodybuilding, showing that Black and gay men belonged on the pedestal no less than straight White ones. His sexuality was widely known in the bodybuilding world by the late 1970s, although he rarely spoke about it in interviews, preferring instead to focus on dispelling stereotypes about the sport. “Some people like flashy cars, some like flashy hairdos; we like healthy bodies,” he once said. “Everybody’s got their own thing, and ours is no funnier than anybody else’s.”

Mr. Dickerson trained in opera and dance, and dreamed of performing at the Met long after he started competing at bodybuilding events. He began lifting weights in an effort to build up his chest and expand his vocal range, and in 1970 won the Amateur Athletic Union’s Mr. America title, becoming one of the competition’s shortest champions, in addition to its first Black winner.

At the time, Mr. America was expected to represent “the ideal male,” according to Neylon, and to be more than “just a guy with muscles.” Still, there was no denying the physique of Mr. Dickerson, whose build was larger than that of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. “While Ali may be ‘the greatest’ in some respects, stacked against Dickerson he’s something of a muscular pipsqueak,” Ebony magazine declared in 1971, noting that the 190-pound Mr. Dickerson had a 48-inch chest, 30-inch waist, 27-inch thighs, 17-inch neck and 18-inch arms and calves.

Unlike earlier Mr. America winners such as Steve Reeves, who went on to star in Hercules movies, Mr. Dickerson said he fielded few offers for movies or endorsements. “I’m ready if anybody calls,” he said. He did write a monthly column for Strength & Health magazine, while also appearing on “What’s My Line” and “The Tonight Show” and speaking to student groups about the importance of maintaining a healthy body.

“I would like for people to feel that if man is made in the image of God, then the human body is a thing of power and beauty,” he told the Associated Press.

By 1979, he was also participating in international competitions such as Mr. Olympia, the sport’s most prestigious event. He finished fourth but seemed poised for victory at the next year’s competition in Sydney, where he faced Schwarzenegger, who had come out of retirement and was training for his starring role in “Conan the Barbarian.”

The competition ended in controversy, with Mr. Dickerson coming in second and Schwarzenegger first, despite many spectators believing that the “Austrian Oak” was nowhere near top form. Some audience members booed the results, although Mr. Dickerson said nothing at the time. “Believe it or not, I was elated to have finished second in 1980,” he told Flex magazine. “I said, ‘Wow! Second place!’ After all, Arnold is Arnold. He wasn’t at his best, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger, what can you do?”

Mr. Dickerson placed second again in 1981, behind Franco Columbu, before breaking through in 1982 at age 43, becoming the oldest Mr. Olympia champion. He published a book about competing in his 40s (“Bodybuilding Begins at 40”) and continued entering events for the next decade, retiring in 1994 after finishing fourth at the inaugural Masters Olympia competition, for former champions older than 40.

“If you don’t enjoy the process, you don’t do it,” he told the Atlanta Constitution. “It’s sort of an affirmation of your youth, really. You want to hold onto it. Bodybuilders are like old soldiers, old jocks. You don’t want to hang it up.”

The third of three triplets, Henri Christophe Dickerson was born in Montgomery, Ala., on Aug. 25, 1939. His father, Henry, was a bellhop who later became head of transportation for Cleveland Trust, one of Ohio’s largest banks; his mother, Mahala Ashley Dickerson, was a longtime friend of civil rights activist Rosa Parks. She graduated from Howard University’s law school the year Mr. Dickerson turned 9 and later became the first Black woman admitted to the Alabama State Bar and the first Black president of the National Association of Women Lawyers.

Mr. Dickerson’s parents divorced when he was an infant. He was raised primarily by his mother, who moved the family to Indianapolis after marrying Frank Beckwith, a lawyer and politician.

After graduating from Olney Friends School, a Quaker boarding school in Ohio, Mr. Dickerson moved to New York to study at the Mannes College of Music and American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He went on to bring a theatrical quality to his poses, which he honed with help from Bill Pearl, a Mr. Universe champion who was named the “World’s Best-Built Man of the Century.”

Mr. Dickerson started training with Pearl in 1963, moving to Los Angeles and supporting himself as a hospital orderly. Two years later, he entered his first competition, placing third at the Mr. Long Beach event. He won the amateur Mr. Universe title in 1973 and the professional Mr. Universe competition in 1974, and lived for a time in a loft above Gold’s Gym in Venice, where he worked as a personal trainer.

He also posed for photographers such as Jim French, whose pictures helped introduced him to the broader LGBTQ community, and Robert Mapplethorpe. After retiring from competition, he became a bodybuilding commentator for ESPN and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” later working as a security officer and personal trainer.

Mr. Dickerson was inducted into the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Muscle Beach Venice Hall of Fame in 2014. He leaves no immediate survivors.

“He was one of the nicest people in the entire sport,” said Bannout, who once worked with Mr. Dickerson at Gold’s Gym. “He had no chip on his shoulder. When he won the Mr. Olympia, he was still a normal guy. Now you see guys win and you can’t talk to them. They walk in the gym and they think they own the world.”