Passionate about cars and motorsports, Cheryl Tay is a familiar face in prominent local, regional as well as international automotive titles. More of her at www.cheryltay.sg. She also happens to be a recent gym and fitness convert.
Teenage boys send her salacious messages on Facebook, asking her to teach them “how to make love” and how they “love her muscles”.
Former female bodybuilding champion Agnes Lee, now 60, still gets such messages often but brushes them off in good humour.
“I take it as a compliment and am not offended. Sometimes I will reply and tell them how old I am, and surprisingly, they will tell me that they like matured women!!” said a bubbly Agnes who stands at 1.62-metres and weighs a trim 58 kilos.
Many are amazed at her ripped, tattooed physique -- carefully and rigorously sculpted for the past 28 years -- which can put men half her age to shame. This even though her last competition being a decade ago.
To her, “age is just a number” and she claims that it has not slowed her down or made her weaker.
When asked if she faces problems such as getting more aches or finding recovery slower than before, she shook her head firmly.
“There’s no such thing as getting old or letting go. It’s not an excuse to stop working out and in fact, the more you should work out. I’m still alive and I won’t stop looking good," said the full-time personal trainer in between her lifts during an an interview at the gym at Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS).
"It’s something I love and enjoy, it makes me happy and builds my confidence, why should I give up at all? Age never affected me and in fact, I feel stronger as I get older,” she added.
For the past 28 years, Agnes has not stopped training or eating clean, having made it her personal goal to live and eat clean. As if to prove a point, she still managed to squat 120kg (six reps) on her 60th birthday!
To maintain her physique, she trains about seven to eight hours a week – between personal training sessions of her 25 clients – consisting of weightlifting as well as body combat classes which she got addicted to after she stopped Muay Thai.As much as possible, she prepares her own meals. Her staple? Grilled dory fish with brown rice, which she is happy to have three times a day.
When she gets invited to a wedding dinner, she will make a special request for steamed chicken breast meat or steamed pomfret..
Likewise, her family will make sure they prepare meals according to her request for Chinese New Year reunion dinners. That's how she keeps her body fat percentage to a low of 11 per cent.
Falling in love
But it was not always this way.
When she was 32, Agnes said she had a ‘skinny fat’ body profile, and tipped the scales at 46kg.
At that time she was doing sales for architectural products and she used to swim an hour daily to relieve stress.
But a chance encounter with Addy Lagnan, who was training at the time to become a bodybuilder and whom she ended up dating, convinced her to try working out in the gym.
It was love at first pump and she “immediately fell in love with iron”.
“I got hooked on weightlifting and it felt like a calling. It felt like something I had to do and should do, like a blessing from God,” she recalled with much delight.
That was sometime in late 1985.
From that moment on, she started training three hours daily. At a time when there was no internet, social media or "selfie" culture, Agnes said she relied on Addy and other fellow gym-goers for tips.
Soon enough, she was approached by a judge who was convinced of her potential to enter a bodybuilding competition.
Initially she was shy and worried about stage fright, but she signed up, trained mercilessly for six months and went for the competition anyway.
A born winner
The rest, as they say, is history. She won her first national bodybuilding competition in 1986 and the confidence supercharged her journey into full-time bodybuilding.
More titles followed, she was Singapore's national champion in 1988 and 1989, and spread her wings into the region, also being crowned Asian champion in 1988, 1989, 1994 to 1999 and finally in 2003 before retiring.
She also won Asian Mixed Pairs categories she took part in, achieving her first one in 1987 in Taipei with Ismail Tahir. She also paired up with James Kwik and won in 1988 and 1989.
After her first win, she was offered a job as a floor trainer at Gold’s Gym in Orchard and that was when she started her profession as a “physical instructress”.
She also made easy money posing at annual dinner and dance events.
Not one to shy from attention, a quick two-minute routine of flexing earned her up to S$500 a pop during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
But there were two breaks in Agnes’ competitive years – one was from 1989 to 1994, the other was from 2000 to 2003.
The first break was due to a torn meniscus which she stubbornly ignored until she was in so much pain she could not even squat. An unfortunate bike accident when she was a pillion rider damaged her ankles badly, forcing her to taper down her training regime.
She said she cried every day through her recovery period as she waited eagerly to get back in the gym.
From that experience though, she learnt the important lesson of listening to her body and not ignoring pains, especially chronic ones.
The second break was due to a hectic working schedule. She joined California Fitness in 1999 and worked long hours, training 15 clients a day, leaving her barely enough time to eat, let alone train.
She decided to compete one more time in 2003, at the age of 50. It was to be her last win, doing Singapore proud at the championships in Russia.
What about marriage?
Not surprisingly, Agnes has only dated guys who lift.
But both her marriages failed and she has since decided marriage is not her thing.
Her first marriage was in the mid 70s to an American and it only lasted a year. The second one was in 1992 to a Singaporean, lasted four years.
Both were very controlling and she's one who values her freedom.
“My second husband, a Singaporean (first husband was American), used to train with me but after marriage he just stopped training and it affected our relationship pretty badly. I appreciate men with good physique and I just cannot accept someone so slack," she explained about her two marriages, one which lasted one year and the second, four.
"Anyway I value my freedom and I don’t fancy being told what time to come home or what I should or should not be wearing,” said Agnes, who still occasionally hits the clubs for a night out on the town.
“I love dancing at the disco and having to sleep early means having to give up night life!” said the dancing queen, who doesn't drink alcohol.
Her other regret in life is she didn't have kids when she had the chance.
But after a quick pensive moment, she dismissed the thought.
“It’s not in His plan for me to have kids and I accept it. Anyway I treat the dumbbells as my kids and I have many supportive friends.”
But her one vice which remains and which she still cannot kick is smoking, a habit which sees her still smoke more than 10 sticks a day.
Still lovin' it
Despite the occasional catcalls accusing her of being an "Ah Gua" (ladyboy), Agne says she still loves the attention when she's walking down the streets or at the beach and laughs off the haters.
Being a self-admitted "vainpot", Agnes says she makes the extra effort to keep herself in shape. That means going for regular scalp treatments and facials in between occasional nibblings of dark chocolate.
Her family and friends have never found her weird, except that her mum used to say, “I gave birth to a girl and I don’t understand why she wants to look like a man.”
Looking back on her bodybuilding career, Agnes says she has learnt to be more patient and less hot-tempered.
“Mental strength is the greatest gift I gained from this entire 28-year journey of mine,” she said.
The only time she ever felt down was when she experienced menopause, a natural body occurrence that she cannot control.
“It came from inside and I couldn’t fight it. I just felt very depressed. I never stopped training but it was tough as I was suffering from severe insomnia and my libido was down too,” she explained.
Her advice to the youngsters these days: “Be patient and don’t take short cuts. Work hard for it and don’t give up.”
Spoken like a true champ.