Singapore bodybuilder triumphs over public scorn, image issues

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Cheryl Tay is a familiar face in the world of cars and motorsports. She is equally enthusiastic about health and fitness and is always on the lookout for the latest workout trends. More of her at and on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (cheryltay11).

“Are you a man in a bikini?”

“What’s your ‘ladyboy’ name?”

Bodybuilder Doreen Yeo doesn’t feel angry when she receives such questions.

The 27-year-old does, however, get embarrassed, and can only bravely smile and walk away.

When she’s with her husband Mohamad Haris, they’ve been mistaken for a gay couple, and are often subjected to looks of disgust. They are so used to it that they aren’t bothered anymore, but Haris, 29, won’t hesitate to defend his wife if he has to.

“It’s ok if people are curious about her physique, and want to take photos with her, but some give offensive looks like she’s committing a crime. Sometimes I don’t tell her if I see people giving us weird looks,” said Haris, who works as a personal trainer just like Yeo.

Yeo added, “He’s with me most of the time and when people criticise me, he won’t be able to take it. He has seen the hardship I went through as a bodybuilder and thus knows what I have gone through.”

Photo courtesy of Doreen

Poor self-image

Yeo’s buff physique may have earned her the gold medal in the open bodybuilding category at the 12th Southeast Asian Bodybuilding Championships in June, but she was not the most athletic person when growing up.

In fact, at 14, she was exempted from all fitness tests and classes due to a car accident which left her with a torn knee ligament and slipped discs in the neck and back.

By the time Yeo entered university, she was mocked for being too skinny: at her height of 1.64m, she weighed just a petite 45kg.

Then there was the pressure from her mechanical engineering course – but thankfully, she found her place of solace.

“I was studying all the time and I needed another channel to release stress. That was how I found the gym. I went to the one in school and started going every day, each time I had a break,” she shared.

She started reading up and bought protein powder to aid her workouts, putting on 8kg of muscle within a year, while her waistline remained unchanged.

“In university, students dress well but I was skinny, weak and didn’t have much friends, so I wanted to be different,” Yeo explained. “I wanted to become strong and toned. The desire to improve my poor self-image was what kick-started my passion for working out in the gym.”

Photo courtesy of Doreen

Dealing with negativity

It was a poster for Muscle & Fitness War, a bodybuilding competition organised by NUS Health & Fitness Club, that gave her the idea to go into bodybuilding.

Fired up with the determination to compete and stand on stage one day, Yeo kept training even though she received nothing but negativity all around.

Her friends thought she was crazy, her colleagues at work said she wasn’t good enough and other gym-goers would ridicule her training methods.

Undeterred, Yeo continued to train while balancing her work schedule.

She became a trainer at True Fitness – where she met her husband – then a master trainer at Celebrity Fitness, before stepping out on her own as a freelancer this February.

Photo courtesy of Doreen

The opportunity she had been waiting for arrived with her first competition – the Shawn Rhoden Classic – in Manila last November.

Despite falling ill a week before the competition, and having to be hospitalised, Yeo still powered her way through to take gold in the Women’s Physique category.

With her morale boosted, she kept up the momentum and hit an impressive body fat percentage of just three per cent en route to her second gold medal in her second competition, the aforementioned Southeast Asian championships in June.

“I feel that bodybuilding is something God selected me to do,” said Yeo. “I find the body very beautiful, such as having big delts and sculpted back.”

“Criticism is part and parcel of the journey so I don’t let it affect me.”

Her husband chipped in to say, “It was her discipline and commitment for bodybuilding that attracted me to her.”

“She was working very hard, sleeping and waking up early to hit the gym before work, and also preparing all her meals by herself,” he added. “I know how serious she is about it, thus it makes me mad when people say negative things to her.”

Photo by Tach GM