Devouring Disgusting Quantities of Hot Dogs: Not Just For Gentlemen Anymore [VIDEO]

Do female athletes have to be the picture of grace, poise and beauty to be popular? The German women’s national soccer team certainly thought so, as members of the team posed in sheer tops on the cover of German Playboy to show that they are “normal and lovely girls”. Headlines ran: “What better way to promote the Women’s World Cup than for your national side to show off their new strip?”

But on Independence Day at the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition, the packed crowd that made the trek to Coney Island on a hot and humid morning erupted into chants of “Sonya!” as the new women’s competition got underway. It didn’t seem to matter that pieces of soggy hot dog buns were hanging from the bulging cheeks of the small statured woman. Sonya Thomas, known in the competitive eating circuits as the Black Widow, certainly dispelled these notions about female competitors as the 105-pound woman consumed 40 hot dogs in 10 minutes. It was one short of the women’s record that she set in 2009.

Those with the best views arrived at Coney Island as early as 8 a.m. Some made it a family affair bringing lawn chairs and young children. Others dressed as hot dogs or stacked their Budweiser “Patriot Cans” (beers with American flag décor) together to show their drinking prowess no matter the hour of day.

However, when the toughest competitor to reigning male champion Joey Chestnut, Takeru Kobayashi, continued his refusal to sign a contract with Major League Eating for a second year, the event needed something to keep it from going stale.

Enter the Black Widow.

While the men’s competition was touted as “the battleground upon which God and Lucifer waged war for men’s souls” director of ceremonies George Shea introduced the women competitors as “the Suffragettes of the stomach”. There was a clear women’s empowerment theme throughout the contest and each competitor’s introductions highlighted their eating feats as well as their elegant beauty, calling second place finisher Juliet Lee “so slender she’s almost two dimensional”. And as “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé blared on the loudspeakers, Shea jeered as the Black Widow began to pull away from the rest of her mostly amateur competition: “Eleanor Roosevelt was mocked, so was Sonya Thomas”. The women’s competition lived up to its expectations, as it was covered in an equally over-the-top fashion as that of the men’s.

Yet despite the crowd’s excitement for the women at the event, the ESPN audience largely missed out on the women’s competition. The TV viewers caught only highlights of the women’s section at the beginning of the broadcast before Joey Chestnut took center stage.

But why?

Even at the start, the majority of the female competitors looked reluctant to begin eating, using little technique. As the time went on, many closed their eyes and tightened their muscles as they tried desperately to avoid the dreaded reversal of fortune. Laura Leu, one of the competition’s weakest competitors, who only ate seven hot dogs to qualify, looked visibly pained as she continued to stuff the hot dogs in her mouth, trying to surpass her qualifying record.

Leu and the competitor to her left Maria Sulkin, both began visibly gagging as they tried to swallow a mass of damp buns and partly chewed dogs. Though Leu briefly ducked under the table to gather herself and contain her gagging, she managed to finish the contest without allowing her stomach to catch up with her mouth. However, gravity caught up with Leu after the competition as she subsequently vomited all over the famous Coney Island boardwalk. It may be unladylike to throw up, but it certainly is entertaining. This is why people watch the contest. They want a show and they want the impossible. The women’s event was everything Major League Eating promises: stuffing your face, the reversal of fortune and defying physics. Isn’t there more thrill in watching 105 pound, 5 feet tall women eat almost half their weight in hot dogs than watching big burly men? The women’s competition provided by far the most entertainment of the afternoon.

And although many of the women who were competing were clearly not as competitive as the men, this new women’s table should spark the women’s competitive circuit. Thomas echoed this sentiment. “This year was putting the foot in the door, they did it and then later, next year they’re going to have more good eaters come out and some day I might lose,” she said. Plus with a $10,000 prize at stake for first place, I will not be surprised if next year there will be some serious competition for Thomas and we could see the women’s side garner an equally cult-like fandom.

However, to ensure that the contest does become more competitive, it needs to be aired to the broader audience. ESPN had a huge amount of excitement already revved up for the event. According to an ESPN poll, viewers were more interested in watching the hot dog eating contest than the Wimbledon title matches, the Women’s World Cup and the Daytona NASCAR race. It doesn’t seem like incorporating the women’s competition into the broadcast would have been difficult or hurt their ratings.

Furthermore, it’s clear from ESPN’s decision to air every game of the Women’s World Cup this year that they are trying to raise the profile of women’s sports and athletes. So is ESPN waiting for the women’s side of the competition to really take off and get competitive before they make the commitment to air it? Or are they reluctant to show a new side of women’s sports, one in which the grotesque reigns supreme? Women’s sport often uses sex appeal as a way of marketing and that’s certainly difficult to do with hot dog residue smeared on one’s face. But perhaps this representation of women is one that the audience will get used to, just as they adapted to the once taboo image of women sweating and grunting. But now that the MLE has made the commitment to separate the two competitions, it’s only fair for ESPN to make the commitment to show both sides of the competition – and the accompanying new feminine portrait.

Correction: There was a mistake with the original picture claiming to depict the Black Widow. This has been fixed. 

  • AMS

    Wow! That is amazing. Look at that woman! 40 hot dogs in 10 minutes, unbelievable. Thanks for the great reporting!

  • Rhonda Evans

    Look at what woman? The Black Widow is not pictured.

  • mickey

    Excellent reporting and writing.   ESPN should definitely cover the women’s Hotdog Eating Competition  in its entirety.

    I felt like I was at the event, but without the crowds, humidity, and sun.

    Thank you. 

  • Sculltax

    I really enjoy your perspective- particularly the detailed observations on the environment.  Very thoughtful piece!  I am now intrigued by this world… 

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