Finding the man behind the muscle

His physique graces magazines, novels

Health & Fitness

April 27, 2003|By Jeannine Stein | Jeannine Stein,Special to the Sun

Michael O'Hearn walks with the confidence of a man who knows he's won the DNA lottery: 6 feet 2 inches tall, 255 pounds, with a perfect T-shape, biceps that make grown men green with envy and a Dudley Do-Right chin line. He's aware of the dropped-jaw stares but doesn't bask in the awe. He's used to it.

O'Hearn is a fitness model, one of a handful of people who grace the covers of such serious bodybuilding magazines as Muscle & Fitness, Ironman and Muscular Develop-ment. He has had 463 covers, including foreign publications, in a dozen years. Sometimes only O'Hearn's headless torso appears, but evidently even that's recognizable: "People in the fitness industry who know me," he says, "see it and say, 'Hey, you're on the cover again!' "

But O'Hearn, 33, doesn't possess the sort of freakishly large body usually associated with muscle magazines; his physique is ripped but not over the top.

His appearances in magazines in the early '90s pushed emerging trends that embraced less bulked-up body types. Although some magazines refused at first to hire him, most eventually came around.

O'Hearn says he was never tempted to go the steroid route and pack on 60 more pounds of muscle. The magazines "wanted their bodybuilders to be bigger and better," he says, "and I understand the 5 percent of people who want to look like that, but I'm going for the 95 percent who don't."

"There were readers who were interested in looking like him," says Bill Geiger, executive editor of Muscle & Fitness. "He opened up the way to a new type of noncompetitive physique. Guys who weren't going to get on stage would say, 'Hey, I want to look like that.' "

Despite O'Hearn's success and fame in bodybuilding and fitness circles, his name commands little more than a quizzical look outside that arena. Still, he elicits the is-that-someone gawk while sitting in a West Los Angeles Starbucks a couple of blocks from his home, where he's trying to find a comfortable position in a chair that wasn't built for people his size.

He talks about where his career started: rural Kirkland, Wash., growing up the second youngest of nine kids, where dad, a schoolteacher, and practically every sibling was into bodybuilding, weightlifting, football or martial arts.

Throughout high school, college and after college, he continued to train or compete in bodybuilding, powerlifting and martial arts. At 21, he was spotted by bodybuilding industry mogul and publisher Joe Weider, who asked him to do a magazine shoot for Muscle & Fitness.

O'Hearn later moved south, putting in 17-hour days working as a personal trainer while making magazine contacts and finding modeling jobs. "There are so few models with the kind of package he brings," Geiger says, "being both in shape and handsome. Every month we try to find cover models, and we always seem to go back to him." He's appeared on 17 covers of the publication.

Eventually, he augmented magazine work with more lucrative advertising and catalog shoots, which led to a stint from 1995 to 1998 posing for more than 300 romance book covers for Topaz, publisher of titles such as Lady Shadowhawk.

He went from making $500 for a magazine cover to making $10,000 a day pretending to rip bodices.

O'Hearn's workouts aren't grueling, all-day sessions. He shows up at the gym daily at 4 a.m. for an hour and a half -- one hour of cardio, plus abs and weights. He goes back in the afternoon to weight train for about 45 minutes with legendary bodybuilder and Incredible Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno.

When he's preparing for a bodybuilding competition or a shoot, he ups the cardio, goes easy on the carbs and whittles his body fat down from 6 percent to 1.6 percent. His occasional moments of gluttony find him indulging in a lethal combination of Nutella (a chocolate-hazelnut spread), vanilla ice cream, strawberries and brownies.

O'Hearn finally quit personal training in 1997 when he joined the cast of American Gladiators (he played Thor), then Battle Dome. Although he continues to model and compete (he has four Mr. Universe titles), acting has always been in his sights. No surprise that Arnold Schwarzenegger is his role model.

O'Hearn's first film, Barbarian, a Roger Corman production, is due out in June, and his second, Keeper of Time, comes out next year. While harboring a dream of a Schwarzenegger-type breakthrough, he has no plans to turn his back on modeling. "I still love doing it," he says. "I was given something, and I'm trying to do the best with it. It's fun so far."

Jeannine Stein is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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