Unlike obese men nicknamed ‘Slim’ or tall men nicknamed ‘Shorty,’ Abbye Eville’s nickname in childhood was anything but ironic.
The girl who would later become Abbye Stockton earned the nickname ‘Pudgy’ for her rolls of baby fat that stuck with her throughout her youth. Schoolmates gave her the nickname in good jest, but little did they know that one day, Pudgy would become known to the world of female bodybuilders as the “First Lady of Iron.”
Born in Santa Monica in 1917, Eville began to shed her chubby figure in her late teens, when she started working out on Muscle Beach at the urging of friends. The diminutive young woman, who stood only 5’2”, slowly climbed to fame in the early 1940s, around the same time that physique photographer Bob Mizer dedicated himself to seriously transforming his hobby into a career.
The two were indeed close in proximity to one another, and, according to an archivist at the Bob Mizer Foundation, it is entirely possible that Pudgy posed for Mizer’s lens at one time.
“In the early years of his career, Bob shot both male and female bodybuilders on California’s beaches. Both were very well-known in the Santa Monica beach scene,” he says. “There are a few photos that we believe are Pudgy on the stage at Muscle Beach, and because Pudgy appears in photos as both a blonde and a brunette, there is a bit more research to be done.”
One such photo widely attributed to Mizer shows a brunette woman being held aloft by bodybuilder Ed Fury on the Santa Monica Beach in 1951, the same year that Mizer launched “Physique Pictorial.” Fury later posed for Mizer in that same publication.
And while Mizer was fitting his male models with posing straps, Eville was turning heads in two-piece bathing suits – and homemade ones, at that.
“In those days, you couldn’t buy a two-piece bathing suit, so my mother ripped apart an old brassiere of mine and made a pattern from that,” she told a journalist in 1998.
Eville married her high school sweetheart, Les Stockton, in 1941. Stockton’s new husband was instrumental in encouraging Pudgy to continue her bodybuilding career and take it to new heights.
That’s exactly what she did. Stockton began to appear with Les on Santa Monica Beach more frequently – and her signature pose involved her as the ‘understander,’ supporting Les in a hand-to-hand handstand. At the time, she weighed 115 pounds, while he weighed in at 180.
The media began to take notice of Stockton, and she stood as one of the most photographed bodybuilders – male OR female – of the 1940s. At the end of that decade, Stockton estimated that she had appeared in more than 40 magazines, including Life. She counted the wildly popular Steve Reeves among the men with whom she was photographed.
Even though her popularity grew, Stockton faced an uphill battle in gaining acceptance outside the bodybuilding culture.
“In those days, lifting weights was considered unfeminine,” she told Sports Illustrated Women in 2002. “People used to say that if women worked out, they would become masculine-looking or wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. We just laughed because we knew they were wrong.”
Jan Todd, a longtime friend to Stockton and a professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin, says she thinks Stockton embodied the perfect combination of strength and femininity.
“She was a very powerful role model for women because she’s the first woman to come along who was strong and displayed strength, but also had a very shapely, unquestionably feminine physique,” Todd remarked in a 2006 interview with The Los Angeles Times.
In addition to being photographed for a variety of publications, Stockton also wrote a regular column called ‘Barbelles’ for Strength and Health Magazine for 10 years starting in 1944. A few years later, in 1947, she founded a weightlifting meet for women -- the first sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union.
Toward the end of the decade, in 1948, Stockton and her husband opened a gym on Sunset Boulevard called the Salon of Figure Development; two years later, they followed up that gym’s success with the opening of adjoining men’s and women’s gyms in Beverly Hills. Although Stockton retired in 1955, at the age of 38, she continued to serve as a fitness consultant on Muscle Beach, while juggling raising the couple’s only daughter. Stockton did, however, return to work in 1960, working in an L.A. women’s gym for the next 20 years.
Les Stockton died in 2004, while Pudgy passed away only two years later, in 2006. Despite the passage of time, according to famed bodybuilder Jack LaLanne, her influence on muscle culture continues to be felt.
“Pudgy was one of the greatest athletes I have ever known,” LaLanne told The Los Angeles Times shortly after her death. “She was a bodybuilder, a gymnast, an acrobat – she did everything. She was an exceptional human being. There was only one Pudgy.”