July 2022

Vox

Journalism on steroids

By Jenny Valentish
How being attacked for considering testosterone supplements led to a (brief) reflection on the wisdom of immersing oneself in the story

I have always loved immersion journalism, the fish-out-of-water yarn. I tried tantric sex when interviewing a practitioner; both of us cross-legged in kimonos, impaled on one heel. I trained in pro wrestling for six months after interviewing wrestlers and taking a shine to flying through the air. I’ve been “choked out” by a black belt in jujitsu and roundly thrashed by a BDSM dom. It’s like my dictaphone is my Dutch courage.

Whether you fail or succeed matters not. Hunter S. Thompson concluded Hell’s Angels by getting savagely beaten by the bikers he was shadowing. I can’t help thinking he instigated that because, as Jonathan Gottschall, an American professor who wrote a book about trying cage fighting, noted, “the formula is pretty much set: ordinary schmuck enters an exotic world, suffers humorous setbacks, agony and shame; learns a lot along the way”.

It’s where journalism intersects with performance art, which I’m also fond of, particularly that of the ’70s, when people seemed intent on inventively maiming themselves. More recently, there’s the work of Cassils, a transgender artist and bodybuilder who trained at Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, to gain 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks, with the help of a “mild steroid”. The resulting work, CUTS: A Traditional Sculpture, is an inversion of Eleanor Antin’s 1972 performance Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, in which Antin crash-dieted for 45 days and documented her body wasting away.

I’ve written many articles about bodybuilders, and I recently shadowed two for my latest book, Everything Harder Than Everyone Else, about the fine line between hedonism and endurance. But as it transpired, neither woman I followed took steroids, which seemed like an oversight.

So I thought I’d take some myself. The idea of embarking on a Cassils-style experiment appealed greatly, but I also put it down to cabin fever. It was 2020, the year of the endless lockdown. A blast of testosterone might jazz things up a bit. I knew that actor Linda Hamilton had turned to the gear to reload her guns for 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate, and closer to home there was my trainer, a wrestler. His physique was 80 per cent hard work, but I’d noted with fascination how his voice would raise many decibels when he undertook a course of T, how impulsive he’d get and how he complained of constant erections. I reckoned I’d have a go for a month and report on what arose.

The sensible person would just hit up Joe Bro down the gym for some black-market gear, but I decided to write about the experience of visiting a Melbourne anti-ageing doctor – one who offers everything from hormone replacement therapy to peptides and human growth hormone, and who looks pleasingly like Flash Gordon’s nemesis Ming the Merciless. I wanted to see what might be prescribed to a forty-something woman with no real business taking steroids.

There’s been a crackdown on doctors like Dr Ming since the Essendon Football Club doping incident, in which 34 players were found guilty of using a banned peptide under the guidance of a sports scientist who had also worked at an anti-ageing clinic. So is what Dr Ming does illegal? Well… it’s a grey area. In Australia, a person should only be prescribed testosterone if they are medically deficient. As for unregistered medicines that promote muscle growth, such as peptides, these can be imported as “research chemicals” by compounding pharmacies, some of which are happy to work with anti-ageing clinics and prescribe the medicines as part of a compound. It’s a loophole.

Dr Ming found that my “free testosterone” level was low. Not low for my age, but low for a younger woman. I accepted a prescription for a testosterone gel, but turned down his offer of the steroid hormone DHEA, which would boost my T levels further but is a bit… cancery. We might discuss additional options next time, Dr Ming said, mysteriously. He pulled me to a halt just before we reached the reception desk. “I like to see people at their superhuman best,” he said softly.

Even so, upon reading the label on the bottle, I suspected I was expecting too much. My trainer injected 500 milligrams a week; I’d be wiping on 7 milligrams a week. I’d practically been given a homeopathic dose. The pharmacist probably just whispered “testosterone” into the gel.

Dismayed at the prospect of being $600 out of pocket, I decided to interview a strength coach who had published articles about the benefits of testosterone, so that I might still write up the experience and claim Dr Ming’s fee and sundries back as an expense. Google revealed the coach to be “old-school”, which means he routinely points out stupidity in what everyone else is doing before introducing his own recommendations. For some reason, this did not ring alarm bells.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how our phone interview took a nosedive, though it seemed to be in the first 20 seconds, so it was probably where I used the word “exciting” and failed to rein in my delight at the prospect of joining a world of Marvel superpowers.

My cavalier attitude triggered the coach into rubbishing every point and pouncing on things that I double-checked later and were sound. Ever since an abysmal interview with Richard Hell 20 years earlier, in which New York’s original punk rocker had been similarly scathing about my level of enthusiasm, I’d vowed not to continue such conversations. Fourteen minutes in, I decided to wind up the interview.

Afterwards, the coach sent me a long message that outlined his credentials, his near misses at international glory and his years in the game. “That you think you can dab your toe in it and learn everything in five minutes is an insult to me, my job, and everyone in both fitness and martial arts,” he concluded. I’m not casting aspersions, but it was in the kind of irate tone common to someone in week 12 of their testosterone cycle. He thought me a “fraud” and an “outsider”, whose writing “will lack all authenticity and integrity”. What’s more, the renowned bodybuilders, powerlifters, and trainers of Olympic boxers and UFC fighters that he’d polled in the past hour all thought me a “piece of shit” for cheating.

A likely story, I thought, but then I found a couple of Facebook posts rubbishing my as-yet unpublished book. Because I had told him that I trained in kickboxing (although gyms would be closed for the foreseeable future), he brought up transgender fighter Fallon Fox, who broke an opponent’s orbital bone ­– prompting scores of online commenters into assuming I was supramaximally juiced up. He did not disavow them.

As a mic drop, the coach told me he’d reported me to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA). I emailed the authority myself in the hope of a quote, but didn’t hear back. The fact that I hadn’t competed and that my particular sport wasn’t a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code may have had something to do with it, but it’s more likely ASADA’s officials just sighed and continued scrolling whatever news blog they followed to find the day’s active-case numbers.

I understood the coach’s ire, in a way. He’s a fitness “lifer”, unlikely to be down with toe-dabbing journalists clutching their union card as a hall pass, and probably not as enthralled by the oeuvres of George Plimpton, Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux as I am. At the time I was reading Theroux’s memoir. A lot of the talent in his high-profile TV exposés, he admitted, really hated him, which he saw as collateral damage. That brought some comfort.

But that winter, I had a long dark night of the soul, questioning myself mercilessly; not over whether I should feel shame as an athlete – since I was not yet one – but for failing as a journalist and having an interviewee go rogue. My soft-bellied journalist friends consoled me: “This interview is a gift!” and “Isn’t the gist of journalism to dab a toe?” and “I had the same kind of reaction from a professor of Stoicism once.”

I certainly wasn’t the only journalist to dip into performance-enhancing drugs. In the Icarus documentary, Bryan Fogel – a keen cyclist – enlists experts to help him game the system and expose it. His main colluder is Grigory Rodchenkov, the then head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, who has since admitted to providing banned substances to Russian Olympic athletes and covering up positive results. It’s a thrilling tale, but I hadn’t actually envisaged the coach as my Rodchenkov; I’d just hoped for some printable predictions of a short steroid cycle. Then there’s journalist and amateur cyclist Andrew Tilin, who wrote the book The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance-Enhancing Drugs, about his use of testosterone and DHEA, and afterwards accepted a two-year ban. Tilin called what he did “citizen doping”, but he was also steeped in shame. On the one hand, his cycling friends laughed at the notion that testosterone was all he was taking. On the other, enraged cyclists he didn’t know were giving his book one star out of five on Amazon.

I’d considered my whole idea to be a bit of a wheeze, and had researched it so little that I’d somehow hoped the testosterone would be enough for a mega rush, but not enough to bulk me up. Any expert I recruited would at least have quietly rolled their eyes. Now, I wondered if immersion journalism itself was ignoble. Any journalist worth their salt was an investigative journalist, not messing around with this slapstick stuff. I did idly consider fashioning myself into being the go-to journalist on performance-enhancing drugs just to annoy the coach, but instead decided to read up on the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Essentially: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimise Harm; Act Independently; Be Accountable and Transparent.

So on that last point, here we are. But now, I find I’ve shot myself in the foot. Genuinely inspired by the bodybuilders I interviewed, I’ve decided to compete in the glitziest show in Australia. It’s bodybuilding meets Victoria’s Secret, in which the participant does one round in a bejewelled bikini and rictus smile, then a secondary turn in wings and a headpiece. The in-house spray-tan service will turn me a deep mahogany, and I’ll have my hair and makeup done like I’m a three-year-old in a Texan beauty pageant.

Which is all very irresistible, but now that I’m on record as having taken an ineffective dose of testosterone for a month, I can only compete in one of the few federations that allows competitors who are not “natural”, so I’ll be tensing and twitching next to the most ripped and vascular specimens in the country.

Yes, yes, of course I’ll write about it. The immersion journalist – which I’ve accepted I am – is an ouroboros, and in a sense this tail is only beginning.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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