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Feeding frenzy

(article, John O'Connor)

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[%pageBreakSettings maxWords=650] “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no battle greater than the one fought here each year at Nathan’s Famous!” shouts George Shea into a microphone headset, his words barely audible over the din of the crowd. “The Mount Sinai of mastication! The Madison Square Garden of gurgitation! This is the sanctum sanctorum of salivation!” 

It’s the Fourth of July, and Shea, with his younger brother, Rich, is emceeing the 2006 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest on Coney Island. It’s just before noon. The contest is minutes away.

Outside of the Nathan’s Famous restaurant are 20 speed-eaters, or “gurgitators,” standing at a long table. They’re surrounded by several hundred spectators, a few dozen reporters, and television cameramen; the contest is being broadcast live on ESPN. The gurgitators are poised to eat. As the cheering mounts, George has to scream to be heard. 

The Sheas run a public-relations firm in Manhattan; they are also the founders of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), or what they call “the governing body of all stomach-centric sport.” At IFOCE contests, the brothers employ a tandem carnival-barker routine reminiscent of P.T. Barnum, complete with bow ties, navy-blue blazers, and porkpie hats. Rich, with his neatly cropped dark hair, plays the straight man, delivering pithy one-liners. The taller, stouter George, a literature major, quotes Shakespeare and, occasionally, channels Pentecostal-style preaching. 

“And so now we go forth on our journey, here under the umbrella-blue sky of the Almighty,” roars George. “Today the finger of power shall descend, and all vision shall be obscured by the heat waves surrounding it, and it will initiate one eater and one eater only as it evaporates the impure! Ladies and gentlemen, let us find out who will win this contest!”

He gives the start signal, and the hot-dog eaters are off. Dog and bun fragments rain from the stage. The crowd begins to chant: “Eat! Eat! Eat! Eat!” Whichever contestant eats the most hot dogs and buns (a.k.a. “HDBs”) in 12 minutes wins a trophy, the coveted International Mustard-Yellow Belt, and two cases of Nathan's Famous hot dogs. There is no cash prize. 

When it’s all over, George announces the winner. The Japanese gurgitator Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi, a five-time reigning Nathan’s champ, is once again the victor, having eaten 53 3⁄4 hot dogs for his sixth consecutive win and a new world record.

Once the provenance of county fairs, public eating contests have gone primetime. There is corporate sponsorship, lucrative cash prizes, and a league of semi-professional eaters. For good or, more likely, for ill, it’s not uncommon these days to find men and women gorging on grub on national television for $25,000.

“It’s on the cusp of becoming something big, and it’s only going to get bigger,” says Jason “Crazy Legs” Conti, the 34-year-old reigning green beans (2.71 pounds in six minutes), pancakes and bacon (3.5 pounds in 12 minutes), and buffet (5.5 pounds in 12 minutes) international champion. Crazy Legs sports a Medusa-like mane of brown dreadlocks and stars in a documentary film called "Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating." Competitive eating, he says — tongue only partly in cheek — could become “the next baseball.”

George and Rich's PR clients include real-estate companies, law firms, unions, and corporations. The competitive-eating side of the business began in the early 1990s, when the brothers took over publicity for the Nathan’s contest. Early on, George saw potential in competitive eating for a much wider audience. 

“The appetite for contests was growing so fast, and there was no governing body to oversee events, so we just decided to do it ourselves,” Rich says. “We’re doing over 100 contests a year. I wish we could do more, but we can’t fit all of them into our calendar. There aren’t really any models for this.”

“Competitive eating is the sport of the new millennium,” he adds. “People are tired of coddled professional athletes with ridiculous salaries. Gurgitators are regular guys, and while it might be nice to watch superstars like Derek Jeter compete, it’s refreshing to see normal guys excel at something they’re good at. Plus, it’s no secret that Americans are big eaters, so competitive eating appeals to them. It’s the sport of the everyman, and I think people are right when they say it’s going to be the next big thing.”

Wrapped up in the truth of what Rich says — sure, Americans eat a lot and professional athletes are often narcissists — is a classic Shea diversion: exploiting the myth of the “normal” obese American, the Homer Simpson archetype, for promotional purposes. Rich refers to this as “using the huckster side of the brain.” 

The Sheas are devout adherents of what Rich calls the “stunts and promotions” school of public relations. “Let’s say you want to hold a protest,” he explains. “We’ll get a bunch of people down there wearing fake pickles on their noses — something that’s going to attract a lot of attention.” 

The brothers first applied this formula to the Nathan’s contest, a longtime back-alley distraction, and within a few years transformed it into a media juggernaut. By 1996, they had achieved the holy grail of eating-contest PR: television coverage. 

Jazzed from this success, in 1997 the Sheas formed the IFOCE and soon had a burgeoning nationwide circuit. Their biggest media moment arrived at the 2001 Nathan’s contest, when they recruited the then-unknown Kobayashi. The 23-year-old, 132-pound Kobayashi doubled the previous Nathan’s record of 25 HDBs, setting a world record by downing 50 HDBs in 12 minutes and changing the face (and weight) of competitive eating. The image of conventionally massive American gurgitators — men like “Hungry” Charles Hardy (340 pounds), Eric “Badlands” Booker (400 pounds), and Ed “Cookie” Jarvis (419 pounds) — standing onstage next to the diminutive Kobayashi made the loop on CNN.

A slew of other TV deals quickly followed for the Sheas, including Fox’s 2002 two-hour eating boondoggle, “Glutton Bowl: The World’s Greatest Eating Competition,” in which 34 gurgitators competed in nine categories — including bull testicles and cow brains — and Hungry Charles suffered the ignominious honor of a nationally televised regurgitation (called “urges contrary to swallowing” by eaters) while consuming a 15-foot, 12-pound sushi roll, captured in freeze-frame close-up by the network’s “glutton cam.” The Glutton Bowl, Rich says, was “the turning point” for the IFOCE. The following year, ESPN started carrying the Nathan’s contest live.

From the beginning, the Sheas developed competitive eating as a promotional vehicle for corporate brands. Practically every IFOCE-sanctioned contest has a sponsor: Nathan’s, Verizon, Harrah’s, Waffle House,, Entenmann’s, Sky City Casino. Contests themselves can seem almost secondary to the publicity they afford their benefactors. “This has always been a pure-play, free media-promotion game,” George Shea says. 

In 2005, sponsors shelled out more than $150,000 in prize money, not including the per-contest fees they paid to the Sheas. According to Jason Fagone, author of Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, George and Rich earn between “the mid-four to low-five figures” for each contest.

The Sheas’ approach has also made contests relatively lucrative for gurgitators. In the early days, eaters rarely received more than a plastic trophy. Today, with sponsors lining up for the Shea hype machine, four- and five-figure grand prizes are not uncommon. In October, at the Krystal Square Off World Hamburger Eating Championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, $30,000 was distributed among the top winners. Competing isn’t exactly a reliable way to make a living, but for guys like Crazy Legs — a window washer and manager of a gentleman’s club — it’s a nice supplement to an otherwise patchy income.

George and Rich credit much of this success to their strategy of instilling contests with a Gen-X brand of irony, or what George calls “a wry, absurd, not unsophisticated kind of attitude.” It’s an updated version of the old vaudevillian approach, whereby the audience is alternately let in on the joke and left half-wondering whether it’s a joke at all. Hipness adds legitimacy, and with that comes the media. 

Eating contests, it’s been argued, are popular mainly because they’re grotesque public spectacles, or because they’ve tapped into our primal desires to cram our mouths. Or perhaps they’re merely a byproduct of American prosperity, or of our national panic over obesity. Or some combination thereof.

Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, has called competitive eating a “freak show” that fosters a “toxic” food environment in the U.S. In 2003, Ralph Nader listed competitive eating as one of four “signs of societal decay.” George Shea’s response to all of this, which he usually includes in his onstage sermons, is that while some might see in eating contests only grotesque self-abasement, he sees “raw beauty” and “physical poetry.”

Certainly, in a culture increasingly obsessed with food and dieting, it’s no surprise that competitive eating has gained some notoriety. But its popularity is largely due to the Sheas’ shrewd marketing. At the very least, the Sheas have transformed what was once just a fairgrounds sideshow into a profitable enterprise.

“George and Rich understand that competitive eating is a real sport and deserves to be treated that way,” Crazy Legs says. “But they also recognize the humor in it, and I like that.” Other gurgitators, including Hungry Charles, Badlands, and Ed “Cookie” Jarvis, agree.

The Sheas inherited their showman mantle from George’s old boss and mentor, the late publicist Max Rosey. “He did Coney Island stuff,” Rich says, “horses jumping off diving boards, that sort of thing.” According to George, Rosey “married people in diving bells,” and “put an elephant on water skis for Palisades Park — one big ski in the Hudson River. It was great. Huge coverage.” Rosey worked at Coney Island during the freak-show heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, the days of Lobster Boy and Monkey Girl and dancing dwarves. “He was all about getting the client in the paper,” Rich says. “Some might be newsworthy, others weren’t. They still all had to get into the paper.” 

The Sheas see themselves as an extension of this vaudeville tradition. “When you’re on the mike, you’re getting them into the tent,” George says. “We’re not filling it just with people who want to see the two-headed baby. We’re filling it with media. Television.” For the Sheas, TV is a magic totem imparting all of the markers of success. Rich adds, “We’re definitely getting more TV coverage, and more sports-type coverage of contests. It’s growing every year. It’s like having 30 million people in the tent.” 

Rich compares the state of competitive eating to the commercialization of bass fishing. “It started with guys getting next to nothing (moneywise),” he says. “Then eventually they’d get a boat if they won a competition. Maybe a company would pay them to wear their merchandise. In a few years it went from being a hobby to a legitimate sport. We hope we’re developing along those lines. But it’s slow.”

In April 2001, the pro-fishing circuit B.A.S.S. was bought by ESPN for $35 million. The Sheas aren’t quite there yet. But in August 2006, the online gambling company announced it would hold amateur contests prior to every IFOCE fall event with a grand prize of $100,000 for anyone who could break the grilled-cheese-sandwich record: 47 in 10 minutes. 

“America has never fully recognized its debt to the grilled cheese sandwich,” Rich writes in the press release. “I hope that this remarkable bounty will highlight the grilled cheese’s position as one of history’s great entrées.” 

p(bio). John O’Connor is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. His writing about competitive eating has appeared in Gastronomica and The Square Table.

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