Serbian bodybuilder Jelena Abbou speaks out about her controversial pictures
Growing up in Serbia didn't allow for a lot of luxuries, which might explain why Jelena Abbou (born Jelena Đorđević) was initially so attracted to the glitz and glamour of fitness competitions, a subset of women's bodybuilding. As a young girl watching ESPN, she was captivated by the women's strength and athleticism, always knowing that she would be up on that stage too someday. When figure competitions were introduced in 2001, it was Abbou's time to shine. This new segment of bodybuilding eliminated the gymnastic routine and emphasized muscle tone over size. Feminine facial features, stage presence, and presentation are also very important, as judges want to see a confident athlete walking with poise and grace. It was this combination of strength and traditional femininity that caught the eye of cosmetic giant MAC.
Landing the Job
Abbou had no idea what to expect when her agent sent her to an audition wearing nothing but a bra and shorts, but shortly after, the 35-year-old beauty was in London, preparing to be the star of an international ad campaign that would soon rock the beauty and fashion world. "I had no idea what concept they had in mind or what I was supposed to do," Abbou says. "All I knew was that I had to be in the best shape of my life!"
As a long-time MAC lover, she was up for whatever the artists had in mind. "The shoot itself was... interesting," she says. Getting all dolled up was nothing new for the long-time MAC lover and self-proclaimed "girly-girl," but wardrobe presented an entirely new set of challenges. Abbou wears a sculpted PVC dress in the ad, but it was far more fashion than function. Getting the dress to stay up required a second ball gown with a corset underneath to serve as a scaffolding of sorts. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but she says she had a lot of fun with it nonetheless.
When MAC released the ad as part of their strength campaign, it received mixed reviews. Women all over the world celebrated Abbou's non-traditional beauty, but the backlash was also swift and severe—the main complaint being that the ad was "heavily Photoshopped." And it was, Abbou says pragmatically. "It's an ad for makeup and Photoshop is the standard in the industry. Because it's an ad, it's supposed to look perfect!" So while she freely admits that she's not perfect, she says the ad is selling an ideal, not reality, and she's okay with the digital artists manipulating her picture to achieve their vision.
Conversely, she's not okay with critics claiming that her muscles are Photoshopped. The model, who trains almost every day, works very hard for her figure. "To all the people who say my muscles were 'enhanced,' I can tell you that is all my body."
Abbou points out that a figure competitor's physique can vary widely over the course of a season, and there's a big difference between "normal" and "contest ready." "If you look at my contest photos, you can see that [what's pictured in the ad] is an achievable look. But I don't look like that year round, walking around all ripped. The MAC pictures were taken just a few weeks before my contest ,so I was already very lean."
To her most vocal critics, who say her look is "manly," "unfeminine," or "too muscular," Abbou replies, "Strong is feminine and sexy to me. Some people love muscles, some don't. Fitness is what I love and it's what makes me feel good. You can't make everyone happy."
Would She Do It Again?
Abbou has no regrets. She's still happy she did the ad, and while she hopes it will sell a lot of makeup, the real message she hopes women and girls take away from her picture is bigger than one ad campaign: "Don't be afraid to lift! Strong is sexy!"