FEEL THE FORCE
When it comes to the World’s Strongest Woman contest, British competitors reign supreme. Three recent champions talk flipping tyres and smashing stereotypes
Words: Daniel Dylan Wray Portraits: Abbie Trayler-Smith
IT IS HARD TO REMEMBER when it began. Years ago now. At first he was an inveterate “liker” on Twitter, and soon this gathered into comments. After a while came a request to follow him back; there was a workrelated matter he needed to discuss. I’m going to call him Peter. It is not his name. In those early days, I could tell very little about Peter from his profile, but he seemed harmless enough; just another of the familiar strangers I had often encountered on social media over the years. I followed. He sent me a direct message. The “workrelated matter” was tenuous – something about the radio programmes I had made. Later, I would look back at this moment and wonder why I didn’t shut it down then, why I wasn’t more distant or dismissive. Instead, I felt the need to be nice, and so I thanked him and hoped that might be the end of it. It was not. Now that he had access to my direct messages, Peter would often message me. It felt mildly annoying, rather than a blockable offence. Sometimes I would reply, politely, as I would to most people who contact me. A lot of the time, I didn’t. I was never quite sure how to handle this kind of interaction. After all, there were many others who did the same – writing to me on Twitter (now known as X) and Instagram and Facebook, and to my work email, and sometimes in longform letters. I write a lot about music, and so people would often send me records and homemade compilations, and strike up conversations with me at gigs; sometimes, standing there in the crowd, it would take a while to realise that this wasn’t someone I had ever met before. I am by no means famous, but the small amount of recognition that accompanies a career in writing and broadcasting can mean that readers and listeners form a certain attachment to you. It’s a peculiar feeling. A heavy thing, sometimes. At other moments it can feel beautiful and moving – people contact you because something you have written has connected with them, or helped them; perhaps you have articulated something when they have struggled to find the words. I try to thank everyone who contacts me, I am always grateful that anyone has read my work or listened to something I have made. But sometimes the attachment formed is startling. Sometimes it grows intrusive. These days, the notion of parasocial relationships is widely discussed, though back when Peter first contacted me I had not heard of the term. Still, I recognised the sensation. For most of my career, I have been aware of the way that readers can form an impression of you via the things you have written, and how in the space between your words and yourself, a great deal of projection and expectation can bloom. In the case of Peter, that projection became unmanageable. HEN I MOVED TO KENT a few years ago, it was not far from where Peter lived. He showed up at local gigs I mentioned on social media, and at events where I was DJing. This wasn’t strange in itself, except he was always there alone, and when he spoke to me it was in a tone that suggested we had a longstanding friendship. One summer, he came on his own to a festival in Devon where I was on the programme. On the Saturday afternoon, as I sat by myself on a hill preparing for an event, I watched as he walked across the field and up the hill and sat down beside me. Though hundreds of people milled below us, his presence unnerved me, and so I stood up and told him I had to meet my boyfriend. I’ve always felt uneasy about the idea of mentioning a man to ward off another; I’ve believed myself to be a strong woman who should be able to protect herself. But on this particular Saturday afternoon, I hoped the reference to my relationship might deter him. It didn’t. Peter simply followed along as I walked back into the thick of the festival and disappeared backstage. My boyfriend laughed about it, and it seemed silly to let these little encounters bother me too much. The effect then was more uncomfortable than worrying; perhaps akin to someone standing a little too close to you in the supermarket queue. Then came the pandemic. In Covid’s early months, I wrote an article that was unquestionably the most personal thing I had ever written, and that also happened to mention the breakdown of my relationship. For a good year or two after its publication, people wrote to me about that article. It was both extraordinary and completely overwhelming; strangers sharing their own stories, experiences, intimacies, in a way that felt profound. For Peter, the article seemed an invitation; as if its personal revelations had drawn him closer. As lockdown rolled on, he began to message with greater fervency. Sometimes these messages were humdrum. Sometimes they were flirty. There were dreams, shared histories, stories of gifts he had bought for me. Sometimes they nodded to things I had mentioned on social media or in articles, and I had the feeling of being forensically studied. He would make references to places near my home, and on my daily walk I grew nervous in case he had pored over my Instagram long enough to identify which route I took across the fields and along the back lanes. One day, he announced that he was going to start telling me stories from his life. They were long anecdotes, often involving women, and I gathered he was lonely. Still, I reasoned that lockdown isolation had done funny things to us all. I tried to tell him, gently, that I was not the person to talk to, that perhaps he should find a therapist. I was not equipped to help him, I already had enough to carry. “But I like talking to you,” he said. I stopped replying. Still he wrote. As the messages piled up, I felt something between anger and despair. Most of all, I was frustrated with myself for not having established strong boundaries with this man at the outset, for being somehow too porous. I had assumed that Peter was a benign presence, somewhat lost, and not terribly good at reading social cues. But every once in a while I would check myself: I did not actually know this man. I was making assumptions about him, just as he made assumptions about me. He might just as easily have a history of obsessive behaviour towards women. He might be violent. He might be an abusive husband. He might be none of the things he had told me he was. Like many people I know, particularly women, I have had previous experiences of obsessive male behaviour – colleagues, exes, strangers. When I was younger, I had thought the best way to navigate this was, in effect, to remain constant and kind while their ardour burned itself out. But the older I got, the more weary I became of accommodating men’s feelings and entitlement. I grew tired of the way their fixation seemed to bleed into so many aspects of my life. By this stage, Peter had followed many of my friends on social media, and would often wade into our exchanges, unbidden. “Is he one of your stalkers?” my friends would ask, privately. The term seemed dramatic, but when one friend mentioned the four warning signs of stalking detailed by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, I conceded that Peter’s behaviour fitted the description: fixated; obsessive; unwanted; repeated. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust was set up in 1986, following the disappearance of a 25-year-old estate agent who went to meet a client and did not return. Its mission is to raise awareness of personal safety, and to reduce the risk and prevalence of abuse, aggression and violence, with a specific focus on stalking and harassment. Among its many projects is the National Stalking Helpline. Their website describes stalking as “a pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour which is intrusive and causes fear of violence or engenders alarm and distress in the victim”. The law states that it is illegal for a person to pursue a course of conduct, that is two or more incidents, that they know or ought to know amounts to stalking. The number of reported stalking cases has tripled since 2019-20, in part due to a change in how stalking is recorded, and the introduction of stalking protection orders, but partly because of a surge in cyberstalking. The pandemic also exerted an effect – at some points calls to the National Stalking Helpline tripled compared to pre-Covid levels, and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust says the crime remains underreported. However, only 6% of those cases have resulted in charges being made. In more than half of reported stalking cases, victims decide against taking further action. In a third, there is difficulty in collecting evidence. Of those cases that do reach court, 66% result in conviction. What I went through with Peter was nothing like, say, that of Shelagh Fogarty, the LBC radio presenter who documented her years-long experience of being stalked in her podcast The Followers. In Fogarty’s case, a man repeatedly waited outside the LBC offices, followed her on the London underground, and was eventually arrested after being found outside her home. He is now the subject of a lifelong restraining order. It was also nothing like the case of newsreader Isla Traquair, who was repeatedly watched inside her home by a neighbour, gardener Jonathan Barrett. Or of Gracie Spinks, who was stabbed to death in the summer of 2021 by a former colleague she had previously accused of stalking after she rejected his romantic advances. But it is also worth noting that women, in particular, tend to downplay these experiences. An estimated one in five women and one in 10 men will be the victim of stalking, and during Covid, those figures shifted dramatically: some 80,000 cases were recorded by police in England and Wales in 2020 – up from 27,156 the previous year. IT IS DIFFICULT TO EXPRESS the vulnerability I felt during that time. I lived alone, and throughout the pandemic I did not socialise. I felt curiously exposed in my isolation. I lived in a community small enough for me to stand out, and I realised that Peter could find me quite easily. I wondered whether I ought to casually mention it to my neighbours. But really, how to explain it? That a strange man might turn up at my door GROW I NG U P AT A T I M E when the number of television channels in most UK households could be counted on one hand often resulted in limited viewing experiences. Once a year, towering men with giant chests, bulging arms and legs like logs would burst on to the screen and start lifting very heavy things. They would run with big weights known as atlas stones, or pull lorries until they looked like they might explode, all in the hope of being declared “the world’s strongest man”. You’d hear names such as Magnús Ver Magnússon in pubs and playgrounds. In a pre-streaming age, The World’s Strongest Man was a TV phenomenon – by 2005, it was being broadcast to an estimated worldwide audience of 220 million. For years, the focus was on the men. However, fastforward to November 2022 in Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena, and you would find Donna Moore, Andrea Thompson and Rebecca Roberts high-fiving their male teammates as they scurried back and forth on a relay race, carrying 100kg logs under their arms with alarming ease. That’s when the mixed-gender UK team took on the US in The World’s Strongest Nation, a new event that placed the two countries head to head. It was the first time these women had competed on the same stage as men. Years earlier, they had battled it out in car parks and dilapidated gyms, but now the British athletes found themselves standing on a podium, with gold medals dangling around their necks, as fireworks exploded behind them. “It was a monumental event for women’s sport,” Roberts says. The team’s victory was hardly surprising; for years Britain had been producing the strongest women in the world. Between 2016 and 2021, three women dominated the title: Moore, a single mum and NHS worker based in North Yorkshire, who became threetimes world champion; Thompson, a mother of two from Suffolk; and Roberts, a quality assurance analyst from north Wales living in St Helens, Merseyside. It was only Ukrainian Olga Liashchuk’s narrow 2022 victory over Thompson that put an end to their run (though Roberts clinched the title, for the second time, in May this year). Between them, the British trio have won countless competitions and set numerous lifting records. What’s their secret? “Determination and experience,” Moore says. “Maybe we’re more well rounded and skilled. But Rebecca is pretty new to it all, so who knows?” Here they talk about their journeys to becoming the strongest women in the world and the huge impact they have made on the sport. ‘I got a tub of out-of-date protein powder for winning my first competition’ Rebecca Roberts, World’s Strongest Woman 2021, 2023 It was my partner Paul who got me into the sport. In May 2016, we met via the dating site Plenty of Fish. I was massively overweight and he was just helping me train at first, but things blossomed into a relationship. He thought I was really strong, and soon entered me into the UK’s Strongest Woman competition. I won it that September. The event was held in a car park in Kent. There were more competitors than there were spectators, and for winning I got a tub of out-of-date protein powder. Months later, in 2017, when Eddie Hall won the title of Britain’s Strongest Man he got a brand new motorbike plus substantial prize money. The disparity was unreal. When I first started, I was extremely self-conscious. I hated my body and who I was. I’d stay in the corner of the gym, wear all black and not want to be seen. But through the sport I’ve blossomed, and I’m a lot more confident. I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of my body and I feel so much stronger mentally. There’s a lot of stigma around plus-sized people, and I get a lot of plus-size women who say that seeing me in the gym in a sports bra and leggings has given them the confidence to go into the gym and be who they are meant to be. One woman said seeing my confidence out there in a competition made her walk into work the next day with her head held high for the first time. That made me cry. Stuff like that means the world to me. The sport takes over your life. I’m up at 5.30am and out for a walk. I start work as a quality assurance analyst at 7.30am and finish around 4pm. I train for two to four hours five times a week. Sometimes, I drive for an hour to a gym with specialist equipment. Some days, I don’t get home until 10pm. Thankfully, there’s a lot more money coming into the sport now. The 2023 Arnold Strongwoman competition had $80,000 (£63,000) prize money. That was unheard of two or three years ago. Paul was diagnosed with heart failure in March 2022. I trained for UK’s Strongest Woman while he was in hospital. I ended up winning it in late April – I wanted to make him proud of me. Throughout the year, he was getting better, and his heart had improved. Then on 4 December at around 8am, he had a heart attack. I rang 999 and had to drag him out of bed and perform CPR. They were working on him in our bedroom for about 40 minutes before they pronounced him dead. It was a massive loss. He wasn’t only my partner, he was my coach. We did everything together. member of the group, was replaced by that year’s Eurovision song contest fifth-placed runner-up Jade Ewen. The Sugababes brand had steadily become more important than its constituent parts. “People [we worked with] would say it boldly – ‘this is the brand’, and ‘one in one out’,” says Buchanan. The Keisha-less lineup would release the Sugababes’ seventh album, Sweet 7, in 2010, before going on hiatus. That hiatus, as opposed to a split that would potentially free up the Sugababes name, meant that when Buena, Buchanan and Donaghy – a lineup that had gained almost mythical status among pop fans in the interim – announced their return in 2012 it was under the slightly unwieldy moniker of Mutya Keisha Siobhán (MKS). Who made the first attempts at reconciliation? “Nine months [after being ousted from the Sugababes] I was contacted about the [original] girls wanting to get back together,” explains Buchanan. “I was hesitant because I needed to heal, like, ‘Leave me alone, these girl band bitches are crazy!’” They all laugh. “But I knew that I would have regretted it if I hadn’t. Even at the height of Sugababes I used to think, ‘I wonder what would have happened after One Touch’.” Buena nods in agreement. “I didn’t!” shouts Donaghy suddenly to mock horror from the other two. “I never thought the day would come.” However, once Buchanan was ousted, Donaghy says, “a light went on and reuniting just became a possibility for me again. I allowed myself to think it.” What did the people around Donaghy think about her returning to a band that, according to a 2003 interview, made you feel like “a dead person”? “‘You’re fucking nuts!’” answers Buena. “They were secretly quite happy to see me back doing music again,” Donaghy counters. “They always felt like that’s what I should be doing.” The initial MKS excitement – a major label record deal with Polydor, a near-religious launch gig at London’s Scala, a Dev Hynes-produced single, Flatline – soon fizzled out as the band disappeared for almost a decade. In 2021 they re-emerged again, this time back under the Sugababes name, to celebrate the Covid-delayed 20th anniversary of One Touch, before surprise-releasing an album, The Lost Tapes, on Christmas Eve last year. Even that was tinged with sadness; The Lost Tapes was a collection of songs recorded as MKS, all 13 of which had leaked online shortly after Flatline missed the UK Top 40. It has, as they like to say in pop, been A Journey. So it feels miraculous that by the time you read this they will have played a headline show at London’s 20,000-seater O2 arena. Why are people still so fascinated? “People are rooting for us,” says Donaghy. “There’s been such an overwhelming feeling of positivity and people wanting to see us do well.” “It’s nice to feel like you’re wanted,” agrees Buchanan, before admitting to a hint of nerves. “Me and Mutya were shocked – not to say we didn’t have any faith in us three coming back, but it’s always a thing of ‘Is anyone going to be out there?’” Buena still has fears about being pelted with bottles of urine a la Daphne and Celeste at Reading festival 2000. “That’s what goes on in my head,” she says. “I’m overly nervous every time we go out.” A quick drink eases things along, however: “Rum punch is our thing,” she smiles. When Buena adds that she feels like people are happy to see them get a second chance, I assume she’s alluding to finally following up that original One Touch era. But she’s actually referring to their more recent struggles, specifically the short-lived MKS era and the behind-thescenes fight to get their name back. Shortly after signing with Polydor in 2012 things went sour. “Within eight weeks they shelved us,” says Buchanan. “It’s literally like a toxic relationship. They get you and then they try and change you and then ghost you. That’s fine, but just let us go. The issue is being held there.” In the end, they managed to extricate themselves from the deal. “We got our masters back and we got our advances back,” Buchanan adds proudly. The happiness was short-lived, however. Not only did those masters leak, there’s also talk of shadowy figures intent on sabotage. “We would have things lined up for us and then we were told that ‘a phone call had been made and you’re not allowed to be on this particular show,’” explains Buchanan. “There was someone from our past that was constantly blocking us.” They won’t name names: “I can’t be bothered to get into another legal thing,” says Donaghy when pressed. Buena refers to them only as “a stale smell”. Knowing that the only way this lineup could succeed was to get the Sugababes name back, Buchanan trawled through reams of legal paperwork. “It was hard,” she says. “But whenever I would listen to the music, I would think: ‘Oh my gosh there’s something there.’” She leans forward. “[This comeback] is way more than just a financial thing for us. It is about restoring what was meant to be. And about justice. There’s been a lot of unfairness, a lot of things behind the scenes, and we felt like we had to reclaim back what was rightfully ours.” Buchanan says that it was during the trio’s time in “the trenches”, as she calls the last decade or so, that their already-scrutinised relationship was tested the most. “We had to establish a new form of patience with each other,” she says. “When everything’s going well it’s fine, but actually can you stick through these things when it’s not going the way you’d like them to?” Donaghy immediately notices Buchanan’s neat segue into the themes of When the Rain Comes, a harmonyladen, retro-soul number reminiscent of Buena’s unfairly forgotten 2007 solo debut, Real Girl. It was inspired by the re-emergence of ghosts from their past keen to get a slice of the action now that the Sugababes are riding high. “It’s a celebration of the people who are really there for you,” Donaghy says. “We’re not teenagers, we’re not figuring out who our tribes are, we’ve got amazing friends and family. That core bit of it is set and we’re lucky to have that.” There’s a lovely bit in the song where Donaghy answers the central question – will you be there through thick and thin, basically – with cooed “I will, I will” ad-libs, as if singing to her bandmates. “Ultimately these are the only two people I’m relying on in the entire setup,” she says looking at Buena and Buchanan. “These are the two women I trust.” Buchanan recently got some old VHS footage of the band converted to digital and she’s keen to play Buena and Donaghy a specific video on her phone. The three of them watch their teenage selves doing rudimentary dance rehearsals and enduring a hilarious mock interview they can now barely sit through due to the embarrassment. The air may be thick with nostalgia but after finally getting a taste of the success they felt was taken away, not once but twice, it also feels like there’s a future. “We are over the start and stop of it all,” Buchanan states. “We have some exciting things coming.” So, there’s more music? “There has to be,” Buena insists. “We can’t just release one song and then go missing again.” For Buchanan and Donaghy the “sky’s the limit” when it comes to the future. And for Buena? “I’m really happy,” she smiles. “And really knackered.” When the Rain Comes is out now.