Rich LeFevre, a 62-year-old retired accountant, is a champion eater of watermelon, cake, doughnuts, corn dogs, and huevos rancheros. His wife, Carlene, a slim substitute teacher with an immense appetite, joins him at competitions all over the country—she usually places second, behind him. Both have competed at Nathan’s “Hot-Dog-Eating” Contest for the past three years. They spoke to me from different phone lines in their Nevada home, which they call the Pink Palace.
Why do you call your house the Pink Palace? Carlene: Because I’m the pink freak. Everything is pink. My wardrobe is pink. My rugs are pink. I’ve got pink roses all over. My lamps are pink. Everything is pink. And Rich is nice enough to tell me he doesn’t mind.
Do people at work know you’re a world-class competitive eater? Carlene: I don’t advertise it among the other teachers, or the students, for that matter. If I have a child who says, “Oh Mrs. LeFevre, I saw you on TV!” I say, “Oh no, not I. That was my evil twin.”
A few years ago Ralph Nader called competitive eating one of four major signs of “societal decay.” How do you make sense of this? Rich: There are plenty of things you can blame for societal decay. Competitive eating would go at the bottom of the list. People say that competitive eating is wasteful. Of course it’s wasteful. But it’s no more wasteful than having a big picnic. It has nothing to do with world hunger.
What appeals to you about food contests? Carlene: I usually think no one knows who we are. But then fans will approach us with flattering remarks—it’s very nice and sweet. And in a way, I guess it’s kind of sad. I’ve been an elementary teacher for many years, and I work very, very hard. All teachers do. And yet here I get my accolades as a competitive eater—and not as a schoolteacher. But that’s just the way it is. That’s just life.
Is the process of speed eating uncomfortable? Rich: It’s truly grueling. It’s an all-out war. With all these new young guys who train like crazy, it’s put everything on a different level. They’ve stretched the capacity of the esophagus. They’ve done something that wasn’t considered humanly possible. Carlene: The only reason I keep going is, I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to be the worst. When I first started competing I’d worry about how I looked eating, so I’d try to hide my face, but it eventually got to the point where I wanted to win so badly I didn’t care. Now I eat standing up because it’s harder for food to go down when your body is curved. Of course, I still make sure to keep napkins in my pocket. Before the TV camera zooms in, I wipe my face very quickly and apply my lipstick with the reflection on the blade of my knife.