Anybody who has attempted to get buff – whether successful or otherwise – would tell you that the journey is no walk in the park.
For an introvert to strut with confidence in front of others, that's a difficult challenge too.
Lilian Tan is one of those who could stand proud for having achieved both of what seems to be insurmountable tasks.
A rose among the thorns
Lilian is a four-time bodybuilding world champion – five, if you count two wins in one year as separate wins. She is also a certified personal trainer and is currently based at Ultimate Gym – Serious Fitness in Wangsa Maju.
At the age of 18, the Penangite made her way to the United States to further her studies at the University of San Diego. She eventually stayed on and became a permanent resident there for two decades.
In 2010, Lilian made the decision to come back to Malaysia to be closer to her family.
The start of an amazing journey
This is a story of grit, willpower and dedication.
Growing up, Lilian was a sickly child, especially in primary school.
“I remembered skipping a lot of days in school. I was always down with some kind of flu or fever,” she reminisced.
When she hit puberty, Lilian picked up swimming. It proved to be beneficial. Not only did swimming help her get fit, but it also gave her a taste of the competitive scene. She even represented her college in the US in swimming.
It was the summer semester. She chose to stay back instead of coming home for the holidays to take a couple courses to speed up the graduation process.
She was still swimming for recreational purposes then. However, the pool was under renovation.
Over that period, she had received a complimentary two-week gym membership. What was initially a marketing gimmick ended up opening a whole new world for her.
“I went in there and I thought since I cannot use the pool, I got all this downtime and it’s free, I should just go in, do something to pass time,” she recalled.
Her lack of knowledge in the weightlifting field had her coming into the gym solely for cardio exercises.
“The sales executive would show me how to operate the treadmill, stationary bike, StairMaster. That's all I would do every day.”
When her two-week trial was over, as expected, she was urged to sign up for the membership.
“I wasn't too sure if this was something I would pursue because my heart was still into swimming. But I figured for the price of USD12 (RM49.80), if I don't end up exercising there, at least I could use the showers. I was going to make the $12 worth it one way or another.”
The fact that the facility was located between her school and her home was a plus point. And so, she gave in and became a member.
Having lost about 6kg since the first day she stepped into the gym, Lilian took a body fat test thinking that she would certainly see a drop in the result. She was puzzled when it turned out that it had stayed the same.
She soon discovered the concept of lean muscle mass.
“In order for me to drop my body fat percentage, I had to pick up some kind of weight training to increase my lean muscle mass, so that's what I did. My body adapted to weight training very quickly.”
For a female, Lilian was unusually strong. She was urged into taking up weight training more seriously.
Not everyone was supportive from the get-go though.
When she had told her father about her newfound interest in the gym during the early days, he laughed at her.
“He said you have got to be nuts if you think you can. Building muscle is tough for a guy – let alone a female. We are very close. My dad and I never had seen a muscular woman before. So naturally, he thought that was impossible.”
Lilian’s mother, on the other hand, insisted that she focuses on her studies in business management. She simply could not see the career prospect bodybuilding has to offer.
And for the record, she never intended to go for that muscular look.
“I just wanted to look slim and slender. The hourglass shape, typical toned arm, flat tummy,” she laughed.
After about nine months of working towards that goal, she achieved the figure she aimed for. It was all fine and dandy until one day: “Someone came up to me and said ‘You know what, Lilian; you will never have what it takes to compete’ and I wanted to prove that man wrong.”
The long yet rewarding journey
The challenge brought out the best in Lilian.
The highlights of her career in the US include winning the 2004 Miss USA Overall Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness in the open category.
Besides proving her worth, the win was also a wake-up call for her parents. They were now convinced that Lilian means business.
Lilian turned professional soon after that win. She had looked forward to representing Malaysia in bodybuilding competitions. However, the ban Malaysia had imposed on women’s bodybuilding hindered her from doing so.
With her green card status, she ended up representing the US for a while.
“To get to where I am today takes day in and day out of dedication and consistency. It’s not an easy journey – I’ll tell you that,” she stated.
In 2004, she retired from the competition scene to focus on her career. Six years later, upon returning to Penang, she picked up the sport once more.
“I just didn't know what to do for work and I know I’ve always had a passion for fitness. So I thought maybe that is the direction I should head.”
Lilian decided to start competing to gain more exposure. This time around, she was able to represent Malaysia.
Her early quest in the local scene was not in bodybuilding but model physique.
“Model physique is kind of like your bikini contest where the girls would actually wear heels. At that time, we would wear a one-piece suit and there would be another round where you wear a two-piece,” she explained.
Lilian managed to secure third place in the World Championship, and another third place in the Asia Championship in her height category.
Being the determined person that she is, after the event was over, she wasn't shy about approaching people to ask their opinion on how she could improve more.
“I had talked to the head judge to see what I needed to do to improve my placing so that when I come back the year after, I would, hopefully, be able to move up in place. And that's when I was told my body was a little bit too muscular for model physique and I was urged to go into bodybuilding”.
“From the year 2010 to 2018, I trained my butt off. That was when I really saw (and) took my physique to the next level.”
The hard work, as you would've probably guessed it, paid off.
In 2012, at the age of 40, she won her first world title at the World Women Bodybuilding Champion for the over 55kg category – an achievement she considers her sweetest memory.
She would go on to defend the title in 2014, 2016 and 2018. She also became the 2018 World Women Bodybuilding Open champion in the over 30 category.
How impressive is that?
When we asked her how she feels about her accomplishments, Lilian feels nothing but pride.
“I feel proud of it. I feel very satisfied because I know how difficult the journey was and so many times, you feel like giving up. I tell myself, you suffer now, you train for it, you don't give up, when all this is over, the victory is forever.
"You will have all those titles under my belt. It is a feeling of accomplishment and relief that whatever I’ve set my heart to do, I’ve done it. I’ve accomplished it. I’ve brought a lot of recognition to Malaysia on the international stage.”
Reflecting on the ride
Looking back at how it has been, Lilian admitted that it was tough.
“It is probably one of the most difficult and challenging things I have ever done in my life, especially as I got older. I sustained more injuries. So it made the whole competition preparation so much tougher. But has it been worth it? Hell yeah, it has.”
Lilian has learnt so much through it all. Discipline and self-confidence are among the valuable traits she has gained.
But believe it or not, she was that shy and timid child who would be praying so hard that the bell would ring before her turn to deliver the speech in front of the class.
“So, can you imagine going up on stage in a two-piece posing suit and showing off your muscles? I would have fainted if I thought about having to do all that. But I did it. And today, I’ve matured into a much more confident person with better self-esteem.”
Lilian’s philosophy in life may also have contributed to her success.
“Work ethics – I believe in being humble, grateful, gratitude. I’m very blessed to be in the position I’m in today. I always have this approach of being the hardest worker in the room. Work hard, have faith in what we do. Have integrity. Always give back when we can,” she told us.
One bitter memory
Lilian has always been one to accept her losses with grace. She advocates the concept of learning them to improve.
“When I don't win, I just come back home and see what I need to do, plan it out for the next championship, work a lot harder, work a lot smarter and see what I need to do to get the title that I’m chasing for.”
However, she had her fair share of going through a bitter episode of defeat too. It was concerning the Sportswomen of the Year award – a prestigious award that is of great significance to every athlete.
Well, Lilian had been shortlisted as a finalist in both the 2014 and 2016 edition. She accepted the losses both times.
“I just thought to myself, I know I was going to compete in 2018. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll just come back, prove myself again and really go for it’. So I worked my butt off to make sure I don't fall short.”
As the award is based on a points system with an emphasis on the level of competitions the athletes participated in, her world title wins in 2018 proved her consistency and thus, put her in a good position.
Long story short, the Sportswoman of the Year 2018 award was not meant to be for Lilian. While it came as a shock to many others too considering how she fared, Lilian accepted it with no qualms.
As she came off the stage, she was greeted with both congratulations and condolences. Her interaction with an Exco Member of the Malaysian Bodybuilding Federation who knows someone in the judging panel led to her learning about a piece of information that left her depressed for a couple months after.
“He told me that as of 2.30 pm (that day), I was slotted as the winner of the 2018 Sportswoman of the Year Award. After that time, someone from the higher up, (who) is not very keen with bodybuilding decided no.”
According to this lad, Lilian was sidelined at the last minute because of somebody with authority, who does not favour the sport she is involved with, disregarded her point accumulation.
“Upon hearing that, it crushed me like you would never believe. Why would you mix politics with sports? And I keep asking what have I done wrong to this person. Why me?”
To make matters worse, she would soon retire with that as her send-off.
“As long as this person is in power, I don't see myself ever having the chance to be crowned the Sportswoman of the Year Award. That was the only thing missing that I wanted. I felt so incomplete. This is probably one of the most bitter moments for me in my whole entire career.”
While several parties encouraged her to take action on the matter, Lilian figured it would be a waste of time. What’s done is done.
"I hope that in the future when they crown the Sportsman or Sportswoman of the Year, it should strictly be based on their performances, achievements and consistency. Not just you win one year, the next, you lose. And don't mix politics with sports.
"At least, I hope sports can unite the nation. I hope that still stays like that. And when you start mixing politics with sports, it just makes no sense,” stated Lilian.
Lilian also opened up about another incident that affected her deeply.
It was back in 2018 when she had a picture taken with the then Sports and Youth Minister, Syed Saddiq, who uploaded it to his Instagram account.
From labelling her a ‘pondan’ to expressing disgust over her figure and even raising the question of how a man could love a woman who looks like her, the comments that poured in from the netizens were simply nasty.
(PSA: Keyboard warriors, please stop this malicious act. It speaks more about you than the person you’re commenting about)
Although she was crushed by the insulting remarks, Lilian knows better not to let it get to her.
“No matter what people say, we cannot live our life to please others. At the end of the day, if this is what I feel good (about), I feel happy, then I live my life exactly the way I want to. I’m not here to please anyone else,” she stated.
A day in the life of Lilian
She is an early bird who likes to jump start her day with fasted cardio. On a typical day, she would be busy training clients – in person and virtually. Occasionally, she also gets invited to make an appearance or give presentations on her field of expertise.
Lilian cited patience as the key element in carrying out her role as a personal trainer because “you’re dealing with clients; they’re not motivated. They want results but they don't necessarily do what they are asked to do”.
She added, “To be patient, understanding, and more compassionate towards how they feel and what they’re going through – I would say those would be the biggest challenge.”
The passion to help is what continues to fuel her drive in doing what she does. Lilian appreciates the fact that her clientele comes from different walks of life. Her job has allowed her to be there for others in crucial moments of their lives. Some are battling depression, going through a divorce and more.
She believes that it would do her no good to have the knowledge, which she had gathered throughout her competitive years, if she doesn't use it to make a difference.
The saying ‘A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life’ hits her hard.
“I may not be able to influence everyone but if I can change one person’s life, one day at a time, I think I’ve done well. That's what keeps me going.”
Setting it straight
As a personal trainer, she is in it “to help people feel better and transform their lives”.
However, she also has to deal with misconceptions that people have about the ways to get there. She often gets clients – particularly, females – who worry about transforming into such muscular physiques if they were to start doing a few weightlifting exercises.
“I wish it was that easy,” Lilian laughed.
Some also worry that by lifting weights, they will end up looking like a man. According to Lilian, unless you are going to hit the gym and lift heavy weights every day for many years to come, this should not be a concern for the ladies out there.
The difference in estrogen and testosterone level in men and women sorts this matter out.
Lilian also admitted that she gets stared at a lot when out in public. It is actually to an extent that makes her feel uncomfortable. She has gotten accustomed to the judging process of absolute strangers.
Their body language and/or facial expression would indicate the verdict of them either intrigued or disgusted at how a female could look so muscular.
But just because she is familiar with the cycle doesn't mean it doesn't still hurt and by absolutely no means should you stare or be judgmental.
The thing about body image
Lilian explained to us that when it comes to body types, generally, there are ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph.
We learnt that our bodies would fall into one of thee categories and at times, it could be somewhere in between. But either way, Lilian stressed that how you feel about yourself plays an important part too.
If you don’t give yourself credit where it’s due, no matter how gorgeous your body is, you wouldn’t feel adequate. She revealed that even when she was in the best shape of her life, she could still come up with five reasons to feel bad about how she looks.
“We have to come to terms with ourselves. This body that we have is just the outer shell. Be okay with who you are but, of course, strive to be healthy than trying to look a certain way just so that you can be accepted by (the) public or friends or to have people look up to you because, at the end of the day, you have yourself to answer to. Our health comes first before how we look.”
Her fear of losing has kept her on her toes during her competitive days.
“I was so afraid that if I missed a workout and if I don't give my 110 per cent, there’d be someone out there who would work so much harder than me and eventually, they would come out on top. So that fear of not winning – that was kind of what got me through those lazy days.”
Now that she is retired, that feeling of not wanting to fail her clients is what gets her out of bed on those lazy days.
"Just the whole attitude of never giving up. It’s just like with anything – you just have to get started. It’s difficult to drag your butt in the gym or get the day going but once you get going, sometimes those are the days when you have the best workout.
"When you don't think you have it in you to get through it and if you can push yourself past those conditions on those days that you don't feel like training, you can come out stronger in the end.”
When it is her off day, however, she would be paying off her sleep debt. Like the rest of us, she also enjoys the occasional movie marathon.
It's not a bed of roses
Making it all the way to the top is not easy, and Lilian wants you to know that.
Burn it in your brain, even.
“You need a lot of perseverance to make it to the top. You are going to fail. You are going to fall flat on your face many times. You are going to have plenty of days when you just want to throw in the towel and say what’s the point of doing all this.
"There will be naysayers that will tell you you’re not good enough and you will start doubting yourself because it takes a lot to make it to the top. So (you need) that perseverance and knowing exactly what you want.”
Make no mistake of thinking that everything is a bed of roses. It is not. It was then Lilian revealed to us a shocking detail about her life: she was once homeless.
“It was a very tough year. I was laid off from my job. And so, there was this period of not having work.”
That took place two months after her Miss USA Overall win which qualified her for the Natural Olympia, the highest level a natural athlete can compete in. She was on the verge of calling the organiser to withdraw from the prestigious event.
Luckily, after giving herself time, she came to realise how far she has to come to make it – something she suggests anyone who is thinking of quitting to consider. It was the right call after all. Lilian took the second place of the Natural Olympia Bodybuilding in the open category and third place in the professional category.
A word to keep you going
Feeling uncomfortable about the thought of going to the gym? Lilian totally understands. Not knowing what you’re doing or feeling anxious about people staring at you and being laughed at for doing something wrong makes it worse.
But here is her advice: “Start doing something. Move. If you are out of shape or you’ve put on weight and you want to get started, just be consistent and start somewhere. Just get up even if you have to start walking – do that. Don't wait for the perfect day to do (your) workout because there will never be a perfect day.”
“Stop procrastinating. Go for walks and set small goals that you can attain so that you feel that you’re accomplishing something every week and reward yourself – but not in terms of food if you are overweight,” she added.
Start with a 1km walk or half of that and gradually, build your stamina to accomplish greater feats. Be consistent with it.
Lilian also suggested YouTube as a reference for the exercises that you could do at home. Dumbbells, resistance band and/or fitness ball are some of the small but worthy investment you could make. “Do it along with whatever that is shown on the YouTube channel.”
Once you have the confidence to step it up, Lilian suggests that you find a reliable training partner.
“Find somebody who can hold you accountable and you can do the same for that person. And join a gym together.” If you are unable to find a training partner, it is advisable to engage a personal trainer who is knowledgeable to help you achieve your goals. Ladies, if you’re not comfortable with men around, you could consider the women-only gyms.
“And at the same time, of course, diet plays a very important role. So start cleaning up your diet. Be more conscious about the choice of food, the calories that you’re intaking,” Lilian reminded.
Lilian’s message to Malaysians out there is “to start young in practising a healthy lifestyle because that way you can instil the good values, and then hopefully, that will carry you to your adulthood”.
She also feels that parents have the responsibility to set the right example.
She also expressed her gratitude to those who have supported her.
“I want to thank Malaysians out there who have followed my journey and my career in competition and who have shown me so much support and unconditional love. That helps me through a lot of the days – the lazy days or when I feel like I’m giving up.
"That helps because not only do I not want to disappoint myself. I don't want to disappoint the people out there who have been showing me so much support and love.”