The passionate, bright and upbeat Michelle Lesco is a fierce competitor with a rising star in the Major League of Eating. Currently the ninth highest-ranked competitor in MLE, this 30-year-old from Tucson, Ariz. not only has an iron stomach, but also a heart of gold. She recently earned the title of MLE’s Humanitarian of the Year. For three years now, Lesco has been eating competitively, but this 115-pound champion has been donating her time and services to charities since she was a child. Tailgate Fan sat down with her.
Tailgate Fan: Have you always been competitive? Did you participate in any sports growing up?
Michelle Lesco: Yeah, competitive has always been one of the top five words that describe me. When I was a kid, I played as many sports as my schools would let me — volleyball, cross country, basketball, softball, track and even club rugby during one year of college. My favorite was softball, but I probably excelled the most at cross country (regional champ, baby!). Out of all of the sports I’ve played, I’d say competitive eating is the most like cross country. It’s exhausting, you feel awful when you’re doing it, your body tells you to quit and you have to push through it and keep going as fast as you can. But in the end, it’s worth it because you gave it your all, and hopefully set a personal best and beat some people.
TGF: Are you originally from Tucson?
ML: No, but it’s pretty much the only hometown I’ve ever had. I was born in California, but we moved a lot when I was a kid (mostly around the southwest). I’ve lived in Tucson since 2003, which is over twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else (and now that I think about it, I also lived here in 2nd and 3rd grade).
TGF: Were there any indications when you were growing up that you would become a competitive eater?
ML: I really have no idea if there are any indicators that parents should look out for. A mix of competitiveness and weirdness were probably the largest indicators I gave off. I’ll take on almost any dare because I get this feeling of “Now that you mention it, I really wonder if I can do that.” If anything led me to competitive eating, it was probably that.
TGF: How long have you been competitively eating?
ML: I officially started competitive eating in June of 2011. It was a Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest Qualifier in Tempe, Arizona. I came in 2nd overall (1st for the girls), and beat all of the guys except Erik Denmark. He gave me some advice after that, and is probably the reason I crossed the threshold into taking the sport seriously and really training for each competition.
TGF: What do your family and friends think about your professional eating career? Who is most supportive of your competitive eating career?
ML: They LOVE it. My friends are super supportive and amazing. They think the whole competitive eating status is awesome, so I don’t have any hangups or concerns about it when I’m around them. Sometimes I’m a little wary about what strangers will think, though, so it’s still weird when I’m introduced to new people as a professional competitive eater. (And basically, that’s the ONLY way I’m introduced to new people now.)
It’s hard to say who is the most supportive. According to my Aunt Gayle, my Aunt Joanne is my biggest fan; and she really is amazingly supportive of both my competitive eating and my related charities. But she has some competition, because I could list about 20 people off the top of my head who are just absolutely amazing sources of support as well. I’ll usually post about my wins on social media, but there are a handful of people who also get a text and photos immediately after the competitions are over.
TGF: What do you do when you’re not eating competitively?
ML: I just finished up my teaching certification (middle school math), so lately I’ve been applying to schools and some community-based nonprofits (my background is in youth development). I also fund-raise for causes like Charity: Water, hang out with my Little Sister (through Big Brothers Big Sisters) and am a certified substitute teacher. Hobby-wise, I’m still the same stir crazy, overly active kid I’ve always been. I snowboard, play volleyball, run obstacle races and workout (especially when training for eating contests).
TGF: Are there any competitive eaters you admire, and why?
ML: Absolutely. Some of these guys (and girls) work so hard to improve their personal bests, and I think their sheer determination and dedication is pretty darn admirable. Matt Stonie is an absolute beast, he just keeps getting better and you know that’s from some serious focus and practice at home. Miki Sudo is one of my favorites, too. She jumped out of the gate at her first contest and absolutely blew people away. And of course, Joey Chestnut, because he’s ranked number 1 for a reason — he works hard and still improves his numbers, even though they’re already amazing.
I also have a lot of respect some of the former Major League Eaters. My buddies Tim Brown and Pat Bertoletti left the circuit and started a food truck (Glutton Force Five) and a restaurant (Taco in a Bag), and they work so hard on making those successful. Their food is amazing, but even having that going for you, I think it takes major guts to pursue a dream like owning a business, so I definitely admire that they went out and made it happen.
TGF: How do you prepare for an important match?
ML: I tend to train with the food I’ll be facing. Sometimes that’s hard, because it’s not always possible to find the exact food (like pepperoni rolls or natural-casing Nathan’s hot dogs) in Arizona. I’ll usually do short practice runs to work on technique, and sometimes some full practices to work on capacity. Dexterity plays a huge roll in some contests, and capacity plays a huge roll in others, so it all depends on what food I’ll be up against.
TGF: Are there any foods you would never consider eating competitively? Or for that matter, at all?
ML: Crawfish. Gross. People tell me I’ve just never had good crawfish, and maybe that’s true, but ew. Also, chili or oatmeal — I’ll leave those to the big guys who can chug three gallons in five minutes, because that’s what it basically comes down to.
TGF: Any good luck charms that you carry with you into a competition or any pre-game rituals?
ML: [Laughs] Kind of. I have “lucky earrings” — shaped like a fork and a spoon — that I wear during contests. I also try to relax before a contest, because I tend to get really nervous before a contest (the same way I felt before cross country races), and it’s a bad idea to let your body expend all of that nervous energy. Basically I try not to think about it, and distract myself with conversations with any eaters I haven’t seen in a while.
TGF: Is there one competition you enjoy the most? Why?
ML: There are so many that I love. My favorite foods to eat in competition (and in normal life, for that matter) are ribs and wings, so I always look forward to those just for the food. But there are some contests on the MLE circuit where the event organizers and volunteers are so nice and hard working and dedicated to putting on a great event. I really enjoy those because you can really see how important the events are to them and how excited they are to have us there.
TGF: Is there any award or title you are most proud of and why?
ML: I’m still working to get myself to that level. I got first place in a few qualifying rounds (Nathan’s this year and Hooters last year), and it’s always fun to beat everyone at the table. But for me, the proudest moments occur the very first time I place ahead of someone who I’ve never beat before. Last year, that was Joey Chestnut at Ribmania and Sonya Thomas in Indian Tacos at Wind Creek. This year, it was Tim Janus and Adrian Morgan at Indian Tacos. It’s always surreal and exciting to beat someone for the first time when they’re ranked ahead of me.
TGF: What about this year’s Nathan’s Famous World Hot Dog Eating Contest are you most excited about?
ML: Nathan’s is an experience like no other, so everything about it exudes excitement. But if I had to pick one thing, I’m probably most excited to try hit a personal best this year, because I feel really good about my chances of doing that. I’ll be trying to get in the 30s for the first time, with a goal of eating at least 33 (hopefully closer to 35). It ties into my fundraiser to help 33 people get clean water for life through an organization called Charity: Water. People already joined in helping me reach the original fundraising goal, so I’m going to do my best to exceed my hot dog goal in hopes that people will join in and we can help even more people.
TGF: Besides eating competitively, you are also Major League Eating’s Humanitarian of the Year. What do you enjoy about volunteering? How long have you been volunteering with charities and nonprofit organizations?
ML: I’ve been volunteering for almost as long as I can remember. It started with little things like picking up trash in the park when I was a kid (just because my sister and I saw trash in the park). In 2008, I took my volunteering a step further and joined AmeriCorps (a national service program similar to a domestic Peace Corps). I spent two years fully dedicated to service, planning and implementing community-based service learning programs to engage kids in making a difference while learning skills.
I love everything about volunteering. It’s such an empowering thing to do, because often times, you can actually see the difference you’re able to make. I just have this sense that I am so incredibly fortunate to have been born in a place that has electricity, clean water, accessible food and isn’t going through turmoil like civil wars or natural disasters. I didn’t do anything to have those privileges — it’s just dumb luck — so I just feel like it’s up to me to do whatever I can to help other people get those little, taken-for-granted things that are so critical to having a safe and healthy life. It means the world to me to know that my efforts have helped even one person have a slightly easier existence. To some people, “helping one person” seems like nothing, but I’d drop anything to do it.