Marinez Burnett, a 46-year-old body-sculpting grandma, has 60,000 followers on Facebook.
More than one-third come from her native Philippines where many view her as a role model.
Another 15,000 come from 15 other countries.
The part-time Estero resident, known as Lola Nez in bodybuilding circles, is competing against 30 other women – some half her age – from around the world for the title of 2017 Ms. Health and Fitness.
Voting will go from now until Wednesday before the field is narrowed. The winner will be named April 5. In addition, Burnett is training for the Natural Eastern USA Bodybuilding Championships on April 15 in in Pittsburgh.
All this international attention, all this success, has been hard for Burnett to grasp, especially since her reason for working out was just to feel better.
“I was bombarded,” she said. “It becomes overwhelming.”
Burnett felt like a reluctant champion. “This has stressed her out more than the competitions,” her husband Bob said.
But then she sees the messages on Facebook and Instagram:
“Hey, how did you do this?”
“I’m working out because of you.”
“How can I be like you?”
“I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
As Marinez Burnett jokes, that last message came from someone nearly the same age as her. But at some point, she realized her ability to motivate and empower could extend beyond daughter Zyra and son Zach as well as grandchildren Arkin, 5, and Zoe, 4, who send her photos of them doing push-ups.
She also realized she wasn’t in Iowa or South Dakota anymore.
“It was like, ‘Wow, I am motivating people, I am inspiring people from all over the world,” Burnett said. “It has become a calling for me. I have a responsibility so I’m going to keep doing this.”
A person of faith, Burnett adds, “I also said to myself, ‘OK, God, if this is what you want me to do, so be it.’”
Burnett never saw herself inspiring people through a V-shaped bikini.
That’s because she never planned on becoming a body sculptor or bodybuilder.
Despite running and doing yoga, she started having issues with high blood pressure, cholesterol and GERD, which is gastroesophageal reflux disease. She also had a brother who had cancer and died.
“I had constant coughing, I had discomfort after I ate and I couldn’t sleep flat,” she said. “Something was just wrong.”
So besides eating more vegetables and eliminating her 4-5 cans of sodas a day, Burnett started lifting weights in December, 2014.
Her weight of 110 pounds never changed but her husband quickly noticed a change in her body, health and attitude.
“I could see something stir in her,” he said. “The transformation in her body excited her. There was a time she had been through a particularly hard workout where she could barely get out of bed and move. She almost was in tears from soreness but she was laughing. Now, she craves that soreness. She likes pushing the limits.”
After a coach told her she needed to compete in body-building competition three months after she started working out, Burnett replied, “Heck no, I’m 44 years old.”
Three months later, in May, 2015, she relented. She finished fourth in the competition. Filled with confidence, she posted a photo of herself a few days later on Facebook.
“I followed this closed group called, ‘No Excuse Moms,’ “ Burnett said. “I loved the positivity in that group. I had ideas, we shared ideas. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a good thing to post because I made no excuses.’"
Bob Burnett started a Facebook Fan Page shortly after when his wife’s popularity blew up. The page went from 2,000 followers in June to 5,000 in September and the number has kept growing.
While close friend and workout partner Yislene Burgin said the followers excited her, Bob noticed her anxiety. Even though she was a registered nurse and business owner for a company that types and posts medical documents, she never received attention like this.
“She’s been given an opportunity to spread a message,” he said. “A lot of women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, life has taken a toll on them a bit. Some have gained weight or don’t feel beautiful, don’t feel sexy or aspects of their health have gotten compromised.
“She feels she has a mission. And she’s trying to tell them that it’s doing something different and it’s not as hard as you think.”
Getting out the vote
The Burnetts have been getting out the word to her 60,000 followers in the online voting competition for Ms. Health and Fitness. A few weeks ago, she was one of 1,200 women from around the world selected by Muscle and Fitness magazine to compete for the title. The women were divided into 31 regions in the U.S. and around the world. Burnett, who also lives in South Dakota, won the Upper Midwest Region.
At 46, she’s the oldest competitor remaining in the contest.
She’s also the only grandmother. The winner of the contest will be featured in a photo shoot in Muscle and Fitness Hers magazine and win $20,000.
Burgin, 35, who has voted for her friend, feels she hasn’t changed a bit with her celebrity status.
“She tells me I’m her inspiration and motivation,” Burgin said. “She pushes me and I push her.
“She’s so dedicated. I keep telling her, ‘When I get to your age, I want to be like you.’
Lola Nez finishes
2015 NPC Rock Solid Championship, Sioux City, Iowa, 4th Place Masters Bikini
2015 NPC Branch Warren Championship, Omaha, Nebraska, 1st Place Masters Bikini
2015 NPC Battle of Champions, Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1st Place Masters Bikini
2016 NPC Rock Solid Championship, Winnebago, Nebraska, 2nd Place Masters Bikini
2016 NPC Champion Harbor Classic, Port Charlotte, 3rd Place Masters Bikini