On July 4, thousands of spectators gathered at the original Nathan’s Famous restaurant on New York’s Coney Island to witness the 2015 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. The 32 competitors, 16 men and 16 women who are bused to the event from a secret location, filed out before their adoring fans. Among the competitors was Tucson’s Michelle Lesco, otherwise known as the Cardboard Shell, the No. 8 ranked competitive eater in the world, according to the International Federation of Competitive Eaters (IFOCE) and Major League Eating (MLE).
By day, the 5-foot-4-inch, 115-pound Lesco teaches math to juniors and seniors at Pantano High School. But when she’s not teaching, Lesco slips into a kind of gastronomical alter ego, dominating professional eating competitions across the country.
Lesco, who attended high school in Willcox and moved to Tucson in 2001, has been tackling food challenges since 2009, when she visited Lindy’s on Fourth Avenue to cheer on two of her male friends, who were planning to attempt the OMFG challenge—a burger consisting of nine one-third-pound patties (three pounds) of meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and Lindy’s sauce, made famous after being attempted by Adam Richman of the Travel Network’s Man v. Food. As legend has it, the guys chickened out, and Lesco ended up taking on the challenge instead. She surprised everyone— including herself—by consuming the entire thing in 30 minutes, beating Richman’s time of just over 40 minutes, and becoming the first woman to finish it. But Lesco, who describes herself as “highly competitive,” was determined to conquer the OMFG in less than 20 minutes (in which case, Lindy’s foots the cost of the $24.99 burger). Lesco went back “a handful of times,” continuing to battle the beast, eventually whittling her time down to two and a half minutes.
From there, Lesco was hooked. And so began a pattern: Lesco’s friends would tell her about a food challenge, and she would show up and devour it. She ate her way around Tucson’s eating challenges—through La Botana’s five-pound burrito, and the Hog Pit Smokehouse Hog Trough challenge, which consists of a one-pound burger, one pound of brisket, a pound of pulled pork, a pound of fries, and a pickle. The only Tucson food challenge that has eluded Lesco is the Boca Taco Challenge, a buffet line of 17 tacos and an enormous baked potato, loaded with meat and other fixings. Lesco holds the Boca record for most successful attempt, but the challenge got the best of her on two occasions—although that was before Cardboard Shell went pro.
In 2011, Lesco’s friends convinced her to register for a Nathan’s qualifying contest in Tempe. With zero preparation, Lesco devoured 21½ hot dogs and buns, stepping squarely into professional competitive eating territory. She signed a three-year contract with Major League Eating, adopted the nickname Cardboard Shell (because when she orders take-out food, all that’s left is the cardboard container), and went on to place fourth in the women’s competition in New York—despite getting the hiccups and stopping eight minutes into the 10-minute contest.
As the great Cardboard Shell has risen to the top of the competitive eating world, Lesco’s father, a retired Star Trek stuntman, occasionally attends her competitions, and her mother hangs giant “Go Michelle!” signs in the yard of her Willcox home. Lesco says her parents and four sisters “are the first people I text after a competition.”
Though Lesco originally attempted to hide her life as a professional eater from her students, she was eventually outed by a newspaper article. Now Lesco says she fields regular questions about her eating. No surprise—there might be nothing cooler than having a professional competitive eater double as your high school math teacher.
“They are fascinated. They love it,” she says, and then recalls a time when she crafted a math problem based on a competitive eating scenario, in order to sustain her students’ interest in the math lesson.
“We were studying arithmetic sequences, and I made up some question—it wasn’t totally accurate to hot dog eating, but it was close,” Lesco says, laughing. “If I eat this many [hot dogs] in the first minute, and I eat a quarter of a hot dog less each minute thereafter, how many will I eat after 10 minutes?”
By now, Lesco’s competitive “eatography” is exhaustive. She has consumed Twinkies, gyoza, ribs, turkey, pumpkin pie, kimchi, pepperoni rolls, cupcakes, tacos, corn, ice cream, tamales, pork sliders, and chicken wings. In 2013, she became the first woman in history to beat Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas in an eating contest. That same year, she beat Joey “Jaws” Chestnut—the No. 1 ranked competitive eater—in a rib competition. In 2014, Lesco was flown to Japan to entertain Navy troops by downing pulled pork sandwiches and hot dogs and offering technique tips to budding Navy competitive eaters.
Although MLE sponsors eating contests all year long, the Fourth of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is the most famous and epic of them all. It is the World Series of professional competitive eating, featuring the top eaters in the world—including Chestnut, who holds the world record of 69 hot dogs and buns; Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, this year’s newly-crowned winner; and the top female in the sport, Miki Sudo, who is Lesco’s good friend and training partner. The Nathan’s Contest and its regional qualifiers are the only MLE-sanctioned competitions in which men and women compete separately.
For Nathan’s competitors, the Road to Coney is paved with training. Lesco commits to regular trial runs, in which she cooks 40 hot dogs and tries to eat as many as she can in 10 minutes. Lesco admits that hot dogs aren’t her specialty—she’s better at “debris” challenges, like wings or ribs, which require a different mental strategy and finger dexterity to pick off the meat. To improve her hot dog technique, Lesco records her trial runs and watches the videos in order to pinpoint areas of weakness. And because hot dog eating is based on throat control and stomach capacity, Lesco focuses on training her body to avoid the gag reflex and stretching her stomach with watermelon, Gatorade, and chocolate milk (she can drink a gallon in about five minutes).
Despite the high-calorie foods regularly ingested by competitive eaters, the professional circuit is largely composed of physically trim and athletic people. Lesco stays in shape by running, snowboarding, hiking, cycling, and working out at the gym—especially during competitive eating season. Lesco credits her competitive personality with the perseverance she needs to make it through the competitions.
“You have to be competitive,” she says, “I’m completely there and focused. It’s such a mental game. You have to tell your body, ‘We’re not stopping.’ The closest thing I can relate it to is that I ran cross country in high school … you want to quit with all of your being, but no matter how much you want to give up, you’ve got to keep pushing.’”
But how long can a human body sustain this kind of gastronomical rigor? For those of us watching from the sidelines, our jaws drop in a kind of simultaneous horror and admiration as we ask ourselves a slew of anatomy-related questions. The impact to an eater’s long-term health is one of the most obvious. When asked how long she thinks her body can keep this up, Lesco shrugs. “I have no idea,” she says. “I’m going to keep doing it until it stops being fun.”
A naturally bubbly, down-to-earth individual, Lesco remains humbly devoted to organizing service-learning projects for her students. Having spent the last several years organizing youth empowerment programs, Lesco spends a significant amount of her free time volunteering for local nonprofits. She also participates in Big Brothers, Big Sisters as a Big Sister. Voted MLE’s Humanitarian of the Year, Lesco has used her platform to fundraise for various causes—most recently for the organization charity: water, which funds clean water initiatives in developing countries.
On stage at Coney Island, Lesco presents as a dedicated athlete. Wearing athletic shorts, a monogrammed Nathan’s T-shirt, striped baseball socks, and red armbands, she exudes an impressive confidence and a sturdy grace. On TV, the ESPN announcers comment on the great year she’s had and consider her a threat to the top women in the sport—namely, Sudo and Thomas.
The event is a spectacle like no other: screaming fans wear giant hot dogs on their heads, paint their faces, and wrap themselves in American flags. But behind the scenes, there is a seriousness to this circus. A line of judges stand, clad in black and white referee jerseys, their entire purpose to count hot dogs and look for signs of cheating (“reversal of fortune,” or vomit, which means automatic disqualification—very rare in the pro scene). Muscular “bun boys” and model-esque “bun girls” stand behind the eaters with the intensity and devotion of personal trainers, yelling encouragement when eaters start to nauseate or drop their pace.
And then there is the emcee, George Shea, founder of the IFOCE and MLE, and the marketing guru largely responsible for turning the Nathan’s competition into the multimillion-dollar vaudevillian event that it is today. Wearing a straw hat and suit jacket, Shea introduces Lesco in his over-the-top style, something between a proselytizing preacher and a performance poet. “She is pure muscle and pure intensity, and her soul shines like magnesium set afire in the dark of a February night! Ranked No. 8 in the world—10 pounds of boysenberry pie, 50 tacos—she is the first person ever to weaponize the stomach!”
Lesco crosses the stage and gives a wave to the cheering crowd. A sea of hot dog heads, homemade signs proclaiming “Joey ate my lunch,” foam noodles, and professional cameras stretches out as far as the eye can see. ✜
Debbie Weingarten is a writer, mother, and budding
competitive eating enthusiast.