The princess of competitive eating: Miki Sudo

Photo: Christopher DeVargas

On May 18, Miki Sudo ate 11 Niko Niko’s gyros in 10 minutes. On May 11, she downed 164 chicken wings in 12 minutes. Before that it was 7 pounds, 4 ounces of deep-fried california asparagus, 13.5 pints of ice cream (all vanilla), 28.5 pork sliders and 1.687 gallons of chunky beef chili.

Thinking of that third-place performance at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., Sudo grimaces slightly, “I’m not going to be good at everything.”

Only Sudo is good at almost everything in the world of competitive eating. Hard-boiled eggs, baby back ribs and definitely hot dogs—the king of the face-stuffing circuit—which she inhales at a pace as methodical as it is masochistic. She holds her phone out so I can watch a video of her training in a Valley backyard alongside fellow competitive eater Michelle Lesco. As a ticker in the bottom right-hand corner counts the seconds, Sudo, in spandex shorts and a T-shirt, moves in a rhythmic dance of extreme consumption: grabbing, biting, straining and swallowing, the hot dog count rising steadily as the face on camera grows more and more uncomfortable.

It’s entrancing. When I look up from the screen, the same face is staring back at me: bleach-blonde hair falling around her shoulders, business-casual work attire, an easy smile that keeps apologizing profusely for being late. I’ve invited her out for lunch, but while I dig into a large bowl of rice and raw fish, Sudo orders just an appetizer: spicy tuna tacos—and a couple large bottles of Asahi beer.

“I should be juicing,” she laments as we sit on the patio of Ra Sushi at the Fashion Show Mall. Usually Sudo starts preparing mid-week before a competition, cutting back on her food intake, eating healthy ingredients like kale and quinoa. Thursday and Friday she juices all her meals, making them “easier to process.” By the time game-day arrives, her body is ready for a gastronomic sprint, six to 12 minutes of high-intensity, jaw-pumping, belly-cramming work focused on a single prevailing thought that in the last two years has taken the 28-year-old Las Vegan from total unknown to the No. 4 competitive eater in the world: Don’t lose.

Sudo’s career in competitive eating started in Chinatown with a giant bowl of soup.

Pho 87, on Jones at Twain, offers the “Phozilla” challenge: a monster 12-pound bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup that’s free if you finish it within the allotted time. Those who fail pay $50, a portion of which ends up in a progressive jackpot. When Sudo’s friends dared her to try it on December 4, 2011, the pot was at $1,510—and she slurped up every last bite.

“I was never going to do another,” she says, but soon her feat ended up on a competitive eating forum and doubters began raining hate. To prove them wrong she took on another challenge, an 8-pound bowl of soup from Anime Ramen. And Sudo started to realize something: She was good at this.

In fact, she was really good. At her first local contest, Sudo watched every single qualifier before working up the nerve to join the fray. She worried about details that had never mattered before, like getting sauce on her face or not seeming girly enough. Then she got up the guts and dominated a roster of amateur and semi-pro competitive eaters. Thirty-five ribs. Five minutes. $1,299.

“I never paid attention to how much I ate, but I guess it was always above normal,” says Sudo, who grew up in New York, Tokyo, Hawaii and California. After surf sessions with friends as a kid, she would hit McDonald’s and order a bunch of the tiny, 39-cent cheeseburgers, maybe 10 at a time. It never seemed weird.

Miki Sudo's cover shoot outtakes

And it certainly never seemed like a marketable skill. But here she is in her late 20s, working sales at the Las Vegas Convention Center and spending her weekends earning giant checks and trophies emblazoned with anthropomorphized ears of corn with her stomach. She’s not quite living the dream, because who ever dreamt of being famous for eating copious amounts of gyoza and Indian tacos? But Sudo smiles. This gig definitely doesn’t suck.

“Miki has always been a great eater. [She] has capacity and speed,” says semi-retired competitor Richard LeFevre, who lives in Henderson with his wife, a fellow eater.

George Shea, chairman of Major League Eating, which runs the biggest competition circuit in the country, calls Sudo “a new kind of eater.”

“She’s attractive, smart, dynamic. She’s athletic. … She’s one of our superstars without any question. Superstar is not only ability; it’s presence and the ability to connect to an audience.”

Nowhere is that audience bigger and the ability to connect more important than at the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every July 4 on Coney Island. But last year when Sudo’s peers began devouring their dogs by the fistful, she was conspicuously absent.

In a video of the Stockton Asparagus Festival’s deep-fried asparagus championship on April 26, host Sam Barclay lays down an epic announcement for the No. 2 eater in the world, Matt “The Megatoad” Stonie. In a straw hat and tie, he references German band 2 Unlimited and calls the thin, 21-year-old Stonie an “acorn that has grown to become oak.”

If that sounds melodramatic, it’s nothing compared to what Barclay booms next: an introduction for “a hero who on this stage let you down. … He left this arena [last year] with a belly full of deep-fried asparagus, and a belly full of tears.”

Barclay pauses for dramatic effect. “He will not stand down, because he has two things, Stockton, that you don’t: God’s username and God’s password. And he’ll do with it what he will!”

As the No. 1 ranked eater in the world, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, crosses the stage, the crowd rages far louder than you’d expect from an asparagus festival. Barclay counts down and soon the eaters are inhaling deep-fried spears, the whole spectacle taking on the air of a horse race. Voices from the audience shout advice and encouragement, and between the music, the play-by-play announcing and the faces of the competitors, furiously trying to chew and swallow, the action turns positively heart-pumping. Sudo’s working hard to the left of the two men, but she simply can’t keep up. The volume crescendos as the final seconds expire, and for a moment no one’s entirely sure who’s won the damn thing. Then Barclay issues the verdict: Chestnut has reclaimed the throne by just two ounces with a world record-slaughtering performance: 12 pounds, 8.34 ounces.

As an organized sport—and yes, that’s what they call it—competitive eating didn’t really exist until the mid-1990s. There were 72-ounce steak challenges and 6-pound burritos, and there were country fairs with big guys stepping up to big plates in front of small crowds. But there was no official league, no rankings, no household names or serious payouts. Joey Chestnut was just a guy with a big appetite; the Nathan’s contest was a quaint Coney Island novelty.

Shea was doing PR for the Nathan’s competition and saw the potential. He pictured a qualifying series, a circuit of events, a whole league of stomach-stuffing athletes and brands paying for the exposure.

“We didn’t even buy the URL competitiveeating.com ’cause we were the only ones who called it competitive eating,” he laughs. “It was about the joke. It was quirky and offbeat. It’s turned into a much more heroic, X Games sort of extreme sport.”

Las Vegas competitive eater Miki Sudo, right, competes during a Hooters wing-eating contest at the Hard Rock Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Sudo won the competition, eating 192 wings in 10 minutes. Adrian "the Rabbit" Morgan, left, finished in second place.

LeFevre was a star of the early days, back when the top dogs were XXLs who hulked above the 135-pound accountant. No one trained, and the contests usually came down to raw skill and appetite. But even as the competition picked up and the purses and profiles grew, the appeal stayed the same: the sport’s strange mix of extreme and relatable. Not everyone has dunked a basketball or robbed a home run with a spectacular catch—we have little in common with LeBron James or Mike Trout—but we’ve all overeaten. We all know what it feels like to be uncomfortably full.

These days the elite of the Major League Eating circuit are regular people doing spectacular things, as Shea puts it. They look like someone you might know, fit men and women who can hit a tremendous pace of consumption and sustain it for six, eight, 10 minutes at a time, pushing their bodies well past the point when the rest of us would quit.

Over lunch, Sudo says she’s above her “fighting weight” of 125 pounds. She’s 5-foot-7 and reedy, surprisingly thin for someone who might eat a week’s worth of calories in a single sitting. Sometimes the brand sponsor—a restaurant or food company—will pay for her travel to a competition. Sometimes she pays her own way. The purses are small, but she makes money—a few hundred dollars here, a thousand bucks there. Her biggest take was $5,000 for a chicken wing contest at the South Point. Sudo ate 147.

“It’s good supplementary income,” she says. “It’s not a full-time job.”

Unless, that is, your last name is Chestnut.

“Joey Chestnut makes about $200,000 a year,” says Shea. “He doesn’t work. He’s the only one. ... I don’t think the money that is in it right now could sustain too many people as truly professional eaters.”

Or, as Sudo puts it, “You have to be top 3 to make a living.” Right now, she is No. 4.

The Big Goal, Sudo says, is to turn her competitive eating prowess into a career in something else. Not to grow old cramming sandwiches into her pie hole, but to translate success on the circuit and some degree of fame into a television gig that allows her to continue doing what she loves best: traveling and eating. “If you get to be the next Adam Richman or Anthony Bourdain or Paula Deen, that’s the goal.”

Last year, when 40,000 fans gathered on Coney Island and the ESPN cameras started rolling on the biggest event in competitive eating, Sudo wasn’t in New York. She was thousands of miles away in Las Vegas, watching on her tablet as her peers duked it out for cash and glory.

In large part, it was a mess of her own making.

In 2010, an ex-boyfriend stole Sudo’s credit card to book a flight. When she discovered the charge, she tried to cancel the ticket, but everyone she called told her she needed to speak to someone else. After calling the credit card company and the third-party ticket vendor, she ended up talking to the airline itself. “Each rep kept saying, ‘Of course, Miss Sudo. We’ll be happy to help you.’ … I was on hold for hours being transferred.”

Eventually, she lost her patience. “I did snap. I was swearing. Never at any point did I intend to convey that anybody on any flight was going to be hurt,” but her ex’s flight was already in the air and the rep on the other end of the line reported Sudo saying “blow up the plane” multiple times. The date was September 11.

The plane, which was reportedly having an unrelated mechanical issue, returned to McCarran Airport shortly after takeoff, and Sudo was charged with conveying false information and hoaxes. She accepted a plea deal to avoid a felony trial and was sentenced to 10 months home confinement, followed by probation.

“I like to think it doesn’t define me,” Sudo says, but when last year’s Nathan’s Famous competition rolled around, anonymous emails brought up the incident and raised questions about whether she deserved a place at the competition table.

She withdrew. Eight days before the event.

Modern day circus: Miki Sudo’s career in competitive eating started with a dare in Chinatown and a massive bowl of soup.

“I trained my ass off,” she says. “It was probably one of the two times I cried last year.” She pauses, as if making sure her count is correct. “Both times over competitive eating.”

It’s been almost a year since that day, but sitting on the patio of Ra Sushi it all still seems a bit raw. Maybe it’s because Sudo was the women’s favorite going into last year’s competition, or because she had put in the time training, getting to the point of eating 44 hot dogs in 10 minutes, as she did during that training video: “Hot Dog Practice #9.”

The screen on Sudo’s phone is small, but I can still make out the basics: The plates stacked high with assembled hot dogs, the four Big Gulp glasses in front of both Lesco and Sudo.

Sudo grabs the weiners two at a time and takes them down in four or five bites. Then she goes for buns, dunking them in water, squeezing them in her fist and stuffing them into her mouth. Every few bites she whips her head to the right or straight back, straining her neck muscles to help her throat choke it all down. It’s not exactly graceful, but it looks incredibly efficient, every movement designed to force food into her stomach as quickly as possible.

At the 4 minute, 38 second mark, Lesco’s count is at 18 hot dogs. Sudo’s at 28, and for a moment her body seems to reject what’s happening. She pauses from her practiced routine, stands up straight and covers her mouth, shaking her legs to enlist gravity in this brutal food fight. I can’t help flinching; it looks totally miserable.

Is it actually fun? I ask.

“In the middle of it I want to stop all the time. It sucks,” Sudo says. “Just imagine doing anything at 100 percent of your body’s capacity: eating, running ...”

But the pain only lasts as long as the contest does, and for the most part, she feels fine afterward. Health-wise, Sudo says, there are worse things you can do. “Whenever you push your body to the limits, you have to accept certain risks. I’m not delusional. It’s not great.”

But talking over the phone less than a month before the Coney Island contest, there’s a nervous excitement in Sudo’s voice. At last year’s qualifier she ate 40 hot dogs in 10 minutes—the highest debut of any female in competitive eating history. But this year she’s starting her training late, entering one of the final qualifying events in Sonoma on June 22.

“Things just got really real,” she says. “I’ve done one practice so far. I’m not near last year’s numbers yet, but I’m pretty confident.”

Last year, Sonia “The Black Widow” Thomas ate 36¾ hot dogs to win the women’s division of the Nathan’s Famous. It’s a number Sudo knows she can top, but anything can happen when the countdown hits zero and the food starts flying. Sometimes it just comes down to who’s having the best day.

“People who can stand to lose are the ones who let themselves lose, and people who can’t, don’t,” says Shea. “And that’s what you see with Miki.”

I see a natural competitor, a dare that’s grown into a career, a motley gang of people who’ve discovered their talent and are taking it for a truly entertaining ride.

Sudo says she’s joined “the modern-day circus,” and sitting outside as the Strip buzzes past, she puts it all in perspective: “If I could pick anything else in the world to be gifted at, I wouldn’t pick this. But I guess this is what I’m gifted at.”

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