The 12th annual Z-Burger Independence Eating Championship, held on July 2, only lasted 10 minutes. Molly Schuyler looked calm next to one of the other ten competitors—a red-faced man from Brazil—as they both shoveled burgers into their mouths at distressing speeds. Schuyler and Ricardo Corbucci paused only to slick their throats with water.
Inside the Tenleytown restaurant, the buff Brazilian thrashed back and forth with each burger he swallowed, undulating with the music an 11-year-old DJ was blasting. A vein popped from his forehead. Schuyler, on the other hand, was surprisingly still. A fan once likened her technique to that of an anaconda devouring its prey.
Schuyler, who resides in Anne Arundel County, rarely blends in with her competitors because of her gender, small stature, and colorful appearance, which includes many piercings and a strawberry blonde mohawk. But her odd duck status in the competitive eating world has never phased her. Leading up to this summer’s event, she was the undefeated champion for six years running.
This year, Schuyler tied for first after downing 34 burgers. Over the past nine years, the mother of four has made a name for herself by conquering high-speed, high-volume meals that would make the average person ill. Her proudest achievement is eating a record-breaking 501 wings at the 2018 Philadelphia Wing Bowl, an event in which contestants, mostly male, stuff their faces with Buffalo wings while scantily clad “wingettes” and 20,000 tipsy spectators cheer them on.
Schuyler’s apparent ease in an activity neither refined nor designed for her is a stark contrast from her life a decade ago. She was living in Nebraska in 2012 juggling childrearing with working a minimum-wage job at Applebee’s. She had a bachelor’s degree in sales and marketing, but because her husband was in the military, she had to be ready to pick up and leave any time his assignment changed. “My life was a living nightmare,” she says. “I wiped butts, and I fed people, and I paid the bills, did all the housework, and I went to work. That’s all I had.”
One day, a coworker bet Schuyler that she couldn’t complete an eating challenge at Stella’s Bar and Grill, a restaurant down the road. Schuyler stepped up to the challenge: consuming a sandwich containing six hamburger patties, six eggs, six pieces of cheese, and six strips of bacon topped with fried onions, jalapeños, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, two buns, and mayonnaise in 45 minutes or less. She only needed 15.
“People thought I was throwing the food in my purse or something,” she says, adding that she paced herself to appear “more proper” in front of her kids and an older lady sitting nearby. She proved her true abilities two months later when she returned to cut her time down to six minutes. Eventually, she cut it down to three.
Suddenly Schuyler’s life changed course. Local residents and news outlets were transfixed by her skills. People were throwing out the names of all sorts of eating feats she should attempt next. Schuyler herself was less impressed by her newfound talent. “I’m like, ‘Well OK, you guys are excited about me eating a stupid sandwich,’” she recounts.
Nonetheless, she acquiesced to public pressure. First, she sought out local eating challenges like the one at Stella’s. A year later, she was traveling to restaurants beyond Nebraska and participated in some national competitions. She quit her service job. “It turned into a career where I made more money in a 10-minute contest than I did working at Applebee’s for a month,” she says.
People who see Schuyler eat for the first time almost always react with shock. “Most women aren’t willing to put themselves on like, ‘Hey, I can eat this 12-pound sandwich,’ like, “Look at me, I’m hot and sexy,” she says. “It’s not ladylike or prim and proper.”
Schuyler is indifferent about the attention she receives as a competitive eater. “I’m actually very introverted,” she explains. She attends few contests, focusing instead on her YouTube channel, where she posts videos of herself completing restaurant challenges. “I’m a loner,” she says. “I show up to a restaurant by myself and I leave by myself. I don’t tell them who I am when I get there.”
When she does attend a competition, Schuyler doesn’t socialize much with fellow competitors. “For me to sit there and have dinner and talk, it’s like, I’ll give a little bit, [but] I just don’t have time,” she says.
To maximize the flexibility of her schedule, Schuyler competes independently rather than signing a contract, a decision which would require her to compete in certain events. This method precludes her from participating in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and other competitions organized by Major League Eating. The organization oversees most international eating competitions. Only 22 percent of the top 50 Major League Eating competitors are women.
Z-Burger’s owner, Peter Tabibian, believes Schuyler would dominate if given the chance to compete at Nathan’s, which hosts separate contests for men and women. “She’s the best eater in the world,” he says. “She’d beat all those girls 100 percent. There’s not even a comparison.”
Schuyler’s success in a career as bizarre as competitive eating reflects years of practice, passion, and what some may call a bad habit of eating too quickly. Though she drinks lots of water at times to practice stretching her stomach, a common technique among competitive eaters, Schuyler largely attributes her knack for overeating to a history of wolfing food down. She says, “When I was a kid . . . I just never chewed my food,” she says. “I swallowed food whole.”
Competitive eating is a risky pursuit. Among the perils are lung infections, morbid obesity, and puncturing the stomach lining. The number one cause of death among competitive eaters is choking. “It’s a dangerous game,” Tabibian explains. He has an ambulance and medics at the ready at his competition each year. “You think it’s just eating burgers, but if something goes down the wrong place, it’s over.”
Schuyler figures she only has a few more years before her competitive eating days come to an end. “I’m getting tired,” she says. “It’s not gonna be I’m 72 years old, ‘Hey honey, let’s go hog pizza.’” Schuyler is well aware of the strain she puts on her body between eating challenges, raising kids, and working part time at a tavern in Davidsonville, Maryland. “I am mentally and physically taxed at all times.”
She doesn’t encourage her children to follow in her footsteps. “Honestly, this is not for everybody,” Schuyler says. “I don’t want them to do this.” She only brings the kids to competitions if she has to. Once, when they were young, she paid a friend of her husband $2,000 dollars to babysit while she filmed a TV show for a week.
What keeps Schuyler going is the knowledge that so few people can eat the way she does. “It’s such an insane talent and weird thing to do that I just… It’s addicting,” she says. Prior to her first challenge at Stella’s nine years ago, Schuyler felt defeated and like her life was missing something.
“Before I even got married or had kids, I was all Harley Davidson. … I had like, you know, that edge going,” she says. “And I lost all of it. After I had my kids, it took a piece of me, it really did.” Competitive eating brought Schuyler back. “I found myself.”
Schuyler is convinced that she is the sole winner of this year’s Z-Burger Championship. She downplayed her frustration at the competition because she considers Dan “Killer” Kennedy, with whom she officially tied, one of her best friends. She alleges that Kennedy had food hanging out of his mouth for at least a minute after time was called, which isn’t permissible. “I don’t care, it’s fine,” she says. “But next year, the rules will be followed.”
Right after the contest, Schuyler ordered a milkshake and gave Tabibian some advice: Cook the burgers medium well next year and she’ll be able to eat 40 of them.