SHE was once one of the most successful and glamorous female bodybuilders in the world before a tragic downfall left her unrecognisable.
With her platinum-blonde hair and rippling muscles, Denise Rutkowski was the poster girl of the female bodybuilding community in the 1990s.
She seemed to have the world at her feet when, in 1993, she finished second at the Ms Olympia contest, scooping $20,000 in prize money (£33,735.37 in today’s money).
Denise earned the nickname “The Golden Panther” because of her striking hair and acrobatic dance routines.
The following year, she was hotly tipped to be crowned champion of the prestigious award when, without warning, she disappeared.
To the shock of friends and fans alike, Denise announced her retirement from bodybuilding and said she was a born-again Christian.
She enrolled at a Bible college and essentially vanished from public life for many years.
But in 2012, almost two decades after she had reached the pinnacle of her fame, a new picture of Denise revealed her devastating transformation.
That year, she was arrested, and her mugshot revealed a drastically different appearance to her glamorous 90s prime.
The long blonde Baywatch-like hair had gone, replaced with a short, thinning mousy-brown mullet.
Most shockingly, she had grown a wispy beard and matching moustache.
The following year, Denise was arrested again, reportedly for evading arrest.
It was a tragic decline from such promising beginnings.
Born Denise Lynn Rutkowski in 1962, she spent her early years in Reading Pennsylvania.
In an interview in 1992, she said she started gymnastics at the age of seven, later running track and competing on her high school swim team and cheerleading squad.
After teaching aerobics, she got into bodybuilding.
Not much else is known about her childhood, but at some point, she moved to Texas before uprooting her life and travelling to San Diego, California in 1989.
She lived in the Mission Beach area of the city while training at the legendary Gold’s Gym Pacific Beach.
In 1991, her career took off when she won both the Orange County Muscle Classic and the California State Championships.
She then moved to Venice, Los Angeles, training at Gold’s Gym on Venice Beach, dubbed the “Mecca of Bodybuilding” and made famous by stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
She still wants nothing to do with her bodybuilding past
Denise Rutkowski Facebook group
In LA, Denise quickly became a superstar in the world of female bodybuilding.
With her filmstar good looks and remarkable physique, she soon graced dozens of magazine covers and spreads.
She gained the nickname “The Golden Panther” because of the floorwork she incorporated into her contest performances, as well as the sparkling gold swimsuit she wore during her contests.
THE GOLDEN PANTHER
Her most successful year was 1993 when she won first prize in both the NPC USA Championships and the IFBB Jan Tana Classic.
She also finished second in the Ms Olympia contest.
As well as being known for her looks and talent, Denise also famously had a heart of gold.
In 1993, she spent her spare time taking underprivileged children from Venice on trips to WWF shows, Disneyland, and other sporting events.
DISAPPEARANCE & ARREST
Suddenly, at the peak of her fame, Denise disappeared.
It turned out she had made the decision to retire from bodybuilding and enrol in Calvary Cathedral International Bible College back in Fort Worth, Texas.
After two years, it emerged she was travelling around the country spreading the word of God at various religious events.
Apart from a brief return to bodybuilding in 2001, Denise never again discussed her old life.
Not long afterwards, it emerged she was travelling around the country with her dog, living a semi-homeless existence, although whether this was through choice or not isn’t clear.
In 2019, an unnamed fan who runs Denise’s unofficial Facebook fan page said they had spoken to her family and she was now doing much better.
On November 30 of that year, they wrote: “Denise is now back working with one of the Fort Worth ministries.”
They added: “She still wants nothing to do with her bodybuilding past.”