“I’ve always wanted to introduce someone by speaking in tongues,” George Shea, the famous MC of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, tells me. “But it’s not easy, you can’t just speak in tongues off the top of your head.”
If the idea doesn’t sound like something the announcer of a competitive-eating contest would do, you haven’t been paying attention. To get an idea of Shea’s flair for the absurd, listen to his introduction for competitive eater Yasir Salem in 2015. “He will do whatever it takes to win,” Shea booms. “Three days ago he broke up with his girlfriend and euthanized his dog to leave a void of emptiness inside of him that he can fill today with hot dogs and buns.” Or, the next year, how Shea introduced another competitor (legally) named Crazy Legs Conti: “He was buried alive under 60 cubic feet of popcorn, and he ate his way out to survival. And that’s why we call him the David Blaine of the bowel, the Evel Knievel of the alimentary canal, the Houdini of cuisini, Crazy Legs Conti!” Or, in 2018, when he announced 74-year-old competitor Rich LeFevre. “When we are young, we drink our coffee with milk and sugar,” Shea shouts. “And as we age, we drink it with milk only. Then we drink it with black. Then we drink it decaf. Then we die. Our next eater is at decaf!”
But the bombastic, poetic announcing is just the first layer of Shea’s mastery at grabbing attention. Though he describes his work outside the world of competitive eating as “writing press releases all day,” Shea’s held a career in PR for decades. “Right after college in 1988, I got a job working with two old New York City press agents who would do a lot of stunt PR — like putting an elephant on water skis to promote Palisades Park,” he recalls. “They also represented Nathan’s Hot Dogs, for which they did a very small hot dog eating contest on Coney Island every year.”
That very small contest is where Shea got his first taste of trafficking in controversy. “It was the 1990 contest when one of the guys cheated; I was mortified,” he recalls. “There were a couple cameras there, and I thought it’d be horrible if word got out.”
Rather than downplay the cheater, however, Shea’s boss Morty embraced the chaos. “Morty told me to go over and get a cop to arrest the guy, which I thought was crazy,” he says. “But Morty was like, ‘What? It’s a hot dog contest — the controversy is in getting the cop to arrest this guy. Let’s go big!’”
The added chaos ultimately drew more attention to the competition, and today, Shea sees it as “a teaching moment” that any controversy is good PR. The next year, Shea took control of managing the hot dog eating contest’s publicity himself. And from that point on, he leaned into the controversy. “We once wrote a scholarly journal article on what we called ‘The Belt of Fat Theory,’ meaning if you’re fat, you’re less likely to eat a lot because your stomach will act as a restrictive belt on the expansion of your stomach — big scholarly article. We submitted that to the New England Journal of Medicine and just waited for the rejection letter,” he tells me.
When it came, Shea “went out and got big hits on CNN, claiming, ‘The New England Journal of Medicine is snubbing our article!’”
“You could argue that people are so inured to everything that there’s very little downside to controversy,” Shea says. And for someone whose day job in corporate PR is confined by rules and restrictions, creating drama around the hot dog contest became an ideal creative outlet. “I put a lot of energy into it,” he says, “and it really grew.”
In 1997, Shea and his brother formed the International Federation of Competitive Eating and Major League Eating, which allowed Shea to take competitive eating on the road. “It was just me with the bag of banners going to a venue, which was usually a mall full of parents taking their daughters to Orange Julius,” he says. “That was a real lesson in creating a narrative and drama that otherwise wouldn’t be created. Because a guy eating a bunch of hot dogs is one thing, but a guy in a straw hat pounding the tables like an apocalyptic preacher is such a contrast that it drew people in.”
Eventually, Shea’s theatrics and absurd storylines drew the attention of the L.A. Times, whose article, he says, gave way to two TV shows. Today, the annual competition draws a live audience of nearly 25,000, not to mention the millions watching on ESPN.
To be sure, some see a darker side in Shea’s tireless campaign for attention. Take, for instance, the 2010 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Sitting out the competition in protest of Major League Eating’s restrictive contracts, Japanese competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi climbed the stage where Joey Chestnut, his American rival, had just been crowned champion.
Almost immediately, a struggle ensued, leading to security guards handcuffing Kobayashi and throwing the contest’s six-time champion into a police car. Though many believe Kobayashi had climbed on stage to congratulate Chestnut, Shea doesn’t stray from what he learned during a similar scene 20 years earlier. “When Kobayashi stormed the stage, it was phenomenal,” he tells me. “Unfortunate in so many ways, but phenomenal for press. That’s how it grew and grew — it was always about free media. This year we had something like 40 billion consumer impressions. Just a massive number and huge value.”
It’s that valuation of hype and attention over everything else that led the Washington Post’s Tim Carman to compare Shea to Donald Trump. In his analysis of ESPN’s competitive eating documentary, The Good, The Bad, The Hungry, Carman argues neither Shea nor Trump “[seem] to care much whether his words have a toehold in reality. To them, the victory is everything, whether it’s generating national attention for a hot dog-eating contest, or winning a presidential election.”
After 30 years of building an entire industry following the belief that “controversy is critical,” Shea has become both heel and hero. And now, at a time when the news is saturated with scandals and contention, it’s possible that his approach may no longer resonate as it once did. Competitive eating is as popular as ever, but instead of the carnival-esque competition Shea’s built his career on, audiences are flocking to character-driven mukbang and food gross-out videos on YouTube.
Shea, however, trusts that he’ll find a way to adapt. “People are built for narratives, we’re a sucker for them,” he explains. “In fact, humans can’t understand something without a narrative, so we’ll make one up in the absence — it’s a very powerful thing.”