Sonya Thomas, 48, began competitive eating more than a decade ago as a hobby — one that has earned her more than 50 world records. At only 5 feet tall and 98 pounds, the Virginia native has defeated men two and three times her size, earning her the nickname “The Black Widow.” Thomas returns to New Orleans Sunday to compete for the 11th time in the Acme Oyster Eating Contest at the New Orleans Oyster Festival. Thomas spoke with Gambit about the upcoming contest and her life as a competitive eater.
When did you decide to become a competitive eater?
New Orleans Oyster Festival
2015 oyster-eating contest winner Sonya Thomas
I’m naturally a big eater. I really do enjoy eating food and a lot of food. When I heard about these eating contests, like the hot dog-eating competition, I thought to myself that maybe I can do well in those. And so in 2003, I did my very first eating competition and it was a hot dog-eating contest and I won. I defeated all these big men.
Did you do any training to become a competitive eater?
No, not at all. It was just very natural for me to eat this much, really. And so, I just started competing.
Do you have a regimen you follow daily to prepare yourself for these competitions?
They say normally one should eat three meals a day, but I don’t do that. I just eat one meal a day and it’s a very big meal. Since I work at Burger King as a store manager, I spend most of my day at work. I don’t really go anywhere. So I eat a late lunch around 3 p.m. and it consists of chicken sandwiches, chicken nuggets, a large serving of french fries and two big cups of Diet Coke.
Over the years, has competitive eating had any effects on your health?
In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that my body is changing. I don’t have that big of an appetite anymore. Before, I used to drink three to four cups of Diet Coke, but I can no longer do that, and there are certain foods that I can’t digest, so I no longer eat them.
What motivates you to take part in these eating competitions?
I love competing, and not just in eating but in almost everything — and I don’t like losing. Another big motivator for me is the money. I get to make money from these competitions and it’s nice to have extra money.
How many titles have you won in total?
I started doing this in 2003, and since then I have competed in almost 300 competitions and I have won around 180 of them. For the rest of them, I came in either second or third place.
Of all the titles you've won, which means the most to you?
Raw oyster-eating contest. I grew up eating seafood, since my house in South Korea was near the ocean. And also, oysters are sometimes very expensive, especially raw oysters, so I said to myself that I can compete in this contest and eat as many raw oysters as I want. So in 2004, I went to my very first raw oyster-eating competition and I broke the previous record of 18 dozen oysters by eating 36 dozen. Ever since then, I have never lost the oyster-eating contest in New Orleans.
How many times have you competed in the oyster-eating contest in New Orleans?
Ten times. I started in 2004 and have competed every single year except for 2006, when they canceled the festival because of Hurricane Katrina, and in 2007, because I was in another state for a competition.
How do you decide which eating competition you are going to take part in?
It all depends on the food item. There are certain items that I can do really well with and some that I can’t. For example, oyster-eating contest has a lower prize money compared to a lot of other eating contests, but I won’t do great in those, so I don’t participate. I choose to take part in eating contests that I know I can win. I don’t want to come second or third place, even if [the contest prize is] more money.
Do you have a sponsor?
Yes, my sponsor is Major League Eating.
What is the craziest/oddest eating competition that you have taken part in?
The kimchi eating contest. Since I was born in Korea, I grew up eating kimchi every day, but never in a competition. And so when I did compete, I lost and to an American. I came in second place. I can eat Kimchi, but not fast. It’s just too difficult.
Are you excited about the contest this Sunday?
Oh, yes. Every year when I come to New Orleans, I want to break my own record from the previous year. But a lot also depends on the size of the oysters; some years they are big and some years they are small. It’s a lot easier to create a big record with smaller oysters. This year, I’m planning to create the record of eating 50 dozen oysters in 10 minutes.