The path from winning Miss Earth New Zealand to placing seventh in the women’s division at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Championship in Coney Island, New York may not seem like a linear one. On the surface, there’s an obvious contradiction between making a living maintaining poise, looks, and yes, a low BMI, and making a living consuming as many calories as quickly as possible.
That upending of expectations is part of the reason Nela Zisser rose to Internet prominence earlier this year: the visual paradox of a petite blonde girl in a Victoria’s Secret Pink sweatshirt chowing down on a super-sized burrito was both instantly eye-catching and easily summed up in a headline, making Zisser the perfect candidate for viral fame. But for Zisser, the relatively smooth transition into competitive eating has quieted any doubts that she wasn’t ready for the shift from grooming to gorging.
By the time she was 21, Zisser had been modeling for three years; she’d been scouted by an agency in her native Christchurch and moved north to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, to pursue her career. That’s when her mother convinced her to enter a local competitive eating contest, where Zisser, now 22, promptly advanced to the final, beat out “19 big guys,” and won.
“It was the biggest rush of endorphins you can imagine,” Zisser says, so she began to seek out local challenges—think get-your-picture-on-the-wall-of-the-local-burger-place type stunts—to get a foothold in the world of competitive eating. But since opportunities to compete in New Zealand were limited, she turned to the Internet to help her advance to the next level and star on a bigger stage.
Zisser began recording her challenges and posting the videos to her YouTube channel, a common practice in the competitive-eating world that allows her to square off against eaters from overseas. She’s recorded 30 videos to date, starting with “1kg Mad Mex Burrito Challenge completed in under 3 minutes!” in May 2014.
It was a video of the same challenge, shaved down to under two minutes, that went viral more than seven months later, earning Zisser coverage in dozens of media outlets, including this one. Filmed by a fellow competitive eater from Australia, the video now boasts just under a million views; she’s since followed up her success by completing the “5 ft Subway Footlong Challenge” and devouring a five-pound burrito from the same restaurant as the first, racking up more than 200,000 views each time. Her page itself has nearly 6,000 subscribers.
Competitive eating’s “probably helped [my modeling career] more than hindered it,” Zisser speculates. “People make you more offers, especially when you’re in the media that much.”
Zisser describes Nathan’s event, held this past July, as the high water mark of her career to date, allowing her to meet peers like Matt Stonie, the top-ranked eater in the world and reigning Nathan’s champion at a jaw-dropping 62 hot dogs. Zisser managed to place seventh as a rookie with a technique that’s as straightforward as it is difficult to pull off: “I just try to eat as fast as possible without chewing too much,” she laughs.
Even as she’s established herself on the competitive-eating circuit—she’s now signed to Major League Eating, the sport’s international governing body—Zisser has continued to model in local fashion shows and advertisements, though she says her jobs aren’t as incompatible as they might appear.
The potential conflict between her dual pastimes may seem inevitable, but Zisser responds with an emphatic “nope!” when asked if there’s any tension. Instead, she pivots away from the question, focusing on how her interests have reinforced rather than jeopardized each other.
Competitive eating’s “probably helped [my modeling career] more than hindered it,” Zisser speculates. “It’s been a good way to get publicity. People make you more offers, especially when you’re in the media that much.” Later, over email, she says that modeling “hasn’t held me back at all,” an answer that might itself reveal why: Zisser’s work on the runway may have earned her headlines, but she sees eating as a higher priority. It’s modeling that might hold her back from competition, not the other way around.
On top of balancing her two careers, Zisser also attends university in New Zealand. She plans on moving to the United States, where she’s also a citizen, within the next year or two and transferring to a school there. Ultimately, she hopes to earn a bachelor’s in computer science and eventually shift into into medicine or artificial intelligence—but not before she cracks the top five in next year’s Nathan’s competition.