The Body Builder

Technique is Jessica Jesse Jackson's strong suit -- a rare trait in hip-hop.

She hammers out each move with cool precision. The 27-year-old, who joined Nebellen in February, has had plenty of practice: dance lessons, gymnastics training, cheer competitions on ESPN . . . even a gig at Disneyland, dancing in Dwarf costumes.

They hire you by height, she recalls. They make you go through this grueling audition, and then you end up two of the Seven Dwarfs. Totally cheesy.

It's easy, monotonous choreography, but you get paid -- and you lose weight, because you sweat like a dog in those costumes.

Now a fitness competitor, Jackson credits much of her success to her performance experience.

My stage presence from performing for so long, that's one thing that separates me from the other girls, she says. I have that confidence on stage.

Confidence is crucial, considering she slips into one- and two-piece bathing suits to be judged on body symmetry, proportion and muscle development. The competitions also require aerobic routines incorporating gymnastics, dance and mandatory strength moves, i.e., the dreaded one-armed pushup.

Though she won the first contest she entered -- Western Regional Miss Fitness '99 -- Jackson has to fight to make an impression.

There's a lot of drugs involved in body building, and you'd be surprised what the fitness girls are on, too, says Jackson, who packs a load of muscle onto her 5-foot-3, 115-pound frame. I'm all-natural, and I'm always the smallest girl on stage. That's one thing I really struggle with.

Jackson's main shortcoming, according to Velaine Jolle, her Nebellen cohort and fitness coach, lies in her long limbs, which make it hard for her to look bulky. Most of her competitors outweigh her by 15 to 20 pounds, but Jackson considers it part of the challenge. It's a matter of honoring your body. I'm going to work with what God gave me, and that's all.

To prepare for a competition, Jackson eats no sugar, salt or preservatives for four to five months -- and maximizes her muscle by sprinting, hiking and lifting weights. While training, her body fat has plummeted to alarming levels -- as low as 7 percent.

The risks of such a rigorous routine can include dehydration -- which gives muscles greater definition -- malnutrition, the post-competition crash and distorted body image.

But Jackson thrives on competition, showing off the results of her hard work.

Nebellen has its pleasures as well.

It's nice to be onstage and dance and not have to be judged, for once.