Carla Dunlap was born in 1954, in Newark, New Jersey. She started competing in sports with gymnastics at age 10. She later competed in swimming, both speed and synchronized. Dunlap attended the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Artson a full scholarship, earning a degree in Advertising Design. She won the gold medal in synchronized swimming in the 1977 Junior National Team Championships, and a bronze medal at the inaugural National Sports Festival in 1978.
In 1979, Dunlap decided to enter the “Best in the World” bodybuilding contest at the suggestion of Steve Wennerstrom. She had never trained for bodybuilding, but still placed fifth among 45 entrants. She started training seriously for bodybuilding the following March, and was soon competing successfully in top level amateur contests. She won the NPC Nationals in 1981, and 1982. Her most successful year of competition was 1983 when she won three pro shows, including the Ms. Olympia contest (she had lost the Ms. Olympia to Rachel McLish by two points in 1982). In addition to her individual accomplishments, Dunlap won the World Professional Mixed Pairs title in 1984 and 1988 with Tony Pearson. Dunlap is the only female bodybuilder to have competed in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In January, 1999, Dunlap was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame. June 2009 she was inducted in to the AOBS Hall Of Fame (Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen)
Away from the contest stage, Dunlap appeared in the bodybuilding documentaries Women Of Iron (1984, with fellow competitor Deborah Diana) and Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985). She was selected by ABC to represent women’s bodybuilding in the women’s Superstars competition in 1984, where she finished seventh in a field of eleven competitors. Dunlap was a regular on ESPN‘s BodyShaping series from 1990 to 1995. She has also appeared as a color commentator on bodybuilding and fitness telecasts for NBC, U.S., and ESPN.