Draper was born in Secaucus, New Jersey. His weight training began at the age of ten and was a well-formed habit by the time he was about 12, in the mid-1950s. In high school he participated in wrestling, gymnastics and swimming, but was most inspired by training with weights.
At 21, he won the Mr. New Jersey title. Six months later he moved to Santa Monica, California, working for the Weider Barbell Company until 1969. During this period he also worked in motion pictures.
In the early days of bodybuilding, Draper says, “There wasn’t a whole bunch of encouragement or inspiration from a society which considered you either stupid or egotistical and probably a sissy.”
In California, Draper initially trained at a gym many called “The Dungeon”, which he described as “a large, awful space dug out of the ground on the corner of 4th and Broadway”, and later trained at the original Gold’s Gym. He trained in the company of the world’s top bodybuilders which included Frank Zane, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Mike Katz and Robby Robinson.
Draper has been open about his past use of anabolic steroids: “I was ten years into my training, 235 pounds and already Mr. America before steroids came on the scene. I used them sparingly under a doctor’s supervision and noticed marked improvement in my muscularity and separation.”
Draper is 6’0″ (1.83 m) tall, and his bodybuilding competition weight was approximately 235 lb. (106,6 kg).