The Ubergirl Cometh

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Outside magazine, October 1995

The Ubergirl Cometh

The age of Gabrielle Reece is upon us. She’s big, she’s strong, and with thousands more like her out there, she’s replicating fast. Can you deal with that?
By Karen Karbo

It’s a windy Mother’s Day on the Hermosa Beach boardwalk, where the muscle men strut and pose in the sun, all greased up with nowhere to go, and felons-in-training sell phony designer sunglasses from their vans. Nearby, a man with dirty blond dreadlocks works the crowd from behind a rickety card table, offering to marry strolling couples for $5. When
the wind shifts, the tonic salt air is undercut by the carnival aromas of cocoa butter, fried food, and incense. The Goodyear Blimp lolls in a yellow sky.

A stone’s throw away from the boardwalk, a women’s professional volleyball tournament is in progress, with a crowd of some 300 looking on. It’s the opening weekend of the Bud Light Pro Beach Volleyball League, and Team Nike is squaring off against Team Sony Autosound, the four-woman squads lunging and vaulting into the air. Except for the bleachers
that flank the court, there is little to separate players from fans and fans from aimless onlookers milling on the beach. At one end are a few rows of sand chairs, the beach volleyball equivalent of box seats, and a half-dozen booths where the sport’s biggest sponsors–Paul Mitchell hair products, Naya mineral water, Lady Footlocker, Sony, and
Nike–disseminate stickers and T-shirts. A thatch-covered riser looms over the bleachers, “ESPN” spray-painted red across a pale yellow surfboard hung from the cameraman’s perch.

The captain and star of Team Nike is a six-foot-three, 172-pound woman named Gabrielle Reece. She is strong. Not in the manner popularized by actresses in recent years, their backs and biceps sculpted for display purposes only, but in an efficient, brutal way. When Reece delivers one of her legendary kills, the rifle report of her flat hand against
the ball causes people in the crowd to flinch. Reece is a middle blocker, a position she likes to describe as “the big dumb one in the middle.”

Reece stands poised to receive the serve, her cinnamon-brown arms held slightly away from her sides, long fingers splayed. Like the rest of Team Nike, she wears a blue spandex fitness top and shorts that are only slightly less revealing than a bikini bottom, “Nike” emblazoned in white letters across the butt. There is the peculiar visor favored by
beach volleyball players, oversize brim flipped up in the style of some demented Italian cyclist. Jet-black don’t-mess-with-me wraparound shades and a pair of large diamond stud earrings complete the ensemble.

When the ball has cleared the net, Reece takes flight. She whips her right arm back in a move you need to see in slow mo to appreciate, then thwacks the ball down the throat of her victim on the other side of the net. She executes the kill with a grunt and a churlish sneer that might give the editors of Elle, who once
named her one of the Five Most Beautiful Women in the World, incentive to call for a recount.

During a brief time-out, Reece motions for a huddle, snaking her arms around the shoulders of two of her teammates, with enough arm left over to reach and grab the third by the neck. “Stay calm and aggressive,” she says as the women break up and the game resumes. A serve, a volley, and it’s over. Team Nike has not only lost, but has been eliminated
from the tournament. Reece slips into a pair of plain blue sweats and a sour mood. The downside of being an icon, it seems, is suffering the world watch you lose.

It’s a bit of a shock to me, at first. I watched the tournament with the irrational assumption that a Team Nike win was more or less a fait accompli, not merely because Reece was the league’s 1994 Offensive Player of the Year or because she has twice held the record in kills per season, but because she is successful in areas that have nothing to do
with her sport and everything to do with celebrity. Hers, it seems, is The Charmed Life. Over the past two years, she has risen from obscurity to the white-hot center of popular culture, a distinguished nexus of TV, fashion, and sports. Her face stares out from the covers of women’s magazines like Elle, Harper’s Bazaar,
A millionaire at age 25 who is said to pull down as much as $35,000 a day as a model, she is a commentator for the NBA’s Inside Stuff, which airs on NBC, and for MTV Sports, a show that profiles the kind of eyeball-bulging pursuits that typically raise life-insurance premiums, like
drag racing, street luging, bungee jumping, and skydiving. Her own syndicated show, The Extremists with Gabrielle Reece, which covers the same sort of terrain, began airing last month in 40 countries worldwide. She is also a consulting fitness editor for Elle and a high-profile spokeswoman for
Nike, whose Air Trainer Patrol cross-training shoe she helped design; she was, in fact, the first woman to promote her own Nike shoe. Lately, Hollywood roles have begun to float Reece’s way, and her manager, Jane Kachmer, says keeping tabs on everything has become “like trying to navigate the Colorado River.” Reece even dates Superman, or at least the
nearest facsimile: Dean Cain of ABC’s Lois and Clark.

So how can a celebrity, a winner by every standard index of American culture, lose?

As Reece strides off the court, jaw set, eyes unreadable behind her shades, a crowd of fans begins to metastasize on the beach. Eventually she is met by two teenage boys in baggy shorts and T-shirts who just stand there gawking. The one with the braces and the moxie proffers a rolled-up tournament program and a felt-tip pen, and Reece dutifully
scrawls her name. The boys seem uninterested in the fact that she and her team have just been eliminated. If anything, it was good news: They didn’t have to wait long to get a piece of Gabby. To them, she is a supermodel and MTV babe who also happens to play a little volleyball, like Miss America with her talent for tap dancing.

“For a woman athlete, it’s tricky sometimes,” Reece will tell me later. “A male athlete can just slam-dunk above the rim and that’s that–he’s a hero. If you’re a woman, you’ve got to do the sexy thing and you’ve got to do the nice thing. It’s reality.”

There are two public faces of Gabrielle Reece, two images that are seemingly at odds with each other. There is Gabrielle Reece the volleyball powerhouse, all sweat and grinding teeth and bird-of-prey malevolence. And there is Gabrielle Reece the cover girl, with her sultry, come-hither poses and mesmerizing eyes that change from green to blue at the
whim of a fashion editor. A popular Nike commercial, “Gabbing with Gabby,” gives equal time to both personae, with rapid intercutting between images of Gabby mercilessly spiking volleyballs to the all-business rasp of her breathing and Gabby luxuriating on mussed satin sheets in a white bikini bottom and cropped T-shirt as she offers beauty tips with a
pretty good tongue-in-cheek delivery. The ad portrays her as the hybrid that she is: the glam-jock.

It’s been suggested, in fact, that the rise of Gabrielle Reece in the public consciousness signals a sea change in the way American culture perceives physically powerful women. Reece’s response to this sort of talk is a half-demurral. “Nah,” she says. “I hope I just show women that it’s OK to inhabit your own body. I’m not a rah-rah feminist. But
it’s important to me that people see you can be an athlete and be strong–and also be a girl.”

Reece has been fortunate enough to come along at precisely the right time. A generation ago, serious female athletes were often viewed as dowdy tomboys bulging with peculiar muscles and fighting off mustaches. The notion that a formidable female athlete could also enjoy parallel careers as cover girl, sought-after sports commentator, and big-time
corporate spokesperson would have been unthinkable. Ten years ago, someone like Reece most likely would have gone nowhere in modeling; the fashion industry wasn’t ready for a long-boned, vaguely threatening-looking skyscraper of a woman with a flat chest. Certainly it wasn’t designing clothes to fit her.

But if women’s magazines are an accurate barometer of the times, then we may be entering the Age of the She-Jock. These days, even mainstream fashion magazines, in profiling professional athletes, seem to be flirting with the new body image. The May 1995 issue of Vogue dubs the new look “the athletic aesthetic.” “Models
with Muscles: the New Look Is Strong,” proclaims the July issue of Shape, noting that “as the day of the waif wanes, agencies are asking models to get strong, be lean and more defined.” The August issue of Self devotes a full-length feature to the lower-body workout of Olympic fencer Sharon Monplaisir, telling readers how they, too, can “get a gold
medal butt.” “Strong Women Are Sexy,” reads the cover of a recent issue of Fitness, which features Reece herself in a bronze bikini bottom, her muscular arms entwined around herself, tastefully topless.

Supreme fitness and good looks are only part of Reece’s success, however. The folks at Nike have begun to refer to her as a “statement-level athlete,” a curious bit of marketingspeak meaning not only that she transcends her sport, but that her very presence somehow says something. As Reece puts it, “I’m not just a model who plays volleyball, or a
volleyball player who supports herself modeling. I’m a female athlete personality.” Corporate America calls this sort of thing diversifying. Celebrities call it calling the shots. Cynics call it being in charge of your own exploitation.

And yet a big part of what makes Reece singular is her impulse to sass the machinery of hype that has catapulted her to fame in the first place. She wants us to know that she knows it’s all a big game, and that she knows how it’s played. In an era of bratty millionaire ballplayers, Reece is pleasantly down-to-earth.
(“After all,” she says, “I am a babe for a living.”) She prefers that you just call her “Gabby,” or better yet “Gab,” “Gabrielle” being too formal and often mispronounced by nervous admirers as “Gabriel.” And she can be pointedly irreverent about some of the drearier aspects of celebrity. “Normally, I don’t do benefits,”
she tells me in a characteristic bit of iconoclasm. “Even though the causes are good, most of the time they’re just an excuse for, pardon my language, star fucking.”

More than anything else, Reece wants to be taken seriously as an athlete–not an easy task when your sport happens to be fours beach volleyball, which itself has only recently been taken seriously by the International Olympic Committee, fans, and merchandisers. Doubles beach volleyball will make its debut in the Olympic Games next year in Atlanta,
and in 2000 Reece is hopeful that fours will also be introduced. “In the year 2000,” she notes, “I’ll be almost 30, at my peak as far as volleyball players go. I want to play until the end.”

But Reece’s growing celebrity has threatened to pull her farther and farther from her sport. In order to focus on her game, she’s had to tap the brakes on her other careers. “I’m not really modeling much anymore,” she points out. “I did a recent cover of Elle because it’s in my contract as their fitness editor. They
have to put me on once a year.”

Still, she’s found that the supermodel image can be a supremely difficult one to shuck, especially when her name keeps showing up on those stupendously subjective lists that will be used against her for the rest of her life, like Elle’s Five Most Beautiful Women in the World or People’s list
of the 50 Most Beautiful People. “Try living that one down,” Reece says. “They call you, and you get to come down and take some steamy photograph. My question is, what happened to the 50 most beautiful people the year before? Do they only get to be beautiful for a year, or what?”

Reece lives in a square, white stucco house in Santa Monica, not far from the beach where she practices. The interior is elegant, with blond wood floors, an enormous rose brocade chair and ottoman, and a sectional that wraps around two walls.

She appears from upstairs, barefoot, in a pair of crisp cream-colored silk pants and a striped sweater that skims her midriff. She invites me to look around but doesn’t make a move to show me upstairs. However informal she may seem, there are still boundaries.

Up close, it’s difficult to pin down the precise quality of Reece’s beauty. She has the square jaw, high cheekbones, and full lips of nearly every world-class model. She also has the freckled nose and sun-streaked hair of the girl next door. But somehow her mien is considerably more exotic. From certain angles, she appears vaguely Middle Eastern or
African. As she moves about the room, she seems poised and extremely self-possessed–her expression direct, at times almost confrontational.

In past interviews she has said that her towering presence has a way of intimidating men. I wonder whether this has been the case with her own boyfriend, Dean Cain.

“Dean,” she says brusquely, “is not intimidated by anything.”

Reece’s mood is much improved from the afternoon of Team Nike’s loss at Hermosa Beach a few days ago. For her, it’s been another typically frenetic week that has included, among other things, test-driving Indy cars down in San Diego for an MTV shoot, unveiling the uniform for the new NBA franchise up in Vancouver during a splashy fashion show
attended by several thousand people, conducting a half-dozen radio and TV interviews, and writing her monthly fitness column for Elle.

She beckons me into her kitchen, with its mammoth wood-paneled refrigerator and chilly marble countertops. “Come and try some of this protein shake,” she says. “The frozen strawberries are key.”

The kitchen shelves are filled with vitamins and protein supplements, including an industrial-size container of Argentine beef liver pills. Reece says she is also a big believer in eggs, consuming nine egg whites a day. In fact, she regularly makes appearances for the American Egg Board. “Hey,” she says, “eggs are a pure white form of protein!”

I politely choke down the shake, which despite the frozen strawberries doesn’t escape comparison to Kaopectate.

Even though she’s lived here for almost a year, the place looks curiously stark and hotel-tidy. There are no refrigerator magnets, no signs of mail being sent or received, no copies of the Ayn Rand novels she says she likes to read.

“I love owning a house,” says Reece. “Especially when my friends come and stay. It’s, like, Hotel Gab. Even if I’m not here, I like knowing someone is.”

Reece talks like a beach-bred teenager, her voice occasionally rising at the end of a sentence, turning a statement into a question. She uses the locution “I’m like all” to mean “I said.”

After a moment she says, “I guess I crave the stability.”

It’s a reference, perhaps, to her bumpy youth. She is the only child of her American mother and Trinidadian father, who died in a plane crash when she was five. Reece, who credits much of her good fortune to genetics, says she got her height from her mother (“She’s six-foot-two-and-a-half. Can you imagine being six-foot-two back then?”) and her looks from her father. “That’s where I get my butt from,” she adds. To remember him, she wears the sterling silver cross he was wearing the day his plane went down; the same cross is tattooed on her right ankle.

After her father’s death, her mother, Terry Glenn, sent Reece first to live with friends on Long Island and then to St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, where she lived with other family friends until she was 15. She kicked around the island and had little sense of ambition. “I thought I would graduate from high school and work in a gift shop,” she
says. As Reece entered 11th grade, Glenn decided that if her daughter was to make anything of herself, she needed a stricter environment. She was packed off to St. Petersburg, Florida, where she attended a private Christian academy as well as a finishing school.

Her mother, I’ve been told, is even more independent-minded than Reece herself. She moved to Mexico at age 22 and later earned a living training dolphins for a circus in Florida. When I mention her, Reece says flatly, “I gotta keep my mom out of this. She left me for five years. We have a tumultuous relationship, as you can imagine.”

Reece’s careers as a model and an athlete sprang up at roughly the same time, like two tulips from a single bulb. In her junior year of high school she discovered volleyball and met a modeling scout who offered to place her with an agency. Her first job involved a shot of only her hands, for which she was paid $3,500. She flirted with the idea of
dropping out of school, but her mother insisted that she finish. “A very smart decision,” says Reece. “It would have ruined me.”

She wound up winning a volleyball scholarship to Florida State, where she played for two seasons and did various modeling gigs. “It’s not like I was all-wise,” she says. “But I understood from the start that my looks were very specific. Everyone said, ‘My God! You’re so tall!'”

But she was wise, or at least wise in the way of someone who’s had things that children assume to be permanent–a parent, a home–stripped from her at a tender age. And that wisdom helped her focus on what she was increasingly coming to think of as her sport. “Volleyball anchored me at a time in my life when I needed
it,” she says. “It gave me a reason for being this big, big girl.”

By 1988, Reece’s life was evenly divided between modeling six months a year in New York and playing volleyball the other six months for FSU. In 1989 she was working regularly with photographers Herb Ritts and Steven Meisel, appearing in magazines such as Elle and Italian Vogue. A year later,
at the age of 20, she was named All Southeastern Conference middle blocker and remains FSU’s all-time leader in blocks.

In 1992, at the urging of a friend, Reece came west to try her luck at doubles beach volleyball, an entirely different game than the four-woman volleyball in which she would make her mark. Simpler in strategy but more athletically demanding, doubles volleyball requires players to do everything–pass, block, dig, set, serve, move.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “I played for half a season with the Women’s Professional Volleyball Association Tour and got my butt kicked.”

She quit in midseason but decided to stay in California and train. She was 21 years old and nearly broke. Then, six weeks later, she got a call from the promoters of the Bud Light Tour. They were starting a four-woman circuit; would she be available? She was the first pick. In 1993, her second season, she led the league in kills and blocks and signed
her endorsement contract with Nike. In 1994 she was voted best offensive player and most improved player.

Her trajectory from bumbling doubles player to star of the beach was steep enough to make her seem like the Athena of professional sports, appearing fully formed, ready to receive all the accolades and endorsements that have seemingly fallen at her feet. For this reason, there are a lot of figures in the volleyball world, on beach and court alike,
who are more than a little resentful of all the ink and air time Reece gets. “It’s understandable,” says Team Nike’s coach, Gary Sato, who coached the men’s national team to a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics and a bronze in 1992. “There are a lot of great players who’ve trained and played in obscurity their entire careers.” According to one story
circulated in the volleyball press, reporters flocking to interview Reece after a game practically stumbled over Paula Weishoff, one of the sport’s true legends, who among other things was twice voted most valuable player in the Olympics. One clueless reporter looked at Weishoff and asked, “Who’re you?”

Nike Town, the athletic-wear giant’s signature boutique in downtown Portland, Oregon, is only a dozen miles from Nike World Headquarters. It’s been suggested that the high-tech, windowless shop is a cross between the Museum of Science and Industry and the Death Star. There are separate nooks for tennis, golf, running, hoops, outerwear, and
accessories. Athletic sandals float in Plexiglas tubes of water. Video monitors embedded in the floors constantly flicker with images of Nike athletes just doing it outdoors.

The second floor, reached by a silent elevator whose doors whiff open, is Nike Kids, Youth, and Women, endless racks of fitness tops and shorts and windbreakers all connected by pathways of glossy black grating. Up here, the shoes are requested by computer and delivered via pneumatic tube.

The Air Trainer Patrol, available in three “tough but feminine” colors (teal, mustard, and black), has been in stores since April. At $85 a pair, the shoe is not cheap, but according to the amiable young salesman who tries to sell me a pair, it’s moving quite well.

Later I speak with Paul Zadoff, a Nike product line manager, who says the market for the Air Trainer Patrol is “the young female consumer,” aged 12 through 22. The Air Trainer Patrol, he notes, was designed with “plyometrics” in mind. “Yes,” he says, “it’s a real word, having to do with vertical jumping, critical for sports like volleyball.”

Nike stresses that Reece actually helped design the shoe, along with company designer Tinker Hatfield–although what she contributed is unclear. “She told us what she needed in a shoe,” says Zadoff, “and we brought those needs to the masses.” Reece herself says, jokingly, “You know the stripe that goes around the toe? My idea. Makes your foot look
smaller, and believe me, girls like me need all the help we can get.”

Marketing to women, it seems, has been something of an uphill challenge for Nike and other athletic-wear companies. “Just do it” may inspire men, but it’s not enough for women, who already think they’re doing everything as it is. Lori Smith, Nike’s sports marketing manager, says that men and boys see someone like Michael Jordan and think, “I want to
be like Mike.” They head to the mall for some Air Jordans. Simple. Women, on the other hand, are not so easily convinced. Their response to female athletes is complex. Says Smith, “Women see Jackie Joyner-Kersee, also a Nike athlete, and think, ‘She’s terrific. I admire her tremendously. Do I want to be like her? No.'”

Still, the climate has changed dramatically in recent years. Back in the seventies and eighties, Olympic TV coverage reveled in showing the horrendous price paid by young female athletes. We saw girls, practically toddlers, forced into gymnastics or ice skating classes by heartless Eastern Bloc governments or ambitious parents. We heard how much the
little girl practiced, how sheltered she was, how her parents were her coaches, her trainers, and implicitly her jailers.

On a less elevated level, at high schools and colleges all over the country, girls who excelled in athletics were thought to be loserish and butch, too aggressive, headed for an ignoble life as PE teacher, dateless and doomed. For the new generation of teenagers that Nike and other companies are trying to appeal to through athletes like Reece,
middle-distance runner Suzy Hamilton, swimmer Summer Sanders, and several others (see “A Spin Around the Gab Galaxy”), playing sports is not a geeky thing, but a cool thing.

“The stigma attached to being a powerful, athletic girl is gone,” says Madeleine Blais, author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, about the championship season of a girl’s high school basketball team. “There is more permission for girls to be big, to be strong. Sports gives girls the incredible experience of
controlling their bodies, and this flows to other parts of their lives. Sports can and does do for girls what it has always done for boys: build confidence, foster discipline, create meaning.”

But, Blais feels, girls know instinctively that they can’t expect to be like Gabrielle Reece. If they want anything from a female sports hero, she says, it’s for her to show them how to be true to themselves. As Blais puts it,”Girls want to be the heroes of their own lives.”

The age of 22, the year most women graduate from college, is considered the upper limit of Nike’s young female consumer category. But such hard-and-fast boundaries don’t always play out in the marketplace. My young salesman at Nike Town says the Air Trainer Patrol is selling mostly to older women in their thirties and forties. “We sell it to a woman
with a wider foot,” he says, “a woman who does aerobics on carpeting.”

“That doesn’t sound very hip,” I can’t help saying.

“Now the mustard-colored shoe,” he says, “that one we’ve been pushing for the iconoclast. We’re completely sold out of it. We’ve been getting phone calls from as far away as New York. They’re all desperate for the mustard!”

At 10 a.m. there’s a knock on the door of Hotel Gab, and in walks the crew from NBC’s Extra magazine. They skip the usual pleasantries and immediately start rearranging the room, reshuffling the potted plants, rigging up lights. When Reece turns her back to fetch a chair, the crew stares discreetly. It’s an entirely
different Extra crew from the one that filmed her only yesterday as she was driving Indy cars for MTV Sports.

“What’s the deal?” she asks. “Turnover that high at Extra?”

“There’s a daily lottery,” says the cameraman. “Everyone wants this gig.”

As the crew continues setting up, Reece and I wander back to the kitchen, where she cranks up the blender again. “I’ve gotten used to it–men behaving this way around me,” she says. “I use it. I like to turn the mirror around on them, harass them a little.”

She returns to the living room and makes quick work of the Extra interview. Then we pile into the crew’s van and head over to Gold’s Gym, where the plan is to tape Reece as she does her morning workout, a simple but grueling 50-minute circuit of aerobics, strength, and flexibility training. Although Jane Kachmer, Reece’s
manager, has said that she’s considering closing Reece’s workouts to the press, Reece, who calls her body “a vehicle for the mechanics of my sport,” wants the world to see how hard she works, how her physique is a tool, not a fashion accessory.

Gold’s is packed on this Tuesday morning. THE MECCA OF BODY-BUILDING is printed in white letters across the window. Inside, above the mirrors that line one wall, is a row of black-and-white posters of Gold’s illustrious alumni, including Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Olympia, circa 1970.

As the crew sets up, Reece stretches and says, “This is probably going to be more excitement than you guys can bear!”

Reece was one of the first female beach volleyball players to train this way off the sand. Members of the women’s national team, court players who were once considered volleyball’s only “serious” athletes, have always trained hard, but until Reece came along beach players more or less just showed up and played. It’s all part of her attempt to
compensate for her size by staying quick, strong, and agile. As she puts it, “I want to keep from falling into the big athlete’s rut: ‘I’m huge; therefore all I need to do is take up space.'”

Her workout was designed for her by T. R. Goodman, who’s been her trainer for the past two years and who also trains professional hockey players. Goodman, a quiet, dark-haired guy with a Fu Manchu mustache, says the workout is supposed to ensure that she keeps an “aesthetic look.” It consists of jumping rope, lifting weights, and doing deep lunges, a
distillation of what happens on the sand. Goodman hooks her up to a cordless heart-rate monitor, which he checks periodically. Reece, Goodman claims, has body fat of only 15 percent and can leg-press 1,170 pounds.

Goodman pulls a padded bench over for the cameraman to stand on. “If you want an aerial view,” he says. When the cameraman looks surprised, Goodman says, “I’ve been through this once or twice before.”

For 15 or 20 minutes the cameraman tangos around Reece, getting her workout from every artsy angle imaginable, but finally he stops, having run out of film or angles, and we stand there, the field producer, the cameraman, the soundman, and I, watching ourselves watching her sweat in a hall of mirrors.

In a cavernous unmarked building in Venice, not far from Hotel Gab, Nike is shooting photographs for a new poster, which will soon be available in the company’s stores. It’s a collage of Reece, wearing a teal fitness top, black spandex shorts, and her Air Trainer Patrols, leaping into the air, poised for a kill. The look is steely, sweaty,
competitive, and, to borrow a word, plyometric. Across the collage is the legend DIG. SPIKE. KILL.

“Do you want me to give you the fuck-you look?” Reece asks David Jensen, the photographer. She stares down the camera with her pale green eyes. “It’s my specialty.”

She leaps into the air, snapping her arm in an imaginary kill, over and over again, 15 rolls’ worth, and before every leap she calls out, “Jumping!”

Jensen shows Reece a few of the Polaroids, but she barely glances at them. “Can’t you get that airbrush going,” she says, “give me more up here, Dolly Parton style?” Reece laughs and says. “I mean, Baywatch boobs would probably throw off my game. But sometimes they look like fun.”

“What do you mean?” says Jensen. “You’re a beautiful swan!”

“If people only knew the truth,” Reece sighs.

With each leap, she makes minute adjustments of torso, head, limbs, like a perfectionist straightening a newly hung picture. “I’m a natural,” she says. “That’s why I make the big bucks.”

One of Jensen’s assistants deposits the exposed rolls of film into plastic bags while another assistant sits on a sofa and reads the copy of Elle I’ve asked Reece to sign for a friend’s four-year-old son. The atmosphere is low-key, bordering on inertial.

During a break, Reece towels off her face and arms. There is a buffet of food she likes–pasta with marinara sauce, salad, marinated asparagus, bagels, Snapple. To me she says, “Be sure to write what a high-stress environment a Nike shoot is.”

She shows me some pictures of herself at 19, when she first began modeling.

“You look better now,” I say.

“Really?” One of the Five Most Beautiful Women in the World still likes to hear she’s not getting older, she’s getting better.

Lord Snowden, for decades a photographer of the world’s titled and wealthy, once commented that celebrities, not children, were the most difficult people to capture on film, because after being photographed time after time their essence somehow became permanently depleted; there was nothing left for the photographer to “take.” Earlier, Jane Kachmer
echoed Snowden’s thoughts on the very real dangers of overexposure. “Here’s my biggest concern for Gab,” she told me. “A person can’t grow under the camera’s eye. I try to tell her when it’s time to pull back. Fame and glamour at the highest level are ugly. Empty lives, damaged souls. It can ruin you.”

Standing at the buffet now, I ask Reece whether she worries about any of this–the mixed blessings of celebrity, the possibility that her fame will eventually detract from her volleyball dreams.

“I don’t want to be famous famous,” she replies. “I’m happy on the second tier, where I have autonomy on a professional level but I can still go out to the movies without being recognized. I used to think that I should just cash in on the modeling, do it as long as I could, get some financial security. But volleyball is
my passion, you see. It’s what makes me go.

“This other stuff,” she says, waving her long, strong hand as she saunters back toward the set, “it’s fun, but it’s nothing.”

Karen Karbo is a novelist and journalist living in Portland, Oregon. Her feature on the all-women crew of the America’s Cup yacht America 3 appeared in the January issue.

See also:

A Spin Around the Gab Galaxy

Copyright 1995, Outside magazine

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