Gabrielle

Volleyball is in vogue for one of the world’s top fashion models.

Bruce Hazelton
The eyes of the super model, Gabrielle Reece, would be the focus of many cameras the summer of 1993.

Green is the color of Gabrielle Reece. Green as in the color of her eyes. Green and inviting like lagoons. A color for close-ups, for profiles, for magazine covers.

Green as in the income of a busy fashion model. More green, in fact, than she can hope to earn soon in the sand wars of pro volleyball. In college at Florida State, Reece gave up her athletic scholarship. She had to. She was earning multiples more in New York in the off-season. Ten grand for a two-day shoot, sometimes more.

Green as in envy. What? Gabrielle Reece, this famous face in Elle and Harper’s Bazaar and glamour ads who-knows-where … envious? Well, maybe that is backwards. Let’s put it this way: The woman wouldn’t be giving up half a lucrative modeling career, running every morning in the soft sand and drilling for hours on the beach if she weren’t set on a slice of her life as a pro volleyball player.

Green with inexperience. OK, that’s safe. We can say that. So will she. In contrast to the pro tours’ many Southern California sand natives, she learned the game late, as a high school junior in Florida. And even now, closeted in New York and Europe half of every year with the wizards of color and fashion, she remains so detached from the game that, she says, working out in a gym is her only vague contact with volleyball.

Green as a combination. What is green but a mix of two primary colors, of blue and yellow. And this, foremost, is Gabrielle Reece, a combination. Not one or the other. Not a model, not a volleyball player, but both and, thus to her, neither.

She is the mix of a mother from Long Island and a father from Trinidad, raised as a rebellious kid on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. She is like no one else – a fashion model and a middle blocker. Gifted and sleek. And yet she remains much like all of us, motivated by the same simple wish to be accepted as a player, as a good player, because it is a good game.

Gabrielle Reece will never be just another face on the beach. Such is her mixed bag. She is destined to be watched, to be photographed, to be measured. Invisibility is not part of her package. She accepts that. This 23-year-old who calls Calvin Klein by his first name hopes to do things for volleyball, she says, and this sport might do something for her.

It might give her more exposure. Might give her more life after modeling. And beyond that, it might give her what any person wants coping in a high-profile world, running from one camera to the other, from one coast to the other, caught amid her combinations.

It might give her stability.

*****
We site for lunch at a white-tableclothed table at Joe’s restaurant in Venice, Calif. It’s a cheerful place with lots of natural light, clever waiters, pretty food. It’s not far from her ocean-side apartment, which also is not far from Los Angeles International Airport. That’s a necessity for her, living near an airport.

We talk on a Saturday. Her next week will be typically busy. Wednesday is the draft for the Bud Light 4-Woman Tour. Gabrielle is one of five captains; she will pick the other players for the Lady Foot Locker team.

She can’t wait.

The following day, she’ll buzz back to New York to model in a TV commercial for Liz Claiborne. She probably would be training on the sand right now instead of chatting in a cool restaurant, but the sand is soaked from a morning of rain, and now the wind is bending palm trees.

I have approached this interview like every other wishful thinker: Wouldn’t it be great to live a life like hers? My own envy. She handles such see-through questions easily, without a brush of ego. Parts are great, yes. She concedes that. But she also confesses a kind of athletic secret.

There are times, she says, when she feels like she’s winging it. Not faking it, exactly. In college, for instance, she says, “I never felt like an athlete. Just some kid from an island.”

We can credit her combinations, perhaps. Or the fact that she picked up the game late. Or the sense that, as she says, she slipped into volleyball as much as she slipped into modeling – with a nice boost from genetics.

But it still lingers, this feeling, and spending half her time in New York doesn’t help build the self-image of Gabrielle Reece, pro volleyball player.

“Sometimes it’s like a new relationship,” she says. “Gab, this is volleyball. Volleyball, this is Gab.”

It’s a healthy relationship though. It began at age 15 at a private school in St. Petersburg, Fla. Gabrielle’s mother had decided her daughter was wasting away on St. Thomas, hanging out, doing what island kids do. Which is nothing. So she shipped her off to school.

Gabby played volleyball and basketball, her first shot at organized sports. At 6-foot-3 even then – and “never goofy,” she says – she was soon noticed. She wound up one of eight freshmen on Coach Reynaud’s volleyball team at Florida State. She got the last scholarship.

Talent scouts also noticed her as a future model. The offers began in high school. She fit the profile, not simply in looks. She was a rebellious kid, an only child. Her dad died when she was 5. (Her trademark piece of jewelry – copied on a tattoo inside her right ankle – is a stylized sterling silver cross he wore on the day he died in an airplane crash.)

She had that willingness that models often share to go off and create her own private world – her own stability. Remember, she was an island kid. But her mom said no. Too young. Good thing.

“I would have destroyed myself if I’d done it,” says Gabrielle.

Instead, she played two seasons at Florida State. Then in January 1989, she took off to model in New York. She returned for six weeks that summer to take classes, then flew to New York for three weeks for more modeling. In August, she was back on campus for the season.

Did the same next year, too. She did it at some sacrifice It meant turning down five-figure jobs to become an All-Southeastern Conference middle blocker.

More notice: In 1990, she was named most inspirational college athlete at Dodge National Athletic Awards. It wasn’t the usual inspiration – not plugging away in pain or holding together a team in time of trauma. It was for caring so much about a sport and her team at the expense of great gobs of money.

No, not normal. No wonder she carries this sense of winging it. The question is, why wing it at all? Why not satisfy yourself with high fashion and higher paychecks?

I ask her that at Joe’s.

“I like my job,” she answers. “But it’s not my whole life.”

That answer should not surprise anyone reading this magazine. Maybe most of us only fantasize about making $30,000 on a fashion shoot, but we are familiar with the reason for playing volleyball.

“It’s work and it gets stressful,” says Gabrille, “but ultimately, as long as you’re performing, it’s fun.”

“It can be humbling, but it’s fun.”

*****
Gabrielle Reece has met humility on the pro tour. She joined the WPVA tour a year ago. Admittedly, she was, well, green. One year of practice on sand. But she decided to try, to go for it. In one week, she made up her mind to move from Florida to Los Angeles.

Same old problems, of course. She wasn’t here, wasn’t there, wasn’t this, wasn’t that. She wasn’t experienced, for sure.

Gabrielle credits friends in Florida for urging her to try and newer friends in L.A., including AVP regular Dan Vrebalovich, for their advice and support in California.

Her performance seemed promising in her first tournament. She blocked well. Then again, she always blocked well. She specialized in front-row play for most of her short career. The test on the sand was whether she could pass and set and make all the crafty ball-control moves that define the outdoor player.

That’s a tall order on the pro tour when you’re a rookie spending your off-season on magazine covers. She quickly lost confidence.

“My game was getting thrashed,” she says. “My brain fell out of my head too much.”

In July, the middle of the sand season, she called it off. No more. She needed to train, not to bomb out in tournaments. In another year she’d try again. First, she’d make the effort, do what it takes.

She knew perhaps better than anyone that the other side of her life – the other primary color – wouldn’t help if she weren’t taken seriously as a player.

“I don’t want credibility because I’m a girl in a magazine. I want it because I’m a competitive player,” she says. “I had to get that cleared up. Otherwise it’s a joke. It’s no good.”

Gab, this is volleyball. Reece went back to work. Among her new sand friends was Holly McPeak, also 23, an indoor setter with high aspirations and marvelous athleticism. She’s also known as a diligent trainer with a bagful of drills.

They began working out together – Holly forcing Gabby to move, Gabby giving Holly a big block to avoid.

Then, for Gabby, another gift. A telephone call. The Bud Light 4-Woman Tour was starting up. Would she play?

The call came after six weeks of working out. She hadn’t expected to play pro until the following spring. But in the four-woman game, she could play front row exclusively, as she had in college. And her confidence was back.

She joined the Paul Mitchell team and teammates Lisa Strand-Ma’a, Samantha Shaver, Cheri Boyer. In the first tourney, at Will Rogers State Beach, they went 5-0. For Gabrielle, the 4-Woman tour was a new, improved start. She blocked and hit. She held her own.

*****
Gabrielle Reece stands in her kitchen in her beachside apartment talking on a cordless phone. Gab gets a lot of calls. Business. Everything is business when you work for Elite Models in New York, when your athletic agent, Bill Berger with P-W Sports, is cooking up deals in L.A., when you harbor your own plans to originate a line of socially-conscious sportswear.

This time, it’s Holly. Well, are they going to work out today? This is Gab’s little joke. Holly always wants to work out. This year, they share a coach, Anna Collier, who orders around a foursome: McPeak, Reece, Barbra Fontana, and Lisa Arce.

Gab tells Holly to come over instead.

Then Gab shows me a portfolio of modeling shots from major fashion magazines. It’s one page after another of striking, sometimes exotic poses. She and a friend assembled the portfolio to help sell women’s volleyball to sponsors. A lot of money in those photos. A lot of work.

This is what Gab can do for volleyball, she says. She can bring it exposure. She can help push the modern image of the busy, fit, healthy woman. Volleyball is perfect for that – the right sport for the right era – and perfect for TV.

Pretty good for magazines, too.

It’s apparent that Gabrielle can draw attention. Berger, her agent, helped line up a deal with Lady Foot Locker to “buy” Gab’s team as its sponsor. She, in turn, is to become the promotional force behind Peak Performance, a product sold exclusively through Lady Foot Locker Stores.

To Berger, a former marketing director with the men’s AVP tour, this sponsorship arrangement with a corporate chain of retail stores is a step up from usual deals with sportswear companies.

He happily concedes that a photogenic, professionally wise, athletic woman “sort of epitomizes what people want to be associated with.”

*****

Holly enters the apartment carrying a bag of microwave all-natural popcorn. Today Holly and Gab are both beginning their seasonal vows to eat healthy. Or healthier. Though neither looks to be a nutritional delinquent.

Holly will play on the AVP women’s tour this year. Still, they train together. Among the drills is one in which Holly purposefully sets the ball over the net to the front corners. Gab, the blocker, must run them down and at least touch them.

Backsets are the cruelest.

“I had one the other day that was really good,” says Holly.

“Yeah,” Gab says. “I saw it.”

Then Gab turns to me.

“I lose to Holly in the joust every time. She always jumps later. And Anna yells, ‘You must be stronger!’”

The phone rings again. Gab goes to answer. Holly tells me quietly that Gabrielle has improved a ton.

“She never had access to training and the movement drills we do here.”

True. She was doing other stuff.

*****

Draft day arrives. Tour organizers arrange a conference call for the five captains: Reece, Strand-Ma’a, Kristen Klein, Rita Crockett, and Paula Weishoff. The latter two are in Italy.

Holly sits with Gabrielle, sort of a consultant. After agonizing for several days over which position to fill first, Reece chooses Liane Sato, a setter, in the first round (she picked third). Then she’s surprised to find Caren Kemner still available in the second and Teee Sanders in the third.

Kemner and Sanders are known primarily as indoor players. In fact, as two of the hardest hitting indoor players in the world. But all three are well-known and expressive players. And the foursome makes an intriguing ethnic statement: black, white, Asian, Caribbean mix.

Gabrielle happily deems it a “pub team, 100 percent.”

Pub, for publicity.

“On offense, I’ll be serving cocktails,” she says. “I won’t be hitting a single ball. They won’t be needing me.”

This is, of course, the great misstatement of the season. A lot of people on the pro tour, TV and magazines notwithstanding, will be very glad, thank you, to make exhaustive use of Gabrielle Reece, the model with the green eyes, the woman with the mixed life, the blocked with the big sponsor.

If it all works out, she might become the next Cindy Crawford. That’s what her agent, Berger, hopes. She could become more than a model, more than an athlete. She could aspire to the summit of this great popular culture as a … personality.

That’s one way to look at it.

Volleyball, this is Gab. Gab, this is more pub.

But we know better than to seek one simple conclusion when only a mixture will do.

All the business talk from Greenwich Village to Venice won’t turn a model into a star on the sand. And all the pub in the western world won’t keep an island girl from fighting her old secret feeling that she’s still somehow winging it.

She still has to play.

In fact, that’s the point. In volleyball, you earn your success.

And as she often says, “Success brings stability.”

It’s hard to say which she wants more.

Originally published in May 1993

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!

Advertisements

Next Article

Once Every 50 Years