Quick, how do you pronounce Leila? Lay-lah, as in the Eric Clapton tune, right? Or is it Germanic in origin and the ei rule applies? Someone's in the kitchen with Li-lah. What other choices are there? You could call Ireland and try to reach J.P. Donleavy, who, having written a novel of the same name, is bound to know the proper articulation. Give up? You're not alone. "No one ever got it right when I was growing up. I hated the first day of school because the teachers would call roll and I'd have to correct them. 'No, it's Lee-EYE-lah,' " says Leila Wagner.
To steal from the redoubtable Erich Segal: What can you say about a beauty queen cum professional bowler who flies? That she was the Eveready Battery campaign pinup girl for 1983? That in 1980 Bowlers Journal deemed her Sexiest Bowler? (Wagner prefers to leave this honorific off her r�sum�.) That when she's not in the alleys, she can be found at 33,000 feet wearing an American Airlines flight attendant's uniform and serving honey-roasted peanuts and Bloody Marys to guys who are always calling her a stewardess and mispronouncing her name?
For the last 16 of her 27 years, Wagner has spent many of her waking hours hurling heavy spheroids down the lanes at distant pins in burgs named De Soto, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., and in venues such as Sam's Town hotel, gambling hall and bowling center in Las Vegas, where from Aug. 23 to 27 the national doubles tournament of the Ladies Pro Bowlers Tour was held. Take the ambience of a roadside attraction like South of the Border or Wall Drug, jack up the tackiness factor several quanta, and you have Sam's Town. In the basement of the hotel, the tournament is about to commence. Signs on pillars behind the lanes read: THIS ESTABLISHMENT HAS PROVIDED A PURE AIR ENVIRONMENT THROUGH "SECOND STAGE" NEGATIVE IONIZATION FOR YOUR HEALTH AND COMFORT.
Wagner is wearing a skirt that would have failed the knee-to-hem ruler test if they'd had one at Seattle's Blanchet High, where she was a cheerleader her junior and senior years. Her strawberry blonde hair is perfectly coiffed, her eye makeup immaculate. The makeup is not always like this; when she won her first pro title, the Hammer Western Open in Tacoma, Wash., last year in front of her parents and grandparents, Wagner cried and told reporters she wished she'd brought her waterproof mascara.
A concern with beauty aids seems to run in the family: Wagner's relatives own five Merle Norman Cosmetics franchises in the Seattle area. When Leila was young, her mother, Jane, owned one store where she worked "mall hours," nine to nine, five days a week. Leila's father, Harold, stayed home; he owned and managed the apartment complex where the family lived. Leila was the last of six kids, and six years separated her from the next youngest. "I was a lonely child," she says. "I grew up on fast food and TV dinners."
Harold Wagner encouraged the sportive side of his daughter. "I was like a son," she says. "We would play basketball at the junior high school across the street." After the 11-year-old Leila came home from a Girl Scout bowling outing and announced that she had made three strikes, the Wagners began frequenting the Leilani Lanes on Sunday afternoons. (Quick, how do you pronounce Leilani?)
When she was 16, Wagner was coached by a local pro named Ed Dolfay, whom she credits with turning her untutored game into a competitive one. He taught her the fine points, such as how to choose a correctly weighted ball and how to adjust to varying lane conditions. At 18, with her father's sponsorship, she turned pro.
"When I started on the tour, I feared anything and everything," she recalls. "I didn't know what to expect." But she braved it out, and in 1982, her fourth year as a pro, she had a 219 average, the fourth-highest on the women's tour. The following year she was ranked sixth in the overall point standings, and is fifth so far this year.
It's hard to appear ravishing in bowling togs, but at moments Wagner resembles the Ann-Margret of Carnal Knowledge days. This look must have been what clinched the 1980 Miss Lake City and the 1981 Miss Washington- USA crowns, which Leila competed for at the urging of family and friends. What talent did she display for the judges in the ensuing Miss USA eliminations? "For Miss USA you don't have to have a talent," she says. She did make her own gown for the Miss Washington pageant, however, using white sequins and Qiana nylon.
In the lady bowlers' lounge at Sam's Town, doubles partners are preparing for the qualifying rounds by performing arcane rituals, such as sticking adhesive-backed name tags to each other's matching shirts. Wagner, who's cutting pieces of adhesive tape to use as lining in the finger holes of her eight bowling balls, is still hoarse from yelling over the music at her 10th Blanchet High reunion the day before. When another bowler asks if there were any bald, fat men at the reunion, Wagner says, "Well, there were no bald, fat women." Though she was born in Lynwood, south of downtown Los Angeles, and raised in Seattle, she speaks with a slight Texas twang, picked up during the four years she lived in the Metroplex, which is what Dallas- Fort Worth calls itself in these high-tech days.