SI Vault
Frank Deford
May 19, 1975
American girls have traditionally looked up to and emulated their favorite motion-picture stars. The film stars led lives that seemed exciting and far removed from the humdrum activities of ordinary lives, and young girls dreamed of living similar glamorous lives. Now there is a new idol...and she's Billie Jean King .—FROM A BILLIE JEAN KING PRESS RELEASE
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May 19, 1975

Mrs. Billie Jean King!

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Part of this response is because she is by now very nearly an institution. The younger kids may play and practice against her, dress with her, laugh with her, but they never forget that she is not really of them, that she is, in a very large sense, responsible for much of what they have. It is a little bit as if Dr. Naismith popped over to the gym now and then for a game of one-on-one with the boys. Kristien Kemmer Shaw, who is 22, one of the better younger tour players, says, "I'd seen Billie Jean play since I was 10. I actually had come to believe that she has a certain destiny. Since I think this way about her, well, you can understand: it got to the point where I did not want to beat her."

Kristien is one of a number of younger players who, through the years, have come in for special coaching attention from Billie Jean. Her critics suggest cynically that there is something Machiavellian in ker kindness, that Billie Jean realizes that the kids she helps will find it that much more difficult to beat her. Her admirers see quite the opposite, an altruistic devotion to women's tennis and to people. Shortly after Kristien Shaw joined the tour, she grew sick and confused and one night she just took off. " Billie Jean was the only one who cared enough to find out where I was and to contact me," Kristien says. "To play well, I had to get out from under her wing, but you couldn't find a better friend, a better person than Billie Jean King."

The fact is that Billie Jean reigns over just about everyone she encounters, not just impressionable kids. Julie Heldman is her contemporary, and even more than her intellectual match, a Stanford graduate, clever, mature and barbed. She and Billie Jean are not close, but wary and somewhat suspicious. Says Julie: "One of the reasons I've never gotten close to Billie Jean is that I've never felt strong enough to survive against that overwhelming personality of hers. People talk about me being the smart one." She shakes her head and smiles sardonically. "Let me tell you, Billie Jean's the smartest one, the cleverest one you'll ever see. She was the one who was able to channel everything into winning, into being the most consummate tennis player."

And just as she can direct herself so intensely, it is probably herself, more than others, whom Billie Jean manipulates. A British political writer who has studied Billie Jean swears that she and Henry Kissinger are the only successful tri-personalities in the world: there is a private Kissinger and King, a public one of each, too, and a third overseer ego that dispassionately watches over the other two personalities and guides them in their conduct. Make no mistake, this broad can be an artful con when she wants to.

Yet there are also great natural contradictions within her. She is, for example, genuinely shy—and who would guess that? She stares self-consciously at her feet whenever she generates applause. She hates parties and shrinks from strangers. But then, she is an unregenerate ham, who gracefully relinquishes, over her dead body, any unwitting spotlight or microphone that falls into her possession. Loyal and devoted, she has, on a few occasions, cruelly patronized her husband and a best friend, her former secretary, Marilyn Barnett, with public putdowns.

Despite her nearly compulsive call for change within tennis, Larry swears she is basically conservative. So as not to use inflammatory words, she never refers to herself as a "feminist" or "women's libber," preferring the broader "equal opportunist" or "EO," but then, not long ago she tastelessly boasted, "Christ, I'm blacker than Arthur Ashe." At the same time that she was staying up to six o'clock in the morning during a recent tournament so she could read the philosophy of Angela Davis, she was spending other parts of the day doing commercial voiceovers and preparing to fly off to do another commercial for one of her many products. She was also reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci and she has just finished the collected works of Somerset Maugham and Herman Hesse; she grabs the sports pages first and knows all the standings.

"For a time, I think I was as close to Billie Jean as anyone ever was," says Kristien Shaw, "but as soon as I got to the point where I could read her too well, she tried to dissociate the relationship. She doesn't want to risk appearing weak in front of anybody. She told me once that if you want to be the best, you must never let anyone, anyone, know what you really feel. You see, she told me, they can't hurt you if they don't know."

With abandon and not a little bit of pride, she chucked a stone far out into the water off Cape Eleuthera, a Bahamian resort she plays out of and escapes to. Of course, she was getting generally worked up because dinner time was drawing nigh. Food and clothes are the two things that Billie Jean battles regularly, but with little success. Basically, the problem is that she has a taste for food.

All right, food. The one thing it may do is make her fat. Worse, and more immediately, the other thing it does is make her a bore. Food obsesses her, particularly when she closes in on anything edible. She knows things like exactly how many calories an average peanut has, and exactly how much of her body content is fat (13%). Although she really hasn't been fat since 1968, when she went on a crash diet, she calls herself, helplessly, "a sugarholic," and the rotund specters of the Ghost of Fat Past and the Ghost of Fat Future hover over her like chubby storm clouds. In Billie Jean's warm world of gaiety and hope, obesity is always there, fouling it all up. Some heavy tourists from Michigan walked by her on the beach, toting a Detroit Lions picnic cooler full of wondrous unknown goodies. "That's America," Billie Jean grouched, dead serious, in abject despair.

At 5'4" she weighs about 135 pounds, solid and well-placed if not curvy, the only hefty bag left being what Vogue calls cellulite, what Miss America judges call fanny overhang and what Billie Jean calls waffles. The proprietress herself likes to good-naturedly direct attention to her most lackluster reality. When she was taping an interview for a pilot of her new syndicated TV show, the sound man had affixed a tiny microphone in the middle of her chest between blouse and sweater. When he reached up under the sweater to undo it, Billie Jean cautioned him, "Watch what you grab. The way I am you couldn't tell me from the microphone." But hers is, at least, a dandy shape, vocationally speaking, like for reaching for backhands. Besides, the tennis boom seems to have enhanced the popularity of flat-chestedness, so that, in effect, Billie Jean has made her body fashionable. Grace Kelly was the last one who managed to work that dodge.

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