Late last month Natalie Gulbis journeyed to Los Angeles to take meetings with six television networks that had expressed interest in producing a reality show documenting her adventures on the LPGA tour and her life away from it. TV is the next logical step for a beautiful, personable 22-year-old perched at the intersection of sports and celebrity. In her three years on tour Gulbis has teased with potential but delivered only middling results, failing to win a tournament and climbing no higher than 39th on the money list, yet right now no other woman in golf is enjoying as much buzz.
In 2004 about 650,000 unique visitors surfed nataliegulbis.com, their curiosity stoked by her wildly successful calendar, replete with cheesecake shots, and a splashy photo spread in the lads magazine FHM. In recent weeks the media have been atwitter with rumors of a romance between Gulbis and Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers' star quarterback. Little wonder that industry heavyweight TaylorMade- Adidas recently re-upped with Gulbis for three years, one of the many deals that will push her off-course earnings this year to the high six figures, money exceeded in the women's game by only a short list of top players. Gulbis will be one of only two LPGA players on the TaylorMade- Adidas staff, and John Kawaja, president of Adidas Golf, says she is going to become "the face of our brand on a global scale. If you walk into a merchandise store in Japan or a pro shop in Europe, you're going to see Natalie's picture."
Yet it is in American living rooms where true crossover stardom is born, and that is what lured Gulbis to L.A. for two days of pitch meetings with executives from MTV, Spike TV, 20th Century Fox, FX Network, E! and ABC Family Channel. The whirlwind tour began with a breakfast meeting at a beachside restaurant in Santa Monica. The 5'9" Gulbis showed up in a black miniskirt that showed off her endless, tanned legs, and her long blonde hair was teased into a mane that evoked Farrah Fawcett in her heyday. Joining Gulbis was her father, John, the guiding force in her career and a Harley enthusiast who looks the part. Two agents were also on hand. Chris Murray handles all of Gulbis's golf-related interests out of the Minneapolis offices of Imani Sports. His Midwestern reserve was in stark contrast to the manner of Jason Burns, a smoothy in a sharp suit from the Gersh Agency, a Hollywood powerhouse that represents Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx and George Lopez, among others. Burns had approached Gulbis and her people in November about the reality show, and he called the breakfast summit to coach his new clients on how to sell the idea.
At one point Murray interrupted Burns to address a primary concern. "Let's talk about private lives," said Murray. "How much will she have to let the cameras follow her outside of the golf arena?"
"It's up to Natalie," said Burns. "Whatever she feels comfortable with."
"Not a lot," Gulbis said. "I'd like to be seen as a golfer, as an athlete, and keep the rest private."
"That's fine, but you have to understand that the bigger a celebrity gets, the more people want to know about her," said Burns. "They only show Jessica Simpson singing for one minute of every episode. The rest of it is about every other aspect of her life."
This would not be the last mention of Simpson, once a struggling purveyor of mediocre pop music who has become a household name thanks to the MTV reality show Newlyweds. She joined another blonde specter who has long haunted Gulbis's career: Anna Kournikova, the famously winless tennis player who has leveraged her sullen beauty into tens of millions of off-court dollars. But while Simpson and Kournikova have a naked lust for the spotlight, Gulbis is inherently private and even a touch conservative, and improving her golf game is her primary obsession, even as she gets drawn deeper into the star-making process. Her reticence was obvious in another exchange that took place over breakfast. Asked what she had planned for the ensuing week, Gulbis said, "Nothing, really. Just go back home to Las Vegas and work on my game."
This brought a grunt from her father. " Natalie Gulbis, do any of these guys have stupid tattooed on their forehead?" John said. "They know about you and Ben. Why don't you simply say you're going to Pittsburgh for Sunday's game?" He was referring to the AFC championship five days hence, in which the Steelers would be hosting the New England Patriots.
Gulbis gave her dad a withering look but said nothing. A little later, while walking out of the restaurant, she grabbed John by the arm and scolded him in a low voice. Shortly after that, Natalie disappeared to take a call from Derek Jeter. (The day after the AFC championship she was to play in a charity golf tournament in Tampa, hosted by the Yankees shortstop.) After his daughter walked away, John buttonholed Murray and Burns. "You guys have to push her," John said, with some heat. "She runs in a really deep crowd and has a really exciting life, but if you listen to her it's as if she's at home knitting a scarf while watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. You guys have to get her to sell herself. I can't always be the bad guy."