The Women's Sports Foundation, founded by tennis great Billie Jean King in 1974, has been celebrating women in sports "forever" at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Now they've kicked off a new awards program on the West Coast, and in a very big way.
The Beverly Hilton Hotel, Beverly Hills, was the venue recently where the group hosted their inaugural "Billies" awards event and where hundreds of guests enjoyed fine food and drink, appearances by celebrities and notable athletes, awards presentations, and a grand finale of music and song by BJK pal, the legendary Sir Elton John.
As is always the case at the Beverly Hilton, several other, smaller events were happening in that sprawling place just prior to this one. One of them was a reading for an upcoming Tyler Perry film entitled "Daddy's Little Girl." Roger Bobb, one of the producers along with Reuben Canon Productions, was kind enough to take a few minutes to tell me that this movie will be about a single young man struggling to raise his three children.
I couldn't help but admire the workings of God/the Universe in the juxtapositioning of this and the Foundation's event; one of the most important missions of the Women's Sports Foundation is advancing the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity. Helping girls build self-esteem, their "GoGirlGo!" program often helps girls, in effect, raise themselves. One of the most memorable moments of the evening occurred when two young girls came onstage with beautiful IBA, WBC, WIBA and IWBF Super Middleweight boxing champ Laila Ali to read their descriptions of how Billie Jean King and the Women's Sports Foundation had positively and critically impacted their lives.
This inaugural event was co-chaired by a dazzling group that included Disney CEO, Bob Iger, Oscar-winning actress, Geena Davis; television anchorwoman; Willow Bay, Olympic ice skating Gold Medalist, Peggy Fleming, and, of course, Billie Jean King. And what a night it was! Jim Belushi made the scene, flashing those gorgeous blue eyes at all of us girls working the red carpet. Sharon Stone was a surprise in a gorgeous black number with rouched waistline and feathered halter-top. ABC's "Desperate Housewives'" Marcia Cross attended and stayed until the very end, graciously enduring autograph after autograph and photo after photo. She was a knockout in a crimson chiffon dream of a gown, and joked about her 'illustrious basketball career" as a freshman in high school, describing her joy when she finally scored her first basket- at the wrong end of the court.
World Champion distance swimmer and National Women's Sports Hall of Famer Diana Nyad jumped onstage- bright and shiny in a red Chinese tunic number- and actually trumpeted "Reveille" to announce the "Grand March of Athletes," an introduction and on-stage procession three-layers deep of some 50 of the world's best and most diverse athletes- who just happen to be female. This gathering of so much grace, strength, and beauty in evening attire was almost overwhelming to the onlooker. One of my dinner companions- looking fabulous in an artfully decorated sleek black gown that once belonged to her mother- had the same reaction- but from an altogether different perspective.
"It was so great to be a part of that procession," Liz Behrenson, 1992 Olympics Women's Crew participant, told me. "It was very much like a community, and it was fun to be remembered as an athlete." A personal trainer now with a focus on the elderly, Behrenson's been in the health and fitness industry for years, but she was just as much in awe of this gathering of women as were those of us in the audience. "I sat between Peggy Fleming and Cathy Smith," she confided, "can you imagine?!
The "Billies" are acknowledgements by the Women's Sports Foundation of media's excellence in positive portrayal of female athletes. They were awarded in four categories: "Journalism," "Breakthrough and Innovation," "Entertainment," and "Influential Personality." Winners received great honor and recognition, together with a gorgeous crystal trophy designed by Tiffany and Co.
California's First Lady Maria Shriver and Olympic Gold Medalist Jessica Mendoza presented the "Journalism" category.
"Billie Jean King is one of my all-time heroes," Shriver told the crowd, and then added, referring to the procession of athletes, "to see you all up here made me proud to be a woman. This is the real deal." USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan took this Billies award home. Other nominees were Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, ESPN (for their production of the 2005 Women's Final Four), and Welch Suggs, author of "A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX."
"I have the greatest job on earth," Brennan said as she accepted the award. "But first and foremost I must thank Billie Jean King. On September 20, 1973, this 15-year-old girl in a small suburb of Toledo, Ohio, finished her homework early so my friends and I could cheer our hearts out for Billie Jean King as she defeated Bobby Riggs in three straight sets!" The audience cheered enthusiastically.
ABC's "Desperate Housewives" heartthrob James Denton and tennis great, Tracey Austin- stunning in a one-shoulder black gown- presented the "Entertainment" category. The two were a kick as they teased each other, Denton saying that he'd always thought Austin was "hot" when he'd watched her on the court, Austin quipping that, at the time, he must have been "all of five years old." They had so much fun together on stage, in fact, that they forgot to allow time to roll the film clip for the nominees before they gleefully announced the category's winner: HBO Sports for their "Dare to Dream: The Story of the US Women's Soccer Team."
Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, and accepting the award on their behalf, waited patiently on stage as clips from the other nominated work- Fox's "Bend it Like Beckham," "Girl Wrestler" produced by Diane Zander, and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Million Dollar Baby"- were run.
"The Billies beat the Oscars!" Greenburg burst out as he took the podium with the shimmering glass trophy high over his head. "I want to go to my grave being able to say that!"
"I met Billie Jean King 25 years ago at Wimbledon," Greenburg added. "Along the way, she made me a feminist- so did my daughter, Rachel, and my wife, Michelle. It was a privilege to meet the women of the US Soccer Team and to tell their story."
Three-time Olympic medallist Brandi Chastain and entertainment legend Penny Marshall presented the Billies award for "Breakthrough & Innovation" to Jane Gottesman and Geoffrey Biddle, co-curators of the traveling exhibit "Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?" "Game Face" opened at the Smithsonian in 2001 and has educational kits in some 4,000 schools across the country. Marshall penned the introduction, and the award moment was quite emotional for the winners.
"There is a lot of money being spent promoting lots of negative images for women," Biddle told the crowd as he accepted the award, "and we would like to thank the Mass Mutual Group and the Oppenheimer Fund for their funding."
"Girls and women deserve to be free," Gottesman added, after referring to her days as a cub reporter when Title IX was in hot debate. "Girls and women deserve to be unself-conscious in their bodies. Girls and women deserve to be strong."
Bob Igor, wearing the coolest shoes with his otherwise plain elegant tux, and Willow Bay, a well, willowy beauty in black and white, presented the "Influential Personality" award to journalist/film maker Bud Greenspan. After some twenty years of Olympic event reporting- and during a fifty-some year career- Greenspan has made an impressive collection of films, television specials, and books, including nine official Olympic films. He has also won seven Emmy and many other awards. However, it is Greenspan's unique ability to portray the female athlete that won him the Billie's award.
"Being a champion is not defined by gender, but by spirit," Bay said. Greenspan received a standing ovation from the audience as he thanked all of the women he has filmed- and all women athletes- for "leaving us the glory of the time."
Sharon Stone and Jimmy Connors delighted the crowd with their "shtick" while Stone initiated one of her famous live auctions. The prize: a week for two in glorious England, complete with a day at Wimbledon- court-side, no less- and an evening with none other than Sir Elton John at a "white tie and tiara" event.
"You cannot buy what's in this bag," Stone enticed as she held her arm out to the crowd, "because it's access!" Bidding was started at $10,000 and encouraged a surprisingly fast-paced exchange culminating in two audience members' facing a final bid of $140,000.
"Do I hear $140,000?!" Stone yelled out toward one of the bidders. "Don't make me come out there! You know I'll come out there, don't you?" The audience roared with delight as Stone left the stage- camera crew in tow- and marched toward the bidder. Stone promptly sat down on his lap, eventually enticing him to bid higher.
After the auction, Elton John took the stage in a black knee length coat jacket with ruffled tails over red silk pajama-style togs. He wore a giant diamond-encrusted cross and crystal earrings (in honor of the "Billies," perhaps?) and written in red on the front of his jacket were the words "Burning" and "Fire."
And burn with fire Sir Elton John did, delighting the crowd in that intimate venue with no orchestra, only the electrified Yamaha piano, voice full and vibrant without orchestra or backup. He opened gently with "Your Song," followed by "Daniel's Song, then cranked the energy up a notch into the spirited song he wrote in honor of Billie Jean King, "Philadelphia Freedom," receiving a standing ovation. It was fun to see the elegantly attired crowd dancing and clapping in the aisles.
John gifted the audience with an amazing rendition of "Rocket Man" that also drew a standing ovation. He delighted with a few other well-known numbers- the crowd screaming in anticipation of their favorite songs- then bounced into the sassy Benny and the Jets and uniquely segueing into a ragtime version of "In the Mood."
My host at table, President, Board of Directors, George Mark Children's Home, Kathy N. Hull, was glowing. She was glad she'd made the trek from the Bay Area to attend- so were her guests. Needless to say, even after the goodnights were said and the houselights were brought up full-tilt, no one wanted to go home- even after being reminded of gifts waiting outside the ballroom.
Athletes were given "goodie" bags containing items from LL Bean, Great American Days, Starbucks, Amy Peters, Four Sisters, Itrain, Bacardi, Fiji, 3600 Skin Care, XCVI Wearables, Rebecca Mojico, Oxyfresh, OT Magazine, Bee Naturals, Sarah's Spa, OEX, Biotropica Body Care, Alpha Skincare, Paulina Gretsky, and Ms. Statement.
Gift bags for presenters were put together by Klein Creative Communications, New York. Stephanie Klein was on hand at the event overseeing celebrity autographing of items to go into a premium goodie bag that will be auctioned off in coming weeks to benefit Women's Sports Foundation.
Guests attending this fabulous evening of entertainment and celebration of women athletes will remember it for a long time; not only because the event, itself, was so outstanding and memorable, but also because their goodie bags- courtesy of RP & Associates- contained a crystal paperweight shaped like a tennis ball and etched with the "Billies" insignia and the date.
One can only wonder how this event could EVER be topped next year'
AApril 2006 M. D. Caprario Thank you, Tuti; you get the last word.
Photo Credits: Getty Images/Women's Sports Foundation - Thank you
The 2006 Inaugural Billies Event Athletes:
Amy Alcott, Golf- Winner of 29 LPBA events including five majors titles, LPGA Hall of Fame inductee, World Golf Hall of Fame inductee
Laila Ali, Boxing- IBA, WBC, WIBA and IWBF Super Middleweight Champion
Chantelle Anderson, Basketball- Three-time U.S. national team player
Tracey Austen, Tennis- Two-time U.S. Open champion, Wimbledon doubles champion, member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Amanda Beard, Swimming- Seven-time Olympic medallist, world record holder in the 200m breaststroke
Gretchen Bleiler, Snowboarding- Olympic silver medallist, Two-time Winter X Games champion
Shannon Boxx, Soccer- Olympic gold medallist, World Cup finalist, four-time U.S. national team member
Sarah Burke, Skiing- Three-time Winter X Games medallist, eight-time U.S. Open medallist, first woman to land a 720
Brandi Chastain, Soccer- Three-time Olympic medallist, two-time World Cup champion
Julie Chu, Ice Hockey-
The Inaugural Billies Event Sponsors:
ESPN/ABC Sports, and Zimand Entertainment
Official Award Sponsor: Tiffany & Co.
Official Media Sponsor: USA TODAY
Women's Sports Foundation National Sponsors:
Advanta, Gatorade, and Russell Athletic
The Inaugural Billies Event Committee Members:
Laura King Plaff
Linda and Kurt Rambis
Anita May Rosenstein
Jennifer van Dijk
Premier: Henri Zimand & AndspiritUSA.com
Dobkin Family Foundation
Maple Leaf Partners
Susan and Bob Morrison
The Starkey Hearing Foundation
Tiffany & Co., Inc.
Anheuser Busch, Inc.
U.S. Olympic Committee
Wilbur May Foundation
World Team Tennis
Altria Group, Inc.
Giant Steps Foundation
Kathy Hull and Bill Gisvold
Laura King Pfaff
The Seedlings Foundation
Andy & Rebecca Barfknecht
Bart and Cynthia McGuire
Benita Fitzgerald Mosley
Mary Beth Tarrant
Susan & Dennis Wellington
Frank and Kristien Ziska
The Lincy Foundation