Model Athlete: Gabrielle Reece on the Double Standard of Beauty and Performance for Females in Sports

by Lorraine Cwelich

Photo: Getty Images

“In our society, what makes a man valuable?” asks sports marketer Leonard Armato in the ESPN film Branded. “Power, money, influence. What makes a woman valuable? How attractive she is. That’s the bottom line.”

Branded, the final film in ESPN’s groundbreaking Nine for IX series about women athletes and gender issues, explores the double standards which exist for male and female athletes, through interviews with Gabrielle Reece, Lolo Jones, Mary Lou Retton, Chris Evert, Lisa Leslie, Hope Solo, Brandi Chastain, and sports media pros. In the film, the idea is expressed that men are awarded lucrative advertising endorsements purely based on their athletic performance but for female athletes, beauty is more essential than performance.

“Before the London games, I was the number one ranked hurdler in the world,” says two-time track and field Olympian Lolo Jones in Branded. “But I had no major support.” She found that the highest-sponsored Olympians had high Twitter and Facebook presences. “So I made social media a priority.” As she became a social media phenomenon and raked in endorsements with McDonalds, Asics, and Red Bull but failed to medal at the 2012 Games, she drew scathing criticism for trading on her looks.

We caught up with pro volleyball player, model, and former ELLE contributing editor Gabrielle Reece to discuss how modeling enabled her to pursue the sport she loves.

Tell us about your longtime relationship with ELLE.
I modeled for ELLE from about 1988 to 1993. I told Gilles Bensimon that I wanted to write for the magazine. I had a column for three or four years, and once a year I’d be on ELLE’s cover. They put me in all the international versions as well. You guys supported me with what has become a long-time relationship with writing.
Your column was about sports, health, and beauty?
Exactly, healthy lifestyles. I’d interview athletes or write about how to workout in the gym.
And you’ve remained friends with Gilles?
I was in New York a few months ago and Gilles stopped by my book party. It’s been 25 years.
Did you pose with Tyra Banks on some of those shoots?
When Tyra and Nicki Taylor were young bunnies, we did a Bahamas shoot. I was the old lady; they were like 17 and I was 21. I remember feeling old! Then Tyra brought me on America’s Next Top Model to talk to the models about motion photography. I was 6’3″ and around 160 pounds when I modeled; now I’m about 175. I couldn’t fit into any of the sample clothes, so my whole modeling career was based on physical prowess.
Did you do runway?
I did Calvin Klein and Donna Karan but mostly I did bathing suits. Even though in my day models–Cindy, Claudia, Christy, Naomi-were bigger than today, Rachel Williams and I were on the bigger side.
Tell us about deciding to pose for ‘Playboy.’
I started shooting with Phillip Dixon in 1988 for Harper’s Bazaar. He always said, “‘The way you are is perfect.” He celebrated my size and power. I knew he wouldn’t try to put a bunch of makeup on me when I was naked and get weird. I don’t have a problem with that shoot because of how it was done.
The film talks about the double standard between the amount of fabric that male and female volleyball players wear. The men wear shorts and shirts and the women wear dental floss.
It’s not going to change, it isn’t fair and it’s one of the world’s oldest stories. Why can an older guy with money and power get a hot young chick?
Do Danica Patrick or Anna Kournikova or Lolo Jones propagate this system by trading on their looks?
In a harsh economic reality, they are navigating the system. It’s a very interesting fine line. If they perform, they are actually doing their real job; it’s about delivering. People don’t realize how expensive it is for professional female athletes, especially Olympians, to survive. I used to say that I modeled to support my habit of being a volleyball player.

Branded airs tonight on ESPN.

Read more: Gabrielle Reece Interview – Supermodel Gabrielle Reece on Beauty and Athletics – ELLE
Follow us: @ElleMagazine on Twitter | ellemagazine on Facebook
Visit us at