Watching the Brie Train: Douglas Family Gold

It's an established fact that I like gymnastics, and I love reality TV. So you can bet when there is overlap I'll be watching. Enter Douglas Family Gold. douglas-family-goldOxygen aired the six episode (30 minutes each) series beginning in May 2016, though the action all takes place in 2015 as Gabrielle Douglas (aka Gabby/Brie), reigning Olympic All-Around Gold Medalist, begins her comeback to make the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

There isn't a lot of gymnastics in the show, but there is a lot of [manufactured] drama. Save for one instance, the real drama remained behind the scenes.

When the show starts there is nary a mention/discussion of why Gabby is in Ohio and her family is in Los Angeles. Anyone who casually followed the London Games knows that Gabby, a Virginia native, moved to Iowa to train-- a move away from her natal family into the home of another family, but which ultimately helped her secure Olympic gold. So why Ohio and not Iowa? Why a coach in Ohio then and not California? The silence is deafening. (In fact in 2013 and 2014 she did return to Iowa, but lawyers/agents/family got involved, which is what led her to Ohio...)

Another drama that didn't make the show was injury (though some might question if it is even a "real" drama). According to Douglas' momager, Natalie Hawkins, in a statement this month after the Olympic team was named, Gabby actually competed with a knee injury in the World Championships shown in the penultimate episode of Douglas Family Gold. It is an odd omission and in an article right after the revelation was made, Gabby's reaction is telling: "'Mom, really?' Douglas burst out when asked about a previously undisclosed right knee injury the gymnast suffered just before the 2015 World Championships....Hawkins, wearing her daughter's diamond-studded Team USA necklace, added that Karolyi also knew the issues surrounding the coaching changes since a comeback 21/2 years ago."

These lines reveal the real underlying drama in the Douglas family: that the family of six (four children and Hawkins, plus Hawkins' mother) appear to be fully supported by Gabrielle's gymnastics career and the promotional opportunities surrounding it. Again, telling lines from a recent article, this one from The New York Times: "But the turmoil in the gym was soon matched by new distractions outside it. Finally training in one spot at Buckeye, Douglas chipped at her focus anew last year when she was featured on a reality program called 'Douglas Family Gold,' taping the six episodes at a time when most of her United States Olympic rivals were focused solely on training. Douglas’s mother and business manager, Natalie Hawkins, who is in charge of what can loosely be described as Gabby Inc., said that the show fit seamlessly into Douglas’s days, and that it actually helped Douglas relax. Hawkins said last week that she was hoping the show would be awarded a second season."

On the one hand it's not surprising that "Gabby Inc" exists, or that her sisters in particular are on what I would call the "Brie Train." This is common enough in the sports and entertainment industries (think Entourage). This is also quite common with child performers of all stripes (think Britney Spears and Alana Thompson, aka Honey Boo Boo). And at least her sisters appear to be working, helping design leotards in the hopes of parlaying that into other design opportunities, even if that work is based on their sister's individual success.

What is different in Douglas Family Gold is the age of the athlete; though she is now of age, when all this began Douglas was a minor. It is also important to note that this sort of scenario impacts young females much more than young males, partly because of differences in onset of puberty. Of course, this is an old story in gymnastics (read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes for more on commercialism and cashing in on young athletes), but worth noting. This reality show reveals that this scenario crosses racial boundaries as well.

Another difference is that with young performers there are multiple opportunities to "make it"/excel. For Olympic cycle athletes there is basically one big shot to make it. A lot of pressure on small shoulders, however muscled they may be. Minor performers' earnings are partially protected by Coogan laws (check out some of my previous writings on this here), but no such protection is in effect for young athletes.

To get a better handle on the family dynamics I turned to two different books Douglas "wrote" in 2013, both published by a Christian house. The first, more complete version is Grace, Gold & Glory, and the second, Raising the Bar, contains most the same material, but it is abridged with a lot of photos, primarily for kids. Both books notably focus on the positive relationship with the Parton family in Iowa, and Douglas' then gymnastics coaches. Again, a notable disconnect from the reality series.

But I was shocked by how Douglas portrayed her childhood and family. The former book, Grace, God & Glory describes what was likely parental neglect when Douglas was an infant, living in the back of a van at 2.5 months with an untreated medical condition (Branched Chain Ketoaciduria, or maple syrup urine disease). A particularly revelatory line Douglas "writes" on page 11 of the same book hints at the reason her sisters might expect to be on the Brie train: “I thought of my two sisters: Arielle, who gave up ballroom dancing, and Joyelle, who stopped ice skating so that our single mom could afford to keep me in gymnastics.”

I am sure it is uncomfortable to feel indebted. And the moment of cringeworthy drama in Douglas Family Gold is when eldest sister Arie tells Brie that her own life isn't where it should be because she has spent so much time supporting her sister. This is again mentioned in the Elle article linked to above. And most news stories from the last cycle identified this sister as the one who got her sister started with gymnastics. So, yeah, some interesting dynamics there.

The latter book, Raising the Bar, hints at the Douglas family's interest in a TV show, way back in 2012-3. On page 17 in social media image grabs two family members comment that the family is a comedy show and that they need their own show.

They have that show now, but I'm not sure how funny it actually is. You'll likely just be uncomfortable,and wondering what is actually going on in this family behind the doors of their now 7000+ square foot California compound.

Shrinking and Pinking: Shifting Sports

New shifts in sport have been all over the news lately. Danica Patrick is the first woman to shift into the pole position (the top qualifier) at the Daytona 500. And while the International Olympic Committee's unexpected and shocking decision to drop wrestling from the summer Games impacts more men than women, it's telling that women's wrestling was only recently added a few years ago. Lolo Jones is another summer Olympian facing a shift in sport. The hurdler announced in the fall that she was going to try her hand (or legs, I should say) at bobsledding. After making the team as a pusher, she actually won a gold at the World Championships late last month!

Lolo Jones competing in bobseld, Martin Meissner AP

It'd be pretty amazing to see her in Sochi after London; and hopefully no fourth place this time around.

Another London Olympian just made a sport shift as well. Canadian synchronized swimmer Tracy London has retired from her sport, but picked up a new activity. What is it? Pole dancing!

Photo by Celia Lavinskas

London and her company emphasize the health and acrobatics associated with pole dancing, and de-emphasize the other connotations. At least she isn't Suzy Favor Hamilton, right?!

While I usually emphasize female athletes here who are fighting or breaking barriers, male athletes often have to deal with difficulties and tough, sexist sports connotations as well. Here where I live in Massachusetts, male gymnasts were shocked when high school gymnastics was cut from the roster of approved sports. Even more shocking was that the spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, Paul Wetzel, spoke derisively of it as a "girls' sport." His comments provoked a backlash-- but not enough of one to help save the sport, which will likely become a club endeavor.

Just goes to show that shifting (of attitudes) still needs to happen when it comes to male sports as well. Given his thoughts on girls/boys sports, I'm guessing Wetzel won't be rooting for Danica Patrick in the Daytona though (he might like London's "pole" position better)... But I will!

The High Holy Week of Pageantry: Miss America 2013, Press and Predictions

The time comes round every year: Miss America week! Tomorrow is the live broadcast and as usual I'm excited (but this year should be especially interesting with a 20/20 feature on the pageant starting at 8 pm). The 2013 Pageant will be a little different for me than last year's-- a time when I thought I might never sleep again-- but now my one-year-old (!) let's me sleep so I'm good to go (I was also reminded of this when I spoke on NECN yesterday about how hard it is for individuals to project themselves into the future). Little Man on his first birthday!

Now I know Miss Universe was only a few weeks ago (both pageants have made date shifts in the past few years, which means we get more concentrated pageantry and less spread-out glitz) so it might be useful to explain the difference between Miss USA/Universe and Miss America. As you might be able to tell from the previous sentence Miss America is an end in itself; you don't win and go on to compete for Miss Milky Way. Also, the three "Ts" separate the two pageant systems (this is my trademark here, so please quote me!): tuition, talent, and Trump. Miss America requires a talent, awards scholarship money, and isn't owned by Donald Trump.

Miss Alabama USA 2012 has been in the press lately thanks to her boyfriend and a zealous sportscaster.  Katherine Webb, the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, has been getting a lot of attention since she was shown during the national championship game earlier this week (proving pageants and football still mix a lot, especially in the South). It's been a bit of a distraction to Miss Alabama America 2012, Anna Laura Bryan, who just won a big prize at Miss America (the Quality of Life Award goes to the contestant who has the "best" platform issue-- hers is related to autism). If you need an even easier way to remember the difference between the America and USA systems, Miss Alabama 2010, Ashley Davis, put it succinctly on Twitter: "Kate Middleton would be Miss Alabama, while Kim Kardashian would make a great Miss Alabama USA."

Other Miss America contestants have garnered their own fair share of press attention in the weeks leading up to the pageant. For instance, if you Google Miss DC Allyn Rose you get over 3 million hits.  Rose has appeared on all the morning talk shows, People, and many more in light of her decision to undergo a double mastectomy after the Pageant. Her mother passed away from breast cancer and while Rose herself has never had cancer she has a genetic predisposition (note that Miss New Hampshire, Megan Lyman, has survived cancer; Miss Alaska has shaved her head for cancer). It's unclear if the hype will help Rose, but I think we can all agree that we'd love to see her talent-- artistic roller skating-- live tomorrow night. Here she is competing in prelims earlier this week:

Allyn Rose doing her artistic roller skating routine in preliminaries at Miss America

Other health-related issues have some contestants in the press. Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, is the first state winner to compete with autism (STILL love the name of her platform). But Miss Puerto Rico, Kiaraliz Medina, takes the cake. During the opening number of the first night of preliminaries (though some reports say it was from her flamenco talent routine) she fell down the stairs. Later in the week she actually competed in swimsuit using crutches, which I'm pretty sure is a Miss America Atlantic City/Vegas stage first.

Miss Puerto Rico in Swimsuit on crutches!

She later competed in evening gown without her crutches. I wonder if that impressed Miss America judge McKayla Maroney (yes, gymnastics and pageantry: worlds collide)?!

McKayla not impressed as Miss America judge

(That's beloved former Miss America Katie Stam Irk who is also judging this year; another fun fact is that Mary Hart, host of ET, competed the year my mother crowned Phyllis George-- Hart made Top 10 [and sang poorly] but obviously did alright for herself in the end!)

Now that we know the preliminary winners it's a bit easier to make some predictions for tomorrow night. I think SS winner Miss South Carolina will go far, along with talent winner Miss Oklahoma. Not sure about the others, but I like talent winner Miss Maryland. I also personally like Texas and New Hampshire (who I met when I judged the Miss University/Strafford County Pageant) and am interested to see how my home state gal Taylor Kinzler does (she has a bit of the Miss America look; I saw her compete live at the 2011 state pageant where she was a runner-up).  I'll also throw Arizona in the mix since I know a very smart friend and Harvard beauty queen helped her prepare!

On a final note I always love pageant names, which I learned this year by studying the pageant book. Who else wants to see (no joke) Mariah Cary from Iowa do well (just so the announcers have to keep saying her name-- too bad she doesn't sing though, talent is tap dance)?! And she's not the only Mariah (so is Miss Nebraska). And, there are two "Sloanes" competing as well, Miss Arkansas and Miss Kansas, which I find particularly fun.

Check back next week for my final pageant thoughts, and follow my running commentary on Twitter Saturday night (where I'll be careful not too tweet too much and get put in Twitter jail)!

I'm an All-Around Gymnastics Fan: My events include reading, watching, commenting, and writing

I'm a big women's gymnastics fan. Knowing I love dance, sports, and nearly all things feminine and strong, this should come as no surprise.  If you know me it's also no surprise that while I took gymnastics as a kid I didn't last long.  I was flexible, but I was also fearful (I would think to myself, "Why should I risk falling off that beam when I can read a book about someone else on the beam?"). It's been a thrilling 24 hours for fans of USA gymnastics, with the women's team winning the team gold in decisive fashion.

As Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas prepare to compete in the All-Around competition I've been preparing for my own All-Around gymnastics meet.  My best event is the first- reading- and I'm really trying to up my game in the last event- writing.

1) Reading- Every four years the gymnastics shelf at the library gets restocked.  This year the bookshelf is especially full (likely due to the continued popularity of Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone, and Shawn Johnson from the last Games) for both kids and adults.

First is Donna Freitas' Gold Medal Summer, which I especially enjoyed knowing Freitas is a professor (of religion).

The message of Gold Medal Summer-- that you should pursue your dreams and not give them up for romance-- is a good one for young girls (especially because the romance still comes eventually).  The protagonist, 14-year-old Joey, has an interesting back story with her sister and family which gives the book more layers than the typical middle school activity-romance-friends storyline.

Two new series about young girls doing gymnastics are also aimed at young readers.  The McKenna American Girl books, which I've written about before (and which has now been made into a movie, discussed more below) are better for the elementary school crowd. 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu lends her name and expertise to another new series, The Go-for-Gold Gymnasts, aimed at middle-grade readers.  My favorite was Book 2, Balancing Act, because it obviously is meant to reflect some of Moceanu's own experiences as the child of Romanian immigrants.

I also liked that Moceanu and Thompson present important, and often overlooked, aspects of gymnastics in Balancing Act. They highlight that earning an NCAA scholarship is a worthy and important goal for many gymnasts-- that the Olympics aren't the end-all-be-all for most.  They also highlight that there are many hidden costs associated with competitive gymnasts (it's not just tuition and fees but also ace bandages and ice packs and hair accessories).  The characters aren't as nuanced as they are in Freitas' book, but the background knowledge is a bit deeper. The New York Times Book Review ran a review of the series and Freitas' book if you're interested in more comparisons.  I thought the observation that these particular books do not portray typical stage parents of the main characters is right on, but stage moms do make appearances in other parts of the stories.

In addition to her fictional series Moceanu also just released her memoir, Off Balance.  Readers get a sense of her gymnastics training along with an often shocking look at her family life-- including the discovery of a long-lost sister.  If you've been watching the Olympics and wondering why Bela Karoyli never mentions Dominique's name, you'll find out why he doesn't by reading Off Balance.

A different new memoir about gymnastics provides some insight as to why people like me-- non-gymnasts-- get so into the sport. Dvora Meyers' ebook Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, is a quirky look at how love of a childhood sport can continue throughout young adulthood and offer continuity through unstable life stages.

Another quirky, recent book is My Father's Dream of an Olympic Trampoline: Life Story of George Nissen, written by Nissen's daughter Dagmar. Because it's written by his daughter the tone is a bit over-laudatory.  But it was fascinating to read about how the trampoline was invented and marketed (and how it got its name from Nissen's time in Mexico). I also found it fascinating how Nissen's experiences as a gymnast and as a diver helped create the trampoline, now used for training in both (if you've been watching the springboard and platform diving you know how acrobatic the divers are).

Why did I include a book about trampolining here? Well it's not just artistic gymnastics that's included in the Olympics, there is also rhythmic gymnastics and trampolining.  Yes, trampolining is its own sport in the Olympics as of 2000.  I'm actually very excited to watch the Olympic trampolinists who perform some truly out of this world high-flying tricks.

2) Watching- Speaking of watching I try to give my reading eyes a rest by watching television.  In addition to coverage of the sport itself (from nationals to Trials to the Olympics) there have been two different television specials about gymnastics.

The first is McKenna Shoots for the Stars, based on the American Girl books. Despite an all-star cast-- including the somewhat head-scratching trio of Nia Vardalos, Ian Ziering, and Cathy Rigby-- the movie is cringe worthy at times thanks to an overly saccharine and staged feel.  I actually laughed out loud when McKenna, upset about an injury, melodramatically rips her gymnastics posters off her wall.  You can get a taste of it from the trailer if you watch around 1:13.

A more interesting take was a three-part, two-hour long documentary on Aly Raisman, Quest for Gold [now achieved!] shown on the Comcast network (you can also watch all of it in chunks on the website Gymnastike).  I fell in love with Aly's father and brother while watching the last part of the documentary.  There's a great scene of them watching Aly at Nationals (only her mother went with her to that competition while the rest of the family stayed in Massachusetts) and yelling at the TV for her to stick.  If you haven't seen the now viral video of her mom and dad watching her compete bars in Olympic team prelims then you're missing out.

One television show is glaringly absent from my line-up and that's ABC Family's Make It or Break It. I don't have anything against the network (as you know, I've been watching Bunheads), but I never got into this show-- probably because I didn't love the inspiration for it, the movie Stick It.

3) Commenting- While I've converted my husband to the dark side of emotional gymnastics viewing it's still great to commune with other fans via message boards and Twitter.  My favorite gymnastics blog is Get a Grip. The author also puts together the wickedly clever and funny Gym Memes.

I tweet about gymnastics fairly often and I love reading comments from gymnastics commentators and expert fans. I put together a public list of those who provide some of the best insight.

While this seems like the shortest event for me (the vault of my All-Around fan experience, if you will), it actually takes up quite a bit of time!

4) Writing- In addition to tweeting and blogging I do write articles.  Researching a recent short piece on Brestyan's American Gymnastics Clubs (that appeared in July's Boston Magazine as "From Coddled Kids to World-Class Gymnasts") was great fun because I actually got to see both Aly Raisman and Alicia Sacramone train (for the record they were both vaulting while I watched and Aly also worked on her beam set-- which she'll now be competing on in the Olympic event finals!).  I was professional on the outside, but fangirl-y on the inside.

It's been wonderful to see Aly share her gold medal with Mihai Brestyan who is clearly a dedicated, but level-headed, coach.  Even during such a busy time Mihai spoke with me for over an hour impressing me with his thoughts on developing young talent in the US.  One important point that didn't make it into the printed article is that Bretyan knows not everyone is an Aly or Alicia. He emphasizes NCAA gymnastics as a wonderful outlet, and as a way for families to recoup all they have invested monetarily in gymnastics over the years in the form of a four-year college scholarship.  Local news is already reporting families with young girls flocking to the gym in Burlington.  While their daughters might not end up as Olympians, or even college athletes, parents should know that Brestyan will help mold their daughters into all-around people.

And All-Around fans like me will enjoy watching from the sidelines.

The Summer of Dance (on TV)

If last summer was The Summer of the Stage Mothers, this summer is The Summer of Dance (although if you watched Oxygen's reality show The Next Big Thing about Trapper Felides, a famous children's performance coach in NYC, you would know the stage moms are still lingering-- as are the Dance Moms on Lifetime). Actually since 2005 I've associated the summer with dance. Why? That's when So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) premiered.  While some might say Dancing with the Stars is responsible for the revival of dance on television if you look at the dance styles featured on the show I think it's thanks to SYTYCD.

While SYTYCD is the original and will always hold a special place in my heart, lately I've found it a bit predictable (not unlike its sister show American Idol).  In a sure sign of SYTYCD's success, one of its runners-up, Travis Wall (Season 2), now has his own show (although I feel like the show really jumped the shark last week when Nigel accused one of the choreographers of being mean like Abby Lee Miller and they then cut to a shot of her in the audience).  Like The Next Big Thing, All the Right Moves airs on Oxygen starting July 31.  Nick Lazzarini, the first winner of SYTYCD, also is featured on the show and I can't wait to see some of my favorite dancers onscreen again.

This summer I discovered some new favorite dancers thanks to The CW's Breaking Pointe (a real-life version of Center Stage [for the true pop culture fans out there, I laugh every time "Jody Sawyer and her bad feet" show up on my screen in Pretty Little Liars, my other guilty pleasure of the summer]), a docu-reality series about a set of dancers in Salt Lake City's ballet company Ballet West. I especially loved Beckanne Sisk; she also apparently appears in the dance documentary of the summer, First Position, which I sadly have not yet been able to see because of the Little Man, but I can't wait to see it! I mean, who wouldn't love these feet?

I found this article from Dance Magazine on Ballet West's decision to allow cameras in to be quite interesting-- and a commentary on the need for the arts today to find innovative sources of audience members and money in today's constrained environment.

While I love that I get to see Broadway star Sutton Foster on my TV screen once a week thanks to the new ABC Family Show Bunheads (not at all related to the book Bunheads by Sophie Flack I reviewed a few months ago) it's clear that TV and its money is still a draw even for the biggest stars of the Great White Way.  The show itself is a bit farcical, but I've enjoyed seeing the likes of Gary Janetti (who can forget the Les Mis flashmob he gifted his boyfriend Brad Goreski?!) and some talented young dancers/actresses. I only wish they would let Sutton do THIS more often:

Finally, that old standby TLC has been getting in on the dance action.  Last month they aired a new special on Irish dancing (not the fun documentary, Jig, I reviewed last fall), which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube by following this link.  [The New York Times Magazine got in on the act too last month, with this provocative spread on Irish dancers.] At their fall upfronts TLC announced they are filming their own reality show based on competitive Irish dance in the US.  And they're trying out a competitive kiddie cheer show.  Last week they aired Cheer Perfection starring the Dunlaps, who have been on Toddlers & Tiaras. Another crossover network star a la Honey Boo Boo Child, apparently. TLC doesn't have to pay for much show development when their shows just spin-off more and more interesting series... By the way, looks like these cheer moms in Arkansas give the Pittsburgh dance moms a run for their money in the crazy race, though they don't seem to approach the levels of the Texas cheerleader murdering mom. Yet.

While it's been my summer of dance thus far in less than two weeks most of my attention will be focused on Olympic sports. I'm especially excited about gymnastics, as you might expect-- though I wish that some of the gymnasts would learn some better dance skills.  What has been your favorite dance show of the summer and which Olympic event/athlete are you most looking forward to watching?