FOX Sports Exclusive
Gabby Douglas coping with demands
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa
All America’s Sweetheart wanted was a couple scoops of ice cream.
It was nearing midnight in London when Gabby Douglas’ family picked the 16-year-old up from the Olympic Village. They were taking Gabby on her first night away from the village since she became the first American gymnast to win both team and all-around gold. Her older siblings had told her about a wondrous place at a hospitality house for athletes and their families, an ice cream bar with the best ice cream in the world, with every topping you could imagine, even with an ice cream made of real honeycomb.
Gabby figured she could sneak in and sneak out. After all, it was the middle of the night. But the moment the newly minted celebrity walked in, she was swarmed: “It’s Gabby!” Business executives surrounded her. They took pictures and asked for autographs. The clock passed midnight. Gabby smiled for every picture, signed every autograph, but at one point her mother, Natalie Hawkins, saw a hint of sadness in that smile. It had been nearly a half-hour, and the girl still hadn’t gotten her ice cream.
This was the moment America’s Sweetheart learned about the trade-off of celebrity.
Celebrity is, of course, an amazing thing. They escort you to the VIP shopping area at the Louis Vuitton store on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, which happened to Gabby in Los Angeles when she appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” The First Lady rearranges her schedule because she wants to meet you. Lolo Jones promises to get Usain Bolt to follow you on Twitter. Oprah Winfrey flies to Iowa for an interview at the family’s house where you stayed for two years, training for the Olympics.
But the other side of celebrity is that, sometimes, you just want some ice cream.
“I just wanna go get some ice cream, and people crowd around me, and I can’t get my ice cream!” the always bubbly Gabby told FOXSports.com the other day. She was sitting with her mother in one of those anonymous plaster-block hotels in a suburb outside Des Moines. The night before was the first night since the Olympics where she’d gotten more than three hours sleep. They had to switch from a downtown hotel because so many people were noticing her.
She thought about what her new life means, and she stuck out her lower lip in faux sadness: No running on the treadmill at a hotel gym without people snapping pictures. No heading to the Iowa State Fair with her mother to see Boyz II Men: “I knew I couldn’t go without a disguise,” Gabby said.
And no ice cream.
That’s not to say that Gabby isn’t over the moon about her newfound celebrity. Her two gold medals led to her being featured on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” honored at a homecoming for Iowa Olympians, and plastered on the front of a Corn Flakes box. This is what she has wanted since she watched the 2008 Olympics and figured she could do everything those Olympic gymnasts were doing. This is what she’s aimed for since she convinced her mom she should move to Iowa to train with Shawn Johnson’s coach.
But since she left for London less than a month ago, this attention has been all-consuming. It’s so suffocating that her own mother is trying to get used to calling her by a new name. Natalie Hawkins always called her daughter Brie, but gymnasts started calling her Gabby, and that’s the name that stuck.
“Everybody’s calling her that,” Hawkins said. “Oprah says, ‘I like Gabby! It’s endearing!’ But I try to do it and it’s just weird.”
Also weird: A few nights ago, when Gabby’s mere presence in the Charlotte airport delayed a plane.
Gabby and her mother were on their way back to Des Moines on Friday night. They walked up to the gate, and a few people recognized her. They wanted to get a picture. Then those few people became a sea of people. Then the sea of people got bigger. Airport security was dispatched to take Gabby to a secure room. The plane was about to take off, but nobody was boarding.
“And the pilot comes off the plane and just says, ‘Now what’s going on?’ ” Gabby’s mother laughed. “And you see all these cameras flashing and lights. The pilot breaks through the crowd and says, ‘IT’S GABBY! Guys, you gotta get on the plane. We’re about to leave. But not before I get my picture taken!’ ”
The tradeoff of celebrity, Gabby insists, is just fine. So her mom now has to register at hotels under a different name? So the paparazzi calls her New York City hotel at 2 a.m. to figure what time their car will pick them up? So she’s in Beverly Hills, the home of celebrity, and people jump out of their cars and run out of restaurants to snap her picture? So the media writes intimate family details of divorce and bankruptcy, things no 16-year-old wants to discuss publicly?
Gabby Douglas knows it comes with the territory. She says it with such maturity and such a smile that it can be easy to forget that she’s only 16. And the next big moment in her life isn’t securing yet another endorsement deal. It’s not figuring which celebrity party she’ll attend.
The next big moment in the life of America’s Sweetheart is getting her driver’s license.
She has no idea when she’ll be able to carve out the time to learn.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
More Stories From Reid Forgrave