The C Score (2.0)

Who is the real next Mary Lou?

Posted on: September 16, 2008

This article from a few days ago in the San Diego Union Tribune highlights an interesting phenomenon from this first post-Olympic month.

Shawn Johnson was in town for the filming of “Frosted Pink with a Twist,” a charity event I described in a previous post, and the Union-Tribune spoke to her between appearances at 5 local T.V. stations. Though she didn’t get the Wheaties box, Johnson has major deals with Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and adidas, among others.

As this article notes:

It’s easy to forget that Johnson didn’t win the individual all-around gold medal in Beijing (Liukin did) and that her lone gold came in the balance beam (she won silvers in team, all-around and floor exercise). But Johnson’s magnetic appeal is a lesson in Marketing 101: that what you win is sometimes less important than what you represent, and a freckled kid from America’s heartland with an infectious smile is a hot commodity.

This comes as no surprise. Johnson has an infectious smile and a tremendously upbeat personality. Liukin is graceful and beautiful, obviously, but in an almost forbidding way. Johnson simply looks more like Mary Lou.

Compare Mary Lou’s experience to Carly Patterson’s four years ago. This great article from the Los Angeles Times caught up with Patterson recently. She’s still trying to pursue that singing career, but it isn’t working out so well. As the article notes:

Four years ago, [Carly] Patterson seemed well-placed to become America’s New Sweetheart. As soon as Patterson was in position to win that gold, journalists swarmed [Mary Lou] Retton to ask if this blond-haired Texan would finally push her into the history books. “I hope so,” Retton replied. “It’s time for someone to take my place.” It didn’t happen.

Let’s go back to Liukin and Johnson. Do we think that if Johnson had won that Liukin would be seeing as many appearance requests as Johnson is now? I’m skeptical. Patterson said of herself:

“My nature is not like Mary Lou. … Mary Lou is bubbly. I was never bubbly.”

The same is true of Liukin. She’s pleasant when she’s on talk shows, but she doesn’t draw in all populations in the crowd the same way Johnson does.

So far, this issue may be a little superficial. But then we have to think about what this means for the gymnasts, and, namely, what they can do with their fame. Some athletes, like Michelle Kwan, have become role models (and, in her case, political appointees) while others, especially those who have tried to use their athletic careers to pursue careers in entertainment, have fallen from the spotlight very quickly.

We like capitalism in this country, but, at least in our Olympic athletes (can’t say the same for professional athletes in the NBA, etc.), we want true role models too. So far, I’ve been most impressed with Chellsie Memmel’s decision to start a literacy campaign called There’s More Than One Way to Flip, which supports literacy in the greater Milwaukee area. I hope there’s more to come from the other team members.

The conclusion is best put by Evan Morgenstein, who is a big-time agent for gymnasts (Liukin is one of them … we’ll have to wait and see how he does with her):

“In the Olympics, being America’s next little sweetheart is not just about winning gold. It’s about having a story and a willingness to want to be involved in doing the things you need to do, about having an impact on young kids’ lives and about wanting to give back to your sport. When the cameras turn off you have to be willing to do things that aren’t all about making money.”

And then, there’s the famous smile …

Shawn Johnson

Shawn Johnson

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1 Response to "Who is the real next Mary Lou?"

She’s infectious, but sans AA gold, it will not happen for her.

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