Mary Lou Retton captured the nation's imagination like no other Olympian, and corporate America has clutched at this clenched-fist cutie, while spurning the likes of Carl Lewis and Greg Louganis. Retton already has long-term contracts with Vidal Sassoon, McDonald's and General Mills, which cumulatively could be worth close to $1 million. She has also signed with two clothing companies: America's Cluett, Peabody and Japan's Renown. Advertising Age calls the marketing of Mary Lou the most successful in sports history. Since the Olympics ended, Retton has visited 28 cities. Assistant Editor Deirdre Donahue recounts a typical day on Retton's road to riches.
11 a.m. America's pet pixie is having a perfectly beastly day. Up at 7 a.m. in Indianapolis to catch a 9 a.m. flight to New York's La Guardia Airport, she is gazing forlornly out the window of a black limousine at the approaching Manhattan skyline. She has a cold that leaves her brown eyes brimming and would like nothing better than to hole up in her hotel room, call Mom in West Virginia and catch up on her favorite soaps, Guiding Light and All My Children. "My resistance," she snuffles, "isn't up to the cold weather." But with three corporations representing a $13 billion chunk of the GNP waiting for you, you can't exactly call in sick. McDonald's, The Southland Corporation and Cluett, Peabody expect August's darling dynamo, not a runny-nosed teenager.
With Mary Lou is her agent, John Traetta, 41, a former gymnastics coach who met Retton three years ago. Retton is reflecting on her instant celebrity. Everywhere she goes—airports, hotels, restaurants, boardrooms, washrooms—people say, "Way to go, Mary Lou" and "Good job." They ask her to autograph luggage tags, bits of paper, once even a popsicle stick, with her loopy girlish handwriting. "It's crazy," she says, "really weird. People come up to me and say, 'Mary Lou, Mary Lou.' Not even my last name, just 'Mary Lou.' " Recalling a recent trip to Japan, she says, "I thought I could walk the streets unrecognized, but people would turn around and whisper 'Retton-san, Retton-san.' Is it," she wonders, "always going to be like this?"
Noon Mary Lou totters into a Manhattan steak house on 2½-inch high heels, toes stuffed with bits of tissue paper so the size-5 shoes won't fall off. She is here to accept the Olympia Award, an honor given to various amateur athletes by The Southland (7-Eleven) Corporation. Retton takes a seat for the first of the day's two press conferences. Her feet dangling off her chair, too short to touch the floor, Retton patiently answers a barrage of questions that she no doubt has been asked countless times before.
"Are you retired?"
"What about Seoul '88?"
"Maybe—I'm not sure."
"Tell us the best moment of the Olympics."
"When they hung the medal around my neck."
"What do you miss most?"
"My family" (she visits them once a month).
"Where are your medals?"
"In a safety deposit box."
"How do you feel now?"
"I'm still flying."
Standing slightly away from the maelstrom around Mary Lou is her brother, Ronnie Jr., 23. He serves occasionally as her escort on the road and in Houston, where they share a two-bedroom, furnished apartment. "Hey," he reasons, "who better to cramp her life-style than me?" Ronnie is, of course, proud of his sister but he remains unawed: "She's still the same little girl I've known for 16 years, flipping over couches."
On trips Ronnie gets more free time than his sister. He skips a scheduled business meeting in favor of a Greenwich Village shopping spree. Adjusting his Risky Business shades, he ambles down Fifth Avenue while Mary Lou looks wistfully after him.
Mary Lou has a red Corvette, but she is still 16. She doesn't have a credit card. She fidgets when she's bored and retreats to the ladies' room when she's really had it with all the business babble. Even though her picture graces Wheaties boxes, she's enough of a kid to confess, "I like Cap'n Crunch myself." And her proposed New Year's resolutions could be lifted from the diary of any Seventeen magazine reader. "Maybe I'll give up chewing gum," she says, "or stop cracking my knuckles, or picking my toenails."
At least her coach, Bela Karolyi, isn't telling her to lose weight. Although Mary Lou appears to have put on several pounds and lost some of her muscle tone since August, Karolyi is unconcerned. "I believe it would be cruel to ask an athlete to remain in the top shape she had been in for the Olympics," he says. "She is still handling her performances amazingly well."
He sees no conflict between Retton's continuing career as an athlete and the avalanche of endorsements. "Any outside work she does comes out of her free time," he insists. From Christmas until March, Retton will be in serious training at Karolyi's Houston school (where enrollment has doubled in the past few months). She is expected to start competing again late this winter, perhaps in March at McDonald's America Cup in Indianapolis.
After picking at a lunch of lettuce soaked in a sour vinaigrette sauce, a rare steak and potatoes, the elfin gymnast chats with various beefy corporate types. She poses good-naturedly for photographs and puts up with the inevitable comment, "I've never felt so tall," as people measure themselves against her 4'9".
2 p.m. Driving down Broadway on the way to a business meeting, Mary Lou stares out the car window at a poster for the musical Cats. "I want to see a Broadway play," she announces. "I'll arrange it," replies her agent. Further down, the marquees tender more seamy pleasures. I Like to Watch leers one; Hot Sluts promises another. She giggles saucily as Traetta commands, "Mary Lou! Close your eyes."
3 p.m. "We're here to take your money," jokes Traetta as he and Mary Lou walk into a conference room at Cluett, Peabody. Retton meets various clothing czars and examines the logo that will identify every "Mary Lou Retton for Dobie" item. Aimed at school-age girls, the line will be released next June. "Making Mary Lou big, that's what marketing is all about, kiddo," announces one executive.
In the antiseptic boardroom, Mary Lou delivers a short speech on all things girlish and dainty. "Being 16 years old, I know how you're always fixing your hair, fixing your clothes," although she admits, "I probably need a personal fashion consultant." Later, while reviewing the tops, sweat suits and stirrupped pants that will comprise her line, she aims a direct finger at a leotard. "The crotch," she states firmly, "is too narrow."
7:30 p.m. Boosted by a bowl of chicken soup, Retton bounces into the Hackensack, N.J. gymnastics school owned by Traetta. "How ya' doin' " she greets a crowd of large-eyed girls and boys. Sitting beneath a sign that exhorts "GET TUFF," she is encircled by small leotard-encased bodies who ply her with questions on topics dear to the Tiger Beat crowd: Matt Dillon ("I've given up on that dude," laments Mary Lou about the man she told Joan Rivers she most wanted next to her in that red Corvette), John Ritter ('He's just like he is on TV") and Emmanuel Lewis ("that lil' Webster dude, now he's small").
Tomorrow the Rettonization of America will continue. Mary Lou is scheduled to make an appearance for McDonald's and attend a lunch hosted by Macy's. The following day she'll be on a plane, headed home to West Virginia. But for now she is in her element—the balance beam over here, uneven bars over there and a gaggle of eager gymnasts to trade teen talk with. Not even Mary Lou can vault straight from childhood to adulthood, but she'll get there soon enough.
Four months later the image is still sharp. The muscled body tensed, the 75-foot dash down the runway and suddenly she is airborne, arcing, twisting impossibly. Then just as suddenly, she is back on the mat, arms raised in triumph.