Denise Luna lay in the dirt gasping for air, her ribs burning with pain. With the huge bull still bucking beside her, the slender 26-year-old tried to roll out of harm's way, but her muscles refused. "I couldn't even crawl," says Luna, thrown while competing in July's Mesquite Championship Rodeo near Dallas. "The bull had kicked a nerve in my legs, and they were totally numb. And he'd slammed me to the ground so hard that a rib I'd cracked the week before had broken, along with two more. My belt buckle was caved in from where he'd stepped on my gut."
Just a week later, Luna, looking a bit wan, unwrapped the tape binding her ribs just long enough to slip into a silver blue swimsuit for a four-hour beer-ad photo shoot. "Hey, are you gonna be okay?" asked photographer Dan Strout. "Yeah, sure," she said. "It hurts a little, but I'm healing fast. Let's go!"
Luna's life may be the ultimate mix of glamor and grit. Ranked the world's fourth best female bull rider by the Professional Women's Rodeo Association, the 5'6", 120-lb. Bedford, Texas, resident is also pulling in $25,000 a year digging her heels into a budding modeling career for Wrangler jeans, Bud Light and other clients. "Denise has more heart and more try than some male cowboys I know," says bull rider Ralph Mosqueda. "I tell her to keep reaching for the stars, 'cause she's gonna be one someday."
That's if her other career—the one involving 2,000-pound beasts with a yearning to tap-dance on her head—doesn't do permanent damage. "If I had my way, she'd wear a protective helmet and a mask," says photographer Strout. "One hoofprint could ruin her face for life." Luna, fully aware of the danger (one of her idols, Lane Frost, whose life was chronicled in the 1994 film 8 Seconds, died in a bull-riding accident in 1989), does use the protective vest worn by most bull riders, but declines the lacrosse-style mask. "I've heard that the bull's horn can get hooked on the mask and snap your neck," she explains.
The rewards, compared with the risks, are paltry. Luna's ranking is based on her earnings, which this year total less than $1,500. By contrast, the top male bull riders can earn about $100,000 annually. But that inequity has forged a bond among the 16 women who compete on the PWRA circuit. "We're all really close," says Tammy Kelly, 36, of Queen Creek, Ariz., the current top-ranked rider. "We've gotta be, 'cause there's only a few of us." They share long drives and hotel rooms during the 40-event season, believing that the more attention they attract, the more money—and acceptance—will follow. "We get a lot of the 'You should be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen' comments," Luna says. "I answer, 'When I find a man who gives me as big a rush as I get from a bull, that's when I'll quit riding.' That usually shuts 'em up."
Luna got her start in rodeo three years ago, when she tagged along with a male friend on his way to bull-riding practice and talked the other cowboys into letting her ride a bucking steer. To their surprise, Luna "covered" the steer, riding the eight seconds required in men's competition. (For women it's six.) "The only problem was I didn't know how to get off," she recalls with a laugh. After practicing for a year, Luna got her PWRA permit and hit the circuit.
Always adventurous, Luna grew up surfing in San Diego. The daughter of teenage parents, she never knew her father and was first raised by her grandmother Delfina Benitez, who died in 1976, then by her mother, Carmen, 44, a hotel housekeeper. "Like most California girls my age, my dream was to become some kind of star when I grew up," says Luna. But as a tomboyish, headstrong teen she clashed with her mother—though the relationship is amicable now—and struck out on her own, moving into an apartment with a friend at 16.
After graduating from high school in 1990, Luna spent a semester at community college before joining a friend in Arlington, Texas, in 1992. There, she met and married a Navy man, though the marriage lasted only a year. Luna continued working as a bartender at Cowboys, a honky-tonk where she still moonlights, passing out long-neck bottles of beer and riding the mechanical bull during breaks. A secretarial job led to her first modeling session, for a local apparel company.
Currently single and living in a one-bedroom apartment with her three cats, Luna daydreams about owning "a beautiful strawberry roan, with land to keep it on, and maybe some bulls—not for bucking purposes, but as pets." For now, Luna draws inspiration from the photos on her walls of such past female rodeo legends as Kitty Canutt and Prairie Rose Henderson and hopes she can hold on for the rest of the ride. "When I drive away from a rodeo, even if I didn't cover or didn't win, I'm satisfied simply knowing that I got on, that I didn't chicken out," she says, adding significantly, "and that I'm still in one piece."
Sophfronia Scott Gregory
Anne Lang in Bedford
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