|Being Josie Bruin: blood and tears|
By Alysse Minkoff
Special to Page 2
As I shake my fur-covered fanny in a mostly PG-13 kinda way in front of the 93,000 mostly-Trojan fans at the USC/UCLA football game, I try desperately to enjoy the most thrilling and completely terrifying moment of my life. I am artfully disguised as Josephine "Josie" Bruin, the UCLA mascot. For one shining quarter I am the school mascot. There is (almost) nothing I can't get away with. It's really time to savor the experience.
Before I can even get into my position on the field, the band starts to play Beyonce's "Crazy In Love." That means only one thing: time for "The Booty Dance." Oh, goody! It's all 'tush' and very little actual choreography to remember. For comfort, rapper Jay-Z's sage and eloquent words, "History, in the Making!" echo in my brain. This Plush-Toy puts her paws out in front of her. I stick my fur-clad derriere out with a saucy little wiggle. I get up on my tiptoes and try desperately not to look like a complete geek in the process. Josie's tail helps me accomplish this task nicely. I hope.
When the song ends, I take in the scene for a moment while I try to catch my breath. It's hard to believe that a week ago, being Josie Bruin was this diehard Bruin fan's very distant dream. And less than a week later, I am in the end zone, just hoping I don't pass out in the process of living it.
UCLA junior Kristen Clemmons, the uber-effervescent Head Mascot, has been my den mother, choreographer and confidante this week. If I am going to be allowed the privilege of being Josie during a quarter of the biggest football game of the year, I needed to be schooled and cooled in All Things Josie. Junior Diana Martinez is my partner, Joe Bruin.
The Mascot Squad has six members: three Joes and three Josies. Pregame. First Half. Second Half. The Problem: There's only one man on the squad -- Jonathan Tiongco, or JT. So two women, Diana and Katie Tranberger, perform as Joe. This makes for a whole lot of strapping down of ... ummm, breasts between quarters.
The Mascot Rules are simple: 1.) Never, ever, be seen in public without your head; 2.) No fighting or violence of any kind, not even obliquely; 3.) No eating or drinking while in the suit; 4.) No talking; 5.) No bumping, grinding or overtly sexy dancing. And, definitely no lap dances.
There is absolutely no leeway, whatsoever, on the 'Don't' list.
The 'Do' list is a whole lot more fun for Josie: Flirt outrageously. Blow kisses like an out-of-control beauty queen. Wave like a member of British Royalty. Hug, hug and hug. Then hug some more. Shake your tail whenever and wherever possible. Strike a lot of girly, come-hither poses. Shimmy like there is absolutely no tomorrow. And Strut. It's all about the Josie Strut -- which means it's all about the hips.
The Josie Strut comes fairly easily and effortlessly to me, even with the seven-pound mascot head strapped on.
The choreography lesson comes next.
Hold on a minute. Choreography? As in dance steps that are actually memorized? I didn't sign up for that.
"Well, you don't want to look stupid out there, do you?" Kristin chirped on Thursday at my first practice. I'm a 43-year-old woman who has consented to wear a Bear Suit in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. I think I drove past Stupid a while ago.
When in Rome, I reckon. No bad Trojan pun intended.
Over the course of two hours, I learn three different numbers: "The Sons of Westwood," "Mighty," and "Ow!"
"Full out fever! You rock!" Kristin praises. "Let's get out to the Bonfire!"
I meet Irana Mendoza, who will be Josie during the pep rally while Diana suits up as Joe. The moment they step out into public, the magic begins -- and so does my panic and feeling of gross inadequacy. In costume, Diana/Joe is incredibly 'Butch.' Joe is all about being tough -- chest-thumping, high-fiving. Joe is just your average All-American, friendly bear who's a little bit Gangsta. Josie, however, is a coquettish little flirt. Her strut just borders on being slightly tarty. As the gathering crowd goes nuts, one thing becomes blazingly apparent: There is no way I can accomplish this daunting task on Game Day. No Can Do. When I'm in costume, I can 'bear'-ly keep Josie's head from flying off. I can't remember the dance steps I was taught mere moments before. Plus, I'm claustrophobic in the suit. I can't seem to get the smell of Febreeze fabric softener out of my nostrils. And those kids look like they are actually having fun out there. What have I managed to get myself into? I want to go into my cave and ... (sorry, can't resist) hibernate.
At the bonfire, while the band cranks up Beyonce's "Crazy In Love," Kristen teaches me the steps as I stand next to UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell. He is eyeing my every move. Obviously, Coach Dorrell is trying to figure out if I can play tight end for him on Saturday. After watching me mangle my very first 'Booty-Shake,' the coach clearly decides my end isn't nearly tight enough. Dorrell looks dubious.
"So you're going to be our Mascot?" he asks. "For the entire fourth quarter? In the suit and everything?"
Where is his inspiring pep talk? The win-one-for-the-Wizard speech? All I get is a weak, "Well, at least the weather will be in your favor." And then he breaks into a huge smile. The kind of dazzling smile that lights up the night. The kind of smile that no one really knows he has.
"You'll be all right," he says.
Somehow, this is not nearly as reassuring as it should have been. I wonder: Is there a performance-enhancing drug for mascots? And if so, where can I find some. Pronto.
Six hours of practicing my choreography, two sleepless, anxiety-filled nights and one very spirited bus ride later, I am standing in the end zone of the Coliseum surrounded by the Bruin Faithful -- a very small and verrry quiet throng in comparison to all that Cardinal. Somehow, I make it through my First Dance. Bear-ly. But I can't see a damn thing. I am sweating beyond belief, and I can't seem to catch my breath.
Kristen bounces over. "Hey Josie! It's time for your Stunt!"
And before I can say "wrongful death lawsuit," it is Josie's Moment of Truth: The Half-Ground-Up Stunt. It goes like something vaguely like this: one foot per very strong man. A couple of guys cover Josie's tail. Some extra spotters are on the sides. One girl grabs Josie's paws and says, "Bend your knees. Let us do all the work. Then lock your knees and let go of my hands." And before I can yell, "Go Bruins!" I am lifted six feet up into the air. Pompoms and all.
I am, in that moment, Invincible. Memories of all those USC/UCLA games I attended with my late parents flash by me. The geeky, sulky, adolescent girl who never had the guts to try out for the cheerleading squad, and who continually dreamed up ways to make her parents' lives miserable throughout high school, is soaring over the Coliseum. I really, really miss my folks. And I hope that my Mom and Dad are passing a flask somewhere, proudly watching their Little Girl. Flirty. Saucy. And Triumphant. I am Josie Bruin.
Safely back on terra firma, I am hugged and high-fived by the Squad, and the band suddenly launches into a disco tune. Joe grabs Josie/Me, and we start to boogie. I am having a complete blast until halfway through the song, when the dance-team coach, Rachel, comes up behind Josie and barks, "Quit dancing so sexily with Joe! Cut it out. Dance to the crowd, Josie." She turns me around, almost knocking me over in the process.
I mean, Really. Lighten up. I am 43-year-old journalist in brown fur, not a 19-year-old coed in a Wonder-Bra. And just exactly how sexy can you be when you're covered in brown carpeting and holding onto pompoms with a mascot face bolted into your skull? But I am stricken. And severely chastened. I do not want to embarrass my beloved Bruins. So I comply. I sulk and I pout. And Josie's smiling face never betrays me.
"You're doing great Josie," Kristen tries to reassure me. "You're not doing anything wrong. And everybody loves you. So let's take you up into the Student Section to meet some of your new fans."
I huff and puff up 95 terrifying steps to the utter delight of the inebriated fourth-quarter fans who all seem to want a piece of Me. I mean, Josie. Actually, I feel more like J-Lo. Somehow, and with the help of my intrepid photographer and UCSB's starting first baseman, Bill Rowe, I am able to navigate my way through the crowd and down a different set of 95 steps.
"Just watch out for that damn Horse!" he says as he puts me back on the field with the Spirit Squad.
Moments before I suited up as Josie, I'd walked over to USC mascot Tommy Trojan and Traveler, The Horse -- for a little Mascot Bonding Session. Tommy was completely obliging in the way that only a man wearing a tunic and sword could possibly manage. Traveler, however, took the opportunity to bite me on the shoulder. Really hard.
"Must not like the colors you're wearing!" Tommy mused.
I am the bigger Bruin. And more mature. I resisted the urge to bite Traveler back. Where's the love between rival mascots? Aren't we all in the same Union or something? Question: Do I need a rabies shot?
Thankfully, as I step out on the field again, the damn horse is nowhere in sight. UCLA scores twice in the fourth quarter. Apparently. I still can't see anything -- not the players, not the scoreboard. The only sound I can hear is the Bruin Marching Band playing the first few notes of "Sons of Westwood." Bill hands me Josie's pompoms and I go back to work. I remember every single piece of choreography. Execute it flawlessly. And when the song is over, I make sure to shake Josie's tail a little more than is really necessary. Take that, Diva Dance Team!
Drenched in sweat, struggling to catch my breath, one of the security guards grabs me. Uh-Oh. I am so totally busted. A little too much Tail. Now I'm going to be arrested. Sent back to my den for a Time-Out. How am I going to explain this to my editor, let alone John Wooden? I'm going to be banned from Pauley Pavilion for Conduct Unbecoming Josie Bruin.
"There's someone who wants to see you," the guard says. "Now!"
I turn around and see (out of Josie's left eye) a tiny little girl with beautifully curled hair. She is probably no more than five years old, and she's dressed up as a UCLA Cheerleader. She bolts right past a security guard, squealing "Josie!" at the top of her lungs, and runs out on the field and into my arms. I scoop her up into a Bear Hug.
"I love you, Josie," she yells into Josie's ear, and she kisses Josie and doesn't let go. And that's when it hits me. Big Time. And I burst into tears. Josie delivers her back to her Mom's care, smiling and waving; but inside the suit, I am crying and sniffling. Is this how Dick Vermeil's famous and frequent crying jags got started?
As predicted, UCLA loses to USC -- a good old-fashioned ass-kicking. Final score: 47-22. Still, Josie proudly prances her way into the tunnel -- after hugging as many UCLA and USC players, coaches and sideline journalists as possible, natch. (Mascot) head held high, and safely ensconced in JT and Bill's protective embrace, Josie eventually makes her way back to the bus. Josie's security detail yells from behind, "You work it, Girl! You shake that tail, now!"
They're cracking themselves up. I am still sniffling.
As soon I'm on the bus and can peel Josie's head off, the entire Spirit Squad bursts into applause. Bill hands me a bottle of water and starts to wipe my face with a handkerchief.
"You're totally bleeding," he says, surveying the damage to my face. "I guess it isn't just about the Bobby-Pins and the Babes, is it?"
In my haste to get out on the field, I had forgotten to attach the chinstrap inside Josie's head. The Result: a huge gash on my nose. Not pretty.
Kristen leans over. "I am really proud of what you did out there today," she says.
Diana chimes in, "You really did an awesome job."
Even Irana, whose Josie Strut is the stuff dreams are made of, is proud. I do not remember much of the bus ride back to Westwood. Or putting Josie's head back on to get out of the bus. Or the stairs to the parking garage. Or the car ride home. However, I do remember the look of disbelief on my neighbor Helga's face when she sees a very large bear dressed in a cheerleading skirt get out of an SUV surrounded by six giggling Spirit Squad members. She grabs her mother, Paula, who is visiting from Germany, so that Josie can pose for one last photo.
JT, Diana, Irana, Kristen, Bill and I go to the Daily Grill in Brentwood to celebrate our Un-Bear-ably excellent adventure. We catch up on Spirit Squad gossip. Replay every second of my Star-Turn as Josie Bruin, in vivid detail. While the kids order lemonade and iced tea, Kristin spies something on the Wine List.
"Bring this lady a glass of Toasted Head Chardonnay."
The entire table is awash in raucous laughter.
"You have no idea how much she has earned it," Kristen says.
No idea, indeed. I'll let you know as soon as I get The Josie Strut out of my walk.
Alysse Minkoff has written for Ladies Home Journal, Cigar Aficionado Magazine and MSNBC, and can be reached at AGirlReporter@aol.com. She is still hoping a UCLA alum will invite her to the private luncheon honoring John Wooden and the UCLA-Michigan State basketball game on Dec. 20.