The Cheerlebrity Phenomenon, Part Two

Photo credit: Zoha Photography

To limit the distraction of having a cheerlebrity teammate, Twist & Shout’s Orson Sykes sets strict rules during competitions for cheerlebrities regarding what’s expected of them, even when it once meant having a sit-down discussion with Whitney Love about strolling around too much at Worlds. (The cheerlebrity quickly isolated herself and went on to give the best performance of her life, Sykes says.)

“You have to make sure that the boundaries are set in place,” Sykes adds. “Whitney and Britni [Love] weren’t allowed to sign autographs or take pictures in the warm-up room. We insulated them to keep people away. At the end of the day, we’re at this competition to perform well. This is not a personal appearance for you.”

Former Cheer Extreme All-Star and current University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill student Maddie Gardner appeared a CNN special about Cheer Extreme that focused largely on her, has her own line of Fancy Face cosmetics and will star in an upcoming Cheer Channel show, Cheer Mashup. Aware of the impact her cheerlebrity might have on her teammates, Gardner recently dedicated an entire post on her blog, “Let’s Hear It for the Bases,” to her team.

“My coach always told us that the flyer is like the quarterback,” she says. “They do receive much of the glory, but also much criticism. I feel as though the bases and backspot play a very influential role in the group; without them there would be no flyer. Again, with a football comparison, where would the QB be without the offensive line?”

Sykes also uses a football analogy to describe his work with Whitney Love. “Cheerleading is like any other sport in the sense that if this were football, we ran a lot of plays for her,” explains Sykes. “On the other side of that, Whitney knew she wanted to win at the end of the day and she got into the team concept. She understood that even if she was tired, coming up to an event, the team had to feed off of her. She couldn’t come in lazy. She set an example by coming in early and working hard.”

As far jealousy among teams, Sykes suggests that such issues are usually a product of the cheerlebrity’s personality. If she’s gracious and a hard worker, she tends to lift the rest of the team up, naturally nipping jealousy in the bud.

“If the cheerlebrity is humble, they would always make it a point in interviews to talk about the team and how supportive the team has been,” he says. “Whitney [Love] never put herself over the team. The team knew that Whitney was extremely talented.”

Sykes admits he’s been lucky to have humble, diligent cheerlebrities on his squads. But what about the other members, who also work hard and conduct themselves in a sportsmanlike manner? Pascale, a founding member of the National All Star Cheerleading Coaches Congress, says she has been lobbying for years to create more scholarships for deserving cheerleaders who aren’t as visible.

“There are so many heroes in this world of cheerleading,” Pascale says. “These young athletes work so hard; they give so much up. We have kids with cancer, kids fighting a disability, kids fighting emotional issues from homes and they come out as heroes. To me, these are the kind of kids I’d like to see applauded and [given] scholarships. I just don’t think there’s enough given to these kids that are so deserving. Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus—this is what they see, and this cheerlebrity is just hooking on to that model. With all the heroes in our industry, why can’t we gift them in an opposite way of what these kids are programmed to see on TV?”

———>Part 3: Under Pressure


The Cheerlebrity Phenomenon, Part 3

Under Pressure

Speaking of Justin Bieber, in many cases, social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram have made (or at least aided) the careers of certain cheerlebrities. Gardner has more than 15,000 Twitter followers and Rule more than 16,000, while Nowlin has no less than three fake impersonators. But, Sykes emphasizes, with great social power comes great responsibility. Not only will fans be watching a cheerlebrity’s performance for any hint of a mistake, but the cheer public will be monitoring every tweet and every post for lapses in judgment or perceived flaws in character.

“You have to make sure that they understand that responsibility comes with their platform, meaning if we have a bad practice, they can’t go on Twitter and say, ‘I hate my coach,’ or ‘I hate cheer.’ You are a role model now,” says Sykes. “Even though they’re your feelings and you have a right to your own feelings, you have a responsibility now. The fleas come with the dogs.”

Gardner speaks cautiously yet diplomatically about social media: “Social media has been a huge part of becoming recognized in the cheer world, and I am thankful for its impact; however, I also see social media used as a weapon in our industry to tear down athletes, so to me it is a double-edged sword.”

Just cruising through Twitter reveals a not-so-nice underbelly of cheerleading fandom: One tweet from a user directed at Maddie read, “Maddie Gardner having a tv show…. #overrated #sorrynotsorry

Add that increased visibility to intense competition, and the mix could be detrimental if coaches don’t get involved, Pascale says.

“Considering how difficult the scoresheet is right now in making these kids do so much within two and a half minutes, I think good coaches try to alleviate that pressure by making these kids have more fun,” Pascale says. “If these cheerlebrities don’t succeed, the next morning, there is no fun for them. It’s agony. And I don’t think it’s fair. Does it make them tougher? I’m sure.”

Gardner herself seems to have lost some love for the “cheerlebrity” concept.

“Recently I have noticed many athletes trying to become ‘cheerlebrities’ and I feel as though it has become negative,” she said. “From my own experience, I discourage anyone from trying to become a cheerlebrity. I do not consider myself to even be one, and I do not think it is important to have a title. I became recognized in the sport because I loved what I did and I put all my heart and effort into it. I was not trying to become famous in the cheer world; I was just doing what I loved to do and was recognized because I expressed my true passion for cheerleading.”

Sykes, however, says he only sees the cheerlebrity phenomenon escalating. “I think it’s going to get bigger, because what I’ve seen in the past two or three years, it’s just like mainstream sports,” he says. “People who sell shoes, even events, they’re promoting these kids now because they know these kids have a following. It’s crazy. I can say something over Twitter, and when Whitney retweets it, I get 15 new followers within five minutes.”

Sarah Gardner, Maddie’s mother, sees both the positives and negatives inherent in cheerlebrity. “I don’t think there are any fantastic benefits to Maddie being in the spotlight, but she has met amazing people—some of whom will be instrumental in her future and some who will be lifelong friends,” Gardner shares. “She has learned to handle public criticism with grace and, as a result, become very ‘thick-skinned,’ and she’s developed a strong work ethic. In retrospect, there are some perks but not what one might imagine them to be.”

Jamie Beckman


The Cheerlebrity Phenomenon

The Cheerlebrity Phenomenon

A pro cheerlebrity is hard to miss. She’s usually female, a flyer, slicing through the air during a basket toss—makeup bright, smile broad. Perhaps she’s signing autographs before competition or wowing judges on the floor with a superior tumbling pass. Maybe she has an agent in hopes of getting recruited by a college and scoring a scholarship. She might have even signed an exclusive contract with a magazine or landed a deal to sell a specific brand of shoes. Or perhaps you’ll spot her sitting behind the judges’ table at Varsity’s new wave of “Cheerlebrity” competitions.

Click. Flash. Pose with beaming young fans. Sign a program. Smile. Wave. Repeat.

This level of pomp and circumstance isn’t unlike the kind associated with A-list stars with Oscars under their belt, but these cheerlebrities are teenagers who have harnessed social media and caught the public eye, turning their specific set of skills into a brand and launching themselves to superstardom within cheerleading circles.

As “ambassadors” of the sport, some cheerlebrities are tapped to train with and meet-and-greet other cheerleaders in hopes that some of their star quality will rub off on them. Having cheerlebrities teach tumbling/stunting/stretching clinics for young all-star cheerleaders is especially popular. Naturally, the stars sign autographs and mug for pictures afterward. It’s all part of the new normal—the growing culture of cheerlebrity.

Pros and Cons

Is this emphasis on the individual rather than the team as a whole a good thing for the sport? It depends on whom you talk to.

“I look at [the growth of cheerlebrities] as a tremendous compliment to our sport,” says Courtney Smith-Pope of Cheer Extreme Allstars, who coached cheerlebrity Maddie Gardner. “Basketball has Michael Jordan. Swimming has Michael Phelps. Gymnastics has Gabby Douglas. This is the natural evolution of our sport—there are going to be superstars.”

However, cheerleading is inherently a team sport—after all, elaborate stunts and formations don’t really work if only one person is performing them—so having the spotlight rest on a select few individuals can make for potentially awkward situations.

World Cup All-Stars CEO Elaine Pascale, who coaches cheerlebrity Kelsey Rule, says she’s concerned not only that there is no formal “selection” process for creating a cheerlebrity (potentially excluding more deserving cheerleaders), but also that the pressure to perform could negatively affect a cheerlebrity’s mental game.

“I just worry that if this is the trend, then we’re looking at these athletes more on a professional level than an amateur level, where we’re putting a lot of pressure on them,” says Pascale. “We’re making them have to live up to a title that at 15, 16 or 17 years old, I’m not sure that they’re developed enough to not have it filter over to the competition floor.”

Pascale is quick to clarify, however, that she’s not against recognizing outstanding individuals—she just wishes awards were doled out fairly.

“In any sport we have trophy winners, but I think there’s a forum to congratulate these specific athletes,” she says. “At World Cup, we gather up parents and award a trophy to the best athlete of that particular performance. Those kids go home with that trophy and feel good about themselves, so they’re still connected to that sense of team.”

But is heaping praise and adulation on a supremely talented individual simply the way things go, whether you’re giving a presentation in a boardroom or tumbling on a gym floor? Danica and Jay Noah of 2×2 Productions, which creates personalized DVDs for cheerleaders, picked noted cheerlebrities Maddie Gardner and Maison Baker to introduce their videos, citing the pair’s inner and outer “grace.” But the Noahs do acknowledge a negative response to the cheerlebrity trend.

“There already seems to be a backlash towards this,” they said in an email. “We do think there will always be hose individuals that stand out in a crowd. It’s just human nature. You could pick any classroom, and you will have certain kids that are leaders, planners, fun ones, pretty or handsome athletes, etc. I think that is how it works here—there will always be those that others will want to emulate, whether for an amazing skill or just the way they look and talk.”

——->Part 2: The Team Effort