In junior high I got special permission to wear rollerskates to school,” says Darleen Langlois de la Chappelle. “I’ve always been flamboyant.” Darleen, 23, could hardly possess a talent more relevant to her current profession—she is the latest star of Roller Games (once known by the trademarked name Roller Derby). Her coach, John Hall of the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, proclaims his women skaters are the athletic equivalent of Charlie’s Angels, and de la Chappelle is the beneficiary of a heaven-sent hype.
Almost overnight she became the Farrah-haired girl of T-Bird fans. When she and her teammates hit the lumpy wooden track at downtown Olympic Arena against such teams as the Detroit Devils or the Texas Outlaws, there are as many as 5,000 chanting her name.
The intensity of the T-Birds’ campaign to glamorize Darleen is apparent in a titillating, if confusing, item in their own fan magazine: “Sinister forces appear to be using Darlene in order to carry out plans to destroy the influence of the world champion T-Birds; Darlene is a victim of a bizarre plot which puts a former fashion model under contract against her will on a team she dislikes.” (Right, the fan mag can’t spell. Darleen did model briefly and has had some routine contract squabbles, but there’s nothing sinister or bizarre about it; Roller Games fans just eat up this kind of conspiratorial nonsense.)
Did Darleen know what sort of theater of the absurd on wheels she was getting into when she joined the team? You bet your skate key she did.
Daughter of an electrical engineer and a registered nurse, she grew up in Culver City, then attended Cal State at Long Beach. She dropped out two credits short of a degree while majoring, she says, in “psychology, anthropology and psychokinesis.” (Psychology and anthropology, okay, but Cal State says it does not teach psychokinesis, which is the sci-fi skill of moving objects with brain waves.)
In 1978 she first saw roller competition on TV. “I went to the T-Birds and said, ‘I want to be your star,’ ” she recalls. “It was sort of a challenge.” Hall sent her to a training center. She went from there to flings with the Chicago Hawks and Detroit before signing with the T-Birds. Within a year she was a starter. “We thought it was too good to be true,” Hall says, “but she never came on like a prima donna.”
In the old days Roller Derby women often looked like truck drivers—and skated like them. “Now,” says Hall, “the emphasis is on agility and athleticism.” Though Darleen concedes the action is often staged—”It’s as much entertainment as sport”—she adds, “A nosedive is dangerous. When you’re tripped at 35 miles per hour, you fall hard and eat track.” (She broke a collarbone her third week out.)
Darleen is one of her team’s top scorers, but, more important, she is among the league leaders in mash notes. (“The guys hand up papers with their phone numbers on them.”) Still, she describes her social life as dismal. “I was celibate for three years in college,” she says. “It’s not that I’m gay or turned off to men, though sometimes I wish I were. It’s just that I’m not a very good one-night stand. I’m picky.”
Though earning about $45,000 a year, she still lives at home with her parents, brother Tad, 19, and sister Kathi, 15. A married sister, Rayleen, 27, teaches high school.
Darleen has done bits on Starsky & Hutch and Sheriff Lobo and hopes eventually for a showbiz career. She is also studying the T-Birds’ business side from bookkeeping to promotion. That impressed Bill Griffiths, club owner for 20 years, who enthuses over his stars: “They are doing more for women’s lib than a dozen Jane Fondas!”
At first Darleen’s parents weren’t very thrilled with her new career. “We worried there might be creeps around to bother her,” says her mother. “But Dar’s a levelheaded kid. She still gets into her flannel pajamas at night. She still goes to all the family birthdays.” For Darleen it’s a compromise. “They wanted me to find a job as a bank teller,” she says. “I get bored easily.”