Even before Bruce Jenner won a gold medal in the decathlon, he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of one Olympic swimmer whose highly publicized commercial career did a belly flop.
“I saw Mark Spitz on a Bob Hope special right after the Munich Olympics,” explains Jenner, 27. “He died, absolutely died. I think what happened to him is very sad.” Jenner’s post-Olympic plan was different. “I knew that if I won the gold medal,” he continues, “I wasn’t going to be a dummy and let it slip through my fingers. The whole ballgame is to preserve your credibility and not do something that makes you look like a fool.”
So, unlike Spitz, New York-born Jenner, who was proclaimed an “instant millionaire” by the Montreal newspapers, waited to take the plunge. One-shot commercials for men’s cologne and toothpaste were turned down. So was an offer to be a centerfold for Cosmo (even though Jenner was told he could be clothed and have picture approval). Equally cautious was Jenner’s All-American wife, Chrystie, 26, who worked as a stewardess for four years while Jenner trained full-time. Chrystie, who quit United Airlines after the Olympics, declined book and modeling offers (and a chance to judge the Mrs. America contest).
Instead, the Jenners methodically set out to turn Olympic gold into lifetime security. They formed their own corporation, 8618 Inc., named after his world-record decathlon score at Montreal. Jenner hired sports packager George Wallach as his personal manager, who brought in Rogers & Cowan to handle publicity, the William Morris Agency for any show business negotiations and a licensing company for future products that might bear the couple’s name. Bruce also signed up with a lecture bureau. His current fee: $2,500 to $5,000 per appearance.
“Bruce hates to sign autographs,” says Chrystie, “but he loves to speak. And he’s good at it.” Jenner can talk about more than training and victory. He shares with audiences his grief when his 18-year-old brother Burt and Burt’s girlfriend were killed in an auto accident only four months after the Olympic triumph.
Jenner began signing contracts in December. ABC was first. It hired him for two years of sportscasting, then offered to extend it to four when NBC acquired the rights to broadcast the 1980 Moscow Olympics. (He is thinking it over.) Meanwhile, the network signed both Bruce and Chrystie to do special interviews on Good Morning America. “Lots of people think we are a team,” she says, “but lately I’ve told them that if they want me to appear, I need a separate contract.” She has also been typecast in a bit part as a stewardess in an ABC made-for-TV movie, SST Death Flight. After subordinating herself to Bruce’s Olympic ambitions, Chrystie is keeping her long-delayed plans for law school on the shelf for a while longer (she still needs 30 credits before she gets her B.A.). She also frets that the ABC deal was just a ploy to keep Bruce happy. Children will have to wait until, as she puts it, “our lives are a little less crazy—although Bruce and I want them very much.”
As for endorsements, Jenner has signed a two-year contract with Norelco, and Buster Brown will soon be putting out a line of Bruce Jenner sneakers. The biggest deal so far will be announced this week: for the next five years, Bruce’s picture will appear on packages of Wheaties for which he will also do TV commercials. Even the Jenners’ celebrated golden Labrador, Bertha, who received so much publicity at the Olympics, is under contract to General Mills. The Jenner family’s take from all sources in 1977 will be about $500,000.
With that kind of money moving toward their savings account, the Jenners can afford to be fussy. Long chided by Chrystie for being too passive off the athletic field, Bruce has refused to pop out of a box of Wheaties for a commercial. He also walked out of a photo session rather than throw Norelco fluorescent light bulbs like javelins. “Both of these things were hokey,” explains Jenner, adding that “the Norelco people later said they were surprised I cared so much—none of the other athletes were that way.”
Not surprisingly, the Jenners have moved out of their cramped apartment in San Jose and into a new $200,000 house in Malibu. “What is your collateral?” asked the banker. “One gold medal,” replied Jenner. It proved to be enough for the house, but J.C. Penney has turned down the Jenners’ request for a charge account, and Bank Americard won’t raise their charge limit beyond $500.
“Bruce has not put me on any kind of budget,” smiles Chrystie, who is merrily knocking out walls in their new home for added window space. “It’s great fun doing exactly what you want.” For Jenner, success also means occasional time with his “toys”—three dirt-bikes. On order is a small catamaran and a Porsche Turbo Carrera.
The rewards are high but so are the demands on time and energy. (Missed meals have dropped the 6’2″ Jenner’s weight to 193 pounds, five less than Montreal.) Recently, for instance, he covered The World Superstars for ABC in Georgia, flew to Tampa to accept the AP award as Male Athlete of the Year, caught the red-eye to Los Angeles, then slept a few hours before rocketing up to Monterey for a weekend workout with aspiring young Olympians. In one two-month period, the Jenners’ tab for air fares alone came to $11,000. Bruce also must put up with increasingly belligerent fans. In one airport, a slightly drunk young woman grabbed and kissed him and then admitted, “I did that for a bet.” When a passenger woke up Chrystie on an airliner to get Bruce’s autograph, Chrystie complained mildly. The woman snapped, “You asked for it.” Bruce’s invariable politeness may be wearing a little thin. “I’m not getting any harder,” he says, “but I am getting a little more respect for people’s rights.”
Jenner gets home about 10 days a month and says he misses it “more than anything else. I have to be more selective,” he adds, “or I couldn’t survive and have a marriage.” Speaking for them both, Bruce adds, “Chrystie wants what I want, but the schedule pulls us apart in a lot of ways. When we do get together, we’re so dead tired we both just fall asleep.”
Between flights, he sits in the elegant restaurant at the L.A. airport munching Famous Amos cookies while Wallach, his manager, runs over several new proposals. The Franklin Mint wants to strike a coin of Jenner. ABC wants him to report to a circus to fly on a trapeze and later to climb Mount McKinley. Jenner groans. “You could have come in second,” Wallach reminds him.
Jenner is bemused. Later, he leans back in his first-class seat en route once again to JFK and marvels: “I was in Georgia recently, and the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce had scheduled me as a speaker for that night. They sent a private jet down, and I sat there next to the pilot thinking about the extent people will go to just to see me.” Glancing out the window at the landscape below, he reflects softly, “Just think, in Montreal I might have fallen in the hurdles.”