Lark Chastain sat in her den in San Jose last Aug. 24 watching
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as contestant Ginny Horvath faced
a question that would raise her winnings to $32,000: Who scored
the winning penalty kick for the United States during the 1999
Women's World Cup soccer final? Lark leaped off the couch and
phoned her daughter, Brandi, who turned to the show at her home
in Santa Clara, Calif., as Horvath reviewed the four choices.
"My mind flashed back to the newspaper picture of a woman in a
sports bra in the ultimate moment of triumph," Horvath recalls
now. "I'd spent hours studying world leaders, the solar system.
Imagine winning on a female soccer player."
As they watched Horvath correctly answer the question, Lark and
Brandi giggled like schoolgirls. "It seemed surreal that someone
was earning a bundle by knowing who my daughter is," Lark says.
"When I heard Regis Philbin mention Brandi's name, I had to
pinch myself and ask, Is this really happening?"
Talk about validation: In just 45 days the U.S. team's left
fullback had gone from Brandi Who? to a final answer. On July
10, Chastain had booted home the decisive kick against China
after 120 scoreless minutes at the Rose Bowl, before 40 million
American viewers and a worldwide TV audience of one billion. In
yanking off her shirt to celebrate, she became the most
talked-about female athlete on earth. "So many people have told
me they'll never forget where they were when Brandi scored that
goal," says the Cup-winning coach, Tony DiCicco, who resigned
last November. "That's history. I mean I remember where I was
when John F. Kennedy was shot, and that's about it."
During the past 12 dizzying months, Chastain's face has appeared
on the cover of SI, TIME, Newsweek and PEOPLE, and on a Wheaties
box. She has thrown out ceremonial first pitches at Yankee
Stadium and before a minor league game on Toga Night in Sioux
Falls, S.Dak. She has sat behind President Clinton's desk during
the U.S. team's visit to the White House. She has walked a
fashion runway after being tutored by Cindy Crawford, opened a
San Jose community center alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and
received a golf lesson from Tiger Woods, borrowing his glove and
his eight-iron. She is appearing as herself in the
yet-to-be-released movie Air Bud 3: World Pup. And, oh, yes, in
March, she scored the only goal in the U.S.'s win over Norway at
the Algarve Cup final in Portugal, the national team's most
important tournament since the World Cup.
Chastain has been recognized by the kitchen staff at a New York
City restaurant, by a bunch of Belgians while playing pickup
soccer on a Houston playground and by some guy who was pumping
gas beside her in Santa Clara. "You know, you look a lot like
that Christie Chastain," he said. If there is a downside to her
soaring Q rating, it's that total strangers have asked her to
take off her shirt 87,972 times--and counting.
The Bra is not in the Smithsonian. It is not hanging in any
soccer hall of fame. It doesn't even occupy a place of honor in
Chastain's home. It's balled up with some other sports bras in
the back of a dresser drawer. When an entrepreneur phoned her
agent, John Courtwright, guaranteeing $200,000 if Chastain would
agree to let him sell it at auction, the answer was no. "Is this
$40 piece of cloth really that coveted?" Chastain says. "Maybe I
should just carry it around and charge people a buck each to see
it, like in Sixteen Candles."
All the fuss raises a question: Would Chastain have reached the
same level of celebrity if she'd merely kicked the Cup-clinching
shot without the shirtless postscript? Inspired by Chastain,
members of women's teams from the University of Santa Clara to
Highlands Ranch (Colo.) High celebrated victories this year by
shedding their jerseys. Thirteen Ohio State women's rugby
players went even further by brandi-shing their bare breasts at
the Lincoln Memorial. Several male TV reporters have ripped off
their shirts while interviewing Chastain. For weeks after the
World Cup, debates raged on editorial pages across the U.S. over
whether Chastain's celebratory disrobing was appropriate, and
school systems in Maryland's Howard County and Florida's
Hillsborough County both banned the wearing of sports bras
without shirts covering them.
An incredulous Chastain points out that men often punctuate
goals by doffing their jerseys and that the primary motive
behind her act was the 100[degrees] temperature on the field.
Just weeks earlier hardly anybody had blinked when Chastain
appeared naked--except for cleats and a strategically placed
soccer ball--in Gear magazine. "Why isn't a jog bra enough to
wear in public?" Chastain says. "You see women more scantily
clad on the beach every day. It's not like I'm a stripper."
Chastain has refused any promotional requests that involve
removing her shirt, but she has still cashed in on her fame. "We
went from a random offer once a week to a flood so fierce that
there weren't enough days in the week to answer them,"
Courtwright says. "That penalty kick put millions of dollars in
Many of the deals she declined were pure vaudeville, offers of
upward of $20,000 for Chastain to run on stage at corporate
outings, pull off her shirt and maybe autograph a few bras. She
did sign five long-term endorsement contracts worth roughly $2
million and could have enriched herself even more if she hadn't
insisted on keeping her second job as a volunteer soccer coach
at Santa Clara, where she assists her husband of four years,
Jerry Smith. (How else would they ever see each other?) Add to
that 31 motivational speeches at $15,000 a pop and, finally,
$5,000 a month and $2,000 per match from U.S. Soccer.
Whereas striker Mia Hamm was once considered the face of the
national team, after the Rose Bowl the balance of fame began to
shift. On Late Show with David Letterman a week later, when Hamm
and Chastain, the woman her teammates call Holly Wood, sat
side-by-side with Dave, Hamm versus ham was no contest. "Brandi
is attracted to the spotlight like a moth," U.S. midfielder
Julie Foudy says. "She's a riot, and she's like this Energizer
Bunny who never stops."
Chastain now fields the most interview requests and ranks second
only to Hamm as a fan favorite. While most of the squad relaxed
and chatted after practice in Carlisle, Pa., last Thursday, the
day before the U.S. demolished Trinidad & Tobago 11-0 in the
Women's Gold Cup, Chastain signed more than 300
autographs--every last request--then sprinted to the team bus as
it was rolling away. "In many ways Brandi spent her whole life
preparing for the last year," DiCicco says. "She always wanted
the chance to be a voice for the sport; she just needed that one
kick to give her license to do it."
When space and time permit, Chastain embellishes her autograph
with the message, DREAMS DO COME TRUE! Most soccer fans aren't
even aware that Chastain wasn't supposed to take the penalty
kick that changed her life. On the original list Foudy filled
that spot, with Chastain in reserve. But just before the kicks
began, DiCicco switched the order because he believed Chastain's
grittiness suited the moment.
Overshadowed by her appealing abs and gab, after all, is the
fact that Chastain is a soccer junkie who has been hooked on the
sport since age six. While many of her teammates wandered around
a mall last Thursday afternoon, Chastain stayed at their hotel
watching a tape of the Netherlands beating France 3-2 at the
men's European Championships. As a girl in youth leagues she cut
a deal with her grandfather: He'd pay her $1 for every goal and
$1.50 for every assist. She has worked in an office dusting
ficus trees and in a supermarket passing out free samples of
7-Up. She made the U.S. team in 1986, before her freshman season
at Santa Clara, and was paid $10 a day. She has endured
reconstructive surgery on both knees and been dropped for four
years from the national team, playing half that time in Japan.
In 1996 she swallowed her pride and moved from striker to a less
glamorous defensive position to regain her spot on the U.S.
roster. She played every minute of the '96 Olympic gold medal
run despite suffering a torn right knee ligament in the
semifinals. "Brandi's fought through physical and mental battles
that would have made others bail out," Smith says. "But she
breathes soccer. Two weeks ago she flew 15 hours back from
Australia, and an hour after she landed, she was on the field in
a dribbling drill."
Says Chastain, "Some people are an impressionist masterpiece.
Chastain and her teammates feel considerable pressure to
continue the momentum of the past year by winning the Olympic
gold in Sydney. WUSA, the women's pro soccer league, is
scheduled to start in 2001, and Chastain, who turns 32 on July
21, will play on the Bay Area team. The woman who has spent only
40 nights at home since the World Cup talks about becoming a
soccer mom but has no plans to retire soon. "I tell myself every
day that I can't believe this is my job," says Chastain. "I
don't know what the future holds, but I suppose no matter what I
do on the field, there will always be some people who only know
me as the Girl in the Bra."
Only time will tell if Chastain is best remembered for the Cup
or the cups.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH STRIP-MINING Chastain's revealing postgoal celebration at the Rose Bowl in '99 made her famous worldwide and helped earn her millions from speeches and endorsements.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER BRANDI PICK-ME-UP Still going strong at 31, Chastain directed the U.S.'s 8-0 blitz of Costa Rica on Sunday in the Women's Gold Cup.
"She always wanted to be the voice of the sport," DiCicco says.
"She just needed that one kick to give her the license to do it."