BEFORE THE WHEATIES BOXES, Malibu beach house, three shattered marriages, fame and tabloid infamy—before all that, Bruce Jenner was a $9,000-a-year insurance salesman in San Jose struggling to overcome dyslexia. Before that, he was a quarterback at tiny Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, which followed a bucolic boyhood in New York and Connecticut. The young Jenner's grandest ambition was to be a professional water-skier.
The 1976 Olympics changed him forever. Jenner had begun dabbling in the decathlon at Graceland; the event was ideal for a natural athlete who was good at a lot of things but not great at any of them. He won gold at the Montreal Games, and the timing was exquisite—as the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial, here was an all-American hero with great teeth and perfectly feathered hair, 6'2" of corded muscle, vitality and virility.
In 1977, Jenner joined ABC Sports and often worked alongside Al Michaels. "There are generations of Americans who don't know, or don't remember, but he was as huge as an athlete can get," says Michaels. But Jenner still didn't like what he saw in the mirror: He had the first of his plastic surgeries decades ago. "I remember thinking that was pretty odd," says Michaels. "Here you have this great-looking guy who everybody adored, yet he wanted to alter his appearance. Then again, there was always a little air of mystery around Bruce."
The intrigue has reached a fever pitch in recent months, as photographs have shown Jenner, 65, looking increasingly feminine amid reports that he has taken steps toward gender transition. The tabloid frenzy took a darker turn on Feb. 7, when Jenner was involved in a chain-reaction crash in Malibu that resulted in the death of another motorist. (Jenner was unhurt; an investigation is ongoing.) Jenner has made no public comment about his plans, but the prurient fascination is of a piece with a life that has become spectacle. Blame the Kardashians. In 1991, Jenner wed the former Kris Houghton, who had recently divorced O.J. Simpson's friend and lawyer, Robert Kardashian. Bruce and Kris each came with four kids from previous marriages, and together they had two more, a gaggle of good-looking Hollywood brats who spawned a reality-show empire. Keeping Up With the Kardashians has been airing since 2007, and through the years Jenner has often been forced to play the fool, tinkering with his remote control helicopters in the garage, both emasculated and infantilized by Kris.
A prominent entertainment-industry reporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity says it was common knowledge on the set that Jenner liked to wear the clothes and makeup of the women in his household. It was only after Bruce and Kris divorced in 2014 that Jenner's appearance began to visibly change. "Can you imagine the agony she felt for all those years?" says Genny Beemyn, the director of the Stonewall Foundation at UMass-Amherst, using the feminine pronoun for Jenner. (Since Jenner has not confirmed a transition, SI, like other news organizations, continues to use he.) "Here you have the paradigm of the all-star male athlete, and yet it's pretty clear she didn't feel male."
Jenner is being positioned as a transformational figure for the transgender community, not least because of the widely rumored reality show that would document the male-to-female transition. Says Beemyn, "There is tremendous potential to educate. That we're even debating pronouns has to be some kind of progress. Bruce Jenner has a chance to show the world that being transgender is a regular part of human diversity."
For so long Jenner has been defined by Olympic glory: In the years after Montreal he wore a necklace bearing the numerals 73076, the date he won gold, and the mainsail on his boat was emblazoned with 8618, his record point total from that decathlon. In 1980, Jenner told SI, "Because of the Olympics, people put me on such a high pedestal. It's just about impossible to live a normal life." Jenner appears to be redefining what is normal, before a rapt public. His new legacy may endure well after the gold no longer glitters.
With few well-known public faces for the transgender community, Jenner is being positioned as a transformational figure.
Can Bruce Jenner become a different kind of role model?
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