Robin Bell of Costa Mesa found out in January how sweet it is to be the star of a fad.
Bell was one of six U.S. women pool players invited to Japan for an all-expenses-paid trip and exhibition with two Japanese women shooters. The Japanese routinely lure the top tennis players, skiers, singers and a baseball player or two to their shores, but as far as Americans familiar with the game know, it was a first for pool.
"We're talking pool in the form of press conferences, everything," Bell, 31, remembered with a tone of amazement. "It was unbelievable. It's not a dirty name like it is here. It's like people (here) can't get away from the (image of) dark, dingy pool rooms. (In Japan) it's a class event. It's all tuxedoes and gowns.
"We were there for nine days. The tournament was for only one day, but we were there for promotion and advertising. I mean, they're doing it up right."
The trip was the latest twist in the saga of Robin Bell, one-time teen-age pool prodigy, heroin user, "born-again" Christian, mother of five and, for the past six years, once again a pool player par excellence.
Her days shooting pool started in Westminster, where she was a devotee of pinball games. The pool hall had good pinball, she soon learned, and it had something else pretty neat: guys.
"They were real cute," she remembered with a laugh. "I was 12, they were teen-agers. I thought, 'Well, if I start playing pool, they'll notice me.' A year went by and it was like, 'Forget the guys, I'm playing pool.' "
For three years she shot pool eight to 10 hours a day, working in the pool hall so she could shoot for free. At the end, she was the state women's champion.
But then came the drugs, and the pool hustling just to get enough money for drugs. By age 20 she had an addiction, an infant son and a new residence: a church-sponsored home for mothers in Santa Ana. She quit pool.
"I became a Christian and got married," Bell said. "And I really found out what a Christian was all about. It took me 5 1/2 or six years." She decided she'd take up the game again, and "instead of playing for all the wrong reasons, I share the Gospel with whoever will listen." She says she has found many people "who have come to the Lord playing pool," but she doesn't "cram (my belief) down their throats."
She said her game keeps getting better. Four years ago she led the Women's Professional Billiard Assn. tour with nearly $20,000 in earnings. In 1985, she won $10,000 by taking first place in a tournament at Resorts International in Atlantic City, N.J. In Japan she finished second and won $5,000. In play against men, she has finished in a tie for fifth twice in weekly tournaments at Hard Times pool hall in Bellflower and is a consistent winner at Bob's Billiards' weekly tournaments in Anaheim.
She calls Hard Times the pool hall of the future. It has no alcohol for sale, has an atmosphere dedicated to professionals and those who hope to be, and provides thousands of square feet of pool tables.
Doing well against "41 of the best men's players around" at Hard Times "proved it wasn't a fluke," she said.
I'm here and (the men) know it. They recognize me as a player, rather than just a girl who plays pool."
Now she is hoping to qualify for the second annual Southern California Invitational Nine Ball Classic, to be held in Santa Ana on May 20 through 22.
Bell said that after spending all those hours over all those years with a pool cue in her hand, she occasionally wonders what it would have been like to be talented in another sport.