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She's Trying to Make Her Beach Volleyball Game Picture-Perfect

May 28, 1993|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAPISTRANO BEACH — Gabrielle Reece wants to be more than just a pretty face on the Bud Light 4-Woman Volleyball Tour.

OK, she wants to be more than just a People Magazine's World's-50-Most-Beautiful-People face on the Bud Light 4-Woman Volleyball Tour.

This is not a young woman playing professional volleyball for the paycheck, however. She has been a busy international model for five years and has graced every fashion magazine from Elle to Vogue. She recently was paid $19,000 by a German sun product company for a two-hour photo shoot. And she didn't even need to put on makeup. They just wanted to take pictures of her back.

But Reece does only a couple of modeling jobs a month these days. She's spending most of her time on the beach, flopping around a sand volleyball court such as the one at Doheny State Beach, where she and her Lady Foot Locker teammates were preparing for the Outdoor Products Shootout Saturday and Sunday at Seal Beach Pier.

"For the first time in my life," she says, "I'm starting to feel like an athlete."

That might seem an odd statement from a 23-year-old who was an all-conference middle blocker at Florida State in 1991 and the '92 Most Valuable Player on the four-woman beach circuit. But Reece obviously feels she still has something to prove.

"I started late in high school, and when I got to college, it wasn't about being an all-around volleyball player, it was about making the most of my strengths, which were obviously blocking and hitting," she said. "So I always knew there were parts of the game where I didn't even really know what to do. You keep it to yourself, of course, but deep down, I always felt like I was winging it a little bit.

"But now, if I'm going to be an ambassador for the sport because of my modeling, the volleyball has to be there, too. With all the other things I've got going on, it's especially important for me to deliver as an athlete."

Reece hasn't forgotten how to make money without getting sand in her bathing suit. And turning her focus to volleyball might turn out to be the best business decision she ever made.

A "Gabbing with Gabby" Nike cross-trainer television commercial will be debuting soon.

Reece, 6 feet 3 and 160 pounds, has reached a stature in the fashion industry that allows her to be selective.

"When I first came into the business, because of my, well, physical extremeness, it was kind of a freak show, and I got a lot of work," she said. "And that's what you want when you're starting out, your face out there everywhere. Now, in the fashion business, I think I'm thought of as an athlete more than a model, but if something specific comes up that's geared toward me, then they think of me.

"And I've reached the point where I would just as soon be me. I can't be like Niki Taylor, sweet and young. That's not my feel. There were times when I wished I was a little more petite and not quite so strong-looking, but then you go, 'I might as well get booked as me.' "

Her modeling and volleyball careers began simultaneously when her mother sent her to a private school in St. Petersburg, Fla., for her junior year in high school.

Her mother was so young when Reece was born that she felt the responsibility of a child was too much and asked friends to raise her for five years. Reece's father, who was from Trinidad, died in a plane crash when she was 5. She still wears the necklace he was wearing that day and has a tattoo replica of the Japanese birth symbol pendant inside her right ankle.

After growing up in the Virgin Islands, a stuffy boarding school was maximum culture shock for Reece.

"I was already 6-3, and at that age, all you want is to be like everyone else," she said. "It was a very conservative school, and coming from an island lifestyle, where things were a little more out of hand and you see a lot of different things, it was a really big adjustment.

"I didn't understand them, and they didn't understand me. It was hard to relate. It worked out for the best, but for the first few months, I felt like I was walking around with a big black mark on my forehead."

It didn't take long for the school's volleyball coach to notice her. And, after only a couple of afternoons in an extracurricular finishing-school class, she was offered a job modeling in Europe, but her mother wouldn't allow her to go overseas until she had graduated from high school.

Reece got a scholarship to Florida State, which she promptly gave up as her modeling career took off. For three years, she spent January through April immersed in the New York fashion world. Then spent the summer and fall cramming in enough units to stay eligible for volleyball.

"You'd think you'd get pretty frazzled, but I welcomed the changes," she said. "I think it kept me from getting burned out. Just when I was tired of the whole scene in New York, boom , back to Tallahassee. And just when maybe you start to feel stifled going to school and practicing every day, boom , you're back in New York.

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