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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96

Now 16, a Smiling Chelsea Blossoms

August 29, 1996|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — On stage at the Hard Rock Cafe, the budding singing star Jewel warbled seductively. But many of the young men jammed into the throbbing club here Tuesday night weren't watching. They were too busy staring at the teenager in the balcony: Chelsea Clinton.

Sixteen now, the first daughter is using the Democratic convention as another step in a sort of unofficial coming-out. By most estimations, it has been an astonishingly graceful blossoming under the harshest spotlight on Earth.

Chelsea was an awkward 12 when her parents moved into the White House. She was quickly tucked out of sight, in part on the advice of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, "who stressed the importance of giving children as normal a life as possible," Hillary Rodham Clinton explains in "It Takes a Village."

That book gave the public its first detailed glimpse into the life of a girl who once thought life insurance was a guarantee that one could live forever; who loved her father's made-up adventures of "George the Sailboat" and mom's stories, "whose heroines were brave little girls who rescued unicorns or slew dragons."

Shielded by her parents and, to a large extent, by an understanding media, Chelsea entered adolescence out of public view: no interviews, no comments, little film footage. But that began to change last year when she traveled with her mother to Asia and made a public comment on the beauty of the Taj Mahal.

This spring, as she and the first lady toured Turkey, Chelsea let the world see her flowering personality.

"Hey, Chelsea. How's your driving going?" a young American soldier shouted.

"It's going. It's all right," Chelsea replied. "I haven't had much practice."

Then, in a heart-melting throwaway, she turned and called back: "Beware if you come to D.C."

The current Time magazine quotes President Clinton on rumors that his daughter is champing at the bit for a higher profile in the campaign: "Chelsea hasn't asked to play a part, and I wouldn't have let her if she had." The president also has pointedly nipped in the bud suggestions by advisors that she speak at the convention, according to a senior White House aide.

But there she was this week, first smiling with her father as his campaign train chugged toward Chicago, then at the convention beaming a brilliant, if shy, smile as her mother referred to her time and again during an address.

The references to Chelsea, coupled with her camera-ready presence in the convention arena, clearly had the effect of portraying the president and Mrs. Clinton as successful parents who have produced a poised, loving daughter.

By seating her in full camera view but not bringing her to the podium, the Clintons effectively ensured that she was part of the message, even as they could continue to insist that they will not use her in the campaign.

Early in Clinton's administration, Chelsea took some hard, cheap shots about her appearance. And her reemergence this week recalled those days, with some style gurus cattily suggesting that her long, curly hair was more than a little passe.

But other fashion folk rallied to Chelsea's defense.

"As a 16-year-old, she could be much hipper," said Lori Berger, editor in chief of Sassy, a magazine aimed at teenage girls. "But I love the fact that she's not, that she doesn't feel the peer pressure to paint her nails black or wear the hippest new lipstick.

"She seems enormously graceful for a 16-year-old," Berger said. "Her confidence, I think, is absolutely dazzling."

Rondi Cooler, fashion director of the youth magazine YM, took a similar view. "Girls that age love their long hair--to try to make her cut it off is ridiculous" she said. "She's not going to stand up there in a miniskirt, crocheted tights and Doc Martens. You don't go there if you're in the White House. People in Walla Walla don't want to see that."

Chelsea "is who she is," Cooler said. "I get a sense that she's a real girl. Sixteen is a hard age to be comfortable in your own skin and your own clothes. And she seems comfortable. So more power to her."

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