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Good as Gold

Kwan is the exception to medals-driven marketability

September 17, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She is accustomed to performing under bright lights and suffocating pressure, but giving life to an animated Disney character isn't an everyday occurrence for Michelle Kwan.

Alone in a glassed-in Hollywood recording studio, dwarfed by a huge headset and microphone, Kwan reviews her three lines in "Mulan 2," a direct-to-video release scheduled for 2004. A window separates her from the control room, where engineers, artists and writers wait expectantly.

"You're making me nervous," says Kwan, a four-time world figure skating champion, six-time U.S. champion and two-time Olympic medalist.

Not to worry.

"You're going to do it a million times," Jamie Thomason, head of casting for Disney TV and animation says soothingly. "We do it with everybody."

She takes a deep breath, then utters Line 506.

"We just got in some excellent ginger," says Kwan, the voice of a shopkeeper named Michelle.

Try it again, she's told. Faster. Slower. Perky.

She does. Finally, there are several versions editors can choose from when the scene is assembled. It's on to Line 509.

"How about some fresh ginseng?" she asks brightly.

Again, please. Whispered. Louder. Enticing.

Another series of takes, then an "in" joke conceived to elicit laughs from kids because it sounds funny and guffaws from those who know skating lingo.

"We have a special today," she says, leaning forward and mugging for a nonexistent camera. "Fresh salchow. Yum, yum."

She's a hit. As a reward, she gets to do another line, the comically drawn-out wail of someone who nearly falls but pulls off a Kwan-like, graceful landing. She's finished in about 35 minutes.

"Hey, you're good at this," Thomason says.

Kwan is relieved.

"Can you imagine doing 100 pages?" she asks.

Someday she might, and not merely as the voice of someone else's creation.

"The sky's the limit," Mike Mendenhall, president of marketing and synergy for Walt Disney Studios, says of her potential. "To us, she's a great role model for kids and teens. She truly has the right attitude, the right ethics, the right personality. She's contemporary. She's relevant."

Her "Mulan 2" work was part of her three-year agreement to be Disney's global spokeswoman, the company's most extensive deal with an athlete. It eclipses a five-year deal Disney made with golfer Tiger Woods a year ago, because his is for broadcast work only. Hers extends to parks, radio, theatrical, video and voice-overs.

Terms were completed during the Salt Lake City Olympics but weren't announced until a few weeks later, after the 22-year-old Torrance native had stumbled in the free skate and earned a bronze medal instead of the expected gold. Though it was Kwan's second successive Olympic disappointment, following a narrow loss to 15-year-old Tara Lipinski at Nagano in 1998, Mendenhall said he had no qualms about proceeding.

Similarly, General Motors' Chevrolet division ignored her Salt Lake City result and extended its endorsement deal with her after the Games.

"To be honest, we got a lot of questions after the Olympics," said Dianne Harper, a promotional manager for Chevrolet. "Like, 'She didn't win the gold medal, so ... ' And I was, like, 'Yeah, and your point?'

"It doesn't matter. It's who she is, and her value to us doesn't decrease because she doesn't have a gold medal. The original reasons we liked Michelle hold up today."

That won't change, Harper said, even if Kwan doesn't compete this season, a decision she will make in the next week or two.

Figure skating season has begun, but Kwan hasn't entered any Grand Prix events and hasn't decided if she will compete at the 2003 U.S. Championships in Dallas, the qualifying event for the World Championships in March in Washington. She has competed in every U.S. championship event since 1993 and every world meet since 1994, and has won seven world medals, the most by a U.S. skater.

After performing in all 93 shows of the five-month Champions on Ice tour, Kwan took a break and only last week, resumed training at L.A.-area rinks. She hasn't hired a coach, although she has said she would if she continued competing. She has been busy with her Disney duties and with deciding whether her best chance for fulfillment lies on film or on the ice, chasing the one honor that has eluded her.

"There are a lot of opportunities," she said. "It's very nice to have those options, but those decisions are tough. So many doors are open, you don't know which is the right one, and it's pretty scary for me. I'm 22 and I'm making life-altering decisions."

Of the 34 U.S. teams or individuals who won medals at Salt Lake City, Kwan was the big winner commercially. Glory for snowboarders and short-track speedskaters melted at winter's end, but Kwan's star remained bright after she'd finished behind U.S. rival Sarah Hughes and Russia's Irina Slutskaya.

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