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Arnold, Kobe: separating the men from the image

September 21, 2003|DAVID SHAW

Having spent much of the past 30 years writing about the media, I've developed a deep fascination with the differences between the image that public figures project through the media and the reality of what they are in private life -- off stage, off camera and out of print.

This fall, with Arnold the Terminator running for governor and Kobe the Adulterer running for his life, we have ample opportunity -- far more opportunity than many of us would like, alas -- to examine anew this phenomenon.

I've never been a fan of Schwarzenegger's movies -- or anyone's shoot-'em-up, blow-'em-away movies, for that matter -- but I spent some time with him several years ago in the course of writing a lengthy magazine profile and I came away impressed with his intelligence, sophistication, poise, politeness and, yes, gentleness.

As a journalist, I've been around enough public figures -- politicians, athletes, entertainers and the like -- to know that one should never confuse public image with private reality. But the private Arnold seemed so strikingly different from the brutal, unthinking, monosyllabic movie Arnold that even I was surprised.

He's an actor, of course, and I'm sure he was on his best behavior. Then again, he's not a very good actor, and even though people were already talking about him as a future political candidate -- this was in 1996 -- he made no discernible attempt to conceal his brazen, vulgar sexual chauvinism.

Readers who had seen Schwarzenegger's lewd, boastful interview in Oui magazine in 1977 -- or who have seen reprints or online links to it in the recall campaign -- would not have been surprised by such behavior, but I hadn't seen the interview, so I was surprised.

Around the time I first met Schwarzenegger, The Times published a Valentine's Day story on various prominent couples, he and his wife, Maria Shriver, among them. The story said that on the day they met, Schwarzenegger told Shriver's mother, "Your daughter has a great body" (an anecdote The Times repeated in a story early this month). I asked Schwarzenegger if he'd really said that.

"No," he said, with a huge grin. "I said, 'She has a nice ass.' "

A couple of weeks later, I flew to Las Vegas with Schwarzenegger for a promotional event at which he met Sandra Bullock for the first time. He greeted her in a way that makes Adrien Brody's Oscar-night embrace of Halle Berry look like a stiff handshake. On the limo ride to the airport afterward, one of Schwarzenegger's aides was laughing about the encounter.

"Only Arnold," he said. "He never met her before, but did you see that kiss he gave her?"

Schwarzenegger beamed.

"You know what I always say," he said. "He who hesitates ... masturbates."

Kobe Bryant apparently adheres to the same philosophy -- or at least he did on the night of June 30, in his room at an Eagle County, Colo., resort.

Bryant is charged with raping a 19-year-old woman that night, and while he denies the charge, he does admit having sex with her.

Before his arrest and his admission of adultery, Bryant had such a squeaky-clean image that he was thought to lack sufficient "street cred" to sell as many tennis shoes to young NBA wannabes as a star of his magnitude and magnetism might expect.

Bryant always seemed, pre-Colorado, a decent, thoughtful young man. I've never met him, and I know no more about him than I've seen on the basketball court and read in the newspaper, so I have no idea whether his sexual encounter in Colorado -- consensual or forced -- was an isolated incident or part of a pattern of behavior.

I do know, however, that the sexual temptations for professional athletes in particular are enormous, and as that famous basketball player Oscar Wilde once said, "I can resist everything except temptation."

Behind the scenes

At earlier points in my life, I spent a lot of time around athletes -- most notably Wilt Chamberlain and his Lakers teammates. When I wrote a book about him in 1972, I saw countless women literally throw themselves at the Lakers, and if any resisted -- including one of Wilt's teammates, who was the team's then-reigning, squeaky-clean star -- it wasn't apparent to me.

I don't offer this observation to cast any aspersions on Bryant -- only to make the point that it's not easy to know the person beneath a familiar surface. Even though I'm a career journalist, I think the public should be wary of accepting at face value the image that the media present for any celebrity, whether it's positive or negative.

Take Wilt, for example. He never married. He lived a sybaritic, self-indulgent lifestyle. (In a book he wrote after the one we worked on together, he boasted of having had sex with 20,000 women.) His teams often lost to Bill Russell's Boston Celtics, even though Wilt compiled the greatest individual statistics in basketball history. All this combined to give him the public image of a selfish male chauvinist.

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