Facials, Verbals and Tears – An Awsome American Torment

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

In April 2001, as the rain drizzled down outside my north London home , I got a call from the Deputy Editor of Maxim Magazine telling me he was sending me on a ‘dream assignment’ to photograph untold numbers of nubile young women in short skirts flinging each other about in the bright Florida sunshine. What sounded like a dream very quickly revealed itself to be a nightmare as Daytona Beach Florida became a surreal reality.

Apart from their nationality, what do Ronald Reagan, Madonna, Jack Lemon, Meryl Streep and George W Bush all have in common? The answer is that in their college years they all practiced the peculiarly American art of ‘cheerleading’, a strange, hybrid potpourri of gymnastics, dance and rampant gurning performed in a spirit of mindless, puppy dog enthusiasm. In the United States of America it is sincerely believed that ‘cheerleading’ counts as a genuine sport.

It is a muggy night in the Florida resort town of Daytona Beach. The Cote d’Azure this is not. In some way the population seem to lack depth. The fact is that if you took everyone from the TV audience of the Jerry Springer Show, and all their families, and put them all in one run down string of shabby buildings fronting a white sand beach, then you may come close to understanding the atmosphere of Daytona Beach. Maybe then throw in the fact that, by State law, all men in the municipality must have a tortured mullet and all women must chew gum constantly; their mouths working in a gormless rhythm, their faces topped by painfully electric, bottle blonde, bouffant hair dos.

Those buildings that aren’t shabby concrete motels manned by strangely shaped middle aged people wearing a graceless air of impenetrable indifference, are shabby diners. Each eatery must have a theme. Some of them have names like “The old Cowpoke’s Rest”. Others, as all over the world, are shrines to a mythical fifties Shangri La where all men dressed like James Dean and all women stood over sewer outlets with their skirts flying in the air.

It is late. I sit at a table, my head in my hands, contemplating a snack the size of a post office. The fumes of petrol poison the taste of my beer. That is because the theme of this particular diner is motor car racing. It is, to all intents and purposes, a garage. Except for the fact that they don’t actually do anything useful. Like fixing cars for instance.

Daytona Beach is a place that adds a frisson of real desperation to the concept of ‘homesick’. But there may yet be a salvation. Tomorrow this dreary string of prefabs and concrete will be transformed in to Barbie Doll heaven. From all over America thousands of nubile young women will flood into the town for the All America National Cheerleading Championships. The effect this invasion may have on the local population of slack jawed rednecks should be a performance in itself.

Despairing of finishing the mountains of fries and grits and other assorted cholesterol rich foodstuffs on my plate, I decide to turn in and get a good nights sleep before the coming events.

The next day Daytona Beach is basking in bright, late spring sunshine. I would love to say it looks better in the daytime, but I would be lying. There is however, a change in the people. Whilst the sea front is still peppered with the usual obese and sartorially challenged holiday makers and residents, there is now a new contingent and this crowd look like an outing from the set of Baywatch.

Groups of tanned, lithe young woman dressed for the gym are wandering in groups and lounging on the seaside walls. Although smaller in numbers, their male counterparts, all of whom seem to be of hulk like proportions, are throwing Frisbees and conical footballs. Many are doing endless sets of press-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups. They are also making a lot of noise. Most of it is comprised of aimless, but friendly whooping and shouts of “yeah!!!!” and “alright!!!!” over and over and over again.

As I arrive at a grassy area in front of the main hotel the scene evolves into something truly bizarre. The cheerleaders have arrived and the show is underway. The competitors practice for this all year and what I am witnessing is the final dress rehearsal. In separate groups, teams of cheerleaders from all over the USA are flinging each other about in ways that look both reckless and impressive. One team from New England, who have “Dogs” written in large letters across their backsides, seem to be in the throws of a schism. Their trainer is yelling at the row of downcast faces, some of whose cheeks are smeared with tears.

“This not the max! Okay! You gotta go for the max and achieve the max. This awesome is not the max!!”

Turning on one girl who is gently and uncontrollably sobbing,  the coach vents his ire. “Candy, Your awesome is a disgrace and your facials are a joke.”

Utterly confused by both his tone and his language, I approach Candy as she takes a break and sips a coke. With tears streaming down her face she cries, “He is so on our case and we practice hours and hours every day! I can’t take it! It’s too much! How can I go to the max on my facials when I want to cry all the time because Brad keeps yelling at me for screwing up my awesome. It is so unfair!”

None the wiser, I seek out someone who may enable me to decipher this strange litany of angst.

The person who enlightens me confesses himself to being a ‘tosser’. These are the male members of the troop who with precision, strength and skill fling and catch their lighter female teammates. If the tosser screws up the girl can die or be paralysed for life. It is a job they take seriously. “The facial is like so important! They have to look like they are so psyched when they do the routines. If the facial is bad the team loses points.”

So this is the only sport in the world where you get marks for smiling and looking a bit manic? “That’s right,” says Brad. I ask him about the problems Candy has encountered with her ‘awesome’. Brad explains, “an awesome is when the girl is lifted by the tosser and then balanced on his hand right up in the air. If she blows it on the facial, the tosser is gonna find it hard to trust her the next time on the awesome. We all train so hard for this.”

Although we share something approximate to a common language and I respect his obvious passion and professionalism, I realize that Brad and myself are as culturally far apart as pygmies and eskimos.

But he has a point. This ‘sport’ may be weird, but it is also very, very dangerous. Between 1982 and 1994 more female athletes were injured in cheerleading than in any other sport in America. In 1990 alone 12,000 cheerleaders were admitted to hospital with injuries. A number were paralysed for life.

Bearing this in mind it is with some interest that I witness the first heats of the competition. In a large, un-atmospheric hall under harsh strip lights team after team goes through their twelve-minute routines. A blur of tumbles twists and jumps and back flips. At first I look on with real admiration at the gymnastic and rhythmic skills of the contestants as the panel of twelve judges gives them marks for athleticism, creativity and rank insincerity of facial expression. But there are one hundred and eighty teams in this competition from the United States alone. That does not count the teams who have traveled from Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and Japan to try and make their own dent on this free for all of American self-congratulation.

After the thirtieth team has gone through the motions of bumping, grinding, flinging, jumping, landing and slapping their perfect little backsides to a sound track of fifth rate stadium pop or harmless white boys rap, I am sick and tired of it.

I wander over and talk to one of the huge burly men who are in the business of cheerleader protection. Called spotters, it is their job to catch the girls if they fly off in the wrong direction. When not actually in action the spotter is posted directly underneath the mini skirted cheerleaders staring fixedly skywards at a never-ending succession of firm teenage behinds.

Not surprisingly, one of the spotters tells me, “it’s the best job in the world. If I catch them in a fall, they are often very grateful. Very, very grateful.”

After hours of being told things like, “cheerleading is a way to grow as a human being and learn to love others in a way that makes us all better as human beings,” by cheerleaders, trainers and judges alike, the spotter is the only participant whose motivation and sincerity I can completely understand without added explanation.

The spotter’s name turns out to be Steve and I ask him if the tossers from the teams see him as some kind of a threat. “Hell no!” says Steve. “Half of them are gay in any case so the percentages work out fine for us and them. Four gals to every red blooded guy.” Steve looks happier than a roadie on a Led Zepplin tour bus.

While he is in the mood for talking, I ask him who are the most fancied team from a purely non-technical point of view. “Well the girls from Georgia are sure the purtiest and they sure have the best asses. But the girls from Houston Texas are just downright dirty, so I sure will be hopin’ one or two of them takes a wrong kind of fall.”

Two thirds of the teams having been eliminated – God knows by what criteria – in the opening heats the next day sees the grand final in a magnificent outdoor arena almost completed surrounded in gleaming corrugated iron. Inside important looking men sporting fat arses and vulgar Rolex watches are busying themselves around the stage. They are, apparently, the national media.

Taking position at the front. I am informed that, “You cain’t stand there Sir.” The word “Sir” is uttered in a manner used only by Americans in authority and is delivered in a tone that implies his real meaning is not “Sir” but “douchebag”.

“This spot is reserved for National TV,” he says with a dreary flourish of self-regarding pomposity. Although he makes himself and the event sound more important than the Bosnia Peace treaty and a Cold War presidential summit all rolled into one. I make way both for him and his even more serious looking retinue of sour faced interns.

He is not the only one behaving as if all this meant something. Following Steve’s advice I seek out the team from Houston Texas. They are in a huddle giving each other strength for the upcoming routine. As I approach I realise that the only custom more vacuous in this event than the ‘facials’ must be the ‘verbals’.

“Love y’all!” Says one to all the others.

“Right on!…. To the max!” another replies.

“Love y’all,” adds another one.

“We are Houston! We are Houston!” her friend points out.

“Love y’all!” Another chips in.

Having grasped the gist of their strategy meeting, I return to the main stage. Where Georgia are now in full flood. Steve is right about their general outlines… And there he is looking eagerly at the subjects of his appreciation. After two days of this I, however, am now so bored as to make me dizzy. All the routines are exactly the same as the ones they did yesterday. Most of them are exactly the same as their competitors. That means that if you watch this whole event then you will watch the same thing nearly four hundred times over. It is the stuff of nightmares. A man can only endure so many back flips and inanely stupid facial expressions before he wanders off to lay his hands on an axe.

But I have to stay to see if Houston, now my adopted team, can stay the course. Dirty they might be, but they have lost the plot when it comes to flinging each other about. They are a disaster. Two of them tumble right off the mat, much to Steve’s gleeful satisfaction no doubt. Their awesome crumbles and they come bottom of the heap. Funnily enough I don’t care. I have had enough.

At the end of the afternoon the losers drown their sorrows in alchopops. The winners strut the promenade and whoop alot. But in a country that doesn’t tolerate anyone losing the winners console the vanquished with wisdom. A girl from the winning Georgia team has her arm around a losing tosser from Houston. “You didn’t lose! You came tenth!”

Not daring to ask what you would actually have to do to be a loser in this town, I content myself with watching the event bought to a close with a mass simultaneous ‘awsome’ of a hundred girls. It is an impressive sight. A forest of nubile flesh. A hundred beautiful teenage girls all doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. It is a superb national party trick and every mulleted redneck in the town stands transfixed. I look again. It is impressive. Very impressive. But I can’t help thinking….. What is the point?

Highway Mayhem – A View From Two Wheels

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

The roads in Thailand may be good, but sadly they are also lethal. With some of the highest accident statistics in the world, you don’t have to spend long riding them on two wheels, to realise that there is something seriously amiss.

When it comes to driving in Thailand it is time to ritually fling the rulebook from the rear window of a fast-moving Totoya Corolla whilst veering lazily between lanes and ignoring anything resembling traffic lights. Driving in Thailand requires not only new definitions, it also requires nerves of steel and healthy faith in the unalterable truth of karmic destiny. Often described as ‘exciting’, the exhilaration of Thailand’s bustling pavements can soon transform into something suicidal if you step off the curb, into your vehicle and head out onto the open highway.

It is no patronising condemnation of Thailand to point to the lunacy on the roads. Thai people do it themselves and the sad fact is that some of the worst offenders are farangs who having spent years in their own countries shackled by observation of the highway code and a very real fear of penury or arrest. They come to the land of similes seemingly determined to systematically break every rule of the road, not to mention contravening something as obviously idiotic as basic common sense. The likelihood is that, when in Chonburi or Chiang Mai, the guy who just cut you up in the pickup, drifted into your lane without indicating or simply went smack into the back of your vehicle, hails from Sweden, Germany or Wales. When being confronted with the fact that he is a child-murderer waiting to be, he will simply look gormless as he adjusts his grubby singlet, sinks into his acrylic, supermarket-socks and says, “Hey this is Thailand! Jah! Same-same free!”….. Same, same ‘tosser’ is what he actually meant.

The Thai Government is justifiably worried sick about road safety. With between 12,000 and 17,000 fatalities annually accidents cost Thailand a staggering 2.1% total of GDP. Road accidents are now the third leading cause of death after AIDS and heart attacks, according to the country’s Ministry of Public Health.

It is worth examining some of the more truly surreal habits of the highways. First of all tailgating. This is where drivers speed along winding mountain roads at 120mph leaving only 15cm of room between their front bumper and the boot of the car behind. It is as close to arriving at a mobile analogy for true stupidity as it is possible to find. What is the point? It is hardly an aid to overtaking on the straight. When taking the fast single lane highways between Tak and Mae Sot, up to Erewan Falls or south of Hua Hin one sees vast, pointless centipede formations of tailgating vehicles all proving once and for all everything that Peter Purves of Blue Peter fame told us in 1978, “Only a fool breaks the two second rule,”……. The fool quotient seems staggeringly high anywhere people are allowed to pick up speed. This is compounded by the fact that only 15% of road users actually bother to, “clunk click every trip.”  If Jimmy Savile had ever actually been a human being, it might have made him weep.

Pulling out from the left into oncoming traffic without bothering to look right or simply to make a point about the fact that my car is more expensive than your car is a nationwide pass time particularly prevalent in Bangkok where car-status rivalry has transformed from a smattering of average snobbery into a menacing, rabid and untamed cult sweeping through the Central Business District from Sathorn to Ekkamai. Motorcycles don’t even count.

All this applies even more to overtaking. Any driver of something German (especially if they are German) and excessively shiny will see it as nothing less than an affront to his manhood to see anything Japanese and slightly grubby attempting to take up lane space ahead. If the grubby Japanese thing has only two wheels the fury of the man with the fat bank account will explode into a crescendo of indignant horn honking. Wealth is no barrier to automotive idiocy.

Lane discipline itself is simply seen by drivers as a provocation not to indicate. And of course driving the wrong way up the highway with an assortment of bikes, trolleys and worn out trucks is actually considered an obligation of road use in certain rural areas.

Remember all these manouvres – and many more – are best accomplished whilst having an aimless chat on your mobile-phone about things far less trivial than annhilation by impact-injury, as you balletically drift across lanes and mow down the entire family on the knackered Honda wave going the wrong way up the bus lane beside you…. thereby killing them all instantly. Hurrah!… Don’t worry. None of them were wearing helmets in any case.

Of course this whole lethal dance comes to a head in a water-drenched blood-bath of mobile inanity during spring’s Songkran festival when people celebrate the coming new year by killing each other in vast numbers in the name of fun. It didn’t use to be like this. These days how could anyone spoil the party by thinking that flinging a bucket of water from a fast-moving pick-up at an oncoming drunken motorcyclist doing 90mph is anything other than ‘sanuk’? Silly me!… Fun! Fun!  Fun is Songkran! My how he will laugh as his head gets crushed by a passing truck!