SHE GLIDES THE pearly pink lipstick over her lips, brushes out her long platinum hair, examines her plum-polished Lina Lee nail tips and zips up her tight-fitting T-Birds uniform top. Then she smiles into the mirror and slowwwlly unzips the top, letting the metal tab rest in the hollow of her generous cleavage, just above the white lace of her push-up bra. A reminder, perhaps, that while she can slam a rival skater into the rails at 35 mph or make another team eat track with one jam through the pack, she is, above all, a woman.
"I like being a girl," says roller derby queen Darlene Langlois de la Chapelle, actress, model and star attraction of the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, the men's and women's world champion roller derby team here for a match against the New York Bombers tonight at the Starplex/Armory.
"Sometimes when my energy gets down in a game," she says, leaning over to lace up her skates, "I'll see a REALLY good lookin' guy out there." She giggles, fluffing out her cotton-candy hair. "I know he's watching me and I think, 'I'm gonna skate REALLY good this time.' "
It's been 10 years since the roller derby came to town. Ten years since the derby slipped in appeal, a result of trumped-up frenzy and phony theatrics. Saturday morning wrestling on wheels. But it's different now, the promotors say. No more ball-bearing bruisers breaking chairs over each other's heads.
After all, this is the '80s. Violence doesn't sell anymore. But sex and violence do.
"Sex appeal," says Bill Griffiths, a 58-year-old former advertising executive who formed the T-Birds 20 years ago and is now hoping for a revival of the once-popular sport. He wears diamond cufflinks, a fawn-colored Ultrasuede jacket and uses words like "ring-a-ding-ding," as in, "Darlene is what I call my favorite Hollywood airhead, a ring-a-ding-ding Hollywood blond."
He is desperate to change the image of the roller queen. The new accent is on "youth, beauty and speed," qualities that will most appeal to his target audience: the 18-to-35 age group. What he's got in mind is sex, sex and more sex. The Dallas Cowgirls on Wheels.
"We're selling attraction, sure," he says.
Which is a long way from what he was selling in the 1970s, the height of the sport's popularity, when the women T-Birds looked like extras from "Box Car Bertha." Then there was Raquel Welch in "Kansas City Bomber" ("God, I hated that movie," Griffiths says). The image was all wrong, he says. The "girls didn't look like girls." You couldn't have a conversation with them, he says. Or take them out to dinner. So he recruited the cream of the southern California crop: models and actresses, housewives and college students who, he says, earn from $20,000 to $50,000 skating on weekends for six months a year. "Now," he says, "it's like dealing with educated ladies as compared to a bunch of bimbos."
They do it for the money. They do it for the fun. But most of all, they do it for the exposure.
"Sure," says Griffiths. "Let's not kid each other."
The T-Birds have their own cosmetician and hairdresser. They play rock 'n' roll and fight over the curling irons in the locker room before the games and do yoga afterward. They have slumber parties on the road. They even have male groupies who toss flowers into the rink and notes with their phone numbers.
"There's always some guy in every town who thinks he's going to score," says T-Bird team captain Debbie Heldon, a tall, athletically built brunet. "They just wanna say, 'I had a roller derby queen.' "
The roller rink at the Armory wasn't set up yet, so the T-Birds had to use the National Roller Skating Rink at 17th Street and Kalorama Road one day this week to show off their skating skills to the press. "It's pretty gross," says Debbie Heldon. There's trash on the front steps and trash inside and the dank, foul-smelling ladies room is plastered with graffiti.
Actually, the whole team isn't there, just Debbie Heldon and Darlene Langlois de la Chapelle.
It's her real name, she says, sitting at a small table on the track's edge.
"Are we on?" she says, pointing to a tape recorder. "Oooooh, neat."
She says "neat" a lot. And "you know" and "really," as in "RILLY." She says she is 20, but the T-Bird press release says she is 22. She was 21 for a story written in January 1980.
Age, she says, "doesn't really matter."
She says she lives in Santa Monica with her parents, goes to church on Sundays, likes to surf and parachute and sing in a New Wave rock band, calls home every night when she's on the road and has two passions: chocolate and white roses. She drives a white Datsun 240 Z (license plate, BLONDI) and says she has "lots" of boyfriends.
"But they've gotta be, like, perfect looking. I really go by looks." Her perfect man? "No hair on their face. I'm being very honest with you. Umm, very clean. Really athletic. Very healthy non-smoker, non-drinker, non-drug taker. Somebody who likes to have a lot of fun and take chances."
She says when the team is on the road, there's a 9 p.m. bed check by Griffiths. "You should see me! I'm looking at every good-looking guy. He Griffiths knows how much I like guys. I do, man. I just love looking at them. I love being kissed. It's funny, 'cause that's all I like, really. I love making out."
"Want some chocolate?" She digs into her bag and pulls out a large bar of bittersweet, breaking off two squares. She is waiting for the television cameras to arrive. She and Debbie Heldon do all the promotion for the T-Birds.
("I call them my tops and bottoms twins," says Griffiths. "Because Darlene is so flamboyant-Hollywood and Debbie is a mid-America, conservative-type of girl. The two of them truly represent the whole team.")
Darlene Langlois de la Chapelle, also known as "Delightful Darlene," started skating at Culver City High, took some courses at California State University at Long Beach and joined the team about five years ago.
"It's not an exploitation-type deal. We're not scantily clad in these satiny things and going 'Ooooh.' It's a real team and it's a real sport."
She takes another bite of chocolate. "Skating is kinda the sport of the '80s. This is what's happening, you know? Girls are looking good and being athletic.
"It's like magic when you put your skates on. I like going fast. It feels good. And I LOVE talking to the fans. I love the feeling of raising my arms and everyone going, 'YEAH.' Tempers do flare. It's a really close game. The anger that happens."
She says most of it is psychological.
"The subliminal, you know? It's what other girls do to girls. You know how you can psych other girls out with one look. I think most girls get along better with guys. Girls are just really insecure or something."
She says rival women skaters use verbal insults to increase the competition.
"I know that it works," she says. "If a girl gets me thinking I don't look so good, she's got it all over me. It's a real edge. They say, 'Did you bleach your hair today?' or 'Putting on a few pounds?' I'll lose my temper. Debbie's calmed me down a few times."
Darlene The Roller Queen, a tough cookie with a cream center.
"I cry easily," she says. "I don't have a best friend. I haven't had one since grade school. Guys seem to be able to get past that barrier, but I know I'll walk into a place and check every girl out and see where my vulnerable parts are. Who I'm going to have to scope out. Who I'm going to have to win against. It's like a competition every day."
She taps her fake nail tips on the table top.
"I was really ugly as a child," she says quietly. She says she matured faster than her friends and was always plagued by insecurities about her height (5 feet 8), her weight (135), her figure and her mind.
"That's why I've gone deep into studying and trying to build my mind up. Because that will blow somebody away. If you look good and also have the brains to back it."
She doesn't elaborate on her studies. "Actually, I don't read a lot," she says. "I don't like reading."
What she likes is the hot lights, the big nights in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, when the fans come out to watch the roller derby, a sport Griffiths compares to "a never ending chase scene from a movie."
"I need attention," she says. "I've always needed attention. And I'm very insecure. But that doesn't mean I can't go out there and blow them away on skates."
She smiles. "It's better than going to a psychiatrist."
She says there's nothing else she'd rather be doing now.
"Oh, I want to do the domestic trip someday and I mean, I want to, you know, have babies and cook in the kitchen and wear aprons and things like that, but I don't see any reason why I can't do that and skate at the same time."
In fact, she says she's putting all her money into a savings account.
"I'd love to have a dowry when I get married," she sighs. "Hand somebody a check and say, 'Here, take care of me.' "
Debbie Heldon is sitting in her hotel room. At least she thinks it's her hotel room.
"Is this my room?" she asks Griffiths, hovering in the doorway.
They are relaxing after a long day of radio and television interviews. Heldon is talking about the television shows the T-Birds have done ("Fantasy Island," "Trapper John. M.D."), the promotions and commercials (Coca-Cola, Olympia beer) and the endorsements they are tapped for.
"We did a thing for Sears," she says. "They gave us these enormous padded bras. They were ridiculous. They were harder than my shoes. First they sent us a list, wanting our sizes. I think they sent them to all the teams. It was really a bit much. You couldn't possibly wear the things. Well, the last game I skated in I went up to a girl to block her and when I hit her it was like, 'God, what the hell do you have on?' It was so hard. I avoided her after that. She was wearing one of those bras."
Heldon is 32, a native of Bryn Athyn, Pa., and has been skating with the T-Birds for seven years. She works full time for the Marriott Corp. in Philadelphia, training waiters and waitresses.
She says the reason Marriott hired her was that she was a T-Bird roller queen. "To them, they were hiring O.J. Simpson."
She is 5 foot 10 and weighs 135. She does the Jane Fonda Workout ("You think skating's hard, you oughta try that!") and says she would never date a fan.
"There's always some guy in every town. It's the same as girls trying to make it with football players."
Debbie says the team hairdesser and makeup artist were her idea. "I encourage the girls to take the time to look good. Because when you look good, you feel good."
And the amount of cleavage?
"They can wear their zippers anywhere they want."
Back at the roller rink, Darlene and Debbie skate together for a few minutes, their long legs scissoring in sync. It's a graceful sport, and with speed and agility and a lot of hard training, a good skater can become a great skater.
It looks easy.
Darlene comes off the track, eats a roast beef sandwich and wipes her mouth as the television cameras arrive. Time to get back on the track. She slips into the ladies room, glides on the pearly pink lipstick, combs out the mane of platinum hair and checks the zipper.
She is a little bored. And a little tired. And a little philosophical.
"I have to keep in mind," she says, pushing off the rail, "that pride always comes before a fall."$130Picture 1, Thunderbirds Darlene Langlois de la Chapelle and Debbie Heldon. "We're selling attraction, sure," says team owner Bill Griffiths; by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post. Picture 2, Darlene Langlois de la Chapelle and Debbie Heldon; by Lucian Perkins