On Monday at the U.S. Open, tennis champion Serena Williams debuted a tight-fitting, short black jumpsuit that looked as though it might have been designed by Huggy Bear and originally accessorized with over-the-knee platform boots. If spectators had been able to take their eyes off her salacious game attire, they would have noticed a significant piece of jewelry dangling from her wrist.
A few days earlier, Williams had been presented with a $29,000 Harry Winston diamond tennis bracelet. She wore it on her left wrist while a pink sweatband encircled the right one.
The impetus for this corporate largess, a Harry Winston executive explained, is Williams's status as the world's top-ranked female player. Clearly, there is an extraordinary marketing potential in that. But the executive went further, adding that Williams has been a Harry Winston customer and the company is a great admirer of her style. One can only hope that this was a broad reference to Williams's athletic prowess, her sportsmanship and self-confidence and not to her propensity to select fashions more appropriate for a working girl of a different sort.
The afternoon of Williams's bejeweling at the company's Fifth Avenue showroom, she wore an orange crochet hussy dress modeled after something that Wilma Flintstone might choose. The low-cut dress, with its embroidered bodice, had a hemline that looked like it had been gnawed by Dino.
The purity of the Harry Winston hucksterism was interrupted only briefly by the appearance of three young girls from the Fresh Air Fund, a charity that provides underprivileged New York children with vacations in the country. They had been invited to meet Williams, who dutifully autographed their T-shirts and posed for pictures with them.
Victoria Ortiz and sisters Naomi and Shadyea Adams, however, spent most of their time giggling in the background and in a swoon over Williams's golden hair, which was styled long and smooth for the occasion. "Man! She has nice hair," said Shadyea, 11, who wore her own hair in twin French braids that merged at the nape of her neck.
They marveled at how blinding a half-dozen or so photo flashes can be. And it is a testament to the savvy of elementary school children that they had the wherewithal to ask whether the television shots were live.
The girls knew who Williams was because they had seen her on television, but only Shadyea had ever played tennis before. From their vantage point in a hallway, the girls had a rear view of Williams and her mother, Oracene, as they faced a room of beaming onlookers who bore the Cheshire cat grins common to those who are in the business of reassuring celebrities that their every breath is extraordinary.
Part of the business of fame has always been the marketing of it and so it is no wonder that Harry Winston would give Williams a nine-carat diamond bracelet. But the inclusion of children -- no matter that they were delighted to meet the champion -- played rather cynically, like a poor attempt to take the edge off the salesmanship.
When asked why they'd been chosen to meet Williams, Victoria, 10, replied, "Because we're special!" Everyone should hope that they hold onto that healthy narcissism.
Of course Williams is special, too. She is helping to transform the nature of women's tennis into a game of muscle and power. She is turning the tennis circuit into a more diverse place. But her tight black tennis romper was the stylistic equivalent of trash talk. It looked trashy. And it did her a disservice.
One could argue that athletes regularly make poor sartorial decisions. And just as regularly, they are given expensive trinkets from businesses that see a lucrative marketing opportunity. But it is difficult to forget the three little girls who were so charmed by Williams's celebrity. Shadyea didn't even notice the bracelet because she was so star-struck. Naomi, 10, feigned a fainting spell at the sight of Williams. Later, she trilled: "I got to sit in her mother's chair!"
They are a reminder that Williams's fame has transcended tennis. Her admirers paint a picture of poise and exuberance, talent and physical grace. One only wishes that Williams would use her wealth and notoriety to paint herself in equally flattering terms.