Uh-oh, it looks like Yvette Jarvis is in trouble. Three cops are huddled around her car and they don't look happy.
This isn't surprising. Jarvis has stopped her silver Hyundai right in front of the Grande Bretagne, the fanciest hotel in Athens, a place so security-conscious during these Olympics that you have to pass through a metal detector to enter the lobby. Nobody can stop here, not even for a minute.
Jarvis knows that, but she wants to pick up some folks. So she starts sweet-talking the cops in her Brooklyn-accented Greek, smiling, gesticulating, laughing. It works. Pretty soon, the cops are smiling, too. And Jarvis buys enough time to pick up her passengers. She pulls away, smiling and waving goodbye to the cops.
"I do my celebrity thing," she explains, "and they leave me alone."
Jarvis, 46, is famous here -- a one-name celebrity like Oprah or Madonna, known to Greeks simply as Yvette. She's the black Renaissance woman from Brooklyn who has done nearly everything since she arrived in 1982: professional basketball, modeling, TV commercials, a talk show, a sitcom, nightclub singing. Now she's a member of the Athens City Council, elected in 2002.
"After 22 years, I'm one of them," she says. "They don't see me as black or American. They just see Yvette. Yvette is Yvette."
Now, Yvette is punching numbers into her cell phone with one hand and steering through the horrendous Athens traffic with the other while somehow pointing out the new greenery the city planted for the Olympics.
"We planted about a half-million trees -- no joke -- all over Athens," she says. "We spent a fortune."
She's looking for a demonstration she wants to join -- a protest against Arab countries that don't permit women to participate in the Olympics -- but the voice on her cell phone tells her it has been canceled. So she turns down an alley, parks her car, schmoozes with the parking lot attendant, then walks into a park called the National Garden. The park is a cool oasis of trees in the middle of sweltering Athens, but Jarvis thinks it should be better.
"It belongs to three different agencies so, as you can imagine, nobody takes responsibility for it," she says, sounding very much like a city official. "So we as a municipality are saying, 'Let us take care of it.' "
She leaves the park, heading toward the Zappeion, a mustard-colored municipal building where the mayor and other officials are holding news conferences. Clad in a long brown dress, she walks with a regal bearing, her 5 feet 10 inches held high, her head topped with a sporty straw hat.
A guy in a gray suit spots her. His face lights up.
"Yvette!" he says. He gives her a kiss on both cheeks. They chat in Greek for a minute, then she moves on. She gets only a few steps down the sidewalk and more people spot her.
An American in Athens
Jarvis's unlikely life is as amazing and inspiring as any Olympic athlete's story. Born in the rough waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, she was raised by her grandmother after her mom died when Yvette was 9. In high school, she played for a championship basketball team and won an academic scholarship to Boston University, where she majored in psychology and played forward on the hoops team.
After graduating in 1979, she pondered law school while working as a substitute teacher and moonlighting as a basketball referee. Reffing, she met a Greek named Stelios Kordopatis, who played for Hellenic College, a Greek Orthodox seminary in Boston. They fell in love. When he returned to Greece in 1982, she visited him twice, and decided to move to Athens.
"I was young, I was in love, I thought, 'Go for it,' " she says, laughing. "I had an American Express card, what could happen to me? My family thought I was crazy."
"My first question was: Why?" recalls her sister, Lorraine Jarvis, 44, a law firm administrator in New York. "But she has always gone for whatever it was she wanted. That's her character. And she usually comes out on top."
Kordopatis was playing pro basketball in Athens, so Jarvis started practicing with his team and was promptly recruited by a local women's team. At the time, only citizens could play pro ball in Greece, so she and Kordopatis got married, which automatically gave her dual citizenship.
"It was a marriage of convenience," she says. "We didn't tell our families. We figured, 'Three months down the road, we could ditch this.' "
But they didn't. "We stayed married for eight years," she says. "We loved each other."
Playing b-ball in 1983 and 1984, she brought a little American in-your-face action to the Greek women's game.
"When I came here, the girls thought I was crazy," she says. "They were like, 'Coach, she's hitting us.' I said, 'Well, that's what you're supposed to do.' "
She got noticed. She was tall, tan and terrific, and soon she was working as a model, strutting down runways in Greece, Germany and Italy in a career that lasted from 1982 to 1992.
"I was a New Yorker, I was American, I was black, and I had a different style of modeling," she says. "It was flamboyant. It had black rhythms. I did a lot of spins and turns. It was a big difference from the Greek thing."
Modeling led to the TV commercial that made Jarvis famous all over Greece. It showed the tall, exotic American shopping for nail polish, rejecting one variety after another until she's offered a brand called Madison. At that she rejoices, exclaiming, "Opos Ameriki!" -- just like America! The ad ran for years. To this day, when Jarvis walks down streets all over Greece, people yell "Madison!" or "Opos Ameriki!"
"That's what put me on the map," she says.
For a couple of years in the early '90s, Jarvis co-hosted a women's TV talk show called "Myths and Realities." In 1994, she landed a role on "Pink Cloud," a TV sitcom about four Greek women, old high school friends, who are now middle-aged and plagued with philandering husbands.
"I played the maid of one of them," Jarvis says. "My first scene was her finding me in bed with her husband."
The wronged woman got rid of her husband but kept her maid, and Jarvis's character becomes a bartender at Pink Cloud, a strip club for women.
The show lasted two years. "It was fun," Jarvis says.
Since then, she has made her living as a singer in Athens nightclubs, belting out a repertoire that ranges from old jazz standards to covers of Aretha Franklin and Donna Summer hits. Last Tuesday night, she was summoned to the U.S. ambassador's residence to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "New York, New York" for the U.S. Olympic team.
In 1995, Jarvis married John Muller, now 51, a white American who founded Greece's first dog training school back in the 1970s. He now runs a kennel outside Athens that includes -- believe it or not -- a chapel where people can pray for their dogs.
They have an 8-year-old son, John Jacob Shaquille Muller. Needless to say, there's a story behind that mellifluous moniker: "He turned out to be whiter than my husband," Jarvis says, "and I decided that we have to add something black to this kid. And Shaq is one of my favorite players."
In 2002, PASOK -- the Panhellenic Socialist Movement -- asked Jarvis to run on its slate for the 41-member Athens City Council. It was not a total surprise: Not only was Jarvis a celebrity, but she had a track record as an activist on issues involving women and immigrants.
She accepted the offer, campaigned vigorously and won the unpaid position, taking office in 2003. So far, she says, her greatest political accomplishment is setting up Athens's first domestic violence hotline.
She is the first black American elected to political office in Greece, she says proudly. But race and nationality were not factors in the election because, she explains, everybody knows Yvette.
Jarvis's odyssey is one of those only-in-America stories, except of course that it happened in Greece.
"Greece was like a virgin territory," she says. "When I came here, I hung out, I started playing basketball and overnight I was somebody. And it just took off."
Jarvis is moving slowly through the municipal building, which is packed with pols, press people and Olympics officials. Everywhere she goes, she is greeted, hugged, kissed.
"Hello, Yvette," says Theodossis Demetracopoulos, press secretary at the Greek consulate in Los Angeles.
Demetracopoulos tells a story. Last June, he and Jarvis went to Los Angeles with the Olympic torch, and when he introduced her as an Athens City Council member, people were flabbergasted. "I said, 'Oh, she went to the beach today. She got a tan.' "
He laughs. He says he isn't surprised at Jarvis's political success.
"It's not like she appeared out of the blue, he says. "She's been a resident for 20 years. She's a celebrity in town and very active in projects for the city, so people accepted her. And she's very open and very gregarious. She walks up to people and starts talking to them."
Jarvis misses this little testimonial because she's already wandered off to greet a few more people.