One day in 1977, about a year after Bruce Jenner shattered a world record to win the decathlon gold medal at the Montreal Summer Olympics, he met up with his sportswriter friend Barry McDermott to play tennis in New York City.
McDermott suggested a match at his private club — but that wasn’t Jenner’s style. Privacy was never his priority.
The pair went to Central Park, where word quickly spread that Bruce Jenner (Bruce Jenner!) was playing on the public courts. McDermott remembers the crowd growing, as he had known it would, gawkers pressed against the chain-link fence, watching the handsome star athlete’s every move.
It wasn’t a bid for publicity, McDermott insists: Jenner — as celebrated in that era as Michael Phelps or Lance Armstrong at their peak — already had plenty of that. “It was more of a ‘Let’s hang out with the people instead of the elitists,’ ” his friend recalled.
Four decades later, Jenner is still hanging out with the people: the millions of viewers tuning in to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the popular E! reality franchise starring America’s most shamelessly oversharing celebrity family. Jenner — once the most famous of the clan — is largely a supporting player on the show and its four spinoffs, the weary, eye-rolling dad overshadowed by his preening ex-wife Kris, the self-proclaimed “momager,” and their many camera-friendly kids.
But now the buff heartthrob of America’s disco era is poised again to be the center of attention, in a way few fans could have imagined in 1976.
The first startling tabloid photos showed up on checkout lanes last fall: Jenner wearing his hair long with blond highlights. Jenner sporting colorful manicures and earrings, his legs shaved. In December, he confirmed to TMZ that he would undergo a laryngeal shave to smooth his Adam’s apple.
Last week, after stepdaughter Kim Kardashian West broke the family’s silence during an interview in which she delicately alluded to his “journey,” the reports exploded across the celebrity press: Jenner, 65, will soon come out as transgender.
While Jenner has not officially commented (which is why The Washington Post refers to Jenner as “he” and “him” in this story), the reports of his plans have come from outlets such as Us Weekly and TMZ that are known to have close and symbiotic relationships with the publicity-savvy family.
The clearest evidence yet came in an Associated Press interview with Jenner’s mother, Esther Jenner, published Wednesday. When asked about his transition, the 88-year-old Esther said: “I never thought I could be more proud of Bruce when he reached his goal in 1976, but I’m more proud of him now. It takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing.”
A sit-down interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer is reported to be in the works — as is Jenner’s own reality show documenting his transition.
The transformation may be startling — but his decision to make it public shouldn’t be. Long before he was sucked into the Kardashian vortex, Jenner lived his life for the cameras. It was how the world watched him triumph in the punishing multi-skill Olympic sport, taking a victory lap while exhausted rivals writhed in pain. It was how he made a living after that: Wheaties commercials, movies, sitcoms, infomercials, sportscasting and everything in between.
So of course the cameras will be with him as he makes the most deeply personal choice a person can make.
To understand the Bruce Jenner of today, you must understand the Kardashians. And sometimes, Bruce Jenner doesn’t even understand the Kardashians.
At least, that’s the ever- character he plays on the E! show. He’s like a reality twist on a sitcom trope, the sidelined patriarch who is dragged to cooking lessons and finds out from the local news that his stepdaughter is engaged. Jenner and Kris — the L.A. socialite whose first husband was O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, the late Robert Kardashian — and their blended brood have captivated audiences since 2007, when tabloid favorite Kim Kardashian inexplicably rose to fame after her sex tape with a minor R&B star leaked on the Internet.
Their first reality show, launched that year, captured the antics of Kris’s kids — Kim, Kourtney, Khloe and Rob — along with Kris and Bruce’s then-preteen daughters, Kendall and Kylie.
As the Kardashian/Jenner clan became a multimillion-dollar empire with spin-offs, tie-ins, endorsement deals and books, the family has shared seemingly every bit of their lives. Kim’s 72-day marriage to professional basketball player Kris Humphries; Khloe’s wedding with Los Angeles Lakers star Lamar Odom and their subsequent divorce; Kourtney’s refusal to marry the father of her three kids; even Jenner and Kris’s separation last year. Kim has X-rays to prove she doesn’t have butt implants. Kourtney gives Khloe a bikini wax on camera. Nothing is off-limits.
(E! declined to comment for this story and would not make Jenner or any of the family available for interviews. Jenner’s agent also turned down an interview request.)
The family’s unlikely pop-culture dominance can’t be measured solely by their basic-cable ratings. They date pop stars and pro athletes; they influence street fashion; their faces are on tabloid covers every week. The five sisters collectively have 72 million Twitter followers. President Obama joked about Kim in a White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech.
“They keep doing things that are interesting . . . and are no longer just famous for being famous,” said Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a University of Southern California professor and the author of “Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity,” noting Kim’s latest marriage, to superstar rapper Kanye West, and Kendall’s burgeoning career as a model. “Actually, they do have talent: They have real careers, they have a business. I don’t see them slowing down.”
Although Jenner is frequently part of these story lines, he rarely drives the action. At most, he looks on at the family antics in amusement, wishing out loud that he were on the golf course instead.
To those who saw him conquer the sports and entertainment world in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s a role that’s never made sense.
Bruce Jenner on the sidelines? Never.
Ask Jenner’s old friends, and they’ll describe a cheerful, electric personality with a natural charisma and warmth.
“Bruce was like a big kid,” said Vince Stryker, Jenner’s decathlon training partner from the 1970s. “He just wanted to have fun and enjoy life. He liked competing but, you know, he was a really happy-go-lucky guy.”
Deep down, Jenner was also obsessed with winning, as he would later explain in motivational speeches. Growing up in suburban New York and Connecticut, he struggled in school; eventually he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Discovering his aptitude for sports changed his life. By the time he arrived at Graceland College in small-town Iowa on a football scholarship, he was already looking for bigger challenges. A coach pointed him toward the decathlon.
It’s a brutal sport that tests every muscle in the body. Competitors must excel in not one but 10 skills, including long jump, high jump, sprinting, hurdles, discus and javelin. It’s an event so grueling that the winner of the Olympic gold medal is often dubbed “the world’s greatest athlete.”
Jenner threw himself into competition and, at 22, earned a spot on the U.S. decathlon team for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. He placed 10th. He later recalled looking up at the winner on the podium, burning with envy. On the plane home to Iowa, he vowed to return for the gold.
After his 1973 graduation, Jenner and his new wife, Chrystie Crownover, moved to San Jose. She worked as a flight attendant to pay the bills while he half-heartedly sold insurance. Mostly, he trained six to eight hours a day, with a hurdle in their two-bedroom apartment for extra practice.
Jenner arrived at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal a virtual unknown. But at the height of the Cold War, the open-faced young American in red, white and blue quickly drew attention with his strong challenge to the Soviet defending champion, Nikolai Avilov.
During the 100-meter dash, Jenner broke his personal record. Then he broke his records in the next four events — long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter sprint.
Avilov bested him in three events. But Jenner’s overall performance was so strong that his final day of competition turned into a victory lap. He tossed the two-kilogram discus three times for an average of more than 50 meters — nearly three meters farther than anyone else. Yet he rued that he didn’t hit 50 on his last try. By the 1,500-meter run, Jenner needed only a middling time to claim gold. But with the crowd screaming for him, he picked up speed and came in just a second behind the fastest man in the field. His total score crushed the world record, and Jenner took a celebratory walk around the track, arms raised high, basking in the cheers.
As the legend goes, Jenner had no interest in pursuing decathlons after the Olympics. Why do it for fun when you’ve already won? He famously left his vaulting poles in the arena. He was going to become a celebrity.
“After all the work Bruce has put in, he’s entitled to make a few bucks,” Crownover told the New York Times.
Jenner unabashedly accepted every offer: sports commentating gigs, a clothing line, an autobiography, motivational speeches. Of course his picture was on the Wheaties box. And when the San Francisco district attorney sued the cereal company for false advertising, Jenner held a news conference to declare that Wheaties really, truly were an important part of his training diet.
His rise coincided with a surge in overall TV viewership, as ESPN and other cable channels launched and broadcasters took more risks with programming; it was also an era when many athletes found crossover opportunities in the media. And luckily, the cameras loved Jenner.
“He simply is a real-life version of the American dream, fairly bursting with honest vitality, infectious health and cheerful good humor,” The Washington Post’s Kenneth Turan wrote in 1977. “Is it his fault that he’s direct, self-assured, sincere? The type of person we’d all like to be when we grow up?”
Jennermania may have hit its peak when producers shortlisted him for the lead in 1978’s “Superman.” His acting skills may have fallen short; the role went to Christopher Reeve. Instead, Jenner was cast in the kitschy Village People vehicle “Can’t Stop the Music,” a notorious 1980 flop, and was nominated for a Razzie as worst actor.
His ubiquity became a running joke, one that Jenner didn’t always find funny. When the producers of “ Married . . . With Children” sought him for a cameo, he backed out when he saw that the script poked fun at him for being known for everything except the Olympics, People magazine reported.
He turned down few other gigs. Jenner was almost on autopilot those days, flying from speaking engagement to TV spots to charity gigs, often on a few hours sleep. He collected keys to so many cities that “they could fill a locksmith shop,” McDermott joked in his Sports Illustrated profile.
The writer tagged along when Jenner traveled to North Webster, Ind., to be inducted into the tiny town’s hall of fame as the “King of Sports.” He doesn’t remember many details about the day except that “everybody thought it was a big deal to have your picture taken with Bruce Jenner.”
Fame can sour quickly, though. Jenner’s first taste of this came when he split with Crownover after they had two children, Burt and Cassandra. His ex had talked openly about seeking therapy to deal with his sudden Olympic fame and was just as open with reporters to explain their 1981 divorce: Jenner had fallen for actress Linda Thompson, better known as an Elvis Presley girlfriend.
Though his star had faded, newly single Jenner trudged forward on the speaking circuit. He kept playing sports, doing triathlons and dabbling in auto racing.
“Bruce always needed a competitive outlet for that energy and that drive,” said Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers star and Jenner’s close friend in their days hosting sports programming on ABC. The two would ride dirt bikes near Jenner’s Malibu, Calif., mansion. Once, Jenner took a bad spill but insisted he was fine — until Swann compelled him to see a doctor. He needed knee surgery.
So, how does someone like that take a back seat? To hear Jenner tell it, his life turned around when he met Kris Kardashian in 1990.
“I was drifting,” Jenner told People magazine a few years later. “I had worked really hard and didn’t have much to show for it.”
They married in 1991, and his new wife quickly took charge of his faded career. George Wallach, Jenner’s sports agent and manager since the Olympics, was dismissed.
“There wasn’t a place for me anymore,” Wallach said. “I was not happy about it.” Though Wallach remains disappointed that he and Jenner lost touch after they stopped working together, he theorizes that Jenner gravitated toward wives who took the reins.
“The three women that were in Bruce’s life had a significant role in his life,” Wallach said. “And I think to some degree, he opted to allow that to happen. Maybe he needed it to happen.”
Sure enough, the Jenners launched a lucrative line of exercise equipment — remember the “SuperFit with Bruce Jenner” infomercials? They appeared on the cover of American Fitness magazine, hailed as the “first family of fitness.” In the ’90s, he helped run an airplane-parts company, while continuing with TV cameos and speaking gigs. Then, after her older daughters began popping up in tabloids as part of the Paris Hilton socialite pack, Kris had a meeting with TV host/producer Ryan Seacrest that would change everyone’s lives.
On the reality shows that followed, Jenner’s role as sidekick surprised those who knew him well. “It seemed almost diametrically opposed to the Bruce Jenner I knew,” McDermott said. “He was a superstar at one time. And the last four or five years haven’t been very kind to him, in the sense that it’s all kind of been eroded.”
These days, Jenner’s friends from his past don’t hear from him much. While several had seen photo evidence of his changing appearance, they mostly declined to discuss it. Stryker, his former training partner, said they talked several months ago when Jenner’s divorce from Kardashian was finalized (the couple separated in the fall of 2013). Jenner said he was fine. But then, he was never one to show much emotion.
On “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” Jenner is seen getting angry only when his family is threatened, such as the time paparazzi nearly ran Kylie off the road. But on one episode, he appears wounded when a late-night comic poked fun of his looks. Jenner had a series of well-documented plastic surgery procedures years ago, including a face-lift and a nose job.
Jenner’s complicated relationship with celebrity and the Kardashians’ flamboyant nature make transgender advocates nervous about Jenner’s potential series. The fact that E! is known for sordid celebrity antics and other ratings-chasers doesn’t help.
“If this turns out to be a ratings ploy, this will destroy them,” said Danielle Moodie-Mills, an LGBT policy and racial justice adviser at the Center for American Progress. “Going through this type of transition is not something to use as a gimmick to raise your profile and increase your brand and ratings.”
Yet in an era when fictional TV shows featuring and starring transgender characters (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Transparent”) have won mainstream acclaim, this could be a rare opportunity to showcase a likable, real-life person making the transition.
“If this show documents the emotional and physical impact of his transition and shows it in a very thoughtful and sensitive way that is more educational as opposed to sensational, then it could have a tremendous impact,” Moodie-Mills said.
Because Jenner has not commented on the reports, multiple advocacy organizations, including GLAAD, would not weigh in.
Given the way Jenner has connected with fans of many ages, plenty of people would be curious to tune in.
“I think he’ll do what he feels what his heart is telling him,” Wallach said, “and what’s the best thing for him and his family.”