Laura Vikmanis has got spirit . . . and pom-poms, too! But before she stepped onto the field as the oldest cheerleader in the National Football League, she was sidelined by a bad marriage and the many responsibilities of stay-at-home motherhood. She finally got the courage to leave her husband and to ask herself something she had never asked before: What do I want to do? Remembering her teenage love of dance, she signed up for a pole-dancing fitness class, where she met a former cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals. When the woman suggested that Laura audition to be a “Ben-Gal,” Laura laughed her off but soon realized that the audition process could be a way of healing herself—and regaining her confidence. Her boots were made for walking—but also for stomping on a football field.
She tried out for the team next to girls young enough to be her daughters. Girls with tighter abs, fuller hair, no kids, and no crow’s-feet. After much adversity and multiple auditions, she finally made the team, becoming the oldest cheerleader in the League.
It’s Not About the Pom-Poms follows Laura’s inspiring, funny, and eye-opening journey from demoralized divorcée to high-kicking Cincinnati Ben-Gal. Readers will cheer her on as she rediscovers her passion for dancing, takes hip-hop classes with twelve-year-olds, loses twenty-five pounds, discovers her abs, finds love again, and becomes a new kind of role model to her daughters. Laura also provides an inside look into the fascinating world of NFL cheerleaders—the grueling workouts, bad pay, twice-weekly weigh-ins, but, most important, the lifelong bond between the women, who do it all for the glory.
Leading with her heart, Laura Vikmanis faces adversity with her head held high as she learns in mid-life to take a flying leap. Powerful and uplifting, It’s Not About the Pom-Poms shows that, no matter your age, it’s never too late to go, fight, and win!
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||4 MB|
About the Author
Amy Sohn is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Run Catch Kiss, My Old Man, Prospect Park West, and its upcoming sequel. She has been a columnist for the New York Post and New York magazine, writing about relationships, marriage, and parenting. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
WE BURST OUT OF THE LOCKER ROOM AND HEAD DOWN THE narrow white hallway in pairs, talking and giggling. I am so nervous, my palms are wet and I have to blot them against my thighs so I won’t stain my miniskirt. We’re going over moves and checking one another’s faces. “Don’t let me forget that head flip!” “Remind me to move out of the way on our second formation change.” “Which arm goes up first on the intro dance?” “Do I have lipstick on my teeth?” “Does my bra show?” “Does my second bra show?” “Is my eyelash falling off?”
The narrow hallway leads to the wide underbelly of Paul Brown Stadium. This part of a football stadium is not glamorous—it’s gray and dingy, with exposed pipes and cinder block walls—but on Game Day it’s kinetic, so packed with people that it’s like the backstage of a Broadway musical. Our black, orange, and gold pom-poms swaying as we walk, we pass the security guys, the referees, coaches, reporters, cameramen, and the pyrotechnicians who are readying the fireworks equipment. I look at the other girls in their halter tops and low-slung skirts and realize, I’m one of them. I look like that, too.
The girls and I have known one another just a few months but it feels like we’ve been through combat training. In some ways we have. We have made it through three rounds of competitive tryouts, a summer of exhausting practices, constant dieting, twice-a-week weigh-ins, and brutal athletic conditioning. Now it’s all about to pay off, as we cheer the first home game of the preseason. It’s August 27, 2009, and the Cincinnati Bengals are playing the St. Louis Rams. But if you had asked me right then, in the passage of the stadium, who our opponents were, I would have had to think twice before answering. For us the games are not about the opponents or the score, though cheering is always more fun when we’re winning. They are about performance. The games are our shows and the field is our stage.
Like all modern cheerleading teams, we are a physically diverse group of women. Some of us are lithe, others petite and muscular. Some are curvy, some thin as a rail, some have legs that go on forever. Some are brunette, some blonde, some redheaded. Most are white, but our group includes an Asian American girl, two African American girls, and a pretty blonde who is part Cherokee.
I am different from all of these girls in one significant way: I am forty years old.
As we near the tunnel, people grin or ogle or give us the thumbs-up. Everyone smiles around cheerleaders, it’s Pavlovian. We’re iconic, beautiful, and fit, but we’re also over the top. We know it, we don’t mind, it’s why we’re here.
A group of fans is taking a tour of the stadium, led by an official. They can’t stop staring. We don’t stop to chat; we don’t have time. I’m going over my moves in my head. Each one of us is nervous about something different. I think I’m going to throw up. Why didn’t I pee before we left? What do I do on the second eight-count of “Welcome to the Jungle”?
Thirty-two of us have shown up to the stadium today but only twenty-four of us are on our way to the field. The others are upstairs working the private suites. I have been selected to cheer because I’m a good dancer, I’m consistently on time, and I always make my weight limit, one hundred twenty-three pounds for my five-foot-four-inch frame.
Our Game Day uniform, which we take home after every game and must return when we retire from the team, is a micro miniskirt in orange and black, and a white-and-orange halter top with a rhinestone B between the breasts. We wear calf-high, low-heeled white leather boots, shipped to us from a small shop in Los Angeles. (They are the only thing I will get to keep at the end of the season.) Beneath our skirts, which have a built-in panty, our legs are encased in suntan color L’eggs Sheer Energy panty hose with the waistband removed so we don’t have muffin tops, and the toes cut off so we have circulation.
We are all wearing tan, heavy foundation, fake eyelashes, and French-manicured or clear-polished nails, as required by our rulebook. Some of us have foundation or powder on our stomachs to give us great abs, whether we really have them or not. If you took all the silicone bra inserts, which we call chicken cutlets, that girls have stuffed inside their halters and put them in a pile, it would be about the size of a linebacker. I myself need no chicken cutlets; I got breast implants almost a year before, as part of the same midlife crisis that led me to believe I could get on the Ben-Gals in peri-menopause. Real or fake, each set of boobs is pressed together and up.
On our mouths we wear a hideous bright orange lipstick—Orange Flip by Revlon. It makes you look like someone’s pushy grandmother who leaves kiss marks on your cheeks after she greets you. The Ben-Gals have been wearing it for decades.
We pass the players’ locker room, which always feels forbidden. Cheerleaders are not allowed to enter the room at any point. I have memorized the white sign on the door: NOTICE! NO PERSON EXCEPT AUTHORIZED CLUB AND LEAGUE PERSONNEL AND ACCREDITED MEMBERS OF THE MEDIA SHALL BE PERMITTED TO ENTER THE LOCKER ROOM OF ANY PARTICIPATING CLUB ON THE DAY OF THE GAME. The locker-room door is connected to the tunnel by a “yellow brick road.” It’s not really yellow but a gray, black, and orange pattern that leads the boys to the field before a game and from the field after a nail-biting victory or humiliating loss. We are not allowed to step on the road lest we get in their way.
“The boys are streaming in on their way back to the locker room after their warm-up exercises. Chad Ochocinco (who changed his last name from Johnson to Ochocinco to match his jersey number, eighty-five) and Dhani Jones are coming toward us. We avert our eyes, not wanting to distract them, but we peek at their faces to gauge their pregame state of mind. It’s almost seven-thirty at night but we have been at the stadium over four hours—practicing, eating an early dinner, and getting ready. We have been here longer than some of the players.
We form small groups, touching our toes and doing lunges, warming up our muscles. We arrange ourselves into a circle to the side of the Bengal brick road and say a quick prayer, led by Tara, our captain, a leggy brunette with deep, dark-brown eyes, a straight little nose, and wavy hair so long it touches her elbows. We stand shoulder to shoulder, cross our arms in front of our chests, and link pinkies, because our poms (cheerleaderspeak for “pom-poms”) prevent us from holding hands. Tara lowers her head and says, “Lord, thank you for allowing us to be here today and for keeping us safe. Make sure the fans are safe, the players are safe, and we are safe. Make sure everyone gets home all right after the game. Thank you for making sure that we have no injuries, and for allowing us to cheer.”
“Amen,” we say in unison.
We all stand, hands on hips, and bend our right knees. This is Ben-Gal Pose. We will do it a hundred more times over the course of the game, at the end of our short dances, the “fillers.” We shake our poms just below our breasts and say “Yay!” quietly, so as not to disturb the officials around us.
Then we go into the tunnel. I get chills. It’s short, maybe forty feet or so, just a passage with air vents, decorated with Bengals banners, but it feels holy to me. Through the opening I can see fifty-two thousand Bengal fans in the seats, drinking beer, cheering, thrilled to be back for another season, praying that the team can do better than the four-eleven-and-one record it had in 2008. Electric energy radiates from the stands because hopes are always highest at the beginning, and not in the middle, of a Bengals season. My sister, brother-in-law, boyfriend, mom, and two daughters are here. I can hear the public address announcer Bob Kinder in the background, talking about the game. The neon yellow-green goalpost is bright against the sky. A Bud Light ad is to the left, a Pepsi ad to the right.
We stand in two lines. All around me, hair is flying, poms are shaking. Orange Flip flashes over artificially whitened teeth. Fans are leaning their heads over the tunnel wall, screaming and clapping. I start tearing up. Remember this. This is real.
Bob Kinder is saying, “Here are your 2009 Cincinnati Ben-Gals!” The crowd goes crazy, cheering. We walk onto the field, chins high, smiling, past the officials, the photographers, and the video cameras, to the middle—right on the Bengal tiger.
Our intro dance is a revue that includes an “Eye of the Tiger” remix, Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad,” and LL Cool J’s “Move Somethin’.” The synthesizer chords are booming through the $1.7 million video and sound system. “Back, back, back/Risin’ up.” We start to move. The fans’ favorite part is the kick line, when we arrange ourselves like the Rockettes on the hash marks. My chin is raised to the sky, so even the fans in the top tiers, thousands of feet away, feel like I’m performing for them. “Snotty, snotty,” Tara always tells us. “You’re smiling but be a little snotty.”
From the other end of the line, Tara’s yelling, “Back up, Brandy! Laura, half-step forward!” We can yell at each other during dances, but we always smile so no one can tell. I’m kicking in sync with the other girls. For these four minutes everyone’s attention is on us—unlike during the game, when many fans will glance over our heads in annoyance to the action on the field, seeing us as a distraction.
We ripple. We do high kicks. As my leg shoots out in front of me, I think about what it took for me to get here. Seconds pass and the music and crowd begin to fade out, until my head is silent. I am no longer on the field of Paul Brown Stadium. I’m an hour away and seventeen years younger, inside the ugly yellow house. I am a twenty-three-year-old newlywed, locked inside a bedroom, desperate to escape, and the only way out is to kick.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rating: 2 of 5 stars (disappointing) Review: On the surface, this book sounds like a real inspiration to anyone who thinks his or her dream cannot be achieved. Laura Vikmanis divorced her husband after fourteen bad years of marriage and was a single mother who wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She loved to dance in her younger days and became inspired to try out for the Ben-Gals, the cheerleading squad of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. She didn’t make the cut on her first try, but that didn’t stop Laura. She worked even harder and made it during her second tryout and at the time of publication was on the Ben-Gals for three years. Her story was an Internet hit and a movie is in the works on this story. So, this book is a must read for everyone, right? The message is clear, and yes, it is nice to see a woman who was so depressed and lacking in self-confidence to achieve her dream. However, the path that Vikmanis takes the reader while becoming a cheerleader is full of contradictions and uncomfortable passages. On the latter point, that may not be the case for all readers. But it would have been better to know that certain personal topics like Laura’s sex life (discussed far too often, IMO) and her reasons for breast augmentation surgery would be discussed in such detail. Some readers, including myself, may feel uncomfortable with such personal information. Obviously, some of this information is needed to set the story, such as her husband locking her in their bedroom. But I really didn’t need to know that she didn’t achieve orgasm until she slept with the first man she met after separation – and on their first date. Details like that are not really necessary for understanding this story of hope and inspiration. I also felt that Vikmanis contradicted herself by wondering why first her father, then her current boyfriend would want to look at magazines like Playboy, yet she does work as part of the Ben-Gals such as posing for calendars, getting the breast surgery and working hard on her physical appearance beyond staying in dancing shape. If women being portrayed as sex objects bothers her, then why does she engage in that type of behavior or work in that field? Especially when she states that many male fans at special events bother her because they try a “boob hug.” I felt she also came across as judgmental on those who may disagree with her choice of profession or surgery decision. While some of that criticism of those people may be justified, the story just seemed to be filled with too many of these, when being judged by others so much, whether her husband, father, or other women, supposedly ruined her self-esteem. Again, it felt like one big contradiction between the message that was sent and the message trying to be sent. The book is mainly about overcoming a horrible past and working on self-esteem. For the most part, the book does that. But again, some of the details to show how much better Vikmanis feels about herself now just make me shake my head. An example of this comes near the end of the book. She states that one of her daughters is embarrassed because some of her friends call her mom a “MILF.” However, Vikmanis says that the comment “makes me secretly smile.” Really? Getting THAT kind of attention from teenagers makes her smile? If you are not familiar with the term “MILF”, I won’t spell it out here – type it into any search engine and you will see what the acronym means. There is a big positive to the book, however, and that is her description of what goes on at NFL cheerleading tryouts, practices and games. These ladies work just as hard as the players and their pay is far too low for the work they do – at the time of publication, the Ben-Gals made $750 for the season. They have routines, need to make weight goals, and are getting less exposure on television as networks chase advertising dollars. I thought that the writing about this issue and the activities of an NFL cheerleader were well illustrated here, as only one who has the experience can write. This wasn’t enough to overcome the disappointment I had with this book, however, as I felt it was too much personal information and emotional. I felt it overshadowed the powerful message to keep pursuing your dreams no matter your age or past life. Pace of the book: Very quick as I finished this in about two hours. I admit that I did read this more quickly than most books as I just wanted to get past all her personal woes, and concentrated on the passages about the cheerleading itself. Do I recommend? I would recommend it to anyone, especially women, who want an inspiring story of overcoming a bad marriage and self-doubt. If the reader is uncomfortable with very personal stories, whether about sex, domestic abuse or eating disorders, then he or she should pass on this book.
I was very impressed with the story and the writing. You are very inspiring Laura.
Journal of Henry MacBluff.