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January 19, 2018

Flamin' Maimie's Bouffant Belles: How Big Hair Got These Runners on the Cover of Sports Illustrated in 1964

In 1964, the first female runners earned the cover of Sports Illustrated. The catch? The story was on the Texas Track Club, a group of decently quick young women, coached by Margaret Ellison, an enterprising secretary-by-day who believed the appearance of her athletes was more important than their skill level. In the article “Flamin’ Mamie’s Bouffant Belles,” she explained: “Every year we have a good-looking team and good-looking uniforms—none of those bags. I prefer pretty girls. I insist that they wear makeup. We all go to the beauty shop before each meet.” Likewise, the cover showcased the runners in the sprinter's stance wearing fake eyelashes, lip gloss and stuffed bras.

With hair blown out, makeup on, and crouched in sprint positions, Janis Rinehart (foreground), Paula Walter (middle), and Jeanne Ellison (now Jeanne Ellison Biggs, right) became the first female track athletes from the U.S. to grace the cover. Their look was no joke. They were part of the Texas Track Club, a small group of high school-and college-aged female sprinters based in Abilene, Texas, led by a dedicated coach as obsessed with beauty as with winning races. Both coach and athletes believed style could get people excited about the sport. “We were pioneers in women's track,” Rinehart recalls. “We were making it popular. And people liked the way we looked because we were flashy.”

Neal Barr, a fashion photographer whose portfolio included advertisements for Estee Lauder, Clinique, and Vanity Fair, took the photo. The runners' hair and uniforms are exactly what they wore during meets, but Barr gave them false eyelashes and turned Rinehart's head to hide a crooked tooth. Rinehart, who was 19 at the time, admits she padded her bra for the shoot because “they didn't have Victoria's Secret back then.” Biggs, then 16, remembers, "They wanted us to put lip gloss on. We didn’t know what it was, just that it was really cool."

Biggs says their female competitors didn't take them seriously. “Because we were all ‘frou-frou'ed’ up, and looked real nice when we would walk out there on the track, all the girls on the other teams would look at us and laugh,” she says. “They were like, ‘They look good but they can’t run.’ Then we would perform well and show them up.”

Before joining the Texas Track Club in 1961 at age 16, Rinehart competed in pedal pushers, modest pants that hung around the knee. But wanting to draw attention to her runners, club founder and coach Margaret Ellison (holding start pistol above), clad the team in form-fitting uniforms and matching travel suits. “Ms. Ellison designed white bell-bottoms and a white jacket trimmed with red for when we flew to meets,” says Rinehart. “My daddy was really against the shorts.”

Margaret "Flamin' Mamie" Ellison

Jeanne Ellison Biggs was the daughter of coach Ellison. The elder Ellison, nicknamed Flamin' Mamie for her strawberry blond hair and flamboyant personality, had little track experience, but plenty of business savvy. "She would say anything,” says Rinehart (including telling the Sports Illustrated reporter—falsely—that she dyed Rinehart's hair blonde so it would stick out during close finishes when really, she dyed it because she thought it looked more stylish). Hoping to attract both spectators and media, Ellison brought her athletes to a beauty salon before every meet. “She was an entrepreneur,” Rinehart says. “We just ate it up—we'd get a lot of attention.” Says Biggs of her mother, “She just wanted us to be showy. Every year, she would design these fancy uniforms and she had this sewing lady in Abilene make red satin shorts and things like that."

The runners actually competed while wearing these hairstyles. Rinehart sported the bob, Paula Walter the beehive, and Biggs the flip. Teasing helped add volume, and Aqua Net hairspray held it all in place. Even during a sprint down the homestretch, says Rinehart, her 'do didn't budge. “We went through those cans of hairspray quite often.”

Biggs doesn’t remember getting much attention after the issue came out. “I think Sports Illustrated came to us because it was a novelty kind of thing—because of our big hairdos and our dressing up and our fancy outfits,” she says. “The thing is, I don’t remember there being much of a reaction to it. I was 16, and I don’t know if I ever mentioned it to anybody at school.”

(via Runner's World)


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