For pop culture-inclined Kentucky journalists, one of the best assignments all year is covering celebrities at the Kentucky Derby. Here on Derby Eve, we asked Herald-Leader reporters past and present to share their favorite celebrity-related memories from the Run for the Roses, most of them previously unpublished.
The Greatest indeed
Boxing legend and Louisville native Muhammad Ali left several reporters awestruck after they encountered him.
Former Herald-Leader pop culture writer Heather Svokos remembers: "I covered eight Derbys, and when people find out I had to stalk celebrities every year, they always ask: 'Who was the best one?'
"My answer even surprised me the first time I gave it, but I haven't budged. I was roving Skye Terrace at the 1999 Derby — back when journalists were allowed to do that and were not relegated to standing in a receiving line on the red carpet. I was armed with my celebrity goggles, trying to scope out anybody who might look vaguely famous. I happened to be there just when the elevator doors opened. First, a sizable entourage filed out, then its star emerged: Muhammad Ali.
"What happened next was unlike anything I'd ever seen: It was like the sea had parted. Ali's illness forced him to walk slowly, but he quickly became the Master of Skye Terrace. All eyes (some misty) were on him.
"His first order of business? Approaching members of the incredulous wait staff and dispensing warm hugs. He moved on to his adoring legions, posing for photos and more hugs. Even in his condition, he worked that crowd like a fiddle. It was impossible to witness this and not get teary-eyed.
"I waited for his fan obligations to slow before I approached him for a quick interview. We moved onto the balcony, where I asked him a few mundane questions, such as, 'Who are you betting on for the Derby race?' Ali leaned in toward my ear so his now-weakened voice could be heard. He whispered: 'I don't gamble. I'm here to see the horses and meet the fans.'"
Longtime reporter Andy Mead, who covered 25 Derbys, said, "One of the nicest celebrities at any Derby was one of the best-known people in the world: Muhammad Ali. ... I was one of the many who got to talk with him, and even put up dukes against him. Fortunately, he only pretended to hit me."
Holly Stepp, another former reporter, had a particularly personal encounter with Ali. "I always enjoyed covering the Derby, but more often than not I found myself as the only minority in any given situation. While covering celebrities in 1999, I was walking through the Skye Terrace and spotted Muhammad Ali. He was on the other side of the floor and surrounded by fans. However, he saw me, pointed, smiled and winked. Save for the Downs staff, we were the only minorities in the room. I didn't get to interview him, but each time I saw him that day, Ali smiled, winked, gave me a thumbs-up or patted me on the back as I passed. I don't know what prompted him to do what he did, but for a young, black journalist who already felt utterly conspicuous, it was a great deal of comfort."
Stars, up close
Sometimes journalists find themselves in oddly close situations when interviewing a celebrity.
Former business reporter Amy Baldwin George remembered that rock icon Stevie Nicks held her hand almost the entire time they spoke in the red carpet line at the 1999 Barnstable Brown Derby Eve Gala.
Svokos recalled: "As an ardent fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I was a little beside myself because I was standing there on Turf Terrace in 2001, interviewing Valerie Harper — Rhoda, the acerbic, lovable foil to Mary Richards. I adored her. So we're in the middle of our little Derby gabfest, and I'm stunned, because suddenly, Harper's arm is reaching toward my throat. I'm wondering if I've inadvertently pulled a Ted Baxter and she's trying to strangle me. But then her hand lands on my necklace, whose clasp has slid down toward the center of my neck. 'Sorry, this is driving me crazy,' she said. 'I've gotta fix this.'"
Former Herald-Leader photographer David Stephenson chatted up a TV star in an odd location: "At the height of the Lost phenomenon, Terry O'Quinn, who played John Locke on the TV series, was one of the guests at the Barnstable Brown party. My colleague David Perry and I always had to work in a corner, crammed up against the portable toilets at the back of the house. I'll never forget having a conversation with O'Quinn next to the toilets as he waited for his wife. I barely remember what we talked about, but I remember how pleasant he was and that he wouldn't give up any inside info on the show. I had a number of conversations with the celebrities at the toilet over the years covering that party."
A Derby favorite and a not-so-favorite
Svokos recalled actor Jerry O'Connell, a perennial Derbygoer, as "always smiling and gregarious." In 2000, he told her, "I'm a big fan of the horses. The only analogy I can make is what a Muslim must feel like in Mecca." He added, "The chicks are so hot in Louisville, and you can quote me on that."
On the other end of the spectrum was actor John Corbett, who flipped the bird every time a camera was pointed at him, Stephenson recalled.
Hitting the small time
"Covering the Barnstable Brown party often meant being stuck in a pack of oversize TV cameras and football-size lenses with my little pen and notepad," says former Herald-Leader pop culture reporter Jamie Gumbrecht. "In 2007, Jimmy Fallon came down the walkway. He zeroed right in on me and said something like, 'You're, like, the tiniest reporter ever! Do you need help? Is there a question I can answer for you?' And in response, I'm pretty sure he got the same question everybody gets: something like 'What horse are you betting on?' or 'What do you think of Kentucky?'"
Lights, camera, Jordan
"NBA legend Michael Jordan was completely unable to avoid standing out in a crowd in 2005," Gumbrecht said. "He skipped the red carpet at the Grand Gala after-Derby party, I think, but organizers opened the door of the event at one point, and it was like every light in the room was pointed at him. Or maybe it was just the sheen from the collective sparkle in the eye of every member of the crowd."
Fairest of them all
Celebrities in general are a pretty bunch, but some are better looking than others.
Actress Gabrielle Union, who has attended the Derby a few times, got votes from several journalists. She "was so beautiful in person it was staggering," Herald-Leader reporter Mary Meehan said. "Her skin was flawless, her dress springy and fresh, and her hat not at all ridiculous (unlike many first-time Derby-goers). Plus, very nice."
Reality TV comes to Derby
"The 2004 bash was one for the books with streams of reality TV and pop music guests, such as Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson in the throes of their Newlyweds celebrity and Nicole Richie at the height of her famous-for-being famous career with Paris Hilton on The Simple Life," said Herald-Leader arts writer Rich Copley, who will cover his 15th Barnstable Brown party Friday night. In 2004, "Anna Nicole Smith seemed sort of like last year's news, as she had crashed the party the previous year with the crew from her show. Little did we know one of the defining stories of the Barnstable Brown legend was developing: That was the night Louisville photographer Larry Birkhead met Smith, and they later had a child who ended up at the center of a paternity dispute after Smith's death in 2007."
An acquired taste
"All the celebrities were given a mint julep as they arrived," veteran Herald- Leader reporter Cheryl Truman remembered. "After a while, reporters got a bit punch-drunk in the sun, looking to see how the celebs would sniff them suspiciously — after all, a julep is an odd drink if you're not into Derby lore — and then look for a place to pass them off or ditch them. Many of the juleps did not make it inside."
And my mama, too!
"Comedian Lily Tomlin brought her mother to the Derby in 1983 and made sure Mom had plenty of media exposure," Mead recalled. "When Tomlin agreed to be interviewed by a television crew, she would wait until the camera was running and the reporter was asking the first question, then introduce Lillie Mae Tomlin, who had been standing behind her. 'This is my mom,' she would say. 'She's from Paducah.'"
Same suit, different place
"In 2003, Janet Jackson came to the Derby wearing a cute straw fedora and a striking white suit," Weekender/LexGo.com editor Scott Shive recalled. "I was in New York the following Monday and happened to see Ms. Jackson at a bar — wearing what appeared to be the same white suit she had on at the Derby two days earlier. What are the chances of someone seeing her in both places?"
Celebrity is relative
At 2008's Barnstable Brown party, "the celebs were a little V-list," former reporter Ashlee Clark Thompson said, "and no one was really excited to ask people like Heidi Montag (remember her?) about their favorite part of Derby celebrations. The celeb who got the crowd and the press the most riled up? Kentucky lawyer Darryl Isaacs, aka the Heavy Hitter."
Um, who are you?
Many non-sports journalists know pop-culture stars, but not necessarily sports celebrities, which are in abundance at Derby.
"NFL brothers Peyton and Eli Manning weren't well known to non-football types, or, OK, me, before they became rather ubiquitous. But they came to the Derby," Meehan said. "A photographer and I stalked two athletic-looking guys in nice suits all day only to find out when we sent the photo in that we had the wrong pair."
Former reporter Shawntaye Hopkins was working the red carpet when a tall man approached. "Who is this guy?," she remembered thinking. "I had no clue. Another reporter on the red carpet had to tell me" that it was NBA great Julius Erving, aka Dr. J. "before I interviewed him. I still had to look him up later. I was never good at the sports people."
Fitting Derby picks
"As a reporting intern covering my first Derby, I was looking for anything to make the short interviews more fun for the celebrities, and me," former reporter Chris Poore said. "I decided to ask celebrities at the 1991 Derby, 'If you were a horse, which horse would you be?' Michelle Phillips, legendary singer from The Mamas and the Papas but then an actress on Knots Landing, looked down at the list of horses from that day's races. She looked up, grabbed my arm and said, Wilder Than Ever."
Longtime Herald-Leader reporter Beverly Fortune remembered: "A really fun celeb was Tammy Faye Bakker Messner (come on, you remember who she was). She came to the 2003 Barnstable Brown party and the Derby. She was tiny — tiny! — and about as perky and quick as can be. Her reply when a reporter asked her to name her Derby pick: 'Ten Most Wanted. I've had two husbands, you know, who've both served time in prison.'"
Where are they now?
Journalists Rich Copley, Mary Meehan, Cheryl Truman, Beverly Fortune and Scott Shive continue to work at the Herald-Leader.
Heather Svokos writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and DFW.com in Texas. Jamie Gumbrecht works at CNN.com in Atlanta. Andy Mead is retired and living in Lexington. Holly Stepp is a management consultant in Raleigh, N.C. Amy Baldwin George works in public relations for Wells Fargo Advantage Funds in Charlotte, N.C. David Stephenson is the photojournalism adviser for the University of Kentucky's student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel.
Ashlee Clark Thompson works in communications for Humana in Louisville. Chris Poore is student publications adviser at UK. Shawntaye Hopkins works in communications at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.