Tai Babilonia: Story of Survival on and off the Ice

Photo Courtesy of Pam Danielle

Photo Courtesy of Pam Danielle

Olympic figure skater Tai Babilonia (of the duo that is, was, and always will be “Tai and Randy”) is simply“Like Buttah”—the term coined by the ladies of SNL to admirably describe Barbara Streisand on its mock talk show, “Kawfee Talk”.  She glides into Victor’s Delicatessen  http://www.victorssquare.com/  looking much taller than her surprisingly diminutive 5’4” frame.  Still graceful and willowy as ever, sporting wavy, fairy-princess-like hair, Babilonia’s thirty-something appearance belies her 54 years of wisdom and experience.

She greets me as though she has known me for years with a hug and a smile and, during the course of our, roughly two hour, interview, will treat me increasingly like a fellow girlfriend.  Personable, positive, translucent and inspiring, she recounts her and partner Randy Gardner’s infamous historical warm up at the 1980 Winter Olympics, discusses the upcoming Sochi games, diet and fitness and related advice to young skaters, her official five year sobriety, her candy brand, her jewelry line, her special friendship with Stevie Nicks, whirlwind romance with the late Andy Gibb and her attendance at the 1985 wedding of Madonna and Sean Penn.

We begin the interview, where only this interview can begin—the beginning of the end of their bid for competition in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

“One of my most arresting [9-year-old] memories…was watching the 1980 winter Olympics and the skating and I was so excited and then when I saw Randy just go down, I was like, “Noooo” and it all [seemed to go] in slow motion. And I was like ‘Mom, I feel so sorry for him. I feel so sorry for THEM!’”

“So you were little…young…and you just locked into that.  Well, probably because…going into it, we were the world champions the year before so with that and with the Olympics being here at home, in New York, Lake Placid, [there was] a lot of press, a lot of attention, a lot of pressure…so that’s why…everyone sort of locked into us and…the media created this rivalry between the Russian champion; two time Olympian Irina Rodnina.  So this is major. And we were their biggest competition.  So why not build that up for ratings…?”

“But y’know, they forget that we really just want to go out and skate our best.  So what ended up happening…two weeks before we left for Lake Placid, Randy Injured that muscle—abductor muscle–in the groin area, but didn’t think anything of it.  It’s like, “I’ll work through it.” along with all the pressure and interview after  interview, the magazine covers…just a lot of stuff and you want to take that stuff…‘cause it’s helpful.   But at some point our coach was very good at limiting it, to where it wasn’t a distraction, y’know, TV lights, cameras strapped to your body…And a couple of interviews I even started  crying, ‘cause I knew it was an invasion of this very important time for us to train and it’s funny now, but at the time it wasn’t funny.”

“You know those wireless mics?…I had one on me, and I forgot it was on and I was having a horrible day because…I was just not having a good day on the ice and we had to do this interview…and I said…’F*&c it’ or  ‘F*&^ this’.  Oh my God, first of all my coach just reamed me and that started me crying…all this with the mic on…Bottom line; interview didn’t get shown.  I had to go home in tears and so it was just that intense…it was so intense…So anyway he started fielding interviews and just limiting [them] which was great.”

Tai and Randy in the Early Days...  Photo Courtesy of Tai Babilonia

Tai and Randy in the Early Days… Photo Courtesy of Tai Babilonia

“So back to Randy’s injury.  He thought he could work through it.  I didn’t know…he had done it.  They sort of kept it very quiet–two weeks before–and then we get to Lake Placid and he reinjures it. He does something and it irritates it again. But once again, they [kept] it very low key, just ‘cause there’s so much going on and you don’t want to let something like that out, ‘cause the press’ll take it… They’ll be looking for it, and we just don’t work like that.”

“…I hate when I see skaters now on TV and the commentators tell you either they’re sick or they have the flu or they have an injury and that just ruins it for me.  Y’know…put on your big girl panties and just do the best that you can… So what you saw on TV…I knew as much as you knew really.  I knew something was wrong…there was the warm up, where he kept falling… Randy never falls.  If anyone falls, it’s me…In a pair team the guy takes the lead in…90%, especially on our team…  Randy’s the leader…  That night, I could tell just by how he was holding my hand, I was leading.  I was the strong one.  And then, when he [was] falling next to me, I was lost…His leg was buckling underneath him…  They say he looked like Bambi…  I’ve gone back and watched the footage. It’s fascinating…‘cause it’s almost like…I’m watching two good friends of mine… I’m so far removed from it.  Randy hasn’t watched it and he won’t watch it…and it happened in a matter of four minutes, that whole thing… and then our coach finally said, and you can see on the video,…’They’re done…they’re done…’

“…and the minute we stepped off the ice, our world [and] our lives had changed forever. …The next day we had…2000 telegrams…up against our door, a call from…President [Carter]…y’know…and we…went to the White House after and…they saw that we were human.  They saw that someone had a muscle that was not gonna work that night. And they could relate.  We were relatable to everyone and I’ll take that…”

“So it’s interesting because, now the Sochi Olympics are coming up and from what I’ve read, or what I understand, you’re quite the activist for equal rights.”

“Absolutely!”

“So are you, boycotting…?”

“Well here’s the thing…and I get that.  I get the gay community…  My friend Gregory—Lougainis, is kinda stuck in the middle.  Y’know his community was so upset with him for not going with the boycott.  But how would they know?  If you’re not an athlete and–he’s the best ever–been through two boycotts; It’s not a solution and being an athlete, this is what you’ve worked for.  Whatever the situation is, it comes down to the sport.  Y’know it’s sad that it gets political and…I don’t know why I’m so nervous about these games but I am…I’m just…I can’t embrace them with all of those issues looming and it’s almost like the Russian government has done this on purpose almost like a psych out—like a psyching out kind of effect that’s my take on it.  Y’know…’Let’s get them so scared that they can’t perform.’

Because you’re afraid of…”

“Anything…anything…  Even if you’re not a gay athlete, what if you have a gay family member—or a gay coach?  I don’t know…I don’t know…I understand both sides but I understand it more being an athlete.  You just want to go there and do your job and what you have trained [for] four years…eight years…? …And it would be such a waste if you didn’t go and to make a statement; as Gregory said, to go there and either dedicate your performance to your gay family member or your gay friend or your gay parent…  So I get both sides but I feel that…being an athlete, go there, do the best that you can and see what happens.”

“…Are you a coach now…?”

“I don’t coach.  No.  There’s a little [12-year-old] girl named Starr Andrews.  She went to Nationals.  She’s there now… She’s getting a little attention right now because she’s good.  And she has it.  Whatever it is…. And so…I’m her friend. I don’t know if she wants to call me a mentor. I’m not quite sure what exactly that is.  But I’m her friend who is advising her on what to expect, how to act when you’re at a competition, just the things that I was taught.  That’s what I do.”

To view a, then nine-year-old Starr Andrews skating to “Whip my Hair”, please visit:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBxpjtcBAG8

Photo Courtesy of Pam Danielle

Photo Courtesy of Pam Danielle

“What are your current projects?”

“Well there’s the book [autobiography] which is being pitched right now. Yes, I’m gonna go there.  It’s either you go there or you end up with fluff.  It’s not a name dropper…it’s the truth and…I just got this job at ‘The Insider’ on CBS…it’s kind of an entertainment/news show.  [I get to interview Olympic hopefuls].  The first one aired two days ago (01/10) with Ashley Wagner.”

“…I have a candy.  I did a radio show with Frank Sheftel who owns The Candy Factory in the valley, probably the oldest candy store in the valley and he has radio shows so I did the radio show and, as a present for me, he gave me a piece of candy shaped in a skate, a chocolate skate.  And I don’t even eat candy but was like, ‘That’s interesting.’  And he said, ‘Yeah, how would you like to lend your name to some candy, and create some candy and design your own candy?’ so I thought, ‘Why not?’  So he took the three things that I love:  I wear pink skates, I love butterflies, I’m a big butterfly person and this moon (indicating the crescent moon pendant around her neck) this is actually part of the superstitious part of Lake Placid.”

“This was given to me–the crescent–by Stevie Nicks in the summer of ‘79. …She saw Randy and I on TV… She and Fleetwood Mac were [also] on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ [that same year], in the same issue there happened to be a story on Olympic hopefuls for 1980.  So I think she also saw that. So she was a fan.  We happened to be training [at a building] in Santa Monica which is now a Fred Segal…fifth and Broadway…used to be our rink, from ‘72 to ‘80 that’s where we trained.  And she happened to be recording with Fleetwood Mac, not far from the rink.  So I think her assistant or manager called the rink saying, ‘I want to come to the rink and drop off some gifts for Tai and Randy.’  And at first we believed it and she said, ‘I’ll be here at this time and I hope they’re there.’  So we waited…  An hour goes by, two hours go by, two and a half hours go by and we thought, ‘It’s a hoax.’…and we left.  Twenty minutes after we left, guess who comes swirling into the rink?  Red chiffon, and boots and the hair: Stevie.  So it was T-shirts and pins and programs and they had a whole tour coming up–a Tusk tour…for their album but this (holds up moon pendant) was one of the gifts…  I pinched myself.  So this stayed on.  I put it on thinking that this was [such] a great gift.”

“Back to Lake Placid:  Before we were to go out on that warm up, before he kept falling, I had it on and Mr. Nicks, our coach, thought it might get caught in the costume or something and said, ‘Why don’t you take it off?’ [And I’m thinking]…’Oh man, I really don’t want to ‘cause I love it so much,’ and I’m very superstitious.  So I took it off.  The second after it all went down, he handed it back to me. It’s been on ever since. So that’s over 30 years.  And she’s just…she’s incredible.  Big supporter.  In fact Randy and I wrote a book in 2004, like a coffee table book, not a fluffy book, but it was not a true autobiography….more like a picture book.  Stevie wrote the forward, an amazing forward [wherein]…she almost compared my relationship with my partner to her and Lindsey’s relationship.  I mean theirs was romantic but, it’s similar.”

“So…back to the candy.  One of the pieces of chocolate is in the shape of a crescent moon, a dark chocolate crescent moon so that’s in honor of Stevie.  So it’s an interesting world, the candy world.  Once again, it’s so funny ‘cause I was never allowed to eat candy when I trained.  If I’m gonna go for the junk, I go for the salt like the popcorn or the potato chips.  I’m just not big on sweets so, it’s interesting to be in that world.  It’s a crazy world.  We went to this big convention last year…  It was like Willie Wonka.  It was wall to wall candy and everyone had their stations.  It was beautiful.  [They had] chocolate fountains, everything.  Everything’s chocolate!”

[And speaking of candy…] “What would your advice be on health and nutrition to young skaters?  ‘Cause I know you had your issues [with] that.”

“…I don’t know if it’s a problem…or a secret.  It becomes a secret and I’ve been very open about my struggles with it. You see it in gymnastics. You see it in ballet.

“So mine started…15-16, my body…change[d]…  Randy’s not that tall…and he kept having trouble lifting. [It affected] the timing on everything…and for two years…people got nervous thinking maybe he should get a new partner, smaller, maybe I should get a bigger partner… So what happened was…no change in diet then… I was just growing.  Our coach was very clever then in figuring out our strengths… With my body changes, he was able to figure out what worked best for those awkward two years ‘cause it was almost like I forgot how to skate, it was that big of a change.”

“The Big weight gain issue happened when I was a professional.  After 1980 [I] joined the show Ice Capades; nine months on the road, um, very rough time for me.  Just emotionally, being away from home on your own and when you’re in a show like that–Ice Capades–you’re weighed in once a week and if you don’t hit your weight that they have given you, they fine you.”

“I gained—it was probably a good 15 pounds over.  That’s [also] when the drinking started.  That’s when…the diet pills started and I NEVER hit the weight I was supposed to…  For those three years I was in the show it was a constant struggle.  I was constantly being fined which was embarrassing.  But I think it was emotional…it was emotional eating.  I was scared. I didn’t  know who to trust. All of a sudden we were thrust into this spotlight. It was just like my high school.  And a month after we were done with that contract, the body settled down.”

“Now there are nutritionists. Now there’s more information available. Back then…diet wasn’t really talked about and exercise and everything [that] factors into it…and you kinda have to block it out…’cause you’re going to get rude comments.  If you’re overweight in my business, it’s going to get written about.  It happened to me.  I would read reviews and a weight issue would come up…or ‘out of shape’.  They would say, ‘She’s out of shape, not in Olympic shape.’  That stays with you.  I remember reading something about Karen Carpenter…  She read a review and it was great—the music—great, y’know…she’s phenomenal.  They’re phenomenal.  But the reviewer mentioned something about…they may have used ‘dumpy’ or some word like that…and that stays in there.  That’s the seed.  The seed has been planted.  One word and she’s gone!  It’s that powerful!”

“So my advice…it’s tricky but you really have to know your body and know what fuels it and you can’t be careless.  You have to be strict with it.  Being here in L.A…. Oh my God, I can’t even imagine being a 13 or 14 year old, seeing what we see on TV and the magazines…the pressure.  I can’t even comprehend that…  I was in a store and I had never heard of a size zero. Well, that size is a nothing.  So I’m wearing nothing?  Wearing nothing is just…I don’t get it.  It’s a game.  But it’s a scary game.  You’re scaring these kids, thinking there’s a size zero and it’s cool to be a size zero.  Size zero’s not a size zero first of all, that’s a scam.  The whole thing’s a scam.”

“I’m not [even] quite sure, I have an answer for the young ones… Be healthy.  … Junk food is junk food and if you’re a good athlete, you don’t eat it.  You eat what’s good for you.  And there’s great stuff that’s good for you.”

It just cracks me up that they have McDonald’s…partnering with the Olympics.  Like seriously. And even now they’re finding Subway’s not really much better than McDonald’s.  They have the ads paired up…”

It’s a contradiction…it’s a contradiction…y’know, it comes down to dollars…millions and millions…

“And now, a question catering to my teenagerish fascination:  Madonna and Sean Penn’s Wedding…”

(Bemusedly incredulous) “How did you know that?  Did you read that?”

[Google, y’know…?]

“…Yes, I was there, as I was at that time, Christopher Penn’s date and girlfriend.  It was like a movie.  You couldn’t hear anything because of the chaos up above.   They got married at a friend’s estate overlooking the ocean—it’s all in Malibu…I was around before the wedding and I was around after, ‘cause I saw them opening their wedding gifts the next morning; interesting couple.  Anyway…beforehand, Sean knew all the chaos going on and it pissed him off. …He went in the sand below and took a stick or whatever and he wrote ‘FUCK YOU’ in the sand…big so they could see it.  They may even have a picture of it.  But it was just…surreal.  And…I watched them in fascination, y’know I tried not to stare.  You don’t want to stare and Christopher, I think was having a hard time with it ‘cause  I think it was almost like he was losing his brother…”

“I can’t believe Christopher’s gone first of all.  That’s a whole other story. To me he was [a] natural talent.  Sean’s phenomenal but Christopher; it was like it was breathing to him—acting.  It’s like he wasn’t even trying, he was so good.  But anyway, I watched Sean and Madonna… I was on the set of…“At Close Range” so I was in Tennessee for some of the filming…and Madonna was visiting too and she was about to explode. I mean she’d exploded [already] but this was gonna be big.  Sean was huge and you watched it and you were just like, ‘How are they doing this?’  ‘Cause you could see this sometimes (fists butting up against each other).  It was like the two powers…the um…just the personalities.  No one was gonna back down… So I’m surprised they stayed together as long as they did…It was fascinating.  It was something I’ll never forget; spending time with the Penn parents Eileen and Leo (who’s since passed)–fascinating family, brilliant family…and then the next morning after the wedding, sitting there…in the living room of [Sean’s] parents’ house…all in pajamas…watching them open their gifts uh…surreal…surreal…”

“Like Christmas.”

“Like Christmas:  amazing gifts and big paintings and crystal…I gave them a crystal ball with a really pretty base.  When…they got a divorce I was like, ‘I wonder who got all the gifts.’”

We eventually jump from Christopher Penn to Christopher Knight (aka “The Brady Bunch”‘s Peter Brady) Tai’s very first love: 

“Okay so Christopher:  Okay [in] 1980 after the Olympics…my teammate Linda Fratianne–Ladies Champion, Olympic Silver Medalist 1980, she had a party celebrating her medal…  I was invited and I don’t know how she was friends with Christopher…but Christopher was at this party.  …I wasn’t down but I wasn’t…it was a weird time for me…after Lake Placid and we had just signed a contract with Ice Capades so I was going into this new world of entertainment and not sure about it at all…  So…I was sitting, having a glass of wine and Christopher and I locked eyes and…he tapped into something early on.  He saw vulnerability.  He saw the young girl now going into this new world of entertainment he had been in forever and I think that’s what attracted me to him.  ‘Cause this guy knows this world that I’m…now entering.  And I felt safe and he basically took me under his wing and shielded me and taught me everything I was about to embark on. He knew.  He knew we were going to break up two years later and I was gonna go on to something else…on to someone else named Andy Gibb.  And he had it all figured out but he stuck with me and he taught me as much as he could about this crazy world called entertainment–First love, first kiss, first everything.  Well, not first everything…I was…naïve and a virgin.  But just some of those lessons I learned back then, I still use today…on [how to] treat people [in]…dealing with people, dealing with producers, dealing with agents, dealing with how you handle yourself in meetings.  And that’s how I met Christopher.”

[Now then, Andy Gibb…]

“[With] Andy…I learned the power of publicity…such a sweet person…almost too sweet for the world he was in at that time ‘cause it kinda gobbled him up in a way uh…and it wasn’t serious.  I knew it wasn’t serious but it was fun.  We had fun. And it was fun to be around someone so popular at that time. I mean, Teen Idol and…just the chaos and the girls [etc]… Once again I would sit back and…watch and learn how he handled himself and he was great.  He was very, very courteous and loved his fans; but the publicity part…?  They would have you married and then you would be dumping him, and then you’re married again and then he wants you back ‘so bad’ and it’s like who is feeding all this stuff to these outlets?  ‘Cause I didn’t have a publicist…at that time but he sure did. …[Andy and I] did a Bob Hope special together.  He was there.  He asked me out.

Tai Healing up in Ashland Oregon, Photo Courteys of Pam Danielle

Tai Healing up in Ashland Oregon, Photo Courtesy of Pam Danielle

“Oh so that’s how you met…on a Bob Hope Special?”

“Yeah…yeah…  We were both guests on a Bob Hope Special.  But it was just fascinating to see his world and it was crazy, fast paced, “yes” people …the whole “yes” people thing…and then he passed away.  So horrible…I remember so vividly in [‘88]…I remember seeing it on TV.  I was in a hotel and I turned on one of the early morning shows and it was [on the] headlines…and I knew I couldn’t leave to go do the funeral…  So…that kinda messed with me.  But…sitting there, who knew that my life was taking a similar path to the dark [side]?  With me it was drinking…sliding down that slippery slope.  Not knowing…[later that year] I would crash.”

“Yes…I knew that you had tried to take some pills.”

“In the late 80s, very well documented…[After wrapping up the Ice Capades].  That was the crash.  …[And then I] slowly built myself back up, once again, not hiding. They did a movie about it.  ‘People’ magazine did a cover story about it…I just…I’m not…I can’t hold that stuff in.  [So] The Chateau Marmont:  I lived there for six weeks in the [late] 80s… I sold my place because I was on the road a lot…[and] a little lost…and for some reason, I checked into this hotel [on Sunset Blvd.]…  [I was] working hard…probably taking on too much work.  But y’know…it’s hard to say, ‘no’… And I paid a price.  I paid a huge price…Would I change that?  I don’t think so–y’know taking a handful of sleeping pills—not that I wanted to go –go away [so much]. I wanted to slow it down.  Um, a cry for help is in there but [I just felt] lost…and sad because everyone around me was sad so I thought, ‘Why be here?’  It was all me thinking I’m making these people miserable [my manager, parents, partner], ‘cause I’m not performing right.  And now I’m starting to say ‘no’ to work and that’s not good.  ‘Cause you’ve got a partner who’s saying ‘yes’ to work.  Now I look back and on it and laugh.  Y’know…I was strong. And we’re still together.  We’re still skating together.  We just did a gig last month.”

“…Now being sober [is something]…I take very seriously… In the 80s after the crash, didn’t take it seriously and thought, ‘I can handle a drink now and then’ and that was such a huge mistake. If I could change anything…I would have tried to embrace the twelve step program back then and I didn’t do that.  I didn’t.   [In 2007 I felt the need] to get out of L.A. ‘cause I felt…I was slipping. …I knew there was a problem and I could handle it but I was slipping through the cracks and…something said, ‘You better get out.’ …I went to Ashland Oregon.  And I didn’t even know what Ashland Oregon was, but my boyfriend at the time suggested it, ‘cause he saw something happening and he had a friend in Ashland.  And we went there for a couple days and said, ‘This is it.  I want to be here. ‘Cause I need to slow it down.’ …So I sold my house [in L.A.] and…without telling anyone, I went up… So I got it under control.  Then we come back home.  ‘Cause…now I get it.  I understand you don’t…have to try and keep up with what you see on TV.  Or what your friends are doing…and make this much and…just go at your own pace.  So I get it.”

Tai has now been sober for a proud five years!

“In a nutshell and with me right now…the sobriety has saved me.  But along with that it’s the honesty that just…feels so good, to be honest with people. …No more secrets.  No more lying, and what a difference.  What a difference and every night before I go to bed I think, you know of course…I think it’s a woman up there. (pointing Heavenward).  …So when I talk to her I thank her.  We sass back and forth.  And I thank her for another day of sobriety.  ‘Great we got through the day,’ but just for the opportunities that are coming my way and the people who believe in me…I am jut thanking my lucky stars…”

For more information on Tai Babilonia, her candy line and her Twitter Feed, please visit the below links:

www.taitreats.com

~ twitter @taiskates @taitreats 

Jennifer K. Hugus

About Jennifer K. Hugus

Jennifer K. Hugus was born at a very young age. At an even earlier age, she just knew she would one day write for the LA Beat! Having grown up in Massachusetts, France, and Denmark, she is a noted fan of Asian Cuisine. She studied ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet Theatre and acting at U.S.C. in their prestigious BFA drama program. She also makes her own jewelry out of paints and canvas when she isn’t working on writing absurdist plays and comparatively mainstream screenplays. Jennifer would like to be a KID when she grows up!
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