The USC Song Girl and The Sea

Once Claudene Christian joined the crew of the Bounty, she got back the joy that she’d found—and lost—in L.A. Then hurricane Sandy struck
1953

Her father, Harry, who goes by Rex, was a firefighter and rebuilt old Corvettes on the side. As often as he could swing it, he would fix his work schedule in order to take a full month off. The trio would pile into the family Suburban and travel to car shows in California. They’d sleep on the side of the road or sometimes not sleep at all and drive nonstop, 3,400 miles from Anchorage to California in as few as three days. On one trip they visited USC. The campus was still vibrating with the excitement of the 1984 Olympics. Claudene told her parents she’d found her college and bought a videotape of the Trojan band so she could memorize every dance of the famed cheerleaders. She was ecstatic upon being accepted to the school.

Before leaving for L.A., she met a USC alum in Anchorage. He expressed delight that she was heading to his alma mater, but when Claudene told him her plan to become a Song Girl, he looked almost offended. “You don’t just show up and be a Song Girl,” the man said.

Camping in the Alaskan wilderness at 16.

Well, I’m gonna try, she told him.

In addition to performing at games, the Song Girls were routinely hired for gigs off campus, sometimes up to eight a week. “A lot of girls get like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to do that,’ but Claudene always volunteered,” says Moody. “Anything from weddings to alumni events.” She also took on the thankless task of delivering rolls of fabric to an Orange County seamstress for the team’s custom sweaters, saving scraps of unused material so they wouldn’t go to waste. Perhaps that stash of costly textiles was on her mind when a columnist for the student newspaper, The Daily Trojan, wrote that all he wanted for Christmas was a Song Girl in his stocking. A lightbulb went off. “Literally we are sitting on the team bus and Claudene says, ‘I’m gonna open a doll company,’ ” says Moody. “We were all, ‘Whatever, Claudene.’ ”

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In 2001, Claudene called Hollywood Park and asked for her old job back. Nine years before, Rick Baedeker, then head of marketing at the Inglewood racetrack, had been sitting at his desk when his boss brought in a freshly minted college grad whom he’d met at a USC event. “I saw this cute little SC cheerleader, very young and inexperienced,” says Baedeker. “And before long it was suggested that I hire her.” He was not thrilled, telling Claudene, “We have a small staff, and there’s no room for pride or attitude.” But once she showed up, “Claudene never missed a beat,” he says. “She would jump in on anything that needed doing, and she always had a joy about her that energized the rest of us.” She made friends among the grounds crew, the jockeys, and the grooms in the stables. She constantly pitched Baedeker with ideas—some good, others silly—to bring new fans to the aging horse-racing industry. She ran a Friday night concert series, which lured a younger, free-spending crowd to the track. Within a year Baedeker had made Claudene director of promotions.

Claudene was able to quit that job in 1997, after the Cheerleader Doll Company that she’d nurtured with characteristic drive had grown into a large enterprise. The Barbie-size dolls, dressed in the uniforms of the respective schools, were selling into more than 100 college stores. Soon after announcing her doll idea on that game-day bus ride, Claudene had taken the scraps of white sweater material to a local dry cleaner, which had fashioned a miniature uniform for $30. Two years later Claudene held a licensing agreement from USC and had found a Hong Kong manufacturer for the doll bodies. She faxed her orders from the home office of an ex-boyfriend. She stored the inventory under her coach’s stairs and initially hired Nelson’s children to dress and box the dolls at $1 each. As demand grew, she faced a labor crisis. She enlisted a friend’s fraternity at UCLA to package the dolls. At the close of her senior year she had orders from five college bookstores and was struggling to keep up. “We were working night and day,” Claudene told a newspaper. “All my friends were assembling dolls.”

As a teenage Miss Alaska.

Now financially set, Claudene could pursue another passion: singing. She began performing with a rock group called Joe’s Band, a staple of the South Bay bar scene. She also toured with a band called Mad Tea Party that traveled as far as ski resorts in the Rockies and beach hotels in the Florida Keys. “When she started singing, she was drinking a lot more,” Dina recalls. “She said that living down there was like being in a rock video all the time, people always wanting to do this and that and go out and party.” Claudene was living in a house on the Hermosa Beach Strand, and roommate Mike Barry watched the world follow her through the door. “Everyone was attracted to Claudene in every way possible,” says Barry. The house was packed every night with college kids, music people, even pro athletes. “We had some amazing parties—the balcony would almost be collapsing,” he says. Claudene wasn’t handling the rising alcohol consumption well, and Barry would carry her into her bedroom after she’d pass out.

By the time she reappeared at Baedeker’s door, Claudene was a different person, altered by more than a decade of hard living. She’d endured seven years of legal battles that only exacerbated her drinking. The dolls’ success had come to the attention of Mattel, which produced its own cheerleader version of Barbie. In 1997, Mattel sued Claudene, her father, and their company, stopping two shipments of dolls at U.S. Customs. “Somebody we knew in business told us, ‘That’s what they do; they’ll watch you,’ ” says Dina. “They’ll watch how you do, and if you start to make money, they’ll come after you.” Claudene lost her battle with Mattel but discovered gross misconduct on the part of her lawyer and filed a lawsuit against him. They settled out of court for what Dina says was more than a million dollars.


This feature was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.