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
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The grueling days in the legal system and the long, alcohol-soaked nights should have exhausted Claudene, but her normal high energy went into warp drive instead. The fight had taken a different toll on her father, who sought out a therapist and ended up describing Claudene—her emotional swings, her rapid speech as thoughts poured out of her head. “We always thought she was just hyperactive,” says Dina, but the psychiatrist wondered if she might have a manic disorder. Her parents persuaded her to visit him, and he diagnosed Claudene as bipolar. She was prescribed the appropriate medications but was erratic in sticking to them. She partied harder and spent more money. She bought an expensive bed and liked it so much that she got her dad one, too. It showed up at the house in Anchorage without warning. She purchased a $600 six-foot statue of a policeman for her front porch. After leaving her lawyer’s office one afternoon, she stopped into a BMW dealership and paid cash for a new baby blue convertible. She sank $100,000 into a bar in Hermosa Beach, receiving a few dividend checks before letters began arriving saying the profits were being “reinvested” in the bar.

Trying out the Hollywood Park jockey scales.

She was also becoming involved with a man her family says was intent on exploiting her for money. She sold a Hermosa Beach home she’d purchased with the legal settlement, only to have that sum disappear in fixing up a property the boyfriend wanted to flip in Playa del Rey. The structure needed extensive work—it barely had running water. Michelle Wilton, a close friend since USC, saw her drinking increase and her smile fade. Wilton was shocked when Claudene didn’t make it to her wedding in 2006. She and others were worried that Claudene was heading for a breakdown and told her parents so.

All Baedeker knew was that he could no longer depend on Claudene. “There were issues with reliability, calling in sick or not showing up,” he says. “The old Claudene was never sick. Eventually we had to let her go, and she understood why.”

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By 2007, Claudene’s parents had heard enough about her decline to come down to L.A. and escort her to the doctor who had pinpointed her disorder. He checked her in for a brief hospitalization. Out of financial options in L.A., Claudene returned to Anchorage with her parents. It was a shock after years in the sun to be back in the land of eternal winter. The family decided to move to Vian, Oklahoma, near Dina’s hometown. But whatever solace Claudene might have found in the sleepy Midwestern burg quickly turned to boredom. At one point she applied to cover high school sports for the local newspaper, a job intended for a teenager. The sports editor didn’t hire her but was intrigued that she had been a USC Song Girl. He wrote a feature on her. “It was terrible,” Claudene told the writer. “I went back to Alaska after 19 years and felt like I had failed. It was like I went to California, had that wonderful success and just lost it all.” The picture that accompanied the piece shows Claudene surrounded by her dolls, her skin white and puffy, her eyes hollow. It hardly looks like her.

As a seven-yearold dance troupe performer.

Dina saw Claudene’s frustration build. “She was so landlocked,” Dina says. “She loved the ocean and the water, and she needed to get out of here.” Her father had long claimed that they were related to the mutinous sailor Fletcher Christian, a family mythology that no one was able to confirm. Claudene had always been interested in the sea and in research on the Internet looked for a chance to join the crew of one of the magnificent tall ships. Hundreds sail around the United States in a loose circuit of local festivals, regattas, and private appearances. Some are run by nonprofits or as floating schools; others, like the Bounty, are floating businesses, collecting appearance fees and chasing the modern great white whale—the film industry. Their crews are generally a mix of a few committed professionals and a host of novices who come aboard as unpaid volunteers. In 2011, Claudene discovered that the Niña, a replica of Columbus’s ship, was scheduled to dock at Fort Smith, Arkansas, 30 minutes away, and sent the owner her résumé. She was assigned the job of cook and sailed on the Niña for three months. Claudene returned to Vian with a goal. “She was determined that she wanted the Bounty,” says Dina. On the Bounty she wouldn’t just be a galley wench in a small operation. Claudene would be part of the most glorious of the modern tall ships.

On a beautiful May morning last year Claudene and fellow novice Melissa Norris joined the Bounty crew in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the two bonded as they learned the ship’s ropes. “It’s a whole different life, having minimal materialistic things,” Norris says. “You want more of it.” Claudene was certainly thriving. In California e-mails were showing up in the inboxes of friends who had not heard from her in years. They signaled that the old Claudene was back. In pictures her skin is tan and sometimes pink from the sun, and she is always smiling. Claudene sent Wilton a text message that she’d never been happier—not at USC, not at Hollywood Park, not at the height of the doll company. It read: “My head, body and soul are finally in alignment and I’m finally at Peace.”


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