TAMPA, Fla. — I don’t scare easily. I pick up snakes, wade among alligators and eat lunch at rural diners where the best thing on the menu is lima-bean stew. Yet I was afraid to ask Cheri Irwin, who once owned the most famous derriere in America, about her tan line.
The Question has become the price of her strange fame, a fame she never expected, certainly never sought -- a kind of fame that nevertheless has followed her throughout her life, wherever she has lived and whatever she has accomplished, like a disobedient shirttail.
How are your tan lines, Coppertone Girl? And by the way, how is your life?
She was 3 when she posed for her mother, a commercial artist who had been hired to whip up an ad for what turned out to be a small paycheck. Her mom posed her on a backyard table, yanked down her bathing trunks and started painting. The finished ad, considered a Madison Avenue classic today, featured the pigtailed little girl, a precocious cocker spaniel and those pale butt cheeks.
Irwin, 56 now, has lived a full and interesting life. But the Coppertone gig eclipses everything. It’s a conversation starter and a conversation stopper. She hears a throat being cleared and a slight giggle and braces herself for a question she loathes.
She has been asked the tan-line question a million times by a million bores -- usually baby-boomer men who think they’re saying something original and laugh-out-loud hilarious.
She looked at me like I was the world’s dullest dunderhead when I surrendered to the temptation. Then the corners of her mouth curled north.
“Tan lines? That’s your question? Gosh, nobody has ever asked me about tan lines before. Really, that’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that question.”
I first tried talking to the Coppertone Girl in 2004.
“Not that story again,” she said with a groan.
“You’re an icon,” I explained. “I’d love to meet you and write about it.”
“Interview my mother. She’s the one who did the ad. She’s much more interesting.”
I didn’t think writing about the Coppertone Mom, Joyce Ballantyne Brand, would be as good as writing about the Coppertone Girl. But I drove up to their home in Ocala, Fla., anyway. “Mind if I smoke?” Brand asked, peering at me through enormous pink-framed spectacles. “My whole house is an ashtray.”
As a young woman, Brand had used herself as a model when creating buxom beauties for risque pinup calendars. She created ads for Pampers and Pepsi and illustrated stories for national magazines. She married a dashing guy, Jack Brand, a television announcer. They lived in Manhattan, threw lavish parties and drank martinis. A widow when we met, Brand still had a taste for martinis.
She told me the Coppertone ad had been a blip on her resume. It was a small job, and not a challenging one, but it paid $2,500.
In 1959, somebody at the ad agency had handed her a sample -- featuring stick figures of a girl and a dog -- and told her to develop it. Brand’s daughter was available and worked for nothing. She posed her on an aluminum table in the backyard and started sketching. Later she added a palm tree, a beach and the dog.
“That’s the work of mine everybody remembers,” Brand told me with a frown.
While Brand and I talked, the Coppertone Girl sat across the table from us, listening without expression. Of course, I tried to draw her into the conversation, but she seemed tired and uninterested.
Yes, many of her friends knew she was the Coppertone Girl. No, it wasn’t always fun.
“People can be incredibly boring about the Coppertone Girl,” she said. “Sometimes they ask about my tan line. It’s irritating.”
She added: “People seem very excited to learn I was the Coppertone baby. In 1993, there seemed to be a renewed interest. I was invited to appear on (Sally Jessy Raphael’s talk show) and ’Entertainment Tonight.’ Anyway, that’s it.”
When the phone rang recently, I was surprised to hear the voice of the Coppertone Girl on the line, inviting me to interview her about her new business in Tampa. She sounded friendly and told me she’d answer a few Coppertone questions if I had any.
Her new job is managing a new Segway Experience franchise, and she leads a tour of a historic neighborhood. Everybody, including Irwin, rides a Segway, one of those self-balancing, two-wheeled scooters that always remind me of the R2-D2 “Stars Wars” droid. The 90-minute adventure includes lessons on riding a Segway.
So I took the tour. She made no mention of the famous Coppertone Girl.
When we’re kids, we like to believe we know exactly how our lives are going to play out. Of course we’re going to be baseball players or astronomers or famous actors. We’re going to have dogs and horses. We’re going to fall in love, dwell in that perfect house, live happily ever after.
Irwin was famous at age 3. Her likeness appeared on billboards from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In her neighborhood, everybody knew the Coppertone Girl. In Manhattan, she attended a special high school for the city’s artistic students. Classmates played violins and cellos, painted gorgeous pictures and had beautiful soprano voices. She was the Coppertone Girl. “There was no way I could match up with those other kids,” she said.
She didn’t become an artist. After college in Florida, her jobs included toiling as a personal trainer and managing a gym.
In 2008, her mother died in her sleep. In 2009, Irwin’s 63-year-old sister, Coby Reichstadt, passed away after a short illness in Nebraska. Irwin separated from her husband.
Three of the worst things that can happen to a person had happened to her. “Life is short,” was what came to her mind. “Enjoy it while you got it.”
She quit her wellness job, rented an RV, hit the road, saw some pretty American landscapes and tried to find comfort in her own company. She attended rock concerts and visited the beach. No cocker spaniels snapped at her bathing suit and nobody asked about tan lines.
She explored her roots and slept in the family bunk beds in Omaha. She went ice-skating on New Year’s Eve, read books about self-actualization and discovered the power of prayer. She moved to Tampa to start over, accepted the job with Segway, dropped 20 pounds and vowed to regain her athletic physique.
Maybe she would never be as interesting or as glamorous as her famous mother. But what did it matter if she tried her best to make the world a better place?
“When people go on this tour with me,” she told me, “they’re creating memories. I mean, they’re going to remember the day they took a tour on a Segway for the rest of their lives. I tell people I’m in the memory business.”