Kwan Has Skills of Winner, Now She Needs Look of One


Michelle Kwan was a vision in pink, skimming over the ice like a sprite as she landed seven triple jumps in an entrancing performance at the world figure skating championships earlier this month.

It was the best effort of her young career, the fulfillment of her immense promise. As the crowd in Birmingham, England, rose to its feet and thundered its approval, Kwan was overcome and began to cry. Yet, as the tears ran down her cheeks, her eyeliner didn't smudge, her mascara didn't run and no rivulets of blusher lined her face.

That's because she was wearing little makeup. And her natural look, coupled with her girlish ponytail, might have cost her a medal.

Unlike some of her competitors, who seem to apply cosmetics with a trowel and wear unnaturally precise hairstyles, Kwan keeps things simple. Her dresses might have a few spangles but there are no peek-a-boo mesh, low necklines or plunging backs. She wears only basic makeup.

"Last year at worlds, I saw myself on TV and I looked so pale, because I was nervous," she said. "I looked awful. I don't like wearing mascara. I wear light makeup so I won't look so pale."

Minimal makeup is appropriate for a youngster three months short of her 15th birthday. But for a wispy girl skating against physically mature rivals in a sport in which judging is subjective and appearance counts heavily, Kwan's resistance to the tricks of cosmetics and costume could have hurt her when judges award marks for artistry.

Her coach, Frank Carroll, said her young appearance might have kept her off the medal stand in Birmingham. He and Kwan are devising an older look for her next season.

But her ponytail will be flying at least once more. Kwan, who was fourth at Birmingham, and three other top women skaters from the world championships will compete in the Hershey's Kisses International Challenge today and Wednesday at the Sports Arena.

The field also will include U.S. men's champion Todd Eldredge, who was second at the world championships; U.S. pairs champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, who won the bronze at Birmingham; world pairs champions Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny of the Czech Republic and world dance champions Oksana Gritschuk and Evgeny Platov of Russia. Oksana Baiul of Ukraine, the 1994 Olympic gold medalist, will skate an exhibition.

In a rare matchup of Olympic-eligible and ineligible skaters, more than $250,000 will be awarded.

"I'm looking forward to it because it's home, and I don't have to fly to Florida or someplace," said Kwan, who is from Torrance and trains at Lake Arrowhead. "And the field is going to be the best international skaters."

When she skates against them next season, though, she will look different.

"We've already talked about wearing her hair up," Carroll said. "We're looking at a little more sophisticated hair arrangement and dresses with stronger colors and a little more sophistication. It's sort of to see if we can try to fit what the judges are looking for unconsciously.

"She is only 14 years old and she did skate incredibly well and everybody was excited, but we're talking about the world ladies' figure skating championship. I wonder when they look at her, if they think she fits that category. That's all right now. I can handle that at 14, that maybe they think she fits into the category of young lady or girls' championship.

"(To think her too young) at age 14, I have no problem. But at age 15, I would have a lot of problems. Oksana Baiul won at 15 in Prague (in 1993), and it was her first time in it. I think Oksana looked older, more precocious, or whatever, and I think in a year or so, Michelle will look that way too."

In 1993, in her senior-level debut, Kwan was 4 feet 11 and 77 pounds. She has since grown to 5-2 and 98 pounds, but that's still two inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than U.S. champion Nicole Bobek, who looks worldly at 17.

"In the '93 nationals, (Kwan) was sixth but easily could have been third, but then she was tiny," Carroll said. "Part of a coach's job is packaging. It's not only skating and spinning, it's the right music and choreography and appearance.

"Unfortunately, in figure skating appearance has a lot to do with it. It's an aesthetic sport. It's not racing against the clock. A lot of girls are fantastic skaters but have ugly bodies, and in this sport, your body is a piece of equipment."

The prospect of a transformation intrigues Kwan.

"It's part of the game--and it's fun to do it when your parents say, 'You can't wear makeup until you're 20,' " she said. "I'm just doing it early.

"I learned how to do my makeup on tour last year from a makeup artist. I want it to look natural, so I won't look so pale. Some girls, they use so much makeup, you can't see the real side of them. They taught me to do it natural so it would bring up my cheeks and skin color."

Janet Allen of Minnetonka, Minn., who has judged international figure skating events for more than 10 years, said she didn't hear the judges at Birmingham criticize Kwan's appearance. Yet, she acknowledged that judges do register skaters' costumes and cosmetics.

"Michelle skated beautifully," said Allen, who didn't judge at the worlds but was on the senior men's panel at this year's U.S. championships. "She made a fabulous impression. The judges from other countries all said that.

"In Michelle's case, she's perfectly groomed and dressed in ways that are fitting to her age--not childish but not overly sophisticated. I don't think her look works against her. It's part of her appeal."

Women's champion Lu Chen might have gained points for her appearance.

"I don't like to see a costume that's too showy or overdone in the short program," Allen said. "Chen wore a very simple dress in the short program, and people commented how elegant she looked."

Kwan dressed simply and skated elegantly. So why didn't she win?

"That's hard to say without sitting down and watching all the performances," Allen said. "She was third in the free skating, which I think was probably a good placement, though I probably would have had her second. I thought Lu Chen was lovely. Bonaly was second in the free skating. I thought Michelle was wonderful."

Said Kwan: "Maybe they thought I was too young. I think that has a lot to do with it, but I don't really care. It wasn't up to me. It's up to everybody else to decide whether I'm first or last. I did my best and I was excited afterward and I didn't care where I finished. . . . Maybe my artistic (performance) is not enough for them. I think I just have to work on everything. You can always make yourself more artistic."

She's going along happily with Carroll's plans to create programs that are "a little more sensual, a feeling that has more depth to it, more female expression." They will be grown-up but not the revealing designs that once got former Olympic champion Katarina Witt penalized at the European championships.

"God, no," Carroll said. "It just means the slower parts (of her programs) will be slower, a little bit earthy."

That will suit Kwan fine.

"We work together to find what kind of music fits me well and look and style. Music plays a big role," she said. "It's nice to change. Every year we change and get more artistic.

"I don't worry about anything. The way I look is the way I look. I just want to skate the best I can."

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