Gabby Reece on Modeling, Marriage, & Strong Women

·Editor in Chief

Gabby Reece proves that strong is beautiful. (Photo: Instagram)

I first met Gabby Reece in 1989 when she was starting out as a model and I was a young makeup artist. We worked together often on shoots with photographer Steven Klein for British and Italian Vogue, and quickly bonded over our shared passion for fitness and health. We were quite the pair, she at 6’3” and me at 5 feet tall. With her height and athletic build, Gabby was a stunning example of how strong is beautiful. An instant cover girl, she absolutely paved the way for models that are fit and powerful, instead of thin.

Gabby left modeling to become one of the world’s best known pro-volleyball players. In 1995 she met pro-surfer Laird Hamilton and the pair now live in Hawaii half the year raising three girls. Gabby has developed a new fitness program called HighX that combines resistance training, cardio, and balance available at 24 Hour Fitness. She’s written several books including the 2013 memoir, My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper: A Guide to the Less Than Perfect Life. In it, she pulled back the curtain on her life, including the truth about her marriage. I love that she didn’t try to put out the image of perfection, but instead was funny, honest, and totally real, just as she was when we caught up again after all these years.

Bobbi Brown: Hey Gabby, it’s been a long time since we worked together. I think you were, like, 17.

Gabby Reece: I was trying to remember, but I think the first time I was, like, 18 or 19. It was 1989, and you were just starting to do your makeup line. I started playing volleyball professionally out of college, so I was done modeling by 22 or 23.

When I think of you I remember how nice, normal,and not model-like you were, and I say that with love.

I get you. Because I remember this one time, I’ll never forget it, Naomi [Campbell] comes in and she’s late. I don’t remember what shoot it was, maybe with Albert Watson. They were all bitching and moaning, and then when she leaves they’re like, “Oh, she’s so fabulous.” I was like, that’s never going to be my language.

Oh yeah. I once did a Vogue shoot with Linda Evangelista, and we’re sitting in a location van on the street waiting and waiting. She comes in six hours late, and the editor says, “I’m so glad you’re here! Here’s some champagne and flowers!” 

[Laughs] How about that naughty behavior?

Gabby Reece with husband, pro-surfer Laird Hamilton and their daughter. (Photo: Instagram)

Thankfully, now you’re worlds away from the modeling world, living in Hawaii and LA with your husband, Laird Hamilton. With two world-class athletes in a relationship, that must be interesting; I’m sure you have both taught each other some amazing stuff. 

Yes, he’s perfectly willing to start at the bottom of something, not be good at it, and then implement it. He has taught me about being willing to do the things you’re not good at. I think I have a tendency to go back and do the things that are easier for me to do, for example, weight lifting and things that I’m comfortable with, versus lots of stretching or meditation. Those things are more of a challenge for me. So Laird has been a great example of going to your vulnerable spots, because it only ultimately makes you stronger. 

And what do you think that you’ve taught him?

Laird always says I’m like a low flame, steady. Even though he is very disciplined, I do put it into a structured template. He’s created a very consistent Monday/Wednesday/Friday in the gym and then Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday in the pool in the off-season. I think my way of doing things has influenced him in having a pretty consistent off-season training.

I love that your book was titled My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper: A Guide to the Less Than Perfect Life. Why do you think it was so important to you to tell the truth, that nobody’s perfect, not even you guys?

I thought it would be unfair to perpetuate that notion that you can have it all, all the time. And by the way, your house should be clean and perfect, and your outfit should match, and your hair and nails and everything. So for me, I can share what works and doesn’t work for me, and it might spark in others that conversation for themselves. Again, my thing is I’m telling you how it works in my house, but this isn’t the only way. I’m just sharing my personal anecdotes, and then maybe you can look at it your way.

One of the things I love about you is that you’re a little bit of a rebel. But you caught a lot of heat when you said a woman being submissive in a relationship is a sign of strength. I think it was taken a little out of context. Were you surprised at the reaction? 

Well, yes. When I did the first interview of my NBC package, the ladies came to Hawaii and I thought, these chicks get me. The producer is six feet, and I thought they totally get me, what I’m trying to say. And [the producer] said, “A lot of people are going to be upset.” I thought, “Oh yeah, I said f— a lot in my book.” And then she read the line to me, and I knew right then, Oh I’m so going to get killed on this. She said, “You’re not PC, it’s so refreshing.” Of course I did get killed on it. But listen, it was good for me. I’ve worked very hard, I think, to keep things very smooth. I straddled a fine line of the pretty girl who plays sports, and carry myself in a way that tries to avoid criticism and keeps the focus on hard work, performance and such. I did that for a long time, and I feel good about that. But what happens, and you can relate to this, late 30s, early 40s, you go, “I get it. People are not going to like it and people have their own opinions, and I’m cool.” You’re not going to make everyone happy. I was disappointed in the sense that I was trying to have an inclusive conversation, and instead it created a bit of a thing. And frankly, I get to a place where I’m like, I’m just going to talk about calories and reps, and keep it simple and aboveboard, because the more I am matter-of-fact and open, people are like, f– her. And it’s fascinating to me.

I think at a certain time in your life and your career and age, you do say, I’m just going to say what I feel and what I believe, it’s gotten me this far.

I sort of thought, OK, if I’m going to put stuff out in the ether, I hope at some point the thrust of it is that there’s something positive in it. But then, you know, you get over yourself. But yeah, I was surprised and I was bummed. I was joking with Laird when he was back home in Hawaii and I was in New York doing press for it and he said, “Well, did you say that — that’s what you think but not what you do?”

That’s so funny.

I said, the messenger of submissiveness is 6-foot-3 and 175! That’s the whole other side of it. I feel like I’m so much more masculine than most women, and I should be able to say that pretty easily. You get that the whole other 20-something years of my image has been about being a strong woman.

You were ahead of your time, by the way. Now it’s all about being a strong woman. You really broke through and you’re probably a pioneer of it.

It’s all about timing. There were people before me who kind of laid the ground, and then there are people like me who can just walk freely on the road. But it’s interesting to me, you know, strength doesn’t mean not feminine, or not loving, or not kind. That’s what I think culturally is getting a little bit washed away — we confuse strength with harshness and disinterest. Men have gotten pushed to the side. Should they open the door or should they pluck their eyebrows? They don’t know what the hell is going on. And with women, I tell my daughters if your currency is your beauty, then you get poorer every day. Sometimes what [women are] projecting, even though it’s stronger women, they’ve sexualized themselves a lot more with social media. 

Gabby Reece is a former professional volleyball player. (Photo: Instagram)

Well, never before would we have had the Williams sisters on the cover of Vogue. It’s now in the mainstream that you can have big, strong, gorgeous muscles and you’re on the number one fashion bible of the universe. I think it’s a great thing.

That part I do think is great. But I think there’s another image that’s getting pushed out there for women, à la the Kardashians, that’s gone in a way the other way. It’s like, how long are you going to play that card for? Fake eyelashes, the tightest clothes, your tits are out. And granted there’s a time and a place, you know if you’re in your 20s, then rock on, whatever, but it’s like, that’s what you’re serving up? 

It’s interesting, definitely. Body image is a big thing and something we used to talk about a lot. I’m 5-foot and you are 6-foot-3, so we were quite a pair, but we always did go to the gym together and talk about what we’re eating for health. I remember we always struggled with this idea of perfection and being who we wanted to be. So what did you end up finding worked for you?

I always say consistency is everything. I mean I still train really hard. I still train how I did as an active athlete. But, on the days that I feel tired or when I know I won’t get it done, it’s not that I don’t worry about it, but they say the most damaging thing is stress, so I always put that in order. Everybody has stress in their life, so I’m going to figure out how to try to filter it the best I can. You know this, having children, there are days when I feel like I’m failing miserably, but for me it’s first keeping that perspective so I can manage the stress. I train very rigorously, but I always communicate to other people that it’s about consistency. I’d rather someone go 15 to 30 minutes five times a week and it’s just a part of their everyday life than once a week for two hours. Once I became a professional athlete and went that route, then I realized that what you put in your mouth is like 80 percent of the deal.

So what food is fuel for you? 

Well, that’s the other side. It goes back to stress. I’m not psycho about anything, because it’s just not worth it. I just try and eat as close to the source as possible. I still eat animal protein, but I cut way back on it for a number of reasons. One, you just don’t need it. And two, if I cut back on animal protein I know it’s good for the place I live. I’m a big advocate of healthy fats for brain function and that I feel full and satisfied. I think it diminishes the desire to overeat. So oils and nuts. I try to avoid gluten; occasionally if I go to the best Italian restaurant with homemade pasta, then I’ll eat it if I want it, but I try not to make that a regular part. There is science about inflammation in the body and in your brain and cognitive function that’s in a book called Grain Brain

How do you handle food with your kids?

I don’t restrict a lot. I don’t prohibit my children from eating gluten. Because, I think if you make it taboo they’ll go to their friends, and that’s all they’re fixated on. I think if Laird and I are good examples and know how to make food taste good, then they’ll come back to it. I do say don’t drink your sugar; eat your sugar because those are treats. I showed them a picture of, like, seven to eight chocolate chip cookies next to a 16-ounce soda, and I’m like, it’s about the same amount of sugar. So wouldn’t you rather have one or two cookies instead of the soda? And what happens is they don’t really want it, if you don’t introduce it too early.

What are you working on now?

I created a, by accident, a curriculum called HighX. It’s getting put into all the 24 Hour Fitness gyms right now. I was teaching a class for free in Kauai because the gym was closed; it’s really fun, good and hard. I’ve been doing it for seven years. 

What’s next for you? 

My thing is I love fitness, but the reason I even wrote the book is like, let’s have a bigger conversation about why you’re not able to get it done or you don’t have the time. Because think about it, you only exercise 5 percent or 3 percent of your day. I’m actually more interested — I’d love to do something like the Happiness Tour or something where we figure out small things we can do that don’t cost any money, that can help us navigate a crazy day with very little free time. So I’m most interested in that idea, one’s own personal way that they get it done. Fitness for me is a great pillar. It’s easier for me to work it out that way and faster than to go to the therapist.

As someone who is outdoors in the sun a lot, what do you do to take care of your skin?

When I started playing ball I was really good about protecting my skin. I always practiced in running tights and T-shirts, I always wore a visor. I think it’s important to get some sun, but I was very diligent about not frying myself, to be honest. I think the fact that I do eat well and exercise has prolonged and helped in supporting me in that aging process. Even lifting weights and your skin, that connection is important. I take supplements for my skin and I stay hydrated. You know they talk about even faking a big giant smile can actually change your brain chemistry. So when I feel like I’m getting so focused and so intense, I’ll do it. And also the notion of I won’t be limited by my age. I also won’t be so freaked out by it. I won’t say I can’t do something because I’m 45. You know what, it’s life. It’s OK. 

It’s been awesome connecting with you again.

Thank you so much Bobbi, you too.

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