Sneakers In Tinseltown; In Which the Beloved Nike Lady Makes Her Hollywood Rounds April 20, 1998
Garry Trudeau

Copyright 1998 The Time Inc. Magazine Company

Moore: Twelve-year-olds working in [Indonesian] factories? That's O.K. with you?
Knight: They're not 12-year-olds working in factories... The minimum age is 14.
Moore: How about 14, then? Doesn't that bother you?
Knight: No.
--Nike CEO Phil Knight talking to director Michael Moore in a scene from The Big One

What was Phil Knight thinking when he agreed to appear in Michael Moore's just released movie? If he actually trusted the populist filmmaker to intervene as Knight went postal on camera and started pumping round after round into his own foot, then Nike's founder is even more out of touch than legend has it. Who volunteers for an ambush interview and then, to compound his error, publicly condemns the outcome?

Moore, skilled at paying out rope to his victims (and then charging them for it), later agreed to meet with Nike spokesman Lee Weinstein to discuss damage control. Nike had two problems with the interview, Weinstein explained. First, it was unfair to include Knight's endorsement of a 14-year-old labor force while leaving out his subsequent pledge to make a transition to 16-year-olds (a difficult task, says Nike, given the workers' propensity for using "forged documents"). Second, Knight referred to his employees as "poor little Indonesian workers," a characterization that failed to convey the respect in which he held them. In both instances, Weinstein insisted, Phil had "misspoken." What would it take to make these two classic moments go away?

Moore decided to deal. He couldn't remove anything from the movie, he told Weinstein, but if Nike were to build a facility in Flint, Mich., he'd add a new scene. Heartened, Weinstein whipped out a notepad. Would that be a shoe factory or a warehouse? Moore, who can't keep a straight face at gunpoint, fought back tears of incredulity. Anything that'll employ 500 people at a livable wage, he replied. Weinstein promised to get back to him.

Moore is still waiting, of course. But like the rest of America, he can't seem to get through a day without experiencing some sort of Nike moment. Recently he was sitting in a waiting room in Hollywood when he was greeted by a studio president toting two large Nike shopping bags. Curious, Moore asked why the executive was shopping for athletic gear in the middle of his workday. Simple, the mogul replied, you can't beat the price.

Especially when there isn't one. As it turned out, Moore's friend had just returned from a special Nike outlet in Marina del Rey. Unlike your average NikeTown, this facility gives admission by pass only. And you can't get a pass unless you're tight with an affable young promotions manager named Tracy Hardy-Gray, known industrywide as "Tracy the Nike Lady."

"Tracy is like a goddess," explains an agent friend of mine. "She's this little golden fountain of Nike." She's been the toast of the town for more than a decade. She is greeted at film festivals, air-kissed in restaurants, waved onto studio lots. The secret of her appeal? Free stuff. If you make Tracy's A-list, you have a standing invitation to visit her L.A. emporium, where you'll be treated with all the respect due a busy insider--including the assistance of a personal shopper. While the exterior of the building is unmarked, inside it is set up like a real NikeTown--complete with basketball court. As you make your way past the displays, you have only to point at gear and it's loaded into your shopping cart. Best of all, you're hanging with your own crowd: mo guls, actors and sports stars--all-out exercising one of the most cherished prerogatives in Hollywood.

So why would an industry heavyweight making a gazillion a year blow off a few hours of his day just to pick up a few pairs of sneakers? Human nature, I'm guessing--free stuff just smells so good. But some honchos really are too busy, and for them Tracy has set up a Nike outreach program. It is by all accounts her most impressive achievement. The first house call anyone can remember the Nike Lady making was to the Seinfeld set. Her impact was immediate--especially on the show's star, who apparently had an unambiguous sense of entitlement. Seinfeld's appetite for free sneakers became legendary. His office overflowed with shoe boxes, and one ex-writer remembers Jerry emerging "like Evita, tossing extra sneakers to the staff." In time the staff members too became hooked, and for them Tracy provided a catalog in which they could check off whatever they wanted. "It was everything--running shoes, hiking boots, sandals. People were taking up extreme sports just to get the shoes."

How would Tracy know when to come by? "She just knew," the writer recalls wistfully. "If you wished for her, she was there. Never far from your heart. She could sense when there was a shortage. She was like a drug dealer." Few hit shows were immune. Mad About You's Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser were soon seen in spanking new Nikes, and the shoes started popping up on air all over the networks--in effect, unpaid product placements.

While none of this is remotely illegal (assuming IRS lack of interest), industry figures are extremely reluctant to comment. One studio head who had agreed to an interview backed out at the last minute. Was he embarrassed, I asked? Not at all--he just didn't want his pass revoked.

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