it's messy when no one will talk. "I
don't want to get into that," says
Martina Navratilova of her lawsuit against Do Tell, the
company she formed in 1995 with Pam Derderian and Nancy
Becker. The prominent entrepreneurial couple are
But the court papers say plenty. In a federal
complaint filed March 9, Navratilova charges the firm,
which markets the Rainbow Card credit card, with
"willfully and maliciously" causing her
Navratilova's business reputation and good
will" and "receiv[ing] a financial
benefit at [her] expense."
Derderian and Becker fire back that Navratilova
"acted with an evil motive or a reckless
indifference to the rights of Do Tell," threatened
to "shut down the Rainbow Card," and even
pressured Subaru, her high-profile corporate sponsor,
to abandon the company. Stranger yet, they claim that
Toni Layton-Lambert, whom court papers identify as
Navratilova's companion, "referred to
Derderian as a 'f---ing a--' and
threatened to tear apart Do Tell." Strangest of all,
Derderian and Becker claim the breach was caused by a
disagreement about Showtime's The L Word.
Still more astonishing is the timing of the
conflict. On March 23, Navratilova launched an
endorsement deal with travel company Olivia. One of
Olivia's cruises served as the locale for the April
24 episode of none other than The L Word.
Taken together, these events mark the most
unusual twist yet in an already storied endorsement
career. In a field whose top female athletes are among
the highest-paid endorsers in the world, according to Paul
Fein, author of Tennis Confidential: Today's
Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies,
Navratilova has famously suffered for her frankness
about her sexuality. "She had no corporate
endorsements in 1992 other than for tennis rackets, shoes,
and clothing, and that's because she was
gay," Fein says.
Though the tide has turned somewhat in recent
years, Navratilova is clearly elated by the Olivia
contract precisely because it runs counter to the
usual pattern. "It's an amazing thing to
actually get an endorsement because I'm a
lesbian, rather than not get one because I'm a
lesbian," she says.
This sentiment helps to explain what will
doubtless come as an unprecedented windfall for
Olivia. With annual revenues of just $14 million in
2004, according to CEO Amy Errett, the decades-old stalwart
of the lesbian world is a far cry from Subaru. Olivia
declined to reveal the financial details, but Errett
notes that the company's social mission made
the arrangement possible.
"The financial contribution that
we've made [to Navratilova] has been important,
and we're proud to be a gay company that is
profitable and can do these things, but it
isn't just about the money," she says.
"It's been delightful to work together
because we share the same mission and values.
[Navratilova] has been out there about who she is,
she's been very comfortable with that and has
taken the risks that come with that, and we've
been a company that's been serving this community for
32 years and has never wavered from our mission for
the lesbian community."
Last year Olivia's mission also helped
attract another prominent athlete: Rosie Jones,
who's won 13 tournaments as a Ladies Professional
Golf Association member. Jones, who came out in a
New York Times guest column when she signed
with Olivia in March 2004, says she's watched the
environment improve dramatically for gay athletes in recent years.
"Ten years ago they were still telling
us, 'If they ask about homosexuality, just shy
away from that. Start talking about golf again.
Don't let them talk to you about [your] personal
life,' " says Jones, who renewed
her Olivia contract in March. "We were really good at
brushing it under the rug."
Although Jones led the way, it still represents
a historic step for an athlete of Navratilova's
stature to commit to a lesbian-owned and -operated
company. Both athletes attribute their decisions to
Olivia's stellar reputation and the persuasive
powers of Errett and Olivia founder Judy Dlugacz.
called me up, I [was] like, 'Why
not?' " Navratilova says. "I
really like what they do. I've known of them for a
long time, and I like their philosophy and their
mission. It's a perfect fit." She adds
that they didn't even quibble much over the financial
terms: "It was pretty quick. There
wasn't much wheeling and dealing; it was like,
'You want me, I want you.' "
All this mutual goodwill stands in stark
contrast to the allegations in the Do Tell case.
Navratilova claims it's simply a matter of
business--she disagreed with the way the card
was being marketed and told Do Tell to stop using her
name. Although the Do Tell lawsuit was filed almost
simultaneously with the announcement of her deal with
Olivia, it's not clear whether the two
relationships conflicted: The Do Tell court documents
don't say whether Navratilova had an exclusivity
agreement with the company, and Olivia wouldn't
comment on whether any such clause existed in its
contract either. (Navratilova currently has endorsement
deals with Under Armour clothing and Juiceman products. She
is no longer under contract with Subaru, though the
company continues to sponsor the Rainbow Card.)
Whatever her reasons for the decision, she
insists, it was hers to make. "It's all
about business for me. Pam [Derderian] has made it a
personal thing, but it's all a business
deal," she says. "It's all about
protecting my name and image--which I thought I had a
right to, but she thought otherwise."
Do Tell counters that Navratilova had no right
to withdraw her name and that doing so has cost the
company more than $150,000. Derderian and Becker are
asking for damages of at least that amount, plus punitive
damages and legal fees. Though declining to discuss the
details of the case, Derderian objects to
Navratilova's claim that she's personalized
the conflict. "I'm passionate about my work,
I'm passionate about what I do on a daily
basis, and I'm passionate about what we've
created for our community," Derderian says.
The lawsuit is a jarring end to a relationship
that was driven as much by affection as by business.
Navratilova even served as godmother to Derderian and
Becker's daughter. Just over two years ago
Navratilova recommitted her support to the Rainbow
Card, predicting that its affinity program with the
Rainbow Endowment would continue to raise funds
"through the later part of the decade."
Today, Navratilova wants nothing more to do with
the company, the card--or Derderian and Becker.
"There is no friendship," she says flatly.
One thing both parties agree on is their
disagreement over The L Word. In its court filing, Do
Tell claims it has explored cross-promotional
opportunities with the show since it debuted in 2004.
Navratilova approved of this association at first, court
documents claim, but reversed her position in January
because she had decided the show was "depraved."
Though the show wasn't mentioned in her
court complaint, Navratilova readily admits she
disapproves of it and that this disapproval was one
reason she broke with Do Tell. "It started out great.
I thought it was going to be a great show, and I was
really enthusiastic about it, but I've taken it
off TiVo," she says. "I think it's
become really dysfunctional."
In fact, she adds, the show has become an
embarrassment to lesbians. "It's all
about sex, sex, sex. There's not one monogamous
relationship there; there's not one woman there
that I would want to point [out] to somebody and say,
'This is a great representation of
lesbians,' " she says.
"There's not one. It's a bad
representation of us to the world. If a straight
person watches it, they're going to go, 'Oh,
my God, do they really do this?' And I'm
going to say, 'No, I don't, it's just a
show.' I wanted in no way, shape, or form to be
associated with the show. It's not something I
want my mother to watch."
Showtime had no response to her comments. But
Michael McCann, a professor at Mississippi College
School of Law who has written about sports law, says
Navratilova's distaste for the show might not provide
a legal justification to bow out of Do Tell.
"Her claim seems to be a matter of
opinion," he says. "There's nothing
wrong with the show; it hasn't done anything wrong.
If her primary objection is 'I don't
like this show, I don't want to be associated with
it,' the only way she could get out of the deal is if
[the contract specified], 'If we're
going to [market with] a television show, we have to
get permission from you.' I'm skeptical that
such a clause exists in the contract."
McCann adds that
the court dispute might indicate that the three friends
didn't think ahead when they drew up the original
agreement. "There should be some type of
predictable mechanism within the contract that would
enable the athlete to get out under changed circumstances.
In this case it appears that, for whatever reason, the
contract didn't contemplate a change,"
he says. "Usually there's some type of
language that enables them to get out when it's
in their financial interest to do so."
Her legal troubles haven't soured
Navratilova's enthusiasm for her latest
endorsement deal. She doesn't even mind
Olivia's recent tie-in with The L Word,
saying, "I'm not going to tell them how
to do their business. I'm only endorsing Olivia, not
The L Word."
Dlugacz and Errett, meanwhile, defend their
connection with the show. "Personally,
I'm just glad that a show like The L
Word exists," Dlugacz says. "For years and
years and years and years, the industry stayed away
from any kind of show that spoke about lesbian life.
Here's a first, groundbreaking effort by some really
"It's been important to us to show
a wide variety of who lesbians are," Errett
says. "I think this particular episode does that and
does it really, really well." As for
Navratilova's opinion, Errett says, "I
don't actually know Martina's viewpoint
of the show."
Navratilova plans to make her mark on Olivia in
other ways. Her duties as an endorser won't
exactly be onerous--she'll wear the Olivia logo
on her clothing, make personal appearances, and be
featured in advertising--but she does plan to
spearhead new fitness programs on the company's
trips. "I'm sure we will incorporate
some of my ideas of staying fit and being healthy into
the cruises," she says. "And the lesbian
population does need help with that. Lesbians as a
whole are more prone to be overweight than the general
population, especially once you get into the high 40s
and 50s--and the median age for women that go on these
cruises is 46."
She will also share her muscle-building wisdom
in a forthcoming book, The Shape of Your Life, due
out from Rodale in winter 2006. Meanwhile, says
Navratilova, Olivia has also had a (small) impact on
her own physical regimen: At a recent party in Miami, she
got up and danced.
"There were about 300 women there, and
they had a blast. I even ended up dancing," she
says. "Usually I'm too self-conscious. I have
to have a couple of beers. I think I've gone to
a club about 10 times in my whole life. It was really
great to see these women feeling really safe in their
environment, feeling free to be themselves."
Lehoczky has written for The New York Times,
The Washington Post, and Salon.com.