Lady In a Fast Lane

Beauty queen Leila Wagner is now doing her winning on the pro bowling circuit
September 27, 1987

Quick, how do you pronounce Leila? Lay-lah, as in the Eric Clapton tune, right? Or is it Germanic in origin and the ei rule applies? Someone's in the kitchen with Li-lah. What other choices are there? You could call Ireland and try to reach J.P. Donleavy, who, having written a novel of the same name, is bound to know the proper articulation. Give up? You're not alone. "No one ever got it right when I was growing up. I hated the first day of school because the teachers would call roll and I'd have to correct them. 'No, it's Lee-EYE-lah,' " says Leila Wagner.

To steal from the redoubtable Erich Segal: What can you say about a beauty queen cum professional bowler who flies? That she was the Eveready Battery campaign pinup girl for 1983? That in 1980 Bowlers Journal deemed her Sexiest Bowler? (Wagner prefers to leave this honorific off her rèsumè.) That when she's not in the alleys, she can be found at 33,000 feet wearing an American Airlines flight attendant's uniform and serving honey-roasted peanuts and Bloody Marys to guys who are always calling her a stewardess and mispronouncing her name?

For the last 16 of her 27 years, Wagner has spent many of her waking hours hurling heavy spheroids down the lanes at distant pins in burgs named De Soto, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., and in venues such as Sam's Town hotel, gambling hall and bowling center in Las Vegas, where from Aug. 23 to 27 the national doubles tournament of the Ladies Pro Bowlers Tour was held. Take the ambience of a roadside attraction like South of the Border or Wall Drug, jack up the tackiness factor several quanta, and you have Sam's Town. In the basement of the hotel, the tournament is about to commence. Signs on pillars behind the lanes read: THIS ESTABLISHMENT HAS PROVIDED A PURE AIR ENVIRONMENT THROUGH "SECOND STAGE" NEGATIVE IONIZATION FOR YOUR HEALTH AND COMFORT.

Wagner is wearing a skirt that would have failed the knee-to-hem ruler test if they'd had one at Seattle's Blanchet High, where she was a cheerleader her junior and senior years. Her strawberry blonde hair is perfectly coiffed, her eye makeup immaculate. The makeup is not always like this; when she won her first pro title, the Hammer Western Open in Tacoma, Wash., last year in front of her parents and grandparents, Wagner cried and told reporters she wished she'd brought her waterproof mascara.

A concern with beauty aids seems to run in the family: Wagner's relatives own five Merle Norman Cosmetics franchises in the Seattle area. When Leila was young, her mother, Jane, owned one store where she worked "mall hours," nine to nine, five days a week. Leila's father, Harold, stayed home; he owned and managed the apartment complex where the family lived. Leila was the last of six kids, and six years separated her from the next youngest. "I was a lonely child," she says. "I grew up on fast food and TV dinners."

Harold Wagner encouraged the sportive side of his daughter. "I was like a son," she says. "We would play basketball at the junior high school across the street." After the 11-year-old Leila came home from a Girl Scout bowling outing and announced that she had made three strikes, the Wagners began frequenting the Leilani Lanes on Sunday afternoons. (Quick, how do you pronounce Leilani?)

When she was 16, Wagner was coached by a local pro named Ed Dolfay, whom she credits with turning her untutored game into a competitive one. He taught her the fine points, such as how to choose a correctly weighted ball and how to adjust to varying lane conditions. At 18, with her father's sponsorship, she turned pro.

"When I started on the tour, I feared anything and everything," she recalls. "I didn't know what to expect." But she braved it out, and in 1982, her fourth year as a pro, she had a 219 average, the fourth-highest on the women's tour. The following year she was ranked sixth in the overall point standings, and is fifth so far this year.

It's hard to appear ravishing in bowling togs, but at moments Wagner resembles the Ann-Margret of Carnal Knowledge days. This look must have been what clinched the 1980 Miss Lake City and the 1981 Miss Washington-USA crowns, which Leila competed for at the urging of family and friends. What talent did she display for the judges in the ensuing Miss USA eliminations? "For Miss USA you don't have to have a talent," she says. She did make her own gown for the Miss Washington pageant, however, using white sequins and Qiana nylon.

In the lady bowlers' lounge at Sam's Town, doubles partners are preparing for the qualifying rounds by performing arcane rituals, such as sticking adhesive-backed name tags to each other's matching shirts. Wagner, who's cutting pieces of adhesive tape to use as lining in the finger holes of her eight bowling balls, is still hoarse from yelling over the music at her 10th Blanchet High reunion the day before. When another bowler asks if there were any bald, fat men at the reunion, Wagner says, "Well, there were no bald, fat women." Though she was born in Lynwood, south of downtown Los Angeles, and raised in Seattle, she speaks with a slight Texas twang, picked up during the four years she lived in the Metroplex, which is what Dallas-Fort Worth calls itself in these high-tech days.

A visitor to the lounge at Sam's Town refrains from asking questions about bowling, figuring that Wagner probably needs to psych herself up for the competition. But something else is on her mind. Looking up, tape poised on scissors blades, she says, "I forgot my curling iron."

Wagner would like to call her fiance, Marty Fischbach, before he leaves Annapolis, where they live, to ask him to bring a curling iron to Vegas when he flies in that afternoon, but she doesn't have time. The official briefing on tournament rules and format is about to begin. After the briefing, Wagner runs off to the ladies' room while everyone else hurls practice balls.

Before the balls begin rolling in earnest, Wagner has time to let loose about two practice frames. She's used to having to read lane conditions—which these days is about as easy as parsing Urdu—during competition. Since she signed aboard with American three years ago, she's had to put the job first and squeeze in bowling between her duty shifts with the airline. And air traffic being what it is, she often arrives late for tournaments and misses warmup sessions.

Take the time two years ago when she flew into Houston for the LPBT's Southwest regionals. A friend picked her up at the airport, Wagner changed out of her airline uniform in the ladies' room of the bowling center and learned her lane assignment just in time to run onto the alley and roll a couple warmup balls before the first frame. Amazingly she went on to win the tournament and set a new Houston women's record for a three-game series (814).

But during the qualifying rounds at Sam's Town, 64 of the nation's best women bowlers can't seem to find the groove. Gutter balls seem to be popular, and Wagner rolls her share. She tries five different balls, rolls her eyes, complains about the oil on the synthetic lanes, stomps her foot, says after making one spare, "That was the hardest spare of my career," and after missing another, "This isn't any fun."

When it's over, she drops a 15-pound ball into a padded bag from about three feet up. Later she says, "Even a bad day shouldn't be as bad as this." Her doubles partner, Paula Drake from Broken Arrow, Okla., says, "Do I still have a partner?"

At dinner that night, over an hors d'oeuvre of toasted bagel thins and jalape‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o jelly—"They're new, how'd you like them?" asks the waitress, sorry, meal attendant—Wagner brushes the performance off. "I'm not a quitter," she says. "Bowling is such an emotional sport, things can change quickly. Tomorrow's another day."

As a badge of dedication, she displays her right hand, which looks as if it belongs to a stevedore. In the interest of full disclosure, a reference to this hand, with its muscled and calloused index and middle fingers that tonight are painfully swollen and split, ought to appear on Wagner's rèsumè alongside notations such as "currently represents David Smith Sportswear." The entry would say "never had a pretty set of fingernails," a fact Wagner laments.

Actually she once did. She went to a manicurist before the Miss USA finals in Biloxi, Miss., and had fake nails attached. Then, since Wagner was a pro bowler, the beauty pageant organizers came up with the notion that it would be cute to stage a doubles tournament between the contestants and some soldiers from a nearby Army base as part of the pre-pageant publicity. As soon as Wagner got up to bowl, of course, the nails on her right hand began breaking off because her ball hadn't been drilled to accommodate long nails. "Holding hands with me," she says, "is like holding hands with a lobster."

Not that it seems to faze Fischbach, who, as a Baltimore native, happens to be partial to crustaceans. Fischbach is a pilot for American Airlines, and the two met in 1985 on a flight from Burbank to Chicago. "It's a corny story," he says. She tells it anyway: "It was a beautiful day for flying. He was the copilot and didn't pay any attention to me until I told the captain I was a pro bowler. Then he whipped around to see what a woman bowler looked like."

Somewhat later, after Fischbach had given Wagner the diamond that adorns her left hand, he "whipped her butt" at duckpins, Baltimore's favorite pastime after steamed crabs and beer. Wagner had never seen or played the game before, and Fischbach claims to be "the duckpin champ," a title several thousand Baltimore bowlers might dispute. Truth be told, Fischbach doesn't know a whole lot about tenpins, the real bowling game; Wagner says the only advice he ever gives her is "keep your ball speed up," which he tries to phrase differently each time so he doesn't sound like he's repeating himself.

It was embarrassing, but in Game 6 of qualifying for the doubles tournament at Sam's Town, Wagner turned in one of the worst scores of her nine-year professional career—a 129. After a game like that, why does she stick with it? Certainly the money is no incentive; a bowler hoping to make mortgage payments on tournament purses alone might, if she were dynamite, set her sights on, say, a third-hand house trailer. This year, a moderately good one so far for Wagner, she has taken home a grand total of $8,900. That's why she had to turn to flying after five years full-time on the tour, three of them sponsored by her father.

Why, moreover, does she stay, now that the era of the lacquer lane is over? Wagner is a finesse bowler who honed her technique on wood, but modern lanes are "made of stuff like your Formica kitchen counter," according to Bill Vint, a spokesman for the LPBT What's worse, the tour has recently adopted a rule restricting the spread of oil on a lane to a maximum of 24 feet from the foul line. There are those who say that limited-distance dressing, as it's called, gives an edge to a pure power bowler who can heave the ball hard enough and fast enough that it doesn't hook when it gets past the oil and hits the dry lane. Without being asked, Wagner launches into a disquisition on this so-called short-oil rule. In short, short oil is ruining the art of bowling, she says. "You see girls out there with no knee bend and no form doing well. They just get their weight behind the ball and give it a lot of speed." At only 5'4" and 112 pounds, Wagner hardly has the dimensions of a power bowler.

So will Leila leave the Permalanes? (Can Lance convince Elizabeth to leave Tad?) After all, she has several possible careers. Golf, for example. Her agent, Albert Salinas, who also manages Lee Trevino, is teaching her the game and thinks if she applied herself she might make it on the pro circuit. That would be fitting, since in the past Wagner has joked, "I'm the Jan Stephenson of bowling, or maybe she's the Leila Wagner of golf." But if she were the Leila Wagner of golf, who would Jan Stephenson be?

Wagner would also like to get an acting-modeling career going. She gave it a shot for six months but found L.A. "too fast-paced." So she moved to the Metroplex, where, she says, the pace was more leisurely and there were still opportunities. Her acting-modeling credits to date are as respectable as many a New York City meal attendant's: She was an extra in the party scenes in Star '80 and modeled for a special Woman's Day feature on bowling exercises. And she appears in an instructional bowling video that will be released soon.

She could also have a future as a sportscaster. If you've been skipping The New Newlywed Game or Divorce Court on Monday afternoons this summer in order to catch ESPN's tape-delay broadcasts of the finals of the women's bowling tour, you already know that when Wagner doesn't make it into the top five of a tournament, she does the color commentary with play-by-play man Denny Schreiner. Bowling aficionados give her TV performances good grades. For now, though, Wagner is facing a 1-4-7 split: Even though she hates driving Fischbach's Jeep or his ancient Datsun to work (her Porsche and a houseful of furniture remain in Dallas for the time being), she would like to be with him in the house they're remodeling in Maryland. She would also like to continue on the tour, but that means being away from Marty for up to six weeks at a time. And she's getting weary of flying. "Passengers talk down to you and blame you for flight delays," she says. "And you'd be surprised how many 'gimmes' you hear on a plane.

"Sometimes, I wish I'd gone into fashion sales, or I wish the tour would fold so I would be released," Wagner says. "As long as the tour is around, though, I can't stand the thought of not competing."

So what is it that keeps bringing her back? Says the former Miss Washington, "Winning."

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINWagner ranks fifth on the women's tour, not bad for a moonlighting flight attendant. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINOn a roll at the blackjack table: Drake (left), Wagner, and Kathy McNaughton. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINWagner performed only so-so in Vegas, but she had a blast at her high school reunion. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINThe self-styled Jan Stephenson of bowling figures she just might have a future in golf. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINIn a respite from bowling and flying, Wagner lent Fischbach a hand at home in Annapolis.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)