The authentication of Alex Morgan
Alex Morgan breezes into a Kansas City restaurant called Café Gratitude one early spring day looking perfect. Morgan is one of those people who can pull off appearing well-groomed even when drenched with sweat, and today she is casually, yet impeccably, attired in a long gray skirt, a black-and-white short-sleeved shrug and a white tank top, all of which she threw on after realizing she was half an hour late. She apologizes; she was trying to curl her hair. "I don't know where my blow dryer is," she says. There was also a minor crisis with her skirt, which apparently at some point was a crumpled mess. "I put it in the dryer for five minutes because we don't have an iron yet." She frowns, just a bit. "It's an obstacle being a girl when you move all over and don't have half the things you need," she says. "It's like everything is wrinkled in your life."
Nothing about Alex Morgan is wrinkled. At 25, she is the Taylor Swift of women's sports, someone whose seamless transformation from unknown to superstar in less than four years has garnered comparisons to another forward, Mia Hamm -- if not Cinderella. Morgan hates that analogy. "I don't see anything shocking about my rise," she says. And she's right: No professional athlete arrives at the ball from nowhere. Still, her life has been pretty charmed, highlighted by an Olympic gold medal, won at age 23, a series of best-selling children's books (with a TV show in the works), countless media appearances and a turn on the catwalk during New York Fashion Week. This past New Year's Eve, she married her hunky pro-soccer-playing college sweetheart, Servando Carrasco, on a wind-swept beach in Santa Barbara, California. As she does with much of her life, Morgan chronicled the event and its preparations on Instagram, tagging it "The best day ever."
Given this cornucopia of blessings, her choice to meet at a restaurant named Café Gratitude is an interesting metaphor. But if it occurs to her, Morgan isn't letting on as she settles into a booth by the window, slightly away from the rest of the patrons. She starts talking about one of her recent obsessions, To Write Love on Her Arms, a charity dedicated to helping people suffering with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. She admires how people start these things spontaneously, and she says of the group's founder, Jamie Tworkowski, a former Florida surfer who created the organization after a friend contemplated suicide: "I mean, he just had an idea and went with it. It's not like he had a lot of money to back him up. He just believed in it." Morgan says she can't even imagine doing something like that. "It's pretty incredible."
"You are incredible." That is the waitress, who bops up to the table and says this, apparently apropos of nothing. Morgan beams. "Thank you. Wow. Thanks," she says. Then, tucking her long brown locks behind her, she sips her smoothie.
"Incredible," it turns out, is the name of her banana/almond butter/coconut milk concoction. There's another smoothie called Eternally Blessed. The whole menu at Café Gratitude, which serves only "organic, plant-based" food, reads like this and offers a question of the day, courtesy of its waitstaff. Today it is: What makes you happy? Morgan, who has enough self-awareness to find this hippie-dippieness a little comical, smiles and weighs the merits of the Pure (kale salad) over the Humble (curry lentils), ultimately deciding on the Mucho, basically a bowl of rice and beans.
The answer to today's question is that all of it makes Morgan happy: the Incredible, the Mucho, the fact that there even is a question of the day. She is the kind of young woman who projects an overwhelmingly satisfied yet astonishingly humble sense of delight in pretty much everything -- which is a gift, because really, who can pull that off? And yet, there are limits. Morgan has been a recognizable face for just a few years, and while "all these opportunities off the field are great," as she puts it, fame also has its drawbacks.
"I hate being recognized; I hate it, hate it," she says, which is curious coming from someone who promotes virtually every public appearance on her Twitter feed. And yet there it is. Then just as quickly, it is not. Whatever that unguarded moment was, it's over now, or seems to be. Even if it's not -- even if Morgan inwardly seethes at the thought of being pestered at Spinning class or the produce section, as anyone might -- well, no one can tell. Inscrutable optimism is part of Morgan's "authenticity," the go-to term that she, and her agent and manager and a lot of people who know her, use to describe her casual, every-girl vibe. This is not the same as being perfect. Morgan has her own list of contradictions that don't make her any less authentic: waving the flag for tween body image but contemplating breast implants; wanting her sport to be taken seriously while consciously leveraging her looks to attract male viewers; repping McDonald's as a crunchy, Café Gratitude-loving athlete, which she almost acknowledges ... and then doesn't. "They do support great charities," she says of the fast-food chain.
Morgan nibbles at her Mucho. "I like to be authentic about who I am and what I promote," she says with the confident nonchalance of someone who is either a natural at this or maybe stayed up late practicing being natural, not that it matters. No one can tell.
IF HOPE SOLO, with her complex personal life and frequent outbursts, is perceived as the Dark Queen in women's soccer, then Alex Morgan is Snow White. She is, in every conceivable way, the anti-Solo: a consummate team player, never critical of coaches or teammates (of Solo, Morgan says, "She's the best goalkeeper in the world," and leaves it at that), smiling, wholesome and rigorously yet charmingly risk-averse. "I mean, sometimes I make stupid decisions," Morgan says, then tells of a recent one: buying a new Ford F-150 Raptor for Carrasco. He already had a car, and given that Morgan spends most of her time on the road, they really don't need the truck. "I think that's a stupid decision," she says.
Anything else? Not really. She went cliff diving in Hawaii once, so that might have been a little risky. "I've always wanted to skydive," she says, which she thinks might qualify as crazy, but it's certainly not as bad as bungee jumping, which would be truly insane and something she'd never do. "Bungee jumping, you could seriously injure yourself and not kill yourself," she explains. "But skydiving -- -well, if the chute doesn't open, you're dead." She carefully considers death over a life of extreme imperfection. "I think it's a better outcome."
Morgan considers everything carefully. The youngest of three girls, she grew up 25 miles east of LA in middle-class Diamond Bar, where she spent her childhood playing a wide range of sports and studying her sisters with careful attention. "If you can imagine Alex sitting there, watching, observing, before she made her move," says her mother, Pam, "that has seen her through her life."
She makes most of her own business decisions. "Sometimes I talk to my mom," Morgan says (the truck, for instance, was a mom talk), but in general, she's the one in control. Says her agent, Dan Levy: "She's very savvy and mature for her age. From the moment I met her, I knew Alex understood the opportunity in front of her."
Those opportunities have been abundant. Since debuting with the national team in 2010, Morgan has netted 51 goals in 84 appearances (a blistering pace matched only by current star Abby Wambach and Hall of Famer Michelle Akers) and scored sponsorship deals with Nike, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Tampax, ChapStick and Beats by Dre. Her endorsement income, according to Levy, is seven figures, making her one of the world's highest-earning women soccer players. Now she is poised to become the game's most famous woman after Wambach likely retires this summer. "Watching Alex grow on the field and off has been one of the pleasures of my career," Wambach says. "A huge part of being a pro soccer player is to help the game evolve, and Alex is not only a stud on the field, but she will be committed to growing this game."
For all of its continued success, the national team has never returned to the heights it reached in the 1990s -- or produced a transcendent star like Hamm. "How do you become Mia Hamm?" asks U.S. women's national team spokesman Aaron Heifetz. "First, you have to score goals. Then be incredibly photogenic and telegenic, get the backing of high-powered marketers. And then you have to embrace social media. If you can check all those boxes, you have a chance." You also, certainly, have to be well-behaved. "I don't want to say names," Morgan says with impeccable manners, "but there are certain companies I won't work with because of previous people they've worked with. I don't want to be put in the same category as another athlete that I don't necessarily think is a good role model."
Morgan grew up idolizing women's soccer stars like Hamm and Kristine Lilly. Like them, she is an intensely hard worker and is generous with her fans, always staying in the moment to pose for pictures or sign autographs. Her core fans (her 1.7 million Twitter followers nearly double those of Solo and quadruple those of Wambach) are the tween girls who read her soccer-themed book series, The Kicks, but she is also worshipped by the BroBible crowd, whose website declared Morgan a "dream wifey" on a link to a video of her hoisting a can of Red Stripe and shaking her bikini-clad bottom. Morgan has posed twice for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, including in nothing but body paint in 2012. "That wasn't ideal," Levy admits. Morgan, though, manages to make the decision to wear an illusory bikini seem wholesomely girl-positive. "I wanted to do it for me," she says, explaining that she saw a chance to promote women's soccer while also confronting her insecurity about having small breasts. "It was a step forward for my confidence." The main reason she agreed was "to help young women feel comfortable in whatever body type they were given."
How many 12-year-old girls will look at Morgan and actually feel better about their bodies is impossible to know -- "there goes my self-esteem" was how one Twitter follower responded to some of Morgan's bikini shots -- but she is hardly the first female athlete to capitalize on her looks. "I've obviously done certain things, like Sports Illustrated swimsuit, that has guys interested in me not for what I put on the field," she says. "But at the end of the day, they're going to turn on the TV next time we have a game.
"I want my legacy to be a positive one," she says, "an influential one that doesn't come with baggage."
But what 25-year-old has the circumspection to ensure that she doesn't acquire any baggage? The 20s are the age of baggage, when all kinds of sort-of-dumb but awesome-at-the-moment things occur-like dressing up as a tongue -- wagging Miley Cyrus for Halloween and tweeting it to your fans, or putting up posts of yourself and your BFF in butt-floss bikinis. Morgan did both in 2013 with bestie and teammate Sydney Leroux, with whom she used to chronicle much of her life on social media. Though they are still close, Morgan has noticeably taken a step back from Leroux on Instagram, eschewing bikini shots for more demure photos in a cocktail dress or soccer uniform. "There was no strategy," insists Morgan's PR person, Stephanie Rudnick, other than Morgan's having "grown up a bit."
On the other hand, Morgan, who once said in an interview that she'd "blocked all my embarrassing moments from my mind," has meticulously strategized every step of her life, so why would this be any different? "It's hard for me to do anything on the fly," she says. "Like if we're going to a restaurant, I scope out the best eight restaurants and then I narrow it down. I'm just very decisive. And I guess I've always had these -- I don't know, these terms. Like when I was younger, I wanted to be with someone for at least five years, I wanted to get married by the time I was 25 and have kids by the time I was 27." She smiles. The kid thing might not work out on schedule, but the rest of the Alex Morgan Life Plan is right on track, even if it's taken quite a few turns.
Since turning pro, she has lived in Rochester, Seattle, Portland, Houston and Kansas City, where Carrasco (a recently signed midfielder for Sporting Kansas City) moved in January. "I don't feel like any of these places are my 'home,' " Morgan says, still pondering where she might have left her blow dryer: Portland? Houston? She has places there too.
She and Carrasco have been a couple for seven years and rarely do an interview together. "I think in our entire life we've probably done two," Morgan says. "We just try to keep it as separate as possible. Because I want him to succeed because of the work he puts in. And the same with me." But it's also, of course, a form of self-protection. Between Morgan's practicing with the national team, competing with her club team, the Portland Thorns, and doing countless book signings, sports camps and media appearances, the couple are lucky to have a week together. This Valentine's Day, she caught a flight to Kansas City, where Carrasco was leaving the next day. "We actually got 16 hours together," she says.
All of this can be hard, especially on newlyweds. Morgan insists she doesn't mind. And there's also the bigger picture to consider. "Not everyone is given as many opportunities as me," she says, with considerable understatement, since some of her teammates on the Thorns make about $10,000. "There's a certain way that people in the spotlight handle the decisions they make. And I feel like mine are maybe a lot more calculated than some people might think."
"ALEX NEVER wanted to be famous," says her sister Jeri, 29. "I don't think that's something she ever thought about. But she caught on really quick. It seemed like in a year, it was like, 'Wow, you act even older than me!' " At every Morgan event, throngs of young girls line up for hours not only to have Morgan sign a book or ball but to have her talk to them. "She loves doing that," says Rudnick. "It's exciting to see. So many young girls drop out of soccer at an early age. To grow the sport you have to get them through that cycle."
Morgan makes an effort at being relatable to her fans, just a normal 20-something with a passion for animals (she mourns her cat, Brooklyn, recently run over by a car), a serious Candy Crush addiction and a deep love for Game of Thrones (favorite character: Daenerys) and Taylor Swift. "Me and my teammates Tobin [Heath] and Kelley [O'Hara] -- we're obsessed with her," she says, blue eyes suddenly opening wide. "We preorder her albums, and we follow her Instagram. We want to get in her group." Fantasizing about joining Swift's posse is the most excited Morgan gets all afternoon. "She's a cat lady, I'm a cat lady ... just saying," she says, smiling. "Maybe she could have a soccer group ... you think? You think I'd fit in?" Just kidding, she adds.
Morgan would probably fit into Swift's circle of girl-positive role models like Lena Dunham and Lorde. Another of Morgan's heroines is Beyonce, whom Morgan calls the "ultimate female" because of her universal appeal. (Also, she notes, she looks great with or without makeup.) "Everyone loves her," she says. "I mean, obviously girls love her, but I feel like guys love her too. And her husband is so successful, but I see her as more successful than her husband." If she's thinking about Carrasco, whose star is significantly dimmer than hers, Morgan won't go there.
"I'm just all about female power," she says.
And yet, there is projected female power, and there's the real thing. It's perhaps telling that Morgan chooses Beyonce, another impenetrably perfect woman, as an icon, as opposed to someone like Serena Williams, an athlete at the top of her game for years who also appeals to men. "But I think in a different sense -- like, she's badass," Morgan says of Williams. "Girls are, I think, intimidated by her, you know? Obviously she's a great role model. But they're freaking scared of her."
Morgan would never admit to being scared of Williams. But her insecurities and baggage haven't been entirely packed away, as she says. During her freshman year at UC Berkeley, for instance, Morgan fell so hard for Carrasco, then a handsome midfielder for the men's soccer team, that, as her sister and mom recall, she dyed her normally dirty-blond hair brown in a not-so-subtle appeal to Carrasco's taste for brunettes. Then there was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, or rather its aftermath. For as much as Morgan says it built self-esteem, posing in a bikini garnered her attention, and not always the positive sort. In addition to Twitter stalkers (one of whom threatened to kill her, which led to her hiring security), there are also the trolls, some of whose comments were so cutting, her sister says, that Morgan pondered getting breast implants. "People were saying she looked like a 13-year-old boy," Jeri says. "People on the Internet can be really mean."
Morgan says she tries not to let it get to her, which is the right answer, of course. But how unbearably tiring it must be to remain constantly on point, always recognized -- even when she's not. Morgan is a near dead ringer for Allison Williams, who plays the beautiful, control-freakish Marnie on the HBO series Girls. She looks so much like Williams, in fact, that it's easy to assume she hears that all the time.
She doesn't. Instead, "I get the comment 'You look a lot like Alex Morgan,' " she says, totally deadpan. "A lot." And as she says this, the super-good-girl facade comes down, replaced with the real girl, whose sunny demeanor momentarily dims. "I'm like, what do I say to that?"