Under Armour bets big on a ballerina

Under Armour's ad campaign with American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland shows both her grace and power as a dancer. Brad Barket/Getty Images

It was late December 2010 when Gilda Squire's life changed forever.

She and a friend were talking about a ballerina who'd been on TV recently during a broadcast of Prince's Welcome 2 America tour. Squire, a longtime Wall Street publicist, had been captivated by the dancer's performance en pointe on Prince's piano.

During the broadcast, Prince told the Madison Square Garden crowd, "Ladies and gentleman ... Misty Copeland."

Squire, who had not heard of Copeland when she woke up that day, decided that she was going to guide Copeland's career and not only help tell her story, but also try to introduce the world unaware of ballet to its beauty and its challenges.

"I saw her as the real black swan," Squire says. "I had to get her story out there."

Thursday is the pinnacle of Squire's dream for Copeland, who will become the new face of Under Armour's "I Will What I Want" campaign, which focuses on the apparel giant's women's business.

To appreciate Under Armour's out-of-the-box thinking in tapping a ballerina to front its national ads, one has to grasp the complexity of Copeland's story:

• Packed by her mother along with her three older siblings into a Greyhound bus when she was 2 to move from Kansas City to California after a second marriage failed.

• The product of a household that saw two more marriages fail and her mother nearly run out of money to feed the family.

• A young girl who gets into movement by watching a Lifetime movie about gymnast Nadia Comaneci. A girl who, at the age of 13, roughly eight years after those who become pros typically get their start, sheepishly steps onto a basketball court at a Boys & Girls Club for an introductory dance class and, three months later, is called a dance prodigy. A girl who falls in love with ballet, an art that has traditionally included very few people of color.

• A girl who, as she grows into a woman, also grows out of the traditional shape of a ballerina -- she has larger breasts, bigger feet and a more muscular leg tone.

And yet, at 24, Misty Copeland became only the second black soloist in the history of the American Ballet Theatre, the most prestigious company in North America.

"It was hard to survive," Copeland, now 31, says. "I really grew up in front of a lot of people."

Through Squire, Copeland has been able to break out of the ballet niche because, upon hearing it, Copeland's story can be grasped by anyone with a creative mind. She has performed in ads for Dr. Pepper and BlackBerry, served as a judge on "So You Think You Can Dance," and has written a popular memoir (released earlier this year) and an upcoming children's book about her most famous role in The Firebird.

"Gilda and I coming together couldn't have been more perfect," Copeland says. "One of her visions was to have me being seen as not just a ballerina, but the athlete that I am. Under Armour is a brand that takes chances and had the mission to promote people who had struggles but persevered while not conforming to the typical mold."

In the Under Armour spot, a young girl voices the words of a rejection letter as Copeland cuts the air with her moves. The payoff comes at the end, when words on the screen tell the viewer that Copeland is in fact a soloist for the American Ballet Theatre.

As Under Armour diverts more resources toward its women's business -- it already accounts for $500 million of the company's $3 billion in revenue -- the brand has ratcheted up the ad spending.

And while some might call the company's signing of Copeland risky, in a cluttered media world she, unlike Under Armour endorsers such as skier Lindsey Vonn, tennis player Sloane Stephens and soccer player Kelley O'Hara, raises eyebrows just by her presence.

Leanne Fremar, a noted ballet fan who also happens to be the executive creative director of Under Armour's women's division, says that the women's apparel category isn't seen as sports-specific as the men's line, meaning Copeland isn't charged with simply selling leotards and ballet slippers.

The sponsorship deal has been huge for Copeland, too. Soloists like her, she says, generally make between $50,000 and $100,000 a year at the ballet company. She's near the top of that pay range these days, and she says the Under Armour deal actually pays her more than ballet does.

Although Copeland's story has developed, there's still more to ramp up, more for Under Armour to revel in if she gets there.

And there are still more challenges.

Under Armour's initial spot with Copeland chooses not to address the sensitive topic of race in ballet, one that Copeland says is clearly a factor in her profession. While the marketing machine is alive and well outside the ballet world for Copeland, she says inside the industry, progress is slow. Her honesty about exclusion is refreshing.

"It seems so simple," Copeland says. "Race shouldn't be dramatic when we have a black president. But the ballet world is very traditional, and change is a very scary thing."

It's hard not to get chills from the highly edited version of Copeland's life that is presented in Under Armour's new ad. And it doesn't even scratch the surface as to what she went through and what she became.

Says Copeland: "Life was so hard that I think that I almost needed to become a ballet dancer to develop as a person."