Cell phones lit up and cameras snapped in hopes of catching a glimpse of former super middleweight champion and retired boxer Laila Ali, as she descended down the red carpet in a red sequin dress at The Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Tuesday night in New York. Ali, 39, was being honored at the "Woman's Day" Red Dress Awards, an annual call to action and celebration of heart health awareness, for her contributions to battling cardiovascular disease in women.
Emmy-winning "Glee" actress Jane Lynch -- who will star in the upcoming Discovery Channel scripted drama "Manifesto," which is about the life of Janet Reno (the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney General) -- acted as the host and comic relief on Tuesday. However, she was serious on the topic of staying heart-healthy, adding, "I maintain a plant-based diet and I walk. I don't like to exercise, but walking is great."
Other notable celebrities in attendance included Grammy-awarded artist Melissa Etheridge, who performed for the occasion; "Today" co-host Hoda Kotb; former "Today" co-anchor Tamron Hall; and lawyer, television personality and journalist Star Jones.
Ali, who recently departed the cast of "The New Celebrity Apprentice," chatted with espnW about combatting heart disease, her father Muhammad Ali's legacy, and what "fighting like a girl" means to her.
espnW: In the United States, 1 in 4 women dies from heart disease. Because of that startling statistic, you decided to take action by becoming an advocate. Please explain.
Laila Ali: I've been doing work with the American Heart Association for about nine years. I have cousins, an aunt and grandmother that have all battled heart disease. So, I'm here to encourage women to take control of their health.
I've also spent a lot of time on my Laila Ali Lifestyle blog and podcast discussing the topic. This is a true passion of mine. This is who I really am. I've also spoke at some of the American Heart Association's Go Red events, and now they are honoring me at the Red Dress Awards, which is amazing.
espnW: How do you encourage heart health in your own household?
LA: I live a very healthy lifestyle. But, the things that work for me, may not work for the next person. So, I just encourage everyone to introduce more plant-based meals into their diet. Consuming healthy fats and drinking more water is always a good idea as well. If you eat meat, make sure it's lean. And cut back on processed foods. However, that's not always possible, so if you do consume processed [foods] -- read the back of box, and be vigilant about ingredients that are put into it. And make exercise a priority.
You can't wait until you get sick to start doing these things; you have to constantly take care of your body. Take control of your health now so you can have a good quality of life later.
espnW: As a boxer and advocate for women's wellness, what does the term "fight like a girl" mean to you?
LA: The term means something different now. Fight like a girl was a negative thing in the past, because supposedly girls couldn't fight. But now women are playing well. We are winning; we are champions. And now fighting or playing like a girl means playing with tenacity, playing with heart and playing to win.
espnW: Your father and legendary fighter Muhammad Ali was also committed to making the world a better place. How do you feel about athletes using their platforms for activism?
LA: Like me, my father always encouraged people to stand up for what they believe in. A lot of times, people look to athletes to be like a Muhammad Ali. But my father was special; he was chosen. He was almost like a prophet, to be honest. So, not everyone has that in them, and you can't ask that of everyone.
However, I do believe [athletes] should do what they can. When you have a platform -- if you're an athlete, entertainer or actress -- you should have a responsibility to give back in some way. Whatever way is comfortable for you.
* This interview has been edited for length.