Beckham's American Dream Dashed

Two years after David Beckham became the U.S. soccer savior, he’ll leave in disgrace. Grant Wahl on how Tom Cruise and Will Smith got Becks started on the wrong foot. Plus, view our gallery of Posh and Becks in America.

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, two years can seem like twenty sometimes. But it really has only been two years since David and Victoria Beckham arrived in Los Angeles to the sort of media fanfare rarely seen even by Hollywood standards. When the Los Angeles Galaxy introduced Beckham as the newest member of the American sports firmament on July 13, 2007, more than 700 members of the international media were in attendance. Victoria, meanwhile, appeared in her own one-hour reality show on NBC television.

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The Beckhams’ popularity reached its apex on the night of July 22, when they were the guests of honor at a celebrity-studded party hosted by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Never before or since have the Beckhams so thoroughly pierced the American consciousness. David’s American soccer foray quickly turned into a disaster, brought low first by injuries and then by epic losing. (Beckham's own handlers essentially took over the Galaxy, and the team tied for the league's worst record in 2008.) By the time he returned to Los Angeles last month, his national-team career restored with England, the Galaxy's own fans booed him mercilessly for wanting to leave L.A. and join Italy’s AC Milan. And for her part, Victoria would strain (a little too hard) to “crack” America through the efforts of her manager, American Idol creator Simon Fuller. In this excerpt from Grant Wahl’s bestselling The Beckham Experiment, for one night, at least, the Hollywood elite treated Posh and Becks as British royalty.

It was, as Entertainment Tonight not-so-understatedly called it, “the party to end all parties, welcoming the Beckhams to the upper stratosphere of Hollywood.” On the night of July 22, 2007, blocks of downtown Los Angeles were closed down around the Museum of Contemporary Art. British and American flags flew over the valet stand. Helicopters hovered overhead, police and security officers kept curious onlookers at bay, and a multitude of paparazzi swarmed near the rope line, clamoring for the money shot, the image that Simon Fuller and the all-powerful Creative Artists Agency hoped would define David and Victoria Beckham as members of Hollywood royalty.

Posing with the Beckhams were two of America’s most famous celebrity couples: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the pairing so ubiquitous that the tabloids called them TomKat, and their cohosts for the event, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. The three men were all dashing in designer suits, while Victoria and Pinkett Smith wore short black dresses and Holmes opted for a stunning red vintage gown. Mainstream Americans might have had a hard time grasping the finer points of professional soccer, but they understood (and consumed) megawatt star power with a zeal that bordered on fanaticism. And compared to sports, with its unplanned injuries, unscripted action, and pesky upset defeats, controlling this celebrity party stuff was easy. All you had to do was get the right people to show up.

No figure was more instrumental in that process than Cruise, who had flown in for the event from Germany, where he was filming the World War II movie Valkyrie. Cruise and the Beckhams had met four years earlier, and it wasn’t long before Cruise flew to Spain to attend a Real Madrid game as David’s guest. “We sort of just got to be friends from then on, really,” Beckham told me. “And obviously Victoria got to be friends with Katie. It’s nice to have someone that you’ve actually got a lot in common with and get along with and have the same ideas and feelings about your job and your family. He’s a good-hearted person, and he’s been good to me for the time that we’ve known each other.”

Indeed, Cruise had become one of the most influential people in Beckham’s life. Both David and Victoria shared Cruise’s rep, the Creative Artists Agency, the most powerful collection of agents in Hollywood. David took Cruise’s recommendation and hired the actor’s Los Angeles–based public-relations firm, Rogers & Cowan, to help handle the U.S. media. And Beckham revealed that he had gone to Cruise for advice on the two nights before he signed the contract to join the Galaxy. “I speak to Tom most days of the week, just chatting about work and the kids and Victoria and Katie,” Beckham said. “I asked him certain things about living in L.A. and what the experience could be like, and he gave me his advice as a friend and told me the good things and a couple of things to be aware of. He was just being a mate.”

If Terry Byrne was Beckham’s best friend, Cruise and Holmes had turned into the Beckhams’ favorite couple. Victoria had attended the Cruise/Holmes wedding in Italy (David missed out due to soccer commitments), and Cruise and Holmes had sat with Victoria in the stands at Beckham’s title-clinching last game at Real Madrid before staying out to celebrate until 6 A.M. the next day. When Victoria picked the Beckhams’ house on San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills, it was less than five minutes from their new neighbors, Cruise and Holmes. David even acknowledged that Cruise had influenced the decision to name the Beckhams’ third son Cruz. “I must admit, when we met Tom, I remember turning around to Victoria and saying, ‘Cruise is a great name, but we could spell it different,’” Beckham told me. “And also living in Spain, Cruz spelled the way it is in Spanish. So that’s why we got it.”

Did Beckham have any interest in joining Cruise as a Scientologist? “No,” Beckham told me. “It’s something obviously I respect, because Tom’s explained to me and Victoria what it’s all about, but he’s never turned around to us and said, ‘That is what you should be doing,’ because he would never do that.”

Of course, the more time the Beckhams spent with Cruise and Holmes, the more skeptics questioned whether Cruise saw David’s vast global appeal as a potential vehicle to spread the message of the Church of Scientology. Cruise was a vocal believer in Scientology, the controversial faith founded by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and Holmes had become a Scientologist before marrying Cruise. The faith had gained a measure of popularity in Hollywood—members included John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Lisa Marie Presley—but in some countries (Germany, for one) government officials viewed the church as a dangerous cult. Did David Beckham have any interest in joining Cruise as a Scientologist? “No,” Beckham told me. “It’s something obviously I respect, because Tom’s explained to me and Victoria what it’s all about, but he’s never turned around to us and said, ‘That is what you should be doing,’ because he would never do that. He and Katie have their beliefs, and I totally respect that, but me and Victoria have also got our own.”

In Beckham’s interactions with Cruise, at least one conversion had taken place, however. “I think Tom’s getting into soccer,” Beckham said, flashing a wide smile. “He’ll send me a message after every game that I’ve played now, and he’ll say: What an amazing game!” If Beckham could have the same effect on a few million other Americans, then the Beckham Experiment might just have a chance.

That Cruise had flown all the way from Berlin to attend the party suggested how important the occasion was for him. Yet the presence of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith as headlining cohosts was more puzzling. Will Smith was one of the most bankable movie stars in Hollywood, an entertainer blessed with reservoirs of charisma, but neither he nor his wife had more than a cursory relationship with the Beckhams, and nothing close to the ties that Cruise and Holmes had. Although Cruise and Holmes would regularly be seen with the Beckhams in the months ahead—hosting them at their home in Telluride, Colorado; spending Thanksgiving together in New York City; joining them in Napa Valley wine country to celebrate Victoria’s birthday—the Smiths were rarely, if ever, spotted with the Beckhams by the paparazzi that constantly followed them.

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The main bond that Will Smith did share with the Beckhams—and with Cruise and Holmes—was their representation by the Creative Artists Agency. CAA was the most respected and feared talent agency in Hollywood, with clients that included Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, Sean Penn, Julia Roberts, and George Clooney, among dozens of other A-listers. In large part due to its relationship with Simon Fuller, it was crucial for CAA to ensure that the Beckhams made as big a splash as possible upon their arrival in the United States. On July 16, CAA had hosted a welcoming bash for David at its new Century City headquarters, an eight-floor, $400 million building that people in the movie business had nicknamed The Death Star. (CAA employees were reportedly instructed beforehand to line the staircase and clap for Beckham upon his arrival.) And while it was fun to imagine that Holmes and the Smiths had made all the arrangements for the following week’s party as cohosts, CAA had in fact organized the event and handled all the preparations, including the gold-embossed invitations.

When you’re the most powerful agency in Hollywood, there are no limits to how much you can orchestrate when it comes to hosting a party for David and Victoria Beckham—most of all the celebrity guest list, which was almost entirely CAA-affiliated talent. It was glitz by association, a classic case study on how to package foreign stars as A-list American celebrities. Yet when U.S. viewers saw breathless coverage of the party leading off the following night’s editions of Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, the word “CAA” was never mentioned. What they saw was “the party to end all parties, welcoming the Beckhams to the upper stratosphere of Hollywood,” highlighted by the money shot: David and Victoria posing with Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Somewhere, Simon Fuller smiled.

Not that it wasn’t a hell of a party. It was. Inside the Geffen Contemporary gallery, where thousands of flowers, a booming sound system, and concert-quality lighting had transformed the trendy warehouse space, guests could munch on catered comfort food like burgers and fries from In-N-Out and British bangers and mash (both David’s favorites). But more than anything else, the night was about pure, unbridled dancing. Celebrity deejay Samantha Ronson blasted a playlist featuring Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” and the Spice Girls’ classic “Wannabe.” Then Doug E. Fresh laid the beat while Stevie Wonder sang a fifteen-minute a cappella set that included his hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” But the highlight of the night was Will Smith’s impromptu session, in which the former Fresh Prince performed “Summertime,” splitting the dance floor into two sections, asking which side was having more fun, and demanding that each side scream louder. Acting like a man who forgot he was wearing a designer suit, Smith even did the splits, bringing the house down.

David even acknowledged that Cruise had influenced the decision to name the Beckhams’ third son, Cruz. “I must admit, when we met Tom, I remember turning around to Victoria and saying, ‘Cruise is a great name, but we could spell it different.’”

Beckham’s Galaxy teammates appreciated that he had invited all of them to the party—even the developmental-roster guys making less than $20,000 a year—and that Beckham had taken the time to greet them, say hello to their significant others, and mention the Galaxy players during his onstage toast. “I’d like to thank my teammates for coming out here,” Beckham said, raising his glass, “and I hope we have a great season.” Nearly all the Galaxy players had a fun story from their night with the Hollywood stars. Forward Gavin Glinton talked with one of his favorite rappers, Common, about his new CD. Defender Kyle Veris spoke with Tom Cruise, and Katie Holmes complimented his girlfriend on her dress. Meanwhile, defender Ante Jazic and goalkeeper Lance Friesz did all the guys proud, sharing a lengthy conversation with the former Spin City actress Jennifer Esposito. (Hey, nobody ever said that soccer players were lacking in the looks department.)

“That was probably the best party I’ve ever been to,” said Chris Klein. “You have this perception of Hollywood that either everyone’s on drugs or all they do is party because that’s all they have to do, but this was pure fun and entertainment. No one was falling over drunk. And the way David acted toward his teammates, he was just a genuine guy, a great host.”

From a celebrity-positioning perspective, the party couldn’t have gone any better. On Monday night, in a typical show of restraint, Entertainment Tonight treated the event as nothing less than an epochal Hollywood moment. (“They are the It couple right now, and we are your Posh and Becks source!”) If you flipped the channel, Access Hollywood was doing its own story on the Beckham bob, Victoria’s new haircut, which it said had become America’s most requested style of the summer.

But just as some television stars had a hard time extending their appeal to the big screen of the movies, the Beckhams struggled to translate their newfound popularity from short-attention-span celebrity shows, magazine items, and YouTube highlight clips to the longer-term appointment viewing of one- and two-hour TV broadcasts. Victoria’s 19-produced reality-show special ran in prime time on NBC that night, and it was predictably awful. David made only a token appearance, and while Victoria tried to send up her image (“I don’t want to be seen smiling, having fun, or eating!”), she never came across as a fish out of water, the supposed conceit, but rather as one more mindless Hollywood wife. “It’s exhausting being fabulous,” Victoria proclaimed, but it was even more exhausting watching the show. “There must be a reason NBC chose to lavish an hour of prime time on Victoria Beckham: Coming to America,” wrote the TV critic of the New York Times. “But conspiracy theorists will be hard put to connect the dots.”

It wasn’t that complicated, really. Months earlier, Fuller had negotiated a deal with NBC in which the network would broadcast six half hour episodes of Victoria’s show. But NBC’s interest cooled, and it decided to shift the episodes to the lower-profile Bravo cable network. Fuller was irate, and he and NBC reached a compromise: The show would air as a one-hour, stand-alone broadcast on NBC. If Coming to America had drawn world-beating ratings, network executives would have forgiven the fact that it was terrible. But while the show won its time slot, earning a 2.2 rating, the tepid numbers weren’t high enough to leave NBC clamoring for more. Victoria would end up making occasional TV guest appearances—she played herself in one on ABC’s Ugly Betty—but Posh’s prospects as a small-screen star were bleak.

For his part, David had an advantage over his wife: Most of his Galaxy games would continue to be broadcast on national television. But you get only one chance to make a first impression, and the megahyped Chelsea match was a huge missed opportunity for Beckham to sell soccer to Americans, earn an eye-popping television rating, and position himself as an athlete, not just celebrity eye candy. Although the Cruise-hosted party had been a hit, Beckham’s injury-shortened appearance in his own made-for-TV event had upset the delicate sports/celebrity balance that powered the Beckham sweet spot. What’s more, now that the initial wave of publicity was over, would it even be possible for the soccer side to catch up with the celebrity side? If Beckham was going to make any inroads in the project that mattered most to him—he was here for the soccer, remember—he needed to get back on the field ASAP. And so, in a move that went unpublicized at the time, Beckham hired a physical therapist outside the Galaxy medical staff to spend hour after hour with him at his house in Beverly Hills.

Who was the guy that Beckham had trusted to recommend the new therapist? Tom Cruise.

Reprinted from The Beckham Experiment, by Grant Wahl. Copyright © 2009 by Grant Wahl. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.

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In twelve years at Sports Illustrated, senior writer Grant Wahl has written thirty-one cover stories and more than two hundred articles while covering five World Cups, three Olympics, and twelve NCAA basketball tournaments. Wahl has won four Magazine Story of the Year awards given by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. He lives in Baltimore with his wife, Céline.