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Posted on Wed, May. 14, 2003

Venus Williams already courting a new career
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

(KRT) - Make no mistake: Venus Williams still lives to play tennis.

She talks about the sport that has brought her four Grand Slam titles and $12 million in prize money with the wistfulness more often reserved for someone recalling a first love.

But this savvy 22-year-old isn't a typical myopic sports star, caught up in the belief the glory days will never end. She has seen the future ... and it has more to do with fabric and focal points than slams and sets.

Last November, Williams called a press conference to announce she was starting V Starr Interiors, an interior design firm based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. (The business name is a play on her full name - Venus Ebony Starr Williams.)

Since then, the firm has attracted clients, decorated a room for the Red Cross Designers' Showhouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., and generated a tide of controversy among the interior design establishment.

Why does one of the superstars of women's tennis start planning for her next career so soon? Is she ready to pack away her racket for a new career after losing her No. 1 ranking and three Grand Slam finals to younger sister Serena last year? Or is she just planning for the future?

"I did this because Mom and Dad taught us to be forward-thinking," she said, while sitting on the upstairs terrace her firm designed for the recent show house. "I love to be busy, and when I'm off the court I do things I love, and this is something I love."

This family propensity for planning meant she incorporated the business seven months before the press conference. She hired Bonnie Nathan as design director in August. Nathan, a licensed interior designer, owned Interior Space Affiliates in Boca Raton, Fla., from 1985 until this year. Before that, she had her own design firm in Syracuse, N.Y.

"Venus and I are consistent about our design philosophy and the philosophy of the whole firm," Nathan said. "Service is our motto.

"We are opposites on only a few things. She is tall and I'm short. She is black and I'm white. She's a Jehovah's Witness and I'm Jewish."

The two women met the high-tech way - over the Internet. Nathan posted her resumes on two job Web sites, and Williams responded. They had three hour-long interviews on the telephone before they met face to face. Nathan was impressed with the young woman, but she didn't know her true identity.

"I had no idea who it was," Nathan said. "She said her name was Ebony Williams. She had studied fashion and needed some help in getting her new design business up and running because she had other interests right now."

Williams needed more than some help. She needed someone licensed as an interior designer. Although Williams loves interior design, she has little formal training. She studied fashion design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., enrolling in October 1999 and leaving after the fall 2001 semester. Now, she says she is studying interior design through Rhodec International, a London-based correspondence school.

"I haven't been back to the Art Institute in more than a year," she said. "I got tired. I guess when things calm down I may go back, but I also want to play tennis."

Williams' lack of formal training has given her foray into the design business a slightly rocky start. And it has stirred up some resentment in the tight-knit world of interior design, which is highly regulated in Florida. Anyone can be a "decorator," but you can't call yourself an interior "designer" unless you are licensed. And when licensed designers suspect misrepresentation, they call foul.

"We had a complaint based on a newspaper story that Venus was holding herself out as an interior designer," said Lee Smith, who investigated the complaint for the Florida Board of Architecture and Interior Design. Under Florida law, only those who are grandfathered because of work experience or pass a tough three-part examination can call themselves interior designers.

Williams, it turns out, didn't misrepresent herself and Nathan, her design director, had the proper license. The problem was the firm wasn't properly licensed with the state.

"They are now licensed and have everything they need," Smith said. "They have been completely cooperative."

Kevin Davis, Williams' attorney in New York, said Williams and Nathan thought all the proper filings had been done and all regulations were followed.

"It was a technical error and it was corrected," Davis said. "The board didn't fine them."

But the semantics game continues. In her promotional materials, Williams is described as a "certified interior decorator."

"There is no such thing in Florida as a certified interior decorator," says Mary Jane Reeves of MJR Interiors in Boca Raton, a member of the state Board of Architecture and Interior Design. "She can call herself an interior decorator. It's the certified thing that doesn't work."

Williams' certification comes from Certified Interior Decorators Unlimited, a private organization founded by Ron Renner. Members pay a $15 application fee and $295 a year in dues. Unlike interior designers, decorators are not required to have a college degree.

"They are required to be educated in interior design, whether it's a three-day, three-month or longer course, as long as they have a certificate in interior design and decoration," Renner said. "They must also pass a 40-question exam pertaining to every element of interior design."

Design director Nathan says the certification fills the gap between those who are studying and seriously planning a career in design and those with good taste who have a card made and call themselves decorators.

"CID (certified interior decorator) is not anything that has any professional meaning," she said. "We are very regulated in Florida, and we are aware of that. Venus was very proud to be asked to join in recognition that she is studying interior design and intends to go forward with the program to become a professional interior designer."

Whether she is talking about design or tennis, Williams is somewhat of an enigma.

The 6-1 1/2, 168-pound athlete appears tough on the court, known for her powerful serve that has been clocked at 127 miles per hour. Yet in person, she shows a calm, almost Zen-like peacefulness.

She used to drive a fancy sports car, a Porsche 911 convertible. Now she drives a SUV, a Toyota 4 Runner SR5.

While she is known to wear Versace tops and Fendi heels, in this interview she wore off-the-rack cuffed black slacks, a black top with flared sleeves and tied at a tiny waist. On her feet were black-and-white-striped flip-flops, revealing a bright pink pedicure.

"I just threw this on today," she said, giggling and flashing her 1,000-megawatt smile. "How I dress is how I feel that day."

What she wears is important to her and so is clothing design. She recently designed the Venus Collection in cooperation with Wilson's Leather. The line, mostly in black, includes jackets, blouson tops, pants, vests, skirts and blazers. Pieces sell for $200-$400.

A clothing line may also be in the future for Venus and sister Serena, who are close despite the intense competition on the court. Williams said she's in the research phase for the clothing line, looking into staffing and where to get things made.

"I work with Reebok and can call and ask questions," she said, referring to the nearly $40 million endorsement contract she has with the company. "It's like an apprenticeship in merchandising."

Although Serena has bought an apartment in Los Angeles, the sisters still share La Maison des Soeurs (house of the sisters), their $1.8 million BallenIsles house in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The four-bedroom house has 8,873 square feet, a pool/spa, outdoor barbecue and wooden gazebo. Although they have been living there three years, Venus doesn't describe it as decorated in a particular style.

"My house comes second, third or fourth," she said. "If a dog attacks a cushion, it stays that way for six months." (The culprit could be Bambi, Serena's pit bull, or one of their mom's dogs.)

The sisters have divergent personal styles. If Venus, with her clean lines, is Gwyneth Paltrow, Serena, who wore a skin-tight black cat suit at last year's U.S. Open, is Madonna. So how do they reconcile their styles in home decoration?

"After a while she says, `Venus, you do it.' She cannot choose another decorator or another design firm. She has no choice but to use V Starr. She was born into it," Williams said, giggling.

Although still touring for tennis, Williams has been spending some time working with clients. During an interview with The New York Times in January, she was checking out a swatch of fawn-colored linen for a client's shower curtain. The client was a recently divorced, retired manufacturing executive with a condominium in Palm Beach. Nathan won't give names or numbers, but says they now have "several clients and several proposals."

The firm is moving from Palm Beach Gardens to Jupiter, Fla., where Nathan lives, in mid-June. They have hired another designer and will have student interns, but they are taking it slow.

"Venus has a great sense of color and a wonderful sense of quality," Nathan said. "She is still studying and we don't want the firm to get out of hand or grow too fast."

Even though she's rated No. 2 in the world (behind Serena), she knows tennis won't last forever. What is her dream for 10 years from now?

"In 10 years, I suppose I will be finished with tennis," she said. "I would like to take a vacation, to go places and actually see things. I have never been to Africa. I don't have time right now. I can't take three weeks off."


© 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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