Billie Jean King on How Being 'the Mother of Sports' Has Led Her to Be a Champion for Equal Pay (and So Much More)

Billie Jean King on How Being 'the Mother of Sports' Has Led Her to Be a Champion for Equal Pay (and So Much More)

The tennis legend speaks to PEOPLE exclusively about life, love, her favorite tennis movies, and how she's teaming up with e.l.f. Beauty to help change the corporate landscape from the top down

<p><a href="">Nolwen Cifuentes</a></p>

This might surprise you, but tennis was not Billie Jean King’s first love.

Back in the 1950s she was a future legend: a California girl who would go on to win 39 Grand Slam titles (including a record 20 wins at Wimbledon); who would own so many firsts, including becoming the first woman to have a major sports venue named in her honor, USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home to the US Open. (She also just landed a Wheaties box!) But as a young girl growing up in Long Beach, she enjoyed playing something else.

“The piano,” King says. “It was my favorite. But I knew quickly that God gave my brother and me unbelievable coordination and hand-eye coordination and quickness and all these things you need to be a great athlete. That's what God gave us. Piano, it was going to be second now. It's not going to be first. I don't have what it takes.”

King still has a piano in the New York City home she shares with her wife, Ilana Kloss, by the way. “It’s a Clavinova. Holly Hunter gave it to me. She played me in a TV movie about Bobby Riggs and me,” King says, referring to the 2001 movie When Billie Beat Bobby, about her infamous Battle of the Sexes tennis match. “Holly gave it to us when she moved. She knew I loved it.” (Emma Stone reprised the role and retold the tale in 2017, and King became friends with her too: “I love Emma and her husband, Dave, and baby Lou!” King also loves tennis movies, she says — "when they get the tennis right." Her faves: Match Point, starring Scarlett Johannson, and Strangers on a Train. "Yes, it's a tennis movie," she says.)

King’s dad, Bill, a firefighter and former basketball player, loved baseball and would take her and her brother—Randy, who would go on to pitch for the San Francisco Giants—to games. He also encouraged her athleticism. As a grade-schooler, King played basketball. Then softball. Then, finally, in fifth grade, tennis. That year she presciently announced to her mother, Betty, who died in 2014 and herself was an accomplished swimmer: “I am going to be No. 1 in the world.”

The way King remembers it today, she just wanted to be in the game. Any game. But she learned early on: The rules varied by gender. So did the rewards.

“I’ll never forget. I was 9 years old and at a minor league baseball game. I remember looking out there, at the game, and my heart sank.” King says she thought to herself: I can't play professional baseball, because I'm a girl. “It really was a horrible day. There was really nothing for girls in sports then. There was no way we could make a living, that's for sure. Whereas, the guys were making a living.”   

Related: Billie Jean King Reveals Her 'Secret' 2018 Marriage and Thoughts on New Generation's 'Fluid' Sexuality


That is the word on Billie Jean King’s mind today, as she sits down for this interview in Los Angeles. “I think it's one of the most important words. I feel like we're losing it in our society and I think we need to think about it.” She specifically feels strongly about access in the workplace. “Everyone has something to offer." She's perhaps speaking for herself. "Women, LGBTQs. Everyone. You never know where a good idea is going to come from.”

King is 80 now. She’s by no means retired. She runs her foundation, the Billie Jean King Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to developing the next generation of leaders through sports, education and activism. (Her brand of activism: “inclusive change.”) She regularly consults with Fortune 500 companies on inclusion, and, 50 years after she founded the Women’s Tennis Association (at the time, focused on a unionizing effort for equal pay), she recently, after a multiyear coordinated effort, helped launch the Professional Women’s Hockey League.

King is also still active in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “The board of the Elton John AIDS Foundation kicked Elton and me off the same day,” she says with a laugh. “They made Elton emeritus and I'm the ‘president forever.’ But we don't have to go to the meetings anymore. But Ilana still goes, and there's so much to do still. We want to get rid of AIDS.”

She makes time for TV binge-watching dates with Kloss, 68, whom she first met 52 years ago, when the South African-born Kloss was a ball girl for a tournament in Johannesburg. The two reconnected about 15 years later and wed in 2018. King remains smitten today: “Ilana is the best thing that ever happened to me. She inspires me every day. We often say ‘I dream it and she builds it.’ She has an amazing ability to get in the solution and move things forward without ever losing sight of the original vision. Not everyone can do that.”

The two will travel to Paris for the Olympics this summer and King says she’s ready for “tennis, volleyball, all of it.”

The woman is busy. And yet, her age comes up a lot, she says. “I have to deal with ageism all the time, and it really is irritating. People love to remind me of my age: ‘You can't do this. You can't do that.’ ”

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Nolwen Cifuentes</a></p>

“Hold on,” I say, somewhat incredulously. “When was the last time someone told Billie Jean King she could not do something?”

King brings that perspective to her newest endeavor. She’s teamed up with cruelty-free cosmetics brand e.l.f. Beauty to help diversify the corporate landscape — from the top down. “A diverse board creates more opportunities and is more profitable,” King says, adding that then “the change can trickle down.” The Oakland-based beauty company, King notes, is one of only four publicly traded U.S. companies—out of 4,200—with a board of directors composed of two-thirds women and one-third diverse representation. So the company is sponsoring a training program for 20 director candidates through the National Association of Corporate Directors Accelerate program, a two-year program designed to help executives with minimal boardroom experience prepare for what can be career-changing (and lucrative) board service.

King says she had her own accelerated program. “Women who are in sports learn how to lead. Ninety-five percent of women in C-suites identify as being an athlete. That is a huge factor. If you want to be a leader, a mover, a shaker, maybe have the vision for the future, you're going to find them probably from sports in some way.” The folks at e.l.f. Beauty, known as much for their viral campaigns and Super Bowl ads starring Jennifer Coolidge and Judge Judy as for their affordable (and in the zeitgeist) products, clearly agree.

Related: What It Was Really Like Doing Jury Duty for e.l.f Cosmetics’ Epic Judge Judy Super Bowl Commercial (Exclusive)

“Billie Jean King embodies e.l.f.’s vision to be positive, inclusive and accessible,” says Tarang Amin, Chairman and CEO, e.l.f. Beauty. “She has spent decades as a leader in the fight for equity and equality. She is a role model who has paved the way for more opportunities for women in sports. We’re honored to have her help us bring more equal representation in boardrooms.

Tarang says that this top-down, from the C-suite to the shipping department, inclusive approach works at e.l.f.. And the proof, he says, is in the pudding. “We believe the unique composition of our board—which was built very intentionally—contributes to our success, and we are sitting at 20 consecutive quarters of net sales growth. Across our organization, e.l.f. reflects the diverse communities that we serve and that brings us closer together – understanding your consumer is an important strategy for all businesses.”

King—who, by the way, says she loves e.l.f.’s sunscreen—is ready to spread the word. “That’s my job now,” King says, “to help the younger generations.”

King turned pro in 1959. She once described herself an “attacking player.” She leveraged her speed, moves at the net and one-handed-backhand—all skills that, tennis historians now note, more than compensated for her somewhat diminutive 5'4" stature. Also a compensation: her eyeglasses. Today the colorful frames are her trademark.

“I love my glasses,” King says with a laugh. “They are my jewelry.” Her wife hands her a black leather box, which, indeed, does look like it could be filled with Oscar-night jewels. “There is room for 16 pairs.” She needs that many, she explains, “because I change jackets or I change what I wear. I'm in different moods. I might have two or three blues, but they're different blues or different frames.”

While her glasses today are as much about vision as aesthetics, when she was 13 they were about athletics. “When I was 13, I wore glasses for the first time in my life. I'll never forget that day and looking at the trees and the flowers. I always think about the leaves now because of that day. It's just imprinted in my brain and how lucky I was.” She was frustrated with her playing at the time, but it was because of her vision. “I was going to quit tennis, because I wasn't getting better, but within a week I shot up. My ranking went up, everything went up when I got glasses. I think I'm the first woman to win Wimbledon with glasses. I don't think anybody else had them. You can't believe how many people tell me I wouldn't make it because I wore glasses. And every time they told me that, I got more determined to win.”

And she won—a lot. In the early '70s she joined the Virginia Slims tour for women. She knows you’re probably eye-rolling at the sponsorship. “We could not have made it without Philip Morris in women's tennis,” she says of the cigarette company that owned Virginia Slims. “Of course I hate smoking! So that was really a challenge for me. I remember thinking, ‘Athletes can’t smoke!’ ” But, she says, “you can’t have change without the money. I don't care how much you want it or think about it or love it. Women's tennis, we are the leaders. We are the ones that got the big money and the majors for women.”

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Nolwen Cifuentes</a></p>

Related: Inside PEOPLE and e.l.f.'s Exclusive Party Honoring the Great Billie Jean King

She was always paying attention to the business side of sports, even at her prime, as she was racking up win after win. At the height of her competitive years, Billie Jean used her No. 1 ranking to spearhead the formation of the WTA and became its first president. Because of her lobbying, the US Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to both sexes: “We started in 1973 at the US Open, we got equal prize money, which is huge.” The year before, her winnings were $15,000 less than the male champion. “At last year’s US Open Coco Gauff got $3 million—and so did Novak Djokovic,” King says proudly.

Money is power, money is agency, money is change, King believes. And, when it comes to college athletes these days, money is … complicated. When the NCAA officially suspended NIL (Name, Image, Licensing) rules prohibiting athletes from profiting from their personal brand, some of the biggest earners immediately were women. King says she’s conflicted.

“I want college athletes to make money as well. And NILs are helping girls, but who are the girls that make the most? The ones who sexualize themselves.” King pauses. “I do not like that part, but I like the fact that they can make money. That they are also helping their school make money and also making their school more popular so they get more applicants. So what is a level playing field?” She says these kinds of questions keep her up. “I wake up at night. I'll be thinking, ‘What's the solution?’ ”

A few minutes later she realizes that male athletes have at times exploited their sexuality or looks too. “Yeah, Tom Brady doesn't lose out because of his looks.”

“With women, I'll tell you, there's three goals that we had when we started women's professional tennis," she continues. That any girl born in this world, if she's good enough, will have a place to play and compete. Number two, that she'll be appreciated for her accomplishments, not only her looks. And number three, she’ll be able to make a living. And those three things I think have been accomplished.”

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Nolwen Cifuentes</a></p>

Related: These Powerful Words from Billie Jean King, Jaelin Kauf and More Athletes Will Leave You Feeling Inspired

“We are at a tipping point in women's sports,” King says. The proof? Not surprisingly, she brings it back to money. She has all the numbers in her head. “The way you make money in sports is the media content and the contracts. We have had about 4 percent of the total for years and years. Then we went up to 5 percent. We're up to 15 percent now and it's gone up pretty rapidly the last five years. So we know we're going in the right direction.”

Not too long ago King returned to a professional baseball stadium in Los Angeles. “But now, Ilana, my wife and I, we’re part owners of the team. And I'll never forget the first night we went out to watch the Dodgers as new owners.” She thought of her childhood with her father and brother. “I got that same feeling. My heart sank, although I was thrilled, but I went, Whoa. It just came back like that. I felt what I felt that day when I was nine, just seeing that beautiful Dodger Stadium and the players. Then, I thought, How unbelievable—we’re girls and we’re gay and we’re owners. That’s a good sign. That’s a breakthrough. That’s a forward.”

She had access.

Five Game-Changing Female Athletes Share what Billie Jean King Means to Them

Coco Gauff

<p>Robert Prange/Getty</p>

Robert Prange/Getty

There was a sparkle of serendipity in the air when Coco Gauff won her first Grand Slam at the 2023 US Open. As she received her trophy and her prize money check for $3 million, Gauff, 20, was able to thank Billie Jean King, who was standing right beside her to mark the 50th anniversary of when King won her fight for equal pay at the storied tournament. Gauff shares with PEOPLE in her own words what King means to her.

"Hi Billie,
I wanted to take a moment to express my deep gratitude for the incredible impact you've had on my career! Your trailblazing spirit, unwavering dedication to equality, and fearless approach has inspired me along with so many other women and girls to find our voices and speak out about issues that matter to us. Thank you for pushing all women's sports forward. You are a true legend, and I am honored to follow in your footsteps. Thank you!"

Coco Gauff's Letter to Billie Jean King

Hans Bezard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images Lindsey Vonn
Hans Bezard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images Lindsey Vonn

Lindsey Vonn

Lindsey Vonn, one of the winningest women in skiing with three Olympic medals, two World Championships and 82 first-place World Cup finishes to her name, tells PEOPLE that King is more than “just a sports icon to me; she's a beacon of inspiration.” 

“Her relentless dedication to equality, both on and off the court, is so inspiring and I’m amazed by her unwavering commitment to fighting for what's right,” Vonn, 39, says. “She's not just a role model; she's a reminder that with hard work and perseverance, anything is possible.”

<p>Emilee Chinn/Getty</p> Kelley O'Hara

Emilee Chinn/Getty

Kelley O'Hara

Kelley O'Hara

Kelley O’Hara, the newly-retired U.S. Women’s National Team and Gotham FC star, knows a few things about winning. Over her 13-year career, O’Hara, 35, was twice a NWSL champion, a two-time World Cup champion and an Olympic gold medalist. And O’Hara says that she and her competitors owe King thanks for making their careers possible.

“Billie has impacted every female athlete whether they realize it or not. She was the first person who made people pay attention to equal pay in sports and has continued to fight tirelessly to this day.”

<p>Getty</p> Kendall Coyne Schofield


Kendall Coyne Schofield

Kendall Coyne Schofield

Kendall Coyne Schofield is one of the lucky people to have met King more than once. Their first encounter was back in 2010 when Coyne Schofield, now 32, was a high school student soon heading off to play college hockey, and she’s worked with King countless times since as one of the stars of the newly-formed Professional Women’s Hockey League, co-founded by King. But what Coyne Schofield tells PEOPLE is “so special” about King is that “she fights for people she'll never meet, that she'll never know.”

“My life would be so different, so boring without Billie Jean,” Coyne Schofield — who has won three Olympic medals and 10 World Cup medals with the U.S. women’s hockey team — says with a laugh. “I wouldn't have the opportunities I have, especially in the sport of hockey. I don't see college hockey looking the way it does without Title IX, and who fought for that? Billie Jean. You look at women's pro hockey. It's not where it is today without Billie Jean. And that's just me as one person in one sport, and she's done that for millions and millions of people in many different sports across the world.”

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Breanna Stewart
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Breanna Stewart

Breanna Stewart

Breanna Stewart, a four-time NCAA National Champion and two-time WNBA champion with two (and counting) Olympic gold medals, tells PEOPLE she "wouldn't be playing" without King.

“What I admire most about Bille Jean King is the fact that she's a pioneer," Stewart, 29, says. "She's the one that helped create Title IX and equal playing for all. She's a legend, a role model, and someone that I'm super appreciative of.”


Photographer Nolwen Cifuentes

Cinematographer Ted Newsome

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