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Before she put on that iconic white sweater and saw for herself how the wholesome dreams it sold could turn to nightmares, Josie Bullen didn’t worry about her weight. She didn’t count calories or diet. She rarely, if ever, stepped on a scale.
All her life, she’d been a dancer, keenly aware of her body. Dancing was how she best expressed herself. “I was just so in love with dance,” Bullen says. “It was my entire life.”
When Bullen arrived at USC in 2017, the allure of extending her dancing dreams, of performing in stadiums to roaring fans, of wearing the pleated skirt, the red shoes and the white sweater — with all its stature and symbolism — naturally drew her to the Trojans' prestigious spirit squad, the Song Girls.
Bullen auditioned that October. Just 13 women were chosen for USC’s 2018 Song Girl squad, 10 of them newcomers. She was among the select few. It felt like everything was falling into place.
But her experience with the Song Girls would turn out to be among the darkest and most distressing of her life. Within a year, she would seek intensive outpatient treatment for an eating disorder. Soon after, she stopped dancing altogether.
Since 1967, when USC students voted overwhelmingly to permit women to join the university’s previously all-male spirit squad, the Song Girls have remained an indelible part of the university’s image, traveling the world with cardinal-and-gold pom poms in tow, appearing not just at sporting events but also fundraisers, donor dinners, alumni gatherings and even private engagements, projecting a glossy picture of perfection wherever they went.
Bullen is one of 10 former Song Girls who described to The Times a toxic culture within the famed collegiate dance team that included longtime former coach Lori Nelson rebuking women publicly for their eating habits, personal appearance and sex lives.
Their stories spanning nearly a decade — supported by emails, text messages, the Song Girls contract and other Title IX investigation documents obtained by The Times — reveal a program that was largely unchecked by the university or Nelson, who former students said went to great lengths to uphold her own carefully crafted image of what a Song Girl should be.
All 10 of the women who spoke to The Times said Song Girls faced serious body image issues within the program that went beyond normal fitness required to be on a spirit squad. Three, including Bullen, said their experiences led to some form of eating disorder. Another recalled feeling so depressed she considered suicide.
"I do think that, with any cheer team, there’s going to be some of that. It’s unavoidable because there is some type of look you have to have,” a former Song Girl told The Times. “But you can do that in a healthy way. I’ve been doing this my whole life, and never, with the exception of this program, have ever I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough' or 'I’m fat.’”
Two of the women said they believed they were cut from the team after making complaints.
Last year, allegations from several former Song Girls, including some who spoke to The Times, sparked a Title IX investigation by the university into the program. The ongoing inquiry, according to an email from outside counsel hired by USC, centers on “potential violations of the university’s non-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy by Ms. Nelson.”
In November, shortly after the investigation was launched, Nelson resigned.
Nelson, 63, declined requests for an interview. In response to questions from The Times, her attorney issued a statement defending her and denouncing the complaint.
"Ms. Nelson vehemently and unequivocally denies the harmful and misleading allegations made against her," attorney Ryan Saba said in a statement.
He added: “Ms. Nelson has well-documented communications between team members and her, and she acted in a professional manner in enforcing team policies that were agreed upon by university supervisors and general counsel. These are false allegations embellished for a bombastic news story. She did nothing wrong.”
USC officials said the school had taken steps to support students in the Song Girls program while the Title IX investigation continued, including eliminating weight restrictions many former dancers say set the tone for widespread body image issues within the team.
“We are deeply concerned when any student experiences emotional or mental health challenges or other barriers to our educational programs and activities, and we offer both private and confidential support resources to current and former students," USC said in a statement.
“While we are not able to discuss pending investigations or personnel matters, we can share that we are aware of concerns raised by current and former Song Girls and have been actively addressing them through the appropriate university process.”
For generations, they were the wholesome, smiling faces of college football, symbols as inherent to the Southern California ethos as the sunshine, the surf, and the San Gabriel Mountains. A 1991 Times article, written by a member of the first Song Girls squad, described the team as “regarded with the seriousness and adulation that other universities reserve for, say, Nobel Prize laureates.”
At USC, where “football achieves the level of religion,” she wrote, “the song girls are its high priestesses.”
No coach was more deeply entrenched on USC’s campus than Nelson, a former Song Girl herself who took over for the team’s founder, Lindley Bothwell, more than three decades ago. Nelson and Bothwell, who died in 1986, were the only two coaches to lead the iconic program until 2020, their influence solidifying during half a century at the helm.
Nelson had no formal choreography training, and 10 sources told The Times she rarely offered technical critiques and instead focused on maintaining the Song Girls’ sparkling image.
Each of the 10 women who spoke to The Times said Nelson policed their appearance and scrutinized their public personas in ways that went well beyond traditional dance squad rules. That oversight was written directly into the Song Girls contract obtained by The Times. It stipulates squad members must stay within five pounds of their audition weight, and any changes to their appearance must first be approved by Nelson herself.
“I thought it was crazy, but you sign the contract right when you make the team. You’re so excited. This is what you’ve been working for and what you’ve been looking to do," recalled former Song Girl Alexa Trujillo, 27.
Nelson told the women that she was after “the Southern California look,” they said, which team members took to mean “white, skinny, blond, conservative, Christian, sorority girl,” as a former Song Girl put it.
“That’s the Song Girl brand,” Trujillo said. “There are so many girls that grow up in California and they see the Song Girls from a young age. They see that idealized representation of what a female in college should be. They see the pedestal.”
As a petite Cuban American with dark hair and curves, Trujillo learned quickly on the 2013 team that she didn’t fit the standard Song Girls image. Still, she said she was shocked the next year when she was cut from the team. When Trujillo asked the coach for an explanation of the decision made by a panel of judges who took Nelson’s opinion into consideration, Trujillo said Nelson offered no critiques of her dance skills.
Nelson and an advisor said she could put Trujillo in contact with a nutritionist.
“Lori told me, ‘The only thing I can think of is because of your appearance,’” Trujillo recalled.
Trujillo, a classically trained ballet dancer, met with a nutritionist every week for months, paying thousands of dollars for meal and workout planning. Even after she lost weight, she said, Nelson wouldn’t take her back.
“It led me to compulsive exercising, to dieting, to spending a lot of money on a nutritionist,” Trujillo said. “I did all of these things all the way up until I didn’t know who I was anymore. That was the worst part.”
Within the team, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks were common. When one former Song Girl on a recent squad confided in the coach that she was dealing with depression, “Lori just told me to follow mental health influencers on Instagram,” she said. The former Song Girl’s mother told The Times her daughter told her about the conversation when it took place and that she remained upset about the lack of support the school provided for her daughter.
Eight of 10 women The Times interviewed sought counseling. One former Song Girl recalled a USC campus therapist saying in 2013 that “we get a lot of you coming through here.” Another former Song Girl recalled her teammate discussing the therapist’s response.
Many former Song Girls said they tried to approach Nelson with their concerns while they were a part of the program. But she was rarely receptive. Often, she avoided confrontation altogether.
“She would smile,” one former Song Girl said. “She would be polite, and she would say whatever she needed to say to appease you. Then, you’d find out that she was gossiping to other girls on the team about you and how she doesn’t like you anymore or you’re causing problems. She just instilled this fear.”
The women said that, soon after they joined the team, Nelson and team leaders began subtle criticism of their appearances, often with pointed suggestions.
When Nelson asked Bullen to consider hair extensions, she agreed, convincing her parents to purchase them as a Christmas present. Some newcomers were asked to cut their hair. Others were asked to color it — sometimes multiple times. One newcomer from a different team, according to two fellow Song Girls, was asked to dye her hair blond so many times it started to fall out.
Other beauty practices were established early on. A former Song Girl told The Times both team leaders and Nelson instructed them to buy a specific Victoria’s Secret padded push-up bra, which advertised that it added two cup sizes.
Makeup was a must wherever they went — or in whatever content they posted on social media. Two former Song Girls recalled Nelson or a team captain asking them to delete Instagram selfies. “If you showed up to class, and you didn’t have makeup on,” Trujillo said, “somehow Lori would find out about it.”
The obsessive attention lent to their appearances was unlike any team Bullen had danced on before. But she was eager to fit in. She told herself to stop worrying. Maybe this was normal. She tried to remember how lucky she was.
Ten former Song Girls told The Times Nelson routinely compared their appearance to the previous teams. One former Song Girl recalled Nelson saying the 2018 team had been in better shape than the 2019 squad. She insisted on extra running outside of practice and urged women to hold their teammates accountable. If they didn’t slim down, she said, they wouldn’t be able to wear the cropped halter uniforms meant for hot weather, the ones with the slightly bare midriff and exposed upper back.
At one practice Nelson attended, a Song Girl showed the rest of the group unflattering pictures of former members wearing the uniforms.
“Look,” Bullen recalled the group being told, “these girls are skinny and still have muffin tops from their skirts.”
Nelson sat close by, saying nothing, two former Song Girls who attended the practice told The Times.
Bullen had already begun limiting her diet. She would eat a protein bar in the morning and then wouldn’t eat until a light dinner that night. She started weighing herself five or more times a day.
By spring, she had started starving herself during the day, then bingeing sugary junk food at night. Suddenly, she couldn’t focus without it. “It almost felt like I was possessed,” she explained. That summer, a doctor diagnosed her with binge-eating disorder.
Her eating issues came to a head on a team trip to Ireland. During one team dinner, Nelson sat across from Bullen, who ordered pasta.
“Josie, you’re only eating the sauce like me, right?” Bullen recalled Nelson asking her in front of the team. Another former Song Girl told The Times she was at the team meal and heard the comment.
When the moment passed and her horror subsided, Bullen quietly left the table and broke down crying in a bathroom stall.
When she first entered intensive outpatient treatment, Bullen blamed herself. She felt ashamed to tell her teammates. She felt weak asking for help. When she finally told Nelson about her eating disorder, Bullen recalled the former coach was supportive and said the team would be there for her. Bullen also said Nelson said she had no idea she was struggling and the dancer seemed happy.
Before seeking treatment, Bullen recalled sharing her weight gain details with Nelson after the coach said she needed them for a charter flight to a USC game. Nelson responded with an encouraging text message.
“Thank you so much for sharing and I want you to know that I understand how sensitive this issue can be [for] girls that have been on my team,” Nelson wrote in a text message to Bullen. “I’m always here to help and know that you have my utmost support and complete confidence. Focus more on your health and not your weight. By eating the right foods, the weight will adjust fairly quickly.”
Bullen's perspective changed while in treatment. She spent three hours a day at a facility in Beverly Hills, picking apart the issues that formed over her year with the Song Girls.
Still, she returned to the team, determined to perform through the 2018 football season.
During one practice ahead of football season, Bullen and a friend on the team decided they would take a stand. The conversation turned into an hours-long rant session, with other Song Girls sharing their grievances.
At one point, Bullen turned to one of the team leaders.
“There were inappropriate body comments made in this room,” she recalled saying in the venue where the Song Girls regularly practiced. She still had a shred of hope that things could change.
“This program is so much bigger than you, Josie,” the woman responded.
Bullen thought of Trujillo, who spoke out about her negative experiences during a TED Talk on USC’s campus in 2016. Bullen and one other Song Girl told The Times Nelson referred to Trujillo as a liar. Trujillo and two other sources told The Times she was not included on invitations to Song Girls alumni homecoming events after her TED Talk. Another source told The Times Trujillo was banned from Song Girl events.
Bullen said she realized the Song Girls weren’t going to change on their own. She chose to focus on her recovery instead, putting her head down and finishing out the season.
One of Bullen’s teammates on the squad, Adrianna Robakowski was uneasy about her role in rising tensions among the Song Girls and failing to help Bullen.
Robakowski and her mother told The Times she was once Nelson’s golden child, with Nelson often confiding in her and gossiping about the team.
Now, Robakowski says she regrets critiquing fellow Song Girls and contributing to the program’s toxic culture. “I’m ashamed,” she says. “It was sick.”
Being one of the coach’s favorites, Robakowski said, had tangible benefits, including a place in the front of the fight line, which was reserved for the best dancers.
When Bullen sought treatment for the eating disorder, Robakowski said, she realized how damaging the environment had become and says she tried to distance herself from the coach.
Then, during the same practice when Bullen spoke out about Song Girls body issues, Robakowski said Nelson turned on her.
The team was sitting together on the floor in its practice room, she said, when Nelson announced Robakowski had sex with someone during a recent team trip to Catalina.
Robakowski recalled: "In front of the whole team, she sat us down one day and she said, ‘I can’t believe Adrianna would lie to me, to sleep with a boy on a trip. That’s not the Song Girl way.'"
Bullen was present and said she heard Nelson’s statement, while Robakowski’s mother and sister told The Times the conversation was immediately relayed to them.
Robakowski says the story wasn’t true and when she confronted Nelson later, sobbing, the coach rejected her denials. The rumor got around to her friends outside the program, including the male USC student who allegedly was involved.
After that, Robakowski said, the coach ignored her or refused to talk to her. “It kind of spiraled out of control from there,” Robakowski told The Times. “… She was telling my best friends to cut me out of their lives.” A former Song Girl told The Times Nelson instructed her to cut negative people from her life and referred to Robakowski as negative.
In February 2020, Robakowski and two other members of the team met with USC athletic director Mike Bohn. The Song Girls are under the purview of a different department, student affairs, but the dancers said they believed Bohn, a newcomer in a separate area of the university, would be more willing to listen to their complaints.
After the meeting, Bohn’s executive assistant wrote an email to Robakowski stating, “We understand how much courage this took.” Three sources told The Times Bohn was concerned enough about the complaints to ask his office to facilitate one of the women seeing a therapist on campus.
Robakowski’s mother, Alisa, reached out to Winston Crisp, USC’s vice president of student affairs, alleging in an email obtained by The Times that her daughter and at least one other person had to seek therapy because of their experience in the program.
“Considering what a long tradition and iconic program Song is, it is absolutely shocking how they are treated,” she wrote.
Alisa Robakowski followed up with a phone call and was directed to others within the university who could help address her concerns.
It took another six months — and repeated prodding from former Song Girls and their families — for a Title IX investigation to be opened, according to emails from USC officials and outside attorneys involved with the case, as well as the accounts of several Song Girls.
Title IX investigators have completed their initial interviews, with eight former Song Girls speaking positively about Nelson and a dozen people sharing negative experiences about the Song Girls program, a source familiar with the investigation told The Times.
Nelson was not among the people interviewed, but a source stated her attorney indicated she would provide responses in writing.
Those who defended Nelson during Title IX interviews considered her a “mother figure” and called any weight issues the product of joining any dance squad that requires its performers to maintain a healthy weight, the source told The Times.
Four women interviewed told investigators Song Girls were expected to fit in their uniforms all year. The Song Girls were not supposed to get “super overweight or underweight and it is literally for your health and safety," a source relayed to The Times. Four women told investigators this rule was because game day was draining and the women needed a lot of stamina.
The women supportive of Nelson said squads were selected based on talent alone. A source said judges used to pick the squad told investigators they factored Nelson’s comments about the women’s attitudes, behavioral issues and ability to fulfill the team contract into their decisions.
When the latest virtual auditions were held in October 2020, the eight returning Song Girls expected their selection to be a formality. But Nelson, they say, went back on a promise to keep the team intact. Three returners, including Robakowski’s younger sister Bella, were cut without warning.
Days later, Title IX investigators presented Nelson with the testimony of multiple Song Girls. On Oct. 29, the team was informed Nelson was placed on administrative leave.
Less than a week later, Mike Munson, the associate director of recreational sports at USC and Nelson’s direct supervisor, informed the team of her resignation during an emergency Zoom meeting. He offered no explanation and did not mention the ongoing Title IX investigation.
The Robakowskis and several current Song Girls petitioned to have Bella and the two others added back to the team. Initially, they were told a decision would be reached after the Title IX investigation concluded. But three days before Christmas, Munson sent them an email, saying a review had not found “sufficient basis” for the results to be overturned.
Munson did not respond to multiple messages from The Times seeking comment.
Bella was heartbroken. In spite of it all, she still wanted to be a Song Girl.
“This was my dream,” she said in late December. “All I wanted was to get to be on the Coliseum sideline, just to get one game day even to dance and feel a part of that legacy.”
All 10 of the women who spoke to The Times still look back fondly on some aspects of their Song Girls experience.
Several of the women say they are skeptical the Song Girls will ever change, that a program so defined by tradition and timeless nostalgia is incapable of evolving without being replaced.
Bella Robakowski said she can still hear the coach’s voice in her head, comparing her body to her sister’s or telling her to cut dairy from her diet. Lately, she’s struggled just to eat at all.
“I know when I can’t eat, I get really upset with myself,” she said.
Her sister, Adrianna, who is now in her first year of law school at USC, wants to believe the program she’s loved her entire life can move forward now that Nelson is gone.
“It’s great in so many ways,” she said. “I just don’t see why the girls of the future can’t have it all, the tradition, the sisterhood, and all of that. Just without the anxiety and the eating disorders.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.