“I'm the luckiest girl in the world to be me,” Valley philanthropist Billie Jo Herberger admits. Voted “Miss Effervescent” at her high school in West Covina, Calif., the athletic, surfing Herberger went on to pioneer a system of water aerobics called Wet and Wonderful Water Exercise that became an international phenomenon; she spent 12 years traveling to Japan, teaching the system to staff in Japan’s luxury hotels and spas. Today, she and husband Judd Herberger – heir to the Kierland-Herberger real estate empire – carry on the work and legacy of Judd’s civic-minded parents, Kathryn “Kax” and Robert Herberger, by supporting many arts and nonprofit organizations around the state. Named the 2013 Woman of the Year by Women of Scottsdale, Billie Jo serves as an inspiration to many – she’s survived cervical cancer, breast cancer and malignant melanoma without losing a sliver of her spunk or spark. She doesn’t cover up her scars, but displays them proudly as “badges of courage.”
How did you develop your colorful style of clothing and accessories?
I have my favorite little shop in Santa Monica called Sumiko. It’s run by a Japanese woman in her early 80s now who has had the shop for 40 years. She’s so resourceful in finding interesting pieces from different collections and so for the last 10 years, I’ve only been shopping there. I’m not a department store shopper. I make gowns out of old kimonos and do all kinds of things with fabric and I love color. I had a business for 12 years in Japan and I loved the Japanese women’s style of mixing up their clothes and it helped inspire me to be individual and creative. I have fun with my clothes. In my closet I have an area filled with all kinds of head decorations – flowers and headbands that have been beaded. I go to black tie events with beautiful flowers in my pigtails. It’s fun to be comfortable and individual and stylized. I found a niche that works.
What’s the story behind you being a pioneer of water aerobics?
I was head of the women’s physical education department at Judson School (in Paradise Valley). It was a private school, so I got to teach the kids everything that I loved and that I could do well. We started doing ballet in the pool. I didn’t know what it was called, but the side of the pool became our ballet barre. After eight years, I went to Maine Chance, the Elizabeth Arden Beauty Spa. I became the director of exercise and it just evolved. In 1982, I wrote one of the first books ever written on water exercises, Wet and Wonderful. I had endorsements from Eva Gabor, Mrs. Barry Goldwater, Mrs. Del Webb and Alice Faye. Then, in 1984, I published Let’s Get Wet.
When did you learn to surf?
I started surfing in 1959. I grew up in Pasadena and my parents had a house on Balboa Island, so we spent our summers there. I learned how to surf before I got my driver’s license. A group of us went every weekend to Doheny Beach, Dana Point or Huntington Cliffs. Our biggest trick would be walking a little bit forward on the board or turning in a little circle and then catching the wave and riding in. I never was the girl who would go to Hawaii to surf those great big, huge waves. I was just the girl who stood on the board while the breeze blew and it was the ultimate.
What are some of the organizations that you support?
I’m involved with Phoenix Heart Ball, Key to the Cure (TGen), Release the Fear and Kids Read USA, plus of course the Herberger Theater, Phoenix Theatre, Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix Art Museum and Arizona Opera. I like to entertain, so I open up my house and make a party (for the organizations). I do that well and enjoy it and it’s something that the organizations need.
What makes a good party?
Oh, the people – the selection of people, and you’ve got to have a piano player. But I think the energy really starts with the host and hostess. I like to have a party so planned and well-organized that I don’t have to worry about anything. Our parties are magical – the house is all lit up and the guests are excited to come here.
Check out phoenixmag.com/web-extras or our tablet editions (available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play) for exclusive behind-the-scenes video of the PHOENIX magazine photoshoot with Billie Jo Herberger plus an extended Q&A.
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