Picture Beyoncé or Alicia Keys at a photo shoot in glamorous designer clothes or on stage singing and dancing, — sexy, right? Now picture Beyoncé or Alicia Keys ballin’ you up, — not exactly an image that often comes to mind.
The words “women’s basketball” don’t generally stimulate thoughts of femininity and gracefulness, but freshmen Kaira Belen is exactly this, a beautiful female basketball player who is actively changing the way society views female athletes.
Belen stands tall at 5 feet 11 inches and has a smile that could melt any guy’s heart. She has a kind presence about her and has no characteristics that would classify her as “butch” or “manly,” a stereotype female basketball players are sometimes labeled with. The New Jersey native is of Puerto Rican, Columbian and African-American descent and is a counter-stereotype of what the general public would classify a female basketball player to be.
“I want to be a positive image for girls and let them know they can be girly, but still play sports and do what the boys do,” Belen said. “I consider myself ‘girly’ but am the first to get rough or kick it with the guys.”
Belen gets excited when talking about nail polish and make-up, and loves getting “pretty,” but is also very competitive and loves to beat her friends, which she says are usually guys, at video games and sports.
On the court, Belen describes herself as “anything but girly.” She plays power forward and is an aggressive young face to watch for in the upcoming years.
Because Belen is a freshman, she doesn’t usually start, but has a descent amount of playing time this season. She has played in 17 of the 21 games this season, and was selected as second team all-state member last year at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, Nevada as a senior.
As an aspiring model and singer, Belen is currently recording a demo album and is a national spokeswoman for Boostup.org, an organization launched by the United States Army and the Ad Council that encourages teens to graduate high school. Belen was chosen as one of 10 teens to represent the organization in 2008. She has billboards across the United States and was in a commercial to promote teenagers to stay in school.
“It’s so cool when my friends and family call to tell me they saw my picture on a billboard. It’s really encouraging and I hope I can inspire kids [and] make a difference in people’s lives,” Belen said.
An oldest of seven children, Belen had plenty of responsibilities growing up, and knew if she wanted to attend college, she would have to find a way to pay for it herself. She took up basketball in sixth grade, when her father encouraged her to engage herself in sports.
“I was a huge tomboy,” Belen said. “I played football from the ages of 14 to 16. I played wide-receiver and defensive end. I tried every sport possible before I got serious with basketball.”
When Belen realized basketball was her ticket to college, she started focusing and working hard on the court, while making sure sure to keep her grades up. Although she loves basketball, she says singing is her passion, so she tries her best to split her time between the two.
“The key is to keep everything balanced,” Belen said. “I don’t really have any free time because if I am not at practice or a game, I am in Los Angeles recording or pursuing my career in modeling. My family is also very important to me, so I always make time for them. I talk to my grandparents everyday, I look up to them very much.”
Belen started modeling last year when a woman approached her at a grocery store in Las Vegas asking her if she was interested in a career in modeling or acting. Belen quickly jumped at the opportunity, but had already signed with the UC Irvine basketball team and was not going to give up college. To compromise, she fits in recording music and modeling time when she is not busy with school and basketball, which are her “priorities.”
“It is important to have a back-up in case my career in entertainment doesn’t work out,” Belen said.
Belen is currently an undeclared major but will most likely major in sociology or psychology because she wants to work with children. She has also considered playing basketball overseas after her time at UCI, if the circumstances are fitting.
However, if Belen’s modeling and singing career continues at a steady pace, she may just be the next Maria Sharapova or Amanda Beard.
“I will never be a runway model because I am not stick thin, but it is important for girls to know that an athletic body is sexy,” Belen said.
Belen says she is not the only athlete on the team that deals with being categorized.
“The whole team deals with stereotypes but we all love getting dressed up and going out together. You don’t have to pick one or the other — ‘girly’ or ‘sporty,’ you can be both.”