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VOL. 37 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 25, 2013

Preconceived notions about bond girl Leah Hulan? Forget ’em.

A beauty queen’s long, strange journey

By Brad Schmitt

Print | Front Page | Email this story

Much like the captivating Watson’s pool girl of yesteryear, Leah Hulan has created a beguiling persona of her own on the Middle Tennessee advertising scene.

In TV commercials and on billboards, she’s the easy-to-recognize face of Grumpy’s Bail Bonds, almost forcing the viewer to ask: “What’s such a beautiful, alluring woman have to do with making bail, and surely she’s not Grumpy?’’

Behind the provocative pictures, she is a military veteran, a former Miss Tennessee and Miss Tennessee USA, and a woman who has used her story of personal eating disorders to inspire others, especially girls, to avoid those same behaviors.

Hulan published her book, “Pain Behind the Smile: My Battle with Bulimia,” in 1995, just after she met the man, Kevin Davis, who would later marry her and become her partner in (and the inspiration for the name) Grumpy’s.

The company has room to grow, particularly in Nashville where there are more than 32 bonding companies. She’s the queen of marketing but hasn’t reached the top of the field.

“I definitely do not have a large portion of the market,’’ Hulan explains. “We do about 20 bonds a week, give or take a few. But each quarter I’ve done better than the quarter before.

“If you ask my competitors, they all say Grumpy’s gets all the bonds. And that always makes me laugh because I’m not [at the top in Davidson County.]

“I do hope I am in the Top 10 though, and I hope one day to make what my competitors say about my market share come true,’’ she adds.

The Nashville Ledger sat down with Hulan in her downtown office to get the story of a Rutherford County farmer’s daughter who has forged a path through good times – and some very bad times – to become Nashville’s own “bond girl.’’

Q: There’s the serenity prayer on the wall of your lobby. Why is that?

A: “I would say 80 percent of the people we help out are addicted to something, have some type of major dysfunction going on in their lives. People don’t just wake up one day and say, “You know, I’m bored. Let me beat my husband, beat my wife, get a DUI, steal something.” There’s something that’s causing an impulse, a compulsion, bad behavior.

“It’s usually addiction or some type of mental disorder that has been diagnosed, and you’re not on your medicine, or you are on your medicine and you’re drinking. You’re just going through a really rough time in your life. And I’ve been there.

“I had a moment – that’s what I wrote the book about – where I was not myself. And I had to figure out what was going on with me. And journaling is what helped me. But also a 12-step program and becoming a Christian. That was my path, and I like to put that out there for anyone else who was suffering. We want to be a different type of bail bond business.’’

Q: That’s beautiful. I’m in 12-step recovery myself. But then I see the commercials, and the first thing I think of is not 12-step recovery.

A: “Why not?’’ (Laughs) “Why not?’’

Q: That’s a lot of skin.

Hulan autographs a picture for client Vicky Wright of Fairview.

-- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger

A: “That’s not a lot of skin. Miss America, the evening gown. Am I showing any more skin than Miss America shows? Absolutely not.’’

Q: Well, when I say Grumpy’s Bail Bonds, most guys go, “Oh, that hot babe.”

A: “You know, Brad, I don’t know what people tell you but that’s not what they tell me. I get some jokes, like, “Oh, you make me want to get arrested.” You know? But they’re just joking.

“At one time, I tried to apologize about being Leah, but I’m not gonna do that anymore. I’m not going to try to conform who I am to make other people happy. I can’t do it.

“I could cover up more skin and there probably would be some people that might like that look. Or I could probably take off some more and people might like that. But I dress the way I like to dress. And I feel like I’m pretty comfortable in my skin. ‘’

Q: So this “bond girl” also has military experience and has been a motivational speaker helping girls who struggle with eating disorders like she did. I think there has been a depth, and a breadth that doesn’t show in those ads.

A: “Tell me why. Tell me why that doesn’t show that. I think it’s what people are bringing to the table, not what I’m bringing to the table. It’s what they’re thinking of. If you see Reba McEntire, if you see Carrie Underwood, if you see Faith Hill, that’s no different. And I don’t think they have to go out every day and prove they have a brain.’’

Q: Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me about growing up.

A: “We were farmers. My mom taught in Rutherford County. I never understood growing up why after school I had to go home and haul hay or dig potatoes or fix fences or slaughter cows. We had a slaughter farm.’’

Q: You did that yourself?

A: “Oh yeah! My very first speech in 4H, I won. I remember, I had on overalls, I had my hair braided and I stood up and my first line, “Have you ever delivered a calf before? Well, I have! I live on a farm.”....

“That was hard growing up at first. Because when you raise animals from the bottle, and then you grow up with them and you do have to slaughter them, I do think that that was difficult for me to process at an early age. But that’s what farmers do.

Q: ROTC?

A: “I graduated high school early and went on to college. I did get an academic scholarship to Converse Women’s College in Spartansburg, S.C. I went there, but I was really bored. Too many girls, not enough farm guys. (Laughs.)

“So I went to the neighboring boys’ college to take ROTC, where we did things I was more comfortable with. I was on a rifle team, we did whitewater rafting and rappelling, and I was really comfortable with that stuff.

“My dad got sick with cancer. I went home, lost my scholarship and didn’t know how I was going to pay for college. And my mom’s very best friend in the world, her husband and her son were both in the military. And she said, why don’t you go for an ROTC scholarship? And I thought, why not?’’

Q: So you served?

Hulan, center, as Miss Tennessee USA in 1994.

A: “I did. I received my active duty Army commission in 1990, and right before I graduated, my ROTC unit had put me up for Miss MTSU. And I won. I did not know that by winning Miss MTSU that it was a preliminary to Miss Tennessee.

“But I was set to go away with the Army. So we got special permission from the military to go to the Miss Tennessee pageant. The deal was, right after the pageant, you’re going to report to active duty.

“I won talent competition, I won swimsuit competition and I got called out as first runner up. First runner up is a hard place to be. It’s hard to enjoy how much you’ve accomplished when you don’t get the carrot.

“So the same night, I had to report to active duty. The same bun I had on my head as I was walking down the runway was the same bun I had when I reported to active duty in Arizona the next morning.

“I was there for six months, and I went to the Republic of Panama, which was my first duty station. It was about a year after Operation Just Cause, and it was still an interesting hot, hot place to be. Beautiful tropical environment, but everything was still not really stable. It was exciting.’’

Q: When did the eating disorders show up?

A: “Brad, I probably had eating disorders from the time I was 6 or 7 years old.... I needed more attention, and I probably needed more affection, and I needed more praise when I did something well.

“I’ve done so much reading on it, and I think part of that reason was just because my parents were divorced.

“My step-dad and I always had a difficult time with control. He would make me raise these animals and kill these animals. And sometimes I was like, “I’m not eating.” And he would say, “Well, you’ll sit there all night until you do.” And I’d sit there all night.

“And I started controlling my food. If I couldn’t control anything else in my life, then I’m gonna start controlling my food.’’

Q: You eventually won Miss Tennessee.

A: "I won Miss Knoxville and I won Miss Tennessee in June 1991.... I won Miss Tennessee USA in 1994. After Miss USA, I felt I’d done my best, and what more could I do? I’m a healthy weight right now. I’m about 125. But at Miss USA, I was 88 pounds.

“I do not blame pageants at all for an eating disorder. Pageants were a positive influence on my life. I had a problem that I had never dealt with honestly. It did exacerbate my problem.’’

Q: When did you get help?

A: “Well, on the night I was supposed to give up my crown for Miss Tennessee USA, I couldn’t make it. I had a meltdown that was pretty embarrassing.

“I was in crisis. I was starving. I was binging and purging. I would go as long as I could without eating at all. Sometimes, I’d go weeks. And then for whatever reason, I’d eat. Then I’d feel so bad and guilty about eating, I’d throw up.

“And I’ve learned since then, that when you do throw up, you have endorphins that are released. So you kind of feel high. And so I never understood why I couldn’t quit binging and purging. Well, binging and purging is kind of like a drug.

Hulan receives her diploma during MTSU graduation ceremonies in 1990.

-- Submitted

“The night that led to me getting some help, I’d had an ‘out-of-body experience.’ That is what they call it, from being brain starved and from not dealing with some trauma from my childhood. I actually saw somebody come to my door and try to take me with him.

“And he personified is a very big man with a cloak, and he said, “Come with me, dance with me, Leah.” Something like that. I ran, grabbed a gun, didn’t have a lot of clothes, ran through a cornfield. They found me in a cornfield hours later. I’d made some frantic calls to my father, who’d been dead for years.

“Very, very, very embarrassing. When you live your life a little bit in the spotlight, and you have a breakdown, then it becomes media attention for everybody. I was in a hospital, locked doors, white coats, it was pretty weird. It felt like I was in an asylum.

“After I graduated from that hospital, I went to another hospital in Florida that was more like a halfway house, trying to teach me how to live and make food choices and be healthy.

Q: What about the NewsChannel 5 Phil Williams story suggesting Grumpy’s was involved in wrongdoing a few years ago?

A: “It really hurts my feelings. It didn’t hurt my business, thank God. But it did hurt my feelings because I had entered into the arrangement honestly and openly. It was an ambush. And, it was just for ratings. It turned out to be nothing.

“One of our people had died while on bond and ... we hired a private investigator and this family gave the investigator a death certificate. He turned it into the court. Years later, it turned out it was not a real death certificate.... We did nothing wrong. [Channel 5’s story made it] look like I was trying to avoid paying $100,000.’’

Q: So how did Grumpy’s start?

A: “I met this fabulous man and asked him out on a date, and he said, “No.” I saw him at a gym in Green Hills, when I was working full time for the drug demand reduction team for the National Guard. So I was in uniform, and he’d been in the service.

“I thought he was loud and obnoxious. He talked to me at the water fountain. And later I thought, maybe I thought he was loud and obnoxious because I was attracted to him. I actually asked him to train me when I was getting ready to go to Miss USA. He was a personal trainer, so I was like, why don’t you train me? And he was like, “Nah, I’ve got enough clients.”

[Years later], “this guy called and wanted to go out. So I was like, OK. We went out and we got married two weeks later. My relationship with Kevin has been one of my biggest faith-building experiences because the Lord smiled on me and him. We’ve been married 17 years.’’

Q: And you and he built this?

A: “He started giving back by teaching Bible study to delinquent kids through a YMCA program. And they love him because he rode a Harley, he’s big and burley with tattoos. And I think they were receptive to him because they related because he was a bit of a rebel.

“Through those kids, there were three kids from Nashville that came to Williamson County, committed an armed robbery where someone almost died. They were tried as adults, sentenced as adults. They heard about Kevin through their friends at the YMCA. And they said, well, maybe he can come here and teach us Bible study.

“We had had a job change, he had lost his job, and I was panicking and freaking out. I went and found jobs everywhere, and he said, ‘Leah, calm down. Let’s pray about it, let’s take our time and figure it out.’ ’’

“Months had gone by, and we really were down to our last dollar, and he came home and said: ‘We’re gonna be bail bondsmen.’ ’’

“I’d never heard of it. I’m like, what the hell’s that? And we took his idea, and we used the last little bit of money my dad had left me. And we started Grumpy’s Bail Bonds.’’

Q: Why “Grumpy’s”?

A: “I had spent a lot of time thinking of these fabulous names. We were going to try to help. People need help. I thought of all these names like “Second Chance,” “Blessed Hope” – I thought they were great names.

“And he [Kevin] kept going, ‘No.’ And he was making me mad! And I finally said, ‘We ought to call it ‘Grumpy’s’ because you’re being such a blankety-blank right now!’ ’’

And he said, “That’s it!”

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