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From Cal Athlete to Ford Model to R&B Crooner: Being ‘Better Than Yesterday’

March 6, 2016
by George Raine
Jarvis with microphone

Until she was 18, Chloe Jean Jarvis lived with the secret that she had two moms: her biological mother, Deborah, and a woman she called “Aunt Jan,” who was staying for a really long time. The closeted relationship of her same-sex parents simply wasn’t discussed back then. Nor was it the only thing that distinguished young Chloe, a mixed-race child, from her classmates at Catholic all-girls St. Francis High School in largely white, suburban Elk Grove. “My existence as a young person revolved around trying to hide my true colors. I was filled with shame,” she recalls.

But when she landed at UC Berkeley, Jarvis savored the free-spirited diversity she experienced on campus—and says it taught her “to look at people who seem to be at odds with ‘the norm’ and recognize that they are just like everyone else. My experience taught me that the things that set us apart are mostly conceptual propaganda. When you really strip away the illusory boundaries, we are all the same. We all want to give and receive love.”

Jarvis has since distinguished herself in many ways, winning All-American honors as an indoor track star, and modeling internationally for the top-tier Ford Models agency. Now she is racking up early success in her newest endeavor as a soulful R&B singer/songwriter—with her aim set on garnering a Grammy.

Her goal at age 33, she says, is the same as always: “to figure out what I can do right now that will make me better than I was yesterday.”

She traces her success back to a home that she describes as filled with a lot of love, and to the fact that she could sing well and write we-can-laugh-at-them-now bad songs beginning at age 5.

Also, she could run, fast. She credits her moms, who were both stellar at track, for instilling in her a competitive spirit—Aunt Jan ran for Sacramento State and Deborah, who is part Cherokee, was dubbed “White Lightening” on her high school track team in East Tennessee.

Jarvis running in a track meet
Jarvis in track meet for Cal; photo by Russ Wright

Jarvis ran so well that she was recruited by Tony Sandoval, director of track & field and head cross country coach at UC Berkeley. She says she soon settled into campus and honed the confidence to shed her secret. “When I went to Cal I saw all these beautiful black girls with curly hair and they were rocking a natural look, and they were intelligent and doing things that I wanted to do. They were runners and they were writers and they were poets and they were singers, and I suddenly felt that I wasn’t alone.” 

During her freshman and sophomore years, there were setbacks. Sandoval pulled her aside and asked her if she had sufficient commitment. Perhaps she should pursue music, one of her passions, he told her. She was struggling as a 400-meter runner. She told herself she wasn’t a quitter. “I caught fire. That was the fire I needed to focus,” she says.

She transitioned to 800 meters, again, no easy task. “The reality is the 800 hurts,” says Sandoval. “There is a lot of lactate, a byproduct of fatigue. Runners have what they call booty lock. Your butt tightens up. Everything tightens up.”

But Jarvis ran through it. She found her element. “I went home and trained my butt off,” she remembers. “The next race, I killed it.” She became the team captain.

Says Sandoval, “She got in the 800 and she was successful. That momentum carried her on .… She was an effortless, very smooth, beautiful mechanically efficient runner. Light on her feet. She looked like she was running effortlessly, like she was gliding. Obviously she was not, but she had a lot of control.”

“Running taught me that hard work prevails,” said Jarvis. “You can achieve pretty much anything you want if you work hard enough at it.”

As a junior, she was named Cal’s outstanding female track athlete. As a senior, she won the Pac-10 championship in 2005 at UCLA with a time of 2:04.53, then Cal’s third fastest time in the 800 and now the fifth. She competed at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials and earned Pac-10 All-America academic honors as well, while studying sociology and education.

One day on campus a TV news crew interviewed Jarvis for a story. An executive at a Bay Area modeling agency saw her and was impressed. He tracked her down and signed her to a contract. When she graduated, she went to work for Ford Models.

Jarvis modeled in New York for two years, with assignments in New Zealand and South Africa. Her list of credits includes the Nike 2006 and 2007 catalogues, Banana Republic, Modern Bride, Martha Stewart Body and Soul, Revlon, Women’s Fitness, Verizon,  and Macy’s.

Jarvis with guitar in red dress

While in New York she drilled deeper into music. She overcome stage fright—having found safety in numbers as a member of the University Gospel Choir at Cal —so she showed up on open-mic nights at the Village Underground and sang. “You can’t go up on stage and suck in New York City,” she says. “People will boo you off the stage. It’s a very tough town.”

Now back in the Bay Area, Jarvis, married to San Francisco plastic surgeon Kenneth Bermudez, is a mother of two who still models when she has time. But she’s channeling much of her creative verve into building her music career. She performs under the stage name Chloe Jean, and acts as her own manager.

A booking she got in December reflects the chutzpah the profession requires:  In search of a venue at which to perform, she contacted the Uptown Theatre in Napa, and sent a press kit and recordings. They were impressed she opened for five-time Grammy winner and blues legend Robert Cray.

“Pinch me,” she says. “But you have to hustle.”

Her debut album, “Freak,” produced by Access Music Records of San Rafael, is attracting buzz. In the song “Black Sheep,” she delivers a message about embracing what makes you unique, perhaps an outlier, and of living up to your potential. She says it is largely informed by her experience working with at-risk Bay Area kids, teaching them, along with music, to deal with bullying while mastering self-esteem and self-control. Here’s the chorus:

“Make your mark, be a star, a legacy

Be proud to be a black sheep

It’s your time, make it shine, live your dreams

Be proud to be a black sheep.”

Her old coach, Sandoval, keeps in touch, and he and his wife go to Jarvis’s performances. There’s a photo of her Olympic trials on his office wall. “At Berkeley, I think you have to embrace and enjoy the challenges that come every day,” he says. “And I think that this being an international school, you have to have an openness because you are going to get people from all different countries and backgrounds. It’s going to be something that you embrace rather than resist,” he said. “You’re going to have an appreciation and an understanding that can allow you to function in the multi-ethnic society we are morphing into.”

That’s a lot like a line from verse two in “Black Sheep”:

“There’s a reason that we aren’t made same,

 a bigger purpose that our eyes can’t see today

raise your voice if you want a better way

revolutionize a brand new day.”

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