‘I know where my heart is’ … Monica Aldama in Cheer, season two. Photograph: Netflix
The head coach and breakout star of the Netflix hit, Cheer, talks about her high expectations for her cheerleading team, and how she has been affected by claims of child abuse against one of the show’s stars
The Guardian-Nadia Khomami
Two years ago, hardly anyone outside the world of competitive cheerleading would have been familiar with Navarro College, based in the small Texan town of Corsicana, its junior college cheer squad, or its head coach, Monica Aldama. But the global success of Cheer, Netflix’s Emmy-winning docuseries following Aldama and her team’s journey to the national championships in Daytona, changed all of that.
Audiences were immediately captivated by the technical skill, athleticism and personal dramas of competitive cheerleading. Cast members became stars, garnering huge social media followings and appearing on the likes of The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Oprah’s live tour. Aldama’s signature blond highlights and no-nonsense “mat talk” were satirised on SNL. Reese Witherspoon even said she inspired her to the point of tears.
“None of us expected it to be as big as it was,” says Aldama, following the release of season two, which shot straight to the top of Netflix charts last week. “We thought maybe the cheer community would watch it. We went from zero to 100 really fast.”
But the attention hasn’t all been positive. Aldama has been portrayed as a complicated figure: someone to whom the kids can turn for support – which many of them haven’t received elsewhere due to the circumstances of their upbringing – but also someone who rules the squad with an iron fist, encouraging cheerleaders to push through pain, at times to the point of collapse. Concerns were raised about the number of cheerleading-related injuries, including concussions and bruised ribs. Aldama was too tough, critics said, too heartless.
“I don’t like to disappoint, I’m a pleaser. So to see people’s perception of me was shocking,” she says. “I’ve worked so hard to do everything right, and I have a huge heart for these kids.” She stresses that Cheer is an edited show, focusing overwhelmingly on every fall and tumble. “We are very well trained. We do a lot of progressions to build up to anything difficult. As with any sport, you obviously have risks and injuries but, for the most part, it’s normal wear and tear.”
I don’t like to disappoint, I’m a pleaser. So to see people’s perception of me was shocking
Though her skin has got thicker, she says, the daily comments “definitely hurt”. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a female, but I definitely don’t think anyone would criticise a football coach for being tough and having high expectations.”
The other safety concern regards actions off the mat. Cheer made headlines last year after one of its biggest stars and fan favourite Jerry Harris was arrested and charged with production of child pornography. Harris denies seven charges regarding five minor boys, including four counts of sexual exploitation of children, one count of receiving and attempting to receive child pornography, one count of travelling with the attempt to engage in sexual conduct with a minor and one count of enticement.
Part of this season is devoted to Harris’s alleged victims’ stories and the broader issue of child safety in cheerleading. When the news broke, we are told, Aldama was taking part in Dancing With the Stars, and found out just before her first onscreen dance.
“It was shocking and devastating for all of us,” she says now. “Anybody with a heart can imagine the pain we would be going through, for the victims and for someone we loved. It still affects us daily.” That openness, regarding her conflicted feelings towards Harris, led to accusations on social media that she was refusing to disown a child predator, with the appearance of mocked-up images of her and others behind bars. Others said she was absent when her team needed her most.
“When you’re in a really low place already, it’s difficult when you keep getting hit. People will see one small piece of an interview I did a long time ago, at the lowest point of my career, and judge me. They assume I didn’t speak up on anything else and that’s just not true. I have to keep in my head that people don’t know me. I know where my heart is.” She can still barely talk about it without coming to tears.
The episode, including claims, by the mother of two of the alleged victims, that the cheerleading industry turned a blind eye to wrongdoing, makes for difficult viewing. But for Aldama, shining a light on what happened is key to progress. “I know that episode was hard to watch, but it was important for people to feel like they can come forward. The more education we can have, the better the whole system will be.” This includes classes, “not only for the coaches, but also for the children on what’s appropriate”.
In conversation, Aldama has a warmth that belies the caricatures. Nowhere is this more evident than in her relationship with La’Darius Marshall, one of the lead cast members, who, in a plot twist this season, leaves the squad, claiming he didn’t receive the support he needed. Aldama, who has said previously that she went “above and beyond” for him, speaks of the pain the rupture brought her. The pair’s tearful reconciliation in the final episode is one of the most emotional moments of the series.
“I wear so many different hats, from adviser to counsellor to mother,” she says. “I’m there for them to come and cry to if they have relationship problems, or their parents are going through a divorce. It’s a huge responsibility, because sometimes you’re the only person that they have.”
So what of Aldama’s “cheerleading dynasty” – the “machine” that her rivals so often refer to? She has led her squad to 14 NCA All-Star National Championships, and five grand national titles. Much of it, she says, stems from her background in business. After cheering at Tyler Junior College, Aldama transferred to the University of Texas, where she received a finance degree and, later, an MBA (master of business administration). She joined Navarro after a friend – then assistant baseball coach at the college – told her to apply.
“I had no intention of ever being a cheerleading coach. I was just out of college and not quite sure what I wanted to do, so I took the job temporarily. Here I am, 27 years later.” The so-called Navarro machine, she explains, was something she built from the ground up. “I looked at it like a business plan. What’s my end goal? To win a national championship. How do I get there? I get the highest score. How do I do that? I analyse the score sheet.”
After Cheer came out, she says she had many people asking her for advice in all areas of life, from parenting to relationships to work. Her new book, Full Out, which was published this month, addresses all of this. “When you’re coaching, you have so many stories and challenges every single year. The book talks about some of the core principles that I try to instil in my own athletes to set them up for success.” To be a champion in life, she says, one needs to be resilient, able to communicate, lead by example and hold yourself accountable for your own actions. “You keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what you’re going through.”
Thanks to her, Corsicana, which is about 50 miles south of Dallas and boasts a population of about 25,000 people, is now a point of reference worldwide. Navarro Cheer have become hometown heroes. “I think we add a fun element to the community. We definitely bring some diversity and the community welcomes that with open arms.”
Although she is often asked if she will move on to coaching other teams, Aldama is adamant that her coaching career begins and ends at Navarro, “whenever that time comes”. She is not ready to say goodbye to the kids just yet, but when she does she plans to explore opportunities in the world of business and finance.
Her life, she says, has “definitely changed” since she agreed to let Netflix into it in 2017 – but she remains the same person, trying to do and be her best. “I’m still living in a small town, I do my day-to-day job. It feels very normal to me.”
Cheer season two is on Netflix now. Full Out is available now.