May 1999
By Louisa Kamps
Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark Photography Editor: Lisa Moir

Two weeks into her tenure as the First Lady of Minnesota, Terry Ventura is hosting a breakfast meeting in her glaringly big new digs at the austere and stately brown-brick 1910 Governor's Mansion in St. Paul. It's a cold, gray, mid-January day, and as members of the Governor's Residence Council, an ad hoc organization of historians, designers, and citizens concerned with the preservation of this faintly spooky old house, file in the front door, stomping snow off their shoes, Ventura introduces herself. "C'mon inside and get warm and comfortable," she says in her friendly northern-plains twang. Despite the fact that hardly anybody lives with this much velvet and mahogany-and that Ventura climbed into her mother's lap and cried when she learned two months ago that she'd be moving here-she seems relatively at home. A few minutes later, though, as the group is getting settled in a basement conference room, Ventura darts over and whispers in my ear, "I want you to know, when the fighting breaks out, it's every man for himself."

Among First Lady Terry Ventura’s many attributes, according to her mother, are her fierce devotion to her children and husband, her profound love of animals –plus, “She’s a good little dancer, and oh, she’s got such pretty teeth!”

Of course, the idea of these men in suits and women in pearls scissor-kicking over their teacups is a crackup. But in this airbrushed age, when politicians-and, sometimes even more disturbingly, their wives-tend to exert surreal effort to appear perpetually benign, beatific, and bland, Ventura's remark is also refreshingly frank. You'd have to have been living under a very large rock, without cable, to have missed the seismic surprise of Minnesota's election last November, in which Terry's husband, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the flamboyant, 250-pound former bad-boy wrestler famous for his pink boas and brutish body slams, morphed into "The Mind" and edged out two lackluster and ordinary-sized career politicians to become the state's first Reform Party governor. (Ventura's clever campaign ads, featuring his own muscle-bound WWF action doll promising to do battle with "Evil Special Interest Man," were geared to strike a chord with "the little guy," as well as anybody else in the mood for a bit of spice.) And, given that three nights ago Jesse and Terry threw a massive, open-door rock 'n' roll inaugural blowout (a "people's celebration," as they pointedly called it)-he in a 'do rag and Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, she in basic black-leather biker gear-you'd have to be in deep, deep denial not to realize that a new era in politics has arrived.

Considering that politicians nowadays form elaborate exploratory committees to test every last permutation of public taste before deciding to dip a toe into any race-practically hiring Deepak Chopra to channel General Patton for advice-the birth of Ventura's campaign seems positively quaint: It all sorta started, as he likes to say now, with a meeting in his barn, where he and some folks decided to "circle the wagons." While this vaguely defiant platform has, perhaps legitimately, caused concern among a range of Minnesotans, Ventura's offbeat, professionally pugnacious past is what's most off-putting to the political elite. Political outsiders like Ross Perot and Steve Forbes have commanded a certain amount of respect, if only because of the thickness of their wallets, yet Ventura, who has made an increasingly comfortable living over the years, has neither the megabucks nor the white shoes (aside from sneakers), that would automatically have made him a serious contender. Indeed, the lack of respect he garnered early in the race eventually helped give him, the proverbial dark horse, the win. And now, not just the butt of Saturday Night Live jokes but the scuttlebutt of snooty local and national political circles, the Venturas are faced with the daunting task of distinguishing friend from foe-without a handler in sight.

Dressed for her meeting with the Residence Council in a short plaid skirt, sleeveless black turtleneck, and gold cross her husband gave her, Terry Ventura looks ready for serious First Lady business. Then, too, compared to the former First Wives' portraits circling the room, midwestern matrons from pioneer days to the atomic age, Terry, forty-three, is the biggest babe the state has ever seen. With her quick, down-home wit, she has already laughed off suggestions from nail-biting constituents that she cut her long raven hair ("it keeps me warm in the wintertime!!"), and she's assured local reporters that she's "not stupid" about social mores: "I went to Wendy Ward Charm School at Ward's when I was thirteen, excuse me. I know how to walk, how to get in and out of a car without showing the world everything." But she also doesn't try to hide her anxiety about how she, a farm girl who's been quietly raising her two kids (Tyrel, nineteen, and Jade, fifteen) and teaching riding on her family's thirty-two-acre ranch, will stack up against her counterparts across the country. "Humiliated" is how she felt when, at a recent National Governors' Association meeting in Washington, her biography-saying not much more than that she'd been married for twenty-four years and ran a farm-was read in front of the other First Ladies: "All these women had all these degrees, and this woman was charter founder of yadda-yadda association, and then they read mine, and it was like I stood up and sat down."

While many Minnesotans, exhibiting their state's famously impenetrable brand of nice, aren't saying "nothing out" about their new governor, his presence seems particularly tricky for some of "the big guys "-connected liberal types who've been hearing since first grade that this is a democracy but never, in their wildest dreams, imagined that a populist politician would look like Jesse Ventura. Despite the obvious irony of the situation (which the Venturas sometimes play up), it is a little eerie to turn on the TV and see Minneapolis newscasters bantering about the darndest thing the governor said today. Cautious optimism seems to be the P.C. view of Ventura, but you can hear the strain behind every overly chipper "We'll see." The only demographics Ventura didn't carry in the election were Minnesotans over sixty and those earning more than $100,000 a year, and, judging strictly by appearances, it looks as if Terry is about to address some of the citizens who not only didn't vote for the new governor but may fear he and his wife want to turn the mansion into a rumpus room.

Taking a deep breath, Terry begins the meeting, announcing that the Venturas are game "to help with fund-raisers, to have people over for tea and try to work some magic on 'em," yet it is also important, she adds, with a hint of sternness, that the family have "its privacy respected-I'm sure you'd all want the same in your homes." When a woman mentions the elegant dinners hosted here in the past, Terry interjects. The mansion, she says, can't just be seen as a place for "hoity-toity people."

At that, the room falls silent-but only for a moment. "In my next sentence," the woman continues, "I was going to acknowledge it is time for a change." Due largely to Terry's willingness to listen, ask questions, and get genuinely excited about plans to raise money for various renovations (including a fashion show she's kiddingly assured might include "at least one leather outfit"), whatever mutual fear might have been in the atmosphere evaporates. Introduced to an elegant older woman named Olivia Dodge, whose family donated the house to the state, Terry tells her she's honored to live here and intends to "do the office dignity" "You have already, my dear," Mrs. Dodge replies sweetly.

The rest of the day, Terry navigates a breakneck schedule, including visiting a school for physically and mentally handicapped children (in part because Jade is learning disabled, the Venturas have vowed to make special education a prime cause) and overseeing an interview with Jade and three youth reporters. While Terry may be mind-blown by all the attention and expectations heaped upon her, she has a natural talent for putting others at ease. It's tough not to be charmed by a woman who, when asking what's going on in New York, calls Donald Trump a "poopy-pants" for building view-obstructing high-rises on the West Side.

Retreating to a back hall for a breather after the teen reporters leave, I'm startled by the governor himself, coming home from work through a side door. In a black trench coat, stogie in hand, Jesse Ventura looks like a badass Daddy Warbucks. Earlier, at the school, a parent had informed Terry that he was sculpting her husband's gubernatorial action doll and had decided to go with an ambiguous expression that could look either menacing or pensive. He got it exactly right. Stammering like Porky Pig, I introduce myself as a writer from Mirabella. Narrowing his eyes, he takes a thoughtful chomp on his cigar and says, in a growly voice permanently roughed from hurling insults in the ring, "I want to tell you something. The problem with these magazines is that they end up costing me money." I'm about to blurt out some lame defense when Terry comes into the hall, kisses her husband, and mugs at his joke about her wanting to buy all the clothes in fashion magazines. She says she's surprised to see him home early. "It pays to be king," Jesse says with a shrug.

Later, after dinner, Terry (who's a vegetarian-she'd had spinach flan while the rest of us wolfed down pork chops and mashed potatoes cooked by the mansion's chef) still seems remarkably energetic. She dims the lights, puts on classical music, and pulls up a chair in front of the fireplace in the glass-walled solarium, a marble-floored room with floral-cushioned furniture that the Venturas understandably gravitate toward. Tucking her feet under her, Terry begins telling the rather unlikely story of how she and Jesse came to be here. Their first meeting was auspicious: She was a nineteen-year-old receptionist named Terry Larson, and at ladies' night at a bar called The Rusty Nail, she flipped for twenty-three-year-old bouncer Jim Janos. "I'd never loved anybody like I loved him. We had this instant connection," she says. "It started off with lust, then turned to love, then to hate for a while, and then back to love." Marrying only ten months after they met (Terry recalls "shaking all the way down the aisle, even though it was ninety-eight degrees"), the young couple set out for points west, where, over the next fifteen years, Jesse (who picked the name Ventura from a California map) worked his way up from the wrestling bush leagues to the World Wrestling Federation. Moving frequently wasn't easy but forged a palpable bond between the two. I tell Terry I'd been impressed when, just after he spooked me in the hall, the governor pulled her aside for a few minutes to privately download their days. "Yep, we always do that," she says.

In tough times, Terry says Jesse, an ex-Navy Seal and the son of military parents, lives by the motto "It's just like boot camp-you get over it." Those words were put to severe test when Jade was born and a doctor told them, as Terry ruefully recalls, "Her brain looks like Swiss cheese; she'll probably end up dead or institutionalized." It turned out the doctor had misread Jade's CAT scan-he wasn't seeing holes but fluid that eventually dissipated. But as the Venturas waited to see how handicapped Jade would be, their agony was intense. "Usually when adversity comes, we get back-to-back and fight our way out. We're really good at that," she says, growing quiet at the memory. "But when this happened we couldn't even talk, this big door came slamming shut. He went home and cried, and I stayed in the hospital and cried." With perspective, Terry now thinks that "we had to lick our own wounds before we could come together."

While Terry jokes that every four years or so her husband has grabbed her by the arm and said, "Honey, we're going on a new adventure," she supported him as he became, after wrestling, a commentator, then a radio host and occasional action-movie actor. The Venturas' first experience with local politics was not particularly happy, however. After becoming interested in city issues when storm water was shunted into wetlands near his home, Ventura was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, the suburb north of the Twin Cities where they lived at the time. Critics have said that the job he did there, between 1991 and 1995, was unimpressive, but as Terry remembers it, her husband was never taken seriously. "Every council meeting was a bitter fight, and they always blamed him; they would never meet him halfway." The ultimate affront occurred when President Clinton came to town, and nobody told Ventura. "He heard about it secondhand," she says.

Fearing that the same kind of coldcocking would happen again, on a larger scale, if her husband became governor, Terry didn't campaign with him when he decided to run for office last summer. "I really liked my life the way it was," she says. When he was elected -against all odds- Terry was thrown into a tailspin. "I was absolutely terrified in November and December. I knew the scrutiny would be forty thousand times higher, that with every little mistake, the way we dress, the way we speak, no matter what it was, it would just be some people saying, 'You're doing a great job!' and someone else saying, 'You are evil, rotten, filthy people!"

The Venturas got exactly that reaction when Jesse proposed that First Ladies be given a salary of $25,000. When she heard what he'd done, Terry says she felt as if she'd been hit by "a sledgehammer to the forehead." She and Jesse had discussed the idea-though only in the abstract-because she has had to hire workers to run the ranch. "If I was to get a salary, I'd have wanted to have earned it, proven I could do the job. Because now, say I go to a school, reporters might ask, 'What do you think you deserve as compensation for this?"

From this story, and my dinner earlier with the family-during which the governor crossed his arms over his chest and, rocking with excess energy, kvetched about how the Red Star, as he calls the local Star Tribune, is looking everywhere "for chinks in the armor"-I'm getting the sense that Jesse Ventura makes a habit of going with his gut. (He also struck me as a very nice dad, who made a point to ask both Jade and Tyrel, who works in a hat shop and hopes to become a movie director, about their days. When Jade said that her "delicate teenage system" made her go mute when she met Tom Petty at the inaugural party, the governor laughed long and hard.)

Terry isn't shy about describing her husband's larger-than-life quality. "I'm sure you noticed, but Jesse just, like, sucks the air out of a room. He's big in stature, he's big in personality, and he's high-maintenance-not in that he needs certain foods but because he's a dynamic personality. It's hard to survive next to that; you have to do super-high maintenance on yourself.”

At one point, Terry turns the tables on me and asks why I'm actually here. It's an odd moment, since most people I interview are at least somewhat comfortable promoting themselves. Readers will want to know what it feels like, for a relatively average woman, to be thrown into the limelight, I tell her, but apparently not convincingly. "What if people started telling you how interesting you were, and you'd spent your life being a regular schmo? Two months ago I was shoveling crap for a living, and for the life of me, I'm just trying to figure it out. I haven't done anything except be married to someone who is governor. I haven't saved anyone's life. I haven't built a tall building everyone could admire-I haven't done anything. Why is that interesting?" My best answer is that her husband is a tall building, an inscrutable one at that, and for better or worse, she's connected to him.

When I mention that she seems confident and easy in her role, she seems genuinely surprised, then gives her mother, Sharon Larson, the credit: "She just kept saying, 'You can do this; it's not that big a deal, you will be all right" Remembering the social graces both her mother and grandmother instilled in her helped, too. "They taught me how to conduct myself in front of people who were my betters, a proper way to behave and act and do. It's not that we weren't proud of ourselves; my grandparents raised nine kids without government help on a small farm during the depression. But we saw that there were stations in life. That built in me a deep respect for the human race. And when you have strong female role models, you can take on just about anything," she says, adding with a laugh, "even if you are clueless."

Looking back on her accomplishments of recent weeks, Terry finally seems able to give herself a pat on the back. It occurs to her that getting the hang of this First Lady gig isn't so different from starting her horse business: "You try to bluff, just as I'm doing now, without looking like you're bluffing. You've got to try to find the dignity in it, a way to answer all the questions and keep yourself from looking defensive-or offensive."

While Terry had hoped that her life would begin to settle down after the inauguration, it appears, a month later, that things have gone in the opposite direction. On February 4, a survey in the Star Tribune placed Ventura's approval rating at 72 percent-the highest of any governor this early in his term in fifty years. Overall, Minnesotans seem pleased with the governor's savvy administrative appointments, and in a state that prides itself on being a model of social responsibility, progressive types laud his proposal to redistribute a $1 billion budget surplus largely among low-income taxpayers. Those who like less government have been impressed that Ventura seems to be delivering on his oft-repeated refrain "You can't legislate against stupidity"; they approve of his plan to repeal laws curtailing the freedoms of sportsmen.

Since he's been in office, however, the governor has also flashed a fierce, rather unstatesmanlike temper. When one reporter asked Ventura, who'd attempted to harmonize with Warren Zevon to "Werewolves of London" at his inaugural party, if he planned to take singing lessons, Ventura shot back, "That was cute. If you're going to criticize my singing, feel free. You criticize everything else I do." Steaming mad, he stalked out of the press conference a few minutes later. When reporters asked about the permit he'd requested to carry a gun in the Capitol, he told them it was none of their business. And when an unmarried mother questioned the small increase in financial aid for college students he'd proposed, he informed her that it wasn't the government's job to pay for her "mistake."

The former Democratic governor of Wisconsin, Tony Earl, says he's been following Ventura's doings "with some interest… Nobody likes the press these days-pardon me for saying so. But the old expression is absolutely true: Never pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel. I never wanted to let on that somebody was getting into my knickers, because if they knew that, they'd always come back to the issue." It's easy to imagine how Garrison Keillor's running spoofs of the governor on his Prairie Home Companion radio show, as well as his new book about a gladiator who becomes governor (Me, Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente, As Told to Garrison Keillor), would rankle Ventura, whose own as-told-to book (I Ain't Got Time to Bleed) won't be out for a while. But Earl argues that Ventura's decision to retaliate by cutting funding to Minnesota Public Radio, a sacred institution to the state's sizable sensitivo set, was imprudent. "A lot of people like public radio because of the music or All Things Considered<, and he's going to get them all because of this smart-ass Keillor? That's foolish. He ought to roll with the punches, have some fun with it."

When I arrive back in Minnesota in late February, the place is abuzz over Ventura's latest snappy comment. En route home from the National Governors' conference, Jesse had appeared on Letterman and, when asked which of the Twin Cities he preferred, picked his hometown, Minneapolis. Whoever laid out the complicated streets of St. Paul, the governor added, grinning, "must have been drunk. I think it was those Irish guys." Hardly lethal stuff, but a big enough blip on the Jesse radar to push local media into overdrive. Mari Reed, a close friend of Terry's who's become her assistant, calls to ask if I can come over a couple of hours later because Terry, overwhelmed by the previous day's hubbub, is sound asleep.

In my spare time, I visit Barbara Carlson, the ex-wife of Ventura's predecessor, Arne Carlson, and now a talk-radio host at Ventura's old station. Having overlapped on-air with him every morning, she's well acquainted with his now-renowned temper. "He can dish it out but can't take it, and that's going to be his downfall," she says. Although she's never met Terry, she knows many people who love her. "She's going to do a fine job, because she's down to earth. It's not going to be his policy wonks who control him; she will be the person to provide that calming, centering influence. Her job is terribly important."

The Venturas' ranch, a forty-five-minute drive from the Governor's Mansion, is a large, low-slung Tudor that manages to comfortably reflect the family's eclectic tastes. Next to the ground-floor master bedroom (furnished with a lacquered pink-and-black deco-style bed set), there's Jesse’s study, a man’s-man’s room outfitted with a cast-iron stove and a cache of trophies and memorabilia, including a picture of Mount Rushmore altered so Jesse's head replaces Washington's. The elegant cream-carpeted living room is Terry's touch. ("When wrestling took off in the '80s, we were able to get a house where you didn't actually use the living room, and I thought that was it," she's already told me.)

In our last conversation, Terry had said that, sometimes, when she's at the ranch on weekends, she doesn't even walk out to the barn, so heartbroken is she that she's too busy to groom her horses and soak up their earthy energy. Hoping it will have a therapeutic effect, she's nevertheless decided to go riding today, so we saddle up and head out to the pasture where Terry grows and hales her own hay. As we ride, her vibrancy returns, but when we go back inside, Terry finds a feverish Jade on the couch and asks if we might take a break. Driving me back to my hotel, Mari says, with a low whistle, that the mood was "not pretty" when Terry and Jesse returned from their trip yesterday. By evening, though, she says their spirits were lifted by a visit from Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn, in town scouting movie locations. Although the Venturas had hoped to keep the dinner secret, the media somehow got wind of it. "Tell them we're having pot roast and vanilla ice cream," Terry instructed Mari. (Terry later apologized to the chef for the joke -his menu had been more haute than that stereotypically bland midwestern meal).

Back at the ranch the next day, Terry talks about the high points of the governors' confab, which started with the traumatic reading of her quick-and-dirty bio but ended with her feeling much more confident-and regaling her fellow wives with tales of bartending while on the road with Jesse. "Later, when I met their husbands, they all said, 'My wife thought you were great.' And I thought, Okay, I don't have a degree, but I can tell great stories."

Terry was also proud that she powwowed with the Secretary of Agriculture and may get the chance to join trade missions to promote Minnesota's agricultural products. "That would be huge for me, if there's something I can offer farmers," the says. And, surprising even herself, Terry stood after her husband addressed the Minnesota delegation on the Hill and asked if she could say something, too. "I said, 'You know what, gentlemen? I'd just like to remind you that the word compromise doesn't mean weak and that the heart of Minnesota still beats in all of you." She imitates the gaping jaws -immediately followed by hearty applause.

By the time the First Ladies went on an excursion to Mount Vernon, hosted by Hillary Clinton, Terry thought it was going to be no big deal to meet the ultimate First Lady. But when she actually shook her hand in a receiving line and Mrs. Clinton told her she'd been watching her on TV, Terry choked. "The First Lady of the United States has seen me on TV? It blew me away. She was so warm and genuine, and I just went, 'Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am.'" Hyperventilating, she hustled off to a bathroom, where she had "a Chris Farley” moment. Just like he used to do, I'm going, 'Stupid, stupid, stupid," she says, laughing and whapping her head.

That night, however, Ventura pulled herself together-fabulously-for a dinner dance at the White House with a dynamite gold lace dress "bought off the rack at Dayton's for a hundred and fifty bucks." Excitedly recalling the "Cinderella-gets-to-stay-all-night night," the says, "I had my hair kinda up, with the bangs pouted, but some coming down over my shoulders. I had found perfectly matching strappy sandals. And for some reason, my makeup worked-you ever have one of those nights? I looked in the mirror and went, I did that? I was shocked."

At the party, Terry tells me she was having a great time (her new friends couldn't believe her dress hadn't cost $2,000) but still wasn't entirely prepared for a situation her husband, ever the adventurer, swept her into. At one point, when Bill and Hillary were dancing alone "and everybody's kind of leaving this huge, respectful force field around them," Terry says Jesse said, "'Hell with that. We're dancing right next to them. We may never dance next to the President and the First Lady of the United States again.' I'm going, 'No, please don't do this to me!' But he grabs me and dances me right out next to them. He'd look over and smile at them, and I was so embarrassed!" Despite his threat to cut in on the Clintons, which nearly gave Terry a heart attack, she says she's glad Jesse did what he did. When the music stopped, the Clintons and the Venturas talked for a few minutes. The President laughed when Ventura told him his first proclamation was to declare "Rolling Stones Day" in Minnesota when the band played there. And Terry, recognizing that she was being exactly who she wanted to be, relished her newfound sense of calm. "We're talking to the President and First Lady, and I'm going, You know, it's okay, you can do it." She is grateful to her husband for helping her get there. "Jesse is the kind of person who will see a moment, grab it, and wring out every last drop, but that's the great thing about him: He forces me to enter the moment with him."

Returning to Minnesota, elated about what she and Jesse had accomplished in D.C., she says she was stunned to enter the Letterman moment. Thinking the reporters at the airport might ask, "'Who'd you see? How was the White House?" the couple was instead greeted with a storm of "negative, negative" questions about St Paul. "They were like a pack of wolves trying to draw blood," she says. "We got in the car, and I went from the highest high to the lowest low."

The experience, a true tempest in a teapot, has made Terry feel she needs to pull back from the media. "I'm absolutely not going to be as open with these people." Thinking of Earl's and Carlson's remarks, I ask if it might not save both Venturas some grief to let these squabbles roll off their backs, to make "Minnesota nice" even when they don't feel like it. But this Teflon tactic is not one that appeals to Terry, at least right now. "What I will do is shut up, just for self-protection. If I can't trust someone, I'm definitely not going to go out of my way to give them any insight into my life. Why would I?

"I feel like we're the Flying Wallendas. Put one toe wrong, and you're going to end up in the sawdust, because there's no net." Yet her spirits brighten as she recounts some of the more pleasantly bizarre moments she's experienced lately, such as having Jack and Sean over for supper (after which she flopped on the couch, did a shot of Courvoisier, and remarked to Mari, aptly, "Is my life not the strangest freakin' thing you have ever seen, ever?"). Somehow, I get the feeling that, blessedly, Terry is that rare, irrepressible public figure-a "teacher and a learner," as her mother accurately describes her-who will never disappear behind a scrim but keep reacting to the world around her, processing it, and making a spirited effort to communicate all of her complicated thoughts. And because Sharon also says that Terry encourages Jesse to expand his boundaries (over the years, Sharon says, she's even gotten him to come tops with "the huggy stuff'), it seems a reasonable bet that Terry might even help her husband loosen up his circle of wagons, help him strike an easier balance between offense and defense.

As we're wrapping up, Jade comes into the den and settles into a recliner, flipping out the footrest I ask her how she thinks her mom is doing, and she flashes a solid John Glenn thumbsup. I catch sight of an embroidered logo on her terry-cloth robe, which looks like a freebie from a fancy spa. But the logo reads "The Lincoln Bedroom." I'm confused-did the Venturas sleep at the White House? No, Terry says, rolling her eyes; someone sent Jesse the robe "back when he was 'a shock jock,'" railing against the Clintons' campaign financing. It takes a moment for the irony to sink in. Then Terry laughs. That the Venturas are now in the spotlight -and under the microscope- themselves, and were actually shaking a tailfeather next to the Clintons in Washington just the other night, is not something anybody, least of all Terry, would have ever dreamed of, even a year ago. Is this a great freakin' country, or what?