Frontdoors Magazine May/June 2021 Cover Story: Miss Effervescent

Billie Jo Herberger

Looking back with philanthropist Billie Jo Herberger as she rides the waves of a remarkable life

Her coquettish voice and million-dollar smile are magnetic, making everyone feel like friends. Billie Jo Herberger has had these gifts since childhood, growing up one of five well-heeled daughters of a Pasadena dentist.

It was a sunny, happy upbringing, spent between a Balboa Island beach house and a house on Maui. Billie Jo could surf before she could drive. “I was an early little beach girl,” she said. “Southern California was a dream for me.”

Dubbed “Miss Effervescent” in high school, Billie Jo was always a bon vivant. “I was the most popular girl and wanted everybody over,” she said. “When I was able to drive, I would stop and pick up snacks so that I could entertain my friends. I became that girl really early on.”

Her father noticed her flair and picked her as the one to follow his path as a dentist. He trained her as his assistant with the expectation that she would go to dental school. Instead, Billie Jo decamped to Flagstaff’s Arizona State College, a school she knew nothing about other than that a friend was attending.

“I loved my dad, and I loved my time in his office, but I knew dental school was not the right thing for me. That’s how I ended up in Arizona,” she said. “It was called Arizona State College and while I was there, it became Northern Arizona University. I absolutely loved it.”

At NAU, Billie Jo majored in health and physical education. She took dance and movement classes as well as sports and music. “I couldn’t have made a better decision,” she said.

With diploma in hand, she snagged a job as head of physical education at the Judson School, an exclusive boarding school in Paradise Valley. It was 1969, and the students lapped up her larger-than-life personality and new programs in polarity yoga, tai chi and ballet.

After eight years, Billie Jo left the school, thanks to a former Judson School student who was staying at Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance, the pioneering destination spa once located at the southeastern base of Camelback Mountain.

“She invited me to lunch and I saw this oasis in the desert,” Billie Jo said. “I went to the office and said, ‘Hi, I’m Billie Jo, and I’m inquiring about an exercise position. I’ve never taught an exercise class in my life, but I’m a P.E. teacher and have a dance background,’” she said.

A few months later, Billie Jo’s phone rang. Maine Chance offered her a job that October, when the resort opened for the season.

She was an immediate hit with guests who loved her sparkling personality and effective workouts. Unfortunately, after just two months, Billie Jo was diagnosed with malignant melanoma that required surgery.

But a funny thing happened when she returned to the resort post-op. She became an inspiration.

Not one to hide under longs sleeves, Billie Jo wore the scars on her right shoulder as badges of courage. With her positive attitude and steely resolve, she became a role model for women like second lady Happy Rockefeller, who came to meet Billie Jo when Happy was fighting breast cancer.

Billie Jo went on to become head of the exercise department at Maine Chance and stayed for 17 years, until the spa closed in the early 90s. In that time, she also overcame cervical and breast cancers, maintaining her optimistic outlook and burnishing her reputation as an icon. “I stood up for myself and I helped thousands of women,” Billie Jo said.

During that time, she also created a water-based workout program and a line of records, cassettes, books and videos that she would parlay into an international business.

“I had a student at Judson School from Hawaii. When she graduated, she fell in love with a Japanese surfer boy. She married him, moved to Japan and wrote to say she was going to have a baby,” Billie Jo said. “I had just published my water exercise book, so I sent it to her and said, ‘Betty, this would be a great type of exercise for you to do while you’re pregnant.’”

As luck would have it, Betty’s surfer-boy husband owned a string of surf shops in Japan and asked if Billie Jo would come to the country on a promotional tour. Once again, she was a sensation. “All these Japanese exercise instructors were seeing this American, Billie Jo, with frizzy hair.

They fell in love with me,” she said.

Billie Jo also got involved with Japan’s cancer society to help reduce cancer’s stigma in a country where women often hid a diagnosis. “Here I am with this arm, with these boobs cut off. I became a cancer inspiration,” she said.

Over the next 15 years, Billie Jo’s Wet & Wonderful water-exercise program spread throughout luxury hotels and spas across Japan. Billie Jo appeared in Japanese media, trained fitness instructors across the country, and even designed a modest-swimwear line for Japanese women.

Though she makes it all look effortless, Billie Jo reveals the hard work and determination behind her life’s path. “I was a fabulous businesswoman and I made a fabulous life for myself,” she said. “I’ve overcome a million things, and I’m prepared to continue to overcome anything because I love a fabulous life.”

Among the many who recognized the power in Billie Jo’s joie de vivre was Valley philanthropist Kathryn “Kax” Herberger, a friend for years, who introduced her to her son, Judd.

The two hit it off, got married and became the exuberant duo that hosts parties, attends cultural events and makes the Valley’s arts scene all the more vibrant. Both were married previously, so they melded their lives and families into one when they wed. And, now, often sporting colorful, complementary ensembles, they’re in love and always seem to have more fun than anybody else.

“When it became Judd and Billie Jo, it was the right thing for both of us. Totally perfect. We’re like this easy, happy pair,” she said, noting how well she fit into the Kierland-Herberger family. “Judd’s parents were fabulous people and an inspiration.”

Bob and Kax Herberger were lifelong philanthropists whose giving was unparalleled in our community. They donated land for 31 parks around the Valley and endowed the Herberger Theater, the Salvation Army Herberger Center and the Valley Presbyterian Church, among many other gifts.

Giving is a passion for Billie Jo and Judd, too, particularly to arts and cultural organizations. Their financial support benefits Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix Theatre Company, Arizona Opera, Ballet Arizona, The Phoenix Symphony, and Scottsdale Arts, among other organizations. The couple also favors organizations that introduce art to children, such as Valley Youth Theatre, Rosie’s House, Kids in Focus, Act One and Childsplay.

“If I show you my list, it’s long,” Billie Jo said, noting that she and Judd give a modest amount to some organizations and more to others, with the primary recipient being Herberger Theater Center, because it is home to six resident organizations.

Smart, playful, funny, Billie Jo has missed going to cultural events and seeing her wide social circle over the past year. But she found a powerful new way to stay engaged with the arts. About twice a week, she would host a dinner for a couple of people who worked in the organizations she and Judd support to hear about their work. “It was interesting,” she said. “I had more insight into them than I normally do, because I used to just go and be entertained.”

Plus, it was a fun cooking experience for her. When guests used to leave Maine Chance, they would write their favorite recipe on a card for Billie Jo. During the pandemic, Billie Jo started cooking from them again. “I have had a fun time experimenting in the kitchen,” she said. “Actually, I’ve had an enjoyable time doing things in the house, like cleaning out drawers and giving things to my grandkids. I like creating new little daily rituals with Judd, which were different than our old rituals. We’ve figured out how to make it happy.”

The quest for happiness is her life’s leitmotif. From her teenage days surfing the California waves to her turns as P.E. teacher, cultural ambassador, exercise visionary, cancer survivor, arts patron and beloved wife, Billie Jo has fought doggedly for her happy life, and she isn’t shy about letting the world know it.

“I feel that I’m the happiest girl in the world. I have nothing else to accomplish. I have accomplished so much, and I’m so proud of myself,” she said.

And so, in her signature pigtails — a hairstyle she once donned because it was easy and different, then embraced and made her thing — she remains ever effervescent, the most popular girl, with the lovely voice and the megawatt smile.

“I’ve been a girl for a long time, since 1969, in this community, being recognizable because of my frizzy hair and wild clothes,” she said. “I’ve been an inspiration. And I like that wherever I go, people say, ‘Oh, it’s Billie Jo!’”

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