Beauty and the beach


Paying $1, a local lifeguard bought back his rights in what would became one of the most watched television programs in the world — Baywatch.

Later, in 1994, Camp Baywatch was founded, using the popularity of Baywatch to reach out to inner-city kids.

This weekend, hot hunks in trunks and well-built babes in bikinis put their hands — and fists — together for that worthy cause at Zuma as dozens of celebrities, TV stars and cover girls served, set and spiked for this year’s Models Volleyball Challenge.

The curvaceous contestants came from the country’s top modeling agencies, including Elite, Next and Ford. Together, they took on tanned and toned television-types from the likes of “Sunset Beach,” “Pacific Blue” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

The net result will be a happier summer for children through Athletes & Entertainers for Kids, Operation Smile and Camp Baywatch.

Beginning next month, 50 campers from the Los Angeles area will gather at Pepperdine for a week of learning, education and fun. For many, it is the experience of a lifetime. “Some of these kids have never even been to a beach,” notes Baywatch executive Peter Hoffman. “We take them out on a boat, we teach them CPR, we teach them to swim, we take them on field trips. It’s a chance for them to get out and do something different.”

Actor Michael Bergin is one of the many current and former Baywatch stars who gives his support to the camp every year. “We take them on the set, they get to meet celebrities and they’re thrilled,” he explains. “It’s so special for them and it makes us feel so special.”

After being knocked out of the competition on Sunday, Bergin and his partner, Angelica Bridges, spent most of the day posing for photographs and signing autographs. The Baywatch volleyball team may have been a loser, but Camp Baywatch came out on top. “It’s all about the kids,” says Bergin. “It’s amazing how little time you can put in and really make a big difference.”

As Hoffman sees it, the success of Baywatch is nothing short of a miracle. Local lifeguard Gregory J. Bonann came up with the show’s concept and started shopping his idea around. He went to the studios and got nothing but “No.” That changed when the survivor of one of his water rescues turned out to be the child of a television executive. The show got picked up at NBC, but was canceled just as quickly. Refusing to acknowledge defeat, Bonann bought back the rights to the Baywatch name for a buck, took the show into syndication and turned it into the most watched television program in the world. The rest is history.

Camp Baywatch became his way of giving something back. He created a Camp Baywatch foundation to ensure that the organization continues long after the program is gone. In the meantime, members of his group are busy preparing for the swimming lessons and boat trips they’ll have in the days ahead. “It’s a different experience for them,” says Hoffman of the Camp Baywatch kids. “At the end of the week, you can see hope in their eyes.”