Chris Noel: From pinup girl to advocate for homeless vetsWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Thousands of Vietnam veterans remember radio personality and pinup girl Chris Noel for her blonde hair, winning smile and trademark “Hi, love!”
“They usually always thank me and some of them will tell me I helped to save their lives,” Noel said. “Many of them say I was the only good thing in the war. The only good thing they ever experienced was me.”
Now 71, the former actress and model is still working on behalf of veterans, especially Vietnam veterans.
“My July is totally booked,” Noel said, laughing. “I’m all over the country. I’m not even home. I have so many places to be. I’m a keynote speaker at one, book signings somewhere else. It’s just whatever the need is.”
Noel was in Northwest Ohio last month for a book signing in Sandusky. She also stopped in Toledo to visit the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
Noel founded Vettsville Cease Fire House, a homeless shelter for veterans, in 1993.
“Our goal is to get people housed, fed, clothed, whatever they need to get them on their way,” Noel said. “I’ve been doing it for over 20 years and have helped thousands and thousands of men.”
At one time, she had seven shelters in three Florida cities. Currently she has one men’s shelter in Boynton Beach, Fla., and will soon open a shelter for female veterans in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The catalyst for Noel’s advocacy was a Christmas Day 1965 visit to a San Francisco veterans hospital with California Governor Pat Brown, baseball player Sandy Koufax and others. They visited soldiers who were double- and triple-amputees.
“For some reason I was the first one to walk through the doors and frankly there was a lot of hostility and it was pretty bad,” Noel said. “They had only maybe one limb left and they were bitter and angry.
“Then one of the guys in the back — he only had one arm — said ‘Sandy, Sandy, throw me the ball!’ So Sandy threw him the ball and the guy caught it and everybody just started laughing. And right there that minute I realized that showing you cared and were not sitting in judgment of a human being who was in desperation can make a huge difference in people’s lives.
“[Afterward] in the hallway, Sandy was in front of me in tears. I was numb. I just didn’t even know what to think. I had never seen anything like that. I said, ‘I have to do something. I have to make a difference somehow.’ It was like, ‘Dear God, please help me find a way to go to Vietnam and make a difference in people’s lives. How can I make a difference? What can I do?’”
Soon after there was an audition for Armed Forces Radio — which Noel now feels was an answer to her prayer.
“I had no idea what it was. It was just another audition,” Noel said. “Then I got a show. I became the first woman since World War II to broadcast on Armed Forces Radio. And it was phenomenal. It was like, if you believe there is a God, which I do, I just felt like he heard me.”
At first, Noel was partnered with a co-host, but was soon given her own show, “A Date with Chris.”
“The moment I got on the airwaves, the mail came in,” Noel said. “They just couldn’t believe it. They’d never had anything like that.
“I would read and answer letters over the airwaves. I’d send pictures when they requested. People come to me all the time with the pictures they saved from Vietnam. They saved it all this time. Or their wives will contact me and say, ‘You meant so much to my husband. He still has a picture of you.’”
Noel said starting the show with “Hi, love!” and ending with “Bye, love!” was the idea of a friend of a friend, a top DJ in London.
“He said, ‘That’s what you need to do,’ and he was right,” Noel said. “I always spelled it luv because it was hip in the ’60s. And then one day all of a sudden it was ‘Here’s a kiss from Chris,’ because it rhymes. People will write me all the time and say, ‘I miss my kiss from Chris.’ You’d think all these years they wouldn’t even remember.”
Noel traveled to Vietnam eight times, starting in 1966.
“They never told me where I was going so I could never blab anything and I didn’t even know half the time where I was,” Noel said. “They put me in a helicopter and went where they went and I got out.”
“[The soldiers] just stood there silent with their mouths hanging open,” Noel said. “They were pretty stunned. They couldn’t believe it.”
Noel has written several books detailing behind-the-scenes anecdotes from some of her films, including “Girl Happy” with Elvis Presley and “Soldier in the Rain” with Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason.
Her most recent book, “Blond Bomb Goes to Vietnam,” covers her trips to Vietnam while “Confessions of a Pin-up Girl” includes “gossipy” stories of her time on Hollywood films and TV shows along with her Vietnam experience in general.
Noel has been through her share of struggles. She believes her support of the troops in Vietnam hurt her Hollywood film career. She also struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for years following the suicide of her first husband, a soldier she met in Vietnam.
She certainly didn’t expect that Christmas Day hospital visit to change the course of her life.
“I was in Hollywood making movies, are you kidding?” Noel said. “I didn’t know how to do this — what I’m doing now — I didn’t know how to do it at all. Nobody helped tell me how either. I just started doing it.
“All I wanted to do was try to make them happy,” Noel said. “I know I made a big difference in people’s lives. I know because 40 and 50 years later, they tell me. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do, so I accomplished my goal. I did exactly what I wanted to do — and I still do. They still look at me and thank me and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re still doing things to help us.’”
Although Noel said she’s frequently asked why she doesn’t just retire, she said she can’t stop.
“It keeps me alive,” Noel said. “It makes me more vital. It makes me get up when I don’t want to get up. It’s good for me to have an outside interest in something that makes a difference in people’s lives. I feel that by doing that, when I’m doing stuff for other people, I’m out of myself.
“I feel that’s why God planted us on this earth. I think we’re really supposed to be helping the downtrodden. In some way, every single one of us can do it.
“Think of the people who put their life on the line for this country, who are willing to give their life for this country. They need to be taken care of. When I look at these young people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, oh my gosh, my heart just breaks.
“If everybody in this country would do just a little something to help another human being I think we would have a happier nation . I think we have a very sad nation now. There’s a lot of sadness happening in this country now and we can brighten it if we all decide to choose to.”