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Justin Timberlake is going to the ball with Cpl. Kesley De Santis, and Mila Kunis will go to the ball with Sgt. Scott Moore (Bryan Smith / Staff)
STERLING, Va. — In front of 300 screaming fans here, Cpl. Kelsey De Santis went to work.
Stepping out from the shadows for her amateur mixed martial arts match, she energized the crowd at Operation Octagon. She threw a flurry of punches in the air and bounced toward the cage, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "Beast Mode." She stripped the T-shirt off, displaying tattoos on her shoulders, sides and back as she entered the octagon in a black sports bra and shorts.
The Oct. 22 fight at the Dulles SportsPlex ended quickly. De Santis forced her opponent, Stacy Sneeringer, to the mat within the first two minutes of the bout, and knocked her out 2 minutes, 51 seconds into the first round, using a flurry of punches and elbows to the face. The crowd howled in approval as the Marine's ruthless performance allowed her to retain the event's 145-pound featherweight title.
Justin Timberlake, meet your date to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball.
De Santis is one of at least five Marines who are expected to take celebrities to one of the Corps' gala birthday celebrations this year, following http://militarytimes.com/blogs/battle-rattle/2011/07/19/celebrity-marine-ball-invitations-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/">a series of invitations that went viral online this summer.
The trend began after Sgt. Scott Moore of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., http://militarytimes.com/blogs/battle-rattle/2011/07/11/ill-do-it-flattered-mila-kunis-responds-to-marine-corps-ball-invitation/">posted a quirky 19-second video from Musa Qala, Afghanistan, on June 7. Looking over the top of his dark shades, he asked actress Mila Kunis to his unit's ball Nov. 18 in Greenville, N.C., and a trend was born. His video alone has been viewed more than 3.8 million times since it was posted online.
After Moore's big splash, Marines across the Corps took to YouTube, Twitter and other social networking sites, asking everyone from rapper Drake to actress Scarlett Johansson to attend the Corps' annual celebration of honor, courage and commitment. Some respectfully declined. Others never responded. A few accepted, though — most notably Kunis and Timberlake, stars who have been nationally known since the 1990s, when Kunis starred on TV's "That ‘70s Show" and Timberlake performed in the boy band ‘N Sync.
The trend has led to a clash of cultures, as Hollywood flash meets military tradition and protocol. It has frustrated some commanders, Marines said, even as one of the Corps' premier ways to honor its heritage is highlighted everywhere from TMZ to Facebook. Headquarters Marine Corps has no problem with it, however, as long as the Marines involved remember that they are representing the institution.
"It's a way for the Marines to connect with the American public," said Maj. Stewart Upton, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. "As a whole, we think they've shown America that the Marine Corps is a diverse institution that is able to have some fun while carrying out our official duties."
The first one to accept an invite was Kunis, 28. After Moore's video went viral in early July, she was asked by an entertainment reporter if she'd attend with Moore while promoting her new movie, "Friends with Benefits," alongside co-star Timberlake. With a mischievous look, as the cameras rolled, Timberlake urged her to accept.
"You need to do it for your country!" he added.
Enter De Santis, 23. A few days after Kunis accepted, the martial arts instructor at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., watched the video online with two female civilian roommates. De Santis had never been a big fan of Timberlake's music, but was struck, she said, by how enthusiastic he appeared to be about Kunis going to the ball.
"Something kind of just came over me," she said with a smile during an interview at Quantico. "I was like, ‘Wow, you know, it seems like he wants to go! It seems like he might need a date.' I have a sense of humor, and I thought it would be kind of fun."
Her video was filmed in one cut at Quantico's Martial Arts Center of Excellence and http://militarytimes.com/blogs/battle-rattle/2011/07/13/and-so-it-begins-a-female-marine-asks-justin-timberlake-to-her-marine-corps-ball/">posted to YouTube on July 12, one day after news emerged that Kunis had agreed to go with Moore. Six male Marines appear in the background of the 15-second clip as De Santis needles Timberlake, 30.
"So, Justin," she says in the clip, wearing utility pants, boots and a MACE T-shirt. "You want to call out my girl, Mila? Well, I'm going to call you out and ask you to come to the Marine Corps ball with me on Nov. 12 in Washington, D.C. And if you can't go, all I have to say is cry me a river."
The response was immediate. The video appeared repeatedly on cable news channels that same afternoon, leading to the MACE getting a flurry of phone calls from interested journalists. It was viewed hundreds of thousands of times within the week, and has been seen more than 1.8 million times to date.
"At first, as the hours would go by and the numbers would go up, it was kind of funny," De Santis said. "It was like, ‘Wow, it's crazy that there are 500,000 people who have seen a silly video.'"
The laughs diminished when the phone at the MACE began ringing "off the hook" after the video went viral, she said. She eventually apologized to her commanding officers for the commotion.
"I had no idea that was going to happen," she said.
Timberlake accepted the invitation July 15 during a press event for "Friends with Benefits." His publicist has touched base several times with Marine officials at Quantico in anticipation of him attending her ball, said 1st Lt. Brian Villiard, a base spokesman.
Although De Santis said in the video that her ball would be in D.C., the Instructor Battalion ball she will attend will be Nov. 12 at the Richmond Convention Center.
The ball will give De Santis a chance to introduce Timberlake to Marine Corps culture, she said. She plans to invite him to spend time on the rifle range or at the MACE.
"Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, I think it'd be fun for him," she said. "If he wanted to shoot the pistol or something, we do that sort of thing for spouses and stuff. I think he'd have a good time. I really do."
Kunis also still plans to attend the ball with Moore, said Melissa Raubvogel, her spokeswoman. Kunis was heavily invested in shooting future movies, and was unavailable for comment, the spokeswoman said.
Moore was unavailable for comment.
In the weeks after Timberlake and Kunis accepted invitations, at least a dozen other Marines posted videos to YouTube. One Marine found pay dirt by simplifying, though. Lance Cpl. Jonathan Burkett, a motor vehicle operator with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., invited reality TV star and actress Kristin Cavallari by posting a short message to her on Twitter. She agreed to go within an hour.
"Wanted to know if you want the the [sic] Marine Corps Ball with me in San Diego?!" he said in an Aug. 25 message on Twitter. "Would make a video but still deployed."
Cavallari, 24, best known for her roles on MTV's "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" and "The Hills," shocked Burkett by replying.
"Would love to!" she said. "When is it."
Burkett, 25, sent the message from the bowels of the amphibious transport dock Green Bay while deployed in the Middle East with Pendleton's 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. He was aware of some of the other video invitations that had come out the previous month but hadn't seen them in part because he was deployed. He fired off his message early in the morning from a laptop in the motor transport office, he said.
"It was pretty random," he said. "None of us figured she actually would reply, but she wrote back within like 25 minutes or so. It kind of blew all of our minds."
Burkett chose Cavallari because he was aware of her work and thought she was a "cute girl," he said. They'll attend the Nov. 17 ball for 1/1's Headquarters and Service Company at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif., he said.
"I didn't think this would get that much attention, but obviously I was completely wrong," Burkett said. "Most of the people who are my age think it's kind of cool."
Cavallari told Marine Corps Times that she thought it was "really cute" that Burkett would invite her. At the time, she was aware that Johansson had been invited to another ball but didn't know that so many other celebrities had been asked to go, too.
"I've talked to a few people, and I know it's a big deal," she said. "I'm honored to even be able to go. I'm going to go and have fun, and I'm just going to let him kind of guide me. This is his territory, so I'm just going to go along for the ride."
Cavallari said she can understand why some people would have mixed feelings about celebrities attending, but thought it would be a fun and nice thing to do once she was invited.
"I thought it took a lot of courage for him to ask over Twitter," she said. "It's my way of saying thank you to him and everyone else fighting for our country. I don't want to steal anyone's spotlight, or anything like that."
‘I'm pretty stoked'
Officials at Marine Corps headquarters said they are aware of at least two other figures from the entertainment world attending — and they're separated by about 35 years of age.
Actress Linda Hamilton, 55, created a buzz this summer by volunteering in a YouTube video to attend with Sgt. Ray Lewis, a combat correspondent for the 8th Marine Corps District, out of Fort Worth, Texas. Lewis had http://militarytimes.com/blogs/battle-rattle/2011/07/18/betty-white-8-gets-her-own-marine-corps-ball-invite/">invited Betty White, 89, one of the original "Golden Girls," to attend his Oct. 29 ball in Texas, but she declined, citing scheduling conflicts with her TV show, "Hot in Cleveland."
Lewis agreed to take Hamilton instead. Best known for playing Sarah Connor in the "Terminator" movies, she said to Lewis in her YouTube video that, while she is "no Betty White," she would be glad to attend.
Lewis confirmed that he was planning to take Hamilton to his ball but declined to discuss any specifics.
"It was fun for a while, but it became bigger than I wanted it to be," he said. "I don't want to detract from the true meaning of the Marine Corps ball."
The Division of Public Affairs at the Pentagon looked at it differently, however. Marine officials invited Ashley Gearing, 20, a country music singer from Nashville, Tenn., after hearing that a radio station in Boise, Idaho, was trying to set her up with Moore if Kunis backed out of attending his ball in North Carolina.
Gearing said she first heard about the ball invitation phenomenon during an interview with the station. The DJ said it was unclear whether Kunis would honor the invitation, and Gearing responded by saying that if it was her, she wouldn't back out. Headquarters contacted her management company the same week, offering a ticket to Commandant Gen. Jim Amos' ball, as the guest of Lance Cpl. John Baxley, an administrative specialist who works in the DIVPA office.
"I've never met him before, but he actually just wrote me a letter last week saying he was excited for the ball and listening to a lot more country music now because of me," Gearing said Oct. 24 with a laugh. "It's really, really exciting. I'm just trying to find a dress and get ready for it. I'm going to make my way down to Washington, D.C., and go to my first military ball."
Baxley, 22, said he's looking forward to taking Gearing, and has been listening to her music recently.
"She's a talented young lady," he said. "I can share with her the history of the Marine Corps, the traditions and the overall scheme of what's happening that evening with the ceremony, and why it's significant. I'm pretty stoked, and you can quote me on that."