By Allison Kugel
We live in a time when mobile technology and Wi-Fi, Nikes and Christian Louboutins, video games, and a fast-paced urban lifestyle are often prized above the simpler things in life. But what if making a beeline back to our earthy origins could be the answer to more happiness and balance; and better health and vitality?
According to studies conducted on the benefits of making direct contact with the earth through the bottoms of our bare feet, a practice called "Earthing," our bodies become grounded, similarly to the way we ground cable wires before installing them in our homes. Grounding our bodies by walking barefoot directly on the earth's natural surface (sidewalks, backyard decks and asphalt don't count) has been shown to improve mood and sleep patterns, clear free radicals from the body, infuse us with antioxidants and reduce overall inflammation. Earthing helps prevent free radicals from attacking and damaging our bodies' healthy tissues, thereby helping us to heal.
In 2005, electrical engineer and electrostatic discharge expert Roger Applewhite published a study in the journal, European Biology and Bioelectromagnetics, that confirmed a significant fact: when the body is grounded, electrons move from earth into the body and vice versa. “This effect is sufficient to maintain the body at the same negative-charge electrical potential as the earth.” In other words, for our bodies to thrive at their greatest potential, they require a direct connection with the earth on a daily basis.
After having an opportunity to screen a documentary film titled, The Earthing Movie, directed and produced by Sundance Award-Winning filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell, I began my own "earthing" journey. Though I am still a newbie at this practice, I now carve out time to walk or stand barefoot on grass, soil or sand (any natural earth surface) at least once a day for fifteen minutes or longer to ground my body. I plant my feet firmly on the earth's surface as if it is my own personal charging station, and it feels amazing!
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with actresses Mariel Hemingway and Amy Smart about their decision to take part in The Earthing Movie, and to learn more about their journeys with the daily practice of earthing, and the positive impact it has had on both of their lives.
Allison Kugel: What were the circumstances in each of your lives when you first heard about the practice of earthing?
Mariel Hemingway: I'd been [earthing] for a long time, not realizing I was doing it. Ten years ago, I met my life partner, Bobby, and he was always taking his shoes off when we were hiking. We eventually wrote a book together, called Running with Nature (Changing Lives Press). When I think about my history, I can remember times that I was anxious, and when I would go outside and take my shoes off near a river or on a trail, I was actually earthing and grounding myself. I just didn't know what I was doing at the time. Once upon a time, kids were barefoot all the time. That was how we grew up in the seventies. Nobody wore shoes where I come from (Hemingway was raised in Idaho).
Amy Smart: For me, I had struggled with vertigo and feeling kind of "out of it," and ungrounded. I realized that I had a sensitivity to EMFs (Electro-Magnetic Fields). I was mostly feeling it from my cell phone. I was also sensing it from my security system that I had installed in my house. I started doing research and one of the solutions was earthing or getting grounded. I started practicing it; putting my bare feet in the ground, and my body started to feel more balanced.
Allison Kugel: As I watched this documentary that you're both in, The Earthing Movie, which really spoke to me by the way, I was lamenting the fact that I live in a community where they're always dropping all kinds of chemicals on the grass. It makes you a little paranoid to walk in the grass barefoot.
Mariel Hemingway: I completely understand, and that's a big issue. We have a dog park here in Idaho where we spend our summers, and there's a designated dog park here that doesn't use any chemicals. It's amazing that I can walk barefoot out there. Earlier today, I took a hike up some pretty hardcore hills, and I did the entire uphill part barefoot. When I'm in L.A. or on the road, I want to ground my body, but I don't want to take in all those chemicals through my feet. There is grounding therapy, where you can sleep on grounding mats and things like that. But, of course, the outdoor practice of earthing to ground your body is much more effective in my opinion. It's the real deal, and it's profound.
Amy Smart: If you are living in a place that has all these pesticides and herbicides, maybe you can dig up a 3x3 foot section of ground and let that area be clean ground that you can stand on barefoot to recharge your body.
Allison Kugel: I had this big majestic tree in my backyard in Florida, and people thought I was crazy because every day I would go outside and hug my tree. To me, that is also a form of earthing. The tree is rooted in the earth and you're wrapping yourself around the tree. When I would hug this tree, I could feel the life force inside the tree. I could feel the tree kind of swelling with appreciation and love. I could also feel myself becoming more centered.
Mariel Hemingway: Yes, one hundred percent! That is exactly what I used to do. People used to think I was completely nuts.
Allison Kugel: Mariel and I are both tree huggers! When you remember that everything on this planet is connected, it all makes sense.
Mariel Hemingway: And trees are powerful. I think trees are alive. There is no question that they are. They stick around far longer than we do. It goes far beyond our current awareness.
Amy Smart: Aside from health benefits, I think it takes you back to the joy and simplicity of childhood. That's where kids are the happiest. Climbing trees, running barefoot in the grass, or just barefoot running around on the beach; anywhere in nature with their feet on the ground and playing. That's what I do almost every morning. We'll all walk outside and do some earthing. First thing in the morning, we have a tall glass of water and we all go outside and just put our feet on the ground for a few minutes.
Allison Kugel: I liken earthing to plugging your cell phone into its charger. The earth's surface is our natural charging station. The man who discovered the scientific health benefits of grounding our bodies through the practice of earthing, his name is Clint Ober.
Mariel Hemingway: An amazing man!
Amy Smart: Clint recommends earthing for at least fifteen minutes a day, I believe, according to the studies that were done for treating inflammation. But even a few minutes a day is better than nothing.
Allison Kugel: It's remarkable to me that Clint originally discovered that humans needed grounding by being a cable television wire installer and learning how to ground wires.
Mariel Hemingway: We are made up of electricity. That's why when you're a little kid and you rub yourself on the carpet and then you touch your friend, you can shock them. We have three thousand pores under our feet, and we absorb the energy, or the electricity, from the earth. The frequency of the earth goes into our body and those electrons are released. Now, when you wear rubber soled shoes and you're not ever getting grounded, there is no way for those electrons that build up in the body to release themselves. There is supposed to be a constant flow of energy. When you can release the buildup of electrons, then your body releases the inflammation. Inflammation is a result of the body not being able to release all those different frequencies; all that electricity.
Amy Smart: And, like with anything, it's an accumulation over time. Because we are electrical beings, we really respond to any kind of electrical stimulus. And because the frequency of the earth is exactly where our bodies need to be, it makes complete sense, putting our bare feet on the earth and letting that magnetic field restructure our body the way it's supposed to be lined up.
Allison Kugel: One thing in the film I found so interesting was that the rise in popularity of rubber soled shoes keeps us from properly grounding ourselves on the earth. Here I am walking around in my sneakers all day, thinking it's great for my feet and posture, which in some ways it is, but not for grounding my body.
Mariel Hemingway: In the film, Clint Ober talks about the fact that prior to P.F. Flyers (an early rubber soled sneaker, made popular in the 1960s), we were probably like animals and grounded most of the time. We either had leather soled shoes or moccasins. When we didn't have rubber at the bottom of our feet we were connected. In our current technical and very modern world, it's why sometimes being able to use a grounding mat to help eliminate some electric and magnetic fields is necessary. There are ways to kind of trick yourself into being in a natural state when you can't be literally connected to nature.
Amy Smart: The invention of synthetic rubber and plastics in shoes have taken us away from just being on the earth, sleeping on the earth, and using the earth to heal our bodies. One hundred years ago we'd have been in much more contact with the earth on a daily basis. Even going back to the soil we had before and all this fertilization and industrialization has depleted it; I equate that to our bodies becoming depleted because we've lost our connection with the magnetic field and the energy of the earth.
Allison Kugel: What are some other benefits that you've personally both noticed with your body, mind and spirit from regularly grounding yourselves?
Mariel Hemingway: I sleep unbelievably well. My mind doesn't race at night anymore. I have a tremendous amount of energy. My mood is never poor. If I feel anxious, if I go sit outside or I just sit on the grass for a bit, it pulls it out of me. We come from the earth. The more we connect back to it, the better we will be. We live in a world where every day we're pulled further and further away from that connection. My mission is to make people realize how important it is to reach back towards nature. To see the benefits of what's natural, and what's free. We think that we are not part of nature, but we are.
Amy Smart: As far as symptom improvement, I definitely feel more grounded. I feel more balanced. I feel more clarity. There is a sense of calmness that I feel when I do my earthing, and it lasts throughout the day.
Allison Kugel: Mariel, you are a lot like me in that you have to be continually cognizant of the energy that surrounds you in order to stay balanced. Of course, with the Hemingway family background, mental health is always something you have had to be aware of. In my book (Journaling Fame/Mill City Press), which talks about healing from an anxiety disorder, I mention that I am always having to monitor the energy that surrounds me, just out of survival.
Mariel Hemingway: You have to! People will say to me, "Oh, it must be so hard," and I'm like, "No, it's just who I am." I know what I come from. I know that I can be a depressed person if I don't watch how I live my life. So, I watch what I eat, what I drink. I don't drink alcohol. I watch what I do because I know where I come from. And I know what my propensity for sadness is. Like you, I know that my environment has to be specific. I don't think of it as a problem. I just think of it as my life path.
Amy Smart: For my part, you hear about so many people in corporate America that sort of burn out and they then go and live on an organic farm. Or they leave the technology world and they have to get back to a simple, living-off-the-land kind of place where they can begin to thrive again.
Allison Kugel: Mariel, I would imagine that at one point in your life, you might've had a fear that you would be susceptible to committing suicide, because of the Hemingway family legacy with substance abuse, depression and suicide. Do you still carry that fear?
Mariel Hemingway: I one hundred percent did carry that fear. That used to be a big fear of mine, for many years, well into my early forties. After meeting Bobby (Hemingway's life partner) and getting on this path of really understanding the body from a deep level, and making all those connections; food, water, earthing, meditation and plugging them all together, I am truly a happy person and I do not fear mental illness or suicide anymore.
Allison Kugel: Amy, what is your take on keeping yourself balanced in body, mind and spirit?
Amy Smart: Wellness doesn't come from just one specific change. For me, it's a bunch of small changes that add up. But I absolutely believe that earthing is critical and crucial for well-being and for balance within my mind and body. When you bring your kids outside, even if they were in a crappy mood, the minute they are outside running around barefoot, their mood is just uplifted and they're happier and more playful. Kids are the perfect experiment to see their mood shift the minute they are outside barefoot. We can learn a lot from them in that way.
Allison Kugel: Wouldn't it be interesting if there would come a time where, just like we have dog parks, where there could be designated earthing parks where people can reconnect with nature and ground their bodies by walking barefoot?
Mariel Hemingway: Actually, Clint [Ober] and I are working on that very thing. There are places in Europe, this is how behind we are in America, that have that. They have barefoot walks and barefoot parks. It makes so much sense. We are working on trying to make deals with some parks to make barefoot parks.
Amy Smart: There are already some parks that say they are child-friendly or earth-friendly. I think if we could just make more of those and prioritize that, because we don't want our kids or our dogs, or us, running around on land that is full of chemicals. That's why it is so amazing to go into different cities that understand that we need to rip up the concrete and create more healthy green spaces.
Allison Kugel: Will The Earthing Movie make its way to Netflix?
Mariel Hemingway: We want the film to be free for everybody. I believe soon there will be places where you can have events and where the movie will be shown. But it will be somewhere online where everybody can get it for free. I would love for Netflix to have it on their docket. The topic of earthing is super interesting, and it's been scientifically proven. It's not just "woo woo." And trust me, I've done a lot of "woo woo" stuff!
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) I brought up Netflix because I've noticed for myself, and from talking to so many other people, that Netflix has been bringing some incredible information about health and wellness to the masses through documentaries.
Mariel Hemingway: It's true. We used to just give our power away to the man in the white coat. We didn't question it and we just did what he said. That time has come and gone, and it will never turn back. Medical schools are going to have to get on board with training people about preventative medicine. We are some of the best in the world when it comes to emergency medical care. But when it comes to preventative health care, we're terrible.
Allison Kugel: I think on some level doctors are afraid that if you come to them with a problem, and they say to you, "Go walk in the grass, eat a plant-based diet and meditate," you're going be like, "Well, what do I need you for?" I think that's a genuine fear doctors have.
Amy Smart: The medical schools are in the business of illness, not the business of wellness, and they are taught a certain protocol on how to treat someone. In a lot of cases, it's lifesaving and it helps. In some cases, it masks the illness and it doesn't really deal with the root cause. The term, "alternative medicines," like Ayurveda or the Chinese medicine that are not the typical western medicines, have been working profoundly for centuries. I think the right question to ask is, "How can we incorporate both modalities, or multiple modalities, to see how we can treat somebody in a holistic way, versus one way or another?"
Allison Kugel: When we think of the word "grounding," a lot of times we look at it figuratively. But the practice of earthing is quite literally, electrically, grounding yourself.
Amy Smart: Yes. For me, personally, it was learning that I wasn't going to be on my cell phone as often. It was practicing going on the grass every day or at the beach, putting my feet barefoot in the ground. I was turning off my WIFI at night. It's been a combination of things that really helped me, literally, ground myself. Because we are electrical beings, we really respond to any kind of electrical stimulus. And because the frequency of the earth is where our bodies need to be, it makes complete sense, putting our bare feet on the earth and letting that magnetic field restructure our body the way it's supposed to be lined up.
Mariel Hemingway: It's also spiritually grounding. I think our world wants us to be wrapped up in whatever narrative it is pushing on us. Grounding yourself creates a sense of, "Oh, I'm really here." It creates a sense of presence.
Allison Kugel: Why should people watch and share The Earthing Movie?
Mariel Hemingway: Number one, because it's available right now to everyone for free. Number two, we all have parents. Whether our parents are old or whether they are middle-aged they are likely dealing with some form of inflammation and chronic illness. Everybody has somebody they care about who needs this information. Right now, we are a country, we are a world, that is inundated with inflammatory diseases from cancer and heart disease to arthritis and diabetes, to name a few…
Amy Smart: People value things when they are in a place of discomfort. If your life's fine, you're not going to really want to make any changes and you may not be open to new information. But the minute you feel unwell, and you're uncomfortable, that's when you search out something to make you feel better. We are now living in a time where so many people are unwell on so many different levels. Earthing is a simple and critical way to help yourself to feel well. Making direct contact with the earth with your bare feet is free, and it's something everyone should know about. It's a really important component of our wellness.
Visit EarthingMovie.com to learn about the earthing movement and to find out how you can host a screening of The Earthing Movie, starring Deepak Chopra, Amy Smart, Mariel Hemingway, "Earthing" pioneer Clint Ober; and Sundance Award-Winning filmmakers, Josh and Rebecca Tickell.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of communications firm, Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
Photo Credits: Big Picture Ranch Productions, Josh and Rebecca Tickell, Simon Balderas, Jose Babcock, Kristyna Hernandez. Transcription and Typesetting: Carolyn Strum.
By Allison Kugel
Raven-Symone's alter ego, Raven Baxter, has been a staple on The Disney Channel since the child actor turned Hollywood renaissance woman debuted her famous character on the hit show, That's So Raven, in 2003. Back then, Symone's alter-ego played a teenager who could see into the future, and that extra-sensory ability often landed her in some comical hot water. It's anyone's guess if a three-year-old Raven-Symone, who came to national attention as precocious Olivia on The Cosby Show, could have predicted this kind of career longevity? The character of Raven Baxter was given new life with Symone's second Disney show, Raven's Home, in which her character Raven Baxter is a woman with two kids, navigating all that comes with single motherhood and forging her own path as a fledgling fashion designer.
Now, going into its third season, Raven's Home will be tackling some interesting twists and turns as the kids start their own music group, Raven Baxter continues with the launch of her fashion line and roommate and co-parenting partner, Chelsea, finds her niche as a life coach.
Aside from plenty of interesting guest stars in the third season of the show, Raven-Symoné makes her Raven's Home directorial debut this season.
Allison Kugel: At the end of season two of Raven's Home your character launches a career as a fashion designer. How does that storyline pick up in season three?
Raven-Symone: Raven Baxter has always been a fashion designer since she was in high school (going back to the series, "That's So Raven"), and she had always been designing her [own] clothes. She did not feel that with her kids she could accomplish a line, and so now she decided to really sit down and make it about her. But as season three continues, the kids' stories really shine, and Raven Baxter's line is not as much of a main component.
Allison Kugel: In what way do the kids' characters further develop?
Raven-Symone: The kids start a music group. They go into a type of judging competition for that. We start learning more about Nia (played by Navia Ziraili Robinson) and her woman-empowering mission, and how she feels as a teenager. We start to understand Booker (played by Issac Ryan Brown) and see him growing up in school and at home. And we start diving into parenting issues with stepfathers with the mothers and how that whole dynamic comes into play in such a new [un]conventional family.
Allison Kugel: Did the success of That's So Raven give you the cache to have a hand in developing the direction of Raven's Home?
Raven-Symone: I had a lot of input from creative to writing to visual. It's also important, in my position as executive producer, to understand that when you hire someone, you hire them because they know what they are doing. I did not try and say, "I know everything because I was on That's So Raven." It's also a learning experience for me. I'm allowing these masterful artisans to shine through the show with their writing. set design, and all these beautiful components. I directed an episode this season. I'm hopefully going to write an episode this season as well. It's like a crash course.
Allison Kugel: Single parent families and blended families are becoming something of a new normal. There is no conventional family anymore. Was it your idea to play a single mom and to portray this blended family dynamic on the show?
Raven-Symone: It's a combination of The Disney Channel, the creators of this new installment of Raven Baxter's life, and myself. We all had to agree on showcasing a family that is within the fabric of today's society. It pushes forward the idea of positivity within any family structure, as long as it has love and respect for one another.
Allison Kugel: Are you going to explore weightier issues this season, of course in a way that is digestible for kids and early adolescents; maybe things from race to sexuality, or kids lamenting the fact that they don't have a traditional family unit. Will any of these issues be covered?
Raven-Symone: It will touch on the kids' feeling the weight of mom and dad not being together, and the kids feeling that maybe they want their parents together, or maybe they don't; all those mixed emotions will be explored. The topics we deal with are within the fabric of society, but we deal with them in a Disney fashion. We want to make sure that we respect the viewers that are watching, and their age range.
Allison Kugel: You're not yet a mother in real life, but you play one very convincingly on television. You play it with a lot of texture; a lot of interesting notes. Where does that come from?
Raven-Symone: I built [the character] from my own mother, from (actress and dancer) Debbie Allen, from the mothers that I have seen on TV; from the mothers that I have seen on TV that I don't want to be, and based on who I want to be as a mother. I know that I am part of that generation where they say, "You are trying to be friends with your kids." But I'm absolutely crazy and I want my kids to know that it's okay to be your authentic self every morning, every day. I've been all over the world and I really want to take in a little bit of how they're raising their children, and not putting such a stigma on certain things. It also comes from the way I was raised, knowing my manners, and saying "Miss" and "Ma'am" and "Mister." Even today, my mom has to remind me, "Raven, you're thirty-three. Stop calling someone who is forty 'Mister' or 'Miss.'" I can't help it. But I run into some kids and they're like "Hi Raven."
Allison Kugel: And you're going, "Excuse me?!"
Raven-Symone: Yes! I'm like, "I'm thirty-three and you're twelve. I am Miss Raven." I am programmed to act a certain way. And then you encounter the new ways of living in our society, and you have to find a happy medium for yourself. I think I'm subconsciously practicing how I would react in certain situations, as a mother, while I am on television. That way, when I do become a mother, I can take some of what Raven Baxter does, what she deals with and how she deals with these kids and morph it into something I can be proud of as a parent.
Allison Kugel: So, you do see having kids in your future. You do plan to become a mom?
Raven-Symone: Oh, for sure. For sure! Being in the [entertainment] industry from the time I was a kid, you get pushed into only thinking about your career, career, career. And it's a little bit more of a conscious effort, especially in my world being within the LGBT community, to plan out [motherhood]. It's definitely in my future. I have a timeline-ish. But it is malleable because not everything can be planned.
Allison Kugel: You got that right! From my perspective, there are two things that make you an interesting public figure. Number 1: from the outside looking in, it seems like you have elegantly and seamlessly transitioned from child actor to adult actor, and quite successfully. Number2: you are 100% authentic about who you are in every aspect of your life, including as you stated, being a part of the LGBT community. You haven't hidden behind your television image, and people have embraced who you are with open arms. Disney has embraced you for exactly who you are. I love that. What are your thoughts on those two things?
Raven-Symone: I think that is a very kind assessment. Living in it, I don't agree.
Allison Kugel: Wow, okay. So, your inner experience has been different…
Raven-Symone: I really appreciate what you said. Sometimes you need to hear that. You're in the eye of the storm and people outside of the storm are going, "But there's a rainbow above you!" And I'm going, "Where? I don't see the rainbow." But I really appreciate that. I think when you're neck deep in a constant struggle between going outside and being recognized and trying to stay in and just live a normal life it can be tough. And you're trying to make sure you don't make the same mistakes that you've read about in the [National] Enquirer or on television since the 80s and 90s. I'm always tiptoeing around to make sure I make decisions I can be proud to put in my biography, later. It's a little bit more consuming for me and I haven't really been on the other side of it to see it. It's interesting, because I still feel like I'm seventeen if that makes any sense.
Allison Kugel: It does. It makes sense because I just recently heard Paris Hilton say something about feeling stuck in this state of arrested development due to her celebrity that occurred in her late teens and early twenties. She said that for a long time she felt like she was frozen in time, like she was "forever twenty-one years old." I think when you become famous at a young age, the ball just keeps rolling, and you are kind of living in this bubble. And the bubble was created a long time ago. I think that is what you are describing.
Raven-Symone: That's exactly it. Thank you, Paris! I will be the first to say that I'm going to quote Paris Hilton now. That is exactly how it feels.
Allison Kugel: Do you now feel like the thirty-three-year-old woman that you are? Or are you still getting your bearings with that?
Raven-Symone: In some ways I feel a lot older because I do own property. I have financial and personal responsibilities, and I'm helping to run a television show. But sometimes I feel like I'm pretending, because [in some ways] I feel like I'm still between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, but a smart seventeen to twenty-five. It's because I've been captured in so many different age brackets. And I've had to exaggerate that age behavior for such a long time, while slowly growing to accommodate the way people see me in my career. As I slowly grow, they slowly grow. On the other hand, I grew up a lot faster. I knew how much my taxes were and how much I was getting paid at the age of three, at age six, at age seven. I knew that if I didn't work stuff wouldn't get paid, when normal seven-year-olds were worrying about who stole their lollipop. You know what I mean? So, in that respect I do have an older mind frame. It's a dual mind and it's weird.
By Allison Kugel
Actress Robin Givens has played many roles in her life; retiring wallflower not being among them. She burst onto the scene as the beautiful and brainy Darlene on Head of the Class, a sitcom that aired on ABC from 1986 to 1991. Those same years brought a media explosion as good girl Givens fell in love with, married and then divorced, boxing's former world heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson. The tumultuous pairing was brief and quickly devolved into a he said/she said of accusations about abuse and domestic violence, allegations which Tyson himself later publicly conceded to.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Robin Givens picked up the pieces with a string of film roles including A Rage in Harlem with the late Gregory Hines, Forest Whitaker and Danny Glover; Boomerang opposite Halle Berry and Givens' former flame turned colleague, Eddie Murphy; Blankman opposite Damon Wayans and Head of State with Chris Rock. Steady work came her way, while sealing her reputation as the beautiful but dangerous femme fatale. The line between Givens' public image and her film work continued to blur. During this time period, she became a mom to two boys and retreated from the spotlight, save for the release of her 2007 memoir, Grace Will Lead Me Home, in which she opened up about the issue of domestic violence, which she admits in the book had plagued her family for generations.
This was the birth of Robin Givens, women's advocate and outspoken crusader against domestic violence. Her speaking engagements culminated with one of her numerous appearances on the Oprah show in which she outlined her intimate journey with the issue. It is important to note that, according to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) more than 10 million women and men (at a rate of 20 people per minute) in the U.S. are subjected to domestic violence, making this an issue that does transcend gender (though women are more likely to sustain substantial physical injury at the hands of an intimate partner, at a rate of 1 in 7 women to 1 in 25 men) as well as socio-economic status.
In the 2010s, Givens refocused on acting with roles on long running daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful, YouTube Red series Step Up: High Water (based on the film franchise), the CW's Riverdale and ABC's The Fix. On June 18th, Givens will shine as female lead, Stephanie Carlisle, in OWN's newest drama series, Ambitions.
Throughout our conversation, Robin Givens held nothing back and no question was off the table as she offered thoughtful, sometimes emotionally charged, humorous and reflective insights on her journey through womanhood and Hollywood.
Allison Kugel: You took years away from the spotlight to focus on being a mom to your two sons. Now you're back with two television shows, the CW's Riverdale and the new OWN series, Ambitions. I remember speaking with Elisabeth Shue years ago (The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting, The Saint) and she said she went away to just be a mom to her three kids, and when she came back, she felt like the parade passed her by. How did you come back with the thunder?
Robin Givens: I don't know Elisabeth and I don't know her story so well, but for me it wasn't only taking a break to raise my kids. It was also a break for myself. It's true that you feel like you are going to maintain your place in line; like everything is going to stop and wait for you. I had to realize that it's a process again. You have to enjoy the process and begin again, and I really fell in love with acting again. When I first started acting, it wasn't really like that. Now I can go in a room and act and do my thing and enjoy the process for what it is. Water seeks its own level. If you're good, you're good, and it all kind of begins again.
Allison Kugel: Your new show, Ambitions is premiering June 18th on the OWN Network. It seems like Oprah has always championed your career. Even when the chips were down, she was a champion for your career. You worked with her as an actress, and you were also on the Oprah show quite a bit over the years.
Robin Givens: I feel like at one point we were just friends. We did do [the mini-series] The Women of Brewster Place (1989) together, which was a huge role for me. She and I developed a genuine friendship, just as women. I don't think it had anything to do with my career, per se. I do think that there is something to it coming full circle and being here with her now, doing this show on her network.
Allison Kugel: Do these vixen roles find you, or do you seek them out? How do you always wind up playing that women? I don't know how else to put it (laughs).
Robin Givens: (Laughs) You're right. There was a time when I was having these roles come to me and I remember saying to my agent, "I don't want to do that women. I just did that woman." I ended up turning something down because of it. I'm nothing like these women that I play, which is unusual and interesting for me. I always jokingly say, "I want to grow up and be them." Where I am now in my life, emotionally, it's like, "Okay, you want me to do that? Then I'm going to do it to death," and then wait for the opportunity where I can do something completely different.
Allison Kugel: Before I do an interview, I'll ask people if they have any burning questions for the person I'm about to interview, and sometimes I'll take people's questions into consideration. I found out that a lot of men out there think you are that woman. Do you know that?
Robin Givens: I think women think that too. I don't think it's only men. Whenever I'm in hair and makeup, they're always like, "My God, you are nothing like that person!" Me, Robin, I have a whole different rhythm.
Allison Kugel: Your energy is completely different from your media image. But your name is still synonymous with Mike Tyson, the divorce heard 'round the world and those infamous interviews.
Robin Givens: I have a better understanding of it now than I would have if you talked to me about it fifteen years ago, or even ten years ago. As a grown up, I just understand it better. I also didn't give people anything else to talk about for a while, and so my image got stuck there. I ran into Jay-Z at a party years ago, when I was doing Chicago on Broadway, and even he was fixated on it, because it was just so big.
Allison Kugel: People love to talk about your past relationships, not just with [Mike]Tyson, but with Brad Pitt and Eddie Murphy. Do you play on that image for a role like your character, Stephanie Carlisle, on Ambitions?
Robin Givens: You're making my life sound way more exciting than it is, but no I don't. I know we are in this world where we want things to be tantalizing, but I am a big believer in truths. The one thing I agree with when it comes to our current state of politics is that there has been plenty of fake news. I feel like I was the original fake news. I would be a crazy person if, given what I went through in my past, I didn't believe in the truth. I would never approach working on a character with any sense of that… thing, or that time period that wasn't even true. I lived through a time of absolute bullshit at a very young age. I now have a son who is twenty-five, who I see as a baby. I was younger than that when all that craziness was happening. Certainly, I hope it made me the person that I am, but I don't think I would have been able to say that before.
Allison Kugel: And you probably didn’t have the tools at that time to get the facts out there the way you wanted to.
Robin Givens: I was speaking with Wendy Williams recently and she said to me, "Thank God social media wasn't going on at that time in your life." And I said, "You know, actually it would have been easier." Now, you can literally get on Twitter and say "Hey, that's not true!"
Allison Kugel: I was a bit taken aback when in speaking with some people before our interview, the general consensus was, "She did Mike Tyson dirty years ago."
Robin Givens: The only thing I did dirty was that I said, "I don't want to be in a relationship where you tell me you are going to kill me." I didn't take one cent from my ex-husband. I left my panties there; I left my favorite teddy bear there. I left everything I had in that house. The rest is fake news. I said, "I want out of this relationship because I think you are going to do what you said, which is kill me." When I see what happened to Nicole [Brown] Simpson and other women that I talk to, that is a very real thing. I am here, walking, living and breathing.
Allison Kugel: And it was thirty years ago people. You've had so much going on since then. You have your two boys, a thriving acting career, your advocacy work for women. I'm proud of you.
Robin Givens: Thank you. It is a really interesting conversation to have, because my ex-husband used to say to me, "I'm a hero to the guys. Women love me and guys love me. I'm a star to the stars." It's hard to go up against all of that. I left with my life, and I left so sorry that I put my family in such a horrific situation. The reality is, the guy I lived with was the same guy that bit up [Evander] Holyfield's ear in the ring. That's the guy I was dealing with on a daily basis; the same guy that went to jail for rape (Givens is speaking of Tyson's 1992 rape conviction). I was dealing with that guy the best way I could at twenty-two years old.
Allison Kugel: I interviewed Mike, I think about seven years ago, and I liked him during our interview. Of course, it was so many years later. I don't want to take away from his ability to change and grow as a person. But what you experienced is valid and real, and your feelings about it are valid and very real. Your voice also continues to be valuable regarding domestic violence.
Robin Givens: I've done a lot of work with women, and it's not only happening with celebrities, obviously. It's the guy at the golf club in Connecticut that everybody loves. It's the mayor of a small town who's sweet and charming in public. I don't want to make this [issue] all about me. With everything that is going on with the #MeToo movement, we're kind of forcing a lot of men to get that certain things are unacceptable. Certain things now, thirty years later, must be unacceptable. We have to do better now.
Allison Kugel: You began speaking up about violence against women years before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements took root.
Robin Givens: I didn't plan on speaking on behalf of women, but it really did become a part of my healing. My ex-husband had been on Oprah and he had talked about hitting me in a cavalier way, like, "Oh, yeah I hit her," and everybody [in the audience] laughed. I was somewhere doing a speaking engagement, and someone said to me, "Robin, you can't take this!" I realized it was far bigger than me and I was told I had to do something, if not for me, then for all other women. One of the things I always say is, "My story is your story, and your story is my story."
Allison Kugel: That was when you had that sit-down with Oprah to air your grievances about Mike Tyson's appearance on her show…
Robin Givens: I sat down with Oprah to discuss her interview with my ex-husband, which was the last thing I wanted to do. She apologized to me. After the show, she came into my dressing room and she said "Robin, as it was happening I knew it was wrong, but I didn't know what to do." I think that sums up a lot. Not to put the weight of the world on Oprah. Certainly, she is an amazing, amazing woman. But if Oprah Winfrey doesn't know what to do in these situations, the discomfort of it, then a lot of us don't know how to respond to that. It's much easier to put people in a box and say, "She must have wanted his money," than to believe that somebody could punch a 105-pound woman. We saw it happen with (ex-NFL player) Ray Rice. Now you can't pretend it away or give an excuse for it. Now we have a responsibility to not let certain things slide. We're better than that and we've come too far.
Allison Kugel: What are the biggest misconceptions about you and famous men, in general?
Robin Givens: I met Eddie Murphy when I was in my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence College. He had just gotten Saturday Night Live. He wasn't the "Eddie Murphy" that the world now knows, at that time. He was an actor that was happy to get a job. It was the same thing with Brad Pitt. When I dated Brad, Brad couldn't get a job. I was paying for all our meals and he was a struggling actor. We talked a lot about acting because were in acting class together, and we loved acting together. When we dated, he literally couldn't pay for dinner. At the time, I had already gotten the role on Head of the Class. It was a different dynamic, where I was the big deal to [Brad]. You know what I mean? I lived it all at a young age, thank God, and I get to have a good perspective on reality and how it can be changed.
Allison Kugel: There was a pivotal moment in your life, when I believe you were studying at Harvard with the intention to become a doctor, before you decided to pivot and pursue acting. In retrospect, was this the right path?
Robin Givens: I was at Harvard Graduate School and I knew I was going to be a doctor, or so I thought at the time. By the time I got to Harvard I was really wanting to pursue acting. If you asked me ten years ago, I would have said I should have become a doctor. As a mom, I just came from visiting my son and saying to him, "Get a law degree! Get a law degree!" My mom was raised in the south at a time when, as a woman, she couldn't go in the front door of a movie theatre. She could buy clothes at Woolworth, but she couldn't try them on, and she couldn't sit at the counter and eat. I think I grew up with the sense of, what she believed, which is that education is a great equalizing factor in America. I have a parent who, literally, just stopped leaving me medical school applications any time she'd come to visit. Up until recently, I knew there was an application to some medical school lurking somewhere in the house (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Do you pray? If so, who or what do you pray to?
Robin Givens: I have a great relationship with God. For me, that has been a very important relationship. He's the only father I've ever known. I would often sit down with God and say, "I don't want to have to go through this." But it's all gotten me to where I am, both as a person and as a mom with these two kids. I grew up Catholic with a sense of the ritual of Catholicism. Certainly, I have some questions about all of that now, and some misgivings. But it is something I still do [observe]. And I always say that my ex-husband [Mike Tyson] taught me, and gave me, a true relationship with God.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you are here on this earth as Robin Givens to learn, and what do you think you are here to teach?
Robin Givens: I'm the first of two children and I have a type-A personality. I always say I'm a recovering perfectionist. That's something I've had to learn, and there is a kind of humor in the quest for perfection. It's not very interesting, and you can never really achieve it. That's something that life has taught me. The difficulty that I have gone through has really taught me a sense of compassion. Most people in my life know that I am a compassionate, loving person. I've also had to learn to relax a little bit, because my brain does start overworking.
Allison Kugel: And what are you here to teach?
Robin Givens: I would say the same thing; sharing a sense of compassion. Life is short and time truly is our greatest commodity. It's the one thing you never get back. I lost a sister, unexpectedly, almost five years ago and I would do anything to have more of those moments. I try to tell my children that there is not that much to get here [on earth]. You want to have enough to spend time with the people you love. You want to have dinner with the people you love. If you feel like going to Paris, you want to go to Paris with people you love. It's all about the moments, and not the car you drive. Happiness and joy lie in simplicity, so try to keep it simple.
Allison Kugel: I would agree! Let's dive into your character, Stephanie Carlisle, on Ambitions.
Robin Givens: She doesn't use any of the things I just talked about (laughs). What interests me about my job is the challenge to bring a character like Stephanie Carlisle to life. To get the role of Stephanie, I borrowed a dress from The Fix (ABC) for the audition. Once I read the script, I felt I could do this role better than anyone. I just needed to carry that energy into the room with me and believe it. Once I started to dissect her, I knew that I wanted her to be more than what was on the page. I wanted to give her shades and dimensions, a heart, and make her real. She was written as an ice queen, but there is more to her. My interpretation is that she is a woman that has her own set of rules. She also has this sensibility that she is never going to live up to her father, and that’s where her wanting comes from.
Allison Kugel: Why should audiences tune in to watch Ambitions?
Robin Givens: I could describe it as a guilty pleasure, but someone once said, "There is no guilt in pleasure." It's going to be that kind of fun show where women gather around to watch with some wine and popcorn. Their husbands or boyfriends will walk by and probably join them. I think men will love it as much as women.
Ambitions premieres on Tuesday, June 18 @ 10/9c on OWN. Follow Robin Givens on Twitter @therocknrobn and Instagram @robingivens.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of communications firm, Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and AllisonKugel.com.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of OWN/Richard Ducree, Courtesy of OWN/Guy D'Alema, Courtesy of OWN/Peggy Sirota
By Allison Kugel
If you were to ask any director who's worked with the legendary Pam Grier they would likely tell you that having Pam on their set is a game changer. She knows what she wants and what she brings to the table. Just stand back and watch the force that is Pam.
Throughout our conversation she made it clear that clinging to her perfectly proportioned black Barbie superhero past doesn't interest her. It's a lovely time capsule that will be well documented in biopic about her life based on her autobiography Foxy (Grand Central Publishing) that is currently in pre-production.
These days Pam is focused on roles that represent mature, well rounded women living their authentic lives and not hiding behind a veneer of glam. Even stripped down to the studs, Pam Grier still exudes sensuality that leads men of all ages to her like the Pied Piper. In her first network sitcom role in Bless This Mess (ABC, 9:30/8:30c), Grier plays Constance, the local fix-it-all and know-it-all in small town Nebraska. She is the brilliant and funny foil to Dax Shepard and Lake Bell's transplanted Manhattanite characters, Mike and Rio. We witness Shepard and Bell's characters stumble and bumble through middle-American culture and country life through the eyes of Grier's amusement, as Ed Begley Jr.'s character, Rudy, tirelessly pursues her.
Grier will also appear on the big screen alongside Diane Keaton and Rhea Perlman in Poms (out May 10th), a comedy about a group of women in a retirement community who reclaim their vigor and spice through starting a cheerleading squad.
Allison Kugel: Let's talk about your new show, Bless This Mess. Is this your first time doing a network sitcom?
Pam Grier: Let's see… yes, I do believe so. There was one with Michael J. Fox that was short lived, but I think this was the first one where it allows me to work with creatives like [the show's creator] Elizabeth Meriwether and [actress and co-creator] Lake Bell. I said to them, "Out here as country women, we take our Spanx off." I took my Spanx off and I did some chores before I came in to see them [for the role]. I was a little dusty and I smelled of barn and John Deere fuel. I smelled the part, so that helped (laughs).
Allison Kugel: People don't know that about you. You're a country western girl. That's how you live when you're not working.
Pam Grier: My upbringing had been military, rural and urban. It was the best of all worlds. I've learned from each aspect of my culture and I see the world through women who were offered the opportunity to be equals. My grandfather was the first feminist in my life. He was from Wyoming. He was my mom's dad, and his mom had a sugar beet farm. She was a single mom and they had a hotel for African- Americans, Native Americans and other people of color to stay in. He was accustomed to seeing independent women learn how to do things. He taught all his granddaughters how to be self-sufficient.
Allison Kugel: What are some of the most notable things your grandfather taught you?
Pam Grier: He taught all of us to hunt, fish, shoot, drive the tractor, bring the boat in, change tires and spark plugs… you name it. That way you could always survive, without waiting for someone to take care of you. Since I've been in film, since the seventies, this is something that's prepared me. When you're working in film, and then you're not working and you are home, how can you maximize taking care of your home and taking care of yourself, your family, your animals? I've had that and I bring that energy and information to my character, Constance, on this show. And my character wears a lot of hats.
Allison Kugel: You're not known for comedy. Did they think you could be funny?
Pam Grier: Yes, but Lake was talking about how she was afraid of cows. I said, "Cows won't hurt you, but if you come at a cow with a knife and a fork, you might have a problem (laughs). I would tell stories about things I would do if there's a mountain lion outside attacking my chicken coop and stuff like that. I would tell people not to go for long country walks in the night if there is no light. This is Jurassic Park for real. But what they really wanted to know about was the concept of inclusion, which is what this show is really about. My character is a sheriff, she owns the vehicle lumber yard, the hardware store; she's the theatre director, she sings, she knows everyone's business, she's the referee. Sometimes she has to pull people out of a ditch with her truck.
Allison Kugel: How do you feel Bless This Mess handles inclusion, as far as steering clear of urban stereotypes of middle America?
Pam Grier: I mentioned to Lake [Bell], when they didn't have a script and they had no idea what they might do or write. I said to her, "There is one thing I must implore you, and that is not to make fun of the heartland." People go to the heartland to find their hearts. I believe that the farmer is the hero or heroine of the day. They should be in every magazine, all the time. I'm a member of the Farmland Trust, and we try to keep people aware that farming should be organic, across the board. In Canada they know how to successfully do that. Here in the U.S., they have kept the subsidies and the information for the farmers away from them.
Allison Kugel: Ed Begley Jr. plays your love interest. How's the chemistry between you too when you are working together?
Pam Grier: He can sing, he can dance… he's got a bag of tricks! He and his wife Rachelle had me over to their home the first week, for dinner. Ed did a lot of the cooking, and he is exceptional. They are just two peas in a pod. The nicest people; they finish each other's sentences. He is so informative. You want to sit at his feet like he is Yoda. Ed is sustainable, he's a mad scientist, and he can teach you. We were talking about farming and growing and dirt and moisture and oxidization and nutrients in the soil to create a great bed for plants. We really enjoy that aspect of our relationship.
Allison Kugel: Your career has done a 180. You're playing this quirky country role in Bless This Mess, and this month you are also in the film Poms with Diane Keaton and Rhea Perlman where you are poking fun at getting older. As someone who was an icon of sex appeal and glamour, how did that play a role, not just in your earlier career, but in your life? And how are you now processing going through the different stages of life?
Pam Grier: I've always controlled my image for political, religious and spiritual purposes, and I've embraced aging. When I met Robert De Niro with his first wife, Diahnne Abbott, he was gaining weight in order to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. We were in his kitchen talking and I said to him, "I would like to gain weight for my roles." Because as a woman, society responds differently to your weight and to your appearance, and your sex appeal. I guess in certain cultures if you are not a standard size 4 or 6 you're not considered attractive. There are psychological aspects towards that. The younger, slimmer and more youthful looking you are, the better for child bearing and maybe you're thought to be more sexual or whatever. I love the fact that people do respond differently when I am a size twelve than when I am a size four; completely different dynamic and really interesting to me.
Allison Kugel: People perceive that the more attractive you are considered by society, the easier that opportunities and good things will come your way. Why would you want to forfeit that?
Pam Grier: When I did the play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and I gained weight to play that role, I wanted to do that role and the producer said you should see Kathy Bates play this role. When I went to see her and I saw that she had this beautiful weight on her, which is very normal in certain cultures, while in other cultures not as acceptable, I just thought she was so stunningly beautiful. It brought a certain element and richness to her character. I don't know what it was, but I just felt this couple in love [in the show]. It was amazing. I thought, "If I can just reach half the energy she portrayed, I would be grateful. At the time I thought, "I'm really skinny. I run seven miles a day. How do I do this."
Allison Kugel: You were known and celebrated for being beautiful, fit and strong.
Pam Grier: Well, Robert De Niro had said it would be different for me as a woman. He said to me, "You'll lose your attractiveness in society." I said, "You know what? I'm controlling it. This is my work. This is my dream." I put on forty pounds. My body changed, and people reacted to me differently than when you're young and skinny. But you know what? When you have a little more weight on, yet you are still attractive, your skin is clear and your hair is well groomed, you're still going to get some doors opened for you.
Allison Kugel: Are you comfortable in your skin at any weight?
Pam Grier: At any weight. I can gain weight and lose weight, if I have to, for whatever reason. I remember when I was meeting with Spike Lee for a role while I was still doing Frankie and Johnny. When he saw me with weight on, he said, "Wow! You're a little bit heavier than I thought. Are you okay? Are you sick?" He didn't know I was doing a play. I told him it was appropriate for the character, and that it's working. I didn’t want people to come and see someone skinny and exotic looking and have them not see and hear [my] work.
Allison Kugel: I am truly surprised by your point of view. It makes me wonder if people really knew you at the height of your fame.
Pam Grier: I don’t know if it's psychological or just human nature, but people are used to seeing certain imagery in advertising continuously, so that's their filter. If I didn't gain the weight, I wouldn't have gotten that job. And women in this business won't gain weight because they're afraid of not working. They want to be attractive and have that value. I'm a person that doesn't look at weight and judge what's beautiful and what's not. I do know that these heavier actors and actresses are always working. Their work is fantastic, and you see this wisdom, you see this value. I know there is a designation within society about who is going to be wise and who isn't; who is going to be stupid. But let me tell you, maybe because I've had a sexuality and I still do now, it's kind of interesting that these young men in their forties are attempting to court me.
Allison Kugel: This morning, someone said to me, "Tell her I love her. Tell her I think she is amazing." I said, "Take a number!"
Pam Grier: (Laughs) Way back when women had weight on them, they were zaftig and Rubenesque, and very appealing to a lot of men. A lot of rugged, handsome men would have a woman that would be very zaftig, and not thin. They didn't believe thin women could do anything, and they would be hungry all the time. If a woman can do something, a man will have more respect for her. Maybe when I was younger, men assumed that I just went shopping and sat around by the pool and didn’t do much. Then they'd be shocked to see me changing my tire, fixing screens, putting the fence up, pushing manure and rock. Sometimes I would say to men, "What do you need? Don't have me have to fix this for you."
Allison Kugel: Is that how you are in relationships? Are you the kind of woman who likes to do everything for herself?
Pam Grier: Oh, no. I'm a partner. Whoever can do it for me, I'm game and I'm a listener. I love to listen. I am a researcher, but if you know more, then by all means share it. I don't have to do everything. But if it is life and death, I'm the person. At home, in all my fields, I have fire extinguishers because people flick their cigarettes out, and in a time of global warming fires are starting on the side of the road and burning up entire communities.
Allison Kugel: They could have used you in California.
Pam Grier: People have sprinklers on the inside of their homes. They should have them on the outside of their homes. Turn them on, wet down your property and leave. At least it will be so wet that the embers won't land on your house or around your house and burn it down. At the very least, it's a retardant. It will slow it down, if it won't completely stop it. I live in a forest and I am responsible for six animals. I'm responsible for not starting a fire and burning down everyone else's home and killing people. Aside from the comedy, that's also what our show is about. Having fun, enjoying and respecting our naturally occurring resources.
Allison Kugel: And having a sense of responsibility for the earth, our ecosystem, our land and other people.
Pam Grier: People are fear-based because they have given up a lot of their own confidence and strength to other people. "Here, handle my politics, do my taxes, you take care of me." And then when other people mess up, they feel victimized by the person they gave their power over to. People don't even realize how much power they have. They have acquiesced; they've given it away. I'm around people here in Colorado (where Grier lives most of the year) who've never flown before. They've only seen black people on television. When they meet me, they go, "Oh, she's just like us." It's astonishing. I can't criticize them, but they are so glad to meet me and to know that everything's going to be alright, that I'm not gonna open up a meth lab down the road. When they get to know me, it shifts for them in an instant. They realize that whoever told them, or whatever perception they had that was negative about other cultures, is now gone.
Allison Kugel: You've been in show business now for about 50 years?
Pam Grier: Fifty years, plus. My career is older than you!
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) How do you want your body of work to be studied? Because it will be studied in years to come?
Pam Grier: It already is studied, and they always tell me I'm a master class or thesis, and I'm going, "Whoa. Oh boy!" I'll tell you this, when I started doing stunts, that I'm feeling the pain from now, I didn't have a sports bra and it was a lot harder to be very physical and authentic. I don't want to be remembers as being perfect. I want to be remembered as being real.
Allison Kugel: You are thought to be the first African- American female to headline action films. Where are your successors? Where is the next Pam Grier?
Pam Grier: They're probably out there limping, as I did. They got hurt and said, "Don't wanna do that again!" I was a gymnast and I skied; I ran track. Anything to keep from doing the dishes, I loved. You have to have a little bit of that in your nature to be that physical. Not everyone is, or can be. You might be able to act the part, but If they didn't have that in their upbringing, they may not be following in my footsteps. Right now I see some white actresses like Charlize Theron and Rachel Weisz, who I never thought would do martial arts and stunts and action movies, who really enjoy them. But they did say they got a couple of "ow-ies," and they don't know if they will do it again. Not everybody is rushing into doing that kind of physical work.
Allison Kugel: Is there any type of role you wouldn't take on, because it's not in your wheelhouse?
Pam Grier: I was sexually attacked and raped at the age of 6, and then again at 18 in college, and then there was a third attack that I fought off. I couldn't believe what was happening. I didn't understand it. But I know that I cannot portray that in a movie, because I don't want to revisit those moments and emotions. A lot of actresses who will be up for the casting to play me in the film of my life, many of them may have had those same experiences and won't be able to re-live them, okay? Not everyone can do that; not everyone wants to re-visit that. If they can, it will be fantastic, but I know that I have had to turn down roles that have those kinds of attacks, because I couldn't do it. I had to pass. There were major directors and producers through the years, where they didn't know why I was passing, but I just passed. I knew I might snap. I don't know if I can go there. Not every actor can play every role, and there is a reason, and it may be private.
Allison Kugel: But you are enjoying having audiences get to know the part of you that shines as Constance on Bless This Mess.
Pam Grier: I'm sharing my rural side, my military side, my pragmatic side and my sexy side in this wonderful role that has been bestowed upon me by actress and co-creator Lake Bell and [co-creator] Elizabeth Meriwether; and ABC and Fox and Disney. They support me greatly, they listen to me, and they laugh at some of the funny things I do. Even the way I came into my initial meeting with them, all stinky from doing chores. Who does that?
Allison Kugel: That's not so much method acting as it is the real Pam Grier! You're a roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty kind of woman.
Pam Grier: That's right. For fifty years of my career, I would commute. I would come off the plane ready to work, in character, and I was very serious about my work. I couldn't do all the roles because I'm tall. For example, I couldn't play Tina Turner, because I was 5'9" and she's 5'1". I'm not going to get roles where the characters are diminutive. I was always asked why I didn't play Tina Turner. I'm actually, like, a foot taller than Tina. I'd be the tallest Tina Turner in the world. Like Geena Davis and a lot of my peers who are tall, we don't get a lot of the roles with husbands and love stories, because of our height and the perception that the husband should be taller than the woman.
Allison Kugel: This interview reminds me of how film directors will say that sometimes they'll have an actor on set, and they know the best thing they can do is get out of their way and just let them do their thing. With this interview, I couldn't direct you. You directed the interview, but I learned a whole lot and I thank you!
Pam Grier: Well, I love to share and I love to teach. I've got a PhD. from the University of Maryland in the Humanities, and an honorary degree in Science from Langston University in Agriculture. It's who I am.
Watch "Bless This Mess," starring Lake Bell, Dax Shepard, Pam Grier and Ed Begley Jr. on ABC, Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c. Pam will also star in "Poms" with Diane Keaton and Rhea Perlman, in theatres Friday, May 10th. Follow her on Twitter @PamGrier
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record available on Amazon and owner of Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
BLESS THIS MESS - ABC/John Fleenor © 2018-2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
By Allison Kugel
Michael Buble’s first order of business when we began our conversation was to immediately put me at ease around his enormous celebrity. The multi-Grammy and multi-Juno Award (Canada’s answer to the Grammy awards) winning singer who sells out the world’s largest stadiums, has sold more than 60 million albums worldwide, and singlehandedly made us re-visit our love affair with the great American songbook, set out to calm my excitable sensibilities with his seamless charm and wit.
Upon picking up his call, a woman came on the line asking me if I was ready to speak with Michael. Two seconds later Michael, himself, came on the line and opened with, "She doesn’t really work for me. I just have her do that to make me sound more important," as he let out a chuckle. My reply? "Well, too bad for me, I answer my own phone," and we shared a laugh. In reality, Buble’s music is important to millions around the world who glean such joy and comfort from his flawless interpretation of some of the most iconic music of the 20th century, as well as original music written and performed by Buble. His original works have swiftly gone on to achieve classic status in the soundtrack of our lives.
The year 2019 marks a boon of personal and professional success, and a packed schedule for Buble. His family’s much publicized heartbreak as they fought for their son Noah, as he battled pediatric liver cancer, set Buble on a new course of humility which was evident throughout our conversation. Now, with Noah’s health much improved, Michael Buble re-emerged with a new album, aptly titled Love (or simply, the heart emoji) on which he collaborated with mega-music producer, David Foster; a sold-out worldwide tour and his seventh upcoming musical television special, set to air on NBC on March 20th.
My conversation with Michael Buble is one of his most authentic and reflective, to date. We cover the subjects of parenthood, success, spirituality, love, humor, and of course, the music.
Allison Kugel: Hello Michael. How are you?
Michael Buble: If you hear kids screaming the background, Oh My God, so sorry about that. My daughter is running around screaming.
Allison Kugel: Aww, when I do my interviews from home, I have my nine-year-old running around in the background, so I get it!
Michael Buble: Boy or a girl?
Allison Kugel: A boy.
Michael Buble: You're probably like, (whispering) “Shhh, Stop it (laughs).” Does he know the deal with what you do?
Allison Kugel: He knows I interview people. It's funny, I had him with me one day for "Take Your Kids to Work Day." I was trying to impress him, saying how I interview all of these amazing people and showing him where my work is published, and his response was, "I'm bored."
Michael Buble: (Laughs) My kids love it. They're actually coming with me now on tour.
Allison Kugel: Is your wife on tour with you as well?
Michael Buble: They all come along. I set it up so that they come on tour, and when my wife (Argentine actress, Luisana Lopilato) has a film, I schedule it so that for those weeks I take that time off and I take the kids on set to watch her. It's a lot of fun.
Allison Kugel: I have to tell you, I was watching footage of your upcoming NBC special (airing Wednesday, March 20th, 10 pm ET/PT), and you always reduce me to tears. You probably hear stories like this all the time, but when my son was a newborn, I had a routine with him every night, where before I put him down in his crib, I would pick him up in my arms and slow dance with him to your music. When I hear Home or Quando Quando Quando, I just lose it, because I think back to that beautiful time.
Michael Buble: That's great. He's your boyfriend. It sounds so strange to say that, and whenever I say that, people are like, "That sounds weird,” but it's not. Obviously, not in that way, but it is romantic. He's going to love you forever. You'll be the love of his life and he's the love of your life.
Allison Kugel: I'm banking on it.
Michael Buble: I love my boys and I'm close with my boys, but it's not the same as with my daughter. Everyone told me it would be different, and I was like, "No, no it won't be." And it's different. She looks at me with those big blue eyes and I'm toast.
Allison Kugel: You must hear stories like mine all the time. Do people constantly share with you how your music has been weaved into their most important memories?
Michael Buble: Oh, for sure. It allows me to have an even greater sense of fulfillment when people come up to me and tell me how my music has impacted or affected their lives. More than anything, I think I have had servicemen and servicewomen tell me that they've gone through scary things and been away for long amounts of time in places that were obviously not comfortable for them, and that songs like Home brought them a ton of peace and got them through a tough time. I think when people say things like that to you, as an artist, it gives you a sense of understanding that what you do matters. I don't mean “matters” in a sense of being more important than the jobs of other people. But when you're missing people and you're away from your own family, there is power in music. There is power in sharing songs like that and allowing people to interpret them in their own way. I've heard the same stories from people who have gone through terrible breakups and people who have been legitimately lonely. They've said to me, "The song Haven't Met You Yet is getting me through.” And then Christmas comes up and I'll hear from people that that's all their kids listen to in the car, or it makes them think of their grandfather who they lost. It's a testament to the power of music. Melody is the voice of God, I think.
Allison Kugel: I'll tell you what I have always found fascinating about you, and I’m a fan of music from earlier times. I'm forever listening to music from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. What's so interesting about you is that you came along in the very early 2000s when everything was hip hop, and rap/rock. What made you believe that you could even break through as somebody who was crooning these songs from a bygone era?
Michael Buble: It was probably stupidity (laughs). I mean, thinking that I might have success was probably naiveté. But honest to God, I think I was blinded by the love of the music. And by the way, I love all kinds of music. I love rock, R & B and rap. For me, if it's good, it's good. It doesn't matter who did it or where it came from. I hoped that I could trust my instincts.
Allison Kugel: I’ve been listening to this author and speaker named Dr. Joe Dispenza. He studies the patterns of the human brain and how we create our own reality. He essentially talks about how anybody who has ever achieved something great, has been able to believe in a vision and believe in a life for themselves that they couldn’t’t yet perceive with their physical senses. When I read that you, from the age of two, knew you were going to be a singer, slept with your bible at night and prayed for it, and you held strong to that vision for all of those years before it actually materialized in your life, I put you in that great category. Does that make sense?
Michael Buble: Yeah, it does, and there’s a few people like Eckhart Tolle with The Power of Now, and some of these other philosophers who also talk about that. There is a Canadian writer [Malcolm Gladwell], he wrote a book called The Outliers. His whole premise was that to truly become great at something, you need to put in ten thousand hours of work. And if you find anyone who’s become truly great at what they do, they have put in that amount of time. There are little parts of what you were talking about that mix with the practical application of doing things enough and focusing enough. You learn by osmosis and your experience helps you to grow. Then by the time you get your opportunity, you’re ready. I think that probably had a lot to do with it for me. Number one, I loved it. I had a passion for the music and the songs, and all of that. But I did the work; I practiced, I sang, and I studied. I took it all in and I digested it as much as possible and downloaded it as much as possible in every kind of genre. I get what you’re saying. You’re talking about visualizing. I have a friend who tells me often that he used to walk down the street and say to himself, “I have a million dollars.” Not, “I want a million dollars,” but, “I have a million dollars; I am successful.”
Allison Kugel: You’re living it and believing it, rather than wishing for it.
Michael Buble: Yes, but this is a difficult conversation, because I think for people who have had the success and who have done that, they can confidently say to you, “Yes, it works. It worked for me, I did that.” For most of the people who don’t have that, I think they look at it as pish posh.
Allison Kugel: I think people afraid to relinquish their faith over to something that may leave them empty handed. It’s the fear of, well, if I really invest myself in this process and I really believe, and it doesn’t materialize in my life, I’ll be devastated. Therefore, I’m going to remain skeptical.
Michael Buble: There’s times where I think to myself, “My God, I worked at visualizing and praying and wanting, and putting out all of that stuff to the universe, and it worked.” But then there’s a lot of times where I have to say to myself that I was just so lucky, so lucky. I mean, a million dominoes had to fall in the most perfect way for this to have happened in my life. The question that I really ask myself is, if I had to do it all over again, would I be brave enough?
Allison Kugel: Mmm, okay. I’ll ask you the question. Knowing everything you now know about the music industry, about the odds, about everything you’re aware of; if you had to start from square one, would you have the courage to do it all over again?
Michael Buble: No.
Allison Kugel: You don’t think so?
Michael Buble: I don’t think so.
Allison Kugel: Wow. Well thank God that’s not an option!
Michael Buble: It’s a hard question to think about, because reality doesn’t come into it. I came home yesterday with my wife and we had to take our son to his checkup, the scans and everything (Buble is talking about his son Noah, who is currently in remission from pediatric liver cancer). We take him every three months for checkups, and it’s really scary. My wife and I actually talked about this and we said, “My God, look at what we did.” Here we were, she was twenty-three years old and I was thirty-two. We met in Argentina and we fell in love. Everyone told us that it was impossible. They told us not to do it, because it was too far away, the whole long-distance relationship thing. And we did it. We got married. Everyone said, “That’s crazy. That’s not going to work. And whatever you do, don’t have kids, because that’ll be murder.” And then we had kids. And then there’s what happened to our family (referencing son Noah’s cancer diagnosis). One of the first things a doctor told me at one of the hospitals we’d gone to, was to stay strong and help each other through this. A friend of ours, when we had asked why the doctors keep telling us that, this friend of ours who works with families going through things like this, said, that something like 92% of couples who go through this…
Allison Kugel: Get divorced…
Michael Buble: Get divorced. And many of the 8% who don’t, have [more] children. And of course, my wife and I thought here we are with a beautiful daughter. We were in the car yesterday and I looked at her, and said, “Would you do it all over again?” She then answered, “Of course I would do it all over again. I wouldn’t want anything different. You guys are the greatest joy of my life.” But then my question to her was, “But would you be brave enough to do it all over again?” And then she said, "I don’t know.” And I would have to say the same thing. I don’t know.
Allison Kugel: Any of us could say that. It’s like when you have a baby. You bring that baby home from the hospital, and the thought that goes through your mind is that you are going to give this kid a perfect existence, and you’re going to shelter him or her from any pain or discomfort. And then life happens, and you feel completely out of control because you realize that you don’t have the power to completely shield them from the pain and discomfort of life.
Michael Buble: And you don’t have the power to shield them from yourself. For sure, I thought to myself, “He’s going to be better than I am!” I am so flawed. I’m so flawed and so impatient, and there are so many things about me that I don’t like or that I wish I could improve on. And then you go, “Oh my God, he’s acting exactly like me.”
Allison Kugel: You do your best and nobody gets through life without bumps and bruises. Turning things over to the enormity of your career, when you’re on that stage looking out over the massive crowd of 20,000 or 30,000 people who are there to watch you perform, do you ever have an out-of-body experience, like you’re looking at this famous guy singing his heart out on stage and you’re just like, “How did I get here?!”
Michael Buble: It’s weird, I used to [feel like that] years ago. I don’t anymore. It’s really strange to say this, but after what I’ve gone through and what my family has gone through, I actually talk about it during my shows. I feel so deeply connected to all those beautiful souls in the audience; I don’t feel there is a difference between us. The truth is, they’re singing just as much as I am. We laugh together, we dance together, and we cry to together. The truth is, I would never have gotten through what I got through without them. I don’t care what people think of me. My goal in life is to be kind, and to do what I do with integrity, and just to know myself. But I’ll never use the word “fan.” I think it’s a shitty word.
Allison Kugel: It is a shitty word.
Michael Buble: It’s short for “fanatical,” and I think that’s negative. I don’t think these are fanatics. I think these are beautiful human beings who need as much love, and who give as much love, as anybody else. When I’m standing there on stage, it’s emotional for me. Sometimes I can control that emotion and sometimes I can’t. But you’re asking me how I feel, and it’s overwhelming. I feel overwhelmed… and grateful. I didn’t know if I was ever going to come back.
Allison Kugel: When you took that hiatus to deal with your son’s health, you really thought that could be it?
Michael Buble: Yeah.
Allison Kugel: What was the impetus for you to come back?
Michael Buble: He was better. We didn’t know how it was going to turn out. My heart was broken, I don’t know. It wasn’t that I ever fell out of love with music. I just didn’t know if I had it in me to go out there and be joyful. It just wasn’t something I could turn on.
Allison Kugel: And you returned with an album dedicated to love. The album’s title is a heart emoji, and features some of the most beautiful love songs. Is that because you were so filled with love and gratitude for your son’s healing?
Michael Buble: It’s because I was in a bubble, looking out at the world, and I saw a lot of negative things happening around the world. I realized that I had an opportunity to put beautiful things out there.
Allison Kugel: Which is so important, because we need as many people out there as possible lifting collective consciousness.
Michael Buble: Sometimes I feel like I’m just one small person, but I feel like there is a lot of power that one person can generate. We can all make a difference, and it usually comes in those random acts of kindness and putting love out there. I felt that if I didn’t do something that was being true to myself and true to how I felt about what the world needed, then I was one of the assholes that was making the world worse. I sat with my producer, David Foster, who had bene retired. And he wasn’t going back. This was a year before we ever got into the studio. I said, “Are you ever going to work again?” He said, “No, I don’t think so. I love being retired. I don’t think I could ever go back in the studio. What about you?” I said, “David, if I ever go back, I just want it to be joy. I want it to be bliss, and I want to work with people I love, put out beautiful music and make people fall in love.” I think both of us in that moment had this epiphany. After that day, he said to me, “Well, Mike, man, if I ever come back, it would be with you.” And then a year later we found ourselves in the studio doing it.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you are here in this life as Michael Buble to learn?
Michael Buble: Listen, I don’t know yet. I’m still learning a lot. What scares me is I’ve learned so much more in the past five years than I had in all my previous years combined. The reason I am reticent to give you an answer is because I can’t imagine what I will learn in another five. What I’ve learned is how much I don’t know. Life moves quickly, and… I think I sound like Ferris Bueller right now (laughs).
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) I was just thinking that!
Michael Buble: (Laughs) I think just waking up in the morning and focusing on being kind. It sounds weird, but just be kind, be loving, forgive and try to get through this very short life. And especially when you have kids, you hope your actions are louder than your words.
Allison Kugel: Dare I now ask, what you feel you are here to teach?
Michael Buble: I do have an idea, but it’s really personal to me and I don’t want to get preachy. But I do, and I think you do to. I can hear it in the way you speak. I think you have a good, solid idea of what you are doing here.
Allison Kugel: I’ve been studying this stuff for quite some time. I hope I don’t sound too airy fairy.
Michael Buble: It’s okay to be airy fairy. I have my faith and I try never to put it in people’s faces, because there’s a lot of people who don’t believe the same things I do, and that’s okay I don’t know who’s right, I really don’t. I can keep it simple and say I don’t know what there is or what there isn’t, but I feel in some way we are all connected. I know that each one of us gets to play a part in bringing goodness and humanity into the world. I feel like sometimes, because of the job I have, it can be magnified. If I can do that as best as I can, that can be my legacy.
Michael Buble Photos courtesy of Elissa Ayadi
Michael Buble’s seventh musical television special will air Wednesday, March 20th at 10 PM ET/PT on NBC. Buble’s tenth studio album, Love [illustrated with a simple heart emoji], is out now. Visit MichaelBuble.com/tour or TicketMaster.com for information and tickets for 2019 his worldwide tour.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record available on Amazon, and owner of communications firm, Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
Multi-award-winning actress, singer and dancer, Rita Moreno, blazed an iconic trail as the first mainstream Hispanic actress to grace Hollywood when she exploded onto the big screen as Anita in 1961’s classic film, West Side Story. The role earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, crowning her the first Hispanic performer to ever win an Academy Award. But even after taking home Hollywood’s top prize, Moreno’s career started and stalled repeatedly throughout the 1960s as she fought to be cast in roles that didn’t box her in to antiquated stereotypes. Though film roles for a leading lady of color were far and few between at the time, Rita Moreno turned her attention to television and music, taking home a Grammy Award in 1973 for Best Children’s Album during her stint on the popular children’s television program and, The Electric Company. Then came a Tony Award in 1975 for her work in the Broadway production of, The Ritz. Soon, two primetime Emmys followed in 1977 and 1978. Moreno was hard at work establishing herself as a bonified triple threat. She cemented an indelible legacy as one of the world’s most versatile and talented performers.
Throughout the ensuing decades, Moreno continued to take on roles on her own terms, proving her staying power for six decades. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she played Sister Peter Marie Reimondo in HBO’s first original and groundbreaking dramatic series, OZ.
Moreno currently stars as Abuelita Lydia Riera, the hilarious and spicy grandmother on the new incarnation of Norman Lear’s television creation, One Day at a Time, now streaming its third season on Netflix. The show’s official premise is, “Two Cultures, One Familia.” It’s an updated twist on the 1975 hit series starring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli and Pat Harrington, but with a twist. The reboot centers around a Hispanic American family, no doubt Lear’s way of thumbing his nose at some of the more racist rhetoric flung through 2016’s presidential campaign.
In 2014, Actor Morgan Freeman presented Moreno with the Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, calling her “a world class actress, singer and dancer,” and just as significantly, “a fighter, who battled to break free of racial and sexual barriers that plagued Hollywood’s golden age.” Before there was Rosie Perez, Salma Hyek or Jennifer Lopez, there was the inimitable Rita Moreno.
Recently, Moreno got the call from Steven Spielberg, for a forthcoming remake of the film that made her an icon, West Side Story. Moreno will play a role in the film as well as Executive Produce. I recently sat down with Rita Moreno to discuss her one-of-a-kind career and journey.
Allison Kugel: When you won your Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1962 for the film, West Side Story, you thought you would then transcend racial stereotypes with the parts you would be offered.
Rita Moreno: And I was very disappointed (laughs). Not only disappointed, but it really, really broke my heart.
Allison Kugel: I feel you. I've experienced it as a journalist, not in terms of ethnic discrimination, but the bewilderment of hitting a peak and then stalling. Your famous quote about this phase of your career was, "I showed them. I didn't work for seven years."
Rita Moreno: When I say, "I showed them," of course, I'm being facetious.
Allison Kugel: Of course. And in this business, it's very hard to turn down work. Writers write, Actors act, etc. It's what you do, and you crave it.
Rita Moreno: Not only crave it. It pays the rent.
Allison Kugel: Yeah, and then there’s that! (Laughs) Any regrets about taking that stance?
Rita Moreno: I think it was a very good decision on my part, because the only thing that was being offered, really, were gang movies, and they certainly weren't as interesting as West Side Story. I think it would have depressed the heck out of me to go back to that stuff. It paid off in the sense that I had peace of mind and I didn't feel like I was being insulted.
Allison Kugel: Let's talk about the amazing Norman Lear and the One Day at a Time reboot on Netflix you're starring in.
Rita Moreno: Isn't he something?!
Allison Kugel: I think he is a genius!
Rita Moreno: He is a genius, you're right. He's still going strong. He's going to be 96, and he can speak and he can walk (laughs). He's a remarkable man, and a lovely, lovely person.
Allison Kugel: All in the Family is my favorite sitcom of all time.
Rita Moreno: Oh, it's one of my favorite shows too!
Allison Kugel: The way he has tackled race, gender, religion, sexuality... on and on, has helped to re-shape our society. The original One Day at a Time with Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli and Pat Harrington that premiered in 1975 was very progressive in that single motherhood was much more taboo at that time. With this updated version, there’s an extra layer to the story in that the family are Hispanic Americans. After all you went through in terms of fighting for roles that accurately represent Hispanic people, do you feel a sense of vindication at portraying a positive representation of a Hispanic family on television?
Rita Moreno: Vindication implies that I'm still angry. No, I don't feel any sense of vindication. I'm just so happy and so proud that Hispanics have more representation. I think we're still not there. I think we are underrepresented. But feeling vindictive is a waste of time, don’t you think?
Allison Kugel: Wrong choice of words. Perhaps a better way to put it would be, “a sense of wholeness.” I was watching an episode earlier, and there’s a scene where your character, Lydia, is talking about the racial slurs she had to endure in her generation. When her daughter and granddaughter ask her for specifics, Lydia summons up the courage to say the word "spic" out loud. The context of the scene is that she is disempowering that word that was so painful for her. To be able to stand there and say it, and disempower the word...
Rita Moreno: What was so remarkable about that scene is that kids don't even [fully] understand that word. It's bizarre. Lydia is carrying on and on about the word "spic," and everybody in the room is like, "Yeah, so?” It was a terrible word in my time. I love that!
Allison Kugel: I have to give so much credit to the show’s creator, Norman Lear. The courage to look something in the eye and stare it down, man, and incorporate comedy into it is amazing.
Rita Moreno: That's a wonderful way to put it, yes. You're right.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope viewers of the updated ODAAT will learn about Hispanic American families?
Rita Moreno: It's what I think they are learning, because we have now gained an American audience as well. We always, of course, had the Hispanic community watching the show. People who are not Hispanic are learning that family is family, is family. It's universal. That's what Norman was hoping for. You want the universality of the situation to work on people, and that's what has happened. The moment of, "Oh My God. We're like that too!" Just add in some spice and some deliciousness, which is the Hispanic nature of the show.
Allison Kugel: If you live in a smaller town in the United States, where you are only surrounded by people who are just like you, it's so easy to dismiss other types of people, because you don't have to get to know them. Once you get to know people who are different from you and you see their humanity, it becomes much harder to be dismissive.
Rita Moreno: Yeah. And I find that a lot of people who watch our show just love Lydia. She's so outrageous and so big. Children love Lydia. Go figure!
Allison Kugel: Because your character is that bridge between what was and what is. You're teetering on the edge between the old school stuff that you came of age with, while trying to embrace the world we're living in now.
Rita Moreno: She's familiar with what she calls "JouTube." (Moreno puts on a Cuban accent) and "SnapChap." (Laughs) But she's familiar with it, which is terrific. It's because we have a room full of young writers who are all into that kind of stuff. For the new season, there’s an episode that guest stars Gloria Estefan. It's hilarious. She plays my sister, and all I can tell you is we hate each other. The whole episode is centered around a funeral of an aunt, and Gloria's character comes to town to attend the funeral. Gloria is absolutely, deliciously funny! And of course, we're both over the top as we're trying to do air kisses that are about three feet apart.
Allison Kugel: When you hear other Hispanic performers speak, and I know I have heard this from Jennifer Lopez, they always refer to you as the gold standard of excellence and inspiration. You were the performer who made them believe that this career was achievable for them. Have you had a chance to speak to any of the younger Latino actors and singers about your influence on them?
Rita Moreno: I've heard it from Jennifer, and I've heard it from Rosie Perez, and also from Andy Garcia.
Allison Kugel: As someone who emigrated to the states from Puerto Rico as a young girl and who wanted to be a performer, who did you look to as a blueprint?
Rita Moreno: Well, you know what? No, there were no role models when I was young and in the movies in my late teens. There was nobody. So, I chose one for myself. I chose Elizabeth Taylor because she was close to my age and she was brunette (laughs); and she was beautiful and gorgeous. I made her my role model. But, you know, there was just nobody that looked like me in a public [space]. The Hispanic community very often calls me La Pionera, the Pioneer.
Allison Kugel: How do you define yourself as a human being?
Rita Moreno: I'm a family person before anything else. I have a daughter, Fernanda Louisa, that I'm insane about. And I have two grandsons, and that is where I live. They are in my heart all the time. I adore them, and I don't have much family; I never did because I left Puerto Rico with my mom on a ship, and that was the end of family. I never saw them again. I had a brother that I never saw. His name was Francisco.
Allison Kugel: And there was no contact after you left Puerto Rico? That was it?
Rita Moreno: No, and I attribute that to my mom. For whatever reasons, she just stayed away. I don't know how to explain it, because I don't understand it. By the time I did try to find him, I couldn't find him. About a month or two after my book came out (Rita Moreno: A Memoir/Celebra Books), I heard that he died. I have a half-brother, Sam Alverio, because that's my true [last] name. I’m Rosa Dolores Alverío (she speaks her full birth name, punctuated with the pride of a strong Puerto Rican accent). I speak to him on the phone now and then. That's about it. Like many Hispanic people, I'm sure I have tons and tons of distant cousins.
Allison Kugel: How do you find peace in your heart regarding the brother who passed away?
Rita Moreno: I just have to tell myself that it's not my fault. My mom, for whatever reason, she always had difficulties with men. I had four stepfathers. It doesn’t make me happy, but that’s the reality of the situation.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about the upcoming remake of the film West Side Story. That’s a hell of a segue!
Rita Moreno: Isn’t that astonishing though? Talk about coming full circle.
Allison Kugel: How did you become involved as Executive Producer?
Rita Moreno: [Steven Spielberg] always wanted to do the film, and he was a good friend of Robert Wise, who co-directed the original film with Jerome Robbins. When the original West Side Story film came out [in 1961] Steven was crazy about it, and that’s when he got very close to Robert Wise. He said he just hounded him about how the film was shot. It’s something he always wanted to re-do. The interesting thing is that he’s not updating it. It will still take place in 1957. It’s Romeo and Juliet. What’s wonderful about the young girl that he chose for the remake (17-year-old newcomer, Rachel Zegler) is a young girl. Natalie Wood was a woman. I was a woman, playing Anita. I was really, way too old for that role. But that’s how it happened, then. Tony Kushner is doing the script. He wrote Angels in America. They both thought that the original part of Doc (the candy store owner in the 1961 film played by Ned Glass) was not fully realized, which I think is true. They both agreed that they weren’t terribly interested in that role for the remake. One, or both of them said, “What about Rita Moreno as Doc’s wife?” So, the storyline in the new film will be that Doc passed away, and now it’s Valentina who runs the candy store. They offered the Executive Producer credit to me, because Steven feels that I am the bridge to this movie.
Allison Kugel: You’re offering all this first-person insight into what went on during the filming of the original movie.
Rita Moreno: Exactly. He’s asked me a lot of questions, and he will probably ask even more. We talk about the shots all the time, because, you know, the director of the original film, Bob Wise, was really an editor. He was a great, great editor. He did Citizen Kane with Orson Welles.
Allison Kugel: With the original West Side Story, Natalie Wood who played Maria, was not Hispanic. She also didn’t sing. She lip synced the songs (Marni Nixon voiced Natalie Wood’s songs in the original West Side Story). This isn’t a knock at Natalie Wood, who did a great job in the role, but with the times we’re living in now, people would now be hyper-sensitive to something like that. Is the young actress who will play Maria in the remake, of Puerto Rican descent?
Rita Moreno: She’s Hispanic and that’s what counts. I think she’s Columbian. Here’s the thing; she’s Hispanic, she sings and she’s seventeen. With Romeo and Juliet, that’s how old Juliet was supposed to be. She’s very young. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner have been absolutely crazy when it comes to finding Hispanic people to play the Hispanic roles. They even called the University of Puerto Rico and made an appointment for a panel meeting with an audience who were allowed to ask questions about the movie, and [express] how they felt about it. So, they really, really killed themselves with respect to that. But I did tell Steven, I said, “You know there are always people with agendas. There will always be somebody who’s not happy with it because of… whatever. So, get used to that. It’s going to happen.”
Allison Kugel: You can’t make everybody happy. I remember when Jennifer Lopez played Selena Quintanilla in the biopic, Selena, and people were in an uproar because Jennifer’s not Mexican like Selena was.
Rita Moreno: That just makes me furious. Let’s put it this way, if I’m playing a Jewish person in a movie, is it going to matter if I am a Sephardic Jew or a Russian Jew? It’s outrageous. You can’t always find the one you want because we’re now talking about someone who can sing and who knows music who can dance, come on!
Allison Kugel: I'm sure you've heard the acronym, EGOT - for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner. You are one.
Rita Moreno: Mine has one extra letter. I’m a KEGOT. The “K” is for a Kennedy Center Honors award. How do you like that?
Allison Kugel: Where are all these awards displayed throughout your home?
Rita Moreno: They're on several shelves, because I have a bunch of them. And, Oh My God, this year I'm getting so many. I have a feeling that they're all saying to each other, "Quick, let's honor her before she kicks the bucket!" Now it's getting ridiculous, and I've actually turned some of them down.
Allison Kugel: You could get a really big, ostentatious wall unit curio and make it the awards curio.
(Rita bursts out laughing at this idea)
Rita Moreno: There is a thing called overexposure. I'm really trying to cool it a little bit.
Allison Kugel: How do you process all of that? It's hard enough to break through as a performer, but you've won every coveted award there is. Do you process it through your ego? Do you process it through your heart? Do you see it from a higher perspective?
Rita Moreno: When I pass by all of these awards in the living room, and my living room is two steps down from the rest of the house, so I don't go in there often... but when I'm in the living room and I look at these shelves, I sometimes stop and look at them and say, "My God. What an extraordinary journey this has been." This little Puerto Rican girl; born in Puerto Rico, brought up in the United States... how astonishing is that? It's fabulous and I cannot be casual about it. I'm not. I'm absolutely stunned.
Allison Kugel: You feel a sense of awe. It's not, “Look at me.” It's, “Look at this amazing journey.”
Rita Moreno: Oh. hell no! I feel a sense of awe. How did this happen?! I say that to myself, "How on earth did this happen? Wow!" I wish so much that my mom was alive to see this. Oh God, I miss her so much. She would be so proud. She did live long enough to attend the Oscars with me.
Photo Credits: Rita Moreno Headshot, Austin Hargrave; One Day at a Time sills, Courtesy of Netflix
Season 3 of “One Day at a Time” is now streaming on Netflix. Follow Rita Moreno on Twitter and Instagram @theritamoreno.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record available on Amazon. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
Melanie Brown aka Mel B has reigned supreme as the spiciest of her bandmates since bursting onto the entertainment scene as Scary Spice in 1996 with the group’s #1 hit Wannabe. With a wild hair, piercings and a raucous personality to match, she began making headlines and never stopped. Her tempestuous marriages and some romantic near misses, including her split from Eddie Murphy heard ‘round the world, have at times overshadowed her on-camera talent on shows like UK’s X Factor and America’s Got Talent.
For years, rumors swirled about drug use and a party girl image cultivated during her marriage to ex-husband Stephen Belafonte. What few knew was the house of horrors that existed behind closed doors that Melanie’s oldest daughter, nineteen-year-old Phoenix, and Melanie’s mother, Andrea, both attest to in great and excruciating detail in Melanie’s recently released memoir, Brutally Honest. And brutally honest it is, as the outspoken girl from Leeds, England with the heavy Yorkshire accent (her most charming quality) recalls everything from growing up of mixed-race heritage during a time when it was anything but the norm, to Spice Girls fame, drugs, bisexuality, tempestuous romances, and a ten year marriage that she claims was so abusive that it drove her to attempt suicide in 2014. Four years after that horrific episode which left her with organ damage and a lot of bruised pride, Melanie slowly rebuilt her strength, finally filing for divorce from Belafonte in 2017. The two remain embroiled in a bitter legal battle, but Melanie takes solace in spreading her message about domestic abuse and domestic violence. Along with promoting her book, she is advocating for others who have experienced various forms of intimate or domestic partner abuse as a part of her daily work, along with motherhood and preparing to hit the road in 2019 with the Spice Girls.
After getting to know Melanie, I feel compelled to add that despite erroneous reports associated with her recent fall and subsequent hand injury, she insists that she is now substance-free, and I believe her.
Allison Kugel: How are your spirits these days?
Mel B: Obviously, I’m still on my healing path and it’s going to be an ongoing thing. Just taking care of myself, meditating, doing my reiki and eating well. I actually couldn’t be happier right now. I know there are more happier times to come, but right now I’m in a really good place and it’s taken me a long time to even get to this place, so I’m thankful.
Allison Kugel: Let’s go back a bit so people can get the big picture. What did the Spice Girls fame and hysteria of the 1990s feel like at the nucleus of it, from the inside looking out?
Mel B: It was tiring, but we really didn’t care because it was five girls together who all had each other, living our dream life. We were living in England, struggling financially, not having much to eat, convincing people to let us borrow their recording studios so that we could sit down and write and [record] our music. There was a phase of a couple of years where it was really, really tough. When we got to release our first single, Wannabe, and we signed with a record company and got Simon Fuller involved to manage us, it was really good, happy times that all five of us had dreamt of, and we were actually living that life. We were traveling the world, singing, performing, dancing, writing music and making a movie. It was a really beautiful few years. Of course, we were tired, because we didn’t allow ourselves any time off. But we were in control of what we did and when we did it, and we knew that we had to soar through life like a big tornado and strike while the iron was hot.
Allison Kugel: What do you feel you came into this life as Melanie Brown to learn?
Mel B: Well, I think the number one thing is that I come from a white mother and a black father. Back in the 1970s when they got together and had me, that was seen as something that wasn’t really done. They had a lot of things that they had to overcome in bringing me into the world and raising me in an area of England, four hours outside of London, where there weren’t any other mixed-race girls. That was one thing I had to find, was my own identity. Apart from the likes of Neneh Cherry and maybe Tracy Chapman, there really wasn’t anybody that I could look up to where I felt like I belonged, or anyone who I felt like I even looked like. For me, it was all about creating a path where hopefully other mixed-race girls, and other mixed-race kids could actually follow. For example, I never had my hair braided. I always wore my hair out. I’m very opinionated, but for the right reasons; not just to cause a ruckus. I do believe that I am here, somewhat, to make it okay to be in the skin that you’re in and the color that you are.
Allison Kugel: My next question was going to be, what are you here to teach? But I think you answered it.
Mel B: Yes, that is definitely a part of it, but I am here to learn, of course. One thing that is an ongoing thread in my life since I’ve been very young, like 2 or 3 years old, is being very honest. Kids are very honest, and they’re not sidetracked by their surroundings. They say exactly what they feel. That’s one of my things that I stick by and swear by, which is being completely transparent and honest. It’s not to offend or intimidate anybody. It comes from a good place and I have good intentions, but it is an ongoing thread in my life.
Allison Kugel: I always say that none of us are so fallible that we have nothing to teach, and even the wisest among us are also here to learn. We are all students, and we are all teachers.
Mel B: Sure. We can’t know everything, and knowledge is power. I wasn’t very educated when it comes to schooling or on paper. I’ve experienced more education through life’s experiences, through traveling, and through getting myself into certain situations, whether it be through work and dealing with contracts or from talking to the man down the street who’s waiting for his bus.
Allison Kugel: Obviously, the situation with your most recent ex, Stephen Belafonte is extremely contentious. But in general, how are you navigating co-parenting with three different fathers in the picture?
Mel B: My oldest is nineteen, so I had to do every other weekend and certain weekdays for eighteen years, and there’s a point where your fourteen or fifteen year old doesn’t want to go to her father and that’s a difficult task. I’ve never said a bad word about any of their fathers to my daughters. Angel’s eleven years old and she sees her dad (Eddie Murphy) on a regular basis. She’s actually going to his house next week to do the family Christmas card, which is really lovely. My seven-year-old, Madison, that’s all happening through the court, so that is kind of out of my hands. One thing I do with all my three girls, is I make sure they know that they’re loved, and that they came from a place of a loving relationship. Even though they didn’t quite work out, and me and their dads didn’t stay together, they all know that they came from a lot of love. One thing that is mandatory is that I always make it a very exciting thing when I send them off to their fathers. Angel is different, because me and her dad don’t have any problems with each other. With Madison (Brown’s seven-year-old daughter with ex-husband, Stephen Belafonte), they take everything in, so I try to make it exciting for her, even though I obviously have huge issues with her father.
Allison Kugel: Are you frightened for Madison when you send her off to see Stephen? Based on the abuse you’ve described in your book, aren’t you frightened for her to be around her father?
Mel B: I don’t think it’s fair for me to say that. All I can say is that I fought through the courts for her to have mandatory therapy every Saturday with a specialized therapist who is very aware of the situation. If there was anything for the therapist to be concerned about she would be able to flag it, based on the kind of intense therapy that she is doing with Madison. I have to trust and believe that if there was anything that I should be majorly concerned about, I’ve got a professional right there that can spot it before I do.
Allison Kugel: How about from work? Even a phone call from work?
Mel B: I wasn’t allowed to take my phone to work. And like I said, this doesn’t just happen overnight. They chip away at you, so you wind up going, “Oh, he took my phone because he wanted to get it fixed for me, or he’s going to put a new app on there.” It’s all done in a very controlling, obvious, yet un-obvious way. That’s the part that you don’t want to believe is happening. You still want to believe that they love you. It’s like, “Oh, I’ll go see the accountant because you’re working today.” You think, “Oh, that’s really nice.” When they’re actually going behind your back taking your credit cards and changing the name on the accounts to their name. When you’re in an abusive relationship, everyone is isolated from you, and they’re scared to call you. They’re scared to get in contact with you, because they too have been verbally abused by your abuser. You end up walking around going, “Why hasn’t my mom called?” Or “Why is my friend being really strange with me?” You don’t really know why, but now looking back, I know exactly why.
Allison Kugel: I get what you’re saying, but I know that I could literally go to my mother at any time. I could go to a police station and call her if I had to.
Mel B: How could I when I’m only allowed to be driven by him, or a driver that is one of his friends? And all I did was work-come home; work-come home.
Allison Kugel: It’s good to gain this deeper understanding from you, because people will think, she’s not your average Jane. She has all the resources in the world.
Mel B: It’s like having everything and nothing. And on the flip side, you’re not ready to admit anything to anyone else. If I were to call my mom up and say, “Mom, I’m being abused,” she’ll go, “What?!” You don’t want to admit to anybody and have to explain, because there is an element of no one’s going to believe you, which is what the abuser will put into your head, “No one’s going to believe you. You’re just fat and ugly. If you leave, I’m going to expose you on this level and that level. And even if you said anything to anybody, no one’s going to believe you because you’re full of shit,” kind of thing.
Allison Kugel: Your self-esteem is in the gutter and you stop believing in yourself. It becomes a mental prison, is what you’re saying.
Mel B: When I was at work I did believe in myself, because he couldn’t get to me at work. Nobody wanted to see him. They wanted to see me on camera. I’m very experienced and I’m very confident in what I say, so that was actually my savior, going to work. It was coming home that I dreaded, because I didn’t know what I was going to be experiencing that night.
Allison Kugel: You spent a decade walking on eggshells.
Mel B: Yeah, basically. Having spoken to a lot of these women who are in [shelters], and that are essentially in hiding from their abuser, they have exactly the same story that I have. They’re controlled, they’re captured, they’re abused on many different levels, they’re embarrassed and ashamed, and they don’t want anyone to know.
Allison Kugel: My takeaway from your book was, do not go into a new relationship when you are feeling depleted, because you’re likely not going to make empowering choices.
Mel B: But sometimes you may think that you’re over your ex, or you’re over the drama of having a baby with somebody and then breaking up; you think that you do feel fine. Sometimes it’s the kind of thing where you say, “I’m just going to smile, because the more I smile, the more I feel good.” And you’re thinking that you do feel good. There is no set time as to when you definitely feel at your most confident, or your vulnerability is gone. We’re women. We’re always going to have that little bit of self-doubt or that moment where before our period we feel a bit bloated and a bit frumpy. Women are very emotional, so there’s no set rule as to whether an abuser can come into your life. They don’t show up and go, “I’m an abuser. I’m going to do this and that to you.” No. They gaslight you. They make you feel like a princess one day, and then they make you feel like you’re a fat, ugly, unworthy cow the next day. And like I said, they find you, you don’t find them.
Allison Kugel: As a parent, knowing how difficult certain conversations can be between parent and child, I have to ask, how do you have a conversation with your teenage daughter about some of the more explicit things in your book? In your book, you’re talking about cocaine use, about threesomes and Phoenix read all of this. What does that conversation even look like?
Mel B: It’s not like I said, “Let’s sit down and talk about cocaine.”
Allison Kugel: But Melanie, how could that stuff not come up?
Mel B: I’m very, very open. I sit down with her and have a conversation with her in a way that’s relatable and understandable. I’ll let her know that if she wants to be sexually active or if she is sexually active, number one is to be safe. And if you want to experiment with a girl, or if you want to experiment with, let’s say, a threesome, make sure it’s consensual and make sure you actually feel safe. It is a conversation that you need to have. I’ll always say to her, “Why do you want to do this?” and “If you do that, how do you think it’s going to make you feel?” Because you never want to encourage your kids to go out there and try everything and anything; there’s always a reason. Some kids, they don’t need to try that kind of stuff. They don’t need to try anything sexually, apart from just to be with one person. They may not need to try lots of drugs, even though their friends [are doing it] or they’re around it. Luckily, I’ve got a really good, solid nineteen-year-old that has seen a lot and been around a lot. She knows, morally, what she feels comfortable with, and her morals are solid. She isn’t one of those teenagers running around, up to no good.
Allison Kugel: She didn’t express any disappointment, that you, her role model, fell from grace in terms of the drug use?
Mel B: No, if anything I’m a hero that got out alive and I’m eloquent enough to be able to speak about my story without too much pain in my voice, even though there is a lot of pain. She’s very proud of me. She’s encouraging me to talk more about it. That is why she, along with my mother, wrote a passage in the book.
Allison Kugel: Are you clean and sober today?
Mel B: Yeah. I haven’t taken a drug since the day I left him (ex-husband, Stephen Belafonte). What you’ll find in these abusive relationships is that the abuser is the one that provides you with all your alcohol and all your drugs. I’ve never had an addictive personality. I’m addicted to loving life, but that’s about it.
Allison Kugel: In a recent interview your daughter Phoenix gave about your marriage to Stephen, she describes walking halfway up the stairs one night and witnessing a rape in progress, and then running back downstairs to her room.
Mel B: I’ve always had houses where my bedroom is at the top of the house away from the family rooms, the kids’ rooms, everything. I guess one time she snuck up[stairs] because she heard me screaming or crying. She jutted the door open a little bit and she witnessed that, which I didn’t even know she’d witnessed until after I’d left him two years ago and started writing the book. She was adamant about that story going in the book. That story didn’t go in the book, but it actually went into an interview that she did, and she was adamant to talk about it. I did say to her at the time, “Are you sure about that?” She said, “Well, yeah mom, it’s important, because when you’re in an abusive relationship mom it doesn’t just effect you. It effects your kids, your friends and your family.” She said, “I want to talk about it.”
Allison Kugel: Do you pray? And who or what do you pray to?
Mel B: I meditate. I became a reiki master at nineteen. I’m all about affirmations and meditation, and just being mindful and thoughtful. I do go to church. I go to the Agape Church which is very spiritual. I go there two or three times a month with my kids, and it’s very uplifting.
Allison Kugel: Why make a public declaration that Eddie Murphy is the love of your life?
Mel B: It wasn’t really a public declaration. Don’t forget that when I started writing the book with my friend, there was no contract between me and my friend, there was no book publishing deal; there was nothing. I was writing it for self-healing; just for me kind of a thing. The more we researched, the more we learned that it didn’t just happen to me. It happened to many, many women, and we realized we needed to get this story out. We decided to delve deeply into all of the issues that people don’t talk about. I’m very much a source of information when it comes to coercive behavior and abuse, because I’ve lived it for ten years.
Allison Kugel: But what was the connection to speaking about how you still feel about Eddie?
Mel B: Oh yeah, back to that (laughs)!
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) Minor detail.
Mel B: One of the parts of the book that my friend couldn’t quite piece together was… why was I at my most vulnerable when my abuser came into my life. I’d just had Angel. She was two months old and then the monster came into my life. My friend and co-writer, Louise, was trying to figure out why I was feeling so vulnerable. Then it became, “Oh, you felt vulnerable because of the Eddie situation, so let’s talk about that.” I wanted to be able to talk about it and express it. I didn’t even fully understand it when we started talking about it; what went wrong and how it all kind of fell apart. It was important for me to put it all down on paper and do it from my recollection, and remind myself that I do know what a loving, respectful relationship is, because I had that and much more with Eddie. It was so important for me to put pen to paper with that, because I also had never spoken about it. I wanted people to know, and I wanted my daughter to know that it wasn’t just a wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and let’s move on to the next. It was a very loving courtship. It didn’t end well, but it was a major love story that was one of the biggest love stories of my life.
Allison Kugel: And your mom is, of course, back in your life…
Mel B: Yes, and she’s actually just about to drop the kids off at school now.
Allison Kugel: You guys are totally back on track again with your relationship?
Mel B: Yes. When my dad died, even though those circumstances were horrendous, and it was heartbreaking… my dad was at the point of no return. He was going to die and that was that. His death actually brought my whole entire family and my friends back together again. It was quite a serendipitous time, because it brought us all back together in a way that was sad, but really happy in the fact that we could all be in the same room together. For my mom, it’s been very healing. She, like my nineteen year old, wanted to write her own chapter in my book. And they both did the audio for my book. My mom and my daughter both really wanted to be a part of this.
Allison Kugel: You’re about to run off to a Spice Girls meeting later. Can you share?
Mel B: It’s about the tour. We put six shows up for grabs and we ended up doing thirteen because they sold out. We’re going to be talking about staging, choreography and our dancers. It will be all of us on tour, but without Victoria. She sends all of us her blessing, but she has always been adamant that performing is not really her thing. She’s busy with her family and her fashion empire. I still have hope that at some point she joins us, but as of right now she’s not.
Allison Kugel: The Scary Spice of twenty years ago was brash and bold, and very tell it like it is. You were the tough girl. After everything you’ve been through so publicly with heartbreak and abuse and people seeing that you are quite vulnerable, now who will Scary Spice be as you head out on the road in 2019?
Mel B: I’m still the same. A little more educated and more aware, and I would say more honest which could be misinterpreted as being even more brash and even more loud (laughs).
Allison Kugel: What qualities will you now look for at some point when you want to find love again?
Mel B: I don’t even want to think about that! It’s not on my radar. I’m very happy being single. I’m raising three kids, I’m on my own healing journey and I’m busy with work. I’m the only one paying my bills, and I’m paying the monster’s bills also every month and the lawyer’s bills. I’m focusing on the time I have off from work, just being with my kids. I’ve just put up the Christmas tree two days ago and I’m putting decorations all over the house, and it’s nice.
Allison Kugel: What is the rainbow or silver lining in the cloud for you?
Mel B: It would have to be my kids. They’re the ones that I wake up to every morning and I go to sleep with every night. It’s reassuring for me that they’re happy, they’re on track academically, they’re on track with me as far as our mother/daughter relationships goes. I’m so very, very proud of them. Also, what has been eye opening and reassuring for me is the fact that Women’s Aid (https://www.womensaid.org.uk/) had made me a Patron of their federation. They deal with these kinds of abusive relationships. They find you help, they find you refuge, they help you get educated, they help you if you need help through the legal system. They reassure you that you are not alone, that this happens a lot, and they make you feel safe.
If you or someone you care about is currently in an abusive relationship, and in need of assistance, please contact https://www.womensaid.org.uk/ in the UK or The National Domestic Violence Hotline at https://www.thehotline.org/ in the U.S. for help and resources.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Melanie Brown/Hardie Grant Publishing
Brutally Honest by Melanie Brown with Louise Gannon is available in bookstores and on Amazon.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record available on Amazon. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
On October 3rd, Paula Abdul hit the road on her North American tour; a tour that’s been more than twenty-five years in the making, since her 1992 Under My Spell tour which grossed $60 million in ticket sales (a mint by 1992 standards), yet also yielded some tragedy that almost sidelined the beloved performer forever. The world knows Paula at the plucky, iconic dancer and popstar turned American Idol judge, turned legacy performer. What people may not know is that this Grammy-winning legend had to climb a mountain of adversity, both physical and emotional, to dance again.
For Abdul, this 2018 Straight Up Paula! tour is a miracle in the making. When audiences come out to see her this fall, they will bear witness to one of the greatest comeback stories in show business history. Because of Abdul’s preference for handling tough times privately, our conversation may shock you, and it will also make you root for her. Abdul’s imitable strength is in her refusal to allow her story to end with tragedy. She insisted on a second act with her long running stint on American Idol as the judge with heart, to Simon Cowell’s stone-cold blunt criticisms of aspiring vocalists. The show introduced her to a new generation of fans. Her Straight Up Paula! tour is a triumphant third act where she’ll share, not only her catalog of music and iconic choreography, but her surprisingly poignant life story.
Beyond singing and dancing, it was Abdul’s million-dollar smile, huge heart and humble responses during interviews that captured the publics’ affections and helped to define an entire generation. Beginning with her first #1 hit, Straight Up, in 1988, Paula Abdul was a Gen X darling of epic proportions. She brought something new and engaging to the mix, matching meticulous dance choreography with pop music.
Paula Abdul’s warmth and accessible appeal made an entire generation smitten. As someone put it to me recently, “She could have been your best friend’s sister, your cute neighbor… the girl next door you just had to get to know.”
Allison Kugel: You’ve said that when it comes to your choreography, you would often dream the dance steps up in your mind, and then you would run to the bathroom mirror and go through the steps that you’d already envisioned. I find that so interesting, because that’s how I write. I write by either talking to myself or thinking out loud, whatever you want to call it (laughs); or by having these inspired thoughts that come into my awareness. I’ll then rush over to the computer and type it all out. By the time I get to my computer, it’s already written, just like by the time you get to that mirror the choreography is already done.
Paula Abdul: Exactly the same!
Allison Kugel: Do you feel that when it comes to your choreography, it’s being channeled through you, like it’s coming from some higher source? Because that’s how I often feel…
Paula Abdul: Yes, that completely makes sense to me, because sometimes I’ll even question myself, like, “Where did that idea come from?” It’s really strange, but sometimes I can be in this zone where it feels like auto-pilot, and I’m not even aware of it. It’s kind of cool.
Allison Kugel: I remember reading something your mom said years ago, about you being four or five years old and declaring that you were meant to be a dancer; something to that effect. When did you start taking dancing lessons?
Paula Abdul: I started taking dancing lessons at seven, but I was four years old when I walked up to the TV set and told my family, “I’m going to do that,” and it was while watching Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.
Allison Kugel: Well, I remember your mom telling a story about a night when it was raining so hard outside that she couldn’t bring you to your dance class, and you were hysterical crying. The thought of missing a dance class was just devastating to you. Did you actually feel from that very young age that dancing is what you were put on this earth to do?
Paula Abdul: I absolutely did feel that way. I knew what my calling was. It’s very interesting, because I find that with dance, for many young kids, it’s just like that. I hear from so many parents saying that their daughter, that’s all she does. She does her studies, but she takes six classes a week and can’t bear the thought of not being able to make it through a class. Dance can strike a chord in your heart unlike anything else. It gets into your soul and it changes people’s lives. It’s been [therapeutic] for me, and for most people who dance. I hear so many of the same stories.
Allison Kugel: Is there anything else you feel you are still here to accomplish or experience, that has yet to be done?
Paula Abdul: I really want to do some more producing, both in television and film. I’d also like to do some more acting, something that is completely against type. I think it would be more challenging and fun, and it allows you to explore in a way where most people have no idea that a character like that can be within you.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about your tour, Straight Up Paula!. Are you going to make each song’s choreography and costumes reminiscent of the original music videos, or will you change it up to reflect present day?
Paula Abdul: It will be a little of both. I know that fans come to hear those songs, and they will, but I’m not doing a direct replication of those [music] videos. There is a nod to them, with a little bit of nostalgia. But for me, this is an opportunity to create my own vision of what I want to do in terms of interpreting the songs. I’m incorporating lots of technology and multimedia, and with some storytelling as well. I’m also going to cover some fun things, and some not so fun things, from my life in this show. It’s giving people a little bit more insight into who I am, and the career I’ve had.
Allison Kugel: Going back to what we were talking about before, about being in the zone, how do you know when you’re in that zone and your creativity is flowing; versus when it feels forced?
Paula Abdul: For me, there is such a difference when there is a flow. Eight or nine hours can go by, and I can’t even believe it. And then there are times when it seems like the day will never end. I’ve learned that when the latter is happening, I have to do an abrupt about face and change the environment; step outside, do some other activity to wipe the slate clean. When you’re hitting a wall, it’s stagnant energy. It’s not creative, and it’s not conducive to rehearsal hall or anything else I’m trying to accomplish. For me, muscle memory is now a tricky thing. Your brain also, in terms of remembering, it’s different now. Things that were natural in my body, from so many years of injuries, I need to re-address certain dance moves and change it to what feels better for me now.
Allison Kugel: When you were talking about time flying by, or crawling by, it reminds me of what Deepak Chopra says about time not really existing, except in our minds. If you’re in the zone, you lose track of time and nine hours feels like nine minutes.
Paula Abdul: And it’s the best feeling, I’m sure you know! I can’t stand the latter, when time crawls. It’s the worst. You want to just cancel the day and start fresh the next day.
Allison Kugel: I always say that if you are in a creative field, it’s an odd thing, because you can’t just clock in and clock out. You have to be in a certain creative flow or nothing much is going to happen. Sometimes the best thing you can do when you feel that way is to not work.
Paula Abdul: It’s true, because it’s more of a wasted day, and it’s miserable (laughs).
Allison Kugel: I ask this question of everyone, because I learn so much about people through this question… when you pray, who or what do you pray to?
Paula Abdul: I believe in God, and I do pray to God. But I am also spiritual in the sense that I know I have angels around me, and I know to pay attention to the signs I get from the universe. I used to not pay attention to the signs that were right in front of me. I feel that I finally get it. I do pay attention now, as I’ve gotten older, to those signs the universe gives me.
(Paula’s dog wanted some attention and began to get very vocal in the background. We paused for a minute, so Paula could give her some love…)
Paula Abdul: It’s so funny! Every time I’m doing an interview and she’s supposed to be quiet, she knows, and she starts up (laughs)!
Allison Kugel: She can join in the conversation!
Paula Abdul: Do you have any dogs?
Allison Kugel: I have two dogs whom I adore, and I love horses as well. I ride horses a lot. Have you ever ridden?
Paula Abdul: That’s so cool. There is this one place called Miraval Resort and Spa in Arizona. It’s magical and mystical, and they do this whole equine course. It’s unbelievable how vulnerable and therapeutic the experience is.
Allison Kugel: Do you see yourself as a pioneer with putting dance at the forefront of the pop music industry?
Paula Abdul: I definitely do. I feel that’s one of my biggest contributions. That’s what people herald me as doing, and it’s nice to know that. It’s nice to know that you can create and spark those kinds of dance crazes, but also that they can stand the test of time. A lot of dancers will say, “You’re American Music Awards dance opening numbers are ‘almanac.’” (Laughs) And artists that will say, “Man, I watched and learned everything that you ever did.” It’s wonderful to hear that.
Allison Kugel: You came into the business as a dancer, and as a choreographer, and then you ventured into recording music. At that time, although you were extremely commercially successful, you had your share of critics. A lot of other artists at the time said, “She’s really a dancer, just trying to be a singer. She’s off-key, she should stick to choreography…” How did you handle that kind of criticism back then, and how do you handle it now?
Paula Abdul: I feel like being in this business for over thirty years, you learn how to handle constructive criticism, and just plain old, simple criticism. What I have learned is that, although I can’t just say what the formula is for success, because success is different for everyone, I do know that a recipe for failure is trying to please everyone. You never will. For me, I’m an entertainer that happened to resonate with millions of people. I’m grateful for that. I’ve never claimed to be the best at anything. I’m a constant, perpetual student, and I love learning. I love improving upon weaknesses and nurturing the strengths; and being able to draw upon inspiration from others.
Allison Kugel: Why do you think you resonated the way you did with my generation; those of us who were coming of age in the late eighties and into the early to mid-nineties?
Paula Abdul: I think the through-line of most of my success is my heart, and I think that it connects with other people’s hearts, especially women. I have this profound love affair with women. I’ve never been a threat to women. I have been very inclusive, and always thought the most beautiful thing you can do is to recognize beauty in someone else and celebrate that. Because I was always an accessible type of artist, people felt that they knew me, and they do know me.
Allison Kugel: Do you have a ten-year dream, as in, “in ten years I’d like to be retired, living on the beach.”? Do you have a plan like that, or is this the dream, to keep singing and dancing for as long as you can?
Paula Abdul: I feel extremely grateful that I’m able to do this. I was sidelined for many, many years because the last time I was on tour I was in a terrible accident in a seven-seater jet. One of the engines blew up and the right wing caught on fire, and we plummeted.
Allison Kugel: I don’t think many people out there are aware that you went through this ordeal. Were you belted in when the plane began to plummet?
Paula Abdul: I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. I was getting ready to put my seatbelt on, but I never made it and I hit my head on the [ceiling] of the plane. It caused me to have paralysis on my right side, and I endured fifteen cervical spinal surgeries. I went through all of that, mostly, privately. Back then, we didn’t have tabloids like we do now. We didn’t have the extent of paparazzi or the [internet], so you were able to contain some information. I was so afraid of being counted out and looked at as damaged goods. The problem was that, at the time, I was. I ended up having to take almost seven years off to have all these different neuro-surgeons operating on me. So, the fact that at this stage of my life, I’m able to do this, is the biggest gift ever! I am living, in many ways, my dream. But I also would love to branch out into other areas. And I get as much joy behind the scenes as I do from being out in front.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope audiences will experience when they come out to see you on the Straight Up Paula! tour?
Paula Abdul: I hope during the show they feel a celebration of fond memories of their time growing up with me. I also hope people get a chance to know me further, and get a better sense of who I am, with my whimsical ways and my sense of humor. It’s going to be a nod to everything that has inspired me since I was young, and celebrating my career, with the ups and the downs, and everything in between. I hope everyone leaves with a smile on their face.
Photo Credits: Studio 10 Australia
For dates and tickets to Paula Abdul’s North American Tour, Straight Up Paula!, visit https://tour.paulaabdul.com/. Tickets also available through Ticketmaster.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
Born of a revolutionary bloodline to activist filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles, you could say that Mario Van Peebles was born to make films that nudge our social consciousness and encourage us to answer questions we hadn’t thought to ask. An actor, director and writer, Mario Van Peebles’ first foray into acting was playing a younger version of his father Melvin’s character, Sweetback, in the senior Van Peebles’ most notable film, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Baadasssss Song pioneered a new era of African-American cinema throughout the 1970s. It was this small role in his father’s groundbreaking film that set the stage for Mario’s life and career. He would continue to be driven to add to his father’s earlier legacy with films that push audiences out of their comfort zone and question social and societal boundaries.
One theme that run through much of Mario Van Peebles’ work is the assertion that we all have the right to be fully recognized human beings, but more provocatively, how do we react when we feel that right has been infringed upon? Some might call Van Peebles an iconoclast, coming for long cherished, yet often potentially destructive social norms and institutions, while remaining inherently likeable to his fans. The secret, he says, is in the characters he writes, directs and sometimes portrays; they are complex portraits that make us look at the gray areas of life while being entertained.
As a filmmaker, he has an endless fascination with American culture, with all of its bumps and bruises. And as he states, "America is often referred to as ‘the melting pot.’ If you take immigrants from all over the world with different beliefs and bring them together you get conflict and sparks, but from that cultural [suffuse], you also get great music and art.”
In his latest independent film, Armed, written, directed and starring Van Peebles, he plays a former U.S. Marshall who has fallen on hard times after he led his team of under-cover agents on a raid that went horribly wrong. Now, suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues, as well as a somewhat warped sense of reality, he must navigate life as a civilian while desperately trying to regain some former glory and recognition. Armed aims to portray the complexities of human nature and questions the publicly floated theory that “a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun.” Van Peebles’ character, Chief, was one of the good guys in his career as a U.S. Marshall. Still armed with a collection of guns, he now struggles with mental illness; a potentially combustible combination. The questions that this film asks are topical and obvious, but the conclusions are not, which is what makes Armed an interesting watch.
Allison Kugel: I’m going to lead with a comment that your character, Chief, makes at the end of your new film, Armed; “We’re all born into this world looking for love, and sometimes we settle for attention.” That statement is profound and ties into our culture’s current obsession with social media. What’s your take on that?
Mario Van Peebles: It’s understanding the ego and its need to experience itself. The ego doesn’t like being invisible. It can’t handle that, and so we need recognition on some level. Also, as pack animals we need recognition, because we need to have a designation within the pack or we don’t survive. A great white shark doesn’t need recognition, it just needs to eat (laughs). But a wolf… is it the beta wolf, is it the alpha wolf? It needs to know what its role is within the pack. Social norms and structure play a big part when you’re a pack animal. For example, if a kid can’t get recognized for being an A student, he’ll settle for being recognized as a disruptor, or the class clown, or the athlete, or even as the cutter. The bigger thing, of course, is to be loved. That’s the ultimate high. But when we can’t get that, we settle for some sort of attention. Now, with social media, people are creating these faux-lifestyle commercials that are not really them. There’s a Drake lyric where he says, “I know a girl happily married ‘til she puts down her phone.” The pictures you take, those Snapchats you take, are capturing these created or staged moments.
Allison Kugel: How do you connect that statement to the mass shootings that are happening with increased frequency?
Mario Van Peebles: The people that seem to commit them are often referred to as loners, and people that didn’t fit in; people who wanted a sense of importance that they didn’t feel. Part of it, I think, is that we have evolved rather quickly, socially speaking. I’m in New York right now, and I’m on the eighth floor. Someone above me is on the ninth floor, and someone below me is on the seventh floor. We’re not really designed to live like this, where we’re stacked up on top of each other. Cities are these artificial social constructs. Our bodies are pretty much the same as when we were in Egypt, or maybe when we were in chains. But socially we’ve evolved very quickly. As pack animals, as hunter gatherers, we do well in groups of maybe fifty, or even a hundred. Beyond that, we divide into sub-groups. We want to be in groups where everyone knows our name, where we are not nameless. When you live in a city and you suddenly are around whole groups of people who don’t know your name, you can be surrounded by folks and yet have feel very lonely and disassociated.
Allison Kugel: You’ve come up with a catch phrase, “Make America Think Again,” an obvious retort to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” What inspired it?
Mario Van Peebles: Even before [Trump] put that slogan out there, I wanted to make films that made people think. There are three loves in life: love what you do, love and enjoy the people you do it with, and love what you say with what you do. If I can make people think while they consume art, maybe they’ll think when they’re ordering their food, or when they’re picking out what car to drive, or maybe, even when they’re voting. I’m intrigued by the relationship between the art we watch and how we vote. My film will hopefully make people discern, “Oh wow! We all have some good guy and some bad guy within us.” “A good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun,” is a very reductive way of looking at the world. The reality of human beings is much more complex. I’ve always wanted to make films that make people think, so it was just natural to say, “Let’s Make America Think Again.”
Allison Kugel: Human beings are very complex. Personally speaking, I am the first to say that I’m not a good candidate to be a gun owner. I’m a very passionate person, an emotionally driven person, and I had a temper in my past. I think those of us that are in the arts tend to experience some high highs and low lows; it’s how we are able to create. But I know that because I feel things so deeply, there have been times I may not have been in the best state of mind. So, I have always said that I never want to own a gun.
Mario Van Peebles: I have never ever heard anyone say that. That is awesome that you’re aware of it, and that says a lot about where you are in your life, emotionally. But you’re able to make a good living doing what you love, as am I. To some degree, the system works for us. It’s much easier when the system works for you, to be in that emotional state to even analyze yourself on that level.
Allison Kugel: It requires having the luxury of time to get to know yourself, and to develop that consciousness…
Mario Van Peebles: And perspective, correct. You’re not just hustling hand-to-mouth, trying to feed your baby, buy pampers, and figure out how to avoid the drug dealer down the street.
Allison Kugel: I’ve heard so many people say that putting your own money into a film is the worst investment one could make. You even wrote in your director’s statement, “The golden rule is he who has the gold makes the rule. The other [golden] rule is he who uses his own gold to finance a film is a knuckle head or has the last name Van Peebles.” (Laughs) Are you in it simply for the social impact, or is this film also a business venture for you?
Mario Van Peebles: It is for me, as well as one of my sons (Mandela Van Peebles). He took the money he made from Roots, and that’s why his name is [in the credits] as Executive Producer. He liked the idea of Armed, and I think he’s going to get a pretty good return. I’ve done it before, and it is a risk, but it’s a calculated risk. I can’t think of anything better to do with it other than paying for education and travel. I don’t want more clothes. I have one hybrid car and the air conditioner is broken (laughs). I’m laughing, but I’m serious. I will eventually get another car. But what do I want to look back on when I’m an old fart? I want to do the movies I want to do. And like I said in my director’s statement, you can’t make Supersize Me if you’re going to take McDonald’s money. All the movies lately with casts of color, and there are some wonderful movies out now, but they’re all race-centric. My movie, Armed, is not race-centric; it has nothing to do with race, and yet it’s a multiracial cast.
Allison Kugel: I’ve noticed that you tend to sway more societal than racial with your messaging.
Mario Van Peebles: If you look at my film Baadasssss!, the same day that Baadasssss! came out, the movie Soul Plane came out. Baadasssss! is about my dad and his film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). The LA Times wrote that these two movies came out on the same day; Soul Plane was made for $16 million by a big studio with a predominantly African American cast, and the premise was that black people running an airline is laughable. It’s a message of disempowerment. Baadasssss!, made for $1 million in 18 days by an independent filmmaker, says that the idea of people of all colors coming together and making a hit movie that changed the complexion of Hollywood is a possibility, and it’s a fact, and it’s a real story and a message of empowerment across color lines. I couldn’t have made that impact within the system.
Allison Kugel: You have to value your own soul to make those kinds of decisions; that has to be worth something to you. It’s hard to find sometimes in certain industries, but I have no doubt that it does exist. I’m talking to it right now.
Mario Van Peebles: Sometimes you find it in people who don’t look like you. They don’t have the same beliefs as you; they’re white, they’re black, they’re gay, straight, male, female, all of it. If you’re open to that smorgasbord of humanity and you make it a welcoming place, then you learn. And boy do you learn quickly when you’re working with people.
Allison Kugel: The first time I became aware of you was in the early nineties, with the film New Jack City, in 1991. New Jack City was a social and political commentary on the crack epidemic, and it was a very profitable film. Throughout your career, the roles you’ve played in front of the camera, and the films you’ve made, have all had social and societal messages, beyond their entertainment value. Do you ever like to take on a role or become involved with a project just for entertainment’s sake?
Mario Van Peebles: I could probably talk myself into it by saying, “Well, I could do this slant on this character, which would make it interesting.” I was in Jaws: The Revenge (1987), and I found a way to have fun with that. Part of the fun is finding other ways to enlarge the story or the experience. So, absolutely! But I find ways of making it work for myself and enriching it. That’s a lot of fun to do.
Allison Kugel: With this film, Armed, do you fear the echo chamber effect, where people that are on the left and proponents of gun control laws are going to be responsive, while people on the right who are very pro-Second Amendment aren’t going to be interested at all?
Mario Van Peebles: I think if you are absolutely committed to a position, then you will be committed to it with or without this film. If I make a documentary about [guns], then yes, that absolutely is the case. We don’t tend to learn informationally; we learn behaviorally. If you make something entertaining and you play against type it tends to grab people’s attention. People are used to seeing me playing a character that is heroic. In Armed I’m playing against type. With this character, you’re kind of waiting for him to get it together, and you’re rooting for this guy. You’re in this guy’s skin, and then when it goes sideways, you’re still right there with him. It makes you feel like, “I enjoyed being there and still wanted him to win, but I was super conflicted.” The moral of this film is, can I put myself into the skin of someone who is kind of a ticking timebomb? Good film takes you in, just like good religion takes you in. Bad religion is exclusionary and says, “You can’t come in because you’re different. You mentioned New Jack City. It’s the same thing with Chris Rock’s character in New Jack City. How many gangster films make the crime seem victimless? In New Jack City, it’s not just the good cops and the villains or gangsters. You also have Chris Rock, who’s a victim of the crack epidemic. When audiences watched “the victim” in that film, I had kids in the first screening of New Jack City stand up and yell at the screen, “Just Say No Motherf*cker!” When you get kids to react against drugs in a gangster movie, wow! With this new film, Armed, I can try to get people inside the head of a guy who loves to be recognized, who would settle for attention, and who realizes he might not be a good candidate to be a gun owner.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you are on this earth to learn, and what are you here to teach?
Mario Van Peebles: That’s a great question. For my birthday, I had my kids record answers to some questions I asked them. I gave them six questions and that was one of them. I guess I want to stay old enough to be a great teacher and remain young enough to be a badass dude. I always want to be okay with saying, “I don’t know.” If you fill a glass with water, you can’t put milk in it because it’s already filled up with water. You’ve got to be willing to not be full to take new things in.
Allison Kugel: Which goes back to our earlier conversation about remaining open to information that may not fit your current narrative…
Mario Van Peebles: That’s why I always want to remain open to learning new things. If the world needed green, I think I would try to find a way to bring in some green. If the world needed more yellow, then I would try to find that. Each of my kids is different and it has made me be a different dad to each one of them. It’s been interesting to learn that parenting is not one size fits all. Right now, the world needs an elevated consciousness and a sense of the we. My kids recently asked me, “You mean if all the kids all over the world refused to fight, there would be no more war? And if they listened to us there’d be no more prejudice? It would stop in one generation?” Sometimes what I’m here to learn, I learn through my kids. The basis of all of this is to just be kind. Be kind to the planet, be kind to yourself, be kind to your neighbor. It sounds corny, but that’s at the essence of it all.
Photo Credits: Mario Van Peebles, GVN Releasing, MVP
Armed, written, directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles, is out in theaters, on digital platforms and VOD.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
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By Allison Kugel
David Guetta has become a music impresario, churning out beat banging, genre busting pop songs that have been topping the charts for nearly a decade with mega hits like Titanium featuring Sia; Where Them Girls At featuring Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj; Club Can’t Handle Me featuring Flo Rida; Who’s That Chick featuring Rihanna and I Gotta Feeling featuring The Black Eyed Peas. Guetta is the King of Collabs. His creative input on a song almost assures chart topping status and his fans have dubbed his music, “Guetta-blasters,” an homage to his bold immersion into hip hop culture, and his constant and effortless ability to blend hip hop and pop music with an addictive beat.
Born in France to liberal intellectuals who shunned materialism, Guetta says he yearned for a more glamourous life, which he soon discovered in Europe’s underground club scene where he began deejaying as a teenager. He also fell in love with all things American, as he described to me, delving into American books, movies and music, and yearning to conquer the stateside music scene.
During our conversation we discussed his seventh, yes seventh, studio album, simply titled, “7.” It’s an eclectic, genre-fluid collection of emotionally charged lyrics and hypnotic melodies. Of course, the album is full of Guetta’s famous collaborations with the likes of Sia, Jason Derulo and Justin Bieber.
Allison Kugel: Was your creative vision, of merging electronic dance music with urban music, there from the start, or did it evolve into that because of the opportunities that came your way?
David Guetta: This may sound crazy, but when I was a kid and I began deejaying, there was no electronic music (laughs). When I was a teenager I was playing funk, and then I went to hip hop and then house music. That’s why for me, it’s kind of natural, because I come from this culture. Then I just moved to a different style, and one day I was able to merge them together. I love music, in general. I like to create emotions with my music, and I like to make people dance.
Allison Kugel: You’re the first deejay I’ve seen that has been able to transcend, not just across various musical genres, but you have been able to get to the point where you’re considered a mainstream recording artist in your own right. How did you create this space for yourself that really didn’t exist before?
David Guetta: Exactly! That’s what is so interesting to me. The world is a certain way, the music industry is a certain way, and if you want to be part of a certain “family,” you’re told, “This is the way things are done.” To me, you don’t have to follow those rules. I created my own rules. At that time, I was extremely criticized for this. And then everybody did the same. I want to create my own rules, basically. That’s how I have always been doing it, and that’s how I’m doing it now. I just finished my album (7, out September 14th), and it’s very eclectic.
Allison Kugel: Yes, it certainly is. Every song on your new album has a completely different sound and emotional tone to it. From your perspective, is there any one theme that ties the album together?
David Guetta: This album is called 7. It is my seventh album, but the number seven also represents the end of a cycle; a week is seven days, the creation of the world in the bible is seven days and my birthday is on [November 7th]. That number is kind of magic to me. What I did with this album, we were talking about how I merged different styles in the past and created a new style of pop music. I wanted to go back to my roots and do a full pop album in different styles. I’m going to do a full electronic album that is completely going back to my roots and being completely underground. So basically, instead of compromising, I’m going to create those magic moments with an album that I could play in the festivals, in the clubs, and be able to have played on the radio. It came down to either being very pop or hip hop for the radio or being underground again in the clubs. I wanted this album to be real. There is this one record that I really love, which was released in Europe, that is called Don’t Leave Me Alone. It’s one of my favorite albums. It’s pop, but it’s electronic and forward thinking, and it doesn’t sound like anything else out there. I also have Latin records and a huge record with Jason Derulo and Nicki Minaj.
Allison Kugel: Is there a difference for you, when it comes to collaborating with male artists versus female artists? Do you take a different approach?
David Guetta: Not really. Sometimes I will write with a male artist and we will have a female artist sing it. This happens a lot; or even the other way around. If you want to go higher in the notes, of course you would do that with a female artist. Also, you’re not going to necessarily tell the same story in the music with a male artist versus female, even though things are changing, and I love this (laughs)! I think that things are a little bit less stereotyped right now.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about this special creative synergy that you and Sia share?
David Guetta: It’s incredible, because first, we have a lengthy history together. Sia, when we started to work together, was not the big artist she is now. We created [the song] Titanium (from Guetta’s 2011 5th studio album, Nothing but the Beat) together, which was, for both of us, a life changing record. Sia deserves every success she has. She is my favorite artist. She can sing, she can write like no one else, and any time I need her she is always there for me. We have kept working together, and I love the combination. I think what is interesting in music is to combine opposite feelings together into one song. For example, if you play happy chords and have a happy melody, and you use bright sounds, it sounds kind of cheesy. And if it’s too dark, it’s like, “Oh My God. I want to shoot myself.” You know (laughs)? What is interesting to me is to have a dark instrumental with a happy melody, or the other way around. I’m a happy person, so I like to make emotional records that put you in a good mood. Like, I produced I Gotta Feeling (the 2009 hit single from The Black Eyed Peas’ 5th studio album, The E.N.D.). Those are the kinds of records I make. And Sia, she is a moody, melancholy, survival kind of artist. The combination between the two is the magic. That is why me and Sia work so well together.
Allison Kugel: You like the contrast of blending dark and light feelings into your musical collaborations.
David Guetta: Exactly, and it’s just like that with movies I like to watch. If you see an action movie, and all they’re doing is shoot, shoot, shoot; bang, bang, bang, it’s stupid and boring. If you have an action movie, but there is also a love story in there, it works better. With music, it is the same.
When you study music theory and different types of melody and core percussion, they teach you that people want to have seventy-five percent of an experience of hearing something that is familiar to them, and twenty-five percent maximum of feeling excited by hearing something new. This is really a precise number. It’s interesting, when you listen to a certain core percussion you need the last chord to feel good, and it’s the same when you go back to the first chord. In between the first and the last chords, you can afford to be more experimental. But if you were to add one chord after the other in a sequence that no one ever heard before, it’s very rare that it would work. People need a little bit of excitement and they need their familiarity.
Allison Kugel: What spiritual philosophy do you subscribe to? And how does it impact your work?
David Guetta: I’m a very happy person, and I’m trying to share this with the world. I’m trying to share my passion for music with the world, and I’m trying to bring people together. I think there are two things that bring people together, and that is sports and music. At a Football match you may have the president of the country, and you have working people; people from all walks of life. That is what I am trying to do with music. That’s what has been my mission my entire life. I’m coming from an underground scene, but I always wanted my music to cross over, because I’m not a guy who’s trying to keep it for myself. I like sharing. When I was trying to bring urban music and electronic music together, people’s feeling was that if you’re black you’re going to be into urban music, and if you’re white you’re going to be into electronic music. But why? To me, we are all the same, so we can also create music that speaks to everyone.
Allison Kugel: I read that your father was a Sociologist. Did his studies and his work have any impact on your life philosophy, or anything about how you choose to live your life?
David Guetta: It’s funny, because my parents were very, very left. And because it was the 1960s, they were hippies. Of course, being a hippy at that time was very common. I was raised like this. So, for me, being rebellious was saying, “I want to be an entrepreneur and I want to make money. I don’t want to be like you guys.” (Laughs) I was also super pro-America, and I was only watching American movies and listening to American music.
Allison Kugel: What about things like picking up your father’s philosophies on any social causes, or on human behavior; things like that?
David Guetta: You know, I really hadn’t thought about it. Now that you mention it, I would say a lot of the advice I was given stuck with me. Things like believing and treating everyone as equal, and just a certain way of navigating the world, without me even realizing it.
Allison Kugel: What is the difference, culturally, between how your music is received in Europe versus in the states?
David Guetta: It’s extremely different. There was this magic moment in my career where I brought people together and opened doors for this kind of music in the U.S., with songs like I Gotta Feeling (with the Black Eyed Peas), Club Can’t Handle Me (with Flo Rida) and music like that. It was a special moment of pop music that transcended genre, around 2009, 2010 and 2011. Now, in the U.S., it’s mainly hip hop. Among the biggest deejays in Europe, I am probably the one that is in the middle, culture-wise. The bigger deejays in Europe could probably not be as successful in the U.S. Hip hop has absorbed every culture there was, in the United States. Hip hop stars are the new rock stars in the U.S. They act like it and they dress like it. They don’t use the old hip hop codes; they use the rock n’ roll codes. I think that kids who would have in the past been into rock or alternative music, those same kids today are into hip hop. They relate to that rebellious, provocative culture. I think it’s very interesting how they absorbed this. In Europe, if you want to be cool and different, you would likely be into underground dance music.
Photo Credits: Joseph Abound (album cover), Guerin Blask, Ellen von Unwerth
David Guetta’s seventh studio album, 7, is out September 14th. Pre-order at iTunes and at https://davidguetta.lnk.to/Album7?ref=https%3A//t.co/B2tsQPCnog. Follow on Twitter @davidguetta.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist and author of the book, Journaling Fame: a memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
(originally ran 1-2-2014)
By Allison Kugel
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas is surprisingly low key about her own legend. You have to nudge her to remind her of what she and her fellow TLC members, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and the late Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes mean to the music industry and to their tens of millions of fans who have collectively purchased more than 65 million TLC albums, worldwide. Chilli stands in awe of the people who are in awe of her, yet, it’s evident that there are still songs unsung in her heart. She speaks of a future TLC album with a combination of excitement and angst. It’s a longtime coming, and she knows it.
In the meantime, Chilli has joined the ranks of other music industry heavyweights, gracing the judge’s panel of the latest talent competition show, TruTV’s Fake Off. Fake Off aims to break the mold where talent competition television is concerned. Ten versatile and talented teams compete in the art of “Faking,” by re-creating iconic pop culture moments through a combination of dance, mime, illusion, synchronicity, lighting and scenery. Think Las Vegas spectacular meets the TV show, Fame.
As we drifted from topic to topic, Chilli’s demeanor lit up when conversation turned to the topics of motherhood and the idea of soul mates, as well as her loyal fan base of A-list musicians. Lady Gaga, Bette Midler and Prince all count themselves as proud TLC superfans!
Allison Kugel: I watched a couple episodes of Fake Off and it’s like watching the big productions in Las Vegas. The performance troupes are very outside-the-box in terms of what is considered commercially viable entertainment. How was the concept for the show pitched to you?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: They reached out to me and sent over some stuff you would see in Vegas, and [performances] from overseas as well. It was that type of entertainment and it was so different. Once they explained to me what “Faking” was, I said, “Wow, this is great!” I wanted to be a part of it.
Allison Kugel: Has that type of performance art been called “Faking” for a long time, or did they come up with that name just for the television show?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : The reason it’s called Fake Off is because the groups are given themes from iconic concepts, movies, cartoons, television shows, and stuff that everyone’s familiar with. Then they have to put their best “Fake” on it. You know when you watch something and you feel like, “Wow! That was almost just like the original!?” That’s what the art of Faking is. It’s not necessarily what their gifts are, but it’s how they are entertaining you; the way they do it.
Allison Kugel: What’s it like for you to be judging other artists on this show?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : It’s a little different because I’m not judging singers or just dancers. They’re dancing, but it’s not like what I do. But overall, it is entertainment and I enjoy entertainment. My thing is, can you captivate me the whole time you’re on stage, and can you captivate the audience? So, I can judge them and I love judging on that because that’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy to entertainment people and make everyone happy with what you just gave them.
Allison Kugel: Did you ever get a piece of constructive criticism early in your career that maybe stung at the time, but looking back you can see that it made you better in some way?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : I don’t remember any one particular thing. The type of criticism that I got early on in my career, I don’t know if it was constructive criticism. It was just criticism. It wasn’t given to me in that constructive light. It hurt me very badly but I got over it, and I improved myself. But when it’s coming from a good place? I don’t really know if I ever got that from anyone.
Allison Kugel: Really? Not a producer, maybe?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I just naturally have a respect for somebody that I feel is more advanced than myself. MC Hammer gave us, or me in particular, a lot of insight. He didn’t necessarily tell me, but I watched him every night, how he performed, and it helped me as a performer by watching him.
Allison Kugel: You’re talking about back when TLC was opening for him on tour.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : Yes. You have this man with so many people on stage with him, but he stood out. And that was amazing to me.
Allison Kugel: Watching these performers do their thing on stage when you’re filming Fake Off, does it give you a feeling of wanting to try something theatrical, like a Broadway musical?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : I know I don’t ever want to do a Broadway musical, but I look at some of those elements like the shadowing and the lighting and stuff like that. I’m definitely interested in that as far as [TLC’s] show on stage, because I saw a lot of things in these performances that could take our show to the next level.
Allison Kugel: I want to talk about your non-profit organization, Chilli’s Crew, which works with teenage girls to mentor them and build healthy self-esteem. To personalize it a bit, what were some of your self-esteem issues as a teenager and how did you overcome them?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : Just being the smallest one; that was always an issue for me. I didn’t care about the height part, but when I was in eighth grade I remember you had a few [girls] with the boobs and the hips and stuff. I used to drink this weight gain drink. It was this powder you mix with milk (laughs). I would get up every morning to see if I had gained any weight, and that never happened for me. I was a late bloomer, and that was my issue growing up. Now I love my small boobs and I have for many years. I’m alright with myself.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope the takeaway message is for these girls who are involved with Chilli’s Crew?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: The number one thing is their self-esteem. I really try to work with them on that and help them not to focus so much on the little things that seem sooo big to them right now. I do remember being that age and an older person telling me that. You just think they don’t know what they’re talking about. But the fact that I’m Chilli from TLC, they’ll listen to me more and I love that. I also tell them not to use their current circumstances as an excuse to not succeed. A lot of times young people will say that they’re a product of their environment and that is all they know. That’s not a good excuse. If you’re in a bad situation, whether you’re in foster care or were abused or whatever it is, you know that doesn’t feel good so don’t repeat that. Use it as a stepping stone to get out there and make a difference, and spread the word about it.
Allison Kugel: TLC has always been about female empowerment for young women. You’re the single mom of a teenage son. What has that journey been like for you, seeing life from the perspective of a teenage boy?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I’ve found that the only difference between boys and girls is the attention span (laughs). That’s pretty much the difference to me, because at the end of the day and as a parent you have to equip yourself for whatever comes up, with a boy or a girl. There are some people that are better with boys or better with girls, but I think you should be the best you can be for whatever God gives you. I just put good morals and values in my son, and I’ve been doing that since he was a baby. That’s all you can do, and you obviously have to pay attention to your child’s personality. You see that very early on, and you have to shape the mold but you don’t want to break it. You don’t want to break their spirit. The teenage years are my least favorite, though my son is phenomenal. He does not get in trouble and he’s not a bad kid. But the fact that they think they know so much (she sighs, expressing the exasperation of parents of teenagers everywhere). I tell him, “Tron, I’m telling you, I said the same thing to my mom!” They just have to go through certain things, become more mature and get that wisdom. You just want to shield them from all the bad but you can’t do that.
Allison Kugel: I know, I know. I’m going to go through that at some point as well. Right now I have a five year old boy.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Oh wow! I love boys. I have nieces and I have a goddaughter and I am telling you, they are the most amazing kids. You can’t say boys are better than girls or vice versa. It just depends upon their personality and how you as a parent shape and mold them, and who you have around them influencing them, both male and female. But just love that boy, and I need you to get him hooked on WWE. Even if you had a girl I would tell you the same thing. It’s so good!
Allison Kugel: Right now he’s obsessed with superheroes. He runs around the house in his Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman costumes all the time.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: (Laughs). My son at five, Oh My God, he loved Ninjas. And sometimes he would want to sleep in his Ninja outfit, and I’d be like, “Tron!”
Allison Kugel: Yup!
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Or I’d say, “Ok, let’s take a bath,” and he’d put the mask on and he didn’t want to move his face a certain kind of way because he was afraid that it might move the mask. It was hilarious.
Allison Kugel: I know. They stay in character. Its crazy (laughs).
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: It’s awesome. Kids are the most amazing gift ever.
Allison Kugel: In what major way do you see your son, Tron, following in your footsteps?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: For one, his character. He’s just a good guy. And I think I’m a good person, you know? We all have faults, but God has made me good. I have a conscience and I care about things, and he’s like that. Now the other thing, he definitely has the music bug. It’s in his DNA, he couldn’t help it, I guess (laughs). I just wanted to wait and see what he would show me. I didn’t guide him into this, although he’s been around it his whole life. He’s a drummer, he writes music and he’s really good.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of family, you and Tionne continue to work with your ex and your son’s father, producer Dallas Austin, to this day. What makes him an ideal collaborator for TLC?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I think the last time we worked with Dallas was when we did the song… it was originally done for Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga went to him and she said she wanted a TLC record. It wasn’t released. But I think overall he gets it, and he really gets Tionne’s voice, probably more than anybody. She has a very different sound and [Dallas] knows how to write songs that are perfect for her voice, and he just knows how to produce her vocals better than anybody I’ve ever seen. When you have someone who knows you and knows your voice like that, it’s a win/win. Kind of like Janet Jackson with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Allison Kugel: Let me back up for a second. When you said Lady Gaga called Dallas Austin and said she wanted a TLC type record, do you mean she wanted an album that had a similar quality to a TLC album? Or she wanted to collaborate on your next album?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: She wanted a song that felt like a TLC record, like the format of how we sing our songs and the messages and that kind of stuff. She was like, “I want a record like TLC.” And so she called the guy. She went to the right person.
Allison Kugel: How do you feel when you hear that Lady Gaga wants a sound that’s similar to yours, or when a young Beyonce, when she was getting started in the music business, was screaming and jumping up and down at the idea of getting to meet TLC? When you hear how impactful you have been to some of the world’s biggest artists, how do you process that?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Beyonce and Destiny’s Child, they went on tour with us and I didn’t meet them when they were little, I think maybe Tionne did but I really don’t remember. It’s just a good feeling. Michael Jackson had the What About Your Friends dance in Remember The Time. I was totally in love with Michael Jackson, so to see that, I couldn’t breathe! Or Prince saying, “TLC is my favorite group,” and you’re like, “What?!” Bette Midler, as iconic as she is, she covered Waterfalls, and she said some really sweet words in an interview recently. That is crazy to me! It’s been good on so many levels when anybody says those things about us, because it continues to justify certain things. We’re so happy that we did not go against what we really wanted to do or say. Sometimes those things got us in trouble, but I think the majority of the time it worked for us. The fact that it inspired people or caught their attention just means everything.
Allison Kugel: Better to get in trouble for being yourself than to go through life disingenuous.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Yes, exactly!
Allison Kugel: Do you ever feel Lisa Lopes’s presence with you when you’re in the recording studio, writing or on stage? Something unexplainable, maybe?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Not where it was an eerie feeling. I’ve had dreams where in the dream she’s alive. But it’s crazy, because in my dream I know that she passed away but when I see her I’m like, “Oh My God! We have to let everybody know that you’re alive!” It’s like that. I haven’t had one of those dreams in a few months, but that’s how it is when I dream about her. Her passing was definitely one of those times when I hoped she was pranking us. She would do stuff like that. She would just go missing. That was the one time I would have been alright with it if it had been that. Unfortunately, it was not.
Allison Kugel: It’s been all over the news that you are on this season’s The Millionaire Matchmaker with Patti Stanger. Are you into commenting on it right now?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Oh Lord! (Laughs)
Allison Kugel: I guess my question is, are you looking for love or are you looking for a fairytale?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I’m definitely looking for love. When it’s real, it is like a fairytale. When it’s real and when it’s healthy and all those things are aligned, to me that is a real life fairytale. I don’t mean a fairytale in the way you’re thinking, because that really does not exist. Everything that I want in a relationship or that I need and require from a man, I also bring to the table. I exist so he has to exist, right? Will I meet him in this lifetime? I don’t know. He might be in another country trying to make some other relationship work (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Do you believe you have a soul mate out there?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I believe we have many soul mates. I think you may have a soul mate that works for a certain time in your life and then you grow apart. It doesn’t mean that you’re not soul mates anymore. It just means that your time with that person is up. The soul mate that you can be with for the rest of your life, it’s rare for many of us to meet that person. I was very, very, very hesitant about doing the show, and the only reason I did it is because I truly wanted to meet someone. I’m not gonna do the online dating…
Allison Kugel: You can’t do online dating Chilli, you would create chaos!
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: (Laughs) Yeah, I can’t do that one. With The Millionaire Matchmaker, I thought, “You never know.” You could meet the person at a gas station. You just never know when or how that person is going to walk into your life. I was being adventurous, which is something rare for me to do.
Allison Kugel: When is the much anticipated fifth TLC album coming out?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I know, it is well overdue. We’re going to talk about this really soon. We have a lot of information we’re about to get out there. We were hoping it would happen a couple weeks ago, but things got changed and it was out of our control. People will get those answers very soon.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
In this personal and eye-opening interview with Nick Cannon, the multi-hyphenate and truly self-made multi-millionaire television personality – actor – musician – deejay – media mogul opens up about transcending his childhood circumstances to become one of the most successful forces in all areas of the entertainment industry. As a teen, armed only with creativity and drive, Cannon was compelled to propel his family out of financial instability. What was initially born out of necessity, flourished into one of the most epic and aspirational success stories of recent Hollywood-lore. Now add dedicated student at Howard University to his resume. Nick Cannon is unstoppable.
Among myriad other projects, Cannon is taking his hit long-running MTV series, Wild ‘N Out, on the road with a twenty-five date North American tour, running from August 16th through October 6th. Cannon and the Wild ‘N Out cast are doubling down on their MTV antics with a live and wilder than ever, uncensured version of the television show that hybrids improv, rap battles and hip hop culture.
In this candid conversation, we go into taking Wild ‘N Out on the road, family, and how he protects his personal space in the storm of celebrity.
Allison Kugel: You’re now taking your hit MTV show Wild ‘N Out on the road with your Nick Cannon Presents Wild ‘N Out Live tour. The show is all about poking fun at others and being able to laugh at yourself. How do you deal with people who take themselves too seriously and have trouble laughing at themselves?
Nick Cannon: I don’t feel I have to necessarily deal with or construct a rapport in that situation. With Wild ‘N Out you know what you’re going to be presented with because that is the theme of the show, not taking yourself too seriously and having a good time. People who may not see it that way, I’d approach it delicately (laughs). But usually, if they are coming on the show they want to be a part of it and they know what it is at this point, because our show has been on for so long. There have been times where people will ask us not to mention certain things, like, “Stay away from this or that,” so we respect that. We always want to be as respectful as possible, especially if there is anything that someone is sensitive about.
Allison Kugel: When it comes to a rap battle or a roast, where do you think the line should be drawn, or is there no line?
Nick Cannon: I believe it’s all about humor. If it’s said in a spirit of humor and it’s supposed to be funny, then nothing’s off limits. If it’s just to be mean or demeaning and disrespectful, no one wants to see someone get bullied; that’s never okay. Our show is all-inclusive and giving an opportunity for everyone to laugh at themselves. If we’re not laughing, we’re crying, right? The idea is to say, “Hey, let’s laugh and joke about our differences, embrace those differences, and make light of it in order to get over it. If it becomes something hurtful, that’s too far, and we’re never looking to do that.
Allison Kugel: Can you recall a specific instance in your life where you were able to use humor to overcome something painful?
Nick Cannon: As broad as it seems… Everything! I do that on a daily basis. Everything from the fact that I was one of the smallest kids in my school, and that I come from a low-income family, living in government housing; all the things that one could get made fun of for at school. I would flip it and make the joke before the bully could make the joke. I always had to deal with being the smallest kid in class, but I would tell everybody that although I was the smallest kid, I had the biggest mouth! Taking that perspective helped to build my confidence up at an early age. On a daily basis, if something is bothering me, I’ll probably be the first one to joke about it.
Allison Kugel: Where did the confidence come from to tackle so many different things from comedy to music to acting to deejaying, and being a successful businessman?
Nick Cannon: It most definitely came from my father and my grandfather. They’re strong alpha-type males. My father was in the world of ministry, and my grandfather was a tough in the streets type of guy. When you come from a big presence like those two, and even with a last name like Cannon (laughs), there’s a lot in a name. Even though my father wasn’t there all the time, it was his presence when I did get a chance to be around him. There was a strong presence and a strong confidence to him.
Allison Kugel: Did he and your grandfather actively instill lessons in you by way of conversation, or was it simply learned by osmosis?
Nick Cannon: All the time! When you come from a line of preachers, there were always motivational speeches, sermons, and bible verses; and even models [of behavior] to live by. I was told since I was a baby that I was more than a conqueror, that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. So, as a kid, I probably had that idea inside of me that the average kid didn’t have.
Allison Kugel: At what age was your spiritual awakening where you started asking some bigger questions, like, “Who am I beyond what I do for a living, and the personality of Nick Cannon the world knows me by?” or “What am I here to give to the world?”
Nick Cannon: It’s funny, but even as a young guy I was always intrigued by that, because I grew up in an environment where I was exposed to religion and spirituality at a very young age. It made me ask questions, and then when I didn’t get the answers that I wanted, I started looking within and doing my own research rather than following the flock. I would say this was as early as my adolescent years. Obviously, we grow daily, but it was in my early adulthood that I started to realize that I was in control of my own destiny, that I had to make my mark, and my true purpose had to be implemented. This was based off my own sense of spirituality.
Allison Kugel: And tell me if this is accurate, because you never know when you read things, but you began doing stand-up comedy at the age of fifteen?
Nick Cannon: That’s when I started doing stand-up professionally. The first time I was ever on stage, I was eleven. It began as just churches and talent shows. But professionally, I became a regular in the comedy clubs when I was about fifteen.
Allison Kugel: And by seventeen you were writing for and starring on the Nickelodeon comedy series, All That. Was there a drive in you to financially rescue your family?
Nick Cannon: Yes, that was the main goal. With Nickelodeon, I was making five hundred dollars a week, and that was everything at that time; I thought I was rich. I was now able to help put gas in [my parents’] car to make trips up to LA. I could buy food. I could buy an outfit and pay my mom’s rent. That was a dream come true. It was always that idea of wanting to provide for my mother, and for others in the family. The more I began to work, the more I was able to do that.
Allison Kugel: I know you’re currently a college student at Howard University, which is amazing. Did you earn your bachelor’s degree yet?
Nick Cannon: Not yet. I’m in my junior year.
Allison Kugel: You’ve said you’d like to go on to get your PhD. Do you know what you’d like to get your PhD in? And how do you plan to use that degree, or is it just to have as an accomplishment?
Nick Cannon: I’d like to do more work in the community, and I’ll probably become a professor. People are always like, “Man, when are you going to write a book?” I’m not ready to write a book, because it would just be one of those celebrity memoirs, which is fine, but I feel that I have so much more to offer than just to tell people my biography. I feel like once I develop the skills that I’m researching and accomplishing with academia, then I’ll really have something to say. At this point, I’m gathering a wealth of knowledge so that when it is time to spit it back out, it’s valid in a strong way.
Allison Kugel: Professor Cannon! What would you like to teach one day as a professor?
Nick Cannon: Right now, I’m studying Criminology, but I’m also studying in the school of Divinity; and I’m in the school of Communications. Obviously, I’m in the field of Communications. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the media (laughs) and [media] content, so you never know. I feel that if I can put all those things together, whether it’s Sociology, Criminology, these are the things that are prevalent to me at the moment.
Allison Kugel: You appear to be inexhaustible. Does celebrity ever exhaust you?
Nick Cannon: No, not really, because I don’t really look at it like that. To me, all that stuff is “the matrix,” and not real life. So, I’m tireless when dealing with it. When you come into the matrix, it’s not your real emotions, it’s not your energy. It’s the façade and what people want to see, and the fodder. The things I get exhausted by are real life. Things like media and celebrity, that stuff doesn’t really affect my real and true life. If it should make its way into the actual core and to my family, I would deal with it in a manner where we would find the truth in it and handle it from that point so that it never really gets out of hand.
Allison Kugel: At a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards from a couple of years back, you and Mariah were walking the red carpet with the two kids and there were a million people screaming and camera flashes going off. At one point the camera flashes were irritating Moroccan’s (Nick and Mariah Carey’s seven-year-old son) eyes and he was rubbing his eyes and looking away. Do your kids know what’s going on? Do they know who you are, and why there’s so much chaos that surrounds you at these events?
Nick Cannon: Yeah, my kids are well versed in what’s going on, and they embrace it and love it to a point where they’re excited to put on the outfits that match. They’re excited to go down the red carpet. At times, just like any kid, they appear to be bashful or annoyed, because that’s what seven-year-olds do (laughs), but at no point is it ever an issue. If they don’t want to go somewhere or don’t want to do something, it’s never forced upon them. I think it’s in their DNA, because they love it and they embrace it.
Allison Kugel: Who has been your greatest mentor in the entertainment industry?
Nick Cannon: The person I’ve connected with the most, who has taught me the most and established so much for me in this business was probably Will Smith. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that guy. His hands-on approach and being a big brother and a friend early on in my career was everything. He gave me my first record deal, he gave me my first television deal, and it’s the way he leads by example. Will is the most successful, nicest, most inspiring person you’d ever want to meet.
Allison Kugel: Let’s go back to this Wild ‘N Out Live tour. Are you going to be on stage at every stop on the tour, and how will it surpass watching Wild ‘N Out on MTV?
Nick Cannon: At every stop on the tour, I’ll be hosting and conducting the entire show! This live show is going to be much more raw. It’s giving you the experience you see on TV, times ten. You’ll be watching it with the energy of being in a full arena, and we’re bringing whatever city we’re in to life. We’re bringing the famous rappers and it’s a full concert. We’re bringing your favorite cast members and you’re getting a chance to hear their stand-up and laugh. It’s way more powerful, because there’s no standards and practices like on TV, and there’s no commercial breaks. It’s just right there for an hour and a half; pure laughter and music and hip hop, and you get to see your favorite Wild ‘N Out games as well. It’s also super interactive with the audience. And surprise guests will be popping in and out the whole time at every stop on the tour.
Allison Kugel: When you’re alone in quiet moments, no cell phone or television, what kinds of thoughts dominate your mind in those quiet times?
Nick Cannon: I’m still; I’m quiet. When I do have those alone times, I allow my spirit to be still. For me, that’s not really a thinking time, because I’m always working and thinking and planning. When I do get that alone time, it’s about allowing myself to just… BE. I go within and meditate and listen.
Allison Kugel: What do you see as your spiritual mission here on this earth, and how is it expressed in all that you do?
Nick Cannon: To attempt to bring joy, and to bring joy in a way where my legacy will be, “That was somebody who made a lot of people smile.” Whether it’s through entertainment, whether it’s through philanthropy, or with family, the goal is to bring joy to as many [people] as possible and leave my mark by doing that.
Allison Kugel: And what do you think you are here to learn?
Nick Cannon: To learn how to do those things through the examples that were laid before me. How to implement joy and happiness in my own life, and how to express it to others.
Photo Credits: Nick Cannon, MTV, AEG Presents
Tickets for Nick Cannon Presents Wild ‘N Out Live! 25-date North American tour are available through ticketmaster or visit axs.com for a complete list of tour dates and cities. Visit NickCannon.com to keep up with news and upcoming events. Season 11 of the television show Wild ‘N Out is airing on MTV.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist and author of the book, Journaling Fame: a memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
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By Allison Kugel
With an acting career spanning four decades and multiple awards and nominations, Regina King has effortlessly embodied countless memorable characters across the big and small screens.
From thought provoking films like Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice, Jerry Maguire and Ray; to lighter fare like the Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality franchises, Regina King brings a special sparkle to every role she’s tackled. On the small screen, King’s presence in past television series like Southland, The Boondocks, The Leftovers, Shameless, and her Emmy- winning turn in American Crime, have highlighted some of the more significant social issues of our time, both with ironic humor and with poignant drama. Wherever art is imitating life in a significant way, Regina King has been tapped to play a pivotal role in the project.
What audiences may not know is that King is also an accomplished television director, with a growing resume of credits including smash hit television shows from Scandal and Greenleaf to The Good Doctor and This Is Us.
Her most recent Emmy-nominated performance as Latrice Butler, grieving mother of a teenage son who is the victim of a death by auto, hit and run by a group of Jersey City police officers, is a true tour de force and a defining role in a long and treasured career.
Allison Kugel: What drew you to playing Latrice Butler in Seven Seconds?
Regina King: I was actually drawn to the role of [prosecutor] KJ Harper (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey), and [series creator] Veena Sud was sure that she wanted me for the role of Latrice. I liked the pilot script and decided to take that dive into the emotional pool.
Allison Kugel: You play the mother of a teenage boy who is killed by a police officer. What was your creative process in tackling such an intense role?
Regina King: Being a mother myself, and the mother of a black young man, there are certain fears you have that are unique to having a black child in America. You have fears as a parent when your kids are growing up, because you can’t control everything. But there are those experiences that are specific to black children that are not the same for others. You experience a bit of it, yourself, as a child growing up in America. Unfortunately, it’s our culture and something you grow up with. You then carry that perspective with you throughout your life. So, I had that going into this role. I also spoke to a mother whose son was murdered by a police officer. Hearing her pain up close and personal, and her feeling safe enough to share it with me, I would say that combination of things was how Latrice was birthed into Seven Seconds.
Allison Kugel: Is the story a fictional account or based on true events?
Regina King: It was based on the truth as far as the regard for black American kids and the law, and how they are regarded in America. That part of it is true, of course. So many examples have had similar outcomes to this story, but it was not taken from one specific person’s story.
Allison Kugel: While you were shooting Seven Seconds, did you think about the parents of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and so many young men who’ve lost their lives in similar circumstances? And did you feel a responsibility to reflect these parents’ pain in your performance?
Regina King: There was a responsibility to accurately portray their pain, their lives, and their stories, absolutely.
Allison Kugel: Do you think a series like Seven Seconds has the power to impact hearts and minds for change, or to simply reflect what is going on in society?
Regina King: I think both. What’s reflective for me is not reflective for you. Seeing it in a television show or in a movie creates an opportunity for each of us to see the other’s perspective. I feel that the series American Crime (the ABC series for which King won an Emmy) was very similar in that way.
Allison Kugel: Do you take a role like this home with you?
Regina King: I tried not to take it home with me. But again, a bit of this lives with you. It is the narrative of a part of the fabric of what America is. Unfortunately, you are always living it. It took a lot out of me; I’ll be honest. It was the closest to an experiential role I’ve ever had. I’ve known people who have been victims of police brutality, but no one who was closer than a friend or a distant family member. Because it was a friend or a distant family member, I wasn’t with them in their day-to-day struggle of what that experience brings. You go through life hoping that you never personally have an experience like that, but you know that the odds are greater than not that you will, because of who you are. It’s crazy to even say this, but you feel blessed or lucky that your child has made it to twenty-two (King is referring to her 22-year-old son, Ian).
Allison Kugel: What is so remarkably upsetting about your statement is that even if you are regarded by society as successful, you are thanking God that your son has made it to the age of twenty-two.
Regina King: Made it to twenty-two without having a criminal record, and without having an experience with the police where you may not survive; you may not come home. Unfortunately, that is something you feel gratitude for. He has had an experience with the police pulling him over, and him having to sit down on the curb. He was let go after they ran his license plate and his ID. He was pulled over for being nineteen and driving his girlfriend home. That’s not a normal reason to be pulled over.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about your most recent Emmy nomination for Seven Seconds. Now that you have an Emmy win from 2015’s American Crime, is the pressure off somewhat for this upcoming ceremony, or are the nervous butterflies still there? And what’s the feeling in your body when you’re sitting there listening to the names of the nominees being called out?
Regina King: All three times being nominated felt different. But there is nothing like the first anything, right? It’s totally surreal. The second time is kind of like, “Nah-uh, really?! How did I find a hundred-dollar bill again in the exact same place?!” It’s one of those feelings. Not to be frivolous about it, but it’s like, what are the odds?
Allison Kugel: I don’t think it’s a luck thing. You really are such a gifted actor, and your performance in Seven Seconds was a tour de force.
Regina King: Well, I mean, what are the odds of walking by that same corner again and finding that same bill?
Allison Kugel: Do you let that stuff, like awards and accolades, or critics, shape you at all? Do you ever find yourself being very conscious of, “What are the critics going to think?” “What are the nominating committees going to think?”
Regina King: First and foremost, I’m focused on doing good work. I’m not thinking, “Ooh, this is gonna get me an Emmy!” (Laughs)
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) There are people like that in your business. You know that, right?
Regina King: I joke, but yes, I know! The first time, I wasn’t even in the Television Academy. Becoming a member of the Television Academy and knowing all that goes into voting, with all the material that’s out there, it’s a lot. Since my last name starts with a “K,” I fall right in the middle of all the names. When you’re voting, and you see all the titles of the shows and the people’s names, first it starts with the Z’s and then it goes all the way to the A’s. Then the next category starts with the A’s and goes all the way to the Z’s, in that same pattern. So, I don’t take it lightly that someone was able to get to “K” for King and get to “S” for Seven Seconds. I don’t take that lightly, that not only did they make it that far, but they made it that far and they watched and stayed. I don’t take that lightly because those are my peers.
Allison Kugel: What do you see as your higher purpose in all that you do, from parenting your son to your work. And what spiritual philosophy do you subscribe to?
Regina King: Overall, just trying to walk in my truth. I recently did a panel talk (Entertainment Weekly’s Women Who Kick Ass Comic Con Panel) and [actress] Chloe Bennet said something that I definitely subscribe to. She said, “At this moment in time I can feel a certain way and say a certain thing, and then in 2022 I might contradict that just because I’m in a different place at that point.” For me, I can only be in my truth right now, in this moment. If I am walking in that truth, if I share an opinion right now about something, in the year 2022 I will not say, “I didn’t say that in 2018.” I would know I said it, because in that moment it was true for me.
Allison Kugel: Right. You would say, that was me then. I saw this beautiful tribute on your Instagram feed to actress Marla Gibbs. Marla gave you your first big job playing her daughter on the show 227, when you were fourteen years old. You thanked her for all that she did for you as a mentor. You say, among many other things, “She taught me how to be a professional.” I want to ask you about some other influential people you’ve worked with over the years, and what your takeaway was from working with these people. Let’s start with Tupac Shakur, who you worked with in 1993’s Poetic Justice.
Regina King: I would say he’s a man that walked in his truth. Man, did he ever. That would be the biggest takeaway, in that he was just unapologetic, and it was beautiful.
Allison Kugel: And working with Tom Cruise in 1996’s Jerry Maguire?
Regina King: An example of a consummate professional. If you hear anybody say that they don’t like that guy, hmmm, I don’t know. I’d have to go back and look in the books on that person. He’s a good guy, and he is a professional. He is that same example of what Marla [Gibbs] was, and I saw from him that it exists when you’re on that mega level.
Allison Kugel: And working with Jamie Foxx in 2004’s Ray?
Regina King: Jamie is super talented. The first thing that came to my mind when you said “Jamie,” is that he’s a caring guy. He takes great care with things that he does, and with the people that he works with. That’s the reason why he’s so good at embodying a character, because he takes care with the details.
Allison Kugel: I also came across a picture you posted with your son. You were waiting in line together to vote in the June primaries, and it was his first time voting. Finish this sentence for me: “I hope that in my son’s lifetime…”
Regina King: The first thing that came to my mind is that he wants to have children, but he goes back and forth between asking if it’s irresponsible to bring children into this world. And I see where he is coming from with that.
Allison Kugel: Tell him that you have great faith in the next generation to lift the consciousness of this planet.
Regina King: Oh, I tell him that all the time, that I have great faith in him and his generation. Literally, from year to year with the conversations that we have, it goes from, “When I have kids,” to, “Man, I don’t know if I want to bring a kid into all this.” Just because of certain things that happen in the world. It’s the same reason you don’t want to turn on the news half the time.
Allison Kugel: If there’s one thing the kids from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida showed me, it’s that with the younger generations coming up there is a different level of consciousness, and it gives me great hope.
Regina King: What I love is that they’re able to articulate their passion in a way that is open. Whereas, I feel like a lot of our generation, we weren’t able to articulate our anger as effectively. There is a maturity present with the younger generation, but they still have that passion. It makes me more confident in what they can accomplish.
Catch Regina King’s Emmy-nominated performance in the limited series, Seven Seconds, streaming now on Netflix. Follow her on Instagram @iamreginaking and on Twitter @reginaking.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
Rob Reiner may have entered show business as an industry legacy, following in the footsteps of his famous father, legendary comedic writer and performer, Carl Reiner. But he quickly paved his own path with an artistic and social point of view all his own. After paying his dues with bit parts and writing gigs on various television series throughout the 1960s, Reiner got his big break in 1972, when Norman Lear cast him as Michael ‘Meathead’ Stivic, the outspoken, liberal, counterculture son-in-law of Archie Bunker on the now culturally iconic television series, All In The Family.
As the constant foil to Archie’s blue-collar, xenophobic sensibilities, Michael Stivic represented the birth of the 1970s liberal progressive. It was a stark contrast to a previous generations’ more conservative ideals. The show was an instant classic as it touched on racism, immigration, gender, politics, women’s liberation and a changing of the guard of American ideas and values. In our current political climate, the show remains relevant, even today.
Reiner then leveraged his television notoriety into a directing and producing career, forming his company, Castle Rock Entertainment in 1987, and going on to produce hit films like When Harry Met Sally, Misery, City Slickers, A Few Good Men, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Miss Congeniality and The Bucket List to pull just a handful of his credits.
Always an outspoken politico (his Twitter feed holds nothing back) and advocate for liberal and democratic values, Rob Reiner get more political with his upcoming film, Shock and Awe, which he produced, directed and stars in. It’s based on the true story of a team of daring investigative journalists who went against the grain in 2003, and broke the story that there were, in fact, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To this day, they are known as “the reporting team that got Iraq right” when other media outlets toed the party line in support of the Bush-Cheney WMD assertion as America’s impetus for invading Iraq on March 20, 2003 in a military operation known as, of course, Shock and Awe.
Allison Kugel: Your film, Shock and Awe, is about a team of journalists who debunk the Bush-Cheney administration’s public assertion that weapons of mass destruction were behind our government’s decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003. What is your personal theory about the connection between the events of 9/11 and the decision to go to war with Iraq?
Rob Reiner: If you look at the “Project for the New American Century,” which was written long before 9/11, by a neo-conservative think tank, it was a paper outlining what they felt should be done with America’s position in the world after the fall of The Berlin Wall, when we emerged as the only remaining super power in the world. The question was, what to do with that power and what was the best way to export democracy throughout the world. They spoke specifically about going into Iraq as a way of establishing a western-style democracy, aside from Israel, in the Middle East. The thought was, that it would spread democracy throughout that region, and ultimately wind up protecting Israel. When 9/11 happened, the talk in Washington was already about going to Iraq; this was the day after 9/11. They were already planning to go to Iraq, but they knew they had to go to Afghanistan first because that’s from where the attacks came; the Taliban supported Al-Qaeda. But they’d already made the plans to go to Iraq before that.
Allison Kugel: Aside from the perspective of the real journalists you’re portraying, the film shows a human element with a family whose son gets deployed to Iraq. Do you think our government sees children of lower income families as expendable in their pursuit of war for profit?
Rob Reiner: They certainly go to war for profit, there’s no question. Whether or not they feel people who don’t have financial privilege are expendable, I wouldn’t be able to speak to that. But President Eisenhower did talk about the military-industrial complex, and ever since the Second World War, we’ve been engaged in all kinds of military adventures that have been less than successful. Vietnam and Iraq are the two that come to mind. We didn’t have a standing army before World War II, and then we kept one and the question became, “What do you do with that standing army?” In the film, Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Joe Galloway, says, “When the government fucks up, the soldiers pay the price.”
Allison Kugel: You are a staunch defender of a free press as a pillar of our democracy. We have a for profit media that is owned by corporate interests. How can we possibly have the kind of free press you speak of when there are corporate interests backing our media outlets?
Rob Reiner: You make a very good point. Up until 1968 the news was a loss leader for the three networks; ABC, NBC and CBS. You put it on the air and you didn’t expect to make money. It was something they did as a public service. It was a big deal when Walter Cronkite moved from fifteen minutes in the evening to a half hour. In 1968 60 Minutes came along and it was a very successful show, and it started making money. For the first time, networks saw that the news could be a profit center. Like you say, as these media outlets have grown and become a part of much bigger corporate conglomerates, you’re right, it’s very tough. If you talk to ABC, CBS and NBC, they’d tell you that their journalists are independent and apart from whatever corporate interests there are, and if there is a conflict they would mention it in their reporting. But it’s hard to separate those things sometimes. That’s always going to be an issue, but I would suggest that it’s about striving for the truth. You don’t always necessarily get there, but you’ve got to strive for it. It’s like my character (award-winning journalist, John Walcott) in the film says, “When the government says something, you only have one question to ask: Is it true?”
Allison Kugel: What are your main sources of news these days? Who do you trust?
Rob Reiner: I trust The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS; I trust CNN. I don’t trust Fox, and by the way, there are some good people at Fox. Shepard Smith is great, and I had a conversation with him and asked, “How do you stay there?” He said, “They need me there.” Because if they’re even going to have a semblance of being a legitimate news outlet, they have to at least be able to point to someone as reporting the truth. A big chunk of Fox News acts as state run media. We’ve never had that in America. It makes it hard for the mainstream media to try to break through. People who are ingesting that news will never come around, because they’re cemented in their way of thinking by this vast propaganda. It’s classic authoritarian stuff.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about the cast of Shock and Awe. It’s based on real journalists who broke the story that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, who were with Knight Ridder at the time. Warren Strobel is played by James Marsden and Jonathan Landay is played by Woody Harrelson. What qualities did you look for when you were casting those roles?
Rob Reiner: They’re both brilliantly equipped journalists and both really smart. But Jonathan was a little bit more whacky and had a little more of a quirkiness to him. That’s why I wanted Woody, who is a little bit more playful. And the thing with Warren Strobel is that he did meet his soon-to-be wife (played by Jessica Biel) during that whole time when he was working on these articles. I knew I wanted to have a romantic storyline. I cast James Marsden as Warren, who brings a lot of intelligence to the part, but he also has a romantic quality to him.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about the research you did to prepare to play Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau Chief, John Walcott.
Rob Reiner: Walcott, Warren Strobel, Jonathan Landay and Joe Calloway were all involved in the writing of the script. They met with us a number of times to go over the script to
make sure it was accurate, and they were around for the filming and totally hands on. There is nothing in the film that they wouldn’t give their stamp of approval for. In fact, my newsroom speech in the film was the speech that John [Walcott] actually gave. It was Jonathan Landay who came up to me and said, “You should put that speech in that John Walcott gave to us.” John Walcott told me the speech and I wrote it down. We put it right in there and shot it that day.
Allison Kugel: I stumbled upon an interesting statistic that blew my mind. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 43% of Americans, in 2018, still believe that the Iraq war was a good idea.
Rob Reiner: (Laughs) How was it a good idea?
Allison Kugel: Forty-three percent. That’s a lot of people. How do you reach those people with this film, Shock and Awe, and get them to watch it with an open mind?
Rob Reiner: In terms of marketing, I don’t know how you reach people like that; that’s not my expertise. What I can say is that whether you think it was a good idea or not, you have to agree that sending people off to their deaths based on a lie is not a good idea. We killed and wounded about thirty-eight thousand [Americans], and over a million Iraqis were killed or wounded. Two trillion dollars of American [money] was spent on that [war], with it going up over the years. I would argue that it’s never good to go to war based on a lie even if the results are something you think are positive. We came out of it and then wound up having to fight ISIS on top of it all.
Allison Kugel: Had social media been around leading up to both the Vietnam and the Iraq Wars, how do you think today’s social media landscape would have impacted the narrative?
Rob Reiner: In the case of the Iraq war, it would have benefited the administration even more. The problem we had with those of us who thought we shouldn’t be going there is, just like the four guys at Knight Ridder, we were bucking the zeitgeist of patriotism that came out of 9/11. If (former Vice President, Dick) Cheney wanted to spread the false narrative that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, that the aluminum tubes could be used to enrich uranium (In the weeks leading up to the [Iraq] war, senior administration officials repeatedly stated that Iraq had attempted to acquire more than 100,000 high strength aluminum tubes for gas centrifuges to be used for enriching uranium. Highly enriched uranium is one of the two materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons/https://www.ucsusa.org) and that he was developing WMDs, if Dick Cheney had had access to social media, that would make their case even stronger and people would be feeling really unpatriotic if they went against it.
Allison Kugel: And the Vietnam War?
Rob Reiner: The Vietnam War might have been different because at that time there was a fervor of anti-communism. People were worried about communism and the domino theory, and all of that. It might have cut both ways on that one. What we have found is that social media makes it very tough for people to figure out what’s true and what’s not. The Russians have been playing these active measures games and these misinformation campaign games for a long time. We do it too, but it gets weaponized when you talk about social media. It’s very hard to overcome lies. That’s why they say, “A lie makes its way five times around the world before the truth gets its pants on.”
Allison Kugel: What was the atmosphere on set? Did the actors get into political conversations?
Rob Reiner: Sure. Not only were we making this film, but we were filming during the 2016 presidential campaign, so there was a lot of talk about what was going on. I don’t think the mainstream press thought [President Trump] was going to get the nomination, and I don’t think they thought he was going to win. So, I don’t think they vetted him the way they vetted Hillary Clinton. That was the biggest problem. A lot of press will tell you that they really didn’t dig deep enough into [Trump].
Allison Kugel: Do you think it’s okay for the powers that be to have worked behind the scenes to attempt to sabotage President Trump’s campaign and to bolster Hillary Clinton’s campaign, if they thought it would serve the greater good of the country?
Rob Reiner: I don’t think they should do that for the sake of doing that. They should only bring out what he really is. I don’t know what you mean by sabotage. How can you sabotage a campaign unless you’re telling lies about the guy?
Allison Kugel: Let me re-structure the question in a slightly different direction. Do you think it was okay for the Democratic party to use certain tactics to attempt to sway the nomination in Hillary Clinton’s favor, over Bernie Sanders, during the 2016 primary race if they felt she was the stronger candidate and that pushing her into the Democratic nomination was for the greater good?
Rob Reiner: Now you’re talking about a political party, and political maneuverings, and what political parties do to have electoral success. That’s different than saying could the press have attempted to sabotage one candidate over another.
Allison Kugel: Similar moral and ethical quandary, but I’m now stating it from a different position. The question is essentially, do you feel it’s okay to intercept the purity of our democratic election process to serve a perceived greater good?
Rob Reiner: No, I don’t think it is. And by the way, I think Hillary would have won the nomination anyway. They did bring out the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz wasn’t favoring Hillary Clinton. In all fairness, Bernie Sanders wasn’t a Democrat, and they were trying to nominate a Democrat. But I don’t think the process should ever be compromised. I can tell you that if the press spent as much time talking about a man running for president who had basically de-frauded people out of their life savings as much as they did about Hillary Clinton’s emails, there’s no way he would have become president. There is no way America would elect a guy who is a criminal who defrauds people out of their life savings. But you only heard about that one time.
Allison Kugel: There’s no question that the media chose to feed the beast of sensationalism when it came to President Trump, and I do believe they regret that approach.
Rob Reiner: I’m sure they do; just like The New York Times printed an apology about the Iraq war. It’s the job of the media to vet these candidates. And they didn’t do that with Trump. They spent a lot of time on the Access Hollywood tape. Who the hell cares about that? They already impeached a guy who had bad sexual proclivities. And who cares? If a guy is a criminal and he steals money from people, and he then takes other people’s money to pay them off, gee whiz!
Allison Kugel: In the 1970s, Norman Lear created All In The Family, and the iconic character of Archie Bunker, who has been referred to as “a lovable bigot.” That character was the original famous xenophobe, if you will. You, of course, played his liberal son-in-law, Mike ‘Meathead’ Stivic. How do you think Archie Bunker would have played with today’s television audience?
Rob Reiner: I think it would have played well. We’re a little bit more PC now. I don’t think you can say some of the things we said. But the thing about the ‘Archie’ character was that we always made fun of him on the show. It was a satire, and any time his bigotry and racism were on display, we would always knock it down and refute it. We’d always shine a light on the ignorance of it. So, we made fun of it. I think that’s the way you could do it, as long as people know that you’re not saying it’s a good thing.
Allison Kugel: How has your father, Carl Reiner, molded your political and social ideals over the years?
Rob Reiner: It’s more so coming from my mother than my father. Although my father is politically active, he’ll even tell you that his wife (the late Estelle Reiner) was educating him about political ideas. She was more of a politically thoughtful person, and then my dad got involved in it too. He marched in the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, and you can see him on Twitter. Every night he goes after Trump.
Allison Kugel: You don’t mince words on Twitter either. You really go after Trump. After you post a tweet, do you look at your comments at all?
Rob Reiner: I used to in the beginning, but now I’ve got almost half a million followers and there are just so many of them, and they’re so ruthless. They say all these horrible things. “You’re a libtard, you’re a commie [sic].” I don’t really look at it and I don’t really care what they have to say, because I know who this guy is (referring to President Trump). He’s a mentally ill guy who’s got major emotional problems that he tries to fill by aggrandizing himself in a narcissistic way. He admires autocrats because I think he has autocratic envy. I think [Trump] would love to be Vladimir Putin; anything to have a government where every business has to run through him, and he gets a cut of everything. He stokes fear and he’s a racist. We’ve seen people like this before, but it’s just amazing that it happened in this country.
Allison Kugel: News today seems to be fear-driven. A lot of Americans have taken to avoiding the news. How do you think people ought to strike a balance between staying informed and not succumbing to fear?
Rob Reiner: I think it requires doing some work. There are real fears and real problems. And then there are created problems that are blown up. You have to be able to understand the difference and recognize an actual threat, and what is a perceived or trumped up threat. The only way to know the difference is to do some reading. For example, if you are only going to read one side, then you are going to think that MS-13 (and international criminal gang) is streaming across the border into America. But if you do your homework you’ll find out that MS-13, although a violent gang, is not streaming across the border. It’s a homegrown group and illegal immigration is way down from where it was. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an immigration policy. You need an immigration policy, but that’s not a real threat. It is a real problem that children are taken away from their mothers and fathers.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope people get out of your film, Shock and Awe?
Rob Reiner: That we need a free and independent press, a vigilant press, to hold power accountable so that we won’t go to war based on lies. The second thing is to realize what the cost is of not having a free and independent press. What will the cost be? Not only people’s quality of life and lost lives, but the erosion of our democracy.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Castle Rock Entertainment, Vertical Entertainment
Shock and Awe, starring Rob Reiner, Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Biel, opens in wide theatrical release on Friday, July 13, 2018.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and visit AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, Paris Hilton and Nicky Hilton Rothschild’s aunt; Kyle Richards has emerged as a Hollywood force as Executive Producer of the new hit television series, American Woman, loosely based on the colorful life of her late mother, Kathleen Richards.
Kyle Richards, along with her sisters, Kathy Hilton and fellow Real Housewife Kim Richards, were raised in Bel Air, California, by Kathleen Richards. Kathleen was a headstrong, ambitious divorcee who didn’t quite fit with her times. In the 1970s Kathleen found herself having to support her three girls and their upper crust West Los Angeles lifestyle. She began managing her daughters, ushering all three into modeling and acting careers, as Kyle puts it, “before I could even read.”
From vintage movie and television credits including Little House on the Prairie, Nanny and the Professor, Escape to Witch Mountain, Fantasy Island and Police Story, the girls were very much the working Hollywood family, and mom Kathleen was the original Hollywood “Momager,” a title now associated with Keeping Up with the Kardashians matriarch, Kris Jenner.
Cut to 2018, with the family’s pop culture rise, Kyle Richards was primed and ready to tell the story of her unconventional upbringing and the unwavering faith and determination of her late mother, Kathleen Richards.
The new hit television series, American Woman, created and co-executive produced by Kyle, is inspired by her mom Kathleen’s journey from the quintessential kept 1970s Bel Air housewife who couldn’t balance a checkbook, to single mom crushing it at a time when women had to fight to be heard and taken seriously.
American Woman, starring Alicia Silverstone, Mena Suvari, and Jennifer Bartels, offers a bold and layered glimpse into the glamour and social volatility of post-hippie, 1970s Los Angeles, when the women’s liberation movement was just taking root.
Kyle Richards and I sat down to discuss her childhood, the greatest lessons she learned from her mom, how she’s raising her four daughters and this new chapter in her life as creator and co-executive producer of one of the most talked about new series on television.
Allison Kugel: Your new television show, American Woman, is inspired by your mom’s life. What is the greatest lesson your mom taught you?
Kyle Richards: She would always tell me, “If you want something, put it out there and you’ll make it happen.” She would tell me that you have to plant the seeds. When you’re a kid you don’t really understand what that means. Now I realize that everything I was doing my whole life was planting the seeds for what I’m doing now. She told me I could do anything I wanted to if I set my mind to it, and to never take my eye off the ball.
Allison Kugel: She could have been in The Secret. She was ahead of her time.
Kyle Richards: (Laughs) Exactly! That’s very true. I studied Kabbalah which teaches similar [tenets], and I was like, “That’s what my mom was talking about!”
Allison Kugel: If she were still here, what do you think she would have to say about your new show, American Woman, and how she’s portrayed?
Kyle Richards: I think she would be very excited and proud, because she knew this was something I wanted to do, and I made it happen. She would be so proud to see her daughter doing well and fulfilling her dreams.
Allison Kugel: If you could go back in time, would you choose to be a child actor again?
Kyle Richards: Absolutely. I had a very positive experience as a child actor. I worked with incredible people. A lot of the things I did were in a very family-friendly environment. I got to travel and do exciting things I never would have been able to do if I were a regular child (laughs) living a normal life. I grew up in Bel Air, but obviously my friends weren’t actors. They went to school every day, they went to camp, and did all of those normal things. I didn’t get to do those things, but I was doing other interesting things and traveling. When we filmed Little House on the Prairie, we were filming out in Simi Valley and riding horses and playing in the streams and catching ducks. It was just like going to camp sometimes.
Allison Kugel: How did you and your sisters, Kathy [Hilton] and Kim [Richards], all become working child actors?
Kyle Richards: My mom studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and always wanted to be an actress, but she got married and had her kids young. My sister Kathy was a really beautiful baby, and my mom would get stopped on the streets of New York and asked for her daughter to model. Kathy started doing these modeling things and then it turned into commercials. Then Kim was born, and she started doing commercials. In Kim’s first commercial, she was six months old doing a carpet commercial, crawling around on the carpet. When my dad moved to Los Angeles for business, they were in Hollywood, so they continued on that path. Then when I was born, it was during the time when Kim was on Nanny and the Professor.
Allison Kugel: Did you want to follow in your sisters’ footsteps?
Kyle Richards: I was actually very, very shy. My mom told me at the time, that it was to help me get rid of my shyness. But she also felt that since her other two other daughters were doing this, she didn’t want me to feel left out. I was scared when I was little, because I was really painfully shy. At my first audition, the guy had on a white jacket, so at the time I thought I was going to a doctor (laughs) and I was so little, so I would get really scared. I am glad she did that, because it did help me overcome my shyness. I still do have that side to me that people don’t know about.
Allison Kugel: You had an unconventional upbringing, as is reflected on this show. What kind of impact did your childhood experience have on what you looked for in a husband and family as an adult?
Kyle Richards: I grew up in a house filled with women. My mom, my grandmother, my sisters, my mom’s friends… and my sister Kathy had these two best friends that basically lived at our house. It was like a big sorority house. There was a lot of fun in our house, but then I would go to my friends’ houses and I would see the dad coming home from work and the mom making dinner in the kitchen. I thought, “Oh, those are like the people on TV. Those are fake people.”
But I always really admired that, and it was something that I always wanted to have. I didn’t know if I would be able to have that because my mom had been divorced a number of times.
Allison Kugel: Is that why you chose to marry so young with your first marriage?
Kyle Richards: Yes. Having that was very important to me and so I got married very young (to first husband, Guraish Aldjufrie). Being a mom came very naturally to me, but being a wife is very hard when you’re that young. I know a lot of people would say that being a mom is hard too, but being a mom was very easy for me. It was the wife part that wasn’t so easy. Then when I met Mauricio (Umansky, Richards’ husband of twenty-two years) I was fortunate enough to find someone that I felt was my soulmate. I’ve always made our relationship and our marriage a priority because it’s so important to me to have what I didn’t have growing up, and for my children to have what I didn’t have growing up.
Allison Kugel: Did you have input into the casting of Alicia Silverstone, who plays the character inspired by your mom?
Kyle Richards: Absolutely. I was involved with every aspect of the show. When I originally met with Alicia, my thought was that the actress we cast had to be a natural redhead. My mom was a redhead and it was a big part of her personality. Alicia loved the script and I thought, “Okay, we’ll have a meeting,” because I love Alicia Silverstone! Who doesn’t love Alicia Silverstone? The second I met her, and I saw how inspired she was to dive into this role, or as Alicia describes it, “this juicy part,” I really felt she was the person to take on the challenge of portraying my mom.
Allison Kugel: What was your motivation for signing onto The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in 2010? What did you hope would come from it?
Kyle Richards: [American Woman] was not the goal (laughs). I didn’t realize what the Housewives [franchise] really was when I started doing it. I didn’t understand the opportunities that would come my way. I was acting my whole life, and then I had pretty much stepped aside from that to raise my children. When The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills came up, I looked at it as just another gig. I didn’t know what it was like to do a reality television show, other than seeing my niece Paris [Hilton] do it. I thought, “This is great because it’s reality and my kids can be with me.” I had no game plan at all. In the first few seasons I wasn’t selling anything; I had no business. I was a stay at home mom, and I loved being a stay at home mom. I always had that feeling of wanting to do other things at some point, but it’s a lot when you have four kids. People would ask me, “What are you going to do?” And I would be like, “What do you mean, what am I going to do?!” My goal in life is to stay at home and bake cookies (laughs).
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) You’d been working in television since childhood, so it made sense to go back to what you knew.
Kyle Richards: I’ve been doing television since before I could even read. The way American Woman happened was through a fan. My friend came to me and said, “I have these fans of yours who would love to meet you. Would you mind doing lunch?” I agreed because he’s a very close friend of mine. They happened to be the producers of Shameless (Showtime). I watched Shameless before we went to lunch, and at lunch they started asking me what my plans were for after Housewives. It wasn’t supposed to be a pitch meeting, but I told them I like to write, particularly about having an unconventional upbringing, and I began sharing some stories with them. Then I got a phone call that John Wells (American Woman’s Executive Producer) wanted to make my mom’s story into a television show.
Allison Kugel: And then you had to pitch it to the network…
Kyle Richards: Right. Once I had my production company, which is the best of the best, we had to go in and pitch the network. I had no idea how pitching works. I didn’t know if I was supposed to bring my own music and act things out (laughs). Next thing you know we’re making a TV show.
Allison Kugel: What parts of Alicia Silverstone’s portrayal of your mom are accurate and which parts did they take some creative license?
Kyle Richards: In American Woman, they show her working at The May Company, and with that part the writers took creative license. My mom was our manager growing up, because we were all acting in television. She was a single mom raising us. All of a sudden, she found herself in this big house with no husband. Even though we had this nice house in Bel Air, my mom was very strict. We had to make our own beds; when we got cars we were not allowed to go to the car wash, we each had to wash our own car. My kids now go and get their nails done. I wasn’t allowed to get my nails done. I did my own nails.
Allison Kugel: I think that part is a generational thing, because I didn’t get my first manicure and pedicure until I was in college.
Kyle Richards: Me either. A massage? Are you kidding me? I never had a massage until I was married.
Allison Kugel: Now everyone’s taking their kids for mani-pedis.
Kyle Richards: I know! It’s so funny. We were raised differently. I don’t really talk about that with my sisters so much, but I do tell my kids all the time because I just don’t want that to be lost. It’s a constant conversation in our house.
Allison Kugel: Do you find it a challenge to keep your kids grounded?
Kyle Richards: It is a challenge, and the way I deal with that is through having open conversations. I don’t want to be a broken record with my kids because then they’ll stop listening, but I kind of am sometimes. My husband and I always talk about this. When we were first married we were in a very different position. My oldest would say, “When are we going to get a house?” because we were in a condo. I would explain that we have to make money and save up, and we have to have an extra cushion in the bank. So she would say, “How many cushions do we need?”
Allison Kugel: Enough to cover an entire sectional sofa, kid (laughs).
Kyle Richards: Haha! Yeah, how many more cushions do we need before we can get a house? We were in a two-bedroom condo with three kids. Each of our children had a very different experience. I worry about Portia (Kyle’s youngest of her four daughters) sometimes, so I always talk about these things with her because I want her to appreciate what she has. I went to go see the American Woman billboard on Sunset Blvd. (in Los Angeles), and I took Portia with me. I drove up to it and I just started to cry. She said, “Why are you crying mom?” And I said, “You don’t understand. I worked my whole life, and this is a dream of mine. To see this up here is so surreal.” And she said, “I’m so proud of you mom. You worked so hard.” We have these long conversations about how if you want something in life you have to focus on it and put it out there, like my mom used to teach me. Portia is very wise and she’ll say things to me that are well beyond her years, and sometimes I’ll think, “Is that my mother reincarnated?”
Allison Kugel: I often see the same thing in my son, where I’ll think it’s either my grandfather or that my grandfather’s spirit is somehow influencing my son’s character, because they are so much alike.
Kyle Richards: I’m glad I’m not the only one who believes that! There are so many signs all the time. I went to a psychic who said to me, “Your mother wants you to know she really loves the drapes you put in the baby’s room,” and I had just put drapes in Portia’s room. I have signs all the time. Whether it’s Portia saying something to me or other signs that come to me, I know my mother is watching.
Allison Kugel: The backdrop of American Woman is interesting because it takes place in the 1970s, just as the seeds of feminism were starting to take root. It seems that your mom was ahead of her time, in terms of being a feminist more than forty years ago.
Kyle Richards: It’s funny you should say that, because my mom did not like the word “feminist.” It had such a negative connotation at the time. Back then women weren’t supposed to be strong and outspoken. If you were strong and outspoken and had an opinion and a voice, you were a pushy broad. Nowadays it’s somewhat celebrated as empowering for women to be strong. Back then, it just wasn’t like that. She really was a feminist in her own way, but she just didn’t like the word. She was also old fashioned in the sense that she would say that when your husband comes home you want the house to look beautiful, cook dinner and all that. She wanted us to be independent and not need a man. She didn’t like the fact that her generation supposedly needed a man. I hope younger women, including my daughters, who watch this show, will see how far we have come and appreciate who they are and the power they have. In my mother’s generation, that was lost. More importantly, it’s okay to be strong, but it’s also okay to be vulnerable.
Photo Credits: Getty Images, Paramount Network
American Woman, co-executive produced by Kyle Richards, airs Thursdays 10pm EST on Paramount Network.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and visit AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
Hailed as one of the most prolific standup comedians of the past three decades, D.L. Hughley has never been afraid to dig into ethnic stereotypes, economic disparity, relationships, politics… nothing’s off limits. His words are explicit and paint an accurate portrait of societal contradictions and pain in fast forward.
From his legendary standup material and his nationally syndicated radio show, The D.L. Hughley Show, to his upcoming Netflix series, The Fix (a hybrid game show/issues-based panel talk show), D.L.’s platform as an outspoken advocate of civil rights is unconventional and tinged with off-color language. But as he shared with me during our conversation, he believes that to reach people with a heavy message, you’ve got to get them to let their guard down through laughter.
His latest book, How Not To Get Shot: And Other Advice From White People (Out June 26th) pulls no punches and offers no apologies, as Hughley puts forth his satirical and bitingly sarcastic take on racial profiling, police shootings, President Trump, and the advice that white people often give black people on how to adequately assimilate into American society. Nothing is off limits as he covers topics like black names versus white names, dressing black versus dressing white, how white people advise black people to talk to the police, neighborhood profiling, “the race card,” and a host of other hot button, racially charged issues. D.L. goes in.
The book doubles down on D.L.’s already controversial public platform. It is filled with humor, sorrow and irony, and it will make you a bit uncomfortable no matter what side of the fence you are on.
Allison Kugel: Did the motivation to write your latest book, How Not To Get Shot (And Other Advice From White People), come from a place of fear, love, hope, anger…?
D.L. Hughley: I think all those things. Fear, frustration, anger… they all kind of mirror each other. When I was writing this book, I realized that society would never take a good look at itself unless you make it feel good; unless you give them something to make their ears tickle a little bit. My overall thought was to be clear enough where it doesn’t seem trite, and to be satirical enough where people can’t tell if I’m being serious or not. And I needed it to be angry enough to mirror the people who go through these things all the time. Watching people of color being slaughtered at the hands of police is nothing new. I grew up in Los Angeles, so it happened quite often. Everybody always wants to say they want to start this conversation, and this book is my contribution to that conversation.
Allison Kugel: Do you feel safe living in the United States?
D.L. Hughley: I don’t think I ever… black men and safety don’t go together. There are a lot of words that black people use to describe how they feel, but I don’t think “safe” is one of them.
Allison Kugel: What do you tell your kids when they ask if they’re safe?
D.L. Hughley: That we’re going to do the best we can to make sure. I think that America’s never seen a person of color that lost their life where the powers-that-be were compelled to do something about it; where they were actually moved to action. Whether it was Emmett Till or Trayvon Martin, I think they have a certain kind of distance when it comes to black people dying. The first thing they’ll say is, “Well, if you wouldn’t have done this?” or “You shouldn’t have done that.” The impetus for me writing this book was going on Megyn Kelly’s show (Megyn Kelly TODAY). I went on Megyn Kelly’s show and we were going to talk about the police and policing, and she had Mark Fuhrman (disgraced lead detective in the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial) on the same show. She didn’t tell me he was going to be on, and he went on before me. They had Mark Fuhrman on to talk about policing. He got fired for lying. He lied so much that he got a murderer off. He got O.J. off! And this is how we start the conversation about policing, and about good police versus bad police? Even other police will tell you that Mark Fuhrman was a bad [cop]. That’s how they decided to start the conversation that day. That’s when I knew I would write this book.
Allison Kugel: You’ve discussed in great detail, your previous affiliation as a gang member with the Bloods in Los Angeles. What was the life lesson from that experience for you? What was the major takeaway?
D.L. Hughley: The takeaway was a level of independence and compassion. One of the things that I always felt bad about when I was growing up was that even when I was in that situation, I knew I wasn’t of that situation. I knew that I didn’t belong there. I knew I would do something else. It taught me to have compassion for people who, for them, that was their natural experience. While I knew that I wasn’t born for that, that [gang] experience was organic to a lot of people. So, it was knowing that I was in that situation and not of it, and to have compassion for the guys who didn’t see any other way to live. When I was eighteen or nineteen years old, stuff got so bad, I tried to get into the Los Angeles Police Academy. I just wanted things to be different. I was reaching at anything to not give into the frustration that was all around me.
Allison Kugel: Do you fear that this book is simply going to preach to the choir rather than reaching a wider demographic of people?
D.L. Hughley: I think that people who have already made up their mind before a question is even asked, they have a certain perspective. But a lot of the book is based on statistics and facts, things that have happened and their outcome. There are always a lot of white people who want to tell you what they would do if they were black, but they can only tell you what they would do if they were black from their current perspective (laughs). They can’t tell you what it’s like. I’m sure that a lot of people who have had positive experiences with the police can’t believe that the police that pull them over are the same policemen that interact with me. They can’t believe it because it’s not their experience. But my hope is that people can at least look at this book and see that things aren’t the same as their own experience. You don’t have to have that experience to know those things do exist.
Allison Kugel: Does fame and money insulate you at all from racial profiling and police harassment?
D.L. Hughley: It didn’t insulate Bill Cosby’s son (the late Ennis Cosby). He was still shot down by violence. It didn’t insulate Tupac when he was shot. There was a member of Earth Wind and Fire who was shot by the Santa Monica Police Department for holding a fireplace holder. I think when you’re black and nobody knows that you’re famous, it doesn’t matter anyway. Before they see anything else, they see that you’re black.
Allison Kugel: There was one page in the book where you ask the reader, “Who can say the “N” word?” and then you answer, “Fucking black people, and that’s it.” Using myself as an example, not only do I not want you to use racial or religious slurs against me as a Jewish person, I have no desire to say them about myself either. Why do you even want to have the right to use the “N” word? Why use it?
D.L. Hughley: I don’t want to have the right. I wish it didn’t exist, but it does so I won’t pretend that it doesn’t. The most annoying thing is that people will blame the use of the “N” word on black people. They’ll say, “Well, if you didn’t use it, then maybe we wouldn’t use it. You use it in hip hop all the time.” That word has been a part of the American lexicon since the early 1700s. Hip hop’s been around since 1975. What came first, the word “nigger” or The Sugarhill Gang? To pretend that black people can stop saying it and then all people will stop feeling that way about us, and that it will go away, is ridiculous. There has never been a word in our lexicon that equates to that word, not one.
Allison Kugel: I’m going to share my perspective at the risk of you getting mad at me…
D.L. Hughley: I won’t get mad at you…
Allison Kugel: To give my perspective as a female, I have always felt that the B word was used to dehumanize women, and I can remember that word stinging from the time I was a little kid. I remember thinking, “Does that word mean that I’m less than human?” So, from where I’m sitting, a de-humanizing word is a de-humanizing word. Am I way off base with that one?
D.L. Hughley: There is no equating the two. They took a word “bitch,” which means a female dog, and equated it to something else, that is true. But they made up a word to describe us. Bitch is horrible, but it had another meaning. “Nigger” never had another meaning. They invented a word just for us. To me, there is no comparison and no other word that equates to our word.
Allison Kugel: On page 164 of your book, you cite the statistic that 72% of black births in the United States are from unwed mothers, and you do point out that it includes women who have partners but are unmarried, and women who simply choose to not be married. Then you go on to point out that one reason black women often outnumber eligible black men is because so many black men are in prison. Do you pin some of that on former President Bill Clinton’s now infamous 1994 crime bill that ultimately led to the mass incarceration of black men in the United States?
D.L. Hughley: Here’s what I will say… I remember when they banned assault rifles (a ten-year ban passed by United States Congress in 1994). It wasn’t because mass shooters were using them. It was because gang members were using them. Bill Clinton banned them at the time because of that. Bill Clinton gave black community members, black community leaders and elected officials, what they asked for, which was relief from crime. And now they get to pretend that they didn’t ask for it. They asked for that. Black leaders asked for harsher sentences, and now they get to pretend that they didn’t. I remember that Bill Clinton had a Republican congress. Everything he did would have had to go through congress, and they weren’t inclined to do anything but be hard on n*****s. I think Bill Clinton is at fault. I think the elected officials are at fault, and I think that the American population is at fault. Any time somebody sells somebody out, it’s going to be us. That includes our own elected officials, our own civic leaders and our own religious leaders. If you want to send a black man to prison, get a conservative black person on the jury. You cannot not send black people to jail without other black people being complicit in some way.
Allison Kugel: There’s a part in the book where you compare black-sounding names versus white-sounding names, and dressing black versus dressing white, in a sarcastic way. Do you think black people are more pressured to assimilate than other ethnic groups? And by the way, your kids have very Caucasian-sounding names. Was that deliberate on your part?
D.L. Hughley: It was more so my wife. I wanted them to have names where you can tell where they’re from. But statistically, if a person has an urban-sounding name they are less likely to be hired. She knew that, and I didn’t. The Washington Post did a story on biases with teachers, where if you live in a certain zip code, if you come from a single parent home, if you have a certain name, you’re judged a certain way. My wife knew all of that. I’m glad she named our kids. When it first happened, it used to annoy the shit out of me, but she didn’t weigh them down with my bullshit.
Allison Kugel: What’s your opinion on the song, The Story of O.J. by Jay Z and the music video for the song. Brilliant social commentary or offensive imagery?
D.L. Hughley: Brilliant is a word that’s used a lot. I think it was demonstrative. I got it. I wouldn’t call it “brilliant,” because that word is overused. I think it was clear and interesting, and satirical. But brilliant would be a whole different level or category.
Allison Kugel: I know of some people who thought it made an interesting and accurate social statement, and other people I know were completely offended by it because of the negative stereotypical images it portrayed.
D.L. Hughley: There’s a book called Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (W.W. Norton and Company). It’s about stereotypes and how they started. Stereotypes exist because somebody embodied them. I’m not saying most people, but some people did. And it was clear enough where people took that as the majority. I was on a plane one time and it was me and a bunch of other famous comics. A lady came up to us and said, “Are you guys in entertainment?” because we were in first class. They all got offended. I was like, “Motherf*cker, we are in entertainment, and we are sitting in first class, so shut up!” (Laughs). Most black people you know who are wealthy are in entertainment or they’re athletes, so stop pretending like that’s not true. It doesn’t mean that all of us are that, but a lot of people embody that fact.
Allison Kugel: Do you believe there is a reason for everything that happens, and that you are here at this time, exactly as you are, for a greater purpose?
D.L. Hughley: I think I am supposed to give a higher level of clarity and specificity to the things I see. All an artist can ever be is what they see. I want my people, and by that, I mean all human beings, to see themselves. And I don’t want people to make excuses. This week I watched people use the bible to justify putting children in chains. Those are the same scriptures they used to put black men in chains. If there is anything I do, it’s to be an artist who is clear enough so that people will get that I’m saying exactly what I saw.
Allison Kugel: Where is the elusive bridge of communication, for example, between police officers and the black community?
D.L. Hughley: Here’s the way we have a dialogue; it starts with accountability. The same accountability you demand from us as a community, we should demand from you as [law enforcement] professionals. When a mayor in Los Angeles says we need to teach our children to respect the police, well children are just children and that’s why you have parents. You have to guide them at that age, and in the process they make a lot of mistakes. But is a reasonable solution to a communal problem to say that children need to be more responsible than trained adults? When Megyn Kelly has me on her show to talk about the police and says, “I’m going to talk with Mark Fuhrman first,” or when you tell children to act more responsible than adults who are fully trained by the state, that’s based on a false premise.
Allison Kugel: What do you think the police are afraid of?
D.L. Hughley: I can’t speak for them. I can’t tell you what they’re afraid of. But I can tell you this, that I don’t only teach my children to respect the police, I teach them to fear the police. If the police treated us like the human beings that they say they serve, then we would be okay, but they don’t. What the police do is what they’ve always done to black people, to keep us in our place. You’re suspicious if you’re somewhere you don’t belong. The reason we have all these policemen getting called is because [black people] are in places where people aren’t used to seeing them or are uncomfortable seeing them. That’s always been their mission. Maybe we should change what their mission is. Maybe it shouldn’t be to just keep us in our place. Maybe it should be to treat us like citizens. If you call the police on somebody for barbequing, for sleeping in a common area at Yale, or walking to a mall, or eating at certain places, what that tells you is the police’s goal is to make society feel safe from us. I got the police called on me in my own neighborhood, and I’ve lived there for seventeen years. My wife has had that happen and my children have had that happen. You can look around Calabasas (a tony suburb in Los Angeles’s northern San Fernando Valley) and you wouldn’t see many people who have lived there longer than me, but I’m the stranger!
Allison Kugel: Have you had some positive interactions with the police?
D.L. Hughley: Sure. Generally, they work for me (laughs). I have three police officers that work for me. But, it’s been ninety percent bullshit and ten percent cool. I think white people would say it’s the other way around.
Allison Kugel: I’ve often heard black men say that if they are too outspoken about racial issues and/or if they’re platform should grow too big and too powerful, they then become a target and the government will now see them as a problem that needs to be dealt with. Do you ever think about that?
D.L. Hughley: I’m going to do what it is I believe. I can’t say how people will respond to it. That’s not my job. You gotta be doing something when you go. I teach my children to stand up for what they believe in and to be willing to sacrifice for their beliefs. And I can say that my children know who they are as people, and they know who I am and what I believe.
Photo Credits: Book Cover Art: William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; D.L. Hughley Portraits: Shannon McCollum.
D.L. Hughley’s book, How Not To Get Shot (And Other Advice From White People) is available everywhere books are sold June 26, 2018. Pre-order your copy. His hit radio show, The D.L. Hughley Show, airs weekdays, 3PM to 7PM in national syndication.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and visit AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
Twenty-nine years after releasing his debut album, Lenny Kravitz is still letting love rule, but with an eye towards societal strife that continues to go unchecked. The multi-Grammy award winning musician brings forth a conscious body of work with Raise Vibration, his eleventh studio album, out September 7th. The first single off the Raise Vibration album, It’s Enough, is a battle cry against corporate greed, political corruption and racism. Kravitz switches gears with his follow up single, Low, exploring the perils of his near-mythical sensuality with intonations alluding to his past intimate relationships. For Lenny Kravitz, the art of the story is paramount, while pop music trends are immaterial. He tells stories through his writing, vocals, and the multitude of instruments he has mastered over the years.
Musically, Raise Vibration is an eclectic blend of the kind of stylistic rock n’ roll-funk sound that Kravitz is known for, with subtle nods to vintage R&B and choruses that sway towards pop appeal. His music puts you in a trance-like groove and defies all genre.
Lenny Kravitz, the man, is a veritable roadmap of his past experiences. From making his way in an industry that doesn’t always value individuality, to making his way in a world that begged to define and categorize him by race and ethnicity in his formative years, he wears his memories on his sleeve and they inform much of his artistic expression. Our conversation surprised me as it took a more intimate turn. He and I delved into matters of spirituality, racial identity, family and the rituals that aide him in creating his eclectic sound. We were very much on the same page as he shared his feelings about everything from racism and societal injustice to his personal spiritual journey, his family and his music.
Allison Kugel: You’ve said you were born to make music. Can you share your earliest memory where you became aware that music was going to be your life?
Lenny Kravitz: For me the pivotal moment was going to see The Jackson 5, live at Madison Square Garden, when I was six years old. I was in the first grade. I had already been intently listening to their record. But I went to the show, and the next morning that was it! I was completely sold. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Allison Kugel: What was it about The Jackson 5 that resonated with you?
Lenny Kravitz: Number one was the music. The music was incredible. The music that was made by these kids was not elementary, it wasn’t bubble gum as they used to say back then about young artists. This was very sophisticated, high-level music with the best musicians, the best producers, and [Michael] was one of the best singers who ever lived and who ever will live. The level of interpretation and feeling and vocal range… it was a perfect storm for me, the way everything came together. On top of the music, the presentation and the showmanship were top level and soulful, and these were people that I could identify with. They looked like me. I had the same hair… there were so many things that came together in my mind.
Allison Kugel: It’s interesting to hear you say that. My son is half Jewish and half Jamaican, and he does the same thing. He tends to gravitate towards people he sees on television, in film, and with music, who have his skin tone and his hair.
Lenny Kravitz: Yup! I have the same background, except I’m Jewish and Bahamian.
Allison Kugel: When and where do you feel most creative and musical?
Lenny Kravitz: It could be anywhere, but it’s in the studio, so wherever that may be. My studio is in the Bahamas. It’s my favorite place to work; it’s my workshop. When I’m in the studio and I’ve got all my equipment and all my instruments, and everything is set up, that’s the magical place for me. It’s where I’m comfortable and where I can flow. When I’m inspired and in that flow, I can move. I jump around from instrument to instrument, and it’s wonderful.
Allison Kugel: You are such a true musician in every sense of the word. Aside from singing, you play several instruments, and you write and produce. When you record your music, is it all you doing everything in the studio? Are you recording all of the instrumentals in addition to doing your vocals and producing?
Lenny Kravitz: Yes, I start on drums normally and then I go to a guitar, a bass, another guitar, keyboard, percussion… I keep layering as though I was painting, until my picture is complete.
Allison Kugel: Your upcoming album is called Raise Vibration and the first single, It’s Enough, is a call-to-action anthem about political corruption and social and racial injustice. Was writing It’s Enough a form of therapy for you, and a way of turning hopelessness into empowerment? For example, I live part of the year in Florida, not too far from Parkland. When the Parkland school shooting happened, I went into a depression where I was feeling helpless as a parent. Then I thought, “I’m a writer. I can contribute something by writing a piece about this.” Was it a similar process for you?
Lenny Kravitz: I react to the world. Just as you say you did, I have a reaction. I actually recorded the song twice. I was trying to find the direction for the record. The way the song started, the first version of It’s Enough was a full-on guitar, bass, drum, punk rock song. It had an angry tone to it, because that felt like the proper reaction. And then I thought about it and ended up changing it and finding this groove, which is the polar opposite of what it started out as. I found that by being calm and by being centered and by being quiet, it was more effective. It brought out a whole new feeling in the song, and I think it enables the listener to hear the lyrics even better.
Allison Kugel: And you feel it brings more of a positive energy, as opposed to the original version, which would have brought forth anger.
Lenny Kravitz: Absolutely. I’m all about positive energy. I’m stating the facts, but in the end, I always take an optimistic and positive tone that, “People, we can do this!” We can do it. It’s just a matter of waking up.
Allison Kugel: What does the title of your album, Raise Vibration, mean to you? And how do you raise your vibration? Do you meditate? Do you Pray?
Lenny Kravitz: It means exactly that; waking up. I meditate, I pray, I try to be still, I try to be quiet… and listen. It means having the desire to learn, to improve, and to face my faults and learn from them. I’m always looking to go higher. And taking as much ego out of myself as possible.
Allison Kugel: How do you define God?
Lenny Kravitz: I believe that God is my creator, our creator. Whether we realize it or not, I believe we are all created by the same God. I believe we are all one creation, we are all connected, and I believe that God is the ultimate source of love and all we are looking for.
Allison Kugel: Do you consider yourself an activist?
Lenny Kravitz: That’s a difficult one. I use my music to express myself, and if it inspires others then that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know that I’m initially doing it for any other reason than to express myself. But I do see myself going more in that direction where you could call it that.
Allison: I ask because when I listened to It’s Enough, your first single off this new album, I could tell you’re at a point in your life, and in your career, where you have no problem stating your opinions on societal issues.
Lenny Kravitz: Right, but for instance, from my first album, Let Love Rule up until now, I haven’t had that problem. It’s always been within me to express myself truthfully.
Allison Kugel: I always say that when I enter a room, or wherever I may be, that I never walk alone because I can feel the presence of God beside me, as well as my great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, siblings and my son. I walk into a space with the energy of those who made me who I am, walking beside me. When you enter a space, who walks beside you?
Lenny Kravitz: God is with me at all times which I am always aware of. And the energy of my mother, of my grandmother, of my grandfather. My daughter (actress, Zoe Kravitz), who is here with me on this earth, is always with me. And like you said, knowing that and feeling that, and knowing that spirit is far superior to anything here. The physical presence is wonderful, and something that we require and crave as human beings. We’re spiritual beings living a physical experience, but as you say, you recognize that you have these people with you and it just shows how strong spirit is and how strong energy is. My mother’s (the late actress, Roxie Roker) been gone for twenty plus years, and I can still feel her every day. I can still sense her presence because the energy she left is so powerful. That’s an awesome thing.
Allison Kugel: Your music really transcends any one genre. It’s a blend of rock, punk, blues, soul, pop; it’s really everything. You can’t categorize your music. And I remember seeing a clip of you, I believe it was on Oprah’s Master Class, where you tell the story of sitting in a classroom as a young boy and you didn’t know which box to check off on a piece of paper asking you to identify your race. Everyone’s life has a theme, and that theme repeats itself over and over again because it’s tied to something we’re supposed to learn while we’re here. In your case it seems to be this ongoing theme where people want to put you in a box and label you, and you railing against that.
Lenny Kravitz: People love a box (laughs)! And they want to put you right in it, so they can easily define, for their own comfort, what you are. I’ve been fighting against that from day one in my life, and in my musical life. Like with radio stations, this one only plays this, and that one only plays that. This fits here, and that fits there, and you don’t fit here. It’s like, “Shit! That’s not what art is about!” But, unfortunately, that’s not what the business is, which is very frustrating. Going back to that time in school, I knew I was black, but I knew that wasn’t all I was. I knew I was also Russian Jewish and I knew that my great grandmother was full blooded Cherokee Indian. My mother always taught me, “Yes, you’re black, but you’re just as much this and you’re just as much that, and you don’t discount that.” If you’re mixed, like me and like your son, you don’t discount one of your parents. You’re just as much one as the other. But, what my mother did say to me when I was a child that I think was very smart, and I didn’t realize it until I got older, was, “Even though you’re mixed, society only wants to see you as black.” I didn’t understand that at age seven.
Allison Kugel: Did you feel diminished by it, at that time, at age seven?
Lenny Kravitz: I remember her saying it, but I don’t remember exactly how I felt when she said it. From what I recall, I remember thinking, “What does that mean?” Of course, as I grew and went through life, I understood what that meant. People aren’t going to see all the complexities and the differences. People are going to see what they see, and that is the color of your skin. Not all people, but a lot of people. That was a very good lesson once it kicked in. I was like, “Okay, people don’t see everything for what it is.” People see what they want to see. They judge it how they want to judge it, based upon their pre-conceived ideas of what that is.
Allison Kugel: It’s a tough conversation to have with a child.
Lenny Kravitz: But kids now, from what I see, are not tripping on the race thing like generations before, are they?
Allison Kugel: There is a difference from generations ago, and my son has several multiracial friends. Recently, he said, “Mom, what does black mean? My skin is brown.” Part of my response in explaining it was that “black” is a political term and a societal designation, as is “white.” Of course, that will also make more sense as he gets older.
Lenny Kravitz: You have to explain to kids people’s fucked up attitudes about race. That’s really what you’re doing. You have to break down the judgment and short sightedness, and peoples’ hang ups, and the history of people screwing over other people because they were different.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of kids, how would your daughter Zoe describe you, both as a man and as an artist?
Lenny Kravitz: Oh wow! We’re very, very close. I think she would say that I have respect and integrity, and love in my heart. I think as a musician, she respects what I do. She’s grown up around it. She grew up seeing it her whole life. This is hard because If I say, “She thinks I’m amazing,” then it sounds like I’m complimenting myself. She respects the craft, what it takes and what I put into it, which is everything.
Allison Kugel: On September 7th, the day the new album, Raise Vibration, is released, what are those days like for you, when a new album drops?
Lenny Kravitz: When I’m finished with an album, I’m at that place where I let go and I’m excited that I’m finished. It’s always exciting getting a new project out. I hope the people who enjoy my music will get something beautiful from it and will relate to it. As far as the rest, in terms of how well it does, sales and all of that, that’s all great, but the main thing for me is that I expressed myself authentically to who I am, who I was at that moment in time, and that it represents me well. That to me is everything. That’s a success.
Photo Credits: Mathieu Bitton, Mark Seliger
3X Platinum Lenny Kravitz GREATEST HITS album is now available on vinyl as a 2 LP set via Virgin/Ume at uDiscoverMusic. His 11th studio album Raise Vibration is set for release September 7th via BMG. Pre-order at LennyKravitz.com. The album’s debut track, It’s Enough, is available to stream at iTunes.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
By Allison Kugel
Gwen Stefani spent her childhood and adolescence in Anaheim, California, a suburban girl living just a stone’s throw from Disneyland. It was her older brother, Eric, who founded No Doubt, the hybrid ska/punk/rock band that would help Stefani make her way into the musical limelight with their 1995 breakout album, Tragic Kingdom. The band’s unique sound coupled with Stefani’s platinum blonde hair, red lips and punk rock fashion sensibility, brought the singer to Rockstar status in the 1990s.
With lyrics torn from the pages of Gwen’s personal diary about falling in love, breakups, makeups and mending a broken heart, her music has always drawn in listeners with its raw vulnerability. Her down-to-earth nature and self-deprecating sense of humor helped to seal the deal with fans, making her one of the most successful female recording artists of the past twenty-three years.
Her first solo album, 2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and L.A.M.B. fashion label, catapulted her into the music and style icon stratosphere in the early 2000s. Follow up albums like 2006’s The Sweet Escape and No Doubt’s 2012 reunion album, Push and Shove capped off two decades of non-stop recording and touring for the Grammy winning artist, as she focused on raising her three sons with then husband, Bush lead singer, Gavin Rossdale.
In the summer of 2015, the California girl experienced a seismic 8.5 earthquake in her personal life when her marriage to Rossdale imploded amidst a cheating scandal. An unexpected romance came in the form of country crooner, and Gwen’s The Voice costar, Blake Shelton, whom the Hollaback girl began dating later that same year. Gwen then did what she does best, pouring her emotions into her most personal music to date, with 2016’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like album and a subsequent tour.
This summer the hitmaking mom of Kingston, 11, Zuma, 9, and Apollo, 4, is preparing to embark on her Las Vegas Residency at Zappos Theatre at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. It’s called, what else? Gwen Stefani: Just A Girl – an homage to her first single to make the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and her own personal anthem that she says still holds true today. I sat down with Gwen to discuss this new chapter in her life and career.
Allison Kugel: Was this Las Vegas Residency a family decision? Did you sit down with your three boys and say, “Mom’s going to perform in Las Vegas instead of touring. What do you think about that?”
Gwen Stefani: Honestly, my kids don’t really have too much of a say on what the schedule’s going to be. But as a mom, if you look at my touring for the last ten years, I haven’t really toured. In the past, I did tour for seven years. It’s hard with the kids, because they’re in school and I’m not home schooling, and you can’t pull them out. It’s not fair on them. I did my last tour because I had this unexpected life crisis and then the music came pouring out of me from that. I didn’t even plan on making any music. It was such a lifesaver and a beautiful moment for me to be able to write again. I put that tour on at the last minute (referring to her “This Is What The Truth Feels Like” tour) and went on a summer tour with the kids. It was so much fun for them. They love touring, but it isn’t realistic. So, I’ve been thinking about doing the Vegas show for a while now. The Las Vegas Residency will really work for me as a mom, because it’s these little chunks of time where you can fly in and out, and it’s workable.
Allison Kugel: It’s a shifting of priorities.
Gwen Stefani: Yes. After that last tour, I felt like, “God I’ve toured a lot in my life!” I love it, but it takes so much out of me as far as being able to focus on the rest of my life with the kids. I have three kids and it’s a big deal! Any parent would probably go, “How does she do it?” It’s almost impossible to do and it’s a lot of balancing. The Las Vegas Residency is just perfect for where I’m at right now.
Allison Kugel: What does performing live give you, personally and energetically?
Gwen Stefani: Being on stage for me, I always forget how much it’s a part of who I am. I’ve done it for my whole life, pretty much. I always think I don’t want to do it. I always think it’s fine if I never do it again. Then when I get on stage, even when I’m sound checking, I’m like, “Oh My God, I love this!” I love my music, I love being up there, I love the attention and I love being able to share that love with people and get that exchange. I don’t understand why I like it so much.
Allison Kugel: It feeds your soul. You’re connecting with source and you’re in a zone.
Gwen Stefani: It’s my gift. It’s what I’m here for. I’m obviously at the end of my journey of being a musician…
Allison Kugel: Why would you say that?
Gwen Stefani: Well because of my age, and I’ve been doing it for thirty something years. It’s perfect for me to be able to do a Las Vegas show, because not only does it work for me as a mom, but it also works creatively. It’s a new challenge. It’s going to be a way to express myself and do my whole catalog of music that defines every single period in my life; all the crises and all the joys. Creatively, I couldn’t have done it any sooner. I had to have all these songs. It just feels like the perfect next chapter for me.
Allison Kugel: You’re taking the audience on a journey of your life, and to do that you have to have lived.
Gwen Stefani: Exactly! And I also think people who are going out for that weekend in Las Vegas, it’s so different from, for example, if I’m performing in Philly and it’s about Philly culture, and the audience is just coming out for that one night and getting a babysitter. You know what I mean? This Vegas show is a bigger commitment for people. They’re going for the weekend and they’re making a memory. You’re competing with the Las Vegas nightlife, you’re competing with the gambling, the partying and with the hotels and all the expenses. It’s a big commitment for people, and they’re coming to me from all over the world.
Allison Kugel: And they’re going to get a more intimate experience with you than they would in a stadium setting.
Gwen Stefani: It is a much smaller audience than I’m used to, under five thousand people. It’s going to be so different and that’s something I need. When you’ve toured for however many years I have, it’s super awesome, but let’s do something new! That’s why even doing The Voice for the last couple of years was so inspiring for me. I think everybody wants something challenging and new to look forward to.
Allison Kugel: You went to see Jennifer Lopez’s Las Vegas show, All I Have. I’m assuming the two of you discussed her Las Vegas Residency. Did she give you any advice?
Gwen Stefani: Me and Jennifer, I’ve always looked up to her in the sense that we’re exactly the same age, and I remember when No Doubt was coming out and she hadn’t done Jenny from The Block yet, but she had that song out, Waiting for Tonight. At the time I was working with Prince and he started comparing me and Jennifer, and at that time I didn’t even see how I was in the same category with her. She was Jennifer Lopez and I was in a band called No Doubt (laughs). But now here we both are doing these residencies all these years later, and we’ve known each other through the years. She’s always invited me to her kids’ birthday parties and things like that. She is a crazy worker. I cannot believe how much she works! I know I do, but I look at her and I’m like, “Wow!”
Allison Kugel: It doesn’t seem human, right? Multiple television shows, Las Vegas Residency, albums…
Gwen Stefani: I know. I don’t understand it. Going to see her, and I’d never seen her do a performance live, I was studying the production of her show. The show was incredible, and she works so hard on stage. I admire her a lot and it was so inspiring to see… and scary! When I came backstage to talk to her afterwards, she comes out of the dressing room looking like a Barbie Doll. She was breathtaking on stage, but when you see her up close, it’s like, “What?! It’s not possible. You are so gorgeous!” She was just so glamorous. We talked for awhile and she was like, “Yeah, I’ve just done 100 shows…” And I’m like, “Whoa, that’s a lot of shows!” (Laughs) And she still has forty more to go. She’s really enjoyed it, but she said it is challenging.
Allison Kugel: I think you’ll find it challenging, but one of the best experiences of your life.
Gwen Stefani: It is challenging, and as performers we have a completely different perspective on doing a concert than the audience. The challenge isn’t about us. We’re going to be us every time we get up there. We may have that one night where we’re off because of whatever might be going on. A lot of times, you just never know what you’re going to be like on stage. But at the same time, we’re pretty much consistent. It’s really about the audience. What are they going to be like and are they into it or not?
Allison Kugel: What are you presenting to the audience, artistically, with your Just A Girl Las Vegas Residency? You’re also a fashion designer and you have a strong aesthetic vision. Between the sets and the costumes, how will everything tie together on stage?
Gwen Stefani: I’ve really tried to put together a show that has a nostalgic feel. The show is full of hit songs that are recognizable and take you back to that time period in your life. And of course, the real reason for doing Vegas is the costumes. I’m working with Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn who I’ve been working with now for, I don’t know how many years. They are just incredible. They did Jennifer [Lopez’s] show, and they’ve also worked with Jennifer for years. They really get me. I think there’s going to be about five costume changes, which is a lot for me considering that with No Doubt I never did any.
Allison Kugel: I remember. With No Doubt, it was just you out there with your cut off t-shirts (laughs).
Gwen Stefani: (Laughs) Yeah. But now I’m working with designers to see what they come up with. There are different chapters as far as what I want to look like, and I basically have it all worked out. Now it’s just putting it all together.
Allison Kugel: The title of your Las Vegas show, Just A Girl, is the title of one of your biggest hits, but it has a double meaning for you. You’re always saying, “I’m just a girl from Orange County…” Is that your way of keeping yourself grounded?
Gwen Stefani: Honestly, I think if you really knew me or saw my family and how I grew up, I am 100% the same person I have always been. When I wrote that song, Just A Girl, I was twenty-five years old, going to college, still living at my parent’s house, and I was very naïve. I had a boyfriend at the time that lived at his parent’s house. I was driving one day and I’m thinking, “Wow! I really have a different position in this world, being that I’m a female.”
Allison Kugel: Did something happen that made you stop and think, “I’m going to be treated a certain way because I’m a girl.”?
Gwen Stefani: It was just more of a realization that I had. I think we all do as females. I’m walking down the street and some guy just whistled at me? What does that even mean? Suddenly, you’re aware of your sexuality and that you’re ascribed a certain value because of it. It was when that hit me, that I wrote the song, Just A Girl. Nobody was paying attention at the time. Nobody was ever going to hear the song. I didn’t even know how to write a song. It was just so naïve. I guess I wanted to figure out a way to say, “This is my DNA.” And really, my DNA is I am just a girl from Anaheim [California]. I’m just me, and I’ve never been anything else. I know that’s what got me to this point, by being honest, real and sharing my story with people. That’s all we can do in this life, and I’m nothing more than that. But at the same time, by using my gift, being aware of it, trying to respect it and being confident in it, I’ve gotten this far. Music is so powerful, and for a song like that to still be relevant twenty years later? In a way, it’s even more relevant now. We have so much going on with female empowerment and what’s our place? When I read the lyrics of that song I think, “My gosh, that must have been a Godsend,” because I know I didn’t think that up on my own. I always thought it would go out of fashion, or I’d be too old to say “just a girl” but it still works.
Allison Kugel: Has Blake had any creative input with this Las Vegas show?
Gwen Stefani: Obviously he’s my best friend, so I’m bouncing stuff off him all the time. He’s one of those people in my life that’s super supportive and gets me motivated. There’s a whole bunch of songs about him in the show, so that’s fun. Like anybody with their best friend, we share everything together. I’ll tell him, “I picked my dancers. There were 500 girls that tried out!” And I’ll send him videos. Just things like that.
Allison Kugel: Did you choose Planet Hollywood as the venue?
Gwen Stefani: I feel like they chose me, and what’s really cool about it is that Planet Hollywood is also the Zappos Theatre now, and the Zappos team is just incredible. They’re taking over the theatre with their creativity and it has a very futuristic feel. I also give $1 of every single ticket sold to the children’s charity, Cure 4 The Kids Foundation. It’s going to add up to be a crap load of money! It’s something I’m going to be really proud of. You get very motivated about giving and helping, and making a difference, but you really don’t think as one person you’re ever going to in your life. I feel that to be able to get up there and share my story, and then make that kind of money to give away is amazing. I feel so proud of that.
Allison Kugel: What’s your routine before you step out on stage? Do you pray? Do you meditate? How do you gear up to give your best performance?
Gwen Stefani: I don’t meditate. I’m a prayer. I pray, but first I do my makeup (laughs). My makeup is huge for me. I have this song called War Paint. Putting on my makeup and getting ready, there is a kind of meditation in the preparation. Makeup is art, and it’s like getting into character when I put it on. I’ve always done my own makeup for shows. And the praying for me is really important. We do a group prayer circle. In the last few years, and when I toured for the last show, the payer is not just before, but also during [the show]. When I think about how ordinary I’ve always been, and to think that I’ve created all these songs, I don’t know where they come from. I always think that it’s got to be a channeling and it just comes through me. It’s a spiritual thing that has been given to me to share. When I’m in the music, the music takes me right back to those moments in my life. And some of those moments are sickening, you know what I mean? Certain memories are upsetting. That’s why I say this is not just a show for me, it’s my life. It’s real for me and I think that’s why I’m very anxious about it.
Allison Kugel: It’s going to be a tremendous spiritual, emotional and physical undertaking.
Gwen Stefani: And I’m very lazy (laughs). I like to not have to work out and not have to be committed to something. And I love to be with my children, of course. But it is such an amazing opportunity and they don’t just hand them out to everybody. I feel really honored to be able to do it. I’m thrilled to see who’s going to show up and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m going to look back on this and say, “I can’t believe I did that!”
Gwen Stefani: Just a Girl Las Vegas Residency opens June 27th at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino’s Zappos Theatre. Order tickets at https://www.caesars.com/planet-hollywood/shows/gwen-stefani.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
Photo Credits: Yu Tsai, Denise Truscello
By Allison Kugel
From his early days on the comedy stage to playing lovable football fanatic, Hayden Fox, on the long running television sitcom Coach and Zeek Braverman on the dramatic television series, Parenthood to countless legendary big screen roles, actor Craig T. Nelson’s career has been as versatile as it is prolific.
Movie audiences have been loving his work for decades in popular films spanning just about every genre: Poltergeist, Stir Crazy, All The Right Moves, Silkwood, The Devil’s Advocate, The Family Stone and The Proposal. It was his voice work in the 2004 mega hit animated Disney Pixar movie, The Incredibles, that introduced Nelson to a younger audience. His voice is readily recognizable as the voice of Mr. Incredible, and as he tells it, the world stops spinning for a beat whenever a starstruck child hears him speak.
Nelson currently plays Mary Steenburgen’s husband in the upcoming romantic comedy, Book Club, out May 18th. He’s also resuming his role as Mr. Incredible in Incredibles 2, the long-awaited sequel to the 2004 blockbuster animated movie, The Incredibles, out June 15th.
Our conversation runs the gamut from overcoming the perils of aging in Hollywood, mid-life adventures, the secret to his long and happy marriage to wife, Doria Cook-Nelson, and the unique challenges of playing an animated icon for Disney Pixar.
Allison Kugel: With Book Club there are so many celebrated actors in one movie. What does an ensemble piece allow you to do as an actor that carrying a film or television show on your own doesn’t allow for?
Craig T. Nelson: The opportunity to work with the different characters that are being played broadens what you can do as an actor. Oftentimes, the way people react differently to different people they meet, it’s that same dynamic and it can be something of an adventure. Although in Book Club, most of my scenes are with Mary [Steenburgen]. There are only one or two scenes where I’m with everyone, although I knew everybody. In this movie, although it’s an ensemble cast, the focus was my interaction with Mary’s character.
Allison Kugel: What was your initial impression of the Book Club script when you first read it?
Craig T. Nelson: Oh, I loved it! It spoke to something I was familiar with; that whole process of aging. You think you’re never going to get there, but eventually it just shows up and there it is. I thought the script was well thought out, cogent, specific, and each character was delineated. I wanted to do the movie right away, after reading the script.
Allison Kugel: This movie addresses that mid-to-later-life slump that people can slide into without even realizing it’s happening. As you said, you wake up and it’s just there. How do you think men experience this phase of life differently from the way women experience it?
Craig T. Nelson: I think we experience it in much the same way. Although, it depends upon societal pressures. Part of the confusion is the result of what society is demanding now, which is pretty much all youth oriented. Cosmetically and pharmaceutically you’re supposed to be able to prolong your life, or at least the appearance of it. The reality is that you do age. Yes, we are living longer, but there’s more pressure associated with it. I suppose it’s how all of that manifests in each of us, which has to do with our own peculiar personality. That’s the interesting part about it; how each one of us deals with it. Generally speaking, your libido drops, physically you’re not as active and not able to do as much. All of that is pretty much the same in people, but very few people address it psychologically. There’s a lot of pressure to be young. But there is also a lot of pressure being old, not to get any older. I think that is so screwed up.
Allison Kugel: In Book Club, your wife, played by Mary Steenburgen, is upset because she feels your marriage has fallen into a slump. Do you think marriage should be able to go through its natural ebbs and flows romantically, sexually and emotionally?
Craig T. Nelson: If you’re married to your best friend, as I am, and I’m married thirty-four years now, then you have to realize you’re going to have ups and downs. You’re physically going to change, emotionally you’re going to change. You have to adapt and change, and be prepared for that stuff. That’s also part of the adventure. It seems like just yesterday I was talking to older actors about aging. I was a young working actor, and they were all telling me how difficult it was for them and how they were approaching a period in their life where they felt they weren’t working as much. I think they felt neglected and not as respected. I can remember a lot of guys talking about that. When it started happening to me, it was like, “Whoa! Wait a minute here.” But at least I have the tools. I think I was prepared for it to a certain degree.
Allison Kugel: With the hit series Grace and Frankie, and with this movie, Book Club, it seems that Hollywood is now gaining a little more respect for stories about mature people.
Craig T. Nelson: I think this movie will help. It brings some awareness, which I think is good, but ageism has been prevalent in this business for a long time.
Allison Kugel: The Baby Boomer generation are such a huge segment of the population, they have tremendous spending power, and they want to see stories about themselves.
Craig T. Nelson: Right, but as you see in television, for example, you’ve got a specific demographic that’s usually being targeted. I have always argued, even back when I was doing Coach (the ABC sitcom Nelson starred in from 1989 to 1997), that it’s not necessarily accurate. I agree that a lot of buying power rests in the hands of people who are approaching retirement, and in their forties and fifties. It’s like with the glut of action movies we’re getting and have had for a while. What is that? It’s enough already. I would much rather see stories like Book Club, which I feel are specific, well written and truthful. I’m fine with animated movies about superheroes. Obviously, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t have a problem with action films either, except that there is just so much of it, and what am I left with?
Allison Kugel: You began your career as a standup comedian, correct?
Craig T. Nelson: Barry Levinson and I did stand up [comedy] together for four years, and then another guy, Rudy DeLuca joined us. We wrote and performed comedy, and then we worked with Tim Conway, John Byner and Alan King. That’s how I started.
Allison Kugel: How did you segue into film and television, and how does that early standup experience help you in the roles you play now?
Craig T. Nelson: I was never really interested in doing standup comedy. Barry Levinson and I were in the Oxford Theatre together, which was a theatre group in LA. We got to talking and Barry said, “Why don’t we do a standup act?” I had never done that and never even thought of it, but we put an act together. We went out and auditioned and started doing clubs. It was an intro into the business, and I met so many incredible people during that time. It does give me a different perspective. Comedy helped me to enlarge and be better at what I did. Another important thing is that you just get better as you get older. You realize what you’re doing more, and you don’t make as many mistakes. I’m so much more comfortable in a scene now than I ever was, because I know how to play it. Certainly, there are challenges, but your tool bag is filled up. There are so many experiences and so many people to draw on, and it’s a wonderful place to be.
Allison Kugel: This is not your first time playing Mary Steenburgen’s husband. You also played husband and wife in the 2009 movie, The Proposal, alongside Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock. How was it playing her husband again in Book Club? This time around, was there a comfortable rapport already in place?
Craig T. Nelson: She’s so much fun to work with. She’s got this wonderful quirkiness to her that is so beautiful. It’s also very challenging, because you need to stay on top of your game with her, as with all the actresses in this film. I’ve worked with Diane [Keaton], I’ve worked with Jane [Fonda], I hadn’t met Candice [Bergen] until this film, so that was neat. I look forward to continuing to work with Mary. There is an understanding between me and Mary. You’re able to ask questions of each other or address problems in a scene together. There’s no wandering around, trying to get to the truth of something.
Allison Kugel: How is the book Fifty Shades of Grey a catalyst for the comedy that ensues in this movie?
Craig T. Nelson: Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t an important part of my story in the film. It’s part of the women’s story. I think you’re going to be surprised. The book is a catalyst in terms of Mary’s character becoming aware of how bad things have gotten [in our marriage]. That’s the only purpose the book serves. We’ve been having problems in our marriage and the book forces the issue to the surface.
Allison Kugel: Do you recall a moment in your own life when you realized you weren’t living your best life, or there were things still yet to be done?
Craig T. Nelson: I’ve had a number of them, and still they continue. One of the many things I felt the need to do was professional car racing, when I decided to go ahead and pursue it. Gradually I became better and better at it. It wasn’t a death wish (laughs); it was a life wish. It was doing something that is very risky and challenging, but something I’d always wanted to do and never had the opportunity before. And now I’m going, “Wow, this is something I really enjoy!” It requires an enormous amount of concentration and focus, which is another reason I really like it.
Allison Kugel: How does your real wife, Doria, feel about your race car driving?
Craig T. Nelson: It was something that my wife really suggested I do. She’s very strong. She’s a martial artist and she competes in Tai Chi Kwan all over the world in competitions. She said, “[Car racing] is something you should try.” And once I got into it, she encouraged me to continue doing it.
Allison Kugel: Let’s switch gears and discuss another upcoming movie you’re in, the much-anticipated Incredibles 2! Why the fourteen-year gap between the release of The Incredibles and Incredibles 2?
Craig T. Nelson: I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you that [Incredibles writer and director] Brad Bird was busy with other things. He wanted to do some live action projects and then he made Ratatouille right after The Incredibles. He was very busy in his career.
Allison Kugel: In the first movie, The Incredibles, your character, Mr. Incredible is struggling with living life as a civilian. He’s dying to be a superhero again and to use his powers. Holly Hunter’s character, Elastigirl, wanted a normal, low key family life. In Incredibles 2, it’s reversed. She’s out being a superhero and you’re the stay at home dad. How does that go for Mr. Incredible?
Craig T. Nelson: He doesn’t quite understand it and is feeling rejected, like, “Why don’t they want me out there?” He now has to take a back seat and for him that’s difficult. He makes the sacrifice for his wife. He’s got a resentment going on, but as you watch him at home you get to know these kids in a way that’s fun and interesting. And you get to see a guy have to adapt and get to know his children in a way that he hasn’t. That was neat for me to play.
Allison Kugel: When you’re voicing an animated character like Mr. Incredible, are you in the recording booth with any other cast members, or is it just you in there?
Craig T. Nelson: You’re not with the other cast members. You’re with Brad, who’s in every session. He’s directing what you’re responding to, and you go off that. Usually we’ll do a session every three weeks, for four hours at a time. Then they’ll put that into rough animation, so you can see what you’ve got. I’ve only done one session with another actor, and it was with Samuel L. Jackson who plays Frozone.
Allison Kugel: How do you get into character when you’re voicing Mr. Incredible?
Craig T. Nelson: You prepare ahead of time in the session, especially vocally because there are a lot of different ranges you have to get to. There are scenes when you’re doing a lot of yelling and shouting. And it’s a long and involved process that’s complexly different from regular acting.
Allison Kugel: I’m sure you’ve watched the first movie, The Incredibles, with your grandchildren. What do they think of you playing Mr. Incredible?
Craig T. Nelson: They don’t relate the two. They still don’t believe it (laughs). I have to do lines from the film, so they can hear me do the voice, and then it’s, “Oh yeah, that’s him.”
Allison Kugel: When you’re out, are you ever stopped by kids who know you’re Mr. Incredible?
Craig T. Nelson: The other day my older son was visiting, and somebody overheard me talking to him and they turned around and said, “My God! Are you Mr. Incredible?!” They’ll recognize the voice, it’s interesting. And then you have to convince this kid that you are! And you feel like an idiot trying to get a seven-year-old to believe you (laughs). They look at you with this wonder, yet at the same time disbelief. It gets confusing even for me.
Allison Kugel: My nine-year-old and I will be there on opening night, for sure. He’s been waiting for this sequel, no joke, for years! What will kids and families get to experience with Incredibles 2 that they didn’t with the first movie?
Craig T. Nelson: The special FX are extraordinary. Since 2004 when the original movie was out, they’ve developed a whole new range of different processes that have gone into this movie, including its color enrichment. For me, the exciting thing about the second movie is that the character Jack Jack, the baby, really comes alive and that’s going to be so much fun for people to see. What’s so great about this movie is that it’s a family deal. You can take your family to this movie and have a great time. And same with Book Club. It’s two movies I’m proud to let my family watch.
Book Club Photo Credits: Peter Iovino/Paramount Pictures, Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Picture
Incredibles 2 Photo Credits: Disney Pixar
Book Club is in theatres May 18th and Incredibles 2 is in theatres June 15th.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
By Allison Kugel
Born out of a time capsule from Hollywood’s golden era, glamour girl and burlesque goddess, Dita Von Teese has been captivating imaginations around the world since she burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, first on the cover of Playboy Magazine, and then draped on the arm of controversial rocker, Marilyn Manson. Since then, Dita has carved out an iconic reputation for herself as the most famous and sought after burlesque performer in the world. Vanity Fair has dubbed her a “Burlesque Superheroine,” and Elle has declared her an “all around icon.”
The raven haired, fair skinned, hourglass shaped glamour girl who never leaves home without the perfect red lip and vintage sunglasses, Von Teese travels the globe performing burlesque shows that pay homage to the vintage artform, but with a modern interpretation. She performs to sell-out crowds and mesmerizes with costumes perfectly adorned with breathtaking crystals, and over-the-top stage props and accessories placed just so, including her signature martini glass bubble bath routine. Incidentally, the crowds are packed with Von Teese’s millions of female fans who draw inspiration from her old world, finely crafted sensuality.
Having been fascinated with her image for some time, I sat down with Dita Von Teese to discuss everything from her captivating appearance and stage performances to her thoughts about femininity, motherhood, feminism and her current tour, Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe.
Allison Kugel: How do you define femininity?
Dita Von Teese: I grew up admiring movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s. To me, that was always the epitome of feminine, and it made a mark on me from a very young age. I guess I have always associated that exaggerated femininity with the definition of feminine; the way a woman enhances herself with the tools in the beauty box, so to speak. I’ve always thought of glamour as feminine. That’s what I love for the outwardly feminine. On the other hand, I have a different closed door feminine as well, where I can remove those layers and get to the essence of what we are trying to exaggerate with the hair and makeup and the high heels and all the things we do to be hyper feminine in public.
Allison Kugel: Why not keep your natural blonde hair? And your birthname, Heather Sweet, was a sexy name. Why the change to brunette, and why the name change to Dita Von Teese?
Dita Von Teese: I started becoming Dita when I was about nineteen years old, so I wasn’t really thinking it through. I didn’t think about long term, and I certainly never expected to become famous for being a burlesque dancer and pinup model. It started as a hobby that I was doing, and in my little mind I thought by the time I was thirty I would be finished. And at the time, I was looking to Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, and these [burlesque] stars from the past. These were choices I made when I was younger, and yes, I always liked the idea of that big Hollywood makeover. Rita Hayworth’s name was not Rita Hayworth, and Rita Hayworth had black hair and a widow’s peak that got removed with electrolysis. There was that big Hollywood machine, and I was always fascinated with the idea of these raw beauties becoming transformed into Birds of Paradise.
Allison Kugel: In watching you perform, you truly look like you’ve stepped out of a time machine from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s surreal. Are you comfortable living in this time period, or are there things about this era that you’re ill at ease with?
Dita Von Teese: I’m not living in another time. A lot of my clothes are modern, and I think about a lot of the modern things I do, such as updating my apps (laughs). I love so many things about modern technology. Although, I do have a huge collection of vintage clothing. There was a time in my life when I only wore vintage lingerie, I only drove my vintage car, I only wore clothes from the 1940s, but I’ve kind of evolved from that. The burlesque shows we produce are much different than a show you would have seen in the 1940s. We’re trying to capture the essence of those times, but the whole point is to evolve into something much different than it ever was; to evolve the history of burlesque. I never want anyone to think that I’m living in the past. You can look at the past and get inspiration from it, but it can end up being dusty and irrelevant if you don’t find ways to make it something that no one’s ever seen before. I do love to sit down with some of my favorite glamour girls of the past. I’m quite good friends with Mamie Van Doren who was a big 1950s bombshell and is still around to tell her stories. And I’m friends with Julie Newmar who, of course, was a great dancer and actress. I love to ask them about the past, and I love getting advice from them about the times we are living in and how to navigate being a glamour girl in modern times.
Allison Kugel: Would you ever consider, at least temporarily, sacrificing your brand and your hourglass figure to become pregnant?
Dita Von Teese: There are a few choices that I have made, like making a conscious decision not to have children, because I think it may be a good moment in time for some people to step away from that idea of feeling that it’s required. I think it’s a conscientious choice for modern times, because of over population. Throughout my life I always felt like I was going to quit [burlesque] and have a child, because I always thought I wanted them. More recently I have given thought to the unsustainable population growth and global climate change. Do I think it’s fascinating when women tell me that the most important and wonderful job they’ll ever do is raising a child? Yes. Then I think, “Oh wow, that’s interesting. I guess I won’t know what that’s like.” This is such a personal thing to ask a woman about, because what if I couldn’t have children? That’s not the case, but it’s such a personal topic.
Allison Kugel: I thought it was a relevant topic to discuss because you’ve spent so much time and energy cultivating this look, this body, this image. I would imagine it would be a big emotional undertaking to forfeit that for a pregnancy…
Dita Von Teese: One of the things that’s important to me is letting my fans watch me go through different stages of life. I think even if I had decided to have a child, or if I still decide to, it will be fun to navigate that. I just did an event where there were pregnant pinup girls, pinup girls with their little children all dressed up in 1940s clothes, walking them around. It’s not that much to do with losing my look or anything like that. There are so many other factors for me, like being in a relationship or not being in a relationship. Is this the right person to have a child with? I’m actually quite into fate. I try to control what I can, but I have always been about, “If it happens it happens.”
Allison Kugel: In your current show, Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe Tour you have another model on stage with you, Gia Genevieve. What inspired you to cast her in your show?
Dita Von Teese: I had always wanted to have a blonde bombshell in the show. I had a hard time finding this kind of quintessential “Playboy” blonde. I met Gia a few times over the years and she always had this effervescence, and she was sexy and fun. I knew she wasn’t a dancer, but I wondered if I could teach her how to do my bubble bath act, simplify it and have her get her personality across on stage. She’s a lot of fun to watch and she’s the perfect example of, you don’t have to be dancing all over the place and doing backflips on stage to be wildly entertaining.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about your collaboration with Absolut Elyx for the Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe tour.
Dita Von Teese: Being famous for bathing in a giant cocktail glass (laughs) I was open to a partnership with a cocktail company. I loved the ideas that Elyx had. They were just about beautiful, whimsical imagery that’s a tribute to what they do with their copper distillery. I was very familiar with their brand and loved the idea of making these tributes in the show to their imagery. I took a giant shell and dipped it in their signature copper. And I made a cocktail glass that’s a tribute to their style. We had a lot of fun creating the show and bringing it all together.
Allison Kugel: What other imagery on stage will reflect this tour’s name, The Copper Coupe?
Dita Von Teese: With every tour, I’ve redone a version of my martini glass act. I have a six-piece set of gigantic glasses at this point. I could have a giant cocktail party! I’m always thinking, “How can I one up that number and make it fresh and new?” For this tour, one of the most exciting parts is the costume. I collaborated with my longtime creative partner, Catherine D’Lish, we put our heads together and came up with the most extravagant costume we’ve ever done, to date. A big part of making the show was this gown. I can’t tell because I’m wearing it on stage, but from what people are telling me it lights up the entire room.
Allison Kugel: I know you’re the Swarovski queen. I’m assuming everything is crystallized…
Dita Von Teese: Everything is crystallized on this costume. We haven’t weighed it yet, but I keep asking to. It’s completely covered, and we’re using a new version of their aurora borealis stone. They’re cut like diamonds, and the effect is mind-boggling. People have been asking if my costume is electrified or plugged in. It’s really something to see under the lights.
Allison Kugel: You’ve been quoted as saying that burlesque is a new kind of feminism. How so?
Dita Von Teese: It’s become that for a lot of women. The feminist movement must be respectful of other women’s ideals of what it is, and what it means. More than ever, we as women have to respect each other’s choices. Like I always say, and this is the truth, my audience is mainly female. My social media following is about 85% female. When I started in the 1990s I had a lot of male fans, and when I was a Playboy model I had a lot of male fans. It shifted in the early 2000s when I came out with a book and told my story about why I loved pinup, why I loved burlesque, and what it meant to me to have that to look to for my beauty icons. That resonated with a lot of people and I could feel that was when it all started to shift, when I exhibited my vulnerability about why I love this. I like to say that it’s an alternative feminist movement.
Allison Kugel: What do you say to the women who cry out that burlesque is objectification?
Dita Von Teese: Something that could have, in the past, been considered degrading to women, I think that idea has been turned upside down when my audience is mainly female. They’re getting inspiration from this and feeling like they can harness their own sensual power in a different way and be in control of it. I would never say that striptease and burlesque should be for everyone. I have always loved things that walk that fine line, where one person looking at it thinks it’s inspiring and magical, and another person thinks it’s dirty and bad. It’s interesting to me the way people see things. I find things that are polarizing to be interesting.
Allison Kugel: Do you think femininity and feminism can peacefully co-exist in the #MeToo era? And have you found yourself in the crosshairs of a certain segment within this current feminist movement that doesn’t agree with your idea of feminism?
Dita Von Teese: Yes. But for me, I have always understood feminism to be about having choices. I don’t see how you can put rules on that, especially now. Whatever you do, there’s always going to be someone who criticizes it. I think more than ever it’s about sticking close to people who share your beliefs. You try to understand other people’s point of view, but you don’t have to take it for your own or feel like someone is pointing a finger at you. We have to stop pointing fingers at other people.
Allison Kugel: You perform your show all over the world. What are the differences in how burlesque is received in the U.S. versus in other countries?
Dita Von Teese: What’s interesting is that the striptease-style burlesque was invented in America, and it was thriving here in the 1930s and 1940s. That’s the funniest part about all of this. I had to go to France, England, Germany and Australia to get that big mainstream acceptance at first. I performed a lot in the UK during the early part of my career and I would do mainstream television shows over there. I could talk about what I was doing there, and I could go to France and do my show on television. They could show the pasties and the G-string, and it was fine with everyone.
Allison Kugel: In the U.S. there’s this strange sensibility where it’s okay to promote a film with a lot of violence, but it’s not okay to put overt sensuality into the mainstream.
Dita Von Teese: It’s not just sensuality, but decisive sensuality. That’s one of the things people have a problem with. If I had made a sex tape and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry I did that,” it would be more acceptable. As compared to me deciding to present striptease and eroticism and do it in this way because it’s decisive. It’s not “accidental.” I often think of that. Am I inspiring other women to embrace their sensuality in a way that they’re not apologizing for, and is that what upsets people?
Allison Kugel: You brought burlesque to the forefront during a time when it wasn’t part of the mainstream pop culture vortex. What advise do you have for other creative pioneers?
Dita Von Teese: I think I had it better in some ways back then. I feel lucky that I didn’t have the Internet to influence me when I started. I had to use my imagination. I didn’t have anyone to watch, except ladies from the past. There wasn’t YouTube. I had to really forge my own path and I’m grateful for that. I think one of the things getting in people’s way now is the feeling that everything has already been done, because they’re scrolling through Instagram. Or they’ll look through social media and just copy what other people are doing. They don’t have to rely on their imagination. I didn’t have others to measure myself up against. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be inspired by other people, and even if it appears that everything has been done before, there are ways of making it better or making it different.
Allison Kugel: The moral of the story is, there’s going to be some ridicule either way, so why not forge your own path?
Dita Von Teese: For #oldheadshotday, I posted my early headshot on Instagram and someone commented, “But your [eye]brows don’t look good.” I was like, “Listen. I was nineteen years old and I didn’t have a four-hundred page book about retro glamour called Your Beauty Mark (Von Teese’s beauty how-to book/Dey Street Books) to look at yet! I had to make all the mistakes so that I could tell you all the short cuts.” There are always people who must come first and experiment and make those mistakes in order for other people to pick up that knowledge. I certainly did that with burlesque queens of the past, looking at their pictures and thinking about how I could do it in my own way.
Allison Kugel: For people who have yet to go see a burlesque show, what will the experience be like for them to attend one of your shows, on the Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe tour?
Dita Von Teese: They will be very excited to see the diversity of my fellow cast members. You’re on a wild ride of beauty and glamour in its many shapes and forms, and it’s unexpected and inclusive. I think most people walk away thinking, “I’m a little bit like her. I can be like that, yeah!” My show is a warm and welcoming place, and it’s raucous; it’s wild! I’m really proud of the show as a whole, and people will experience the biggest burlesque show in history.
Image Credits: Phil Barton, Jesper Carlsen and Dimitri Scheblanov
Dita Von Teese is currently touring throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. Purchase tickets to see Absolut Elyx Presents Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe at http://www.dita.net/shows/.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
By Allison Kugel
The Arquette family are a band of actors, artists, provocateurs and activists. With the image that David Arquette has crafted for himself as the family’s resident goofball, his newest film, a documentary titled, Survivor’s Guide to Prison, is a departure from the David Arquette persona people have come to know. His latest project champions a cause close to his heart and gives a window into another side of the actor as concerned citizen and defender of your personal freedom. Hitting theatres and on VOD February 23rd, David Arquette presents to you, the Survivor’s Guide to Prison.
David Arquette, along with his wife, Christina Arquette, heard the call by hailed documentary filmmaker and friend, Matthew Cooke (Deliver Us from Evil, How to Make Money Selling Drugs). They came on board Cooke’s latest documentary film and social movement, Survivor’s Guide to Prison, as producers, with actress Susan Sarandon joining the cause as the film’s Executive Producer.
This documentary film is an eye opening, unsettling and informative look inside America’s criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex, an industry that has continued to grow exponentially with no signs of slowing down. You’ll be introduced to the players - politicians, law enforcement officers, our judicial system and the prison-for-profit industry. You’ll gain a clearer picture of the inner workings of mass incarceration in the United States of America.
As stated on PrisonPolicy.org, “[The United States] has the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.” According to SentencingProject.org, the number of people incarcerated in our American prison system has grown from 100,000 in the year 1925 to 2 million by 2015, with only 52.9% of prisoners locked up for violent offenses. We’re locking people up at staggering rates. This film examines why and explores some productive alternatives to our current punishment-based mass incarceration model.
Survivor’s Guide to Prison tells the story of how we as a society got to this place. You’ll hear the rules for surviving arrest, interrogation, a criminal trial, and incarceration, should you be convicted of a crime. You’ll hear evidence presented to you about a disturbing and growing trend of a guilty until proven innocent system that has taken hold, how to advocate for your own personal liberties, and a growing call-to-action for criminal justice reform.
The film is collectively narrated, and the cause explained, with on-camera appearances by Susan Sarandon, Patricia Arquette, Danny Glover, Danny Trejo, Ice T, Jesse Williams, Macklemore, Dr. Deepak Chopra, Quincy Jones, Busta Rhymes, B-Real, Q-Tip, Warren G and other notable figures.
You will also witness the testimony of two men who tell their excruciating true stories; Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole, both of whom served lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. You’ll live their journey with them, from being falsely accused to conviction based on the presentation of circumstantial evidence, the impact of long-term incarceration and eventual exoneration and release.
David Arquette and company, present to you the Survivor’s Guide to Prison.
Allison Kugel: What attracted you to becoming involved as a producer on the documentary, Survivor’s Guide to Prison?
David Arquette: I was first aware of the project because I’m friends with Matthew Cooke, who is an amazing Oscar nominated documentary filmmaker, who worked on the documentaries Deliver Us From Evil and How to Make Money Selling Drugs. With Survivor’s Guide to Prison, Matthew highlights the prison system, how corrupt it is, and how it’s prison for profit. It’s a model that is outdated; it doesn’t work anymore. The punishment model has been proven not to be successful and it’s time for change. Matthew put a really amazing documentary together. My wife, Christina Arquette, and I watched an early cut and we both came on board as producers. We worked with Matthew and got a bunch of great people involved. Susan Sarandon is a producer on it, Gina Belafonte, Jesse Williams; just some really great people who have done a lot of great work to help change the prison system.
Allison Kugel: So many people came on board for this film. Adrian Grenier is also a producer on the film. Danny Trejo, Ice T, Busta Rhymes, Danny Glover, Deepak Chopra, your sister Patricia Arquette, and on and on. When people watch Survivor’s Guide to Prison, they will feel how deeply impassioned everyone who appears on screen is about this cause. Were there discussions off camera about why they all wanted to participate?
David Arquette: Danny Trejo, specifically, was so generous. He’s had family members who were directly affected by it, recently getting out of prison after being in for a crime they didn’t commit. He had also been in prison way back, a long time ago, when it was a different era, but it’s close to him. Danny sees what it does to communities. One of the things that’s so horrible about this current [Criminal Justice] system is that it takes parents away. The United States locks up more women than any other country in the world. You see how horrible it is, and the dangers of dismantling the family structure. The War on Drugs, and all these different initiatives to incarcerate people, has proven to be destructive to our society. A lot of the people who are involved with this project believe there is a better way that we can rehabilitate people, and treat them like human beings rather than animals, and imprison them.
Allison Kugel: Do you think The War on Drugs has been, at least in part, a war on minorities and on poorer communities?
David Arquette: Absolutely. The laws that were enacted during the crack epidemic, specifically; the fact that if you had crack rather than cocaine, you would get a far worse sentence. There are tons of people locked up for small marijuana offenses. It’s a dated model. They’ve noticed that people who get into programs when they’re locked away, they thrive. Whether it’s an art program, or they get schooling. So that’s what we are looking at. We’re trying to change things. We are working with an organization called Cut50, which is Van Jones’ organization. He’s really dedicated to cutting the current prison population in half. We’ve developed a shirt with Omaze.com, and it’s called the Dignity Shirt. We’re selling this shirt to raise money for legislation reform. That is the only way things really change, is if you change them within our political system. We’re also working to get women some basic human rights that they deserve. In a lot of states, if you’re giving birth in prison, they will have you shackled.
Allison Kugel: While you’re in labor?
David Arquette: While you’re in labor, yeah. Many women in prison are sexually assaulted. They can still be strip searched by men or watched in showers by men. There are several things we are trying to accomplish through the process of government legislation. We are fighting for basic human rights, and for people to be treated with respect, which in turn will allow them to have more dignity.
Allison Kugel: Had Survivor’s Guide to Prison been made in the mid-1990s during the time of the OJ Simpson murder trial and subsequent verdict, how do you think the events of that day would have impacted the messaging and direction of this documentary?
David Arquette: That was a flashpoint in our history, with the black community feeling targeted and feeling not heard, and they galvanized. There were many incidents during that time that were tragic. For example, when a young black woman was killed by a Korean business owner… there were a lot of issues during that time that came up. The interesting thing is that this whole prison industrial complex has grown since then and has become a profit stream for a lot of people. We still live in a country, and in a world, that has racial injustice all around us. It’s time to speak up and be honest about it, provide change and put money into communities that have been held back all this time. We really look at this movie as a movement rather than just a film.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope the public gains from watching this film?
David Arquette: It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, the title, Survivor’s Guide to Prison. We say that because we see people who have survived the prison system as survivors. Just calling people “prisoners” or “inmates” and giving them numbers, it’s such a way of de-humanizing them. So, the idea of this film is to bring some compassion back into the discussion. That’s what we’re trying to do with the stories we highlight in the film about two men who were wrongly accused and went away for decades (Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole). It totally transformed their lives and changed them on such a deeply painful human level. We’re telling their stories, and we want people understand that they are more likely to be locked up in the United States than anywhere else in the world. If we are truly the land of the free, we have to start making laws that allow us to be free, and we have to recognize the difference between violent crimes and non-violent crimes. We need to start prioritizing and downgrading some of the sentences.
Allison Kugel: Do you think there is any way to ever separate politics from our Criminal Justice system?
David Arquette: I think the only way to change the Criminal Justice system is to change it through the political system. It’s where the real work happens, and the real change happens.
Allison Kugel: If a District Attorney is counting on a certain quota of convictions to get re-elected, how do you take that skewed dynamic and turn it on its head for the greater good?
David Arquette: That is part of the problem. Part of the problem is our bail system, not having public defenders that are up to par, and that really represent people. There has been some change with that. There are a lot of people going into that field that are doing it for the right reasons; they want to represent people who typically can’t afford a high-powered lawyer. But it’s true; in this country if you have money, the chances that you’re going away to prison are a lot less likely than for someone who doesn’t have the funds.
Allison Kugel: If you, David Arquette, were charged with a crime, chances are you would not go to prison, not for one day.
David Arquette: Statistically, compared to someone without money behind them, yeah. I have a far better chance. And, in the meantime, I’ll be out on bail. I won’t be sitting in a jail for a year or two until my case gets settled.
Allison Kugel: During the making of this film, did anyone bring up the phrase “white privilege” at all? The reason I ask is because it’s been said to me, and it stopped me in my tracks.
David Arquette: They didn’t, but it is a real thing. There is a lot of dialogue now and people are becoming “woke,” as they say. It’s time that we faced the truth about these things and realized, “Yeah! I’ve had it a lot easier!” I was a graffiti artist as a kid, so we would be out spraying art everywhere. If we got caught in a white neighborhood, we’d get taken back to our house and dropped off. I got caught in a white neighborhood by a black cop, and then I got caught in a black neighborhood by that same black cop, and then he really treated us a lot differently (laughs). We didn’t get arrested because they didn’t catch us in the act. But they knew we were up to trouble, so they did things like make us kneel on the concrete and slam our faces into the ground.
Allison Kugel: How old were you?
David Arquette: I was probably about sixteen.
Allison Kugel: Was this in LA?
David Arquette: The first time it was in Hancock Park, and the second time it was down on Jefferson and La Cienega (South Central Los Angeles). And it was, uh, my white privilege was taken from me (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Are there plans to take the film to Washington and screen it before congress?
David Arquette: We definitely want to take it to Washington. Christina’s (Christina Arquette, David’s wife and a co-producer of “Survivor’s Guide to Prison”) uncle, Mack McLarty, was Chief of Staff to President Clinton in his first term, so he’s got a lot of connections there. We’ll hopefully have a screening at the Kennedy Center, or somewhere where people can see it. A few months after it comes out (release date, February 23, 2018), it’s going to be on Netflix and then it will be out there for everyone to see it. We have a bunch of panels that we are putting together in New York and Los Angeles, where people can come and talk and share their feelings about this issue.
Allison Kugel: Why is Hollywood so liberal and so fiercely against the conservative agenda?
David Arquette: As artists, part of our job is to look around, see what’s going on, and to feel emotionally connected to injustice and what’s going on in the world. There are a lot of people in Hollywood who are very religious, very straight laced, and not your typical Hollywood kind of liberal. They are more conservative, but they are good people. I think what it really comes down to is that we want good people to thrive. We want good people to have opportunities, we want good people to make up our laws and become our politicians. I love people that are religious, that believe in Jesus, and who find hope that way; or people who are devout in their practice in other religions like Judaism or Islam. I love that dynamic because there’s a real sort of structure there. There is a real understanding of right and wrong. I do think that when you get into extremism on either side, it then becomes destructive and it becomes where you start saying, “Us and Them.” The Hollywood community wants it to be “Us.” I love the kind of movements that are happening, where you see on television the diversity of skin tones that are more representative of what our actual culture is, what our population is. We know from research that American culture and ethnicity is vast, and it’s ever-changing. We are a nation of immigrants, so it is about having that represented in Hollywood on the screen. It’s great to see people like Shonda Rhimes, and a lot of these voices coming out and doing great work.
Allison Kugel: What do you foresee the Arquette family legacy being in decades to come?
David Arquette: Ultimately, we’re performers; we’re entertainers. That’s what our past, and the history of our family is about. It’s been about entertaining people. It’s really what I’m passionate about. I like acting. I like making people laugh. I like the idea of somebody having a rough day at work and being able to zone out and watch something. On that note, this isn’t the film that does that (laughs).
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) No. It’s an engaging film, it really pulls you in and it’s a must-see. But it’s not an easy watch. Parts of it are actually heartbreaking to watch.
David Arquette: This film is about asking some important questions. And that is another side of entertainment, shining light on darkness.
Allison Kugel: Your grandfather was a comedian, your parents were actors, your siblings are actors. Is that something you’re hoping will continue with your own children?
David Arquette: My daughter Coco (Arquette’s thirteen year old daughter with Courteney Cox) loves singing and performing. She’s really good at it, and she’s got a great head on her shoulders about it. We’ve kept everything unprofessional, like afterschool plays and that sort of thing. We just want to allow her the time to grow up. Growing up in LA is already kind of slanted, and not completely grounded in reality. We want to allow her to have a childhood and not have to have the pressures of auditioning, rejection and all that stuff. It’s important.
Allison Kugel: What do you think is the right age developmentally and emotionally for your daughter, Coco, or any child, to go through the process of auditioning for acting roles?
David Arquette: Totally an individual thing. If she was really pushing us, like, “Listen, mom, dad, I want to do this, I want to audition, I think there’s something to that; a kid who’s so passionate about that being their life’s goal. But she’s been cool about taking it at a slower pace.
Allison Kugel: Out of all the Arquette siblings, who would you say is the most courageous, and why?
David Arquette: My whole family, I just love and respect them all. Rosanna is doing so much to stand up to all of the horrors of what’s happening in Hollywood, and in businesses in general. She’s really behind the #MeToo movement, and I’m really proud of her for that. She also supports tons of different charities. Patricia is incredible. She’s got GiveLove.org, that helps places like Haiti with their sanitation system and helps to provide clean water. Alexis was amazing; the way Alexis stood up for who she was. She was out and transgender before it was really talked about as much, and she really was a hero of mine.
Allison Kugel: I’m sorry for your loss.
David Arquette: Thank you. I miss her, but she was ready to move on.
Allison Kugel: Yes. I believe that. What is your favorite form of artistic expression these days?
David Arquette: I love painting. I took a Bob Ross instructional course, so I can teach people how to paint in the Bob Ross, wet on wet technique.
Allison Kugel: Bob Ross, the happy trees guy?
David Arquette: Yeah. I went to take a three-week course, where I learned how to teach his happy trees [painting] method. I work with an organization called Art of Elysium, that’s really great. We’re gonna go to hospitals and teach kids how to paint some happy trees. Painting is such a great stress reliever and calms my soul. But I love acting. When I get to work with really talented actors and directors, writers and producers, and dive into that and show what I’ve learned over my twenty-nine years of acting, I really love it. And when those things come together, and you get to work with great projects it really is a gift.
Allison Kugel: Is there a heavier, more serious role in you? A side of you that people haven’t seen?
David Arquette: I’ve done a few films where I got to tap into that and it’s always great when you have that opportunity, so I would love that. But my favorite thing is making people laugh. I love the sound of laughter. I used to say to people who were passing away, crossing over, I’d say, “Go towards the laughter.”
Allison Kugel: Instead of, “Go towards the light,” “Go towards the laughter.” I love that.
David Arquette: Thank you.
Survivor’s Guide to Prison is in theatres, on VOD and on iTunes, February 23, 2018.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
By Allison Kugel
Her beauty is luminescent, her conviction fierce. It’s a potent combination and why actress Logan Browning’s portrayal of student activist Sam White in the Netflix hit series Dear White People has struck a chord with younger audiences. The series, based off the 2014 movie of the same name, also created by Justin Simien, seems custom made to address the uproarious intersection where President Donald Trump’s politics and Black Lives Matter collide. More importantly, beyond its pop culture relevance, is the show’s ability to humanize a people and their collective point-of-view to a larger population of viewers.
Logan plays a biracial Ivy League university student, Sam White, host of a popular, albeit controversial, campus radio show titled, Dear White People. Her character’s radio show within a television show is a platform for Sam’s grievances, her bottomless questions, and the racial and cultural issues that continue to surface on ethnically diverse college campuses around the world. It also serves as the show’s anchor point, introducing each episode’s message and plotline. And if you think the first season was binge-worthy, you haven’t seen anything yet!
As Logan and I discuss the second season of Dear White People, streaming May 4th on Netflix, we segue from her thoughts on acting and developing the character of Sam to social and political activism, the emotional triggers behind race and color, and some of the most pressing issues that our younger generations face in the age of social media and our relentless news cycle.
It becomes clear to me half way through our conversation that actress Logan Browning shares the values and concerns of her television alter ego, Sam White, but with a graceful confidence and ease of spirit that continues to allude Sam in the show’s second season.
Allison Kugel: Typically, when I’m researching an actor, there’s a clear distinction between them and their character. With you, the unique challenge I faced is that I couldn’t clearly discern where your character, Sam White, ends and you begin.
Logan Browning: That’s an interesting observation. During season one, I was much further away from who Sam is. A lot of my portrayal of Sam was coming from a place of discovery and nervousness at taking on this role that Tessa Thompson originally played (in the 2014 movie, “Dear White People”). In season two, part of me becoming comfortable with Sam, was to stop fighting the parts of her that I thought were so different from me, when really they’re not. There are similarities between the two of us. With most characters I’ve played, I find myself pushing back on any similarities because I don’t want people to think I’m not playing a character. I find joy in bringing someone to life who’s very different from me. But part of why I ended up getting the role of Sam is because I do fall into who she is very easily. Though her perspective on life is different from mine.
Allison Kugel: How so?
Logan Browning: In terms of how she responds to the world, and some of her reasoning within her debates. I do believe that the longer you play a character, they naturally bleed into your real life. I’m not surprised that some of who Sam is may show up in who I am. I find myself saying some of the same quips that she does in my responses to things. I also find myself using what she says, like, “This has to be right, because Sam said it!”
Allison Kugel: Has she brought out the activist in you?
Logan Browning: It’s made me more comfortable in being an activist. I’ve always been drawn to giving a voice and a face to people who aren’t seen or heard. I feel like that’s a part of what comes with being an entertainer and being in the public eye. When people say that actors and musicians shouldn’t be policy adjacent, I think that perspective is ridiculous. They’re put in this position where they are in the public eye and people listen, so it makes sense that these two things go hand in hand. Because people are looking to my character, Sam, for that, they naturally look to me. It would be a huge disappointment to people if they saw that I was not speaking out on certain issues.
Allison Kugel: Do you feel compelled to speak out because of the weight Dear White People holds with its audience?
Logan Browning: If you scroll through my Twitter, I’ve been vocal all the way back. You can even dig up my MySpace (laughs), way before this show, and you’ll see! I watched the film, Dear White People (2014), when it came out. I saw myself in Sam when I watched the film. Did seeing the character of Sam in the film influence me? Maybe it did. Playing Sam only aides in this burning desire I have to speak out. But I don’t feel compelled by it.
Allison Kugel: You feel empowered by it…
Logan Browning: Yeah, I feel empowered by it, and I feel that being on a show like Dear White People makes me want to use my voice. I’m inspired by the people I’m surrounded by. I’m surrounded by so many young, influential artists who have great talent and great passion, and a desire to leave a mark that goes beyond their artistry. It’s a new kind of energy in comparison to when I first started acting at the age of fourteen.
Allison Kugel: What are some of the hot topics you guys discuss on set when you’re all off camera?
Logan Browning: On set, honestly? We goof off. If you’re a person who knows what it’s like to live a life of trauma or a life of less than and difficulty, then you know that the best therapy is laughter. And that’s what we do, we laugh a lot. It’s a part of our culture. Black people together just have a good time. When you get black people together, they don’t want to have a depressing time. Yes, heavy conversations can happen, and they do happen a lot. Sometimes they’ll happen in our group texts or once an issue comes up. More serious conversations will happen when people ask us about the show and we talk about those topics with other people. I may read something that one of my castmates said in an interview, and then I’ll talk to them about it and say, “Hey, I didn’t know you were affected in that way. Tell me about it…”
Allison Kugel: Can you give me an example of an issue that’s come up?
Logan Browning: I’ve always felt I understood and was aware of my privilege as a light skinned person in this world, and in my industry. I was always aware of it, but I’ve realized that I was still missing the mark until I started to see some of what my fellow actors have said in interviews. I’ve realized that there’s a larger part of their experience than I was understanding. I want to make sure I’m not just being an ally to the black community, but also addressing these more specific issues that are even more nuanced than I’ve personally experienced.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about the nuance of color within the black community. Being that you are light skinned and with green eyes, has there ever been a time in your life when you wished to have darker skin and dark eyes to fit in socially? Were there ever social consequences associated with your appearance?
Logan Browning: I’ve been grateful to have the parents that I had growing up, and I’ve never had any kind of self-loathing in terms of wishing to be something else. But I definitely grew up in a place where I wished people treated me the way I wanted them to. If they were treating me like I didn’t fit in, then I just wished to be treated differently, but I never wished I looked different.
Allison Kugel: Were you treated as something “other”?
Logan Browning: In both ways, I was. I’m on a spectrum. From white people I was treated a certain way, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Same for the African American community. I was accepted sometimes, and sometimes I wasn’t. It’s a spectrum that I exist on. It’s part of my experience, just kind of being stuck in the middle. As you get older it changes from wishing they would treat you differently to just trying to understand them, and not worrying as much about fitting in. You realize the reason you’re not fitting in is because you have a privilege that they don’t have. You have to understand their experience.
Allison Kugel: Your character Sam has mixed emotions about having a Caucasian father, and yet, she falls for a white guy on campus who has a similar energy to her father. She has mixed emotions towards both of those men in her life, and it’s an interesting parallel.
Logan Browning: Absolutely. She feels so comfortable with Gabe because he reminds her of what she has been around her whole life. She’s been around a white male energy her whole life. In the same breath, she’s also been around African American male energy because of her mom and her mom’s family. Sam does feel that pull towards Gabe, possibly because of her dad. Yet, because she has also been exposed to the strength of a black man, she wants to be around that as well. It’s difficult for her to try to navigate that. Deeper than what Sam’s dad looks like, if you look at the characters of both Reggie and Gabe (both love interests), they both have an intelligence that is mirrored in her dad. The reason she leans more towards Gabe than Reggie is because Gabe challenges her like her dad challenged her.
Allison Kugel: What are your personal rules about dating your co-stars? Yay or nay?
Logan Browning: Naaayyy (laughs)! Number one, I’m more attracted to the opposite of myself. I’m attracted to more of an engineering mind. When you’re on a set, you’re falling for someone else’s character sometimes. I think [actors] forget that you’re in hair and makeup all day and you’re seeing people in their most glorified state, so it’s very easy to fall in love with anyone you’re around. I would never.
Allison Kugel: I found an older quote from you that reads, “I don’t want people to know how I’m feeling, because it makes you more vulnerable.” Are you still that way?
Logan Browning: That was a part of something else I was saying, but I think that comes and goes with me. I know when it comes to being in a public space, I actually do like being really open with people. I feel like it’s my motive to educate the world that the people they see in the public eye are just like them, and they have issues just like them. I’m always trying to take celebrity off its pedestal. Even though there is power in it, I sometimes find myself trying to knock myself off any kind of pedestal I would ever be put on, because I don’t feel that way. So, in that way I do make myself open and vulnerable, and I feel like it does connect me to other people. I’m way more open publicly than I am if someone is trying to get to know me. I put my guard up and guard my heart. But there are certain personal things I can be vulnerable with. I don’t mind telling the world I get depressed sometimes. I don’t mind telling the world that I don’t live in a huge house. I don’t mind telling the world things that make me relatable. But there is a whole other part of Logan that I keep to myself, and that’s just because I want to be safe.
Allison Kugel: After the Parkland, Florida school shooting, some of the more outspoken students commented that the news media did not cover the diversity that exists at Stoneman Douglas High School. They focused their cameras on white students and white parents. What are your thoughts about this obvious exclusion?
Logan Browning: Every single act of gun violence is absolutely terrible, but it’s just so interesting that these young people’s voices are finally being heard now. It’s like, really? Now? In 2018? I’m not bitter at all about the fact that this movement is happening now because any kind of talk is good, and any type of move towards progress I’m on board with. But it is one of those obvious things where images that are more palatable are the things that people want to talk about. I think that’s why a show like Dear White People is so important. It puts these colored faces on the screen and forces the audience to begin to relate to these characters who possibly don’t look like them.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope Dear White People does for 18 – 21 year olds who are watching you from their college dorm rooms?
Logan Browning: I hope that the show is comforting for that specific age group. I hope that it’s a love letter for them, so that they feel like their voices are heard and time-capsuled and represented. We’re not re-inventing the wheel. These kids already exist on college campuses, and they are being super active in terms of being activists. I hope they feel seen and it further encourages them to do the great work that they already plan to do. I really hope and pray that older people will watch as well so they can understand what 18 to 21 year olds are experiencing, and what their world is now. It’s reminiscent of what their world might have been when they were younger, when the civil rights movement was happening.
Allison Kugel: This new generation is experiencing everything on steroids because of our 24- hour news cycle. I think that is something the older generation needs to fully understand, if they don’t already.
Logan Browning: We all are experiencing so much trauma and it’s not being addressed in terms of our mental health, especially kids. When I was in middle school, I would learn about what was going on if I came home and my parents happened to have the news on, or maybe if they were talking about it at school. But I didn’t have a device that was constantly telling me about every shitty thing happening in the world, 24/7.
Allison Kugel: I came of age in the nineties, which has been called our “break from history,” because tragedies seemed to be far and few between in mainstream America. However, they were not a rare occurrence in many urban communities. Looking back as a mature adult, I remember that acts of gun violence were happening on a regular basis in our urban communities. In my suburban community and in my own circles, I felt safe. So who really got that break from history?
Logan Browning: That’s a good observation.
Allison Kugel: Now that acts of gun violence are happening in the “good neighborhoods,” suddenly it’s everybody’s problem. Connecting those dots is humbling.
Logan Browning: It’s along the same vein as the Parkland activists. It’s great that everyone’s aware of it now, but what about all those people we’ve forgotten for so long?
Allison Kugel: Why do you think black men in our society are both feared and fetishized, simultaneously? This is a dynamic that’s depicted on your show, Dear White People.
Logan Browning: Slavery. That sounds like something Sam would say, but it’s our history. You take any people out of their homeland and you make them a hot commodity… you’re selling them up on how strong they are, how big they are, how hard they work. America created this. They created that dichotomy of what they imagine a black man to be.
Allison Kugel: What storyline are you most excited for audiences to see in the second season?
Logan Browning: Oh man, in a general sense, I love all of the characters’ stories and all of the individual storylines because you are really getting to know these people. I do love Coco’s storyline. I think it’s a great conversation starter. Every episode in the second season is a conversation starter, which is more what I look forward to than any one storyline. I just know I’m excited about the issues that are covered this season.
Allison Kugel: Finish this sentence: “Dear White People…”
Logan Browning: It’s so funny, the other day, Justin [Simien, Creator of Dear White People] said, “Dear White People, You’re Welcome.” (Laughs) I think it’s “Dear White People… whiteness, blackness; all of it is a creation. It’s a human device that we have created. More specifically, it’s one that white people in history created, and it’s malarkey.” It’s now something that we all have to mill about it, but it’s a complete fabrication. We have different experiences, yes, but we are all the same. In order to get to the point where we all see each other as the same, we would have to first go back and dissect every life experience each of us have had before we can wipe the slate clean and say, “Yup, we’re all the same. Back to square one.” Whiteness and blackness are malarkey, but in order to get to that place, we would have to better understand each other.
Season two of “Dear White People” premieres May 4th on Netflix.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
By Allison Kugel
From playing Curtis for two seasons on ABC’s megahit, Black-ish to starring alongside Tracy Morgan and Tiffany Haddish in the TBS hit series, The Last O.G., multi-hyphenate actor-writer-entrepreneur, Allen Maldonado, is a modern-day renaissance man. He’s the ideal fit for the role of Cousin Bobby, Tracy Morgan’s instigating but well-meaning sidekick. The Last O.G., created by Oscar winning filmmaker, Jordan Peele, is part of a 2018 wave of #blackexcellence sweeping Hollywood.
The show’s irreverent humor is inspired, thought provoking, and hilarious, as it manages to tackle the issues of post-incarceration societal re-entry, fatherhood and the gentrification of Brooklyn, New York.
Maldonado’s character, Cousin Bobby, attempts to help Tracy Morgan’s character “Tray” in his quest to turn his life around and put his family back together. YouTube and Instagram videos aside, I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed out loud at my screen. Allen Maldonado’s comedic genius lies in the art of setting up the joke. Allen sets them up, and Tracy Morgan drops the hammer on the punchline. Morgan and Maldonado are a classic comedic team in the making.
Allison Kugel: What has working alongside Tracy Morgan on The Last O.G. taught you about great comedy?
Allen Maldonado: I love being observant, taking in my surroundings and my audience, and being able to improvise at the drop of a hat. Anybody who has ever watched Tracy work knows he is very spontaneous and raw. He says what’s on his mind. Coming from other people, some of it might be construed as inappropriate, but that’s what makes Tracy so special. He can say things that, if someone else said it, it might be seen in a negative light. But when he says it, it’s hilarious. Being in that type of space where you can make people laugh in that way, that’s what I’ve learned from working with Tracy.
Allison Kugel: Jordan Peele is the creator of this show and he covers so many issues, while making people laugh. The Last O.G. examines the concept of getting a second chance after being incarcerated, the gentrification of Brooklyn, and the importance of fatherhood. Beyond the laughs, what is The Last O.G. communicating to its audience?
Allen Maldonado: It’s about second chances at life as Tracy’s character is released from prison after serving fifteen years, second chances with his family, including my character Cousin Bobby, and with his children. And a second chance with the woman that he let down before going to prison (played by Tiffany Haddish). It’s not so much about building a relationship with her based on the past, but about building that relationship for the future and co-parenting his kids with her. What makes this show special is that we have a lot of dramatic tones because of the subject matter. TV audiences go in with the assumption that this show is a sitcom, but I’ve heard people say many times that the show is a lot deeper than they thought it would be. Same as in real life; there are things that are fall out of your chair funny, and other things that will make you fall out of your chair from crying. We have a perfect balance of that in our show.
Allison Kugel: In the episodes I’ve watched so far, there hasn’t been much co-parenting going on with Tray’s kids. How involved will Tray and Cousin Bobby be in Tray’s kids’ lives, in upcoming episodes?
Allen Maldonado: There’s a natural progression that takes place. He’s been in prison for fifteen years, so she’s got to feel him out and get an understanding of who he is now. Who she knew was the man who was locked up fifteen years ago. You’ll see a natural process we will go through with the kids and that relationship. In upcoming episodes you’ll see them be more and more involved in everybody’s lives. That said, the story leaves a lot of room for mistakes and comedic situations.
Allison Kugel: You have a history with Tiffany Haddish going back to the beginning of both of your careers. Tell me about working with Tiffany, back then, and now…
Allen Maldonado: Just being able to see her star rise over the past couple of years, knowing her several years back, when we did a television pilot that never saw the light of day… from our first interaction meeting her on that set, she was hilarious back then. To be able to see her grow into the star she is, and the beautiful person she is, I couldn’t be prouder to call her my co-star on this show.
Allison Kugel: What qualities did you see in her back then that made you say, “She’s going places.”?
Allen Maldonado: She was true to herself and organically real, with a leading type of mentality. That’s a quality that Tracy [Morgan] shares as well. A lot of superstars have that confidence to say, “This is who I am, and take it or leave it.” She was always assertive in that way, and her style of comedy always resonated with me. It’s real and coming from her truth. The world is now seeing her talent, and it’s her time.
Allison Kugel: Your character, Cousin Bobby, is a classic comedic sidekick. There have been many classic comedic sidekicks throughout television history. Did you borrow inspiration from any of those?
Allen Maldonado: Cousin Bobby came from a real place. I didn’t really draw from a past television character.
Allison Kugel: Did you draw inspiration from your own life?
Allen Maldonado: I drew upon my life and different family members I knew growing up, and that one cousin who has always been by himself and when he finds you it’s like he’s being resuscitated back to life. Suddenly, he’s driven to do things he was never driven to do before, because of your presence and the way he looks up to you. That’s where Cousin Bobby came from for me.
Allison Kugel: Will we see an evolution take place with Cousin Bobby?
Allen Maldonado: I would hope so! I’m very excited to say that I’m on the writing staff for the second season of the show. Certain things I can’t reveal; writer’s code.
Allison Kugel: But you’ll have a say in what happens to your character…
Allen Maldonado: Of course! That’s one of the pluses of being in the writers’ room. You can definitely drive certain story lines.
Allison Kugel: Cedric the Entertainer is another great talent on this show. His character runs the halfway house where Tray lives after being released from prison. Will your character, Cousin Bobby, cross paths with Cedric the Entertainer’s character, Mullins, in the second season?
Allen Maldonado: We’re going to work that out. That was something I was disappointed in, that in Season One it didn’t happen. But we will cross paths in Season Two! It’s something I will make sure of. He is such a legend and incredible talent, and an incredible person. And I love to learn, so being able to share some comedic blows back and forth will be amazing.
Allison Kugel: You recently spoke with Janice Williams, a reporter at Newsweek, about gentrification and how it’s covered on The Last O.G. Tracy Morgan’s character, Tray, goes away in 2002. When he’s released from prison in 2017 and he comes back to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn, it’s this upper middle class, suburbanized enclave, and he has to adjust. What are your thoughts on gentrification of certain urban communities?
Allen Maldonado: There are pros and cons. Being that certain urban communities were underserved, it’s unfortunate that when these communities are finally getting served, the people that were in need are being forced out. I grew up in a rough neighborhood and didn’t have much. It’s one of those things where if we had a little more assistance or a little more help, there are so many other individuals aside from me who would have made it out of those tough circumstances. When help finally arrives and you are unable to receive it, it’s sad. Growth is always good, but not being able to service individuals who need it the most, that’s my problem with it. Being able to co-exist, it’s what I would push when it comes to gentrification. There has to be balance.
Allison Kugel: Will the show’s creator, Academy Award winner Jordan Peele, make an on-camera appearance next season?
Allen Maldonado: I don’t know. I would love for that to happen! But I don’t know. We will see…
Allison Kugel: Growing up in your neighborhood, did you have someone you looked up to the way Cousin Bobby looks up to Tray on The Last O.G.?
Allen Maldonado: Yes, I did. I grew up around some rough characters, and some that would be considered the underbelly of society. I had the opposite of what most people would think these individuals would influence you to do. They kept me away from being in gangs. They kept me away from selling drugs. They kept me away from doing a lot of negative stuff because they saw something special in me. The reason they made those choices is because, and this is sad, but they felt they had no other option. And again, that goes back to being able to serve these communities with additional help. A lot of these kids are boxed in and don’t have hope due to their surroundings and a lack of resources and opportunity. They brainwash themselves into thinking they can’t achieve their goals in life. Something that my O.G.s around the neighborhood stressed to me was education and staying away from drugs. They kept me away from that stuff because they knew it was wrong, but that was their only option. I have nothing but good things to say about the O.G.s that I grew up with.
Allison Kugel: Better to have a flawed father in the picture whose made bad decisions and been incarcerated, or no?
Allen Maldonado: No matter what position a father is in he’s going to be flawed. It all depends on the individual. Having proper guidance doesn’t necessarily fall upon your father or your mother. Your surroundings by the people in your life will inspire you and inject inspiration and hope into your life. I grew up without a father. My father passed when I was young, so if he was here I don’t know how it would be. I’ve been driven by having to be independent and by not having that presence in my life, and sort of being my own father. I don’t know if I would be as driven as I was if he was here.
Allison Kugel: Being raised by a single mother, what did that teach you about life?
Allen Maldonado: She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever met. She would wake up at four o’clock in the morning and not get home until 8 PM. She would take two trains to commute to work. She was also studying in college and taking courses, all in the process of taking care of three kids by herself. I feel lazy compared to my mother. To be able to do all that she did with no help and no family nearby. Knowing how torn she must’ve been to not be able to spend the amount of time you would like to with your child because you have to provide, that psychological type of stress is more impressive to me than the actual physical work.
Allison Kugel: Has Tracy Morgan discussed his 2014 accident with you, and how it changed him as a person and as an artist?
Allen Maldonado: We discussed it because we share similar near-death situations. I was twenty-one and I was hit by a drunk driver, walking, and the driver was going 65 mph. We both can attest to the fact that scientifically we’re not supposed to be here.
Allison Kugel: But you are supposed to still be here, because you’re here…
Allen Maldonado: That is correct. The impact that something like that, that powerful of a situation and you being able to stand strong again with a certain amount of faith and understand that you have a purpose that, no one that shares that kind of story can explain it to you. It’s like, how do you explain love? How do you describe it? These near-death situations, the power of God, and the strength of your spirituality growing from this near fatal event, we both share that, and we’ve had conversations about how the grass is greener, the sky is bluer. And we both understand that you’re not promised tomorrow. Now I live by a motto that every time I go to bed I ask myself a question, “If I don’t wake up tomorrow, can I look down at myself, at my body, and say I worked as hard as I could to fulfill my dreams?” If I can’t say that, then my day was not fulfilled. That’s how I live my life now. I would never want to look back once this chapter is closed and say, “I could have done more.”
Allison Kugel: You were a writer for the Starz series, Survivor’s Remorse, about a young man from an underserved urban community who finds fame and fortune as a basketball player, and he feels guilty about his success. Do you have survivor’s remorse, or survivor’s guilt, about your success?
Allen Maldonado: I do. That’s why I do so much for the community. I have my kid’s foundation called Demo Nerds. We teach film acting and filmmaking to foster kids. My survivor’s remorse is in understanding the psychological difficulty that these kids have, thinking that they don’t have options. It’s very difficult for a child to listen to their parents, go to school and do everything right, when they’re struggling to keep the lights on and put food on the table, and everybody that’s doing something wrong is going around with expensive cars, jewelry, and things that people want. For me, visual representation is everything. Speaking with these kids and letting them see that there are successful individuals who look like them, sound like them, talk like them in different areas of business, entertainment, or what have you, is what I strive to inject into the community.
Allison Kugel: And you’re helping filmmakers showcase their work with your app, Everybody Digital.
Allen Maldonado: We’re the first streaming short film app. We showcase short films from around the world. We have thousands in our catalog right now. We’re also producing original content on the app and it’s free and available on the App Store and Google Play. To all my short filmmakers, if they want to submit, all they have to do is go to EverybodyDigital.com. The app is giving more exposure to short films. Since the 1980s they were taken out of theatres and kind of put into a student film world where the average consumer doesn’t know these short films exist. So we are re-introducing short films to the world.
Allison Kugel: You play Litty in the upcoming remake of the movie SuperFly. Tell me about the re-make as is compares to the original movie from 1972.
Allen Maldonado: I wouldn’t consider it a remake, I would call it a remix. The premise is loosely based off the original, but it’s not a period piece. It’s set in modern times and there’s a different spin on it, being that we shot it in Atlanta. It has the same style and flair as the original SuperFly movie, but in a different beat and rhythm. It’s heavily inspired by the original. I haven’t seen the final cut yet, so I’m excited to see it as well, and June 15th is right around the corner. I know the red carpet is going to be fantastic and a lot of people are going to be paying homage to the original [SuperFly movie]. I look forward to everybody looking superfly!
Photo Credits: Courtesy of TBS
The Last O.G. airs Tuesdays at 10:30 ET/9:30 CT on TBS. Check local listings.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
This interview was produced in partnership with TireAgent – the easiest way to replace your tires. Installation at home, or anywhere you choose; and with The Wellness Universe – Mind, Body, Spirit, Planet… your complete wellness resource.
By Allison Kugel
The life of Damon Dash appears to be an epic triumph to some, a Shakespearean tragedy to others. It depends on where you’re standing when you look at him. After speaking with the hip hop mogul turned entrepreneur and filmmaker, I can tell you Dame Dash’s story is more nuanced and complex; and is still being written. Dash hopes his new film, Honor Up, a semi-autobiographical story about the code of street honor, executive produced by Kanye West, and starring Dash, Nicholas Turturro, Michael Rispoli and Cam’ron; will give audiences an authentic portrait of who he is beyond the media’s checkered narrative. He tells me the unwavering code of honor depicted in the movie has informed every choice he’s made in his adult life.
A kid from Harlem, New York, who lost his mother in his youth, Dash quickly took on a hustler’s mentality, adopting the OG street code which propelled him from promoting nightclubs and rap artists to reaching the apex of the music industry with the success of he and Jay Z’s Rock-A-Fella records label, and the urban lifestyle brand, Roc-A-Wear. It was Dash’s unwavering vision and tenacity, and his loyalty to artists he believed in, that launched the careers of Jay Z, Kevin Hart, Kanye West and his ex-wife, fashion designer, Rachel Roy.
Since splitting from Jay Z and dissolving Roc-A-Fella records, he’s been painted by the entertainment industry as an incorrigible and unruly outsider; a man who wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid or fall in line with Hollywood or music industry politics. As Dash made clear to me during out conversation, he refuses to ever bow down to corporate demands, and therefore chooses to self-fund his many projects, from film and art to fashion. After years of personal and professional heartbreaks, Dash found an unwavering ally in longtime love and business partner, Raquel Horn. Horn is Dash’s creative muse and collaborator, while Dash is Horn’s mentor and idea facilitator. Together, the two have launched Dame Dash Studios, Dash Diabetes Network, their Poppington fashion line, and the beginnings of an independent movie studio. Damon Dash is a man in his creative renaissance… and in love.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about the most influential people in your life… birth to present day?
Damon Dash: My mother was a big influence in my life. She passed away when I was fifteen. I would say Muhammad Ali was a big influence on my life, my OG Daniel (Dash’s childhood mentor, Daniel Jenkins, the inspiration behind Dash’s new film, “Honor Up”) is one of the most influential people in my life from when I was younger. That was one of the reasons why I made the movie, Honor Up.
Allison Kugel: Your mom passing when you were fifteen, how did it impact who you became?
Damon Dash: It made me fearless. The one thing I was afraid of up until I was fifteen was that my mother would die, and then she did. It made me very aware of my mind, in that, if you worry about something it usually realizes itself. I try not to worry about anything. Because my mother spoiled me, and she wasn’t there to spoil me anymore, it made me the business savage that I am. I wanted to maintain that lifestyle. At the time, my pops wasn’t going to be able to give me that, so I had to do it myself. I think in a strange way, if my mom was still here I wouldn’t have made the history that I’ve made, because nothing would have felt so urgent. Someone can teach you how to survive, but you really don’t get those skills until you have to. [Her passing] made it where I had to, and she taught me well.
Allison Kugel: You refuse to take a paycheck. You’re someone who has to have ownership in everything you do. Speaking for myself, I can say there was a time in my life when I asked myself if I was for sale, or if I was not for sale. Can you recall a defining moment when you asked yourself that same question, and determined that you were not for sale?
Damon Dash: I’ve been a street entrepreneur since I was very young, since my mother died, because I had no choice. I’ve never had a boss. I’m from Harlem and I think I’m cooler than everybody, so it would be hard for me to have someone telling me what to do. It’s not about working for somebody, because I always have equity. I have something, and then I may need to take it to another level, so there would be a business relationship or a partnership. But I would always walk away from certain partnerships, because I didn’t like the moral value of that person. I would probably end up having to strangle them because it’s very frustrating when people don’t have principals and morals. It’s offensive when someone that I don’t respect presents me with an opportunity to work for them and tries to control me. I don’t even know what that means, working for someone else. It’s not a mathematical equation that makes sense to me.
Allison Kugel: How do you define God?
Damon Dash: You can’t define God. That’s how I define it. It’s undefinable. I can’t fathom God; just one entity controlling everything. I have no idea, and the 90% of our brain that we can’t use or access, we can’t really fathom what that is. Maybe if I had access to more of my brain, I could begin to fathom that.
Allison Kugel: You don’t have a sense of knowing, or belief about it?
Damon Dash: If there is a God, it’s a woman.
Allison Kugel: And why do you say that?
Damon Dash: Why wouldn’t it be that way? Men are stupid. God could never be a man, because men are too insecure. There’s wars, we fight. It’s illogical and stupid. That’s all insecurity. I don’t think God would have those characteristics.
Allison Kugel: What did you learn about love from your time with Aaliyah?
Damon Dash: I learned exactly how happy love can make a person. It was a feeling that I never knew existed before. What it did teach me is to recognize love, and to appreciate love. It also taught me never to mess with an artist, because they’re always on the road. You never see them. The more you love them, the more you miss them. It made me appreciate what I had in that moment, and it made me recognize love with my girl Raquel (Dash’s girlfriend and business partner, Raquel Horn). I knew that feeling. It was familiar to me, because I felt that with Aaliyah.
Allison Kugel: Describe Aaliyah’s character; the person you knew her to be.
Damon Dash: Aaliyah loved life. She loved to laugh. She was color blind, a great soul, a ridiculous amount of swag and great taste. And those were the same exact qualities I saw in Raquel. For me, the greatest thing about Aaliyah was that we were both from somewhat of an extreme circumstance, you know, urban, in the hood. And we both had such a desire for things that were so unhood. But in those environments that were unhood, we would still have that hood swagger and we could laugh at things. Aaliyah and I used to spend a lot of time laughing at the corniness of life. We both found people’s insecurities very funny.
Allison Kugel: How many times in your life have you had that feeling?
Damon Dash: Two. Aaliyah and Raquel.
Allison Kugel: Would you like to see a movie made about your beginnings, during the rise of Roc-A-Fella Records, and that time in your life?
Damon Dash: That’s inevitable, whether I make it or somebody else does. I am very aware and clear of what I have done, and my impact on this world. They’ve already made Aaliyah’s story, and I was in that. Let’s say they don’t do my story, everyone else’s story that I’ve been a part of, I’ll be in there. At the end of the day, I like to control my likeness, so I’ve already started that process. This movie, Honor Up, is about me and my ideals growing up.
Allison Kugel: We’re going to get to the movie, so don’t comment on it yet because we’re going to go in-depth with it.
Damon Dash: I love when a woman tells me what to do (laughs).
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) What is your opinion about how the media has cast you over the past decade? What have they gotten right, and what have they gotten wrong?
Damon Dash: I’ve been able to manipulate them exactly the way I’ve wanted to. I’m very aware that an independent person like me that does things on his own, that my success would mean other people’s failure. Everyone that’s getting robbed, and everyone that’s doing the robbing, would fail. I’m the guy that doesn’t rob and does everything honorably. If I can show that I can do things honorably, that would make other people need to do things honorably. The way they were portraying me in the newspapers, it wasn’t very intelligent.
Allison Kugel: Do you think you’ve been caricaturized?
Damon Dash: In the beginning, it was more brazen and arrogant, and about me pouring champagne on women, which was a character. That was Champagne Dame. They never showed Damon Dash the businessman; Damon Dash, the single father raising his son alone from the time he was eight years old; Damon Dash living with Type 1 Diabetes; or the man who’s running all these different companies.
Allison Kugel: Where did the negative portrayals of your character come in?
Damon Dash: I didn’t want to do Rock-A-Fella anymore. I wasn’t trying to just do music. I didn’t want to be typecast. I wanted to do fashion. I wanted to do things that were multicultural, and I wanted to run around the world. And I knew walking away from Jay Z, that all Jay Z fans were going to start with me and try to get at me. I know that controversy sells papers. At that point, I was like, “Yo, I’m about to Makaveli myself (a reference to the late Tupac Shakur). I’m out. I don’t really need to be here no more. I want ya’ll to leave me alone.” I needed everybody to think I wasn’t doing well so nobody would ask me for nothing no more. But all those years, I was owning Rachel Roy, a $75 million company. I was running around the world, I had galleries and things like that. But Dame was under the radar. And they left me alone. I always thought it was funny that they made me the underdog. I could have been nice. I could have worked with these people that have no morals and no values and spent their money instead of having to keep re-investing my own money.
Allison Kugel: But you walked away.
Damon Dash: I decided freedom was priceless, happiness is priceless. I needed to raise my daughters. It wasn’t conducive for my daughters in a hip hop environment, because you have a bunch of young, insecure, aggressive men. And I didn’t want to have to go to jail for nothing. I realized that with the internet there is no buffer, and I can tell the truth whenever I want. No one can stop me. Whoever wants me will come find me, and they’ll see the truth.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about your new movie, Honor Up. You wrote and directed this movie, you play a central character, and you put up your own money to make it. How long has this story been in you, wanting to come out?
Damon Dash: I always knew I would tell this story, but what made me want to tell it now, and in this way, was a moment when I was hearing a lot of things about people I was close to from my past, that contradicted all our morals and values. It bugged me out, because these were the people I respected the most. I just couldn’t believe it, and it hurt. Then there were other things going on that were bringing me down. [Director] Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) owes me $2 million. He’s doing well and he’s running around, and he’s not paying me. The shit is pissing me off. Where I’m from, he would have ended up in a trunk. You know what I’m saying? I can’t do those things, and I’m not going to do those things. So I made a movie about it. I want people to understand my morals and principals, why I don’t look the other way and who taught me. I also ran into my OG (a mentor of Dash’s named Daniel Jenkins), who I hadn’t seen in about twenty-five years. He was a guy who was very influential in the neighborhood. Because he was cool with me, all the dangerous guys looked at me a certain way as well, so I never had to be scared. One day I saw him walking across one of the toughest blocks in Harlem and he had his kids with him. He was fresh, his kids had little motor cars and they were fresh, and I was like, “That’s the kind of dad I want to be.” I want to be that guy as a dad. That was probably the most impactful lesson he ever taught me, because I’m a great dad and that’s more important than anything. When I finally got back with him, I knew I had to make a movie about our story.
Allison Kugel: This movie, Honor Up, will help people to better understand you and what makes you tick.
Damon Dash: I think people need to know the rules. Maybe people aren’t living by them now, and that’s the reason I kind of stay in my bubble. Maybe now people will understand why I don’t compromise, why I won’t bend over for a dollar. Because I was taught the right way by certain kind of people. With this movie, I want people to hear the voice that taught me, from the voice that taught me. When you see this movie, you’re going to see my real OG, the voice I heard when I was fifteen.
Allison Kugel: A big theme in Honor Up is the street code of not being a snitch, not talking to the police. Let’s set up a scenario. In December 1990, John Gotti was arrested by the FBI and NYPD. He was indicted on multiple counts of racketeering, extortion, jury tampering and murder. He strongly believed in the oath of silence he took as a “made man” with the Gambino family. He didn’t provide any information to the government; he didn’t strike a deal with prosecutors. John Gotti went away for life and he died in prison. Weighing everything: family, life, everything… had that been you, would you have stuck to the street code like he did, and gone away for life?
Damon Dash: You’re joking right?
Allison Kugel: No. I’m not joking.
Damon Dash: If you’re gonna do the crime, do the time, period. Two people sign on to a contract, whether everybody else’s principals are different, you sign on to a contract, and you have to abide by it.
Allison Kugel: You do know that a lot of guys don’t abide by it.
Damon Dash: That’s why I made the movie. That’s why I got out of the streets. I knew that at some point I would have to kill, or I’d have to go to jail and I would have to do the time.
Allison Kugel: You would not make a deal or rat anybody out. You would go away for life.
Damon Dash: Yeah. If I did the crime? Yeah. That’s the game. You think I would be so low as to put one of my friends in jail? Someone that I hung out with, I know their kids, I know their girl? Just so I don’t go to jail, I put him in jail? Nah, I couldn’t live with myself. If you make a conscious choice to do something, you got to stand behind it. Now if you’re a civilian, and let’s say someone accused you of doing something you didn’t do, you never hustled and all that other stuff, you didn’t sign on to that game. That’s a different story. But for someone that signed on to the game, you know you’re not supposed to be doing that.
Allison Kugel: Is there a spiritual component to your beliefs?
Damon Dash: I understand spirituality. I read The Seat of the Soul [by Gary Zukav]. That book changed my life. That was actually the connection between Aaliyah and me.
Allison Kugel: Did you read that book together?
Damon Dash: All of those books, yes. And I made my whole crew read that book. Me and Aaliyah, that was our connection. We read all of those books. That book scares me, because when she died I had all those books around me. I had one book called, When You Lose Your Soulmate right on the bed. I was so into that, that I almost felt like it was to prepare me for her death. If I hadn’t read those books, I don’t think I would have dealt with it the same.
Allison Kugel: Have you read, Many Lives, Many Masters by Dr. Brian Weiss? That’s my favorite one.
Damon Dash: Yes, I did. I read so many of those books. That’s what got me through [Aaliyah’s] death. But I had so many of those books scattered around my room. At every bed post I had something related to the soul and the evolution of it. I think I’m about at a deep purple right now.
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) Your crown chakra is fully activated.
Damon Dash: I’m floating.
Allison Kugel: Kanye West executive produced your movie, Honor Up. The two of you go way back to when you launched his music career. What was different about working with Kanye on a film, versus musically?
Damon Dash: This time I’m the artist and he’s the businessman. Whereas, I used to showcase his art, he’s now showcasing mine. He used to play his records for me. Now, I was coming back and playing cuts of the film for him. It was a total role reversal. It was a great example of the OG being happy that someone younger than you can have more power than you with certain things, and can help you. You build people, so they can build you. I wasn’t expecting him to do all that he did. You never know what Kanye’s going to do, but I know that he’s inspired by art. It was the first time that, instead of me helping somebody, somebody was helping me. He gets it. Some people don’t understand that helping people makes you the happiest. The happiness that Kanye got from helping me, it was contagious.
Allison Kugel: Can you see you and Kanye West forming an ongoing partnership with a film production company?
Damon Dash: We just started one, that’s what we’re doing! You know me; I don’t play. I hit you with flurries. I’m prepping to shoot my third movie right now. This film was the first time, to my knowledge, that I have ever seen Kanye put his name on something that he can’t control. The fact that he acknowledged my art in that way, shows that this is some real art. Kanye is not going to co-sign something corny. But the respect level was there, which is what I appreciated the most.
Allison Kugel: What do you say to people who feel that a movie like Honor Up, which does depict street violence, is perpetuating a stereotype, or that it’s a negative influence on your younger fans?
Damon Dash: Any movie that’s about war, you have to show the war to learn from it. Whoever looks at it like that, isn’t from the street. They don’t understand. I’m not trying to preach to the converted. That was my reality, and that’s what I learned from. That’s what smartened me up. I hope that people can see every element in this movie. The story is authentic. There’s so many different artistic levels. It’s not just bullets. It’s about the message. It’s art, and I think anyone who really looks at it will recognize it as art.
Allison Kugel: When you wake up in the morning and your feet hit the floor, which is foremost on your mind, making money or making art?
Damon Dash: Making art. Never making money. I think money is overrated. That’s why I spend so much of it. I don’t even want to hold it; get it out of here. It makes people go crazy. I wouldn’t do anything for money that I wouldn’t do for free.
Allison Kugel: A lot of people may not know that you are a Type 1 Diabetic and have been since the age of fifteen.
Damon Dash: I made it public a long time ago, but people don’t talk about those kinds of things. I always thought it was important to bring awareness to it, because I’ve had it since I was fifteen and I have noticed all the misconceptions that come with it. It’s a 24-hour disease. And for me, as a diabetic, I always want to hear about another diabetic’s story. I know if they are winning, that I can win. And there are a lot of celebrities that have it, and they don’t want to talk about it. I’ve never understood that. They think it’s a weakness, whereas I think it’s a strength. I want people to know that every great thing I’ve done, every time I’ve made history, it’s always been as a diabetic. We started a network called the Dash Diabetes Network. We talk about diet, working out, mental well-being and just being healthy, overall. When you’re a diabetic you have to live a healthy lifestyle. You have no choice. I’m a vegan. Well, let me say I eat a plant-based diet. I can’t say I’m completely vegan, because I still own a leather jacket or two and I have leather seats in my car. Rocky (Dash’s nickname for his girlfriend and business partner, Raquel) has created a vegan handbag as part of our Poppington fashion line.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about your network, Dame Dash Studios. It features your films, your radio show, musical projects, your Poppington fashion line, Dash Diabetes Network and your personal travels around the world. It’s like a VIP ticket to all things Dame Dash. Tell me about the vision for this studio…
Damon Dash: At the end of the day, the direct to consumer relationship is the new wave, and it keeps me independent. I can stay uncensored and I can say what I want; can’t nobody fire me. I can do whatever I want, and above and beyond anything, I can pass it down to my children. I can pass it on to my wife. Raquel is wifey for lifey. She is the one who inspired me to embrace my artistic nature after watching me make everybody else famous. Falling in love, embracing art, that’s why I say that I’m purple right now (referring to the color associated with spirituality), because I’m elated. I’m happy. I just love the fact that I’m being artistic, that I’m being unapologetic about my point of view and fearless about speaking on my art.
Damon Dash’s movie, Honor Up, hits select theatres and On-Demand February 16, 2018.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
Allison Kugel: When you stepped off the Roseanne set for the last time in 1997, did you ever think, in a million years, that you’d be playing Becky Conner all these years later?
Lecy Goranson: No (laughs), I didn’t! Being back has made me realize the time I missed when I was away. It’s an interesting feeling that hit me, that the show continued without me. Everyone was still together after I left. I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. Not regret, but I thought, “Wow. I really love these people and I made a move, but it’s been such a blessing to be reconnected with everyone.”
Allison Kugel: You’re referring to your character Becky being re-cast with actress Sara Chalke during the fifth season of Roseanne. There are three characters in television that were famously re-cast during the height of a show’s success. You’ve got the two Darrens from Bewitched, the two Lionels from The Jeffersons and the two Beckys from Roseanne. I’m sure you’ve talked with Sarah Chalke at length about her taking over your role all those years ago. What was it like for Sara to step into your shoes halfway through the series run?
Lecy Goranson: I never really had a chance to talk to her until we were on Amy Schumer together. We went out to dinner and it was interesting to hear what she had to say, which was a lot! Anyone who gets a job like that, it’s very exciting, especially if you’re a small-town girl from Canada, which she was. I was talking with some of the other actors about what it might feel like to be a guest star on our show. For me, I know all these people and I’ve worked with them for years, but I still feel like I really have to bring my A-game. There’s a heightened feeling of responsibility in working with such amazing people. I can only imagine how intimidating that was for her, beyond the sheer joy of having a job like that. Stepping into a character that was already established, it was challenging for her. But she stepped into an environment where there were a lot of loving people, and talented people to help her bring her game up.
Allison Kugel: I’ve heard you say in several interviews that you left Roseanne during the height of its success to have a normal college experience. I have to ask, what prompted you to become a child star in the first place?
Lecy Goranson: I was a dancer and there’s a place in Evanston, IL called the Noise Cultural Arts Center where they have dance, acting, painting and different classes in the arts. I was taking dance classes, and right down the hall was the Piven Theatre Workshop, started by Byrne and Joyce Piven who were coming from The Second City [Comedy Troupe]. I started taking classes there and Burt and Joyce were affiliated with an agency in downtown Chicago. They asked me to go on a couple of open calls. My parents wanted me to be involved in activities because they were working a lot. So that was the amount of their vested interest, just to keep me busy and productive. I did two auditions and the second one was for Roseanne. I think they hired Laurie Metcalf, who was also from Chicago, and I, because they wanted to have some actors that were actually from the Chicago area to give the show that flavor. But yeah, it was a total fluke.
Allison Kugel: Now it makes sense to me that you would one day, as a teenager and young adult, realize you wanted to step away and just be a college student.
Lecy Goranson: Yes. But after college I had to say to myself, “Look, you love being an actor and this lifestyle of suffering (laughs). This is what you really want.” It’s funny when you have to parent yourself.
Allison Kugel: Twenty years later, what are you now bringing to the role of Becky Conner on this Roseanne reboot?
Lecy Goranson: I’ve been doing theatre for so many years. Like any skill, you build muscle by repetition. I’ve also had the privilege of working with great actors in the New York theatre community. The character of Becky is really strong, grounded and wise. It’s interesting re-approaching a character in this way, with all of my own life experiences. And I feel it when I am there; I feel my age! I’ve been around the block, but I think back to my former self as a child and I think, “What was it like?” It’s hard for me to remember a lot of it. There is a part of youth that is so unconscious, and there’s such a beautiful thing about that in retrospect. That unconsciousness gives you a lot of bold confidence.
Allison Kugel: As an adult, have you sat and watched the old Roseanne re-runs? And do you feel connected to it?
Lecy Goranson: This is a bit of an inside joke. I feel like, “Oh yeah it’s me, but it feels like it is so long ago and distant. Michael [Fishman] and Sara Gilbert have children, and they would sit down with their kids to watch the episodes and tell their kids, “This is what I used to do.” I haven’t really done that. Although you can’t stay away from it, because it’s on so often if you’re flipping through the channels. One of the interesting things about re-visiting the show is to not only have memories come back for me, but to hear other people’s memories, and then to also have this shared feeling come up sometimes of, “We don’t remember anything at all!”
Allison Kugel: Tell me about growing up with Roseanne Barr and John Goodman as your TV parents and spending countless hours with them as you were growing up.
Lecy Goranson: I’ve always felt really close to John. Our personalities are similar, and I have always felt very connected to him. I hate to use the term “genius” because people throw it around, but they both do have a genius for the work. Roseanne, the way her mind thinks comically, is really advanced. And John is such an incredible actor. His genius is in being so present in every moment and tweaking the script in his own way. He is one of the most present actors I have ever been around. The two of them together are just like a couple of big kids, encouraging each other to go further. They are a great team, and they bring out the best in each other. There is a side to both of them that is just total goofball, and they both love humiliating the kids in a scene. Yes, they get off on embarrassing us. Now that we’re all back together I remember just how much we always laughed.
Allison Kugel: How about your TV siblings Sara Gilbert and Michael Fishman, who play Darlene and D.J.? What’s the relationship like between the three of you?
Lecy Goranson: I live on the east coast and they’re on the west coast. Apart from Laurie Metcalfe and John Goodman who do theatre in New York occasionally, I don’t see everybody that much. Sara and I are very close. We spent all this time apart and then when we were reunited, I remembered how well we know each other. You can’t help but be close like that if you see each other every day for however many years, and you’re the only two young ladies on the set. Michael is just a doll. He’s turned into such a mature, loving, wonderful person. I feel a lot of pride for the fact that we have turned out pretty good.
Allison Kugel: How did a Roseanne reboot come together?
Lecy Goranson: It had a lot to do with Sara. I also know that Roseanne was thinking about doing it for a long time, independently. Michael and Roseanne had been talking about it. It all came together, and Sara took on the role of Executive Producer. When Sara reached out to everyone, we all said, “Let’s do it!”
Allison Kugel: I love the fact that everyone was game to do it. If you are known and beloved for playing an iconic television character that people identify with, and you are a part of pop culture history, that’s amazing! What’s wrong with that?
Lecy Goranson: I think also the fact that our show is about a family, that there is something appealing about keeping that family unit alive and revisiting them at a later time. Of course, Roseanne is a special show to me, but I do think it’s a special show to a lot of people and the family dynamic that we have makes it special.
Allison Kugel: Does this Roseanne reboot bring the same flavor, and the same meat and bones as the original?
Lecy Goranson: Oh, absolutely! There are certain episodes we did where we all thought, “This is vintage Roseanne.” It felt like an original episode.
Allison Kugel: Why should people tune in to watch the Roseanne reboot?
Lecy Goranson: Because it’s the best show on TV, of course!
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