By Allison Kugel
The current state of our world has opened our eyes, shifted priorities, compelled us to action and leveled society's playing field. Recent events call upon all of us to, both, embrace and acknowledge our vulnerabilities and muster our collective strength. Regardless of what race, religion, ethnicity, or socio-economic circumstances we hold, we are forever bound together by these extraordinary times we live in.
While our essential workers on the front lines keeping the nuts and bolts of society running and keeping us informed; elements like nature, family, friends, and the arts lift our spirits. Music has the power to inspire, heal, help us process our anger or heartbreak, prompt reflection, or make us grow nostalgic. Therefore, it should continue to be celebrated, even in the tensest of times. Some of my favorite interview subjects have been musicians, because of the philosophical and poetic nature many of them share.
Legendary Poison frontman, Bret Michaels, is one of those people for me. We first met in 2007 when I interviewed him about his then VH1 reality show, Rock of Love. I enjoyed Michael's company then, and thirteen years later I still do. We resumed our conversation as it pertains to his now four-decade multi-platinum-selling music career, how some much-publicized health challenges have strengthened his spirit and resolve, his love of touring and his inexhaustible energy for new projects.
On Monday, June 1st, Bret Michael's band Poison, in a joint statement with Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, announced that their much anticipated 2020 tour would be postponed until 2021. In light of the challenges our nation is facing on several fronts, their official statement reads:
"We wanted to continue to communicate with our fans and update you with valid information as it becomes available. The official decision has been made to move all 2020 North American Stadium Tour dates into the summer of 2021," and concludes with, "Stay tuned, be safe and we will see you next year."
In the interim, Michaels is excited to discuss the recent release of his personal scrapbook memoir, titled, Auto-Scrap-Ography. The book is an amalgamation of Michael's timestamped photographs, inspirational musings, landmark memories, and deep thoughts, penned by the singer, himself.
*Editor's Note: This interview was completed prior to the tragic death of George Floyd.
Allison Kugel: This is the first interview I am releasing since the start of this pandemic. I have been reticent about putting anything entertainment-related out there. But if I am getting back into it, you are a good person to start back up with.
Bret Michaels: We use the words "tough times," but these are also confusing times. Some people are saying "Don’t worry about it," while others like me and you are saying, "Are you and your family safe?" I’m in the highest risk category for COVID-19, being a Type 1 Diabetic since the age of six. So, my whole family have been really good about wearing masks and gloves and being safe until we get closer to the shore, if you know what I mean. I’ve also been trying to inject as much positivity into everything as I can without it sounding phony. I call myself a drealist. I dream and I dream big, but I’m also a realist.
Allison Kugel: I agree with you about injecting positivity into challenging situations. My son has been complaining that he hasn't seen his friends, and he jokes that our lives have become like the movie Groundhog Day. He'll say, "We take the same walk everyday mom!" I say to him, "Look how blue the sky is. Look at that beautiful tree. Try and find the simple things that you may have overlooked under more normal circumstances."
Bret Michaels: One thousand percent! I went out and took pictures with my kids. And recently I got a bucket of paint out because our sports court has needed painting for ten years, and I'd been avoiding it. I’ve put myself into every project I could find. It keeps you positive and it keeps your hands busy. If you are taking a walk and looking at a tree, it keeps your mind on positive stuff. It works.
Allison Kugel: Would you say that some of the things you previously took for granted or overlooked, you are now noticing or rediscovering?
Bret Michaels: Completely. I have a ranch in Arizona, and I went through everything that I have hoarded. I de-hoarded it (laugh). Then I went and started painting stuff. I’m a motor sports, outdoor kind of guy, so I ripped apart engines, like Go Kart engines. I also began noticing some furniture in need of a little love and TLC. I watch all these shows where they do it, and I finally decided to jump in and start restoring some furniture. And music, of course. I love listening to Bob Marley through these times. I listen to Three Little Birds and it just puts me right.
Allison Kugel: I can't speak for other journalists, but for me this work has been a giant case study in the human experience. I've learned that everybody's life has a master theme. Your Type 1 Diabetes has been well documented, as was your brain hemorrhage some years back. You also had some big accidents that required rehabilitation. I feel that your master theme in this life is overcoming limitations of the physical body.
Bret Michaels: That makes sense. When people ask me, "How do you overcome?" I say this is the card I was dealt and rather then become a victim to it and have self-pity, I chose to take the path of being spiritually and mentally positive. I want to go on record and thank my parents for that. My dad was active and a have fun, get it done kind of guy. My mom is the same. She opened the first youth diabetic camp in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania because I was the only kid in my entire class growing up who had diabetes. I send so many kids to diabetic camp so they can see what I experienced. It literally saved and changed my life. I saw other kids with diabetes, and we all learned together, brick by brick, how to find a way to enjoy sports and make it all work. That experience has been used in every application of my life, and in some ways prepared me for the entertainment business.
Allison Kugel: And that is the power of a mom's love. Your mom said, "I'm going to create a camp for my kid so he can have this positive experience." I always say that where other people see problems, I see opportunities. It sounds like your mom is the same way.
Bret Michaels: One million percent, and I hear that in your voice. In our case, diabetes was a part of our lives. My sisters also had it. And even when it comes to work and being on the road, I always say, "Ok, we've established the problem. The guitars didn't show up for our show in Lima, Peru (laugh). We can stand here and keep discussing it and yelling about it, but we have a stadium show in three hours. Let's focus on what we are going to do to solve this." I think you and me together can solve a lot of problems.
Allison Kugel: The right perspective makes all the difference in your life.
Bret Michaels: All the difference! With coronavirus, we don't know the exact date it was created or where it came from, so rather than focus on that, why don't we start focusing on the cities that are doing better, and what places like New York are doing to make it better. We have already established that it's a horrific virus. Now, what do we do to help each other get through it? And the amount of anxiety and depression this has caused, and economic turmoil; we are going to have to keep an eye on each other. We have to have each other's backs.
Allison Kugel: Let's talk about your new book, Auto-Scrap-Ography. You are a ball of kinetic energy. How did you manage to sit down and write this book?
Bret Michaels: Writing a book is one of the toughest things I've ever done, and it's one of the most fulfilling. I wanted to do something unique. I grabbed some timestamped photos. I took blank pieces of paper and I would scotch tape an image to a piece of paper and start writing the story surrounding that image, kind of like a Chicken Soup for the Soul vibe. The reason I didn't write a normal biography, and I love to read those, by the way, is because I could take a picture and write stream of consciousness about what my thoughts were in that moment, what I was going through and what happened. Every picture has a story and every story has multiple tentacles. This book is Volume 1. Over the next volumes I'm going to give you different tentacles of each story and really deep dive into it, so you are living the experience with me.
Allison Kugel: That's an interesting approach. When I wrote my book, I took a different approach. I streamlined passages to focus on one main aspect of a story for the sake of continuity. I'm curious to read your volumes to see how you went about this.
Bret Michaels: It's why yours is unique to you and mine is unique to me. If I tried to write it that way, I would have lost focus. That's why mine is written as a scrapbook. It's an autobiographical scrapbook diary. Some of it are pages of inspirational stuff; some are intense and impactful moments from my life. For example, there are five pages talking about me almost drowning in Caracas, Venezuela. I share with people what was going through my mind when I knew I was in a rip current. I had that fight or flight that happens. I thought that was it. Everyone on the beach thought I was kidding around, because I wasn't that far off the shore. I’m waving frantically and everyone on the beach is partying with their band and crew and they're just waving back at me, and I'm drowning out there.
Allison Kugel: Your life experiences are such double-edged swords. Everything is the good and the bad, or the fun and the scary at the same time.
Bret Michaels: Yes, my life, ironically, has been roses and thorns (a reference to Poison's number one hit ballad, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"). A rose is this beautiful thing that looks amazing, it brings people life and it means love. And if you grab it the wrong way, or slide your hand down it, you have a painful thorn in your hand. My life has been a perfect balance beam in that way. I remember playing Texas Stadium in front of 83,000 people. It was completely sold out and we shot the I Won't Forget You video with Paul Stanley on stage, and Steven Tyler watching from the side. It was one of those, "This is the greatest!" moments. Life felt like a surreal dream. Two hours later we went from mega Texas Stadium rock star status to playing a small town in either in Texas or New Mexico where there weren't four people in the whole place who knew or cared who or what we were. At the time, it was exactly what I needed to happen to realize this will keep me as grounded as the person that I am today.
Allison Kugel: I so get that. I’m not a public person, but I had gotten into this amazing groove where I was doing dream interview after dream interview, and I had just interviewed Gwen Stefani and was feeling pretty high about everything. Well, shortly thereafter, something happened, nothing terrible, but I got myself arrested and was thrown into a lockup. It was a traumatic experience. I remember being hysterical and I asked the woman if I could use the phone. I was freaking out and I started crying, and she goes, "Can you go cry over there, you're getting on my nerves (laughs).
Bret Michaels: Oh, my goodness (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Yup! I was like, "No, you don't understand I don't belong here. You don't know what I do and who I am." Well, that just made it one hundred times worse!
Bret Michaels: I'm so sorry that happened to you, but truth is stranger than fiction. As I say in my book, I did not need to make stories up for shock value. Some stories I needed to pare down because you would think I'm making it up. I was arrested and went to Walton County Prison (Walton Correctional Institution in Walton County, Florida), with the real inmates. It wasn't the nice holding cell.
Allison Kugel: (Laughs)
Bret Michaels: I had just got done playing what at the time was called Omni Basketball Arena. A guy claimed I ruined his car, that I jumped on his car and smashed his windows. All of it was false. But they didn't ask questions. They just took me in. I had just come off stage and was in a state of shock. I spent two days in there and finally it came out that the guy made the story up. For two days I sat in the corner of that jail cell with about twenty other inmates all packed into a place that only should have held about four people. I sat in a corner with my head down and I didn't say a word. Some people said, "Hey, are you who I think you are?" I was like, "Yeah, no big thing, man, thanks."
Allison Kugel: A humbling experience…
Bret Michaels: A lot of the stories in Auto-Scrap-Ography are stories of how I overcame challenges, and true stories of inspiration. But a large part of my book is, of course, what I like to call a Rock 'n' Roll Thrill Ride. I'd like to think the overriding theme of the book is inspiration; it's telling people that if I can do this you can do it, regardless of what your dream is.
Allison Kugel: Since touring is off the table right now, what other projects are you working on?
Bret Michaels: I am going to be the face of college radio. Each year they pick someone to be the face of it and this year it's me. I also got the Humanitarian of The Year Award last year at the 2019 Hollywood Christmas Parade (Michaels ongoing philanthropic efforts have included delivering needed supplies to the people of the Bahamas and Puerto Rico). Way back when, when no one would touch our records, college radio spun our album. I wanted to do something to show my appreciation. I've also contributed to a lot of school programs, donating to their music, art and athletic programs.
Allison Kugel: One passage that really struck me in your book was when you wrote, "I went from barely being able to afford to feed myself and buy my insulin to touring stadiums." What did you learn from poverty and what have you learned from wealth?
Bret Michaels: From the beginning I was always a guy who thinks positive. I find a way to get it done. When I would run out of insulin and my parents would have to help, or they couldn't send it out in time, I would literally go down to the clinics in Hollywood and they'd give me insulin. It all made me resilient and determined, and most importantly, grateful when the second half came along. Poison and I, we are one of the few bands who were an independent band. My big signing day and signing party for Look What the Cat Dragged (Poison's debut studio album, released August 2, 1986) was sitting on a floor in El Segundo, California shrink wrapping my own albums. You know those stories about private jets and limos? I'd love to tell you that happened, but none of that happened.
Allison Kugel: I think people just assume that any band that goes multiplatinum was signed to a major label. The fact that Poison was independent makes it all the more impressive.
Bret Michaels: I couldn't have been prouder of what I was doing back then. And I didn't know any better. I didn't come from money. I was excited just shrink wrapping those albums I was grateful to have a record. The next thing was college radio played it. Nobody else wanted our music at the time. No one wanted Every Rose Has Its Thorn. No one was fighting to get Talk Dirty to Me or Something to Believe In; songs that eventually became number one songs. No one originally wanted our publishing at first, so we kept our own publishing with a ten percent administration deal with what's now Universal Music Group. It ended up being a humungous blessing.
Allison Kugel: Why do you think you survived your 2010 brain hemorrhage and stroke? I'm sure you've thought about this a lot.
Bret Michaels: First of all, I'm grateful that I lived. Second, I say praise God! It wasn't my time yet. I have more to do and this is where being a diabetic and my fighting spirit came in. Dr. Joseph Zabramski, one of my doctors, said, “I've never seen anybody work as hard in physical therapy to get better.” I hope the reason I survived is so I could show people what it means to fight and not give up. I've always been a grateful guy but that took my gratitude to an unbelievable level, and it also really upped my philanthropic work with my Life Rocks Foundation.
Allison Kugel: You also say in your book that you do have a few regrets. How do you determine a regret versus a lesson, versus something you're proud of, in retrospect?
Bret Michaels: One regret is that I couldn't be there for some of the events my children had at school. I've been to everything I could physically get to, but if it's when you have to play a show and it's also the night my kids are doing a recital, those are the things that I regret. I've never missed a birthday or a Christmas, but some of the other things you do miss. Another regret is a huge fist fight I had with C.C. [DeVille], my guitar player, and he's one of my best friends. It was a lot of time on the road, a lot of heated discussions about what songs we wanted in the set, and little things that fester and turned into a knockdown, drag out, nose breaking, teeth missing fist fight. We are like brothers, and I regret the physical end of it. It didn't need to go there, and it's one of my biggest regrets, especially because it happened twice in the same week, once in New Orleans and once backstage at the MTV Awards.
Allison Kugel: You have an ageless look about you. How do you feel about aging? Are you okay with the aging process?
Bret Michaels: I'm either an aging rocker or a dead rocker (laugh). We are aging from the moment we're born. Aging gracefully, I'll take that any day of the week because it's better than the alternative. I've been aging since we put out Look What the Cat Dragged In. By the time we did Open Up and Say… Ahh! I’d already aged from the first record. As you go along things happen to you, medically. You will not find me being one of those guys saying, "This sucks." I'm just glad I got the chance to age, because a lot of my buddies didn't.
Allison Kugel: Here are the questions I ask everyone and my favorite part of the interview. What do you think you came into this life as Bret Michaels to learn? And what do you think you came here to teach?
Bret Michaels: To learn, I'm going to say something very bold here. I came here to learn as much as I can about everything. One of the things I teach my kids is, "Take it all in, and learn from everybody." I've done that. I go out on my mountain bike and drive around while the road crew is setting stuff up, and I talk to them and find out what they are doing and learn from that. Whether or not I can apply that knowledge right then and there is one thing, but I learn a lot and I enjoy people. As far as teaching, I think if I was to have one other career, and I hope I can segue from what I'm doing now into this, I do these inspirational seminars where I talk about everything under the sun. I talk about what I've gone through and what I go through. With everything I have been through, that is the one thing I can give back and what I want to be able to do. It's what I would have done had this music thing not worked out the way it has. If my life had gone another way and I was just playing music on the weekends, I would have been a teacher of some kind… or a truck driver. I know that sounds crazy, but I love the open road.
Allison Kugel: What do you think your spiritual mission is in this lifetime?
Bret Michaels: I think it's to bring to people as much realistic positivity to people as possible. If you came to a party I'm hosting, as you have been, when you come to my house to a party, I don't want to be the life of the party. I want you to have the time of your life at my party. I think one of the reasons I'm a singer or frontman of a band is I'm a good host to people. I like when people feel good. It makes me feel good.
Photos courtesy of Michaels Entertainment Group
Bret Michael's memoir, Bret Michaels: Auto-Scrap-Ography, is out now and available exclusively at ShopBretMichaels.com. Follow on Instagram @bretmichaelsofficial. Information on Poison's postponed tour dates.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist and author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
In these uncertain times, we can all do our part to raise the vibration of this planet and initiate collective healing on a mass scale, and that goes beyond our first responders in the medical and safety fields to whom we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. Something as simple as a smile, a wave or asking someone how their day is going has healing ripple effects that are much needed. We all matter, and we must all do our part.
One man, Pastor Joel Osteen, of Lakewood Church in Houston Texas, has been doing his part, and then some since taking over his late father, John Osteen's, Lakewood congregation in 1999 as head pastor. Osteen's eternal optimism, interpretation of bible scripture and his practice of radical acceptance, has skyrocketed his church and his message into the stratosphere. Osteen's parishioners who attend his church and follow him on television, through his podcasts, many New York Times bestselling books, tours and radio broadcasts have responded in massive numbers to Osteen's message of "come as you are." During our conversation, we discuss his deep-rooted belief that human beings do not have to be perfect to embrace Christianity, or any faith for that matter. You simply must have the desire in your heart to be better today than you were yesterday; an all-inclusive qualification, that Osteen insists, allows us all to measure up in the eyes of God.
It's not a surprise that millions around the globe draw inspiration and spiritual education from Joel Osteen, both, civilians and public figures, alike. The contagion of the COVID-19 pandemic we currently face is daunting, but the contagion of hope and faith is a powerful force that can indeed help to heal our planet, boost our immune systems and encourage us to reflect on how we can be better; how we can each be a miracle to the world around us.
Pastor Joel Osteen's recent online streaming Palm Sunday service saw five million viewers tuning in to pray. The power of five million people in unified prayer is a powerful force, indeed. This Sunday's live streaming Easter service anticipates even larger numbers, with numerous special guests sharing messages of love and inspiration for all who attend the service at JoelOsteen.com. Both Joel and I hope to see you there.
Over the years, when I have been interviewed about my work, people have asked me, "What are some of your go-to apps on your phone?" Perhaps expecting my answer to reflect our society's obsession with social media, they're often surprised when I say, "I listen to Joel Osteen's messages every morning through his mobile app. It's how I start my day."
Allison Kugel: I've been listening to you and applying your advice in my life for many moons. What's curious to me about that, is that I was born and raised in the Jewish faith. I’m wondering how many people of different faiths find comfort and inspiration in your words. Have you heard that before?
Joel Osteen: I’ve heard it a lot, Allison. Jewish people stop me every day. Somehow, I have that connection with the Jewish people, and interestingly, with some Muslims as well. I’ve sold many, many books in Muslim countries. I feel blessed to be able to connect with people from different faiths, and I even have people come to the church sometimes that are not from the Christian faith. My goal was to reach a broad group, and I feel honored that people listen to me from different faiths.
Allison Kugel: How has your ministry changed in the wake of this COVID-19 pandemic in terms of how you're interacting with your congregation, and with the world at large? Are you approaching your messages differently?
Joel Osteen: You know, I wouldn't say that I am. I guess I am approaching it differently in one sense. I’m speaking more to the subject at hand, and talking about choosing faith and not fear, and things like that. Other than that, it's just a shift away from the people being here [in Houston's Compaq Center] and being able to pray with people in person. Fortunately, we had our online platform, and this network of television stations already lined up. Other than not seeing everyone in person, it hasn't changed that much.
Allison Kugel: Apart from 9/11, which was of course devastating, the last several decades we've just kind of had good times. We didn't live through things like the Spanish Flu, The Great Depression, World War I or World War II, like previous generations did. Now we are faced with the enormity of this pandemic. Do you think the word "faith" has taken on new meaning now?
Joel Osteen: I think it has. I think our faith is tested and tried in the difficult times, and you make a good point in that we haven't lived like previous generations did. We haven't had to endure that. This is such a time of uncertainty, but I do believe this is when we turn to our faith. This is when you can feel that peace and that hope to get through it. That is what I feel faith is all about. It's not just for the good times. Even though we hadn't previously experienced those kinds of things in our generation, we all experience difficulties in relationships, finances, the loss of loved ones and with health issues. I think our faith can be seen there.
Allison Kugel: Faith comes into play any time we have to believe, in the absence of concrete physical evidence…
Joel Osteen: I think we can see we are not really in control as much as we think we are. I think for me, I’ve encouraged people that it's a great time to re-evaluate your life, and your priorities; and to ask, "Do I have things in order? Am I taking people for granted? Am I loving the people God's given me to love?" These things can cause us to ask those important questions. That's how good can come out of it. We can reevaluate and maybe make some adjustments.
Allison Kugel: Any personal "aha" moments over the last few weeks you'd like to share?
Joel Osteen: I don't think I've had an "aha" moment, per se, but I do think I'm like a lot of people. We can go 90 miles an hour, because life is so busy and we're always in a hurry. It's a fast pace and this has kind of made us slow down. It's made us not be able to travel and it's made us spend some time. I do think that's hit me, to think, "Wow, it's good to slow down sometimes and enjoy life, just let stuff go by, and not take people for granted." I hate that people are dying and that people are sick, but in one sense I've learned to just embrace where I am. We can't have services on the weekend, we can't do all that we used to do, but you know what, I’m just going to slow down, take it at this pace, and not fight it; not live upset, and not live fearful.
Allison Kugel: What's your take on destiny versus free will as it applies to us humans?
Joel Osteen: I do think that God's planned out things for each one of us. Like you said, he gives us a free will. We can make choices that can keep us from becoming who we were created to be, but I believe that when you're honoring God, when you're being your best, I believe that God will get you to where you're supposed to be. So, a sickness, or a virus, or another person can't stop your destiny. I believe that. I know that sometimes it's hard to reconcile that God gives us free will, and he knew all that we were going to do wrong, but I think he gives us the free will, and I believe when you're doing your best, God will get you to where you're supposed to be.
Allison Kugel: People often comment about the enormity of your church. My feeling is that it took courage for you to preach a message that it doesn't matter what you did yesterday, you're welcome here today. It doesn't matter what mistakes you've made, if you want to do better and be better, you can. It certainly goes against traditional concepts of sin and guilt.
Joel Osteen: I do believe everything you said, Allison. It probably does go against the old school, or the generations that had hellfire and brimstone, where you go to church to feel guilty. People are already feeling guilty enough. I do believe that is what the scripture teaches, that, you know what, you move forward, and your past doesn't have to stop you. You go through the scripture and you see it again and again, with different examples. When Jesus was here, he lifted the fallen, he restored those who were broken, and so I do believe that. Of course, I believe in sin and repentance from sin, but we've all made mistakes. Life beats us up, and I feel like my message is to tell people to get back up and go again, because God gives us another chance and He can still get you to where you're supposed to be.
Allison Kugel: Have you been revisiting scripture to connect to all that is going on in the year 2020, and this seismic shift in our world?
Joel Osteen: I’m always searching the scripture and I’m always studying. I don't know if it's specifically that, but I agree with what you are saying that some scripture becomes more real right now. I talked the other day, and I think it was from the Book of Matthew, where it says in the last days, there will be pandemics. And I think, "Well, you know, we're stepping into these times." But Jesus said, "Even then, don't lose faith. Keep your faith and don't live in fear."
Allison Kugel: Do you feel pressure to be perfect? If you are the person that millions of people look to for guidance, what or whom do you look to when you are troubled?
Joel Osteen: You know, I feel like I have a good family around me that I can turn to. I start the day off with prayer and meditation. That helps me to stay grounded. I feel a responsibility, but I don't really feel that pressure. Again, I have good people around me, and I try to live in a place of peace and strength, and not take on more than I have to. I think God gives you the grace for certain things.
Allison Kugel: In what ways is your wife Victoria the backbone of your family?
Joel Osteen: Victoria is a strong woman. She is wise, she's determined, and she is very loving, fun, joyful, and she does keep our family filled with hope and joy. I feel blessed to have somebody that has seen things in me that I never saw in myself. She’s got that ability to pull them out of people, not just me, but in others as well. I know I wouldn't be who I am if she wasn't in my life.
Allison Kugel: I was going to ask if you think you would be where you are now if Victoria wasn't in your life…
Joel Osteen: No. I tell people all the time I wouldn't be half of who I am. She saw, before my dad passed and I stepped up to pastor, she used to tell me I was going to pastor the church. That was like telling me I was going to go be an astronaut. I said, "Victoria, I would never be a pastor. I don't know what to say." She saw this in me before I saw it myself, so I think having her believe in me early on, way before my dad died, that really helped me to step up.
Allison Kugel: I ask everyone this question, and I think it's really fitting considering who you are. What do you think you came into this life as Joel Osteen to learn? And what do you think you came here to teach?
Joel Osteen: Hmm, what did I come here to learn? Maybe I came here to learn about the goodness of God; how good God is. I feel like that is what I’ve seen in my life, and that's why it's easy for me to tell people that God is for you and that he can restore you, and he's got a great plan. I've just seen that my whole life. I had a great mom and dad. My mom's still alive, but a lot of people get the image of God from their earthly father. My dad was just for everybody, and for me. I feel that maybe I came here to see the goodness of God. I think I came here to teach people about the goodness of God, and to make God good again. We touched on the fact that a lot of people were raised to believe that God is mad at them, and they were taught guilt and that you can't measure up. But I just have a different view of God, so maybe it's to spread a different message.
Allison Kugel: And what do you think is your spiritual mission, overall?
Joel Osteen: To bring good into the world, to lift people up, to give them hope, to help them forgive, and to help them feel better about themselves. My mission is to help them to know who God is, and to know who they are. A lot of people, we don't know who we are. We think we're just average. I believe we are all made in the image of God, and that we have greatness in us. So, it's to lift people up and help push them into their destiny.
Allison Kugel: I watched one of your services where you invited Kanye West to come up on stage to share his testimony. He said something interesting. He said that for a while he was caught up in being of service to fame, rather than being of service to God. Have you ever felt yourself getting pulled in that direction, where you felt like you were being of service to the fame you have achieved?
Joel Osteen: I don't know that I felt that so much. One of my strengths is that I get up every morning and I search my heart and my mind, and I ask myself if I’m on the right path. Am I making good decisions? I think there's opportunities that come along with what I do, where I think, "You know what? That would feel good for my ego, but that's not for me." But I don't feel much different than I did twenty years ago when I was working for my father, behind the scenes. I have more influence now, but I don't really see myself as a celebrity, or as somebody with fame. I don't feel like I have that temptation too much.
Allison Kugel: How did your relationship with Kanye West start?
Joel Osteen: It started with a text from a friend of mine saying, "Kanye West wants to talk with you." I then got a text one day from [Kanye] that said, "Can we talk?" I called and we talked for an hour or two that first day. It started from his journey of faith, this new twist that he's taken. During that first conversation he told me his background and what he was all about. My next question to him was, "What do you need from us?" He said, "I don't need anything. I was just looking for friendship." And so, it started off as friendship, and I was very impressed with him. He didn't call to come to the church, and he didn't really need anything from me. I found him to be very genuine and very respectful over the last six or eight months. He's just a very genuine, respectful, kind, quite person. Not the Kanye that you see out there.
Allison Kugel: Let's talk about your live streaming Easter Sunday service. You're having some interesting guests, including Mariah Carey and Tyler Perry; as well as the Houston Chief of Police and the Houston Fire Department Chief. How was it all put together?
Joel Osteen: We wanted to do a segment where we honored the first responders and the medical professionals, and we asked the police chief and the fire chief to come out. They're always supportive friends, and so we asked if they would come out to represent the first responders, nationwide. I also called Tyler Perry because he's spoken here at Lakewood Church before, and people love him. I just kind of wanted something special this Easter season, during these times that are so uncertain. So, he made us a five-minute video. He's very warm and inspiring. And then Kanye West texted me just a few days ago and said, "What are you all doing for Easter?" I asked him if he wanted to do something together, and he said, "Yes, I would like to get my choir involved." I said absolutely, let's do it. So, he's working on that end. I don't know what it's all going to be, but he's going to do something with social distancing and all the right things.
Allison Kugel: And Mariah Carey?
Joel Osteen: I’ve known Mariah from years past and she wanted to do something to honor the First Responders. She called and asked if we could do something together, and of course I thought it would be great. She wants to sing her song, Hero, which she'll do from her apartment in New York. We’ll put footage of the First Responders over her song. She has a real heart to say thank you to people, and so we thought it would work with our other segments. She's an amazing lady, too, so it just kind of fell into place.
Allison Kugel: What is Lakewood Church doing in terms of donations of medical supplies, food, or whatever kind of support you're working on for your local hospitals and other service providers in the Houston area?
Joel Osteen: We're doing something called Boxes of Hope. These are for the elderly, and for people that have special needs children. These are boxes filled with groceries, water, soaps, and things that they need if they can't get to the grocery store. My brother Paul is a medical doctor and he's working with some of his contacts, and we're donating masks and medical supplies down to the large medical center we have here in Houston. Another thing we are doing is taking food trucks down to the medical center for the first responders, nurses and doctors, so they can step outside and have some free food. We also did a blood drive last week at the Gulf Coast Blood Center. We're always their biggest blood drive in North America. We'll have another couple of thousand people that will come through and give blood. People here at Lakewood [Church], they love to help, they love to give, and they love to share.
Allison Kugel: In times like this I know that you preach positivity, which is so important, but in these times do you think it's okay for people to have moments of anxiety, depression, or even moments where they feel a lack of faith?
Joel Osteen: Yes, I definitely do, Allison, because we are human. Jesus, even in scriptures, one time he was so depressed he sweat great drops of blood. I think that's normal, and I don't think we need to beat ourselves up for that. But I would encourage people to not stay there. Don't live there. Don't live out of the anxiety and fear and lack of faith. But I wouldn't beat myself up for that, or for even people saying I’ve doubted, and I've gotten away from God. Well, come back. You don't have to stay there.
Allison Kugel: Do you think at some point we'll all transcend religion and religious denominations, and simply gain knowledge from, as Deepak Chopra would say, “all of the great wisdom traditions," and from all the great prophets that have walked the earth? Perhaps, at some point, as a human race, do you think we'll feel that all roads lead to Rome, so to speak?
Joel Osteen: I really don't know. I go back to how I grew up fifty years ago, when the denominational walls were so strong. My dad was basically asked to leave the Baptists because he didn't believe exactly like them. I see how far we've come, that it's not like that today, so I do think these walls are coming down. I think the things that have separated us are getting less and less, and I don't know where it will end up, but I do think that just like when we talked earlier, so many people from different faiths watch us and listen to us. I do think it's a good thing that we don't have all these things separating us.
Allison Kugel: How can people tune in to your Easter service this Sunday?
Joel: They would have to watch our live stream at JoelOsteen.com, this Sunday morning at 8:30 AM central time, and then at 11:00 AM central time. It will then replay on Facebook and YouTube, and all those platforms.
Allison Kugel: Thank you for a great interview, and for inspiring me on a daily basis for so many years.
Joel Osteen: Awe, thank you so much. I'm very honored.
Join Joel Osteen, Mariah Carey, Kanye West and Tyler Perry for Lakewood Church's live streaming Easter Sunday Service at 8:30 AM CT, and at 11 AM CT at JoelOsteen.com.
Photos courtesy of Lakewood Church
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
How did a child growing up in poverty in the small mining town in Timmins, Ontario, Canada emerge to become the best-selling female recording artist in history? It's a question that often rolls through Shania Twain's mind. Throughout the course of my in-depth conversation with Shania in which we cover everything from her Las Vegas residency and burgeoning film career to her upbringing, her family relationships and her spiritual guideposts, we collaboratively put those pieces together and the answer is clear. The talent, perseverance and laser-like determination of this woman are unparalleled, yet so are serendipitous encounters along her journey that were put in place as if by divine order.
With multiple diamond-certified albums to her credit including 1995's The Woman in Me (2020 marks the 25th anniversary of its release),1997's Come on Over (the best-selling album by a female artist in any genre) and 2002's Up!; she's soothed and inspired countless fans around the globe with her soulful country twang, pop star appeal and the rich storytelling in her lyrics.
In 2017, Shania Twain emerged from one of the darkest hours of her life, losing her first husband and longtime creative collaborator, famed music producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, and her voice to nerve damage she suffered as a result of Lyme Disease. Though she was down, her story was far from over. Twain re-emerged to find love with second husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, and the prodigious singer re-trained and strengthened her voice for a musical comeback. Her 2017 album, Now, is a mostly up-tempo celebration of healing, independence (Twain made this album sans the musical direction of ex-husband, Lange), love and pure joy. It's a personal and professional triumph.
Shania Twain remains steadfast and plain-spoken in emphasizing her humble roots, though she is now unapologetic in celebrating her storied career, and excited about all she has yet to accomplish. Twain extended her second Las Vegas Residency, Shania Twain Let's Go! through the end of 2020, and she takes on her second major film role in next month's, I Still Believe, playing, Terry Camp, the mother of Christian singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp, in a moving story inspired by Camp's personal life and career.
Allison Kugel: Looking back over your five decades of life, what events and experiences have been most formative for you?
Shania Twain: My youth, growing up in a small northern mining town in Canada was very formative. That upbringing has stayed with me in many ways, I would say permanently. My parents dying was a personal earthquake in my life, and life shattering. My first marriage was formative. Everything changed in my life as a result of my first marriage, both personally and creatively. That partnership (with ex-husband, music producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange) created a change in my life forever. And having a child was an incredibly life changing experience, and a very beautiful one. My son has brought a lot of consistency and stability to me, emotionally. Then, of course, there was the loss and weakening of my voice.
Allison Kugel: How do you turn challenges into blessings?
Shania Twain: If I start with losing my voice and my divorce, the silver lining during all of that was falling into love with somebody (Twain's current husband, Frédéric Thiébaud). He has been an incredible support through those difficult times. My second marriage has been an incredible re-strengthening of my confidence, of my will to even want to sing again. It is just amazing, the power of love, and I am very grateful to have found that again. I had been going along and enduring so much of what I had lost for a very long time. Finding the courage to regain my voice and getting back on stage again, taking all those risks. How about even taking the risk to fall in love again (laugh)?!
Allison Kugel: In my early 20s, I was living in Los Angeles, trying to find work as a writer and broke (laughs), and I would drive around listening to your music for inspiration. I would listen to From This Moment On, The Woman in Me, God Bless the Child. Your music would keep me company, comfort me and make me feel hopeful. I can only imagine how many other millions of people your music has done that for. You'll never know who they are, and you'll never know their stories. Do you ever stop to think about the enormity of that?
Shania Twain: I relate to it very, very well, because that’s exactly what music does for me. I understand completely what you're talking about and what role music plays in the lives of people, and sometimes for the artist as well. If you can relate to the artist as well as to their music, it's such an essential and it is such a huge part of my daily life. I’m very affected by it. My moods are affected by what song I’m listening to. I’m very easily influenced by music. I’ve never, in all my years, even when I was very young and getting into this business, I've never fallen into substance abuse. I was never into drugs or taking anything to enhance my creativity, and I was never a partier. I was always extremely serious, and the music, itself, was where I would get lost. I would literally get high on music or go into the state of mind of wherever a piece of music took me. If I can make people feel that way, if I can have that effect on people through my music, I've achieved everything I could ever ask for.
Allison Kugel: The one thing that so many people I’ve interviewed have in common, people who have reached the top of their field or craft, is that they are masters at manipulating energy and matter, and manifesting things into physical existence; into the material world. Would you put yourself in that category?
Shania Twain: Definitely! I think I've had a one-track mind, even now I still have this. Certainly, when I was developing [my career] and I was on my path, I was unreasonable. There was no distraction, there was nothing else. My focus was absolute, and all my energy went into whatever goals I was setting for myself. I think that is the only way you can even use the word "master." Certainly, if you can master your own development in your craft and get that good at something, that it's completely… you're inseparable from it. You’re inseparable from that ability and that skill. I’ve spent so much of my life in that mode, if you will. I still see so much of that in myself now, when I'm pushing myself as a songwriter or with whatever it is I’m doing. I'm always 100 percent in it.
Allison Kugel: I would think that frame of mind leaves little to no room for doubt, or for looking to the left or to the right, and all of that.
Shania Twain: And it is a frame of mind. It's almost a type of meditation and a very focused process, for sure.
Allison Kugel: You're now in your second Las Vegas Residency. The show is titled, Shania Twain Let's Go!. What's different from the first Las Vegas Residency you did?
Shania Twain: This Las Vegas Residency at Zappos [Theater] (at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino) is very much geared to the spirit of the room. The atmosphere of the room is very informal. I designed the show so that when I bring people up onto the stage, they're part of the story, in that vignette, and in that moment of the show. For example, I'll have a couple come up and sit in the most romantic seat in the house, which is on the stage, and I wrote a white glove [experience] for them into the show, while they're up on stage. So, they've got the best seat in the house, the white glove treatment, they're given champagne, and their serenaded with From This Moment On (from Twain's 1997 record breaking album, "Come on Over"). I did that, obviously, because so many people have been married to my song, From This Moment On.
Allison Kugel: I've also heard your show described as a "musical party."
Shania Twain: And that's the more country influenced part of the show, where I've organized a saloon set for people to come up and dance. I created a specific choreography of a line dance can-can. It's quite funny and light spirited, and very much built for the audience to be in the show. It's a stand-up room, it's a party room, so I thought Let's Go! would be the perfect trigger title to capture that mood.
Allison Kugel: I love that! I know that your mother was your greatest champion and your greatest cheerleader for your career when you were a child. She died, along with your father, in a car accident when you were only 21. If you could magically cross dimensions for just a moment to have a conversation with your mother, to either tell her something or to ask her something, what would you say?
Shania Twain: I would probably ask her how she recognized my talent at such a young age. I always wondered what made her feel that I was so capable, and how she recognized that in me, because she was not musical, herself, at all. And to sacrifice and push so hard for me, she must have believed in it intensely. I mean, it must have been really obvious to her, but I still can't imagine. I guess if you have a three or four-year-old downhill skier who's, right before your eyes, skiing better than everybody else, you can bet that with training they're going to be a champion. But with music, I'm not sure it's as obvious. So, I applaud her for that, and I'd want to talk to her about that. She sacrificed so much to develop my music. So yes, it was her conviction. I'd want to ask her, "Where did that conviction come from?"
Allison Kugel: Let's talk about your second movie, I Still Believe, coming out March 13th. The trailer made me cry. It's inspired by the true story of Christian singer/songwriter Jeremy Camp, and depicts the love story between he and his first wife, Melissa, who died of ovarian cancer a year after they married. Speaking of conviction, Jeremy knew he likely had limited time with Melissa, but he was so devoted to her. You play Jeremy's mother, Terry Camp, in the film. Do you think you could ever be 100% all in a relationship knowing you would likely lose the person like that? Would you, Shania, take that risk?
Shania Twain: Yes! I would do that. It's a heartbreaking story, but I think it's just best to jump in sometimes and live in the moment, not knowing where it will end, and even if there is a probability that it will end badly. I think love is never a waste of time. It’s never a loss, but always a gain. This movie proves that in the most magnificent way, and in the most selfless way possible. And true love is selfless. It was very moving, very inspiring and the ultimate act of selflessness, which love should be.
Allison Kugel: You’ve had two great experiences on film, so far. Your first movie, 2019's Trading Paint, you worked opposite John Travolta, and in I Still Believe you worked with Gary Sinise; two incredibly gifted actors. What have you learned so far?
Shania Twain: They are both so experienced as actors, and they influenced me a lot. I learned a lot from them. They were kind and very helpful and made me feel very much at ease; and I just loved being on the set. John Travolta made me feel very comfortable, and a film set is somewhere I feel I belong. It comes to me very naturally. I have no nerves about it or anything like that, and I really would love to do more on film, so it sparked an interest I didn't realize I had. It's a newfound joy in my life where I can be creative and step out of myself like no other element in my career.
Allison Kugel: Have you started thinking about what your legacy is going to be? Do you think about that at all?
Shania Twain: Well, I don't think too much about the end (laugh).
Allison Kugel: (Laugh) Sorry! I don’t want to be dark and grim. It came to my mind because when I was watching this year's Oscars coverage somebody made a comment about Brad Pitt, stating he is at a point in his career where he is starting to think about his legacy. And I'm thinking, "When do you get to that point? When does that happen?"
Shania Twain: I'm not sure what my legacy would be. I think I would be better off asking people what they thought, and what they think Shania Twain represents. What is she to them or what is her music to them? Is it the music that's the legacy to them?
Allison Kugel: Do you even still have a bucket list at this point? And if so, what's on it?
Shania Twain: Ah yeah! I have a few things (this was Shania's favorite question. She absolutely lit up!). One thing on my bucket list is, I want to ride horses in The Bahamas out in nature in The Exumas. That’s on my bucket list. I want to live somewhere in nature, really remote and cut off from the rest of the world for like a month (laugh). And it would be fun to get an Oscar…
Allison Kugel: Ha! I was going to ask you about that, but I didn't want to put you on the spot…
Shania Twain: That would be a bucket list thing, of course! Why not? I would definitely add an Oscar to my bucket list (laugh).
Allison Kugel: Well, I have no doubt that whatever you set your mind to, you can do. Do you pray, Shania? And, if so, who or what do you pray to?
Shania Twain: Yes, I do. I pray in the form of meditation. I believe very much in a greater force and a creator. I pray about life, the world, and all existence; and it's very much a part of my daily reflection. I make a point of never asking for anything. I believe that the creator is doing everything at will, and that my role is to fulfill that will. That's what I really believe.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you came into this life as Shania Twain, well as Eilleen (Twain's birth name) and then Shania Twain; what do you think you came into this life to learn? And what do you think you came here to teach?
Shania Twain: Well, I always see my one purpose as fulfilling the will of the creator. That is, again, a genuine deep feeling, and I don't always know what that is. It’s not always clear and I have no idea where I’m going in that sense. But whatever I do, I do it as best as I can and completely commit myself. I think I've probably come into this life to understand how powerful music is, and how much more powerful communication through music is, beyond my own personal plan. I'm always reminded that my music, and anything I put out there as a human being, and as an artist, is just so much greater than I am. I enjoy the feeling of letting it go and it belonging to whoever else it affects. In my case it's on a mass scale. It doesn't belong to me and I don't feel ownership of it, if that makes sense.
Allison Kugel: It makes perfect sense. What do you think you've taught your son, Eja, about woman through him observing your life?
Shania Twain: That women are completely capable of their own independence; independent decision making, independent financial support and independent dreaming. I’ve always been this strong independent female figure in Eja's life, but I’ve reminded him often that I’m not perfect, that I have my flaws and my weaknesses, and that it’s important to have empathy for the people who are there in your life. I hope he's learned that and takes that away with him, because I want him to also realize that he has to be a support to the woman in his life. I want him to understand that we women are not always the pillars of strength. We're not always the rock. A lot of strong women give that impression, that we are and that we can always do everything. It's good for sons to know that we are all human, and we all need each other.
Allison Kugel: One day, far off in the future, because I don't want to say it's anytime soon, but at some point when a movie is made about your life, what is the one thing you pray to God they get right?
Shania Twain: I would really want the conflicts in my life to be depicted respectfully. There’s been so much up and down in my life, that the way those moments are handled, in my opinion, would be the foundation of a good movie about my life. It would be difficult to cope with all these things that have been so important to me in my life becoming sensationalized. I wouldn't want the integrity of what I've been through to be compromised for the sake of sensationalism, or for my actual story to get abused or exploited.
Allison Kugel: Before we say goodbye, I'd like to say thank you. Thank you for the incredible music.
Shania Twain: Thank you, I appreciate that.
Shania Twain Let's Go! The Las Vegas Residency at Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino is running through December 2020. Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster and Planet Hollywood. Follow @shaniatwain and ShaniaTwain.com.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
By Allison Kugel
In a time when life feels fragile and love can seem fleeting, there are signposts reminding us that life holds immeasurable meaning and love can last a lifetime if we have vision and faith and accrue the tools to sustain what we hold dear. Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons is a living example of iconic musical accomplishment and steady business acumen, but more importantly, as he sees it, he is living example of how to live one's life in faith and love. As Rev Run and his wife Justine Simmons speak with me about their marriage and their new book, Old School Love: And Why It Works, it further brings home the lesson that faith and love are actions we must take every day to ensure a life of substance; one where our relationships and being of service to others takes center stage.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Simmons' rap group, Run-D.M.C. pioneered a powerful hip hop sound that acted as a wrecking ball to break new ground and cross into the mass consciousness. Run-D.M.C. helped pioneer rap music's journey from underground urban sensation to mainstream cultural phenomenon. According to Simmons, the fame, wealth, product endorsement deals and magazine covers did little to quell what was lacking within. His first marriage had ended, and he felt he had no spiritual center from which to rebuild. For him, Christianity was the catalyst that helped him find his center and higher purpose, which created the foundation from which to build his marriage to his beautiful wife, Justine Simmons. Audiences then fell in love with their blended family on the long-running MTV docu-series Run's House, and subsequent television shows on The DIY network and the Travel Channel. Their new book, Old School Love, certainly saves the best for last as they open up like never before, sharing the ups and downs and intimate details about their life and their marriage.
Simmons' performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards was, indeed, a full circle moment for the artist, reverend and mentor to millions. Below, Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons and his wife Justine Simmons, discuss what makes their marriage and their family rock-solid, and the journey that has gotten them here.
Allison Kugel: I want to compliment you on a job well done. I've read many celebrity-authored books, and rarely do I feel compelled to recommend a book. This one I’m going to recommend. I’m a single mom, like your two daughters, Angela and Vanessa, who you write about in the book. Dating can be disheartening, and I found this book inspiring as well as healing.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: What made you feel that way? I’m very interested…
Allison Kugel: Reading about your loving, old fashioned courtship makes me feel quite hopeful that such a thing exists. The two of you are emotionally responsible with one another. I love how you speak about being mindful during a conflict, and not being cruel or hitting below the belt, but really taking care of each other's feelings.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Well, thank you!
Allison Kugel: You’re very welcome. I watched your family's show, Run's House, when it was on, but this book is different. The two of you get very intimate and really take your fans inside your marriage, and even into your sex life. That's private stuff. What made you want to share those parts of your marriage?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: People have been asking us for the longest to do a book, so we wanted to be very transparent and give people as much help as we could as to the dynamics of why we're here, and how we arrived at this place together. The only way to do that is to go as deep as we could into ourselves, to pour it out to you.
Allison Kugel: Justine, what do you have to say?
Justine Simmons: Joey and I so wanted to help people in their marriage, so much so, that we wanted to give them our all and say, "This is what we are doing, and hopefully if you try it this way it could help you in your own marriage." We know it's not easy. We were blessed to have mentors that were trying to make their marriages work, so we had that early on to look at and see how to make our own marriage work. We just wanted to make sure we gave you all the lessons we've learned over the years.
Allison Kugel: Are you that couple in your social circle that people go to for advice about their relationships?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: We feel it when we walk down the street. We feel people wanting to look up to us. Because of the television show, Run's House, not just close friends, it almost feels like the world, whether they know us or not, feel that way. Run's House was so impactful in that way. I don't really get cornered by couples per se, but I get cornered by the world at large, to just feel admired by them.
Justine Simmons: Maybe one or two couples have come to us, but I’d rather not say names. If you notice, on Run's House, we showed ourselves going to church and different things like that. We tried to lead by example. Even on our cooking show (Rev Run's Sunday Suppers) and our renovation show (Rev Run's Renovation), we always tried to lead by example.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Do as we do, not what we say. That's what was so good about our reality shows. Michael Jordan never told people, "Here's how to dunk the ball." He just dunked, and (the late) Kobe [Bryant] became inspired. You can feel our truth, and it's been inspiring.
Justine Simmons: So many people would comment on my husband's Instagram, asking us to please put out a book, or saying, "You guys should write a book!"
Allison Kugel: Rev, what have you done differently in your marriage to Justine that you didn't do in your first marriage?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: I was young. I was on the road, and when I came back home and off the road, I didn't have what I needed. I was too young. Later, I went to church, and I had time to slow down and really be more attentive.
Allison Kugel: Like other famous families, your marriage and your family are also a brand and a business. Are there ever times when the brand clashes with your personal relationship?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: No. We never leaned too hard on making it a brand. It was always a tool to help. Run's House wasn't about trying to sell clothing or sell jewelry, or to sell anything. We were trying to convey a message of family, of love and of being connected. That's all it was ever about. We never tried to turn it into a booming business.
Justine Simmons: My husband also really tried hard to not take things in that direction, like, "No, we're not doing that, because it might start this."
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Right, it might bring a wedge between me and my wife. We were very careful with that. I put a little bit into business, but I think I put more into my family than I do into chasing business deals, my ego, and trying to be the top entrepreneur, or the top rapper, or top anything anymore. I can see the pitfalls coming towards me, and I’ve watched it too much. I can just feel that if I put too much energy in another direction it will hurt my family. My intuition knows best.
Allison Kugel: Your faith in God and the guidance that both of you get from your bible study, it's a tremendous part of your life and your marriage, and it's woven throughout your book. We know that everyone has different beliefs when it comes to God, religion and spirituality. Do you think it's possible to get through this earthly life, to weather the storms, and to be able to answer the big questions, without having a relationship with God?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: No. I believe that you do the best you can; you push, and then you hope for the serendipity and the grace. You want that favor. I read a quote that once said, “I don't believe in miracles, I depend on them.” I love that quote. Justine had a friend years ago and she used to just say, “Jus, He did it again!” I thought it was so cute. I didn't know how religious her friend was, but that used to always touch me and tickle me. God really likes to come and play with us, talk with us, help us, encourage us. I know that faith without works is dead. But works without faith is also dead.
Allison Kugel: Let's talk about parenting. I am of the mind that if a child is starting to go off course, or anyone you love for that matter, my feeling is the last thing they need is screaming and yelling, and punishing, and being made to feel further isolated. I feel that if a child is making poor decisions, it's because they're in pain and in need of healing. I think the best thing you can do is to move closer to them, communicate with them, show them compassion, hug them, and listen to what is causing that pain or confusion.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Yes, people around me were very shocked because when my daughter Vanessa first got pregnant, everybody thought all these things about how I would react, because it feels like I’m such a disciplinary type of figure. But I’m actually loose on people, because I don't want the same reaction to my mistakes. I go hard to make life better if I can, but I don't judge. I’ve let many of my children walk through whatever they had to walk through until they figured it out. The Bible says, "Teach your child, and they should go when they get older and they won't depart from it." I’m a firm believer in that.
Justine Simmons: These days you can try your best and kids are going to do what they want. As parents, of course, we can try to shorten the distance for their mistakes, but some of them want to make their own mistakes. It’s not easy, but you're going to have to let it go and let them learn from their mistakes.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Let them learn and let them figure out their life for themselves.
Allison Kugel: Was there ever a make or break moment in your marriage, a time when you thought, "This is either going to split us up, or it's going to make our marriage rock solid."?
Justine Simmons: For us, no, not at all. The word "divorce" isn't in our circle. Phrases like "split for a minute," or "need a break, and you do your thing for a minute," those words and statements weren't even in our [vocabulary]. We don't let that into our marriage at all. No separation option, no divorce option. You don't bring those in.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Don't even bring that up in conversation. We've been very fortunate to not have had to experience that. We've been very blessed in that area of marriage, so I don't want to take all the credit. We're going to give it to God, but we conduct ourselves with a lot of love and with a lot of respect for one another. When you have that respect, you're not going to do something so hurtful to get to that place. The thing that breaks up relationships is the lack of respect. That's it. If I think I'm about to do something that is going to make her very mad, I don't do it. I do annoying husband stuff, like put my clothes on the floor and little stuff that she can get over, but I try my best not to do anything that is extremely hard to forgive.
Justine Simmons: I don't want him walking around angry at me all day, and he doesn't want me walking around angry at him all day, so we're trying to make each other happy and you would think more people would think like that.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: We forgive a lot. A lot of people are selfish instead of selfless. You've got to be more selfless and less selfish. You've got to meet in the middle. It's all about giving. It’s all about forgiving and giving and respect. Period.
Justine Simmons: And we argue all the time
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: All the time, like an old couple does. One of my favorite memes is an old couple sitting in the rain, pissed off, but the gentleman is still holding the umbrella over her head. It's a beautiful cartoon picture that I've posted before, and I see it all over the internet.
Allison Kugel: That sums it up.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Yeah! I’m mad, but I’m not going to let the rain get on you.
Allison Kugel: Rev, I want to back up a bit and talk about Run-D.M.C. In those days, you hadn't found your faith yet, but as a young man something gave you the faith and the courage to believe that you could, not just become a hip hop artist, but that you could revolutionize pop music culture. What fueled you?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: I was just making music. I give a lot to God because you're making music, you're having fun and you have a lot of people working with you. The mainstream thing has a lot to do with our producers. Larry Smith, Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin… all these people around you. Run-D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay weren't alone. There were producers, record companies, managers, publicity people. No man is an island. I knew I had a God given [talent] and you go really hard because you're born with this ambition. You have ambition and competitiveness to back up the talent. All of it added up to success.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of the late Jam Master Jay, how do you process loss? And how do you process the death of a loved one, especially when it appears to be under tragic circumstances, at least from our side of things on earth?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: I get very spiritual during times of loss. I’m able to mourn and comfort those around me as I mourn. I get comforted by comforting, and by being comforted by loved ones.
Allison Kugel: Do you get angry at all?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: I don't, no. I don't get into those emotions often. I’m a very non- confrontational type of person. I’m a "live and let live" person, so I don't get caught up in too much conflict with people. At least, I try my best not to.
Allison Kugel: You both talk in your book about your little girl, Victoria, who died shortly after birth; and then the adoption of your daughter, Miley. The way I interpreted all of it was that Victoria came to you briefly to teach you some profound lessons about love, loss and about trusting in God. Miley came to you as the child you were meant to raise for a lifetime. Does that make sense?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Agreed! You hit that right out of the park. You said it perfectly.
Justine Simmons: We could not have said it better than you.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: I was humbled. You don't have babies; God gives you babies. Justine originally wanted to adopt and I said, "Let's just have a baby." God showed me after we lost our baby Victoria, that for me, personally, you don't make babies. That was the first lesson. The second lesson was that my wife is so sweet, she had wanted to adopt. Finally, the third lesson was that Miley needed us and we needed Miley. Sometimes Justine forgets that she didn't carry Miley, and that's the real crazy part.
Justine Simmons: So many women who cannot have babies, I want them to know that adopting is so amazing. Because I carried Victoria full term, it would make me forget that I didn't carry Miley. And she has so many traits of mine. We eat the same types of things, and sometimes I just say, "Girl, you came out of me," and she laughs.
Allison Kugel: What advise do the two of you have for single people of this generation who are dating and looking for a partner?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Go where you're celebrated, not where you're tolerated. Go where you're adored, not where you're ignored. If the person is not answering the phone, not answering your texts and they're playing little games and you can feel it, be ready for the red flags. People will show you who they really are. Believe them.
Justine Simmons: That's good. And if you have children, make sure they love your children as much as they love you. If they don't show that, you'll see it in the beginning and that person is not for you.
Allison Kugel: Rev, do you see yourself as a teacher, first and foremost?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: I believe I’m here to inspire people. I inspire though music, and I think I inspire through my marriage.
Allison Kugel: What are your thoughts on celebrities as role models for young people? Good thing, bad thing? Can it be a positive thing in the right context? Or do you think role models should be sought within your family, community or place of worship?
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: Everything around you can inspire you. Beyoncé inspires you to go hard when you make your music. Jay-Z and Puff Daddy inspire through their entrepreneurship? Leonardo DiCaprio inspires people as a great actor and with how hard he works. And you have those that are your mother, your father, your pastor, but there's inspiration everywhere.
Justine Simmons: I have to concur with my husband. You can learn through anything. You can even learn from a homeless person, from how they endure and how they get through a whole winter. They're so resilient. They make it through. Even a homeless person has something to teach.
Joseph Rev Run Simmons: The Bible says, “Go to the ants, you sluggard; consider their ways and be wise." Ants work hard all day long. You can learn something from an ant, according to the Bible.
This article is dedicated in memory of Kobe Bryant (1978 – 2020), Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli and other victims of the Calabasas helicopter crash.
Old School Love: And Why It Works (Dey Street Books) by Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons and Justine Simmons is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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: Joseph Rev Run Simmons' and Justine Simmons' personal collection
By Allison Kugel
TLC's Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins' life is one filled with overcoming insurmountable odds and finding blessings in unexpected places. Watkins was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at the age of seven and spend much of her childhood in and out of hospitals due to episodes with the potentially fatal condition. She was told she wouldn't make it past early adulthood. Her family's move from Des Moines, Iowa to Atlanta, Georgia when Watkins was nine, and a chance meeting former singer and music executive Perri "Pebbles" Reid and her then-husband L.A. Reid would launch T-Boz, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas into the stratosphere as the biggest selling girl group in music history, taking home four Grammy awards and selling sixty five millions albums, worldwide throughout their career.
For all it's success, TLC has endured a roller coaster of ups and downs over the last thirty years, the biggest blow being the loss of group member Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes in a 2002 car cash, and taking away one third of the lightning in a bottle that made them superstars. Resolute in their will to go on, T-Boz and Chilli have continued to record music and tour, most recently co-headlining a tour with Nelly and Flo Rida which continues through this summer.
These days T-Boz is reveling in the most recent chapter of her life as mom to daughter Chase and son Chance, author of the 2017 memoir, A Sick Life, and co-creator of her newly launched line of CBD-infused healthy and beauty products, aptly called TLCBD.
I recently caught up with T-Boz, and our lengthy conversation ran the gamut with nothing left off the table.
Allison Kugel: Is there a prominent memory or flashback from your life, whether it's a really great memory that you love to re-visit, or even something that wasn't so great, that helped shape you?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: I always think about the first time I saw each of my kids. No matter what’s going on in my life, that will give me a good feeling and a smile. Anytime I’m having a terrible time, I try to think about what the best thing in my life is, and that is my two kids. I think about the first time I ever saw them, and that’s a feeling you can't really describe.
Allison Kugel: At what age did you feel yourself make the transition from a girl into a woman? Was there a particular event, or did it just kind of hit you one day?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: You know when I think I felt like a woman? It's probably when we did the video for the song, Creep. Everybody thought we were so mature looking in that video, and I didn't think of myself like that until grown men started trying to talk to us. Before that there was always this stigma about us [looking] so young.
Allison Kugel: Is that when you felt like a woman, or when you felt like people saw you that way?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: I think that's when people saw me as a woman, but then that started making me feel like I was a woman, you know what I mean? And when you start seeing yourself as that, you start acting a little differently, like, "Oh, I got some grown and sexy going on now (laughs)." I used to be so skinny and I would wear two pair of pants to look curvier. I was tired of guys saying, "She's cute." I was like, when are they going to say, "She's fine," and when am I going to get some grown woman hips?
Allison Kugel: Do you talk to Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes when you're alone? And has there ever been an unmistakable sign that she's around you?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: No, I don't want to talk to anybody who's passed away, because that's spooky (laugh).
Allison Kugel: That stuff doesn't spook me out. I think it's kind of cool to think we can communicate back and forth with those who have passed.
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: I don't talk to anyone that passed away in my family. But I think about them, or I talk about them. That’s my way. I'm one of those people where I don't even like to go to grave sights because that's not a good memory for me, and I don't feel like they know I’m there. But I also feel like they know the love I have for them, and I always have psychics come up to me and tell me that Lisa is with me.
Allison Kugel: Do they say something specific enough where you know they're for real? Because you guys are famous, do they give you something to let you know it's the real deal?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: Yeah, absolutely, I know it's the real deal. They tell me that she watches over my kids, but the stuff they've told me, there is no way they would know it! Only me and Lisa would know that stuff. At first it creeped me out a little bit, because I was like, "Wait a minute. Does that mean she's watching me all the time?" Then I got used to it, and it's not a bad thing because she's watching over us.
Allison Kugel: I’m sure she's not watching you in the shower and that kind of thing, but who knows (laugh).
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: I hope not, but it's not like we haven't seen each other naked before. We were like family, so we did everything together.
Allison Kugel: Were you happy with the way TLC's final album (the group's fifth and final album, titled "TLC" was released in 2017) turned out? Do you feel it was a good swan song?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: No, I don't. I feel like it wasn't worked good enough. I don't even like the song Haters; I'm going to be honest. I think that was a terrible choice as our second single. I believe there were better songs we should've gone with, that were deeper. We have a song called American Gold. It was right before Trump came into office and there was all this uproar with black men who were dying and being abused and killed by the cops, including my cousin who was murdered by cops and shot 18 times with an AR15, and he was mentally ill. The reason that song is so important is because we hit on all of that, and you know how you bleed and die for your American gold? Just being American is tough these days, especially when you're black. That song would have really hit home in a lot of places, kind of the way Waterfalls did, if the right visuals had been put to it.
Allison Kugel: You think the music video for Waterfalls was a key element for people getting the song?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: Some people didn't get Waterfalls at first, until the visuals came [with the music video] and brought that song to life. If visuals were put to American Gold, it could have been a big song. It could have been deep for certain people, especially for people who fought for our country. At the end, the album was too rushed, and I felt forced to not finish some of the songs that I could have finished.
Allison Kugel: Let's get into your CBD line, which you've named TLCBD. Over the years you've had a rough time recording music and touring, while dealing with flare ups and hospitalizations from your sickle cell anemia. On this current TLC tour (co-headlining with Flo Rida and Nelly), you've said that using CBD kept you healthier.
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: Oh Absolutely! Before I started taking CBD, you can go back through our history and they would tell you, "T-Boz is sick, T-Boz has ruined another tour." It's not a cure, but since being on it, I don't get sick as often. I’m way stronger and when I do get sick it's not as bad or for as long. On this last tour, I broke my rib and I was able to still perform with a broken rib. A long time ago that would have sent me into a sickle cell crisis. Because I was on CBD, I was able to go to the hospital for one day, get fluids for the pain and some lidocaine patches and take some CBD cream, bomb and tincture, and I made it through. I didn't ruin the tour. This is the third tour I've been on that I haven't gotten sick or had to cancel.
Allison Kugel: Knock on wood, that’s awesome. How did you figure out that CBD could ease your symptoms?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: The medicines that the doctors give you keep you in a weakened state. If you're weak, it's easier to get sick because the sickle cell attacks the weakest part of your body. If you stay weak, you're going to stay sick, so I was sick every three months and going into hospitals. Someone suggested CBD and I tried it. At first, I didn't feel any different. Then I started noticing that I was feeling stronger. I wasn't getting as sick as often, and I don't even have a good working spleen. Your spleen is what helps you fight off colds and diseases. I lost my spleen, but I grew two accessory spleens which is totally crazy. I didn't know you can grow an organ back. God has been looking out for me! Any time someone had a cold around me, I would always catch the cold to the 10th power, but now I wasn't even catching cooties (laugh).
Allison Kugel: For systemic issues you ingest it, and for injuries you use it topically…
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: Yeah, we have a balm which is kind of the consistency of shea butter for our line, TLCBD, and then our CBD tincture is what you drop on your tongue. We have beauty oils for wrinkles and keeping your face together. It's moisturizing, and after wearing all that make up and being in different climates every other day, it really moisturizes my skin.
Allison Kugel: Was Chilli cool with you naming your CBD line TLCBD? Or was she wanting a cut because you're using the TLC name?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: It's just a play on words. At first it was called Cure Holistic, but there is a Cure CBD. When one of my partners came up with TLCBD, usually I hate using anything TLC-related, but it was cute. I said that at first too, but when I talked to all my people, they said that it's just a play on words, it's not a TLC product. I don't get mad if she goes somewhere and says "Chilli with TLC," so no, she wasn't mad. But if it was a TLC product, and it just said "TLC," then yeah, I would owe her a cut.
Allison Kugel: What is the wisest advice you've ever been given, and how has it impacted your life?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: My momma told me if I kept my morals, my integrity and my character intact, she would support anything I did. That's what's gotten me through. She also said to always be the best in anything you choose to do. She said, "I don't care if you choose to be a garbage truckdriver. Make sure you pick up that garbage good, girl." At the end of the day, it’s about respecting myself. Nobody else will respect me if I don't respect myself, and it starts with me.
Allison Kugel: Good Advice.
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: That's the best advice I could have been given, especially in this industry, at 19 years old, with a whole bunch of nasty men trying to just prowl and take advantage of young girls. That never bothered me, because I always had my self-respect, self-esteem and self-worth.
Allison Kugel: What do you have faith in?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: God! That's pretty much it. Period.
Allison Kugel: How do you define God for yourself?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: How do I define God? I’ve never been asked that before. I know I have a relationship with God, and I know that God exists for me. I don't push my beliefs on anybody else, but I know when people, and even doctors, walk out of the room and they can't explain why I'm still here (referring to her sickle cell disease). I know there’s something up there higher than me that made it possible. When your doctor comes out and says, "I don't even know how she's doing this, because I didn't do it…"
Alison Kugel: This is something that I ask everybody, and it's really something to meditate on if you've never thought about it before. What do you believe you are here on this earth, as Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, to learn? What do you think your soul came here to learn in this lifetime?
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins: I used to always wonder why I got through things, like, why I lived and why my cousin died, and why we had the same disease. I used to wonder why I'm here and what my purpose was. Then, not so long ago, maybe the last seven to eight years, I figured my purpose here was to help people, whether it's through music or through sharing my testimony and being a ray of hope for someone. I've also learned to push past my fears. I used to hate speaking in front to people. I’ve learned to face my fears, and I’ve learned that I'm an open book. And I like to learn… about people, about things… it just makes me more of a people person so that I can better help someone else.
By Allison Kugel
The new HBO documentary, Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season (premiering November 26th at 10pm ET), is anything but that for the Olympic gold medal winner and former World Alpine Ski Racer. While 2019 was her final push down the slopes as a professional ski racer, Lindsey Vonn The Brand, is coming into a new season and picking up steam. Known to some as a beautiful pop culture figure (a vison of her blonde braided hair amid piles of snow conjures Frozen's Elsa) with a famous dating history, and to others as one of the most kick-ass girls to ever put on a pair of skis, "A Mighty Girl" doesn't quite cover the drive, discipline and talent that Vonn represents in a culture overrun with vapid beauty and shallow notoriety. With eighty-two World Cup races and two Olympic gold medals under her belt, Lindsey Vonn is a testament to the power of practice and hard work; two qualities that seem to be ailing in our current Insta-fame climate.
The detailed personal and professional moments that Vonn shares in her documentary will recalibrate your definition of success and make you fall back in love with the small triumphs along the way to the big win, which as Lindsey Vonn knows, holds as much value as the destination in the distance. Vonn will also soon be highlighting the peaks and valleys of her life in her upcoming memoir, Rise (Dey Street Books), out in March of 2020.
During our conversation, Lindsey and I spoke about her unconventional and remarkable life, both on and off skis, how she is coping post-retirement, and what she hopes the younger generation will learn from her journey.
Allison Kugel: One of the big takeaways I got from your HBO documentary, Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season, is that from afar success looks glamorous, but up close, success looks like a lot of hard work.
Lindsey Vonn: One hundred percent. That's exactly spot on! People just see the end result. They see the Olympic Gold and they see me winning World Cup races. They never see what goes into it; how you got there, the sacrifices you've made and the hours in the gym. That's why I've always liked sharing my story on Instagram and on my social media, because I want people to know that it's not just this glamorous life.
Allison Kugel: Take me through what it's really been like…
Lindsey Vonn: I'd be up at 5 AM and have all my meals specially portioned and made and go to the gym and work hard. Then I would do my rehab, and there's always injuries and surgeries. It's a full-time job. It's been my [life] and my goal since I was nine years old and it's been a very long journey. I think that's why I'm so proud of this documentary. It gives a pretty good picture of, especially how this last season went, with the pain and sacrifice. My team has gotten me through so much in my career. It's not just the smiley, glamorous photo finish at the end. It takes a lot to get to that point. I wanted to break the World Cup win record and I wanted to have this great swan song. Then, three days in, I tore my knee up. It didn’t go the way we had hoped, but I'm really happy we made this documentary. Looking back, it's something I can share with my kids someday, and something that will show more of who I am, not just as a champion, but as a hard worker.
Allison Kugel: Do you have the clarity and perspective to, rather than zeroing in on that one win-record you didn't break due to your injury, to sit back and see the entire picture of your successful career?
Lindsey Vonn: It's difficult to think about that record (her dogs, including Lucy, who shares the screen with Vonn in her documentary, interrupts)…
Allison Kugel: By the way, how cute is your dog Lucy in this film? I love how she keeps you company during some lonely moments, and how she keeps your morale up. It was so sweet to watch.
Lindsey Vonn: They're the best. Especially during my surgeries, they're always there for me and they always want me, no matter what. They [all] made me feel so much better. I honestly don't know how I would have gotten through all the surgeries and all those lonely days at home with my leg up, and in pain, without them. I'll get back to your other question. I lost my train of thought (laughs)…
Allison Kugel: Totally my fault! (Laughs) I just had to tell you that Lucy stole the show in every scene she's in, in your documentary. How could I not bring that up?
Lindsay Vonn: It was so funny… at the premiere, every time Lucy was on the screen everyone was cheering and laughing. I put her in a human baby onesie for the world championships and everyone was hysterically laughing at that moment in the film, during the premiere. It made me so happy, because she is the star of the show!
Allison Kugel: Cutest thing ever! Okay, back to the other topic. I know from experience that perfectionists always zero in on the things that didn't go perfectly rather than the big picture…
Lindsey Vonn: Big picture, I'm proud of everything I've accomplished, but it's taken me a moment to get there. I've always been so goal oriented. Throughout the course of my entire career, I would set the goal and I met it. This one was the only goal I hadn't met (breaking Ingemar Stenmark's record). I think for all the goals I've set, to not accomplish one is totally fine. I am a perfectionist, so I always want to be perfect, and you can't be. No one is, and like I said in my documentary, "Who actually gets a fairytale ending?" Very few people, and in the end, I did something I didn't think I could do, which is getting a bronze medal in the World Championships with no ligaments, basically. That ending was more than I could have asked for given the situation.
Allison Kugel: In this Instagram, picture-perfect world that young girls are exposed to, do you see yourself as a role model?
Lindsey Vonn: It's what I have always strived for with my foundation (The Lindsey Vonn Foundation), to show girls that they have to believe in themselves. Social media [images], bullies and people online, that's not real. It's all about how you view yourself and how much you believe in yourself. There have been so many people in my life that have said that I wasn't going to make it, and that I wasn't good enough. I never believed them; I believed in myself. It's always what I've been trying to get across to young girls and young kids. This film is a great platform for that message to have a much louder voice.
Allison Kugel: I don't know if you are a spiritual person. But I believe that everybody's soul comes here to learn specific lessons and that we all have certain themes that are pre-written into our life, path for the purpose. Your mom suffered a stroke while giving birth to you. At the age of 11, your entire family relocated from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Vail, Colorado for the benefit of your career. There's been a lot of sacrifice on your behalf. Did that make you feel like doing well wasn't good enough? Like you had to do great things to justify all that sacrifice? And has it felt like a weight on you?
Lindsey Vonn: It has felt like a weight at times, but I've always felt like my life had a purpose and that skiing was my purpose. Now that I'm older, I feel like skiing has gotten me to a point where I have a platform and I can do so many positive things with that platform. But growing up, I always had this feeling that everything happens for a reason and there's a reason I'm here. There's a reason that things happened to me the way they did. I never lost faith in my goals because I believed that. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that there is this weird sense of purpose that I have always had, since I was nine years old. That's what's gotten me through a lot of times.
Allison Kugel: You talk about the amazing adrenaline rush that you would get from competitive ski racing, which I would imagine gave you an incredible high. When you are used to those extreme highs, have you experienced depression since ending your career, from not having those extreme adrenaline highs?
Lindsey Vonn: I got pretty depressed, not from the sudden lack of adrenaline, which I was shocked about, by the way. It was more from no longer having the same goal every day. For almost my entire life, I've woken up and my singular focus has been skiing. I had business, photo shoots and workouts, but for all those years the center of my universe had been skiing. Suddenly, I came home from the world championships, I woke up and I didn't have it anymore. It was a very difficult time where I struggled to find balance. I've struggled to be happy without skiing. I feel like I have made progress with a lot of therapy. P.K. (Vonn's fiancé, NHL hockey player, P.K. Subban) has been the rock in my life and someone who has given so much more purpose and so much more perspective and has really gotten me through this period in my life. It's difficult for any athlete, but especially when I've been a professional athlete for almost twenty years. I'm thankful that he's been there, as well as my sisters and the rest of my family.
Allison Kugel: P.K. is still playing pro-hockey, so when he is ready to retire, down the road, you'll be able to be there for him through that transition.
Lindsey Vonn: He's going to play for about six to eight years, so it will be awhile before he retires. He understands it to a certain degree, but there are some things that even I didn't expect. I had been prepared to retire, but there are certain things that, when it happens, it's somehow different. I'll be here to help him, and hopefully we'll have a family at that point so that will make it a lot easier.
Allison Kugel: Do you see yourself having a baby in the next year or two?
Lindsey Vonn: Yeah. We want to get married first. We're traditional… and also not traditional at the same time (laughs). I'm thirty-five, so we want to start having a family before I miss out on the opportunity.
Allison Kugel: A good part of your own childhood was spent preparing for a professional skiing career. Are you looking forward to experiencing a traditional childhood vicariously through your own children?
Lindsey Vonn: Not really, to be honest. I feel like with social media and everything going on these days, childhood is more difficult. I think it's going to be a challenge, but if and when we have kids, social media will still be around, but hopefully it will be reshaped and not as toxic for young kids.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you are here in this life as Lindsey Vonn to learn?
Lindsey Vonn: I don't think I'm here just to learn one thing. I think I am here to learn a lot. I feel like I learn things from every person that I meet, from all walks of life. I always ask questions and I always want to make myself a better person.
Allison Kugel: What are you here to teach?
Lindsey Vonn: In teaching, I want to pass everything I've learned on to the next generation. I'm hoping to continue to share my experiences and give girls the confidence they need to be amazing adults.
Allison Kugel: When you become the subject of one of those kids' biographies that they're making now, the Who Is/WhoWas series (Penguin Young Readers) of books which I love, and when kids read the Who Is Lindsey Vonn? book, which they will, what do you want them to take away from your life story?
Lindsey Vonn: When you fall, pick yourself back up. Everyone has obstacles in their life. No matter how big or how small, we all have challenges. It's how you pick yourself back up that counts. Failure is only failure if you don't pick yourself back up. Never stay down.
Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season premieres November 26th at 10pm ET/PT on HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now, and is available on HBO OnDemand November 27th.
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: Photo of Lindsey in Ski Gear, Courtesy of Lindsey Vonn
Red Carpet Photos Courtesy of Jeff Mayer/FilmMagic for HBO
Poster photo courtesy of HBO
By Allison Kugel
Vanessa Williams is a creature unlike any other. It's as though she came here to impart the ins and outs of living life on one's own terms. From unwitting societal lightning rod during the 1980s to multi-platinum selling recording artist; and Broadway, film and television star, Vanessa Williams slayed the male-dominated Hollywood dragon long before the #MeToo movement happened. You can tell from talking to her that, both, the scars of past judgment she endured, and the fruits of her sweet success have made their impact. Both created indelible imprints.
In more recent years, Williams stunned audiences with sultry scene-stealing characters on hit series like Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty. Her recent film starring Orange is the New Black's Uzo Aduba, Miss Virginia, tackles the socio-economic and educational inequities that urban students of color endure, showcasing a more socially conscious film portrayal.
Vanessa Williams' exotic beauty strikes you dead on arrival, but Williams does not lead with her looks. She prefers to enter a conversation with intellect, boldness and strength.
Williams is now preparing to take her Broadway-honed stage skills across the pond to London's West End, where she will be starring in a production of City of Angels, opening at the Garrick Theatre in 2020. She's also added fashion designer to her packed resume, launching the sexy and sophisticated Vanessa Williams collection for HSN, and fresh on the heels of a multi-album deal with BMG, Williams is working on new music to reflect a collection of musical genres she is currently passionate about.
A renaissance woman for the ages, Vanessa Williams' life is nothing if not purposeful.
Allison Kugel: Something told me to read your 2012 memoir, You Have No Idea, which I read cover to cover yesterday. I'm so glad I read your book, because it was the missing piece to really understanding you. The one constant theme throughout your life, it seems, is that you are a natural born rebel!
Vanessa Williams: (Laughs) Yeah.
Allison Kugel: That quality plays out in one way when we're young, but changes as we get older. How do you express that side of yourself now?
Vanessa Williams: It's now about being unafraid to take chances. In terms of my career, I just signed on to do City of Angels on the West End [of London]. It’s not a lot of money, but it is an opportunity to work on the West End. It's always been a dream of mine to live overseas, and to study in London. I'll be working at the Garrick Theatre. We start rehearsals in January, we open in March, and the show will be running until the end of July. There are no guarantees, in terms of leaving my life in the states behind, but it's something that excites me. At this stage of my life it's all about asking myself what I want to do that I've never done. The challenge of it excites me, and doing the same thing bores me.
Allison Kugel: When nude photos of you surfaced during your 1984 reign as Miss America and you were forced to relinquish your crown ten and a half months into your year-long reign, you were counted out there for a while in your twenties. Do you ever pat yourself on the back these days and say, "I did it!"? Broadway, films, television, platinum-selling recording artist and on and on… do you feel vindicated?
Vanessa Williams: No, I really don't. I don't think that, because there's always that next goal, like, "but I want to originate a role on Broadway;" "but I want to do a movie musical." There is always something yet to be done. It's not that I'm never satisfied, but there is always another goal on the horizon. When you're an actor, it's like being a gypsy. You jump into another circle of players, and it’s great. Then when it's over, it's heartbreaking, but then you're ready to move on to the next circle. That's what excites me and that's what will always propel me to say, "Ok, what's next?"
Allison Kugel: Clearly, you value adventure over routine.
Vanessa Williams: Well, I look at some people who have been on the same show for eleven or twelve seasons, and it's a great cash cow. It's great to have that kind of consistent salary where you can budget and put money away. God bless everyone who has had a series on the air for ten years, but there is an energy that keeps you kind of hungry when you are always looking for the next thing and you don't know what that next thing is.
Allison Kugel: I want to go back a bit and talk about the beginning. I think people may forget because it was so long ago, but you broke through a pretty significant glass ceiling in your twenties by being crowned the first African American Miss America. You became this societal lightning rod at the time. In 2008, when President Obama was elected as our first African American president, did you feel a connection or kind of kinship with him, since he broke a barrier in a similar way?
Vanessa Williams: Oh, absolutely, in terms of his safety, and his presence was worldwide. But there is an expectation that comes with that honor of breaking barriers. It's also a tremendous fear, not only for yourself, but for family members; because there is such division, which doesn’t seem to leave us. I thought it was over in the 1980s and it wasn’t; I thought it was over in the 2000s and it wasn’t; and, obviously, it's still apparent now. So, there is a specific fear and uncertainty that you have, but you have to be brave and you have to continue to do what you were chosen to do, and the job that is before you.
Allison Kugel: Had you ever had that conversation with President Obama about that?
Vanessa Williams: I met him right before he began his run for president. I've been on the Special Olympics international board for years, and I was on Capitol Hill with the Special Olympics meeting people and trying to raise money for our group. I met him right off the heels of that wonderful speech he'd given at the Democratic National Convention, and word was out that he was someone to watch. I gave my little spiel about how we needed more funding for the Special Olympics. I could see the appeal, and then he announced. When he announced that he was going to run for president, I was definitely in his corner. My mother was coming from the perspective of having lived through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being assassinated, and Kennedy being assassinated, and she was fearful for his life. That’s the generation that she grew up in. I felt that it could happen, and she also, of course, had some issues with it. It just showed the fear that was due to where my mother's generation had come from.
Allison Kugel: What have you learned about love? What's been your greatest love lesson?
Vanessa Williams: I'm lucky to have four children, and there is nothing like that love; a love like that never ends. Once they're out of the house, you're still, as a mom, always available. You're still always worried (laughs) and concerned. And you're still always extremely proud, no matter their age or what they are doing.
Allison Kugel: How do you take care of your body, mind and spirit; and what's your feel-good routine?
Vanessa Williams: My feel good is waking up with a good cup of coffee and doing a crossword puzzle in the sun. That starts my day off perfectly. And when I get a chance to explore and travel, I love to horseback ride, wherever I am, and go to the stables and find a horse and go on an adventure and explore the terrain on horseback. Spending time at home is also a joy for me. I'm on the road traveling so much, so my happy place is kicking off my shoes and hanging out at home.
Allison Kugel: You’re a practicing Catholic and you attend Church regularly, but in your most quiet and intimate moments, whom or what do you pray to, and what do you pray for?
Vanessa Williams: Hmm... it depends on what it is. I pray to God and my ancestors and my guides, and everyone who has been with me along my journey. As far as what I pray for, it depends on what I want or need at that particular moment; whether it’s guidance, whether it's "show me the way," or whether it's protection for one of my children. It depends on what my particular need is at that moment.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you are here in this life as Vanessa Williams to learn, and what do you think you are here to teach?
Vanessa Williams: I absolutely love to teach, in the literal sense, and I've done it for three years in a row at NYU (New York University). I've taught Master Classes at Syracuse University, where I went for musical theatre. I also teach women's groups. It's teaching strength and to be aware, because you never know when and where something is going to happen for you. Whether that's your talent, whether it's an opportunity… just be open to who comes into your life and what they can bring.
Allison Kugel: And you're here to learn?
Vanessa Williams: That as women, for sure, we are a community, and to ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask for advice or for help. Look for a mentor. I've learned that there are many people that are willing to be teachers and to help you along in your life, so don't be afraid to ask because there will always be somebody there to offer help. I think I'm here to learn to keep moving ahead. On this earth we have setbacks, struggles and obstacles. You have to be able to say, "What is this teaching me?" so you can move through it and move ahead in your life. Avoiding something or trying to deny it won't get you anywhere.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of giving advice to other women, back in 2011 and 2012 you worked on Tyler Perry's film Temptation with Kim Kardashian while she was going through the separation from her ex-husband, Kris Humphries. The two of you spent some time together during filming. Did she seek your advice about weathering scandal and a media firestorm?
Vanessa Williams: She'd just broken up with Kris [Humphries] and the press was all over the place, so Tyler made it very easy for her to hide from the press on set. Basically, it worked on the set, keeping the press away. Then we flew back to LA together. I just needed to be the sounding board for her at that point. Sometimes you don't need to talk. You just have to let them talk, and you have to listen. She talked about all the stuff that was happening and her fear of being judged, but that it was something she felt she needed to do. My advice to her was that you go through the storm, but the dust will settle, and you'll get an opportunity to see clearly, and it will be a different day; and you'll feel better and you can move on.
Allison Kugel: Do you consider yourself a trailblazer for women?
Vanessa Williams: I think my history has made me a trailblazer, unknowingly. I've always just been myself and that's how it played itself out.
Allison Kugel: What makes you feel most beautiful?
Vanessa Williams: The sun and the warmth makes me feel beautiful. Every time I land someplace that's warm, it makes me feel like I'm connected to nature. And that's without hair and makeup and wardrobe, and all that stuff. It's just the breeze, the water, and heat that makes me feel like my most natural self. And then being around children. Whether it's my children who are all grown up… there's a connection that I have with kids. Maybe because both of my parents were elementary school music teachers, but there is a connection that me and my kids have with young kids that I absolutely love. My connection with children makes me feel so alive.
Allison Kugel: You recently launched your own clothing line, Vanessa Williams, which is available through HSN. The collection is versatile, imaginative and sexy, yet understated. And I love how you incorporate animal prints and patterns with different looks.
Vanessa Williams: Thank you. It's another opportunity to be creative and I've got a great manufacturer, so the quality is fantastic. It's an extension of what I love, which is putting my stamp on things. I love fashion, and I've been fortunate to work on amazing shows, both on television and on Broadway, where I've worked with incredible costume designers and been exposed to fantastic fashion through stylists. And I've settled into what my own personal style is, along with what resonates with other people. When I design, I keep my eighty-year-old mother in mind, and then my children; my girls are from age 19 to 32. Everyone's got their own sensibility, and there's one piece for everyone to enjoy.
Allison Kugel: When will you be recording your next album?
Vanessa Williams: Now! I just finished recording a children's album, which will be out next spring. And I'm working on a new album for BMG that will be out next year. We're leaning towards mood and tropical music for this next album, and there will be more projects to come.
Allison Kugel: Let's circle back to your upcoming show on London's West End, City of Angels. You're a Broadway veteran, but this will be your West End debut!
Vanessa Williams: This will be my "junior year abroad" that I never got the chance to do! In college, I was supposed to go to London and then I became famous that September. So, it's my delayed junior year abroad, thirty-six years later (laughs). And it's getting a chance to show my stage talent on another respected stage. My children are not at home, so it's an opportunity to tick another thing off the bucket list.
Shop the Vanessa Williams collection at HSN and pre-order tickets to see Vanessa Williams star in City of Angels at the Garrick Theatre in London's West end. Visit VanessaWilliams.com.
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: Rod Spicer, Mike Ruiz, Gilles Toucas
By Allison Kugel
Deepak Chopra has been a mentor of mine from the day of my first interview with him more than a decade ago. I will never forget the day in 2008 when I asked him to explain such existential concepts as the distinction between the brain, mind and soul; the concepts of space and time, and how meditation benefits our physical and mental health. His answers then were clear and precise and without hesitation; on my end it felt like waking up from a dream and setting about on a continuous path of discovery.
He and I sat down once again, this time to unpack the pressing issues of isolation, anxiety and depression and the growing epidemic of suicidal ideation and suicide, which has taken sharp incline over the past eighteen years. Deepak Chopra is now part of a team spearheading the Never Alone movement, a grassroots movement that aims to create community-led organizations around the world to help people in emotional distress who need community support. Never Alone is being funded through a GoFundMe campaign that has already surpassed its original goal.
In tandem, Deepak Chopra, has released his latest book, Metahuman (Harmony Books/Random House), which delves into the true essence of our nature when we break free of societal constructs and embrace a higher level of consciousness and greater zest for living on this planet.
Allison Kugel: The subject matter we are about to discuss is an uncomfortable one, but one that needs to be addressed because we are losing too many people. I looked at some World Health Organization statistics that report there has been a 60% increase in suicides over the past 45 years, with a 30% increase since 2001. My first question for you is simply… why?
Deepak Chopra: We are living in a culture that aggrandizes narcissism and the whole idea of a separate self. People are constantly engaged in social media, and in general media as well. All of this leads to a performance anxiety in a sense. Am I relevant if I'm not being noticed? On the one hand, social networks are supposed to increase our connectivity. In one sense they do, because we can communicate more effectively. But it also increases our isolation if we don't get noticed. Young adults, in particular, are at a very delicate stage of their life where they're beginning to wonder about their identity. As young children, we never wonder about identity. We are just happy, without wondering about self-esteem and all those things. As we enter adolescence, identity becomes an issue and we are still forging our identities. Today our identity is all about, "Am I important? Am I relevant?" It's not even about knowing who we are at a fundamental level.
Allison Kugel: I remember seeing my son, up until about the age of three, exhibit this pure unadulterated confidence and joy that emanated from his being. I have a video of him at the age of 15 or 16 months, where he's running through a field and cracking himself up for no reason; just happy to be running in the grass. Why do we lose that joy and that feeling of wholeness, of being enough just as we are, as we get older?
Deepak Chopra: You are very right in your observation. The poet Rabindranath Tagore is quoted as having said that "every child that's born is proof that God has not given up on human beings (paraphrased)." Children are naturally joyful and loving and have empathy and compassion and playfulness as their innate traits. The rest is the hypnosis of social conditioning. Unfortunately, it gets recycled through every generation and now it's getting worse because of our ability to communicate our self-importance. Self-esteem is natural, in our natural state. We are confusing [self-esteem] with self-image, which is the ego-bound identity. Self-image constantly needs validation or else it feels very fearful.
Allison Kugel: I've noticed a pattern in the 21st century where we are being pushed to the brink in so many ways. We have extreme weather patterns, mass shootings, more chronic illness, more narcissism and certainly more anxiety and depression. And we have more people who are medicated than ever before. What is all this pushing us towards? And what is the spiritual reason for it all?
Deepak Chopra: A lot of what you are seeing is the mental health of a collective mind, or a collective humanity, that has created a world with all the things you mentioned. We've seen extinction in every other life form, but now we're ready for our own extinction. The last extinction was sixty-five million years ago as a result of a meteorite hitting the earth, when dinosaurs were wiped out. We learned as a result of that extinction. But now if we have our next extinction, it will be as a result of human behavior. If this is not collective insanity… If we don't acknowledge it then we are decreeing our own insanity. We need to understand our personal role in this collective insanity. Suicide and depression are symptoms of our collective conditioned mind. We treat hate to be normal. We treat the psychopathology of our everyday existence as normal. So numb have we become. And so immune have we become to the cruelty that happens every day in the world.
Allison Kugel: What if you're an empath, and internalize everything, and you're in a constant state of feeling the pain of everybody and everything?
Deepak Chopra: We can resign ourselves and say the human experiment has failed; that the human species was an interesting idea on behalf of nature's evolutionary impulse, but it didn't work. We can resign ourselves and wait for our collective extinction where we just go to the bar and get a drink, which will numb us even more, and which people are doing with drugs and alcohol and other addictions. This is mostly linked to this massive epidemic of suicide and depression. Or, we can do something about it and hope for the best. What I have discovered through careful observation and as a physician, is that when people support each other in anything, and it doesn't matter what it is, it is healing. When we support each other, the outcome of whatever that condition is that a person is struggling with, it does improve. This is what has led me to the opportunity to create, both, online and real-time communities where people can support each other for a more peaceful, just, sustainable, healthier and joyful existence. Ultimately, this is the purpose of life, to experience our innate joy. That comes automatically through empathy, which leads to compassion, which then leads to the desire to relieve another person’s suffering.
Allison Kugel: For all the empaths out there, including myself, the answer is to not just feel the pain of the world, but to take loving action towards solutions where and when you can.
Deepak Chopra: Right, because compassion leads to love, and it leads to love-in-action. Love-in-action leads to healing. Love without action is irrelevant. And action without love is also meaningless. This is an opportunity for us to create a self-sustaining ecosystem where people support each other and help each other. Helping each other is the best way to help ourselves.
Allison Kugel: You're a part of creating the Never Alone movement to provide support communities around the world, which we hope will prevent suicide and help people feel connected to real support systems. How will the Never Alone platform work, and will it be accessible to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and geographic locations?
Deepak Chopra: Right now, the Never Alone platform will be run by GoFundMe. We are helping create an advisory board for the GoFundMe campaign. Our goal is to create self-sustaining grassroots movements across the world, because even in very impoverished parts of the world, people now have access to wireless technology. In wisdom traditions, a healthy community has three things: people dedicated to serving the community; spiritual practice of reflective self-inquiry and getting together with other people in the community. Today we can do that online, but we can also do that by creating our own localized communities and centers. This is not a Deepak Chopra campaign, or anyone's campaign. It should be a totally grassroots, self-sustaining campaign where we create an ecosystem for helping each other in [times of] distress.
Allison Kugel: With the film The Offering that you've recently raised funding for, this is not a documentary, correct? This is a work of fiction that is based on real stories about suicide?
Deepak Chopra: The actress Gabriella Wright, her sister was a very accomplished musical artist in Europe who committed suicide at the age of 28 or 29. This is a film for awareness, in which actress Gabriella Wright is playing the role of a mother whose son commits suicide. We hope to use the film as a tool for bringing awareness to this cause, and to the Never Alone movement. When you give facts alone, some people are moved by the facts, like you were moved by the statistics. But by themselves, facts can be very dry. When they are linked to an emotional response, people feel compelled to look at the facts in a different way. We are hoping that The Offering will be a film that will bring some insight to the epidemic of loneliness. The film is only one aspect of this movement. After that, the goal of the Never Alone movement is to encourage other people to produce videos and films, and to share stories to increase awareness and create their own communities both offline and online.
Allison Kugel: I have a question that could be construed as controversial, but it's been on my mind. Over the last 15 to 20 years the veil, so to speak, has been thinning in terms of more people becoming aware that our souls are eternal and that there is a spirit dimension to which we go on; the concept that we were alive before we got here and we will be alive in spirit when we leave. Do you think this information can be a double-edged sword in the wrong hands, and that people might then see suicide as a viable option because of this? For example, the thought could be, "I don't want to cease to exist. I just don't want to be here." I would hate for that to be the case…
Deepak Chopra: I hesitate to answer that, because I don't really know that that's one of the reasons for the increasing epidemic of suicides. Many people do not have insight into the true nature of their soul. In the past, if you spoke about the soul or the spirit, a lot of people considered themselves scientists and secular, and they would roll their eyes and look away because you're not talking science. Right now, there's a big discussion among scientists about what fundamental reality is. Is fundamental reality physical, or is fundamental reality non- perceptual and in the realm of what you and I would call the soul? Scientists are now struggling with a good physical explanation for what we call "consciousness." There's no biological explanation for consciousness. Right now, as I'm speaking to you, all that's going to your brain is an electrical current. You are experiencing the sound of my voice, and not only that, you are interpreting that into meaning. Where is that happening? Science has no idea. So, there are some cutting-edge scientists now that are addressing this. What we call the physical world is an interpretation of perceptual connectivity in our own consciousness. The only thing that is eternal is what you just referred to as the soul, which is not in space or time. It will take a long time for science to catch up to this idea. In the meantime, we have to deal with everyday reality. And some everyday realities, at this moment, are very depressing and it’s our own collective projection. We need to change it.
By Allison Kugel
One conversation with rapper Rick Ross will have you questioning the definitions of success, wealth and opportunity; how to identify opportunity, how to achieve success and how to maintain it while keeping your soul and bodily faculties intact. Ross, born William Leonard Roberts II, rose to prominence in 2006 with his breakout single, Hustlin', a word that defines his character and approach towards life. Though Ross doesn't speak like a scholar, his wisdom permeates our conversation. He is an alchemist; aware of his power to transmute base metals to gold. Rick Ross' fans are believers in his use of language, and his unabashed celebration of riches. He's proud to remind people that he created a palatial oasis out of the urban desert that was his early life.
Where many others in the Carol City district of Miami where Ross grew up saw few options, Ross saw the opportunity to translate his experiences into music. He came on the scene as hip hop left its golden era behind in favor of corporate commercialism, and then helped to usher in a rap renaissance of which he has become one of the genre's most powerful voices.
The way Rick Ross explains it to me, the flash and cash his lifestyle portrays goes deeper than flagrant materialism. It leaves a roadmap for others behind him to follow - from no way out to a yellow brick road of possibilities. Even Ross' palatial Georgia residence can be dubbed rap's incarnation of The White House, with A-listers paying homage to the famous property (once owned by Evander Holyfield) on occasion.
With eighty-seven singles under his belt, Rick Ross moves through the music business with the urgency of being on borrowed time. Not since the late Tupac Shakur has an artist been quite so cognizant of, nor vocal about, his own mortality, and for good reason. Witnessing the loss of life has been a constant for Ross since his childhood. In recent years Ross survived a grisly drive-by shooting and multiple life-threatening seizures. He's emerged more prolific than ever with his tenth studio album, Port of Miami 2 and the release of his new book, Hurricanes: A Memoir.
From sleeping in his car in the early 2000s while doggedly pursuing the American dream, to holding tremendous clout among the most successful artists of the moment, Port of Miami 2 features guest appearances by Swizz Beatz, Meek Mill, the late Nipsey Hussle, John Legend, Lil Wayne and Drake. The relationship between Rick Ross and Drake goes back nearly a decade, when Ross showed tremendous support for Drake's career after the release of his early work, with the breakout mixtape So Far Gone. The two have been allies and collaborators since.
The focus of our conversation was Ross' memoir, Hurricanes, and the rags to riches story he loves to illustrate for his fans.
Allison Kugel: You come across as nostalgic in your memoir, Hurricanes. If you could travel through time and bear witness to the making of any classic album, which one would you love to be a part of?
Rick Ross: A rap album? That would have to be Paid In Full with Eric B. and Rakim. Rakim was such a supreme lyricist and B. was the epitome of a DJ/dope boy. They were the center of style and fashion with their Gucci suits on the album covers, sitting on the hood of a Mercedes Benz S550. It was the epitome of what rap music really represented.
Allison Kugel: Generational wealth or artistic legacy… which means more to you?
Rick Ross: Generational wealth, without a doubt.
Allison Kugel: You've had some close calls between your health issues and an attempt that was made on your life. What was the greatest lesson or insight gained from those experiences?
Rick Ross: Ha! Something just ran across my mind, and I want to say that if it was the end, I would want to make sure I smoke all the roaches down until they're by my fingertips (laughs)! But it boils down to appreciating and enjoying every day.
Allison Kugel: Do you believe in destiny, free will, or both?
Rick Ross: Destiny, for many different reasons. When there was [sic] twenty shots fired at my Rolls Royce, I had the audacity to go back and get my Cuban link chain. Not only did I go back to get my Cuban link chain, I went back to go get my girlfriend. It had to be destiny.
Allison Kugel; It's nice that you went back for your girlfriend but thank God you didn't lose the Cuban link (laughs). Kidding!
Rick Ross: (Laughs)
Allison Kugel: What is the source of your drive and ambition?
Rick Ross: Other than my DNA, it comes from my neighborhood, and being so blatantly aware of the haves and the have nots. I knew I was one of the [have nots]. It may not have been traumatic at all. It could have been something as simple as me not having the Nintendo with the Mike Tyson Punchout game.
Allison Kugel: That was my favorite game! You're taking me back…
Rick Ross: Mine too. Mike Tyson Punchout and Double Dragon. When you're the one on the block, where your friends have to bring the game and cartridges in a Winn Dixie bag to come spend the night at your crib, you kind of know.
Allison Kugel: Do you pray? And who or what do you pray to, and what do you pray for?
Rick Ross: Daily. I call him The Big Homie because there's only one Big Homie; I don't care what nobody else calls him. I just let Him know I'm appreciative of everything, and I'm really under his command. The second he calls for me or is ready for me, I'm going to open my arms to him.
Allison Kugel: What are you here in this life as Rick Ross to learn and to teach?
Rick Ross: Just that others like me, who never learned math, that you can still be the CEO, you can still become authors and artists. Nobody ever told me that. I had to learn that on my own. When I was in school, I sat in the back of the class making jokes, trying to cover up the fact that I never learned multiplication or algebra. I want to let youngsters who are in the position I was in, know that they can be in this position I'm in now. My father wasn't there to tell me that, and I never had a big brother. The people I looked at were the ones in the street. I know the advice I always got from them, but I want to teach others that you can become a CEO, a huge success. I'm not only the CEO of one company, but close to a dozen. That's what I want to be able to teach people on a major scale.
Allison Kugel: To divert a bit, let's talk about a song from your recent album, Port of Miami 2, Gold Roses featuring Drake. It's a great song. Describe the dynamic between you and Drake, musically and personally.
Rick Ross: Drake is a genuine human being, and I think that is what I admire and respect about him so much. The role I've always played with him was Big Homie, and he always played my Lil' Homie. That dynamic has always been as natural as it comes, and that's when we're in the recording booth and when we're outside the recording booth. He's not afraid to show his sensitive side, and that's what makes him the artist he is.
Allison Kugel: You've been quoted as saying that you never question God. Even in your darkest moments, you've never asked, "Why?" or questioned Him in any way?
Rick Ross: If I have, it was many years ago before I began to understand what life is. Life can be a cruel place; it can be a cold place. But it also can be as beautiful as you make it. I didn't even question Him on the morning I woke up with my closest friend dead in the room next to me. We had just been together three hours earlier, and now three hours later, he's dead and gone (Ross recounts this story in his book, Hurricanes: A Memoir/Hanover Square Press). I never questioned when my other closest homeboy was gunned down in a home invasion in front of his two, three and four-year-old sons. I'm not going to question the Big Homie. Whatever his plans are, that's his plans. However I go out, it's destiny.
Allison Kugel: Have you ever stopped to reflect on, and question, the violence that's surrounded you throughout your life?
Rick Ross: Growing up where I grew up, I never questioned it because questioning it did nothing for it. Hearing AK 47s going off for sixty seconds at a time, you can cry, you can pray, you can question it, but you better just sit back, shut the fuck up, and wait for the ambulance to come. Year after year of seeing and hearing it and walking to school while passing a dead body, it gets to a point where you don't question it. You got to decide, am I going to survive or am I going to die?
Allison Kugel: You discuss your solid financial prowess in your book. What do you teach your children about money?
Rick Ross: The disadvantage my children have is that they're my kids, and my entire family is in a different position. They're receiving money from everybody. I could put my kids on an allowance, but my daughters have credit cards. I do explain the importance and the value of building a brand. I don't speak to my daughter about coming up from the mud to the marble and starting with nothing, because that's not her life. She's not in the position me and my sisters were in. Instead, I talk to her about the importance of maintaining our brands and bringing something new to the brand. By the time she was fourteen, my daughter knew how to run a Wingstop (one of Ross' several business interests). If we left her in a Wingstop [restaurant] with two other people, they would be able to run it for a full day. With my haircare line, RICH Haircare (RICH by Rick Ross), I allow her to be in the conference calls and to sit in on the meetings. At the same time, she gets to live and enjoy life much more than I did at her age. You have to take the good with the bad, but I most definitely let them see firsthand what hard work is.
Allison Kugel: You're raising your kids in the Holyfield Mansion (Ross' 44,000 square foot Georgian estate, once owned by Evander Holyfield). I would imagine there has to be a sense of entitlement when your kids are growing up in what is, for all intents and purposes, a palace.
Rick Ross: It's not something I overthink. As parents, we need to set examples because we have to let our children grow into what and who they are going to be. I really don't put a lot of pressure on my kids, because they're good students and they are very respectful of me and of everyone else around them. I'm allowing them to become young adults, and to decide what college they want to go to, what they want to be, what they want to do, how they want to do it, and where they want to do it. I'm pretty free about that. But it's true. It's not an upbringing I would know about firsthand, and I'm pretty sure I would feel entitled if Eddie Murphy was walking around my dad's home and Coming to America 2 was being filmed at my father's estate. They're filming Coming to America 2 at the estate right now.
Allison Kugel: Okay, well that's awesome! Are you in it?
Rick Ross: I have a small role and I did my first scene a few days ago.
Allison Kugel: I'll have to look out for you when it comes out.
Rick Ross: Most definitely. You'll have to look out for Rozay in the movie when it's out (laughs).
Allison Kugel: I love how in the back of your book you thanked a jeweler who let you browse his watch collection for hours and ask him a bunch of questions years ago, when he knew you couldn't afford to buy one. Do you think you envisioned your dreams into existence?
Rick Ross: Without a doubt. I think that's a part of destiny. I believe that if you believe in something or anticipate something coming to you, you try your best to prepare for it. For example, I'm trying my best now to prepare to be a huge actor one day. Before I finished my book, I wanted to thank Mr. Morgan; that was the name of the jeweler. He was extremely kind and patient with me. For some reason he would always let me, for two hours at a time, look and ask questions about the jewelry. He knew I didn't have money. I probably didn't have money for a damn soda at that time. He'd take the time to describe the different watches to me, and my mind was just blown. I was fascinated by the idea of having jewelry. He would let me stand there for a long time and I never got the opportunity to purchase anything from him. I just wish he knew who I was, and I wish I knew where he was now, because I would personally want to thank him.
Allison Kugel: How do you feel about your fans getting to know you on a more intimate level when they read your book? Does that make you nervous or excited?
Rick Ross: I would never be nervous at the idea of my fans getting to know me, and I feel like if they really knew who I was, they wouldn't even believe me. The book paints some pictures for you but can never really give you an idea of what the real play was, because I came up in the era of some real things happening. Neil [Martinez-Belkin] did a great job of putting the book together. He spoke to maybe sixty or seventy of my closest friends and family, because talking to me there's only some much conversation I'm going to give you. The shit I've seen, when we talked, it got no realer. When I talked about getting real money it got no realer. That's what made me the businessman I am. Unlike a lot of other artists, I was familiar with money before the music came. Most artists, by the time they get their first advance, they got to go get a car or a home. I already had these things, so by the time I got money in the music business I was ready to invest in other things and do other things.
Allison Kugel: At the end of your book, you also pay tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle. Why do you think his life ended the way it did and when it did?
Rick Ross: As painful as it is to watch this type of shit online (referring to surveillance video footage of the shooting), that's what I grew up seeing. As painful as it is, I almost became numb to it over the years. I've always been the one that's been the shoulder for others to cry on. Why did it happen? I can't answer that. Was he a special individual? An incredibly special individual! Would I still consider Nipsey Hussle blessed and highly favored? Yes, I would. I've stood in those shoes before, and I was blessed to walk away. But for some reason, if it was to happen to me and that's how the Big Homie upstairs chose for me to go, I'm going to open my arms to him. I don't fear death, personally. I'm sure if Nipsey was here, Nipsey would still love and support his community the same way. Would Nipsey still love flossing in Crenshaw? I believe so. I would still love Miami 305, even if that was the city that took my life.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope fans are getting out of reading your book?
Rick Ross: I just hope the youngsters that are from where I'm from can see the potential in them in becoming authors, becoming CEOS or whatever they want to become. Do I really think I'm going to make money off this bullshit? Probably not. Do I think it will be successful? Really, anything with my face on it could be successful, but I didn't do it for that. I wrote the book because I'm another youngster from a failing situation that's seeing some success. Ultimately, that's what it's about. Going from being the hunted to becoming the hunter.
Hurricanes: A Memoir by Rick Ross with Neil Martinez-Belkin is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. Port of Miami 2, Ross' 10th studio album, is out now. Follow him on Instagram @RichForever.
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.
Photos Courtesy of Bob Metelus. Creative Consultant: Sheldon Wright
By Allison Kugel
In the 1990s Debi Mazar's cat-eyed glamour was spotted everywhere, alongside close friend Madonna. Arm-in-arm they strolled red carpets across two continents and partied with a glittery group of social provocateurs. As an actress, Mazar came on the scene and shone brightly in the 1990 iconic mob film, Goodfellas, as Ray Liotta's coke-addled mistress. She then appeared alongside actress Annabella Sciorra in Spike Lee's 1991 interracial romance drama, Jungle Fever and followed that up with two more Spike Lee films, Malcolm X and Girl 6. In 1995 she spiced up the screen as one half of Sugar & Spice alongside Drew Barrymore in Batman Forever. More recent projects included the role of sharp-tongued publicist Shauna on HBO's runaway hit series, Entourage, which aired from 2004-2011.
Her characters have always been quick to offer a sarcastic comeback or some bold advice, no effs given. If film and television casts can be compared to ingredients, then Mazar is surely the hot sauce.
These days, the mom of two teenage daughters splits her time between New York City and Italy. Landing on another hit series with TV Land's Younger, now going into its seventh season, Mazar takes the reigns once again as irreverent artsy urbanite, Maggie. The show centers around a Gen-X divorcee who poses as a millennial to jumpstart her career in book publishing, only to have worlds collide in parenthood, work and love.
When speaking with Debi Mazar, she gives it to me straight, no chaser. A dye in the wool New Yorker with an Avant-Garde spirit, Mazar shares her views on friendship, parenthood, social media and the art of risk taking.
Allison Kugel: In your series, Younger, your character Maggie is the catalyst that gives the other characters permission to make bold decisions that they wouldn't ordinarily make. In your own life, who has given you permission to draw outside the lines?
Debi Mazar: I surround myself with many friends that do that for me; it's not just one person. Certainly, it starts with my husband. I obviously run things by him. In my life, I've had people I looked up to who were older, or who had sage advice in their soul to offer. Sometimes it could even be my teenage daughters. Their thoughts are generally so pure. My older gay male friends always have sage advice, and my girlfriends, [the late fashion designer] Isabel Toledo being one of them, and Madonna being one of them… ultimately, you know deep in your soul what you should do, and I've always been a risk-taker.
Allison Kugel: Are you as bold and irreverent as the characters you've played?
Debi Mazar: I think I'm bolder than my current character on Younger, for real! Maggie is a little more Bohemian, and she's [artsy]. I sometimes wish she could be even bolder. I know she's a catalyst for the story. Often, in my life, I'm just like, "Oh please, just fucking do it already!" I think I'm a little bit more the type of person in my own life who will say, "Do what you need to do," as opposed to merely suggesting. There have been times with the character of Liza (played by Sutton Foster), where I wish my character, Maggie, could have offered her that type of direct advice. But we have to tell a story and stretch it out for television.
Allison Kugel: Younger just finished its sixth season, and you're going into your seventh season. It's amazing when you consider how much competition there is for people's attention these days. Why do you think the show has resonated with your audience?
Debi Mazar: Our show is about female relationships, for the most part. They're strong women who are bonding together and lifting each other up. In a world that is so crazy, I think that is a big part of the show's appeal. Our show is also filled with humor, it's extremely positive and light. It really is entertainment. The marketing machine that TV Land and Viacom put together, in terms of promoting the show and how they continue to promote the show, has been aggressive and fun. I give them a lot of credit for throwing it out into the stratosphere, especially on a network that was all about reruns. When I first got offered the show and they said it was on TV Land, I said, "Wait, isn't that the rerun channel?"
Allison Kugel: That reminds me of what Dave Chappelle said about the first season of Chappelle's Show airing on Comedy Central. He said, "That wasn't exactly the place to be at the time." Sometimes it takes one groundbreaking show.
Debi Mazar: Yeah, I was like, "Oh, that's weird. I don't know." (laughs) Of course, I would love being next to I Love Lucy, but they were doing this whole new launch of original programming when Younger started. Having the platform of Hulu, and wherever else you can watch Younger, that's helped enormously to blast it out, and the show has sold well, globally. I hop through airports constantly, and no matter where I go people tell me they watch Younger. Ultimately, our show is about love.
Allison Kugel: I would consider you a Gen-Xer, like me. There is a Gen-X versus Millennial component to the show that speaks to a lot of people. Do you long for what was, or are you more of an embrace the times we're in kind of person?
Debi Mazar: I'm a mother of teenagers, so I've had to deal with Millennials and Gen-Z, and I find them so refreshing. I am a Gen X type of person in terms of where I live, and liking how things used to be, and yes, I do complain that I liked New York City better when it was less crowded. I liked the city when it was edgier and not so antiseptic and cleaned up. On the flip side, I'm also a modernist and someone that looks to the future. I can't sit around talking about how things used to be, because you have to exist in how things are and make your next decisions based on that. I can easily decide that I’m moving to Italy tomorrow, because I married an Italian and we have a country home in Florence. And I can choose to really go a whole other route, pretend like I'm in the Renaissance, and live in the country and tune out a lot of stuff. But I'm kind of addicted to certain things at this point. I have Instagram and I sit and check my phone for things all the time.
Allison Kugel: Darren Star is the brilliant creator of Younger. What would you say are the hallmarks of a Darren Star (Beverly Hills, 90210; Sex and the City; Younger) television series?
Debi Mazar: Darren likes to push buttons in terms of sexuality. He likes to push buttons with love triangles, the dynamics of friendships and with fashion. He loves all of that. If you watch any of his shows, there is always an element of people that are living on the edge, having to make decisions; they are dressing up and going out; they are having fun; and they're voracious and hungry for things. His shows are funny, witty, fast-moving and nice to look at. The greatest thing Darren does is write wonderful female characters. I mean, remember when Sex and the City was happening? A lot of people were like, "I'm the Samantha of my group," or "I'm the Carrie." With my character, Maggie, on Younger, I'm happy to play a lesbian. I think it appeals to a huge demographic within the LGBTQ (at this point Mazar laments that she may be leaving out some letters) community. It's relevant.
Allison Kugel: Darren Star recently claimed there is a statistic showing that women are often put in positions of power during extreme corporate shake ups, placing them on what he referred to as "the edge of a cliff," and making them more vulnerable to failure in their respective positions. In Younger, Hilary Duff's character, Kelsey, experiences this when she is put in charge of Millennial Publishing during a shake up in the company. Do you think the audience is ultimately looking to be entertained by her failure, or inspired by her success?
Debi Mazar: I think the audience is watching to see what happens. We all live on the edge of not knowing whether we're going to be a failure or a success, and failure and success is something that is measured by ego. It could be measured in many different ways. I don’t know if that is a proven statistic, but I happen to think that women are stronger than men in many ways. Women turn shit around all the time. There are a lot of success stories in Corporate America of how women have turned things around. So, I don't really know where that statistic comes from and I don't think it's a male or female thing, necessarily. Half of it is luck and timing, anyway.
Allison Kugel: Do you think someone can become extremely successful playing by the rules, or do you think that rules must be broken while chasing a dream?
Debi Mazar: A rebel has to break rules. You have to take chances, and you have to fall on your face before you get back up and know that you made a mistake, and you can try to do it differently. I think you have to break the rules to a degree… in a smart way.
Allison Kugel: Who in your life has made you most proud to have been born a woman?
Debi Mazar: It's interesting, because I wanted to have a son, but I got daughters. I'm proud that they ended up being girls, because they're magnificent. I look at Malala [Yousafzai] paving the way. She was tortured; being a woman representing a society and getting shot in the head, and then going out there and being an activist. There's the Gloria Steinems of the world, and a billion other women of the world. Had they been born men… I just think that gender isn’t necessarily the answer. The gender discussion now is so big that sometimes people aren't born women and they choose to become them. And, hey, that's a beautiful thing too.
Allison Kugel: Why do you think ageism is so prevalent in American culture, specifically?
Debi Mazar: Oh God! Well I think it's not just America, unfortunately.
Allison Kugel: Since you live in Italy for part of the year, would you say it is similar or different in that respect?
Debi Mazar: I feel young for my age, to a degree, but my body doesn't always feel so young because I'm not, and it's just how it is. Throughout history, men were always the presidents in America. We still haven't had an American president that's a female. When I'm in Europe, people appreciate people, whether they have leathery skin or not. It's about character and their souls and their mind. I do feel appreciated in America, because I think it's about the frame of mind of the person who might feel the ageism. I might not be able to go out and get a job that a twenty-year old is getting, but I don't try to do that. In fact, when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I was chasing after the roles of grandmothers on sitcoms. I don’t care about the number. As an actor, we all have to be different shapes, sizes, colors and have imperfections. That’s what makes us look interesting.
Allison Kugel: What are your thoughts on Younger's lead character Liza (played by Sutton Foster) relaunching her career in publishing by lying about her age? The series starts off with her pretending to be twenty-six, although she is a forty-year-old divorcee with a teenage daughter.
Debi Mazar: When the series starts off, her character was damaged. She was a divorcee suffering from a broken heart, a broken family, living in the suburbs, truly devoting herself to her child, which we all do. Suddenly she is single and going, "Oh my God, my daughter is moving out and going to college. What the hell am I going to do?" When she comes to my apartment, I am there to save her and wrap her up in my arms and be a friend first. I tell her, "I love you, you're great, you're beautiful." When all of these [job] interviews are not working out, I suggest she have some fun and change it up. When I first started my career, I didn't have a lot of acting credits and I fudged a little bit on my resume to make it look better than it was, because I wanted to get some action. I don't think there's anything wrong with hustling, embellishing and trying to convince people that you can do the job.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of this generation leading the way, what's one piece of technology that you can't live without, personally and professionally?
Debi Mazar: Instagram, hands down! I'm able to post a still-life image that I find beautiful, or I’m able to show something that I shoot a picture of, that's funny and makes people laugh. I'm able to share a photograph of a throwback from a moment in my life. It's a reflection of my sense of style, my sense of photography, my sense of depth of field, color and comedy. To me, Instagram is really that and I keep my feed positive. On the flip side of it, when people come after me for my anti-Trump stuff or political stuff, I just block certain people. I don't want to read into it and fall down that rabbit hole. I love WhatsApp because you can talk to anybody all over the world, and I also love how in Europe everyone walks down the street voice messaging into their phone's mic, instead of texting. That's my new favorite thing to do.
Allison Kugel: Towards the end of season six of Younger, your character Maggie is having a steamy fling with actress Nicole Ari Parker, who guest stars on the show. What was that like?
Debi Mazar: You know, Nicole Ari Parker did the two episodes of our show and we never closed out the fact that we're having this little affair. Then I date a guy after her. It shows that Maggie's hot to trot, and she's on the market
Allison Kugel: Your character is very fluid, sexually?
Debi Mazar: Actually, she's not fluid, but she is just seduced by a single moment with a man in that one episode. So, she's not fluid. But if Darren [Star] decides I'm fluid in season seven, then I guess I will be (laughs).
Allison Kugel: (Laughs)
Debi Mazar: But he decided, at least in season six, that I wasn't, and I'm fine with that. If I have to, I'd much rather make out with girls than make out with guys, because I’m married, and I only want to kiss my husband.
Allison Kugel: I get that.
Debi Mazar: I mean, if I have to it's okay, it's part of my job, but it's much easier for me to go on set and be like, "Look, we got this. Let's make this fun." Sometimes you get these actresses who get a little bit nervous. I just make them feel calm and loved and feel easy about doing the scene with me. Nicole [Ari Parker] and I had moments where we'd be on the street ready to make out for a scene, and I taught her how to kiss me for the cameras. We didn’t have to put tongues down, we just put our lips together and smash our faces together like they did in the 1920's movies. It doesn’t have to be this groping, weird thing. Actors can make it look good if they know what they're doing. It's really about the suggestion of sensuality.
Allison Kugel: You've had a group of eclectic and fabulous friends over the years. What kinds of people do you typically gravitate towards in your own life?
Debi Mazar: I'm that person that supports all people. I love fucked up people; I love straight shooters; I love people that are very by the book. I just see beauty in all kinds of people. When you let go of the norms and you allow people to be who they are, you find beauty and strength in them.
Younger airs on TV Land on Wednesdays at 10/9c. Catch up on Seasons 1-6 on TV Land On Demand or on Hulu and PlayStation Vue. Follow Debi Mazar on Instagram @debimazar.
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.
Photos courtesy of TV Land. Transcription and Typesetting: Carolyn Strum.
By Allison Kugel
There's something about an action-packed storyline with science fiction flare and brilliantly executed martial arts work that never fails to capture an audiences' imagination. The new Netflix series, Wu Assassins, delivers on all fronts and ushers in a true renaissance for martial arts as the centerpiece of a television show. Born from the legacy of the late Wing Chun, Kung Fu master turned movie star, Bruce Lee, Hollywood has been capitalizing on this phenomenon for five decades and counting. After Lee introduced the west to martial arts as entertainment, much of the culture was broken up and pilfered in bits and pieces, both, prior to and after Lee's untimely death in 1973. As with the appropriation of any culture, the originators lose some ownership, while beneficiaries make great gains financially, physically, and even spiritually.
On the flipside, this cross pollination of cultural traditions, has paid humanity large dividends in the form of intercultural and interracial familiarity, greater tolerance for different cultures and a stronger sense of globalism around the world. In many ways, the global melting pot effect has been worth its weight in gold.
In a new era where artists are gaining more autonomy and creative freedom, shows like Dear White People, Black-ish, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and now Wu Assassins are allowing those that produce such content to spread the wealth while taking back power and ownership of their own cultures, and directing the narratives they want the world to see.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with two of the stars of Wu Assassins, Byron Mann and Tzi Ma, both born in Hong Kong, and both gifted actors and martial artists. Throughout our conversation, we discussed how Netflix's most action-packed new series came together.
Allison Kugel: What do you guys see as the connection between the martial arts and Hollywood?
Tzi Ma: Martial arts and Hollywood have a long history. Because the martial arts are so fascinating and so spectacular, Hollywood has always taken an interest in martial arts. It's just that they couldn't always re-produce the kind of martial arts that I believe Hong Kong cinema has presented to the world. Once they figured out how to do that, they really continue to try to adopt it. I think the fight sequences in American cinema and television, prior to the introduction of Hong Kong martial arts, I don't want to say it's not good, but it wasn't as spectacular as what Hong Kong Cinema had to offer.
Byron Mann - I call it the Bruce Lee Effect, which was in the late 1960s and 1970s. I think Bruce Lee was probably one of the main catalysts in the last sixty years to bring Chinese culture and martial arts to the forefront of Hollywood in a big way. We're still feeling the effect of Bruce Lee, today. If you're an Asian male actor, chances are you will be cast, or they will ask to see if you can do some kind of martial arts in your role. I've certainly experienced that. I’m sure Tzi has experienced that as well.
Allison Kugel – What are your feelings about that? Do you feel honored by that legacy, or do you feel typecast by it?
Byron Mann: I have dual feelings about it. When I first started out in my career, all the roles were martial arts roles. Suddenly, I was the guy that does martial arts. He could be a lawyer, but he still did martial arts. He could be a doctor, and suddenly he is doing martial arts. At first, I didn't mind because I thought it was fun. Then I got to a point where I thought, "Come on guys," and I had to push back on it and say, There is no reason why this [character] should be doing martial arts. Now I'm reaching a third stage, where I am studying martial arts in my own life and appreciating that it came from thousands of years ago in China. In learning Chinese martial arts, I'm actually learning about my own culture.
Tzi Ma: My journey is kind of inverted from Byron's. I began studying martial arts when I was ten years old. I had stopped studying it because I wanted to focus on acting. I felt that if I was going to be a martial artist then I'm should be a martial artist, and If I'm going to be an actor then I'm should pursue acting as opposed to pursuing a career where I'm going to fight. So, I avoided it like the plague, particularly when martial artists at one time in Hollywood were mainly villains. For a long time, the way scripts were written, the hero was always white, and the victim was always an Asian woman. I made three rules for myself early on in my career. One: if you want me to be the bad guy, then the heroes must be Asian or Asian Americans; Two: there's no Asian or Asian-American woman being victimized; and Three: there's a balance of good and evil distributed evenly by race.
Allison Kugel: When did you see the tide turning in your favor?
Tzi Ma: When I saw the movie Rapid Fire, in which Brandon Lee was the hero, I felt that finally we had an opportunity for the Asian hero to come in and save the day, and where all the victims were organized crime figures. And there was no Asian or Asian American woman victimized. A lot of times the scenario back in the day was that the Asian woman was somehow sexually or physically violated and then you have the white hero who comes in and saves the day, and she goes to bed with him. I can't buy that scenario and it's offensive to me.
Allison Kugel: Why do you think Netflix has decided to take a chance on the martial arts/sci-fi genre at this time, with Wu Assassins?
Tzi Ma: Action/Adventure is very easy to sell because there is no explanation necessary; a fight is a fight and a car chase is a car chase. It's easy for the audience. The martial arts of late have experienced some recent changes, stylistically. I think that the fights are a lot more realistic given all the popularity with MMA and with UFC. All those things have re-sparked an interest in the martial arts genre. Netflix, at this point, their subscription base is saturated in the United States and they need to expand globally. I think this genre is a good opportunity for them to use as a vehicle to introduce the world audience to Netflix.
Byron Mann: I had a conversation with Chris Regina, an executive at Netflix who was instrumental in getting our series made, and he said that prior to Wu Assassins there hadn't been any shows on Netflix that predominantly featured martial arts. And it's true that action is the easiest genre to sell around the world. John Wirth, our showrunner, wanted to create more than just a martial arts show. He wanted to create a show that represents Asian-Americans, in general, and a show about family. It's these three things all mixed into one.
Allison Kugel: There's a spiritual aspect to the show because you have the five elements of earth represented, and Byron, your character's superpower is fire. Can you speak to the spiritual and moral aspects of the show and how these five elements come into play?
Byron Mann: It was a good entry point into this world that the show brings you into. The five elements are prominently featured in Chinese mythology. And in terms of the morality and spirituality, my character, Uncle Six, his morality started and ended with his adopted son, Kai Jin, who is played by Iko Uwais. His son was his morality. His son was what caused him to go from the dark to the light. And he didn't quite want to. I think his love for his son caught him by surprise.
Tzi Ma: John Wirth is really a special individual and Byron and I know that because we also experienced it with him in Hell on Wheels. Here is an individual who really pays attention to what your point of view is, because he doesn't look at us from his point of view. He is trying to look at the world through our point of view; through our eyes. The five elements are really important in Chinese culture. Chinese medicine is based on these five elements. John hired Asian American writers in the writer’s room. The show goes a lot deeper than just martial arts as Byron pointed out. Not only do you have the sci-fi Supernatural aspect, but you also have the balance of this kind of reality about the people who make their living in San Francisco's Chinatown. Eventually or subconsciously the audience is going to be able to absorb some of these things without being hit over the head with a representation of Asian-Americans within a television series.
Allison Kugel: Let's talk about the fight scenes. How much of it is you doing the actual fighting, how is it all choreographed and what type of martial arts are you using?
Byron Mann: The form of martial arts that was predominantly featured in Wu Assasins is called Silat; an Indonesian martial art. It has a lot of grappling and the moves are fast, less flowery, and more straight-forward. Iko Uwais brought his team of choreographers from Indonesia to choreograph the fights. They worked in conjunction with two very good fight choreographers and stunt coordinators, Dan Rizzuto and Kimani Ray Smith. We had rehearsal times, and they varied depending on the schedule. Sometimes we had a week to rehearse the scene, sometimes we had two days, and sometimes we did it on the day that we rehearsed it.
Allison Kugel: Are they shot as one continuous sequence or are you stopping a lot?
Byron Mann: Generally, action is shot in parts. It's boom boom boom and cut; then boom boom boom and cut. They do this so they can feature some close-ups and inserts. Secondly, not a lot of people can do continuous action well. You really need someone with very strong martial arts skills who can do those fight sequences continually for minutes at a time. Interestingly, in episode four, when Uncle Six fights with Kai Jin, it's a big moment in the series where we go head-to-head, father and son. So for that particular scene, I lobbied that they show us fighting in a continuous sequence and that there would be no cuts. If you look at the episode four, you will see it. For that scene, I wanted the audience to know that we were not cheating them and not cutting things out.
Tzi Ma: You also have a cast who are really good at what they do, and Byron is no stranger to martial arts. You also have Lewis Tan who is a brilliant martial artist and of amazing pedigree; his father Philip Tan is an action director and stuntman. Then you have JuJu Chan who represented Hong Kong is Taekwondo in the Olympics and Katheryn Winnick, who is a taekwondo martial artist and black belt. So, you have a core group of people who really live up to the demands [of this show] and who can bring the goods. The fight sequences on our show, I would dare to say, are the best fights on TV today.
Allison Kugel: Both of you are originally from Hong Kong. What are your thoughts on how we live in the West in terms of things like health and wellness, and the way we live our lives in general?
Byron Mann: The place with the greatest longevity in the world is Hong Kong. My take on it is that when you get older in life in Hong Kong, people there have a general tradition where every Sunday you get together with your family for lunch, or dim sum, or for dinner. I’ve lived in China, in Canada and in the United States. You see less of that happening in other places. In Hong Kong, as people get older they are surrounded by their family, their children, their grandchildren and their friends any day of the week. It keeps them going emotionally. In Hong Kong, no one buys or eats processed food. Everybody goes down to the marketplace and buys fresh fish, chicken, beef, fruits and vegetables. That leads to longevity. You see a lot less of that in the west.
Tzi Ma: I did not grow up in Hong Kong. I was born in Hong Kong, but I was brought up in New York City. So, my experience is similar to yours, but I'm learning from Byron. Maybe I should move back to Hong Kong since it has such benefits!
Allison Kugel: What do you hope audiences will gain from watching Wu Assassins?
Byron Mann: Usually the audience's reaction catches me by surprise. There is a scene in episode seven where Uncle Six (played by Mann) and Kai Jin (played by Iko Uwais) are eating in a very rural neighborhood and there's a big interaction with a waitress who has racist views. In that scene, I give her a long speech about the history of Chinese people in America, and how they were discriminated against systematically. When I read the scene I just thought, "People are going to be so bored with this because it's like a history lesson. Who wants to see that in an entertainment show?" I just did the scene to the best of my ability and left it at that. Since the show has come out, people have gravitated towards that scene, and not just Asian people; all types of people have mentioned that scene to me over and over again. That totally caught me by surprise. In that respect, I hope the show can galvanize good, positive conversations that will help this country, or help the world today. We need more of these positive energies to unite people, not to divide people.
Tzi Ma: Byron really hit the nail on the head. Any show that allows the world audience to at least have an opportunity to correct the perception of who we really are is important. I think Wu Assassins offers that without giving you a lecture about it. Martial arts and supernatural are very popular genres in entertainment, so for me it is like a delivery system to [introduce who we are] to the world. What we try to deliver is something for the world audience to understand who we are as Asians and as Asian-Americans; as a community and as a people.
Photos courtesy of Netflix; Transcription and Typesetting: Carolyn Strum.
The first season of Wu Assassins is now streaming on Netflix. Follow Byron Mann on Twitter @ByronMann and on Instagram at @ByronMann1. Follow Tzi Ma on Facebook @Official.TziMa and on Instagram @TziMa8.
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.
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.
Allison Kugel: I get that. Speaking of being a child actor, because you lived the experience, I would assume the kids in the cast of Raven's Home come to you for advice.
Raven-Symone: They've been very open with me and talked to me about things, and I've given advice. I appreciate that they respect what I have to say, but they still have to go through that journey on their own. They are starting their journey in the entertainment industry, so they don't want to say "no" to anything. They want to take every opportunity possible. I tell them they need to take a break. Of course, my journey was different from theirs; I grew up in a different time period. Now, there are so many more rules regarding child actors, and people who are looking out for their safety and well-being. Back in my day, I'd be working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; and then I was told I was speaking somewhere on Sunday. It was just a hot mess. Hopefully, what I've earned in the industry will settle into them, and they will grow up without having that arrested development… aftertaste (laughs).
Allison Kugel: When you started in the business as a small child, there was no social media. Can you imagine the schedule you had back then, plus posting content to Instagram and Snapchat?
Raven-Symone: One good thing is that cell phones are banned from sets. Disney has a great policy of not posting anything prematurely. Instead of taking a break, I see people posting and Instagramming all day. I remember when I was on That's So Raven and there was a break; I took naps. Now there's this extra element of having to stay current in the eyes of the consumer, and you get even more depleted. Taking needed breaks is healthy for the sanity of the human being, rather than the "celebrity."
Allison Kugel: Will there ever be a Raven's Home episode where you delve into the topic of kids overdoing it with video games and social media?
Raven-Symone: We touch on that topic, and it comes with a spoon full of sugar. What sets us apart from other shows like ours is we deal with these topics, but we deal with them with a realistic view, so both the parents are learning, and the kids are learning. Everybody learns on our show.
Allison Kugel: Can you share any special guest stars coming on, or any other surprises this season?
Raven-Symone: We have a friend of mine, Jaleel White (of "Family Matters," Steve Urkel fame), coming on the show. He has a nice little story arc with Raven Baxter and the kids. We also get to meet Chelsea's (played by Anneliese van der Pol) ex-husband, who has been incarcerated.
Allison Kugel: That's heavy.
Raven-Symone: Yes, and he finally comes out [of prison] and he starts designing a family that involves him, which I think is wonderful.
Allison Kugel: Where do you see things going for you in the next five to ten years? Would you love to be behind the scenes more, producing and directing for a company like Disney?
Raven-Symone: I see myself creating more content with Disney where my face is not in the front, but behind the scenes. I see myself creating more feature length content as well. I see myself graduating from school. I just want to graduate; I am the slowest student! I can only take one class per semester, and my mom would have a fit if I turned in anything less than a B-. So, it's hard with my schedule. I want to take more classes in directing. I got to direct an episode for Raven's Home, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Allison Kugel: Could you see yourself at some point directing a theatrical release film or producing?
Raven-Symone: Most definitely. That's the goal. Another goal of mine is to be a musical director. I love the Disney musicals and I love theatre. At fifty years old, I would love to direct in the capacity of feature lengths and musicals for sure.
Season three of "Raven's Home" premieres Monday, June 17 (8pm ET/PT) on Disney Channel and DisneyNOW. Follow Raven-Symone
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: Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
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