“I’m a writer. I figured that out young, and writers write.”
They speculate. Engage ideas. And at that moment in time, in the ’80s, I was hearing a lot about what people would like to do if they got into power, and having been born in 1939 and been through WWII and its aftermath when we were all trying to understand what happened, I knew Hitler spelled it all out in the 1920s, in his book, what he would like to do if he got power, and people did not take that seriously.”
So I believe if someone says they will do certain things, unimaginable things to many, they will, in fact, do them when they get the power they’re after. That is what you’re seeing now. What’s going on now with those in charge in this country was forecast then and since: They told us what they were planning and now it’s in progress. We can’t say we’re in a totalitarian state now, not yet, because we wouldn’t be talking—I wouldn’t be talking as much as I am—I’d be in jail.
Margaret Atwood on writing “The Testaments.” Interview by Amy Grace Loyd for Esquire.com, 9/24/2019
I spent quite a bit of time on the set of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s poignant adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best selling novel, “The Secret Life of Boys.” Given the task to produce the behind the scenes footage and content for this high profile project was both enviable and fulfilling. Impeccably cast with such luminaries as Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning, I sat down with all of these formidable talents on set on some cold and rainy days in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2007, later following up with them at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
I’ll never forget that beautifully designed pink house, the centerpiece of Monk Kidd’s historical novel chronicling the life of a young white girl on the cusp of womanhood and the effect her housekeeper, and especially, a family of three beekeeping sisters have on her life. Projected against the canvas of the Civil Rights era in the Amercian South, the layers on which the narrative is told still resonate today, perhaps even more so.
The interviews with the cast had to encompass a dialogue on racial and gender equality, a conversation that has lost none of its power or importance today. At the time of principal photography, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were both seeking the Democratic Nomination for president. It was a time of great hope and wonder, at seeing history happen before our very eyes. It was an inspiring force, particularly for the cast who were essaying roles set in an era of great pain and suffering in a war for societal change.
Grammy winner Alicia Keys was at the peak of her popularity when she signed on to star in “The Secret Life of Bees” in 2007. Still a vocal activist and philanthropist today, I chose this interview as the second installment of “Generic” as a means to bridge our conversation in 2008 with today’s dialogue on fighting to protect and promote gender and racial equality. Keys has not given up the fight in 2017, as heard through her artistry and public appearances. Neither should any of you.
The Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto
September 8, 2008
Few recording artists today have the incredible staying – and selling — power like that of Alicia Keys.
Instantly setting herself apart from her rump-shaking contemporaries upon her 2001 debut, Keys’ smooth blend of old school soul and rhythm & blues continues to court global favor. With 11 Grammy awards on her shelf, as well as more than 20 million albums sold worldwide, the musical life of Ms. Keys is without compare. So, why the eagerness to extend her artistic reach into acting where so many others have been met with deaf ears? The answers were direct and simple.
Performance for Keys comes from the same place and she is more than up for the challenge of voicing new words without music. However, what matters for this artistic hyphenate – which continues to extend with new titles – is that what she is saying is something of worth. And in 2008, Keys proved she had quite a bit to say through several mediums, beginning with her most challenging motion picture effort to date, an acclaimed role in the hit screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.”
Citing the novel as one of her favorite books, Keys was eager to portray “June Boatwright,” the strong protector of a trio of beekeeping sisters living in 1960s era rural American south. What drew Keys to the project was that the character of “June” more than understands the racial strife of the outside world and its threat to the idyllic Eden of her family home. It is no coincidence that the character’s ability to express a softer emotion is through playing the cello, something Keys, already trained musician in her own right, sought to learn to give realism to the role. It is a scene-stealing performance, in spite of formidable work from co-stars Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Hudson. Yet, it was the experience of making her third film, in advance of the most historic moment in African-American history that offered Keys the most gratifying and educational experience of her career.
In discussing this latest chapter in her life, the 27-year-old native New Yorker proved as passionate and focused as she sounds in such hits as “No One” and “Fallin’.” Those smoky tones are no studio-enhanced trick, something I commented to her during our chat at the Toronto Film Festival for “The Secret Life of Bees” earlier in September. Shamelessly, I said it was a “drop-drawers” kind of voice. I got a flash of that amazing smile and a husky laugh.
It is encouraging to know that film will continue a role in her life, whether on screen or by contributing music. In addition to “Doncha Know (Sky is Blue), the end credits song from “The Secret Life of Bees,” Keys can also be heard with Jack White (of The White Stripes) tearing through “Another Way to Die,” the theme to the new James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” Even with just being nominated for a few more Grammy Awards for several tracks off her recent “As I Am” album, art will have to share space with her most serious endeavor, working tirelessly as a global ambassador for Keep A Child Alive, a non-profit organization that provides life-saving AIDS medicines directly to children and families living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Yes, this Julliard-trained hyphenate knows no bounds this year, one of the 2008’s most important personalities.
Without further delay, a confession that is truly in the key of Alicia.
JORGE CARREON: It can be said that each of the woman in “The Secret Life of Bees” represents a different facet of what it is to be a woman. Would you agree with that?
ALICIA KEYS: I would. I really do see the many variations of beautiful women in this film. They come in all styles, shapes, sizes, colors and all types of pasts; things that we’re recovering from and going through and embracing. So I do agree.
CARREON: Regardless of the film’s time frame and issues, is it really hard to be a woman?
KEYS: I think it is. It’s the most beautiful thing to be on the planet, so that’s first. But secondly, it is difficult to be a woman because we carry a lot on our shoulders and we are very, very strong. Sometimes we make it look really easy, but it’s not always easy. I think another thing we do as women is we hold things inside of us because we have to keep on pushing and keep going. Keep going for our family, our kids, for the ones that we love, you know? Sometimes that does weigh heavily on us. But I think that we are the most resilient and we are definitely just beautiful creatures. I love being a woman. I love it very much.
CARREON: Do you think such gender driven a story like “The Secret Life of Bees” has a place in contemporary entertainment that extends beyond a female audience?
KEYS: There are so many wonderful women in the world and we have to be represented properly. So, yes! It is time to tell more interesting stories about the many variations of women.
CARREON: Men are thinking, “How does this relate to me?”
KEYS: I think ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is something that will relate to a lot of men. In fact, all the men that I spoke to were like, “I’ll tell you what. I thought it was a ‘chick flick,’ but I really loved it.” They can see in the women their mothers, their sisters, lovers they know. They can see all the women that they know and they can see their own experience being a young person displaced and trying to find their way through it all. It’s not really about color and it’s not about gender. It’s about the experience of finding your place in this world and I think that’s something that everyone can relate to. It’s a story about the human condition. We can all relate to love, family, defeat, and fear. And, we can all relate inspiration, hope, and faith. These are all the themes that are inside the movie.
CARREON As you continue to evolve as an artist, what made this filmmaking experience important to you?
KEYS: This experience is what I expected it to be and more! I learned that it’s just incredible to be around such fascinating women. I learned that it’s amazing to be directed by a woman like Gina (Prince-Bythewood), who was the screenwriter as well. I learned that when you put a whole lot of great women in one space, it’s a wonderful outcome.
CARREON: Faith continues to be a buzzword in the media of late. It seems entertainment is not shying away from addressing such themes, either. Why do you think faith and family have to go hand in hand?
KEYS: Faith brings the family together. And through all of the things that families go through, it’s the faith that we keep that allows us to know that we’ll make it through everything. You can’t do it on your own, even if it’s just one person; you need someone that has that faith with you.
CARREON: Do you find yourself thinking about your life’s journey after being part of a project like a film as opposed to music?
KEYS: Very much so. Always. Especially now, I am definitely searching for my place, my stability, what I’d like for myself. It’s a good journey because sometimes I just dig and find and figure it out. That’s what I think they’ve all done in “The Secret Life of Bees” and I’m doing it, too.
CARREON: Is there any coincidence that three of the film’s leads are actually musicians in their own right?
ALICIA KEYS: No! (Laughs)
CARREON: As your career continues to evolve, do you feel different about music and acting in a movie? Is it exercising the same muscle or is it nice to switch it up a little bit?
KEYS: Well, for me, acting and music do come from the same muscle in regards to tapping into something that’s honest and pure. You’re expressing it with abandonment, and in that way, it’s very much the same. The difference is, obviously, you are in a film. You’re becoming a different person from yourself, so you’re expressing another person’s story. With music, I’m expressing my story but it’s so similar because you’re empathetic, you understand it and you can connect. What I find about “June,” I can connect with every part of her. I understand her from a woman’s perspective, from a transitional perspective, from growing from one kind of part of your self into the next. There’s so much of me in her.
CARREON: “Bees” director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood gave the cast an amazing amount of resources to feel connected to the period of the film. Why is it important then, Alicia, to continue to look back to honor the struggles of one time and how they parallel to our own contemporary experience?
KEYS: That’s something that we discussed a lot. Gina has been phenomenal in providing us with a multitude of ways to dig out who our characters are and where they sit amongst society and what’s happening in the society at this time. The NAACP and SNCC and all of these organizations that were coming up were really fighting powerfully for a major change with the opportunity for Black people to be able to vote. It’s an incredible history. Sometimes we go on in life and don’t realize the amount of struggle that it took to just get to the point of where we are. You know how many people say, “Oh, I’m not voting, it’s rigged anyway.” How many people struggled, fought and died for that and you take it for granted as if it’s not important to utilize your voice when that’s all we wanted? To have a voice? It’s important to remember and understand things like that. To understand where we have come from and to realize that we, honestly, haven’t even come that far, which is the sad part. You know what I mean? Because you think about the state of the world today and I think about where we are in this film, and it’s almost parallel. Major change, radical change, much struggle and fighting needed to just demand something different.
CARREON: The film offers your first of two new songs bearing your voice this year. What was the inspiration for the song featured in “The Secret Life of Bees?”
KEYS: I love the song in the film and it really represents it perfectly. Just the fact that sometimes you might feel down, you might feel like the world is on your shoulders, but have a little faith in you because the sky is blue.
** My interview with Alicia Keys was conducted on September 8, 2008, at the Toronto Film Festival for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.
It’s been another week to upchuck thanks to the now even lower set of public standards established by our “president.” Defended by his equally inept minions as “fighting fire with fire” over media criticism, we are forced to bear witness to the tweeted verbal diarrhea of a school yard bully. Morning show hosts are being called out as “psycho” or “ugly.” He’s approving clips of his taking down the CNN logo like a WWF star. It’s all being done to overshadow a travel bans, dangerous health care laws and other exhibitions of governmental malfeasance now threatening the stability of the country. Hell, let’s make it the world. After years of “scripted” reality shows, we are keep tuning in on “That Crazy Trump!” because so many Americans can’t tell the difference anymore. Besides, it’s so entertaining! He’s keeping it real! He’s giving it to the Left, finally!
Yeah, he’s giving it to us, alright. However, one key difference must be recognized. We are ALL going to wake up with a scorching case of moral herpes. America will be that person other people whisper to you about NEVER dating because “they’re whores.” We are exactly that, whores. Trading our sanity and moral compass for the promise of something, white, rich and devoid of anything that sounds/looks like Barack Obama.
Many people turned to the Trumpian Way because they wanted to go back to the “old days” of when America was great. One of the sadder realities about such sentiments is that Trump does not represent what made this country such a beacon of hope to many. We know that racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia will fight to the end before leaving their places at the table. It is why many have taken up the mantle of resistance for generations. However, this era on “notice me” and “I want it now” has overtaken the important of virtues of shame, accountability, respect, tolerance and inclusivity. More, it is robbing us of the one thing that could bind us to see our way through it: a sense of humor.
The era of “snark and awe” punditry has obfuscated the role of the news person represented by Chet Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. The columnist and humorist is no less present, either, replaced by bloggers, vloggers and YouTube “personalities,” fueled by a cynical and arch tone aimed at showing how stupid everything and everyone can be today. It is the equivalent of graffiti with punctuation, offering little analysis and said as loudly as possible. All that matters are that these posts make an “impression.”
Making an impression.
Before, it meant impressing the group as they met you for the first time. Now? Social media marketing execs with crow about millions of impressions, but they cannot accurately gauge if it goes beyond just “looking” at the post. Does the audience engage with it beyond just blithely sharing it with their friends? Does it provoke them into acting? Of buying? Of contributing to the cause? Of any of the interactions we did not take for granted decades earlier?
The American columnist once carried such power, a power on par with reach and impact of Twitter today. From Andy Rooney to Ann Landers, from Louella Parsons to Hedda Hopper & Rona Barrett, and from Walter Winchell to Frank Rich, Americans read, listened and watched their way to understanding the political, social, cultural and gossipy effluvia of the growing celebrity age. They could turn the tide on national opinion and they gave it context beyond 140 characters or less. Sure, some of them appealed to the lowest common denominator. William Randolph Hearst makes Steve Bannon look like sloppy kid reporter with pizza stains on his chin. But we had a choice. We had options that catered to something classier. One stood above the fray, whose columns were about our shared humanity in a crazy world, all written to make us feel like we weren’t alone in our flawed beauty. And it made us smile, cry and laugh. Sometimes all at once. We had Erma. Erma Louise Bombeck of Dayton, Ohio.
Friends, she was a wise one. Clever, authentic, and funny AF. It was hella fun playing “Beat the Clock” during those elementary school mornings, the ones where she’d appear on Good Morning America right before the end of the final hour. My mom, who loved Auntie Erm as much as I did, would listen and laugh and then sweep us all out the door to our faithful aqua Beetle and haul ass to South Ranchito. She was so worth the tardy slip.
The inimitable Erma Bombeck, one of the most beloved American humorists of the 20th century. Her “At Wit’s End” nationally syndicated column appeared three times a week in 900 newspapers worldwide, earning a weekly readership of 31 million people at its peak. Bombeck’s columns, books and morning show appearances seduced a legion of fans comprised of women, men and even precocious kids like me. So beloved was she to her readers, it was like she was that Auntie Mame-like tía you couldn’t wait to see on family visits. No one exists like that today, a lost generation replaced by Kris Jenner and Kim K., who are now the criteria to be declared “New York Times Best Selling” writers in this era of Selfie Life as Style.
“They never lost their temper, gained weight, spent more money than their husbands made, or gave viewers any reason not to believe they were living out their lives in celibacy.
Their collective virtue was patience.
It was the age of the God, Motherhood, Flag, and Apple Pie. All you had to do to be a mother was to put on an apron. No one did it better than the prime-time mothers. I was of the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time-mothers.” – From Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession, 1983
Unfortunately, life after Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson and Carol Brady has been a trauma that will never be solved with a warm, homemade chocolate chip cookie and a hug. Aunt Erma was that voice of sanity in the chaos faced by the country in the 1970s and 1980s. While many fought for equality at home and in the workplace, people were still becoming parents and struggling with the many realities that plagued every new mom and dad. Erma was in the trenches with them, offering up a much-needed laugh in the face of what seemed insurmountable. She spoke to us, about us and it gave many of us a sense of security in knowing we were not alone in the changing tide of family dynamics.
Given our current state of angry racial, gender and cultural politics, a new generation may fault the writings of Bombeck as a dusty reflection of that suburban, white reality. Isn’t that what Trump’s legion of “fans” fighting to restore? But here’s the rub. It was never lost, just remixed by the inevitable forward motion of other groups in the land of plenty. Latinos, African Americans, Asians, all groups aspired and succeeded in reinventing the suburban experience in their own image. Struggling through oppression is not the only narrative we can contribute anymore! We have more to offer tales from life on the house on Mango Street or pen the umpteenth take on the “last mama on the couch” play, too.
The impact of Bombeck’s writing was a needed respite, especially after the upheaval of the 1970s. The 1980s were no easier thanks to the barrage of the Phil Donahue/Gail Sheehy/Self-Help Guru/You Can Have It All narratives that we started to ingest. We need a little Bombeck-style love again. We need someone who can write about the themes that are continuing to happen at a breakneck speed, despite the ugly that has exploded forth with Trump.
We continue to be new parents.
We continue to raise children.
We continue to be children.
We continue to see children as parents.
The grass is still greener over the septic tank.
We are still thinking if life is a bowl of cherries, while are we STILL in the pits?
We need a new Aunt Erma’s help to cope.
I say resist the snark and awe. Enough of the screaming. Enough of the blaming or bullying total strangers. No more extoling the virtues of sex tapes, reality stars, impressions and followers. We need to stop thinking our best means of curating an authentic life are those posts that disappear in 24 hours. We need to speak up and share our best insights and humorous outlooks at life today. We need to share those stories when we hear our kids refer to spaghetti as “gasphetti.”
Whatever our political sensibilities, we do share one common reality: we are such flawed human beings. Bombeck wasn’t shy to offer keen insight into her own less than perfect reality, which was a welcome breath of the authentic. As wrote about her family in “If Life is a Bowl of Cherries…”:
“I did not get these varicose veins of the neck from whispering. We shout at one another. We say hateful things. We cry, slam doors, goof off, make mistakes, experience disappointments, tragedies, sickness and traumas. When I last checked, we were members in good standing of your basic screw-up family.
There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.
And how do you know laughter if there is no pain to compare it with?”
We are all enduring the pain of an era we can’t seem to fathom on the daily. Maybe it’s time to take a breath and look beyond the 140 characters. Maybe it’s time for us to champion voices that lead us to feel it all a la Bombeck again.
Hmmm. Maybe it’s time for some tío Jorge realness in our lives? Who’s with me?
Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much Or berate yourself either Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s
— From columnist Mary Schmich‘s essay for the Chicago Tribune, June 1997
Finally, a reason to write an essay about being proud and happy. I’m hitting the “Pause” button on my ravings to concentrate on an experience shared by many of us: the day we graduate from high school.
It goes without saying that we are never really ever out of school. Classrooms are either ground zero for inspiration and imagination or a repelling force that hurtles bodies into other stratospheres of life. I will never judge those who deem the classroom as their Waterloo, either. Valuable lessons can only be learned if we’re open to them, whether out of a book or experience. But the act of graduating, of moving forward, is such an empowering reality.
I’ve never been good about letting go of things or moving forward. Hell, I didn’t even graduate from college. But that’s another story. It’s just too easy to choose the safe confines of avoiding confrontation or making decisions that can alleviate all that ails or stagnates us. But, sooner or later, you get your PhD in courage and strength. You walk, head held high, smiling at all that you’ve accomplished. You’ve shed that extra weight, that 10-ton magilla of emotion and/or fear, and you move forward.
It was a glorious day to see the photos and videos of my godson graduating from high school in June. He was the first grandchild of my aunt and uncle to graduate from high school. I know my cherished aunt, his forever Nana, was smiling that glorious smile the moment he made his way down the aisle to receive his diploma. Lord knows the family has endured some trying times, but my godson has grown into one of the most sincere, intelligent, genuine and decent human beings on this planet. We need more like him and that’s a testament to his parents’ upbringing, my divine cousin and her husband. I admire their tenacity, more, I admire their ability to remain a unified front against that could tear them asunder. They were not destined to life an acrimonious life of arrogance, keeping up appearances and regret like Las Hermanas y Hermano Coraje, That in itself is a lesson for all of us to uphold and appreciate.
It is going to be exciting to see what happens to my godson next. And rest assured, we will all be there to cheer him on to his next achievements. That goes for all of the grandkids, because that’s what family does. Whether by blood or choice, you stay together through the challenges, emerging stronger and more united. Even if it seems like the pain and emotion will never subside, you will survive intact, and most of all, loved.
I recalled the famed Mary Schmich piece for the Chicago Tribune as I was writing this essay. Immortalized by producer Baz Luhrmann as a surprise pop hit, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” it is the perfect commencement speech. It is a delicious slice of life advice that any columnist worth their Pulitzer Prize would like to represent their abilities. So, in a rare bid of optimism, I am concluding this essay with a special address to the Class of 2017…and anyone else who is taking a step forward into becoming the person they were meant to be.
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.
Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blind side you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday.
Do one thing every day that scares you.
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.
Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.
Get plenty of calcium.
Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.
Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.
Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.
Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.
Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.
Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.
Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good.
Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.
Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.
Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.
Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.
Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.
Respect your elders.
Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.
Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.
“Beauty’s where you find it
Not just where you bump and grind it
Soul is in the musical
That’s where I feel so beautiful
Magical, life’s a ball
So get up on the dance floor…”
— From “Vogue” by Madonna/Shep Pettibone
I started this entry with a basic question:
Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?
It was my intent to deconstruct that specific moment when you knew you could express yourself without fear of being called out for being “different.” It’s that version of yourself that is obfuscated by societal norms or misguided attempts from our parents to “protect” us from a judgmental world. This post was not supposed to be about outward beauty, although that is a prison of different making. As for the rest of us who haven’t scored big at the genetic lottery, we tend to water down the impact of the word “beauty” to its most superficial definition. What do we do with the concept of having a bold personality, of being able to express a powerful sense of verve when we’re young? Why do many of us spend much our adult lives, countless dollars and more trying to coax that child back into existence in the end? Does that qualify as being beautiful, too?
As I discussed this post with my boss and best sparring partner, I found myself unable to defend my position on what I felt meant being beautiful. He kept leading me outside of the boxed context of what I insisted was the point of this piece. He led the debate beyond what is “pleasing to the senses or mind aesthetically.” Before I could even begin to write about “beauty,” he insisted, I had to dig deeper into the complexity of this word.
Greek philosopher Plato maintained that beauty is a universal construct. We may not always recognize beauty through our senses. Each individual’s reaction can be triggered through a different means: sight, sound, smell, etc. Perhaps when we acknowledge something as being “beautiful,” it is because it is a potent reminder as to how our souls possess a wonderful sense of mystery.
The late English art critic John Berger opined that “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” When we do begin to learn how to speak and we start amassing a vocabulary, we also start learning how to use these words to build declarative statements and opinions. These bloom into judgments, influenced and curated by those around us. From that point, how we “see” things in inextricably affected in the end by what we learn and by what we think we “know.”
Bridging Plato to Berger takes a bit more than the foundation I am laying here. Yet, I can see a link to a key moment in my childhood. Addressing the issues of the consequences of being bullied and the body dysmorphia/food addictions that continue to haunt me, which remain a key focus of this diary. So, my initial to my question was:
“I haven’t felt or deemed myself as being beautiful in a long time.”
I reference that hat glorious Spanish summer of 2014. I felt in control of my self and my soul. I felt powerful and limitless, just like I did up until the 4th grade when I became aware of what I saw as being “me” was “different” from the rest of the pack. More, once I understood the hurtful words and opinions hurled at me through elementary school junior high from those who rebuked me mercilessly, I opted to hide much of what made me “me.” And I hurled those same words back to others weaker than me with decided force and intent. My concept of beauty, the image of myself, has never been the same since.
I think about the moment I thought I understood what beauty could mean. Given my middle class life, of course it was built around media. As I discovered much later, I wasn’t alone in my nascent gay self, pouring over Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview and New York magazines, drawn to the light of these glossy pages like a pilgrim making the journey to Lourdes. It is no coincidence that I hid here as much as I did in the literary and musical testaments to cafe society that I regularly snuck into the house from the library. Dad worked in textiles, which first opened a window into fashion, then all things New York City, for me. It didn’t take much to to begin whispering the names of photographers, editors, models and designers with solemnity of a prayer during Sunday mass: Avedon. Penn. Elgort. Newton. Scavullo. Saint Laurent. Givenchy. Dior. Lacroix. Lagerfeld. Halston. Versace. Ellis. Dovima. Turlington. Evangelista. Campbell. Tilberis. Vreeland. Wintour. They were all what I deemed as being “beautiful.”
I felt so superior in thinking that no one knew who they were in Pico Rivera. In reality, this world shielded me from those who tormented me in the hallways of South Ranchito and Meller Jr. High. I knew one day, I’d be able to move amongst them, the ultimate smalltown boy revenge. What it really meant was that I had capitulated to bourgeois materialism in the guise of being cultivated.
Looking back at this now, was this fascination (obsession), really the best definition of “beauty?” Wasn’t this realm of artifice derived from fashion and fashionistas merely examples of what is simply “pretty?” Did it fall under the tenets of beauty attributed to Plato? What did it reveal about me at a young age, chubby, acne’d and peculiar in terms of my own personal code of aesthetics? Was I merely wading into this pool of superficiality, engaging in a clichéd game of middle class rebellion because I hated NOT being one of these people? Perhaps. Oh yes, perhaps. Misguided or not, memorizing the pages of Judith Krantz’s “Scruples” or Jackie Collins’s “Hollywood Wives” left me breathless and eager to get the hell out of the SGV as soon as I could. Needless to say, I sold myself short.
It is no irony that I became a publicist, that messenger of all things glittering and glamorous. I battled with never being as cool as the message, even at the peak of years at 20th Century Fox. I lived and died at the altar of the Hollywood experience. I needed not have bothered. What we should find is truly beautiful is not always the thing we see outwardly. Yet, we continue to bandy about with words that act more as hyperbole than being catalysts of profundity.
I continue to grapple with long cycles of depression, excess eating and overindulgence, which includes the manner I continue to spend my money on material things. It would be easy to fault a steady diet of glitz and glitter as the source of my demons. I won’t, because I still admire the craft of couture, which is a true art to me. I knew what I was doing then and now. As to when I’ll take firm control of those urges, I won’t ever stop trying to compartmentalize them until they torment me no more. Yet, after the debacle of “Fatlanta,” I am still faced with that blasted question: “Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?”
Now that this conversation has started, I realize I have much to learn and understand about what is “beautiful.” It is more than my long held ideal of becoming a gentleman in the style of my cinematic hero Cary Grant. As for the current state of fashion and fashion magazines, the joy is less apparent in this renewed era of status mongering and greed. Nor can my definition be something on par of Madonna’s exquisite paean to other icons of film glamour, “Vogue.” But a singular truth can be found within these beats, “beauty is where you find it.”
As I begin to redefine my own standards of beauty, I realize something is happening at long last. I am finding myself again in these discussions that stir my collective senses. I am learning again thanks to an evolving family of friends who choose and want to think beyond what is accepted or acceptable. This time feels so much like Spain. The arrested development that I’ve allowed to set in has no place in this quest for wellness. Perhaps what makes us beautiful is believing in the desire to grow and to be challenged by a world, even one in flux.
Given our current political state of ugly at the moment, we have to train our eyes to see beyond what lies what ahead or even what we think we’ve learned about people, even ourselves. Perhaps beauty is the possibility afforded by being better and stronger and willing to accept our flaws, to finding the willingness to build them into strengths.
Only when we allow for acceptance and tolerance can we best repel the rhetoric from people who dare keep us asunder in a state of homogenized hatred.
Only when we begin to understand the true nature of beauty will we be able to say, “Life’s a ball!” and just fucking dance already.
We are forever accountable for our journeys and decisions. Perhaps that’s what I’ve come to finally learn:
Be your true self. Be beautiful.
Cary Grant photo by Richard Avedon
Dovima & Ray Bolger photo by Richard Avedon
Kristen McMenamy & Nadja Auermann photo by Richard Avedon
I have to credit Facebook for this profile on Anne Rice. Originally written in 2011 when I was the loftily named LA Personalities Examiner for Examiner.com, the interview was timed to the publication of “Of Love and Evil.” At the time, extraordinary events were unfolding in the Middle East as Egypt struggled with reform. We watched in amazement because it proved both thrilling and disheartening to contemplate what it would mean for us all.
As we wade deeper into Trump infested waters, seeing this Rice profiler appear on my Facebook feed is almost too eerie. The original Examiner link is no longer working as I haven’t written for that site in several years. Most of my Examiner contributions have been claimed by the ether, to be frank. So, it was a nice discovery to find it exists. Because Ms. Rice had some really interesting things to say about our “eternal struggle between right and wrong.”
I hope you agree.
This eternal struggle between right and wrong is the identifying narrative of our time. Can change survive or will repression continue to get its way? For iconic author Anne Rice, exploring such themes has evolved into the hallmark of her current artistic life. With her latest novel, Of Love and Evil, Rice weighs in on the conflicts that continue to rage hard within us despite living in a modern age.
“What interests me is the war between good and evil inside each person,” Rice said, “and the capacity for good, and the way people fight to be good even when others are telling them to give up.”
Expressing any opinion on the meeting between faith and politics is grounds for certain damnation in today’s conservative media landscape. As regimes, democratic or otherwise, continue their desperate bid for control, the importance of love conquering evil will only increase. It comes down to a simple choice: Take a stand and voice your dissent. In the summer of 2010, Rice ignited a media firestorm when she announced she was excommunicating herself from the Catholic Church. It was a bold decision, one that garnered national headlines.
Later that year, Rice offered her own reflections on that turning point and more in a Personalities Interview via phone from her home in Rancho Mirage, CA. Conducted during her promotional tour for her latest novel in the Songs of the Seraphim series, Rice’s comments have taken on a timely resonance in light of the current political climate. Here’s more with Rice on where she chooses to stand in the battle between love and evil.
JORGE CARREON: Perhaps the most controversial F-word of late is “faith.” It is astounding how we have yet to reconcile the political nature of organized religions. You made a defiant statement to withdraw from the Catholic Church in 2010. How has that decision continue to reverberate for you today?
ANNE RICE: Well, I received thousands of emails in response to the news stories about that. I had no idea when I walked away that it was going to make news. I mean, I announced it on my Facebook page really to tell my readers that I was no longer part of organized religion, and I had no idea that it would be written about in the Washington Post, and there would be so many blog posts about it and so many stories. And thousands of emails did come in, and the vast majority was positive. They were all supportive. They were mostly from people who said that they, too, believed in God, and they too believed in Jesus Christ. But, they, too, did not go to church and would not go to church for various reasons. I found that just amazing. I did receive critical emails, very nasty, unpleasant emails from some people. And, many that simply invited me to a new kind of church that said, “Why don’t you come to the Unitarians? Why don’t you come to the Episcopalians? Why don’t you come to the United Church of Christ? We are inclusive. We accept gay people. We have married gay people. We have gay people who are clergy.” I was quite surprised at how positive the reaction was. I mean, it’s sad in a way. It’s very nice for people to support you in your decision, but it’s very sad that this many people are disillusioned with organized religion. They really feel let down by it, confused by it. And that’s the explanation why my statements struck a chord, because they struck a chord with people who felt the same way or had been hearing from people who felt the same way. It went on for about a month, stories and blogs and so forth. And I shared a lot of it with people on Facebook and got many more comments, and it was great. I can’t say I’m happy about it. I don’t think it’s a happy thing to walk away from Catholicism. It’s sad. I mean, you lose the group, you lose the rituals, and you lose the beauty. You lose all of that. And that had for 12 years been part of my life, just as it had for the first 18 years of my life. And it was very sad to once again step away and say “I can’t support this. I can’t believe it.” But I do feel liberated, and I feel that it was the only thing that I could do, and I guess I’m glad that I found the courage to do it, if courage is the right word.
CARREON: Do you believe religion may never relinquish its grip on global politics and our daily lives?
RICE: I never dreamed in the ‘60s or ‘70s or ‘80s that religion could be this much of our lives, that somebody during a presidential election would ask the candidates whether they believed in God or believed in evolution or believed in Creationism. I mean, I’m shocked that it became that important. I really believe in the separation of church and state. I think we had traditionally two different approaches to the law in Western culture. One approach is by reason. We reason with one another about the law and we evolve our laws based on reason. That’s what I believe in when it comes to politics and law. The other tradition is that law is revealed by a deity, and that one has to stand by those revelations. That’s what a great many religious Americans are trying to tell the rest of us, that the law is revealed and that we have to listen to them on the subject of revelations. I think it’s very dangerous. I think our country is founded on the principle that law is arrived at by reason. I think it’s dangerous, I think it’s bad, I think it’s alienated and upset many, many people, and it certainly contributed to why I walked away. I walked away from religion for theological reasons as much as social and political reasons, but it was all part of the picture. I mean, I simply could not support a religion that relentlessly persecutes gay people and women and children. I just won’t do it.
CARREON: Beauty can still be found in the message of faith. As you continue to write, that message looks to still play a huge part in the narratives you create.
RICE: It’s true.
CARREON: How do you reconcile the two halves of yourself, the narrative mind and your real self, so to speak?
RICE: I finished Of Love and Evil before I broke with the Church and a lot of what Toby (the novel’s lead protagonist) goes through in that book reflects what I was experiencing. He speaks of doubts, and fears, and how even though he’s seeing angels, even though he’s converted and he’s witnessed miracles, he still is subject to doubts and fears. That is something that I was coming to face, that the consolation you receive at the time of a conversion is not necessarily going to stay with you day in and day out. Doubt and fear are going to be part of your life and I was wrestling with it. I think when I get to the third book; I will be able to go into this ever more deeply. I feel a freedom to go into it ever more deeply.
CARREON: Love and evil are small words to look at, but they pack such extraordinary definitions. What do they mean for you?
RICE: Love, I think, can save the world. It can bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. It is the greatest thing that we are capable of, love. And it can save every single person on the planet in some way, psychologically and socially. It can bring peace on Earth. Love is everything. Evil for me is largely what we’re capable of when we behave in a selfish and greedy and destructive and vicious way. And of course I know many people who are believers of a personified Devil. I’m not sure I do. I think that comes out in Of Love and Evil. There’s a real question as to whether there’s a personified Devil and I’m wrestling with that. Because that’s what evil and love mean to me. Evil means what we are capable of doing when we hurt other people, when we kill them, are violent to them and really harm them.
CARREON: Can atonement still exist in today’s culture?
RICE: Oh yes. Sure. Just go to an AA meeting. Go to an open meeting and listen to people from all over talking about how they’ve made amends with the people around them, how they’ve changed their lives, how they’ve made amends to children and spouses they’ve hurt. And of course, there’s atonement there. You know, the word atonement is a funny word. It means “at one meant.” So, if you think of it as strictly suffering to pay a debt, no. Maybe that’s something we now reject in the 21st century. We don’t think you have to suffer agony to pay a debt. We think you have to do something good about what you did. You have to change your ways. You know, you just don’t go off and suffer for how badly you treated your children. You re-approach your children and try to show them love.
Anne Rice’s latest novel, Of Love and Evil is currently available from Knopf at Amazon.com and all other booksellers. And, yes. That regal vampire of a generation, Lestat, may be coming back to the big screen sooner than later. Rice confirmed that she is fielding renewed interest in her Vampire Chronicles books.
“I don’t have anything firm yet to announce,” Rice said. “I hope that there will be movies soon and I hope that they will be productions that are true to the spirit of Lestat’s personality. That’s what the readers really want when they see the name Anne Rice and the name Lestat.”
As to who she would like to see take over the fabled role?
“When the rumor came out last year that Robert Downey, Jr. might do it, I thought that was terrifically exciting,” Rice added. “He has such depth. And he has such a mischievous spirit. I could really see him being a great Lestat. But there are many, many other people who could do it.”
My first post for 2015 is one written in solidarity with those who extol the courage and virtue of maintaining our freedom of speech.
Today, we are inundated with so many outlets with which to express ourselves. As a result, we are more vulnerable to attacks against one’s character or opinion. Worse, the price we are again paying with is our mortality.
To express a thought that can illuminate our global condition as a journalist is not a privilege. It is a necessity, but one that carries great responsibility. Journalists are meant to inform the greater public, not just entertain. This is how we keep ourselves and our leaders accountable for all acts for and against us.
Perhaps we have been keeping to close an eye on what people are wearing or celebrity-driven gossip for too long? How else could we miss the signs that the disenfranchised or the marginalized are plotting to silence the media with calculated acts of violence so extreme, they shake the world to its core?
Something has to shift. We have always known words and images are power. We cannot let our ability to question be silenced. Nor we should we temper our thoughts out of fear of reprisals from those who hide behind a cowardly shield of piety to justify their murderous agendas. We need to reaffirm that it is man, not GOD, who is the purveyor of violence and rage.
The tenuous connections that bind us all have always been ideal at best. It is like a large family, where varying temperaments and ideologies make for often volatile gatherings at the table. You will never be able to make certain people in the group love you. In the greater context of the world we live in, you will never make certain people in the world agree or care about you either.
But killing that person is not an option. Not over a comment, a novel, a film or a cartoon image.
French filmmaker Luc Besson offered a heartfelt plea, not only for the Muslim community, but for all of us who feel like vulnerable outsiders. It is this impassioned letter, first published in Le Monde, that prompted me to offer my own thoughts on the wide-reaching consequences from the tragic events at Charlie Hebdo. Because, now, we are truly Charlie, too. And we must take our power back from those who dare to use fear and destruction against us.
“My brother, if you knew how badly I hurt for you today, you and your beautiful religion that has been so sullied, humilated, and singled out. Forgotten are your strength, your energy, your humor, your heart, your fraternity. It’s unfair and together we will repair this injustice. We are millions who love you and who are going to help you. Let’s start at the beginning. What is the society we’re offering you today?
It’s based on money, profit, segregation and racism. In some suburbs, unemployment for people under 25 is 50%. You are marginalized because of your color or your first name. You’re questioned 10 times a day, you’re crowded into apartment blocks and no one represents you. Who could live and thrive under such conditions?
Profit comes before all else. We cut and sell the apple tree’s branches and then are shocked there’s no fruit. The real problem is there, and that’s for all of us to resolve.
I call on the powerful, the big bosses and all leaders. Help this youth that has been humiliated and which asks only to be part of society. The economy is in the service of man and not the reverse. To do good is the greatest of profits. Dear powerful, do you have children? Do you love them? What do you want to leave them? Money? Why not a world that’s more fair? That would make your children the most proud of you.
We cannot build our happiness on the misfortune of others. It is neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim. It is just selfish and it leads our society and our planet straight into a wall. This is the work we have to do beginning today to honor our dead.
Terrorism will never win.
And you, my brother, you also have a job to do. How can you change this society that’s being offered to you? By working, by studying, by taking up a pencil rather than a kalishnikov. That’s what’s good about democracy, it offers you the noble tools to defend yourself. Take your destiny in hand, take the power. It costs 250 euros to buy a kalishnikov but not even three euros to buy a pen — and your response can have a thousand times more impact. Take the power, and play by the rules.
Take power democratically, helped by all your brothers. Terrorism will never win. History is there to prove it. And the beautiful image of the martyr walking in both directions. Today there are a thousand (assasinated Charlie Hebdo journalists) Cabus and Wolinskis who have just been born.
Take the power and don’t let anyone take power over you. If those who are presumed guilty of this tragedy really are, know that these two blood-spilling brothers are not yours, and we all know it.
It would at most be two weak-minded individuals, abandoned by society and then abused by a preacher who sold them eternity… Radical preachers who play on and make your misfortune their business have no good intentions. They use your religion only to their advantage. It is their business, their small business. Tomorrow, my brother, we will be stronger, more connected, closer. I promise you. But today, my brother, I cry with you.” — Written by Luc Besson.