In 2000, I was ready to leave The Source. I had brief, informational interviews with people who were applying for my job.
I thought Jermaine Hall would be perfect. Jermaine was working at a hip-hop website at the time but he freelanced for The Source often. I was always under the gun and behind schedule when it came to assigning stories. So calling Jermaine to give him a story usually went something like this:
Me: J, You busy?
Jermaine: I’m eating lunch. What’s up?
Me: Your flight’s leaving at 4. Write this story on Xzibit. Make it good. I’m emailing instructions and flight info. Gotta go. Bye!
Jermaine: Wait. Today?! But I-
Me: There’s a car waiting outside your office to take you to the airport. Call me with any problems. Love ya!
And Jermaine always got the job done. Even if I gave him thirty minutes to prepare.
He came in to talk to me about the gig. And after he left, I was convinced he was the man for the job. (My main concern? I thought he might be too fabulous for The Source, a place where Timberlands and Air Force Ones were the only acceptable footwear. Jermaine has always had an impeccable, classic style. Look at him up there! He puts 50 to shame!)
Today, Jermaine is the editor-in-chief of KING magazine. (And he’s still the best dressed man I know…) Launched by founding editor-in-chief Datwon Thomas, (now e-i-c at XXL), the magazine has always been known for scantily clad women with voluptuous bodies. There’s no Playboy-style full-on nudity here. But KING regularly receives more online searches than Newsweek or Reader’s Digest. Whoa.
But the magazine, which launched in 2002, isn’t all T&A. Every time I crack the magazine open, I remember all over again that they actually assign real stories that are thoroughly researched and well-written.
But yeah. It’s got a hell of a lot of T&A too.
In honor of the magazine’s 50th anniversary issue, I spoke with Jermaine Hall this morning to get the scoop behind his favorite cover subjects, his surprising celebrity crush, the actress he turned down for the cover (!!!!) and how he defends KING and their mission to please…
ASK: Did you know that I was concerned about you when you came for the interview at The Source?
JH: No. Why?
ASK: You were wearing Prada walking shoes. No one wore Prada at The Source!
JH: [Laughs] No, I didn’t know that…
ASK: Everything else was on point. But you almost didn’t get the job because you were too fly.
JH: [Laughs] Damn! That’s crazy!
ASK: Okay. What is your favorite KING cover?
JH: My favorite King cover didn’t actually sell through the roof. Just average sales. But the pictures were beautiful. It was Tyra Banks.
ASK: It is beautiful. What did you love about this?
JH: Everyone said she’d never pose for us. But we started talking with her and she was more than willing to do it.
JH: Yeah. She said something that stayed with me. She said, “If I pose for all these mainstream publications, why can’t I do it for the brothers?”
ASK: That’s dope. I can appreciate that.
JH: She didn’t owe us anything. So I appreciated that too.
ASK: Were you able to get other women to think about posing for KING after she broke down that barrier?
JH: Absolutely. For a while, that was a part of our pitch. Tyra did it! So can you! [laughs]
ASK: Was she a diva? Ask for anything crazy?
JH: She wanted a first class ticket and the right to choose the photographer. That’s it. She was very open and cool.
ASK: Name another favorite…
JH: Megan Good.
JH: There are some girls we at KING consider family. Megan’s one of them. She understands what KING is. Some women come in and want to do a high-end fashion shoot instead of a shoot for a men’s magazine. Megan gets it. She understands what we do and still keeps it classy.
ASK: Do you ever feel a way about KING’s portrayal of women? You know there’s an argument that what you do is exploitive….
JH: No. I don’t feel a way. We don’t put guns to women’s heads and make them pose sexy. People put King, Smooth and Black Men in this one category. You put a KING cover up and it’s different.
ASK: In what way?
JH: At KING, There’s a lot more class. But people just bypass that.
ASK: Well, I’m biased because I write for KING. But I will say that the content is different in KING. I’ve seen investigative pieces and hard-hitting features. I don’t see that in the other men’s magazines.
JH: Clearly. Prime example: we did a story on a guy named Lloyd Avery. A young actor. John Singleton’s muse. This kid was very Tupac in nature. Good actor. He had a small part in Boyz n the Hood.
ASK: What part?
JH: He played one of the Crips that killed Ricky. I heard this crazy story that he went to a screening of Poetic Justice and he’s sitting next to Singleton and at the end of the movie he gets up and says, That shit was wack.
JH: Yeah. So he got mixed up in the wrong crowd, joined a gang. Ended up committing a double homicide. Went to jail. And then he turned his life around and became a born again Christian. Then, he got a new cell mate: a white supremacist.
ASK: Oh no…
JH: Yeah. The white dude killed him. They didn’t find his body for three days…
ASK: What?! I didn’t read this story!
JH: It’s crazy. Good story. So we submitted that story to ASME and we got an invitation. That’s not something Black Men and Smooth would do. No disrespect to either magazine. But we hold ourselves to a higher journalistic standard.
ASK: I can respect that.
JH: Now, you’re gonna post this on your blog. And I know people are going to say, whatever. All I know about KING is that they have hot women on the cover. It’s hard to get past that. And it’s a battle I fight every day.
ASK: Do you remember when we talked about Ciara? You were mad because she turned down the cover. I told you it was smart for her to turn it down. She needed to grow into doing a KING cover. I didn’t think she was ready for that…
JH: I remember… I wish I had listened to you.
ASK: Really? Why?
JH: Because you were right. She wasn’t ready. We reached out anyway. And she agreed. But then she wore overalls on the cover looking like an advertisement for Osh Kosh B Gosh…
ASK: Oh. Yeah. That’s not sexy.
JH: Ciara wasn’t ready to do a men’s magazine. She should have just said no. I respect a no from an artist. Rather than not doing it right. There are other people who have done this….
ASK: Like who?
JH: No comment.
ASK: Two years after Ciara did the cover of King in denim, she did the cover of Vibe in nothing…
ASK: Were you surprised?
JH: No. Not at all. She was ready. She wasn’t ready before. If we shot her now, we’d get something different than denim… We’d get a sexy shoot. Not fully naked. But sexy…
ASK: Has anyone ever been fully naked on the cover of KING?
JH: Closest was Angel Lola Luv. She just wore a sheet.
ASK: Jermaine, I know you know the truth. Is that girl’s butt real?
JH: No comment.
ASK: A no comment is the biggest comment of all!
JH: I’m going to stay with no comment.
ASK: Alrighty then! Speaking of alterations, where does your staff stand on Photoshopping? Are you liberal with it?
JH: We use it as much as we need to. At the end of the day, we’re selling a fantasy and providing entertainment. We provide a service to the reader. And you want the most beautiful images possible…
ASK: Ugh. Jermaine, I don’t like the way that sounds. It makes me feel like you are exploiting women when you talk about using them as fantasy and entertainment.
JH: But who is using who? These girls are trying to get their cred up. Very few video models have been able to transition into other things.
ASK: And you honestly think a KING cover can make a difference in furthering a career?
JH: It certainly did for Gabrielle Union. She was on the second cover of KING years ago.
JH: In the story, she talked about wanting to work with DMX on a movie. After that, she got a call for one of X’s movies. I think it was Cradle 2 the Grave. So the cover definitely helped her.
ASK: I can see it helping Gabby. But she’s different. She was already acting. She’s just in a different lane. Clear-eyed and focused…
JH: But don’t you think Angel is the same?
ASK: No. I don’t. I feel a certain way when I look at video girls on the cover of KING. When I see Kimora or Tyra or Gabrielle Union, it’s different than a video girl. It seems like they are on the cover solely because of their bodies…It’s up to debate if a King cover can really transition a girl like Angel.
JH: Is it because of her body type that you feel this way? Because she’s very voluptuous?
ASK: No, I think it’s because the video girls get closer to raunchy. I feel like they go farther than the actresses and singers who protect their images more…
JH: I don’t agree. Trina went hard on her cover. And she’s not a video girl.
ASK: In my opinion, Trina IS a video girl.
JH: You’re so foul. What about Stacey Dash? She went hard on her cover. Tocarra went extra hard on her cover.
ASK: Okay. You’re right about that. They were not playing. And they’re not video girls…
JH: It’s about what you’re comfortable with.
ASK: What has been King’s highest-selling cover ever…
JH: That would be Free….
ASK: What made this issue a big seller? Besides the obvious.
JH: The stars were just all aligned. We had been getting requests for a year and a half. She was very resistant. On 106 and Park she would never even turn all the way around to give up a look at her butt.
ASK: But you could see her butt from the front! Just like Mos Def said in that song…
JH: [Laughs] Yeah. I have to give her that… She finally agreed. But she was getting ready to leave BET. So when our issue hit stands, the reader was finally getting to see Free and there was a news angle because she was leaving BET.
ASK: Do you ever turn people down who want to be on the cover?
JH: Of course. All the time.
ASK: I mean, famous people. Not just random people that don’t belong on the cover.
JH: Yes. We do.
ASK: Like who?
JH: Are you seriously asking me this? And you want me to tell you?
ASK: Yes, please.
JH: Here’s one I can give you…Contrary to popular belief, we actually do have lots of women who work here. And the women would come in and talk about that show The Game all the time. Kept telling me Tia Mowry should be on the cover. I watched an episode. And I thought it would make sense. We pursued her heavily. She agreed. And then she backed out at the last minute. Left us in a real bind. Not cool. So I get a call from her management team two weeks ago. We’re calling about Tia. Let’s revisit the cover.
ASK: Ah. Yeah…
JH: You come now? When the show is iffy? No thanks.
ASK: But she’s still cute. Might make a good cover.
JH: No thanks.
ASK: How come you never have women interview your cover girls?
JH: I should! I totally agree with you!
ASK: I see you have Christina Milian on the cover.
ASK: You know I love her. We have the same birthday. I could get her to talk about a lot of stuff that the King reader would appreciate.
JH: I know, if I’d remembered, I would have sent you.
[note to self. Pitch cover story on Amber Rose to Jermaine Hall.]
ASK: Okay, I know how you feel about Brandy, your celebrity crush…
JH: I’m a Brandy-Stan.
ASK: You got her on the cover. Tell me about that.
JH: She’d never really been sexy before. So I knew we were going to win…and then Vibe came out with their cover.
ASK: Yeah. That was crazy.
JH: I have to admit. Very sexy cover. But we still went ahead and shot her for our cover. It was very rushed. She did what she could…
ASK: And what was the response to this cover?
JH: Hate mail. Dudes were writing in saying never again. No skinny women on the cover.
ASK: The King reader likes women with meat on their bones.
JH: Gotta have the killer curves…
AK: Last question. You’re in court. On trial for exploiting women in your magazine. The jury box is packed with Essence readers. The judge is Oprah Winfrey. You’ve been raked over the coals for a week of cross-examination. Now it’s your turn to defend yourself. Speak.
JH: [Laughs] Oh man. Okay. We don’t force women to do anything they don’t want to do. I want them to portray themselves in a sexy, classy way. Some want to go further and that’s fine too. Do it to your level. I would say to the Essence-reading jury pool: please open the magazine and see what else we have to offer. We will go to Denver and report on what really happened with Kobe’s rape case. We will do a story on someone like Lloyd Avery. We have meat and potatoes. No dis to other magazines. But we are not Black Men and Smooth. They serve a different audience. And I ask that we be looked at differently… That’s all I can say.
ASK: And the verdict is….GUILTY!
JH: [laughs] come on!
ASK: Well, you’re guilty until you give me some work!
JH: Aliya, you have a story due to me on Monday.
ASK: Oh yeah. That’s right. Gotta go! Thanks Jermaine!
dear readers…what do you think? Can a KING cover be classy and tasteful? Does it ever cross the line? Is KING exploiting women? Is Ciara posing nude for VIBE any different than a model posing for KING in a sheet? And um, ladies? Do you realize that Stacy Dash was 42 when she took that picture up there? Forty-fricking-two. Hot damn.
I’d love to hear from you…