I’ve always been fascinated by what I call the celebrity-bubble.
Famous folks walk the streets, eat dinner, record music, slap the paparazzi, have babies, fall in love and buy stuff, just like us. (Except maybe the slap-the-paparazzi stuff). And they do it all in a bubble of sorts. They are surrounded by layers of security. Not just bodyguards. But publicists and other record label executives, personal assistants, managers and various hangers-on.
When I’m assigned a story on a celebrity, the journey from my living room sofa to the celebrity’s orbit is always strange and spooky.
A random person can’t wake up one morning and say “I think I’ll go see what Mary J. Blige is up to.” Even if you know she’s in New York, shooting a television show or performing, it’s close to impossible to end the day sitting next to her.
But occasionally, I do have these days. Where a normal morning becomes something else.
So, on the first Tuesday in March, I woke up in my apartment in Jersey. It was pouring down rain. I drove to Newark Penn Station, parked my car, hopped on the PATH train and jostled for space with all my fellow commuters.
My destination: The Palace Hotel. 50th Street between Madison and Park Avenue. My assignment: to meet Mary J. Blige, courtesy of her publicist, Tresa Sanders, and interview her for the cover of UPSCALE magazine.
Sidebar: Writers often pretend like it’s not a big deal that they interview celebrities. This is a lie. It is a big deal. And it’s always a jagged little thrill, no matter how long you’ve been in the game. If it’s someone new, maybe not so much. Unless you are head over heels insanely excited about them, the way I felt about Bilal when his publicist brought him up to The Source and played his demo on a casette tape in my office. (A casette tape!!).
Anyway. I’ve never been a super Mary fan. Of course, What’s The 411 changed my life. How could it not? I watched her from afar, intrigued, when she was stomping around in combat boots and laughing too hard and screaming too loud while performing. Then there was that time she went up the steps to pick up a Soul Train award wearing skin tight yellow leggings and Timbs. There were panty lines involved.
From then on, I bopped my head to her hits. And shielded my eyes with one hand when she came on television, afraid of what stunt she might pull. I read that Q&A with her and Veronica Webb. I still google it from time to time, marveling at how raw she was. I’ve been interviewing celebs for over ten years. And I’ve definitely got some stories to tell. But nothing like that interview. Nothing at all. When you have a moment, dear readers, I urge you to to read this joint. It’s long. But worth it.
Okay. So that’s NOT the Mary I met in the large hotel suite in Manhattan. Simone, Mary’s rep, met me in the lobby and took me up to her suite. Mary stood up when I walked into the room.
“Mary, this is Aliya from Upscale.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said, shaking my hand with a firm grip. “Would you like some fruit? A bottled water?” She was all business.
I sat down and Mary sat. My first thought? Damn, she has some beautiful skin! She did not have on one drop of makeup. Let me say this again. Not. one. drop. And her skin was crystal-clear. The fabled scar, a jagged rip from her lower eye-lid down her cheek was there. And that was the only thing marring her skin. I felt like taking a look in a mirror real quick to see what my skin looked like. I fought the urge and scrambled to get my recorder set-up.
Sidebar: This is the WORST part of the celebrity interview. You do the awkward greetings. And then you have to get yourself together. Set up a notepad and pen. Take out your recorder, turn it on. Make sure the red light comes on. Double check. Triple check. Quadruple check. Drink in all the scenery you can. (Is that Kendu in the bathroom? Is Simone gonna stay here during the interview? Damn. What kind of view is this from the hotel room? What is Mary wearing? Can I see her shoes from here? I gotta talk about the shoes. How would I describe this hotel room? Bland. Palatial?)
All of this while I’m getting my questions out of my bag and making small talk with Mary before starting the official interview. I always feel awkward and weird during this part. No matter how many times I’ve done it, it never gets any easier.
I managed to scribble some notes on what Mary was wearing, (a sweater, jeans, HUGE diamond), while talking to her about the weather. And then got ready for the interview.
“Are you cold?” she asked me.
“No, I’m fine,” I lied. It was freezing. But you don’t let on if you’re uncomfortable in any way. You just buckle down and get to work. Can’t have no celeb trying to find you a sweater or something…
“Well, it’s cold in here,” Mary said. “Don’t talk bad about me but I’m putting on my robe.” She went into the bathroom, (whew. got a chance to check out her shoes and scribble down the details about her big furry boots), and then she came in all wrapped up and looking cozy.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
The first thing I asked her was the same thing I ask any celebrity whose been in the game for a minute.
“Aren’t you tired of doing interviews?”
“Seriously? Hell yeah, I’m tired of this!” she said, which made me laugh.
We talked. Nothing earth shattering. Pretty basic stuff. The juiciest tidbit was that she hadn’t met the mother of her husband’s two children. She’s been married for a minute. And her two stepchildren spend quite a bit of time with her. As a stepmother, I couldn’t fathom how she could co-raise the children without ever having met the mother.
“It just hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “But I know she’s a good woman because I can tell she’s doing a great job with her children.”
Still, that struck me as odd. I didn’t go hard on that line of questioning. I’m not sure why. Maybe because Simone was sitting right there, ready to remind me to “just talk about the music.” (The publicist’s favorite line.)
I’m not afraid to ask the tough questions. Ask Al Greene about me. But this didn’t seem like the time or place. So I let it go.
After thirty minutes, I saw Simone out of the corner of my eye, getting fidgety. Which meant the celebrity bubble was about to burst. I wrapped up my interview. Mary and I hugged, (the celeb good-bye is equally awkward. Are we hugging? Shaking hands? Nothing? Something?) and then Simone walked me to the elevator bank.
And just like that. It was over. I took the elevator back down to the lobby. Walked back out into the rain. Tried unsuccefully to hail a cab. Got back on the PATH. Got my car. Drove back home. With every step, I was farther and farther away from Mary’s orbit. And couldn’t get back in if I wanted to.
I am often asked about how it feels to work in proximity to celebs. The truth is, I don’t. It’s a controlled experiment for a finite amount of time. And when it’s over, it’s over. Really over.
It’s kind of freaky actually. While you’re doing your job, you have to be chummy with this person, hopefully make them laugh, have them open up to you, share some secrets. And then, you both evaporate into thin air and it’s like it never happened. Trust me, Mary would not know me right now if I threw at a shoe at her.
Dear readers, would this weird you out? To spend time thisclose to a celeb knowing that they would most likely forget you existed before you got back home?