When Someone Famous Threatens to Beat You Up
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because punching your problems in the face never helped anybody. Most of the time.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Sometimes the best way to see what you can take is to take all that you can take. In this instance, I had taken on three jobs. Like the In Living Color skit about the West Indian family, it didn’t make to sense to me to have only one job, and so, three. One of the cooler ones? Editor in chief of a Los Angeles–based fashion magazine called Code.
Funded by Larry Flynt and launched by some Condé Nast transplants, Code was premised on the idea that most of the men reading GQ magazine were not White, but men of color. So Flynt, in a burst of the kind of thinking that’s made him rich, jumped on it. But there was a problem, and the problem was Flynt was mostly known for Hustler. Hustler and a few other things, but certainly not fashion mags.
That’s where I came in. They needed a strong editor in chief to beat back the inevitable questions about the viability of Flynt’s vision when it came to fashion or to men of color. Not only had I written for GQ but I’d also written for Hustler. After a little fanfare, a few press releases and time working on the debut issue … a wrinkle.
The reality is that most Americans are stupid and they need to be educated.
Kevin Powell, actor and writer
“We’re going to make Quincy Troupe the editor in chief,” I was told. “So …” Whether or not you think the Condé Nast folks were snipers, one thing became clear: They were assassins. Apparently, my profile wasn’t significant enough to distract from the 800-pound gorillahood that was Flynt. They needed someone more august, and though Troupe hadn’t edited a men’s fashion magazine before, I understood the move: It was smart, if not a little ruthless.
It was no accident that I had three jobs. I was on a mission. Sleeping only four hours a night so I could do them all meant that I was in the grips of something else — and that something else wasn’t going to let my pride stand in the way. So I stayed. I stayed while Troupe did his thing. I stayed after he stopped doing his thing and I stayed even after the Condé Nast folks jumped ship. I stayed long enough to see them put “editor in chief” back on my business card, and then I got about the business of chiefing.
Which amounted to doing an inventory of writers. Mostly to reintroduce myself and, more important, to see if they were down with the program. I went down a list, and when I got to Kevin Powell’s name I was pleasantly surprised. He had been the requisite “troubled” Black character on the first season of one of the first reality shows ever, MTV’sThe Real World. He was also the first one kicked off the Real World, which endeared him to me.
But his writing under Troupe was pointlessly polemical and ill-suited for whom research had told us our audience was and where their heads were at. This was the ’90s, pre-recession, and the last thing people wanted was to be lectured, and I told Powell so when we spoke by phone.
“The reality is that most Americans are stupid, and they need to be educated,” he said. I looked at the phone, suddenly aware that I was talking to a TV star. A TV star who got kicked off TV.
“I have to assume, though,” I said, “that our readers are at least as smart as I am. I mean, we’re not publishing textbooks.…”
“Believe me, they’re not.”
As that hung in the air, I read through his pitches, which were amazingly on-brand. On his brand.
“I couldn’t come to work if I thought they were all as stupid as you think they are. You have anything else to pitch?” I asked.
“Isn’t that enough?”
“No. OK, listen —” and that’s the pre–hammer drop sound for those of you who haven’t heard it before — “we’re going to go another way on this, so we’ll get you your last check, and good luck with your stuff.”
I repeated myself.
For those who aren’t fans of MTV, Powell had been kicked off the show for an altercation with one of the women in the house. He later appeared on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show titled “Oprah Talks to Men Who Beat Women.” And rumor had it that Powell had been involved in at least one other professional scuffle. Now his voice dropped an octave and took on a tone I was familiar with.
“Oh yeah? OK. Well, you know I’ll be seeing you again, right?”
And then a pause from me because, if truth be told, I love shit like this. “You know, anytime you’d like to see me you can find me here,” I told him. “If you have a pen, I’ll also give you my home address.…”
I know, I should rise above such petty provocations. But I also know I am totally unable to do so given the years I’ve spent doing martial arts, bodybuilding and in general preparing myself for moments exactly like this. “And if it’s more urgent than that, I’d be glad to flow you some of my air miles and you can fly out here.”
The line went dead.
Since then, Powell has become a prolific writer of books very much in keeping with his belief that Americans need educating. He has run for political office a few times and lost. He also just lost a defamation lawsuit, with the jury awarding $210,000 to a woman whom Powell and his wife had attacked online.
He and I, however, have yet to meet face-to-face.