Hanging out with Senator Barack Obama on the luxurious tarmac of the stars McKaren International Airport before he leaves Las Vegas (with his wife Michelle and girls in tow). Hosting an event for Walt Disney that provides me a stage in the spotlight to be the “personality” that I am coupled with the “interviewer” in me coming face-to-face and talking-point-to-talking-point with the likes of comedian and radio host Steve Harvey; “Drucilla” from “Y&R” Victoria Rowell; and a host of others. Hanging out with the industry’s best, brightest, and BLACK-est – like radio/TV personality Jacque Reid; Verve recording artist and newfound friend Ledisi; “Access Hollywood” diva Shaun Robinson and her contemporaries at “Extra” (Tanika Ray); “Entertainment Tonight” (Kevin Frazier); and “Inside Edition” (April Woodard); Interviewing “Boyz in the Hood” director John Singleton and introducing my Morehouse brother and renowned Hollywood actor Samuel L. Jackson during an inspired day of film screenings.
THESE ARE JUST SOME SNAPSHOTS – anecdotally and visually – of how I spent my last week in Las Vegas at the 32nd Annual Convention & Career Fair for the National Association of Black Journalists (“Revolutionizing Journalism, Transforming the Future”). Since this is “A Day in the Life of Riley: Pop Culture & Possibilities”, I will walk you through “each” DAY as they are chockful of treasured moments that I will cherish for a long time.
On this day, I flew into Vegas. My Anthony met me at the Las Vegas airport as he had a family emergency in Denver and needed to manage that, but all settled in time for him to still join me for this unprecedented trip that I do annually (in attending the NABJ Convention). What made it new? I’ve never – as I joke – “taken sand to the beach”. The convention – for a single person – can conjure many a flirtation; sometimes a hook-up; and often a day that never ends in the way of social intercourse. But in the words of – who was it? (I can’t remember, but someone who was portraying a slave or someone from Southern Reconstruction or Depression times): “I’S MARRIED NOW” (not literally, but inside of a committed, loving relationship). Well, with that (and as Ricky from “Lucy” used to say): This year, “[I] got some ‘splainin’ (explaining) to do”. In that I Chair the NABJ Arts & Entertainment Task Force and often produce one or more of its special events during the five-day conference, I always come in a day or two early to get the lay of the land; prep my three-costume-changes a day (dry cleaning and laundry services); meet with the Board and respective convention committee folks on Is that need to be dotted and Ts that need to be crossed. This time, there would be much of that plus getting Anthony introduced to as many as possible so the week wouldn’t be all “MEET MY PARTNER ANTHONY, WHO TOO IS A JOURNALIST AND IS WORKING ON…. ” (blah, blah, blah…). Our transition day went well. We even attended the Presidential Suite of now-Immediate Past NABJ President (there was also an election this year) Bryan Monroe, who is also Vice President and Editorial Director of Ebony & Jet Magazines/Johnson Publishing Company. Last year, after our NABJ Convention, he was instrumental in including my picture with “my Dreamgirl” Jennifer Hudson in a round-up for JET that he assigned, chronicling our 31st NABJ Convention in Indianapolis. Once that story and picture hit, I knew I had arrived with my family (and most of “the Black folks” in my life). That said, his impressive Presidential Suite on the 26th floor of Bally’s North Tower boasted a panoramic skyview that was just undeniably gorgeous (especially at night). Anthony; one of my “Amazing Graces” Elise; and I were posing on the balcony with the backdrop of the strip behind us. Elise was there in two capacities – as media relations manager for Morehouse College and as founder and CEO of “The Producer Pod”. This was her first time meeting Anthony, which is bringing him almost full circle with having met my friends and those who are near and dear to me.
On Wednesday, I slept as late as I could before getting up for a registration and a round of meetings, prepping for the convention fare to which I was contributing. As the day progressed, Anthony and I got ourselves together to attend the Welcome Reception, which featured a special appearance by comedian George Wallace and national recording artists Kem and Ledisi (who I’ve written about a time or two right here in “A Day in Life of Riley”). As quoted in the student newspaper “THE NABJ MONITOR”, which serves as the pulse of what is going on during our convention week, I said (in a story written by Chardae Davis, who interviewed me on the BIG-NAME stars who were scheduled to come to the convention): “To hear her [LEDISI] and see her perform is a religious experience”. Though her set may have started a little too – HEAR THIS – “on time” which meant her spotlight synergies were sort of reduced to “backdrop party ambience” as our NABJ family reunited for the first time since last year, but Ledisi performed as if they were listening and when certain heavenly notes began to cut through the chatter. By the time she did my favorite, “Imagine”, the Beatles cover, NABJ was clear that Ledisi is a force with which to be reckoned and as feedback goes, many came up to me (knowing I’m such a big fan and that one of the NABJ A&E Task Force’s own Michael K. Watts actually made the recommendation and introduction for Ledisi to perform at the convention). So grateful and happy to see us, Ledisi (and her publicist J'ai St. Laurent) invited Anthony, Michael, others, and me to dinner at the Bellagio buffet, one of the reported best in town.
But first, I had to rush to a quick dinner with a couple of Disney execs at the Eifel Tower Restaurant in the “Paris” Hotel, which is connected to our headquarters hotel “Bally’s”. Sporting my casual gear of an “original David” novelty T-shirt (featuring SMILE-y faces of multi-colored felt on the chest of it) with a cool pair of off-white jeans that I recently secured (and distressed, designer footwear that rounded out the ensemble perfeclty), I rushed from the opening reception (Ledisi’s performance) and a quick meeting with the director of the W.E.B. Dubois Lecture which Michael K. Watts and I were producing to this full-out theme restaurant that sets inside the mock-up of Eifel Tower that makes up the centerpiece of the “Paris” hotel. Imagine my shock when the host asked me if I could put on a jacket. I replied (already out of breathe for the back-to-back obligations that were behind and before me), “Of course, but I’d have to rush back to “Bally’s” to do that. (I jokingly-but-seriously pointed out that I had “… a closet of couture [Gianfranco Ferre; Misoni; Moshood; etc.] that could accommodate the dress code and wow you at the same time…”). He replied “That won’t be necessary. We have one here that you can wear, if you don’t mind putting it on.”. I agreed and this is what it looked like: A HOT MESS! The black tuxedo jacket came nowhere near my wrists, which made for lots of laughs as with Disney’s Annette Gibbs and Xiomara Wiley. I went over the script I was scheduled to present as host of an event that Disney commissioned me to do on Thursday night of the convention. A couple of kir royales, espressos, and a delicious crab dish later, it was time for me to excuse myself from Disney back to my NABJ commitments – starting with another set in the President’s Suite. This is where I hooked back up with Anthony; Ledisi; her publicist J’ai; and my Atlanta homies, including Angela, Mike, Rudy, Gail, and a host of others. While eating, Ledisi took a MY SPACE-style ‘self portrait’ of herself with my camera. Then, Anthony followed suit. From there, she wanted to shoot us. This dinner would continue the love fest that is just ever present whenever I am at NABJ. It’s always so good to see these folks. And then, like always, some knew folks get thrown into the mix and “the family” just expands. On this night, we also saw Roy Campbell, who I’ve known for years via NABJ. He’s produced many programs for the organization and – in large part – Michael and I are standing on his shoulders as we have produced many of these events now for NABJ. Formerly a print journalist (who covered lots of fashion during those days which housed him at the Philadelphia Inquirer), he currently is an event planner and producer via his own company and he has many celebrity clients, including Tyra Banks, who has used him as an expert on several cycles of “America’s Next Top Model”, including – he says – the 2nd episode of the upcoming cycle. That’s exciting!
NABJ was fortunate to have two U-S Presidential candidates agree to speak at our convention. Senator Hillary Clinton was first up. Though I wasn’t sure I would be able to get up (from fatigue brought on by day one), I did make it to the ballroom in time to be seated (Anthony saved me a seat). Though I am always not surprised at the degree to which “Hillary” is well-researched and prepared in her speeches and debates, I don’t know that I expected her to be unusually impressive. But she was. She was – as I have been telling folks – ON FIRE, punctuating her preparation with just the right touches for an audience of journalists, who cover the plight of African American men, etc. At one point, when a member and journalist began to come for her with a litany of accusations, she rejected it, but with compassion and focus, she noted (I paraphrase): “Feel free to meet my staff afterwards. They will give you some information, so that you can be EDUCATED instead of RHETORICAL”. Given the first question to Hillary was “Are you black enough?” (to preside over a constiuency – like the African American community – which has special needs), I thought after this READ (articulate handling and rebuttal of someone who was ‘coming for her’), she should have turned to the moderator Suzanne Malveaux and said (with a snap): “… and to answer your question, Suzanne? I am black enough!!!!” SMILE! After Mrs. Clinton, Michael K. Watts and I had to get ready for the program we were producing “Cause Celeb: Artists Changing South Africa and Beyond”. Celebrity activism in Africa is not new, but we had Alfre Woodard come (along with “Artists for a New South Africa” [A.N.S.A.] Executive Director Sharon Gelman) to talk about the difference that A.N.S.A. is making around this territory and to shed light on the balancing act necessary to draw news coverage and affect positive changes beyond the Hollywood personality. NPR “News & Notes” host Farai Chideya was our stellar host and it was great to work with her. From there, I did have to rush out for a quick “Disney” dress rehearsal. Then, I quickly changed into my custom-designed (READ: couture) tux done exclusively for me by designer OMAR, who carries his signature line of bespoke, tailored suits out of my favorite boutique in Harlem, “N”. I was originally fitted and secured this ensemble last Fall (for a “Dreamgirls” event), but trusted that it would get good play and exposure at NABJ. I wore it to NABJ’s round-robin of “receptions” that took place before Thursday evening’s “Disney” event. With entourage in tow (Anthony, Michael, J’ai, and others), I attended Morehouse College’s reception which my friend Elise helped put together. There, we all met the new President of Morehouse Robert M. Franklin Jr. (www.morehouse.edu), and its Sports Journalism Department head Ron Thomas, who is launching this division which is funded by Spike Lee. This was an elegant event with jazz music and great food. I quickly popped by ESPN to say HI to my good girlfriend Roxanne Jones, who heads up much of the TV programming at the cable network (along with contributing to the synergies between TV and the magazine). And this too was my moment to see my Chicago ladies with whom I spend a lot of time during the year. My Ki-Ki (Jakki); Ti-Ti (Itika); and the others were In the house and we had a great time. I wasn’t able to attend the LGBT Task Force reception (due to time constraints as I had to get to the ballroom to get prepped and mic’d for the Disney event I would be hosting that evening), but I want to shout out all of my brothers and sisters with this group, which I helped co-found. This as the leadership torch is passed from my Frankie Edozien and Marcus Mabry to GLAAD’s Katina Parker. Well, from here it was all about ‘fastening our seatbelts for the bumpy [but fun] ride that was to come’. Walt Disney World Resort via Annette Gibbs invited me (in my role as Chair of the NABJ Arts & Entertainment Task Force) to host an evening that was about fulfilling the dreams of a special group of African American teens via “Disney’s Dreamers Academy”. Steve Harvey was invited to headline the event and discuss with me his involvement in the project. Though I was excited to be steering this conversation, I was admittedly a bit hesitant in that I wasn’t sure the macho and sometimes arrogant texture of Steve Harvey’s comedy would compliment my more – how do I say this? – effervescent style. With that, the announcer brought me onto the stage and I received lots of love and applause from our packed house of registrants, who noted to me that they were coming to get a fun-filled follow up from my presentation and performance last year (in hosting the “Dreamgirls” screening with Jennifer Hudson). I don’t think I disappointed, but when Steve entered the experience via the stage, he did use some of his joking, but kinda’ shame-driven style, to mock me and even shut me down (and up) at times. But I held my own; played with him a bit (getting my own READs in – if you will); and still made sure we kept the conversation flowing. The point at which I knew I had Steve Harvey – self-proclaimed fashion plate (albeit a more approachable, old school style) - in the palm of my hands was when I jokingly stepped off my stool to let him continue his joking flirtation with Vice President of Multicultural Marketing for Disney Parks and Resorts, Xiomara Wiley (who impressed Steve to no end with her qualifications). As I returned to homebase (from my walk-away schtick), Steve, a newlywed, said “Man, that’s a bad suit! I got to find out where you got that!!!” Well, THANKS TO OMAR, Steve and I found a place we have in common – FASHION and STYLE, and we were able to continue the agenda of the evening around our collective care and compassion for OUR YOUTH. Steve even shared openly and vulnerably about his own childhood and what DREAMS he had as a child. He says he knew he wanted to be on TV without ever having known anyone who had done it. He added that his mother and father were instrumental in him feeling like he could do it. This broke the ice for me to fold our other guests into the mix. Yes! We had four other remarkable people who are also a part of “Disney’s Dreamers Academy”. I told Steve and the audience that my mother was – no doubt – looking down on me from heaven as I introduced our first guest, one of my favorite soap opera actresses who I couldn’t resist calling “Drucilla” (from “Y&R”). And she graciously allowed me to do just that. Though at the convention to promote her “New York Times” best-selling memoir “The Women Who Raised Me”, Victoria Rowell (in the biggest hat of the night), told me that she would be teaching the kids how to “express themselves” via the written word. She says it is journaling through the years while navigating through America’s foster care system that helped shape who she is today (along with the mentoring and nurturing energy of several women she met along the way). Celebrity chef and best-selling author (and soon-to-be Food Network star) Jeff Henderson, better known as “Chef Jeff”, testified how being incarcerated in his early years (from drug and gang activity) turned into him having a work ethic and zest for life and his passion for the culinary. He will share his secrets in the kitchen with America’s youth who will attend “Disney’s Dreamers Academy” in January, but he too will help them see that there’s always a better way to peer pressure and irresponsible choices that we sometimes make when we are young. Vice President of Disney Sports Attractions and former NFL star Reggie Williams is poised to give the best of his expertise, but will inspire through his own life challenges, including a hearing impairment. His journey has taken him to an Ivy League school; the NFL; and a host of other amazing opportunities that make him the success story that we know him to be today. He truly moved the crowd with his sharing. And it wouldn’t be a Disney event without a hip young star (or two). Monique Coleman filled the first shoe. She is the star of Disney’s “High School Musical” and “High School Musical II” which comes out next week. She also competed in “Dancing with the Stars” last season. She will offer insight on being a “triple threat” (dancer, singer, actress) to the young folks – many of whom aspire to do exactly what she does. But she noted that it will be important to also let them know that you can never be too young to mentor and she loves the concept of giving back while she continues to push for the next level of her career. This exchange with all of these inspirational folks went beautifully and was appropriately capped off with a performance by another “American Idol” favorite Paris Bennett, who performed Fantasia’s “Believe” from the season she won. Also, to cap off the evening, some cast members from Cirque du Soleil’s “Mystere” performed. Interactively (through the audience and onto the stage), they moved mysteriously, leading us (and the audience) to the reception in the back of the room. Afterwards, so many praised me for keeping them entertained that night. So many put it out into the universe that I should have my own show. And I must say I was humbled and flattered at the chance to do three of my favorite things (perform, entertain, and educate) in front of my peers. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities for me to do this with Disney and beyond. As I explore new and creative horizons for my career, I am proud to be demonstrating what it should look like as I figure it all out. Afterwards, many of us went to “Paris” for some Italian cuisine – celebrating my moment of bathing in the light, literally and figuratively. J’ai, Michael, Katina, Anthony, and I were in this mix, enjoying each other’s company and sipping on big Eifel Tower-glasses of margarita and pina colada. Itika, her friend Mara (about whom I’ve written in “The Life of Riley” before: ), Anthony, Caleb, and I shared a cab over to Mandalay Bay for a Sports Task Force party. We danced the night away to the hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s in the spirit of NABJ where we “work hard” but never forget to “play hard”. Here, we got a glimpse of our good girlfriend Adrienne who is on Kimora Lee Simmons team for her KLS design-wear. She’s featured in Kimora’s “Life in the Fab Lane” as well.
On this day, it was Senator Barack Obama’s turn to move the crowd. And he did. But the aforementioned Mara Schiavocampo who was to receive the “Salute to Excellence” Emerging Journalist of the Year Award for 2007 (on Saturday) made it possible for Anthony and me to – along with her – be a personal audience with him. Mara knew a senior level consultant on Barack’s team. He made arrangements for us to hook up with him after his presentation; however, some press requirements prevented him from meeting us immediately (and both Mara and I had to get to our next round of panels). The solution? Barack’s team made it possible for us to meet up with him and the caravan at the high-end airport (for luxury charters) at which he would be boarding a private campaign jet for the next stop on his campaign trail. Anthony, Mara, and I were told to wait in the airport, which reminded us why ‘commercial travel’ just doesn’t hold up a candle to sitting in comfortable recliners and a quiet and calm environment until flight time. From there, a Secret Service agent came into ensure that Mara and her “entourage” were in place. He then escorted us to the tarmac where Barack, his wife Michelle, their daughters, and the rest of the staff would be arriving. First, there’s the plane. Then, there’s a round of SUV’s and sedans. Then, suddenly, there was Barack. I’d met both he and his wife before (even interviewing them in Santa Barbara a couple of years ago), but this moment was intimate and represented a level of access that many don’t get (not to mention the “history” of it all). Anthony, Mara, and I were taking pictures with the man who could very well be “the first Black President of the United States”. Heady stuff, if you think about it too long, but this would have to suffice as JUST ONE MOMENT in a weekend full of MAGIC, including the NABJ Arts & Entertainment Task Force panel “Extra Access to the TV Talent on the Inside of Entertainment”. Task Force member Candi Carter had the brainchild. I went about submitting the proposal to NABJ to include it on the program and I also went about asking our roundtable to participate. In the end, my friend Shaun Robinson (“Access Hollywood”) moderated while my Spelman sister Tanika Ray (“Extra”); Kevin Frazier (“ET”); and April Woodard (“Inside Edition”) chimed in on their experiences on the red carpet and beyond. This was – hands down – one of the most entertaining panels at the convention this year. Like always, the room was full – so full there was a crowd out the door. Each of the panelists were candid, funny, and chockful of tips to the many aspiring A&E journalists in the room and Shaun (also a Spelman woman) anchored the afternoon brilliantly. As I look ahead to new representation (as my ICM talent agent Helen Shabason has “left the building”), I found myself taking notes on what it has taken for these people to elevate their next levels in their careers. It was an all-around great workshop that capped off with all of us posing for the cameras. There’s a moment as we are all posing, when I ask the panelists to pose for my camera. In the sea of cameras shooting, Shaun asks “Where is the blog camera?”. Tanika and I are pointing to Anthony, who was shooting my camera for “A Day in the Life of Riley”. Tanika exclaims: “Over there! His man is shooting!”. I thought to myself: How far have we come that my Spelman sister with whom I attended college during a time where I “lived out loud”, but “not out”, can all these years later simply understand what my life looks like now, use it in casual conversation, and no one flinch. IT’S A NEW DAY! IT’S A NEW DAY! After years of my offering her name and talents up to bigger NABJ events, Shaun would be selected to host the “Hall of Fame” banquet which was a spectacular evening honoring this year’s inductees to the NABJ Hall of Fame: Xernona Clayton (“Trumpet Awards” Founder/Turner Broadcasting Executive); Merv Aubespin (artist/reproter/editor at “The Courier Journal”); John L. Dotson, Jr. (former president/publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal); and Jim Vance (anchor/WRC-TV Washington). A number of other awards were also handed out. What an inspirational evening that included a memorial video of all the journalists we’ve lost over the last year. My friend Gerald Boyd and Ed Bradley were acknowledged. Both of them have been tributed here on the blog. This is also the evening where our friend Barbara Ciara (former Vice President – Broadcast) was announced as the new President of NABJ. So, we had lots to celebrate afterwards in her honor. Then, the guys and I hit a spot in Vegas called “Krave” to dance the night away. It was a Madonna-themed evening as her birthday fell on this day. They played many of her videos sprinkled with other divas, like Janet, etc. This night would be an all-nighter.
But like any convention, the show had to go on. And with less than two hours of sleep, I had to get up bright and early to meet with the NABJ Arts & Entertainment Task Force. From there, we began the work of our NABJ Film Festival. First up: “ILLEGAL TENDER” starring Rick Gonzalez and Wanda DeJesus. John Reyes directed. And John Singleton, who has brought many of his films to NABJ over the years, is the Executive Producer (and “Studio”) behind this project, his sophomore release to “Hustle and Flow”. Though the film played a bit over-the-top to Anthony and me (in the gun-toting fierceness of Wanda as a mother of color sexily and sometimes campily protecting her children and her livelihood), but that in part is what makes the film so enjoyable. I interviewed all of the aforementioned (minus Gonzalez, but plus DJ Frankie Needles who oversaw the music in the production, including a teen girl in 1985 singing along to Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home”. REMEMBER THAT????? (you tube). From there, we transitioned from one theater at “The Palms” to another in which Denzel Washington’s “American Gangster” previewed. Denzel nor any of his co-stars Russell Crow, Common, T.I., Cuba Gooding, etc. were in attendance, but all the stars of the week did show up to see this movie months before its November 2nd release. John Singleton came. Shaun Robinson and Tanika Ray were there. Jawn Murray came. On and on I could go with the sightings. As for the film, it was 2:40 and most graphic, but equally compelling as Denzel portrayed a real-life drug lord who single-handedly dealt drugs in a way that destroyed the community, but also (and eventually) brought down crooked “drug enforcement officers” from the NYPD. This film was well-received. From this film, Anthony and I got dressed for the “Salute to Excellence” Awards which was honoring CNN’s Bernard Shaw with the “Lifetime Achievement Award” and – again – our friend Mara with the “Emerging Journalist of the Year” Award. Her parents and husband flew in for the occasion. Anthony and I opted out of going to see Toni Braxton's show to extend our support and pride for Mara, a new friend. She even shouted me out as "the wise one" in her speech. She asked me days prior if she should prepare and read from a script. I told her to get her points down and have the moment be a moment - from the heart. She gave the most beautiful speech! I'm glad she listened. And I'm glad we decided to attend this event, instead of Toni. I then had to rush to our NABJ Film Festival final screening, which was "Resurrecting The Champ" starring Samuel L. Jackson. I introduced him and he introduced the film... and our members seemed pleased with our third selection for the day.
Anthony and I woke up on Sunday morning a bit refreshed, ready for our returns, but a little sad at leaving. Though the week had not been perfect, both he and I experienced a new frontier of our relationship. The lion's share of it was about our collective abundance and the endless possibilities that show up when we work together. The other parts that maybe didn't work - at least - have given us some lessons that can help us be better. The convention wraps with a Sunday Brunch (featuring Gospel music - this year, Jonathan Butler and Marvin Winans). We said good-bye to our new friends - like Katina. We also took some time away on our last day and had fun off-site. We went to Hotel New York, New York where we road rollercoaster #1. Lots of fun! Then, we cabbed over to Hotel Sahara and road another faster rollercoaster. We had to do that one twice. We also spent some time at the Sahara - playing a little blackjack or 21. Neither of us step close to a table during the week, but with the help of a Chicago resident named Mike, we got the chance to learn the strategies of "Spanish 21". We then had dinner at The Venetian's Grand Luxe Restaurant (owned by the Cheesecake Factory folks). And though we realized "What happens in Vegas STAYS in Vegas", we also realized that what we picked up in Vegas ---- connection, love, support, inspiration --- would be with us forever. And NO! We didn't win much in the way of money. Still, we felt like we won a host of PRICELESS lessons that showed up inside of our choosing to CALL JOY FORTH. And it simply put a smile on my face.