My mantra, when interviewing people, has always been to ‘be yourself.’ Although to be honest, my little plan didn’t always work, most notably in a New York photo studio, where I was to chat with Alicia Keys in between shots. She was somewhere inside the cavernous loft. Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key Of Life” was blaring as people rushed back and forth. A couple of guys, who, judging from their girth, were security or perhaps drivers, sat at a table reading the Post and checking their cell phones. They looked up when I approached, then returned to their activities. One reason that these encounters are so nerve-racking is that I am, inevitably, alone, while my celebrity is surrounded by a dozen-strong claque. I bumbled around awkwardly. I assumed a nonchalant expression. No, let’s try Earnest Open Face.
“I’m looking for Ms. Keys,” I ventured to one of the bodyguards. His compadre imitated my squeaky voice under his breath, and they both struggled not to laugh. My face flamed in embarrassment. Whoops. Lower the register a little. Confidence! You are all business!
“I’ll go see what’s up,” he said, and vanishes behind a partition.
I looked around and plopped down on a couch. A half hour passed. I whipped out my trusty friend, the cell phone. Any messages? Nope. There is one magazine on the couch: Black Hair Today. I can’t flip through it. I was already made fun of once. People kept breezing by – photo assistants, catering people - and continuing onward. No one said hello.
An hour passed. I couldn’t call anyone because Stevie Wonder was singing too loudly. Which made me think of my favorite obscure rapper name, Celly Cell. On his album cover, he’s got the receiver to his ear.
What was she doing? I ruminatively stroked my chin and discovered a hair. Quietly, I rummaged through my bag where I kept an emergency set of mini-tweezers. No one was looking so I blindly plucked at the chin hair until it comes out. I checked my bank balance, my credit card balance. Where was she? I looked over at Black Hair Today. “Skinny braids!” it said on the cover. I had nothing to do and the hour- and- a-half mark just passed. I couldn’t leave because she could pop up at any minute. Maybe I could sort of carelessly flip through it, and learn how to “Get Beyonce’s Hair.”
An assistant materialized. “Alicia wants to talk to you,” she says. Uh oh. Principal’s office.
“Great!’ I squeaked and leapt up from my chair. We walked towards a knot of people who were gathered around Alicia in a dressing room. She was serenely gorgeous, as calm as a sphinx as three girls busily braided her hair in an intricate pattern close to her head. She was wearing jeans, boots, and big hoop earrings. Skinny braids! Half of her hair was done, the other half poufed out into a magnificent afro. They were all laughing uproariously until I come in. Did someone lift the needle off the record?
“I guess you still have a ways to go,” I said, looking at the afro’d half.
“No,” she said, puzzled.
Of course. She’s doing half braid, half afro. Maybe if I had read the magazine, I chastised myself, I would have been up on this clearly emerging trend.
“Right!” I chirped. I was way off today. What was my opening patter for her? I couldn’t remember.
“Listen,” she said. “Can we do this later? I don’t want to do this with everyone around. I’m just not feeling it. Are you?”
They all looked at me, expectantly. “No,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m not feeling it either.” I actually was feeling it, especially after waiting two hours.
She told me to come back in five hours. “Great!” I said idiotically, and then I fled. As I make for the door, I hear a burst of laughter coming from the dressing room. My cheeks burned again. The whole episode triggers a shame spiral, a magician’s endless silk scarf of humiliations that starts in the present and rolls inevitably back to seventh grade, as one by one my accomplishments fall away. That mocking laugh shook loose a hideous grab bag of slights dating back to my preteen years.
I caught a subway back to my apartment, fuming the whole way, as I constructed a righteous speech in my head. Not feeling it! Well, I’m not feeling this interview! What do you think of that? Huh? I’m not feeling your album! Or your bodyguard! How you like that? Huh?
I realized that I was actually saying all of this out loud and the subway patrons, noticing my deranged expression and moving lips, were quietly inching away from me. I slammed into my apartment and flopped on the bed, where my cat was sleeping. It’s a ritual from middle school: run, flop dramatically, bury face in cat fur, wish mightily that I was a cat and had only to worry about sleeping.
“Get a grip,” said Heather on the phone. “You’re the one who always tells me that it’s just a job. Show me a job that doesn’t have seventh grade moments.”
When it’s time to return, I put on a different belt, one like Alicia’s hand-tooled hippie number. Sad, right? Love your belt! Come sit down next to me!
When I reappeared at the loft, Alicia ran right over. “Hey!” she said with a big grin. She steered me into a limo, chatting the whole way, and we motored off to a downtown recording studio. “I thought we’d talk on the fire escape,” she said in that honeyed drawl of hers. “What do you say?” We walked up a flight of steps into a candle-lit sound studio. She yanked up a window and we climbed outside onto the stairs, dangling our feet over the busy street scene below. It was a pink-hued spring day, and the New York air, absent for the moment of vaporized homeless-man urine, was blessedly fresh.
We talked as we lazily people-watched. She was warm and thoughtful, and the afternoon slipped by. She sent me off with a big hug. As I walked home, I realized that if I was really ‘being myself,’ I would have made fun of that security guy right back and the day would have taken a different turn. Well, live and learn.