Being a host on the QVC network gave me a level of fame I had always dreamed of. But when my contract ended in 1994 and I was not picked up immediately by another channel, I decided to return home to Baltimore. One of the vendors from my QVC show, Destination: Africa, offered me a job as manger of a store he wanted to open in my hometown called “Out of Africa.”
Having a store in Baltimore made me feel as if I still had some fame. I moved into a corner store on Read and Cathedral streets in Mt. Vernon, down the street from the Maryland Institute College of Art, the same place I had posed nude ten years earlier. The area was the heart of the gay community, and it crackled with excitement. It was nicknamed “The Meat Rack” because the gay street hustlers worked the corners at night while men would cruise the neighborhood looking for sex.
The store was huge, over 2500 square feet. I filled it with traditional African art but also featured my line of dolls. I even set up a sewing machine and living quarters in the back, and designed and created African garments for customers. Running the store was a big deal to me, and I tried to capitalize off my QVC celebrity. I ran videos of my shows in the store and hung up photographs of me with various celebrities like Susan Lucci, Richard Simmons, and Nancy Wilson. I also posted up my famous picture with Wesley Snipes, in drag, from the movie Too Wong Foo.
Newspapers did stories about me and I received invitations to appear at doll collector shows around the country. The store had a huge grand opening, and I felt like Diana Ross coming back to Detroit after the Supremes had been on the Ed Sullivan Show.
After a few months, I decided to buy the owner out and take full ownership of the store. I leased the Baltimore store for four years. It felt good to have something I could call my own. I was able to give back to the community and became a role model for other gay men. I added more gay friendly products to my store’s selection, and changed the name of the store to the business name that was used for the dolls, “A.N.D.”
The A.N.D. store gave me a venue to sell not only African art but also art directed towards the gay community. I launched another special line of dolls, a limited collection called “Damn Good Man.” There were twelve doll designs in all, and the eventual goal was to do a calendar of them; each doll would represent a sexy male image for each month of the year. What also made the dolls special was that I gave them penises, bulging hard-ons you could feel through their costumes. I even put beads in their sacs so they could have testicles. The line was my urban alternative to my African dolls.
I had recognized a need to fill a market not addressed by the white gay community. There already existed stores that were gay themed, but they never targeted the African-American community. I contacted author James Earl Hardy to do an in-store reading of the first book in his gay, African-American themed series of novels, B-Boy Blues. It was a huge success. That led to other in-store appearances, including Keith Boykin with his book One More River to Cross: Black & Gay in America. Additional artists, visual and literary, followed suit. We sold black erotic nude calendars and photography books from Rundu, Vega, and Jamal. If it was black and gay themed, I tried to get the product on my shelves and the artist in my store. A.N.D. became quite the meeting place for gays in the area, and my friends started calling my store the “Black Gay Community Center.”
Many people assumed that because I sold erotic images, publishers of erotic books and calendars might discover aspiring male models with my help. This wasn’t necessarily the case but I will admit -- since I did own a camera and loved the nude, male image, I never really denied the possibility of being able to “assist” a hungry male model. As a result, I amassed quite a collection of “test” model images. In addition, the street hustlers who worked the “Meat Rack” were always looking for any opportunity to earn a few dollars, so they often offered to pose nude for me, for the chance to have their pictures sold to a publisher.
Sam Jennings, a performer who I had become very close to during my work with Actors Against Drugs, lived nearby and shared my love of erotic photography. Often, we would trade or share models for our “freaky foto” sessions. We had a collection of over three hundred images. The street hustlers were always asking when I was going to have their pictures published.
Another wonderful thing about the store was that it allowed me a sense of independence. As the owner, I could leave in the middle of the day to audition for movies and television shows. As I mentioned earlier, several movie production companies were shooting projects in Baltimore during that time. Will Smith shot several scenes for the movie Enemy of the State just outside of my store. During that production, someone on set told me that he had married Baltimore native Jada Pinkett over the production’s Thanksgiving break. During the late 80’s, when Pinkett was a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts and I was a trolley driver, she and Tupac used to ride my trolley route to school.
My one-man show, FREEda Slave: Mask of a Diva, debuted in 1995 at Baltimore’s Artscape festival in the second year of the store’s operation. People who saw me in the show would come through the store just to meet me, and to see the images of the show that I had on display. Across the street from my store was the local AIDS organization HERO (Health Education Resource Organization.) Carlton Smith, Executive Director of the Baltimore Black Gay Pride, Inc. asked me to head up a special program called “Men of Color Against AIDS.” I wrote, directed, and produced a public service announcement featuring the then mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke. It was a campaign aimed at keeping men of color HIV negative by encouraging positive self-images. “If you love yourself, you will protect yourself,” was our theme.
I was settling nicely into my new community when I got a surprising proposition that put me back on television. One of my former co-workers from QVC, Kelly Dobbs, had been named Head of Talent at a new shopping channel in New York called the Global Shopping Network. She offered me the unique opportunity to work three days a week as a host on the channel in New York, and I could commute from Baltimore. The timing was perfect. I lived a few blocks from the train station in Baltimore, and the studio in New York was also within walking distance of a train station. Sam urged me to accept the job, as he was a train conductor and was familiar with the train’s punctuality -- he could nearly guarantee me that I’d never be late for work. The four-hour metro ride was like taking a nap and waking up to work in another city. Working at GSN, I had creative freedom.
I produced another version of my African themed show, re-named African Accents, which also sold a limited line of my dolls. The network was a satellite feed with an audience even smaller than that of the Fashion Channel. Although we sold a lot of jewelry, the shows we did at GSN focused on some of the special things one can find only in New York, such as clothing by certain New York designers and Hollywood and Broadway collectibles. I hosted a “Hollywood Memorabilia” show that showcased some of my favorite movies, and I gave the audience a little trivia associated with those movies. I next did a show on Elvis Presley memorabilia and dressed up like a black Elvis. That would have never happened at QVC. Everything about GSN was theatrical and very much like me. I felt like I was Gladys Knight at Buddah Records, (the label Gladys Knight and the Pips joined after leaving Motown), and was a big fish in a small pond. Unfortunately, GSN could not thrive in the marketplace and went bankrupt. The day we had to shut down, you would have thought a president had died. I have never known such a wonderful and supportive network crew.
By the fourth year of operation, my store began to suffer financially. I had made a huge mistake in marketing by making my store personality driven. Support for A.N.D was heavy when I was present in the store, but sales dropped whenever I went out of town and left my manager in charge. I had made my store all about me and not about the products. Sales dropped during the last year of business. In 1997, the month the lease was up for renewal, I decided to call it quits and closed the store.
When the store closed, my fame diminished. I felt like I needed to stage a comeback. How would I reinvent myself? I looked to my talents as a costume designer. While I had still been operating the store, Darryl Wharton had brought me on as the costumer for his independent film, Detention. I had enjoyed the challenge. The film community in Baltimore is small. Once people find out what you do creatively, your name gets around. After closing the store, I worked as a dresser on the national touring company of Ragtime in Washington D.C. I followed that by working as a stitcher on the film Random Hearts with Harrison Ford, and hand stitched all of Harrison’s pants in that film. I felt like I got more respect as a wardrobe person than I had ever gotten as a background extra. I leapt at the chance to work on the Barry Levinson film Liberty Heights, as an on-set dresser.
Some of my best work appears in a scene that takes place at the Royal Theater with a young James Brown look-a-like. I learned that his back-up singers, Kenny, Zahmu, and Chris, were huge Supremes fans. We shared old performance videos and became lifelong friends. I next worked my way up to lead wardrobe person on a commercial with famed Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken, Jr. I liked being on the other side of the camera for once. Things were looking good for a while.
By 1997, I started feeling very detached from the city I had loved for so many years. My close friendship with Sam started to deteriorate when he relapsed into drug addiction. When we were with AAD, Sam would speak to the audiences after our performances and share his own true horror story of drug addiction. His honesty would bring our performances full circle. Now he was complaining about migraines and asking for my pain pills. On a few occasions, I gave in. However, when I later told him I didn’t have any more, he accused me of lying. He would arrive at my door looking wild and emaciated, with a crazed look on his face, so I knew he was suffering from more than just a headache. I agreed to feed him, but promised myself not to give him any money or any more medication. I kept keys to his apartment for safety reasons, because I was always concerned for his well-being when he photographed street hustlers without me being present.
One time, I entered Sam’s apartment when I knew he was not there and was shocked beyond belief; across a pile of drug paraphernalia, unkempt clothes, dirty bottles, and half-eaten food lay the beautiful framed poster of Mary Wilson that we had carried to her University of Delaware concert in ’96. The place looked unlivable. I wanted so badly to remove the poster from the ruins and give it a proper home in my Diana Ross art gallery. I decided at that point that Sam had to help himself first before I could do anything to help him, so I left him alone. It would be years before he and I would speak again. Thankfully, he is now clean and sober. Ironically enough, he is the one who inspired me to write my life story. He spoke to me daily throughout the writing of these memoirs to make sure I stayed on track.
When Homicide: Life on the Street, the show for which Darryl was a staff writer, wrapped production, Darryl proposed the idea of going to Los Angeles to do FREEda Slave. He did not need to ask twice. There was nothing keeping me in Baltimore. After the success of FREEda Slave in Los Angeles, work became scarce and I did many jobs to support myself. I signed with an agency, but did not get many auditions. However, my agent, Michelle, one day called me with a different kind of opportunity; a friend of hers knew of a position as a temporary driver for film and commercial director Tony Kaye. The gig would only be for a few days while he was in town shooting a commercial, and it would give me the extra money I needed at the time. Michelle asked if I was interested, but I was hesitant at first. I told her that since I was new to L.A., I did not know much about the city nor how to get around it easily. Michelle found out that, other than traveling to the set, Tony was a creature of habit and liked to travel to only a few select spots in the city. His assistant would provide me with the locations so I could know ahead of time where I needed to go. Figuring it should be simple enough, I agreed to do the job, out of a need for money.
On my first day of work, I picked up Tony’s car from his production office, had it washed and got a list of the places he liked to frequent. I am bad at recognizing and remembering cars, but I believe the car was a huge Lincoln Continental. I was just happy it was not a stick shift, or I would have really been up shit’s creek. When I went to Tony’s production office in Santa Monica, some of the staff presented me with a file of articles about him so I could familiarize myself with who he was. I learned that he had directed a young Ed Norton in the movie American History X, and when Norton got final editing privileges over him, Kaye asked to have his name taken off the credits and later sued the studio for not letting him do so. Ed went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for the movie, and Tony at that time refused to direct any more movies. Instead, he went back to doing commercials and music videos.
Michelle told me to just make sure I did not tell him I was an actor. That mistake would get me fired on the spot. Then she explained to me a few of his quirks -- the oddest thing was that he did not like to speak directly into his cell phone. I was to drive him and answer his cell phone at the same time, relaying the message to Tony and repeating back to the caller Tony’s exact response. His staff told me it had something to do with a divorce he was going through. In addition, I was supposed to do this without a headset. So not only did I have to drive this man around in a huge car across a sprawling city that I was unfamiliar with, I also had to hold a cell phone and communicate messages back and forth like a ventriloquist dummy.
Someone warned me not to be startled when I picked him up from the airport. His staff described him as looking like a skinhead, since he had a shaved head and lots of tattoos and piercings. I learned he was a fitness freak who liked to work out a lot. He had a gym he went to often, and he liked to run along the Santa Monica pier.
I picked him up at the airport and it was no problem finding him. He did look like a skinhead. He was an older, middle-aged man, but he was not as buff as I would have assumed for a fitness freak. I took him first to a quick meeting at his production office, where he met with the commercial agency about the shoot. The agency representatives then left the meeting in the car with Tony, and I dropped them off at their hotel in Santa Monica, near the beach. Tony was staying in his loft in Santa Monica but, instead of going home, he wanted to take a hike in the Hollywood Hills. After a quick call to his assistant, I was able to locate the exact trail he preferred. When he returned from his hike, he had gotten either a bug bite or a rash, and when he saw it he feared he was developing cancer. He had me contact his assistant to find a doctor who could see him late in the day, as it was approaching 5:00 pm. During the forty minutes that followed, he called different friends and asked them various questions about whether or not they thought he might be dying of cancer. Remember, he was not talking directly into the phone, so I had to relay the conversations back and forth. When I did not quote him correctly or shortened anything he said, he yelled at me. In between all this ranting, he still had not cast the little girl who was to be in the commercial that was shooting the next day. So while I was driving, he went through headshots and had me call agents and ask various questions. I convinced myself that I had to be on some version of Candid Camera, since no one would take another person through all these ridiculous changes without a television camera being present.
I don’t know how the assistant did it, but we found a doctor’s office in Beverly Hills that was open late. I waited outside for the news we all knew -- he was not going to die. However, he had worked my “last good nerve” by then. It was after 8:00 p.m. and he still wanted to go to the gym to meet up with his trainer. The gym was on Pico Boulevard, not far from his production office. I plotted the trip in my head, trying to convince myself it was worth it. I kept telling myself, “Two more days of insanity, I can do this. A nice paycheck is waiting on the other side. And who knows -- he could end up liking me and ask me to be in his next film.”
After his workout, Tony came out of the gym and had a taste for a restaurant that was not on the list given to me. Oh, fuck! The worst possible scenario was playing out before my eyes. I had no clue where the place was and he could not tell me. I frantically called his assistant, but got no answer. Tony became enraged.
“Don’t you know where the place is? What kind of driver are you?”
He started screaming and carrying on like a spoiled child. I got out of the car and called his assistant one more time, leaving Tony to scream at me from inside the car. Because the assistant drove a motorcycle, he was not able to hear the phone ring until he came to a stop. As soon as he knew I needed him, he headed over to meet us at the gym on Pico.
“Sorry about that man,” he said. “The place where he wants to eat is just a block over on Olympic.”
“I’m still hungry!” Kaye bellowed from the back seat of the car.
“Hell no,” I said, turning to the assistant. “I ain’t taking him anywhere, I quit. This job is not worth the humiliation of being spoken to like this.”
I left them there and walked to the bus stop. Two years later, while working as an extra on a commercial, I walked on set and low and behold, the director was Tony Kaye. I made sure to stay far in the background because if there was ever a time I wanted to stay unnoticed, it was that day. Since most of the time I had spent with him had been with my back to him, I doubted that he would even recognize me. Nevertheless, I took no chances.
I was back in front of the camera after having been part of the team behind it. On a Hollywood production, regardless of what side of the camera you’re on, there’s a pecking order that has a top dog and a bottom player. If you’re acting, you’re either the star or a background extra, or somewhere in between. If you’re part of the production team, you’re either the producer or the production assistant, or somewhere in between. Up to that point, I had been a background extra, a star while at QVC, and a production assistant of sorts during my “adventure” with Tony Kaye. That experience with Tony, although horrible at the time, helped me in many ways. It made me realize that anyone can go back to square one and start all over again. Tony had directed an Academy Award nominated film but was back directing commercials. I had been a host on a national network but was back doing extra work in commercials. Fame can have you signing autographs one day and standing in the background the next. It is humbling, but it also makes you stronger.
There’s something Diana Ross says in her 1977 NBC television special An Evening with Diana Ross that comes to mind when I think of my own drive to succeed. When reminiscing about how she took direction from Berry Gordy, Jr. during the early days of Motown she says, “It reminds me of a game we used to play as kids called ‘Mother May I?’ Sometimes, in my eagerness to reach the goal, I might take a step without asking his permission and he would yell, ‘Go back Ross, you didn’t say ‘May I.’ I guess it was then I discovered that unconscious desire to win and want to be the best.”
I too have always wanted to be the best. And my quest for fame would next see me take a giant step up on the production food chain to become an executive film producer.
“Sometimes you have to take two steps backwards to make a step forward. Remember SANKOFA.”