I attended a Russell Simmons book signing event last night at my old stomping grounds, Books & Books, and it was fascinating to watch. Here’s a somewhat lengthy account of what transpired, an edited version of this will appear later today on Riptide, the Miami New Times blog. And in case some of y’all didn’t know, I’m also the calendar editor there. Holla at me if you’re throwing a local event!
Some came dressed in club girl chic, barely-there dresses and look-at-me attitude. Some came in show-stopping hip hop gear, designed to demonstrate street cred. Everyone came with their business face on. Russell Simmons was about to be in the house, and the vibe at Books & Books was electric last night.
By 7:00 p.m., anticipation hung low and thick in the air. Simmons was already 20 minutes late for the televised interview he’d agreed to give NBC 6, and his event was scheduled to start. There was a crowd of fans, all clutching copies of Simmons’s latest book, Do You: 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success. In order to meet Mr. Simmons, they needed to purchase a copy of the book at the counter first. Some fans weren’t feeling that. “He ain’t reading? He ain’t talkin? Forget it,” shrugged a young, dreadlocked dude as he turned away and left. For every one of him, there were at least two more ready to buy a copy.
Suddenly, he stood before me, wearing a faded blue teeshirt, jeans, and smiling that familiar smile as he apologized profusely to the Books & Books staff for his tardiness. I beamed with recognition. “Hey,” I said before Russell Simmons was whisked away. I followed the crowd into the store, where he was being spruced up for the television interview. They posed him in front of a sign that features a giant book cover, and proudly announces that Simmons’ tour is sponsored by Cadillac. Simmons asked his marketing manager: “Is this going to be a q-and-a session?” When the answer was no, he sighed in relief. I stood off to the side, pen and notepad in hand. He looked over at me.
“Hey, whatcha writing?” he asked.
“Any words of wisdom?” I replied, hopefully.
Simmons pointed over to the marketing dude. “He says there aren’t going to be any,” he replied with a wicked smile.
“I’m sure you’ll come up with something,”I responded.
By now, the eyes of the room were on me: That girl, with the notepad. She talked to Russell! She must be someone important! At least, I assume that’s what people were thinking because shortly after, at least four people gave me their business cards, and asked me which magazine I worked for.
Note to the television reporter — watching the man’s prior interviews would have given you better insight as to what questions to NOT ask. Simmons just had a dust-up over at NPR of all places, and every reporter from Miami to Madagascar has asked him the same, exact questions. Even the CEO of hip hop gets tired of talking about bitches and hoes sometime. Needless to say, questions about Simmons book came at the beginning of the interview, and he grinned and pontificated about being a better contributor to the world, tapping into the peace of God that is within all of us, the connections that exist between all humankind. Then came the obvious questions about rappers, clean versions, banned words, and Don Imus. Russell shut that down quick. “When we see a rapper and notice the misogyny in his songs, we never look at ourselves and notice that we live in a totally misogynistic society,” he rebutted. He likened 50 Cent and Eminem to poets and painters who have always sought to express the realities of their lives. Then it was on to the fans and all of those books that needed signing.
A beautiful woman in a dress that was hardly there approaches the table first. She presses him for time, a commitment of some sort. Her eyes are pleading and her smile is bright and intermittent, like the camera flashes that illuminate the room. “Russell, I’ve been calling you all day,” she says. He commiserates with her briefly, placates her, signs a stack of her books, and she is gone. The crush of people swells as fans stream in with their books in one hand, their dreams in another. The entourage goes into action mode. One cool brother from Atlanta instructs fans to open their books to the signing page. He provides them with bookmarks that advertise Russell Simmons Jewelry. An assistant in a pink Baby Phat shirt stands besides Russell. Her job is to take all of the items that fans thrust at him, and place them in a shopping bag under the table. And everyone’s got something to give. CD’s, bound proposals, books, business cards.
“I’ve got SO many business cards,” cackles the cool brother from Atlanta.
“He personally goes through everything,” his marketing manager reassures me. I want to believe him. I curse myself out for not yet having an Afrobella business card.
One very intense gentleman presses a heavy bag of folded garments at him. “Nah, this is too much!” Russell protests. “I’ve come a long way to give this to you,” the man insists, sliding the bag towards him. One mother instructs her reluctant son to bust a freestyle.
After the fans get their books signed, many of them don’t want to leave. They stand off to the side, taking pictures, gawking, giggling. The room is practically packed. By this time, I’m standing at the back, next to three members of Russell’s entourage, all of whom are wearing the very distinctive Simmons green bracelet. They are cackling at those who have come in hopes of a handout. Simmons latest girl, the gorgeous model Denise Vasi, (** edited at 7:06 p.m.: Denise Vasi herself contacted me to contradict this statement. She was NOT in Miami last night. Also, she is not Russell Simmons’ girlfriend. Apologies, Denise!)
A gorgeous, golden skinned, green eyed model type sits next to a large gentleman who takes time between texting on his Blackberry to make snarky asides about the fans. She is wearing grey heels that look like works of art. She comes across as disinterested and self-possessed. Which is fine, she’s absolutely stunning and perhaps that comes with the territory. I didn’t get annoyed until I actually saw her roll her eyes dismissively at a hard-working Books & Books staff member, who apologized for blocking her view. I wondered to myself, are these the people that zen-master Russell Simmons chooses to surround himself with? Every day? The energy I felt from him was so positive. A wave of disappointment washes over me. I watch the model and two other entourage members make faces and laugh at people until almost all of the fans have left. Then it’s my moment in the spotlight. I’m being invited to take a picture with Russell.
I sit beside him as he signs a stack of books, which will be available for sale tomorrow. He smiles at me, and we pose for a picture. “I’m gonna post this on my website,” I tell him. “Really? What’s your website?” he asks. “Afrobella.com,” I respond, but he’s already turned away. I am suddenly shy, my hands are sweating. “I saw you on Bill Maher,” I begin, and he wrinkles his nose. “That was a bad interview,” he says. (Yes it was; the two couldn’t stop talking over each other). I press on. “And I heard about the NPR thing,” I continue. He laughs out loud. “That was even worse,” he says. “Well, how do you deal with that? With so many people coming to you with their own agenda? Asking you the same thing over and over?” He looks at me for a moment, Sharpie in hand, still signing as he considers an answer. Then he shrugs. “I don’t know. I definitely could have handled it better,” he replies, before another assistant draws his attention away from me. And just like that, it’s over. They whisk him out of the store, to the rental car, to the private plane, and on to the next city.
** Big thanks, love, and respect to everyone at Books & Books, and Susie J. Horgan, who took the picture of Russell smiling. I am greasy as hell in that first photo, damn. And Russell looks like he’s about to fall asleep.