Thursday, August 27, 2009

your inner svengali

i've been auditioning a lot this summer for on camera work: mostly commercials and independent film, but occasionally a short here and there. i usually get a callback and then i don't get the job, for whatever the reason -- reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with lack of talent or effort on my part. that's hard to explain to people who quantify success and hard work and employment with an inside-the-box, 9 to 5 day job mentality, that way of thinking that has building blocks that lead all the way to success.

it's even harder to explain to people who've watched way too many episodes of that tv show fame, or who semi-worship the movie - people who honestly believe that if you have talent, you'll "make it," whatever that is. that's right up there with that idiotic all-american horatio alger "rags to riches" myth. nobody pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps. nobody.

let me say this loud enough for you to hear it, whoever you are: having talent does not guarantee your success on any level in the entertainment industry. while it's true that talent helps a great deal, in the grand scheme of things, talent doesn't matter. this is especially true if we're talking about on camera work. i suppose if i lived in hollywood, that's a bigger part of where my focus would be. like i fit into their beauty standard, anyway.

just because you're talented, just because you do a great audition and maybe even a great callback, just because you have presence, that doesn't mean that you'll get the part. and if you do get the part, that doesn't mean you'll keep it. the whole thing can fall apart at any point in the process. there are no guarantees, even when you're working. especially when you're working. because if they think you look funky in the playbacks on that monitor or if your chemistry with your co-star isn't up to scratch or whatever, they will replace you. it happens all the time.

there are so many variables involved. and it's usually stuff that has nothing to do with you. stuff like, how tall you are. or whether somebody thinks you're pretty. or not pretty enough. or whether the camera likes you. what does any of that have to do with whether you can act or not? not a bloody thing.

there, i said it.

let's get one thing straight. there is fat, as in overweight. and then there's hollywood fat, which looks fine in the real world. but in el lay or on camera, a size 8 is positively bovine. i'm not anorexic. i'm not bulemic. i don't have love/hate issues about my body. or food. or anything else. i am simply a theater actor that's hollywood fat. and by working this weight off, i'm doing something about it.

or i could keep eating and turn myself into a big black woman who plays caricatures that amount to little more than what can only be described as mammy for the 21st century -- usually with a lot more attitude and sass than she had in minstrelsy.

i don't want to have some long, drawn out post-feminist argument/discussion about how hollywood's obsession with youth and a size 4 body ideal has given a lot of girls and women in this country a complex and how you may or may not think i'm buying into that by doing any of this. all of that stuff is cute in theory. but this isn't theory. this is my career. and that's what makes it counterproductive - and moot. i realize that this is an important moment for me. i can either get it together and do what i have to do to make the transition to on camera work - get lean and get my teeth fixed - or not. this aspect of the business involves paying a great deal of attention to what i look like, and turning myself into something of a junior triathlete to get the leanness i know i need to look a certain way on camera is par for the course. now i understand why the actors i'd meet in LA were so foaming-at-the-mouth obsessed about what they ate, how they looked on camera, what they looked like, what everyone else looked like. and when they weren't looking at everyone else, they were expecting everyone else to look at them. everyone, constantly checking each other out. think about it: if you look that good, the compliments have to keep coming, you have to stop traffic, you have to look a certain way - or what's it all for, and how will you ever know what you're worth?

in this weight loss struggle, i am not alone. there are many bright shining examples of actors and actresses and performers in hollywood who did what they had to do to get that look. i just read lena horne's excellent bio stormy weather and i didn't get to the middle of the book before she was popping pills to get her weight down after having had two children, because the studio demanded it.

all in all, the results of such studied efforts have been transformative visually for many, to say the least. here's two of my all-time favorite examples:

once upon a time, greta garbo was a working film actress in sweden and happily studying theater. she was on her way to becoming a funny fat comedic actress with bad teeth, but filmmaker mauritz stiller saw something more. he made her take elocution lessons to walk and talk differently, and he got her a stylist so she could dress differently. he gave her acting lessons for the camera. and yes, he made her lose weight. she went on to star in two very successful european films. then they went to new york city. they languished there and almost went home but something interesting happened -- they took portraits of garbo and -- on the strength of those pictures alone -- MGM bigwigs decided to meet with them.

this is the photo that got her that interview.

here she is in 1924, photographed by henry b. goodwin.

these photos were taken by arnold genthe for vanity fair in 1925, prior to garbo's arrival in hollywood.

irving thalberg didn't think garbo was pretty at all (remember, she is considered by many to be the most beautiful woman who ever graced the silver screen - and some believe that she is the most beautiful woman who ever lived) but if you consider what he saw when he looked at her -- a heavy set 21 year old frizzy haired swede with bad teeth who could barely speak english -- maybe you could cut him a little slack.

so he had her straighten her hair and get her teeth fixed. on a scouting trip to berlin, louis b. meyer actually looked her over and told her to lose more weight before she attempted to work in hollywood -- this, after she'd already lost enough weight at the onset of her on camera career to become a successful european star -- with the admonishment, "in america, men don't like their women fat." they groomed her for a few choice roles here and there, she made it through the transition to talkies and the rest, as they say, is history.

this is certainly a much more finished look but wow -- she really doesn't look all that thrilled about it, now does she?

at the other end of the stick, of course, there's joan frackin' crawford - otherwise known as lucille le sueur.

joan's story is one for the books. she didn't have a svengali/lover at her elbow, telling her what to wear and what not to say. hers is a story of raw discipline, true grit and just plain old hard work on her physical self. i LOVE it! she knew everything that was required of her as a movie actress and as a star, and she handled her mutha-effin' business. period.

one day, joan was having stills taken by a cameraman, her friend johnny arnold, for a picture they were working on at the time. he told her offhandedly that her face was "built" - her bone structure was perfect for the camera but the camera couldn't get to any of it. for that to happen, she had to lose weight. joan took his casual remark to heart and promptly went on a diet of steak and tomatoes for lunch and dinner, and grapefruit for breakfast. in a month, she lost 20 pounds. her face changed so drastically, everyone assumed she got plastic surgery to make her eyes bigger. she didn't. at 5'1" and 149 pounds initially, she was pretty buxom. she dropped all the way down to 108 and never weighed more than 118 pounds for the rest of her career. and now -- to paraphrase paul harvey -- you know the rest of the story.

this is joan before the weight loss. (i'll bet you didn't even know this was joan, did you? i didn't.)

will you just look at that belly and those thighs? now that's hollywood fat.

and this is joan after the weight loss. of course, this new look garnered much more work and ultimately, success.

any questions?

i don't know. maybe i've got it all wrong but i don't think so. to make this transition, you have to plug into your inner svengali. after looking over pictures like this from back in the day, mine is totally on point.


AJ Muhammad said...

You know, Dael Orlandersmith said in her intro to her published collection of plays which include Monster and others, that because of her size and looks she refused to play the funny/sassy asexual friend of the star who always gets the man, the heroic woman or the thinly disguised mammy. So she wrote her own plays: Monster; Liar, Liar; The Gimmick; Stoop Stories; Yellowman; Trick babies etc. She was nominated for a Pulitzer for Yellowman and she has been touring the country playing regional theaters near and far, receiving grants, commissions and lucrative positions and she has done the most prestigious off-B'way houses in NYC at NYTW, MTC and others. Dael ain't losing weight for nobody and she ain't gonna stop wearing her signature long braids as she has since 1994!!!! Yellowman was one of the most produced plays in the country a few years ago which toured in productions she didn't even star in. You may or may not like her work. That is irrelevant. I have seen her work and she is a talented sought after black woman doing her thing and performing at the Goodman theater this upcoming season and as you say the rest is history. Her work is taught in academia, high schools, all over and she has been widely written about in publications such as American Theater and theater scholars have examined her work and compared her to other black seminal women playrights including Adrienne Kennedy and Zora!!! My point is you are blessed to have a vision as an artist who can tell her/your own story and do it well and people will be interested. You already have a following and a team of well connected players in your camp. All you have to do is get in paper. Or dust off stuff you have written and have the eff at it! It don't matter if you are size 2 or 20. You got the write stuff! Dael is doing it without ever having stepped in front of a camera at least in the past 15 years or so! Making the transition to TV and Film is great but something has to be said about women like you, Nilaja Sun (who is a tiny Afro Latina woman -emphasis on Afro -- whose No Child she wrote and starred in off B'way where it played to sold out crowds for nearly 6 months as well as regionally and was also done with a full cast) and Dael Orlandersmith, Charlayne Woodard (whose latest solo play The Night Watcher which is going up this Sept at Primary Stages), Anna Deveare Smith (who is overweight with jacked up teeth who has nothing on you cause she can't sang like you can) and others whose work is being seen and recognized on stage and drawing people in time and time again and over and over again.

Devils said...

I'm struck by the same kind of thoughts as AJ Muhammad: at a certain point, does it still make sense to chase after Hollywood jobs? And how many jobs, really, are there for a black woman of a certain age, no matter what she looks like? Furthermore, of the jobs there are, how many of them are not comic relief/Magic Negro/updated mammy roles or just glorified set decoration?

Consider the contrasts between the careers of Halle Berry and Diane Lane. They're both around the same age, early 40s, but the trajectory of their work has almost reversed over the last few years.

After Berry won the Oscar, it seemed like she had really busted through the Hollywood glass ceiling, with her classic white-girl-dipped-in-chocolate beauty and emotionally riveting performance in Monster's Ball. But despite it all, including being cast as a Bond Girl and presumably picking up 3 handsome checks for being eye candy in the X-Men franchise (seriously, Storm is reduced to little more than a plot device in those films), she's not in huge demand in Hollywood currently. In fact, she's producing her own pictures (and good on ya, sister). I'm sure she's a savvy businesswoman and all that, but I'll take bets that part of the reason is that no one was offering her anything even as compelling as the ridiculous Catwoman these days.

On the other hand, Diane Lane, with only an Oscar nomination and not nearly as famous nor as acclaimed a beauty as Berry, still manages to get leading lady roles without having to exert herself- or put her own cash at risk. In fact, Lane has said in interviews that she's sick of playing all these "nice women" (leading ladies) in a slew of romantic comedy-dramas that she's appeared in over the last 5 years or so.

So I have to wonder, what's the point of trying to please these people? Because not only is it not just about talent, it's about the fact that there are things that we can't control, chief among them the deep-seated preconceptions and lousy tastes of Hollywood and its narrow expectations of what women can be, particularly once they get past their 30s. It's discouraging to think that there's anything decent out there to get if a woman widely recognized as one of the sexiest and most beautiful in the world can't get someone to give her a good part in looks-obsessed, youth-obsessed, sex-obsessed Hollywood. What kind of chance does that leave anyone else?

I understand why you admire Joan Crawford's self-discipline, but the fact is that as big a star as she was (and she was bigger than toast from the late 20s through the 30s), by 1939 at the age of 34 she was considered washed up, and even though she was strong, smart and lucky enough to make a comeback in Mildred Pierce at 40, that was the last truly great picture she ever made, the delicious Grand Guignol camp of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? notwithstanding.

There are a lot of opportunities these days for artists of all shapes, sizes, colors and points of view with the vision and drive to make them happen. I hope you'll decide that you'd be better served by creating your own thing than waiting for Hollywood to dish up what's likely to be not that tasty anyway.

queenesther said...

hey, devil -

yes, both you and aj are right. but there's a little more to it than what you've both said.

i have to tell you that i've always been a self-starter as an artist, probably because nyc forced me to be. and i'm grateful for that, because it grew me creatively in ways that i never anticipated. but this thing called the entertainment industry is a multi-headed hydra that has to be attacked constantly and consistently on all fronts. my take on film/tv/commercials is just one more tactic, really. i want to do more than merely survive in this business and unfortunately, that's all theater has allowed me to do. and i've done a LOT of theater. not as much as dael, but quite a lot. i don't know about her but anna deveare smith and charlaine woodard have done plenty of on-camera work, in film and on television. trust me on this one: augmenting theater work with on-camera residual checks is the bomb-diggity.

i want to conquer the beast on my own terms - namely, work in any genre that i choose. health insurance and a pension/retirement option would be nice, too. those things are important but believe me, i'm not about to prostitute myself (read: take some modified mammy role, chase a hollywood job, etc) for them. (yes, i'm vested with equity.) that's right: i am not a whore for this business. (and believe me, i know a few.) some that know me would say that's the reason why i'm not famous. or rich. go figure.

the thing is, unless you're in the union and on the road in a first national tour or on broadway, theater doesn't pay enough to live on in this city. i've gotten those residual checks from commercials. they're beautiful. sit-com money? try $25K a week to start. to start! that's right, that's the low end of the money train. so you have to understand why i'm at least making the effort to prepare myself for an opportunity, if it happens along. preparation is 99.9% of the battle. what difference does it make what comes along if i'm not ready for it?

making money in music? a tricky option these days if you don't compose or arrange or own your publishing. however, there is an OBSCENE amount of money in on camera work. i mean, astonishingly so. joan may have had her swan song at 40, but she did do great things on screen and she made enough (well-invested) money to live on for the rest of her life. and so did greta garbo, who was worth more than 20 million when she passed away. (she bought real estate on rodeo drive back in the day.)

your comparison of halle berry and diane lane is interesting, to say the least. i think that halle berry isn't working as much because she's got a man and a kid and she's in a different phase of her life. i could say the same thing of a lot of white actresses who aren't working so much right now, like gwyneth paltrow or bridget fonda (remember her?). it's a lot easier to get up the money to do what you want to do when you're famous with a bankable name.

according to sag, the stats say that after the age of 35, work for white actresses goes into a rather sharp and drastic decline that matches their black counterparts by the time they become senior citizens. simply put, the older they get, the less work there is for them until after awhile, they're working as much as we are(n't). so nothing's changed, really. in a way, joan's struggle is mine, too.

my bottom line is, i'm trying to diversify so i can stay employed. i'm trying to work smarter not harder. and thank God, i've got ideas and i really am developing them. sure i'm better served by pushing them forward, but in the meantime, i really need health insurance and i don't want to have to go get a day job to get it.

Devils said...

Thanks for responding, Queen. I should probably let this be, but it's just not my nature (I am the Devil's Advokate, after all).

I guess I just think you're trying to convince yourself that you can take control of this aspect of your career, and maybe you can. But even if you succeed and get these jobs, what really are the chances that they won't be these irritating roles that are, as far as I can tell, just about the only ones we see black women doing on-camera? I mean, I know advertisers have an inexhaustable need for on-camera moms and "regular" folks to hawk all sorts of products, and I'm sure those jobs pay just fine...but is that being an artist? Or rather, in what way is that preferable to having a full-time job and working your ass off to create a character or group of characters that actually express something that YOU want to on your off time? And I know, you're doing that too. But...

The artists I know who are supporting themselves with their art are the ones that have stuck to their idiosyncratic selves 1000% and developed their fan base one person at a time. The most successful rarely sleep, tour constantly, stay in close, close personal contact with all their fans as much as possible and in general, never allow themselves a moment when they aren't executing their plans. Not developing their ideas, but making them real. And not to be mean, but we've been waiting 5 years for the next Queen Esther record. I'm just saying.

I also think you're wrong about Halle Berry- check her IMDB page. She's working hard but on her own, producing her own films and not particularly supported by the Hollywood system, as far as I can tell, despite the high grosses of most of her pictures, even the bad ones. I'll be curious to see how many of these films have theater releases, and how heavily they're advertised.

Maybe she's prohibitively expensive, or difficult, or maybe she's just not that smart about choosing roles, or maybe her next four films will be blockbusters- I can't really know. But I think it's odd that no one has thought there might be a market for a sophisticated romantic comedy about a middle-aged couple with Halle Berry in the female lead. It could be paranoia to say "It's because she's a black woman, and people who make movies are generally not black women or very aware of black women's experiences and that's why they're always mammies or angels or victims or homeless women or psychics or nuns or whores or crackheads." Or it could be true. It seems like whenever a plum female role comes up, the first person anyone calls is Angelina Jolie- whether the character is white or black!

Yes, you can make money on camera. You can also win the lottery. In this day and age, either approach might make you rich, but probably won't. And in neither case would I describe the person with the money as an artist.

queenesther said...

Thank you for responding, DA. You can “let this be” if you want to, but I’m enjoying this conversation. I think that arguing like this is creative and a great way to learn. If you keep throwing the ball over the fence, I’ll probably keep tossing it back to you.

I’m not trying to convince myself that I’ll get on-camera work because I actually am getting on-camera work. Believe it or not, it takes time to shift gears and make a transition like this, especially when you’ve been doing theater as long as I have. Basically, I am in the process of getting to know casting agents and proving to them that I can act on film so I can be considered for the work when it does come along. I’m not getting any of those typical black female roles because, well, I’m not that typical black female. (Check out my Prego commercial on youtube and you’ll see what I mean.) I’m not heavy-set. I’m not middle aged. Those things alone cut me out of quite a bit of what’s out there because that’s the sweet spot for black actresses. To be completely honest with you, I probably won’t ever look like that. But I digress.

Every single solitary thing I do to make money doesn’t have to have this high mark of artistry. What’s nice is when there is a great deal of creativity involved in the day job – like a Broadway gig, for example. Unless you’re sitting on a trust fund or you’re independently wealthy or whatever, you have to do something to pay the rent. Shockingly, yes -- spending an afternoon shooting a commercial in Silver Cup Studios in Queens and walking to the mailbox to get residual checks for the next 3 years with my days free to take guitar lessons and write songs and audition and write scripts is much more preferable to having a day job that would probably pay me just as much and eat up all – and I mean ALL – of my time. I’ve done that dance. I’d rather work for an afternoon and get those checks. I know that I’m not any less of an artist because I do that work. I think I’m a pretty smart artist because I’m making the most of my time, energy and effort and I’m getting a larger return because I’m free to grow my projects.

I’d be very curious to know which artists you’re referring to, who are supporting themselves the way that you say they are, solely by their music and their hardcore dedication to their craft. If these are musicians that you’re referring to, do they have publishing deals? Record deals? Distribution deals? Something is bankrolling their efforts. I can’t think of any artist – musician, let’s say – that’s a record label of one, as I am, that’s doing what you’ve described on that level and that’s never had any previous mainstream exposure or major label exposure. It takes money to tour constantly. It takes money to make records. It takes money to hire a publicist and a radio promoter, to hype what you’ve done properly. A label or a publishing deal or a distribution deal will front you that money. And then you can skip off and be an artist and have a support staff at that label or whatever and not have to worry about any kind of a day job. Not even a creative one.

queenesther said...

And another thing.

Not to be mean but when it comes to actually doing this stuff for real, most people don’t tend to think of what it takes to make any of this happen, because they just don’t know. The only thing that’s bankrolling my efforts is ME, which is why it’s been five years since my last rock and roll CD. I’m just saying.

Check out my discography on my website. I’ve been quite busy making records and writing songs and singing jazz and doing musicals. Like I said before – I’m attacking this hydra called the entertainment industry on all fronts. Mostly because I can. Most artists I know can only do one thing. I sing, and when I do, I’m not limited to one genre like most vocalists are. I act, and when I do, I’m not limited to one genre, like most actors are. And because I can’t stand waiting for the phone to ring, I write the songs I want to sing and I writer the characters I want to play. Most vocalists and actors I know don’t do that either. So maybe I should have started this conversation by letting you know that I’m not like the others. But if you’re familiar with my work, you probably already know that.

I think you hit the nail on the head with Halle Berry when you said “I think it's odd that no one has thought there might be a market for a sophisticated romantic comedy about a middle-aged couple with Halle Berry in the female lead” – that’s reason enough for her to start her own production company and develop projects that showcase her in whatever light she sees fit. Once you get that mainstream – an Oscar! – you and your work will garner a certain amount of attention whether you do anything to promote it or not, simply because you’re ginormously famous.

What it really boils down to is money – who is conventionally beautiful, who is bankable, who’s name on that marquee is going to put butts in those seats.

Making money doing on-camera work and winning the lottery aren’t synonymous. Not by a long shot. I’m actually proving that right now, by getting the work. I describe myself as an artist because that on camera work isn’t all that I do. If it were, I think you would be right.

AJ Muhammad said...

I’m just sayin’ too! I am all over the place with this post so excuse me. I wish I had the skills to be as eloquent and well written as whoever this Devil person is. Since I don't I sound like a hot mess!

Queen, there’s nothing wrong with augmenting theater work with on-camera work and residual checks. That’s what every working actor I know wants to do. At the same time, as my friend Pascal, an actress, says (and I’m sure so have thousands of others before her) there are more actors than there are parts -- at least in this town! And yes, Charlayne who is in her mid 50s as is Anna—both of them as you pointed out have done on-camera work, in film and on television. Charlayne lives in L.A. and has been out there for about 3 decades, and she is a triple threat: actress, singer, and writer. And she is beautiful—but not by the Euro or Black bougie aesthetics either in that she isn’t cafĂ© au-lait with curly hair. But fortunately for us she has returned to NYC theater in pieces by Suzan Lori Parks, George Wolfe and other as well as her own series of autobiographical solo shows for the past two decades. Based on those she was commissioned to write plays for full casts although she says that if anyone wanted to revive her solo shows she would want people to do it with full casts. Anna Deveare was lucky too to book supporting roles in TV shows like “West Wing” and numerous films and is back on stage this fall in NYC.

Yes, you do make good money on camera. That point is not debatable. What I am saying is that we are waiting for your next crop of plays—the ones you’ve been working on for a minute such as Big Payback and your piece about reverse migration and some of which I am probably not privy. As Labelle sang, "It's action time!"

A lot of white actress in their
40s are not working as you said—in film, but are returning to leads on TV a la Angela Bassett on E.R., Glenn Close on Damages, Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgewick on their TNT shows, etc. And you mentioned Gwyneth Paltrow or as I call her Paltry Gwyneth, because to me she has always been an overrated and boring actress who should stay away from the camera and just keep naming her children after fruit for all I care as--and leave acting to the real divas, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, Juliette Binoche, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Meryl etc.

To be continued...

AJ Muhammad said...

Now re: Devil’s comment that he/she “thinks it's odd that no one has thought there might be a market for a sophisticated romantic comedy about a middle-aged couple with Halle Berry in the female lead” and “It seems like whenever a plum female role comes up, the first person anyone calls is Angelina Jolie- whether the character is white or black!”

What do we do as a community who do want to see well made comedies with Black actors and actresses (who are in their 30s and 40s) in the lead? Let me know so I can sign up!

How many insufferable romantic comedies are produced, it seems like at least 2 or 3 of these are released annually and some of them flop like a beer belly, with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Anniston and Sandra Bullock, all of whom are well into their mid30s-40s? Interestingly enough from reading Dr. Mia Mask’s brilliant new book “Divas on Screen” which chronicles the career of trailblazing black women actress/cultural producers, I am reminded that when Halle Berry started out, she did numerous comedies including “Boomerang,” “Bulworth,” “Strictly Business” and others. Then she transitioned into starring in action films and thrillers that cast her in non-racially specific roles such as in “The Rich Man’s Wife,” “Perfect Stranger” and “Gothika.” She made it a point herself to produce Dorothy Dandridge which shows her commitment to producing things about that Black experience including “Lackawanna Blues.”

(As a sidebar: It seems like the heyday for mature, romantic dramedies which did well in the box office that were produced by and starring Blacks, such as “Best Man,” “Love Jones,” “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” “Brown Sugar,” “Love and Baskbetall, “The Wood,” “Two Can Play That Game,” etc. was only limited to the 1990s and the first few years of the new millennium--and Tyler Perry’s stuff doesn’t count.)

As both Queen-Esther and Devil say, that’s why Halle is producing and starring in the adaptation of the book “Nappy Hair” which is supposed to be a comedy. This is the film where Halle is supposed to shave her head completely bald so hopefully this alone hopefully will get butts in seats because I’m sure people will be curious to see this on screen.

And how do we explain people like Whoopi Goldberg and Queen Latifah and their success-controversial they may or may not be?

To be continued...

AJ Muhammad said...

Now, changing topics, re: QE’s statement that the “only thing that’s bankrolling my efforts is ME, which is why it’s been five years since my last rock and roll CD. I’m just saying.” I hope I don’t get in trouble with QE by saying that I think that it’s more complex than just being about money. I know that you/QE have been writing and composing a whole slew of new material since “Fishbowl” was released in 2004, but life (and love) has intervened—which may or may not be why you haven’t released a new solo work.

Also, to reiterate something I said in previous posts, you have enough people in your camp who would jump at the chance to “play” and promote you. Don’t let me have to name the people in your camp who are musicians, composers, publicists, stylists, managers, directors, designers etc!!! You know that I know that you know that I have personally have anxiously been awaiting your next solo project so when will it be? I hope some time next year if we are lucky. Yes, you do need money to record, engineer, mix and master. That’s a given. But money doesn’t guarantee anything. Plenty’o “recording artists” (which I am using to mean someone who is manufactured by producers and managers, but doesn’t even have a fraction of talent that you possess) have had serious money thrown down the drain in their “development” in vain and have become one hit wonders if even that. I don’t even have to name names because I am sure that you can and everyone else can.

To be continued...

AJ Muhammad said...

And we have numerous discussions via email about artists who aren’t getting played on a radio stations but are doing their thing and recording, touring and getting exposure on the web. I have even pointed out an informative Billboard magazine feature article from a few years ago about Black “underground” artists whose music isn’t on the radio dial but have other outlets and sell out mid sized venues across the country and have loyal fans who appreciate and buy their music. So, getting your music on the radio is wonderful and ooh la la, but Ledisi who is probably around your age had a big following years before she was signed by EMI and released her first “studio” CD “Lost & Found” which was released in 2007. I saw her at the Essence music festival in Nawleans and people were singing along to her songs in 2005!!!

Alice Smith also had a big following too long before her brilliant debut album for Lovers and Dreamers was re-released by Epic, but her music is still not played on the radio. So you can have gals who are on major labels who do different genres (i.e. Lizz Wright, Nnena Freelon, Cassandra Wilson) but are not on the radio (okay the jazz biddies might be on WBGO but it’s not like it’s a top 40 station) and do well and women are on indie labels and aren’t on the radio at all because they don’t fit into the narrow radio demographics that dominate: pop, hip hop/R&B, rock or adult oriented R&B.

I don’t know how much money Black indie women artists like Sy Smith, Martha Redbone, Danielia Cotton, Maiysha (a song from whose debut album was nominated for a Grammy), and Maya Azucena are netting (and she even joked in one of her emails since I am on her list that she owes money to one of the places she recorded her music). But these women who are in their 20s and 30s (and even indie act Bettye Lavette who is a woman of a certain age) are touring constantly nationally and internationally. Maya Azucena has been working hard over the past few years and music has been used in regional TV spots and indie films to boot. None of these women are necessarily household names and your styles are completely different, but they do have loyal followings. I do have admit that Danielia was lucky because an investor bank rolled her first album himself, but my point is that none of the gals are “one the radio.” There are people like me who seek music out and support it because what is on the radio doesn’t interest me.

So, all that to say, I hope that you do book work in TV and film, but that somehow you can return to the stage, publish your memoirs/essays, record new CDs and collaborate with other artist and do it all beautifully because Devil and I aren’t your only fans!!!

queenesther said...

Okay, AJ –

Because so much of what you’ve said is worth addressing, I’m going to unhinge what I can sift through, one bite at a time. Please bear with me.

Your friend Pascal is right – and wrong. Most actors in this town aren’t actively seeking work and if they are, they aren’t being particularly strategic about it (regular mailings to casting agents, auditioning daily, etc), they don’t know how to do more than one thing well (sing, dance and act, for example), they're physically limited (please re-read this blog entry to know what i mean) or – how about this one? – they’re just not very good actors.

Charlayne Woodard is a working actress. So is Anna Deveare Smith. Hooray for them. Please try to remember that the black actresses that you keep referencing are in the sweet spot for working as women of color – they are in their 50s, matronly/authoritative looking and yes, established in their genres. All of those Oscar winning/Oscar nominated middle aged actresses on tv right now, they’re all making six figure a week salaries, probably. That’s a far cry from the rest of us.

Maybe the problem is that you’re talking to me like I’ve already arrived because you live in NYC and you’ve actually seen what I can do on a regular basis. I’m not there yet. I’m still very much on my way.

You’re waiting for my next crop of plays? I’m not sitting on my hands, baby. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve refined or developed what I’ve got. I need a producer for any of that to happen. That means someone with six figures that will put what I’ve got in an off-off b’way house and give me a 4 to 6 week run. That’s where the rubber hits the road. If Sarah Jones hadn’t latched onto Meryl Streep and had her backing and support, I suppose you’d probably be wondering about what she was doing with her one person show, too, and why she isn't out here doing something.

To be continued…

queenesther said...

Re: what you said about romantic comedies – they will make movies like that if they thing anyone would pay money to see them. Whoever has enough of a name to put butts in those seats gets the lead role - whether its film or theater. Period. It’s all about money, money, money. I don’t like Tyler Perry at all, but he’s catering to an audience that is roundly ignored in Hollywood: the black, church-going, single, 40-something year old college educated professional.

Halle Berry’s career trajectory isn’t surprising – it’s the way of the working actor, really. She started with what she could get, then as she became more and more acceptable to the mainstream, they erased her blackness and when she got some money and power, she chose an effective vehicle for herself. And now she can sit back and produce. And have another baby. Her doing “Nappy Hair” is interesting, especially in light of the fact that most white people don’t think she’s black. But that’s another conversation.

Whoopi Goldberg and Queen Latifah – and yes, I have a great deal of respect for both of them, believe me, but I have to say it – they are neutered mammies for the millennium.

To be continued…

queenesther said...

Yes, there are a lot of variables involved as to why I haven’t made another rock and roll CD but life and love aren’t a part of it. If someone had dropped enough money in my lap, I would have done it. Living in NYC is the biggest obstacle of all. Way bigger than life and love. It’s way too expensive to be an artist here. No one can afford to live here and make art. That’s the bottom line. That’s the crap they don’t tell you, that’s what’s not in the brochure. More on that in later blog posts.

Yes, yes, YES – I know plenty of people who would jump at the chance to play and promote me and all that stuff. BUT THOSE PEOPLE HAVE TO BE COMPENSATED, THOSE PEOPLE HAVE TO BE PAID. Seriously – when I’m barely making enough money to cover my rent and expenses, exactly what am I supposed to pay them with? Candy coated wishes and sugar la-las? Get real.

No, money doesn’t guarantee anything – but when you’re doing it yourself, it guarantees quite a lot. The “recording artists” you’re referring to didn’t do it themselves. Nuff said.

That being said – I’m going into the recording studio on Monday, to finish recording a jazz album. Actively seeking a publicist and radio promoter. Want some inside scoopage? I’m going to self-release three albums every year on my father’s birthday (3/24) for three years in a row. There’s a grand scheme behind it, of course. But I really can’t get into that here. Some other blog post, maybe.


queenesther said...

Here’s another thing you aren’t “getting” – the indie black female artists you’ve referenced, all of them had money behind them to get them off the ground before a label came along and signed them in the way of management deals, production deals, etc. Do your homework and prove me wrong. Alice Smith had Giant Step, for example – footing the bill for her musicians, her showcases, her regional tours to build her following and her publicist, to build momentum on paper in the trades. Alice didn’t write the music on her CD, so she didn’t/doesn’t make money unless she tours, which is why she doesn’t have to concern herself with radio airplay. The same goes for Lizz Wright, Nnena Freelon and Cassandra Wilson.

Tour support costs money, my dear. A management team can do that for you. Heck! That's what a management team is SUPPOSED to do. I don’t have a management team. Like I said before – I have ME, bankrolling this.

There’s all kinds of radio. I’m hardly talking about top 40. There’s college radio, for example. There’s public radio. LA’s infamous “Morning Becomes Eclectic” is an extremely important radio station/show and there’s nothing remotely top 40 about them. Did you know there’s a chart/ranking for Alt-Country/Americana music? And yep, I charted there. Check my website. My rock and roll album got plenty of airplay, worldwide. I want radio because I want exposure – and radio airplay in the UK and other parts of Europe means money in the bank. They pay artists directly. But you’re talking to a Blackgrrl that writes her own music – and most of the black female artists you’ve mentioned do not.

So. All that to say – I AM booking work in tv and film, I’ve got a pension to maintain so of course I’ll do theater, I publish my memoirs essays every time I blog, I’m recording throughout the fall to release in the spring.

Stay tuned.

AJ Muhammad said...

I absolutely have to disagree with what you said “they will make movies like that if they think anyone would pay money to see them. Whoever has enough of a name to put butts in those seats gets the lead role - whether its film or theater. Period. It’s all about money, money, money.”

You know darn well how schizophrenic and racist Hollywood is!!! As a race, Black people spend billions of dollars a year at the movies. But the thing is as you know full well that Hollywood has this illness, only when it comes to Black themed films (and TV shows too a la Cosby, Moesha, Different World, Girlfriends etc), and they pretend to be surprised when Black movies which are produced on friggin shoestring budget make back triple and quadruple the production cost and they wonder how/why it could’ve happened. This has been happening for decades. I have read that the Blaxploitation genre help to save Hollywood because in the early 1970s Hollywood produced a series of big budgeted flops but then you have the Blaxploitation films (on the heels of the Black powel movement) that were made for next to nothing but did baffo box office and made stars out of La Grier, Richard Roundtree, Melvin Van Peebles, Ron from Superfly et al. Of course, the mass production of bad Blaxploitation films contributed to its decline but let’s talk about the 90s.

Too be continued...

AJ Muhammad said...

Remember Waiting to Exhale? That movie was made for less than $10 million dollars but you can guess how much it made? $50-60 million. Of course Terry had a big following before the movie was released and critics have complained about the quality of Exhale, but that’s grist for the mill because based on the success of Waiting, 20th Century fox which distributed it, clamored to adapt How Stella… for the big screen, which did well too. Remember Cassie Lemmon’s Eve’s Bayou? She said the distributor Trimark, now Lions Gate, didn’t even wanna green light the film so that she could direct it because she was pregnant at the time and they didn’t think she could do it. I remember when that film came out it was sold out opening weekend because of the buzz and people were clamoring to see it. I had to go on an afternoon screening when it was less crowded to see it. It made back the money it cost to make it. Some critics even say that it was “too good” to be a “black film.” See Mia Masks’ article “Eves Bayou: To Good to be a “Black” film. (And although the film won raves by the mainstream press it was shunned during award time and the cast was still upset that they wuz robbed by Oscar and Golden Globes because that all star cast rocked the ish out of that film: Debbie Morgan, Jurnee Smollet, Sam Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Diahann Carol, etc) And the same for “Boys in The Hood.” As did some of Spike’s earlier works, made for nothing did respectably well. No to mention, House Party, The Wood, Best Man, Love Jones, Boomerang etc. But then the racist studio execs pretend that none of this happens and everytime a black film is green lit, we have to go through the same sugar honey iced tea over and over and over again: “Will anyone see it? Who are the stars? Make it more urban. Black people don’t act like that. Blah Blah Blah?” You know the drill. Mara Brock Akil, who created Girlfriends and The Game, said that no matter at one point, she had the longest running comedy series on TV, none of that matters because her work was targeted to and starring Blacks. If she were white she would’ve snapped up a multi-million dollar development deal but instead she has to convince people that she can run a show! You said it yourself about Jay Mohr years ago (who does flop after flop after flop after flop after flop after flop)!!!! So it’s not just about money. Baby, it’s about race and racism and who green lights what and who distributes what and who has access to whose phone number and offices!!!! The same audience who sees Tyler Perry movies, for the most part, is the same audience who saw Eves Bayou and the others as well. I supported Tyler myself at the movies but not since he recently seized for Colored Girls from a young Black woman director who was scheduled to adapt and direct it herself for LionsGate!

AJ Muhammad said...

Anna Deveare Smith is in her 50s and she’s is authoritatively and kinda matronly and Charlayne is in her 50s too, but they weren’t always in their 50s. Charlayne is still sexy and sleek because I saw her recently in a play called Stunning where she played someone in her 40s and you wouldn’t believe it because in Stunning she had to strip down to her underwear and she looks Stunning and like hot chocolate!!! And I’m sure her husband thinks so too.

In my mind you’ve already arrived and everybody (established and mid career Black actresses) always feels like they are not there yet, because even Angela Bassett talked in Essence about how tough it is even for her. What’s Love Got to Do with It was supposed to be the watershed film for Angela but it didn’t work out like that for her. But some of them as you mentioned aren’t as diverse as you and some of them are.

My point about the actresses doing TV was not about how much they make but the fact that they say that there isn’t that much going on in film but TV is where the interesting material is for mature gals/aging dolls.

I know that you are not sitting on your hands and that you are a worker bee, working on different, new projects at the same time. And it depends what type of run you are talking about such as a commercial Off-Bway run or a run at a nonprofit venue locally or regionally. I didn’t wanna bring up Sarah Jones but since you did, she pounded the pavement and was a big hit at the Nuyorican, American Place Theater (rest in peace), PS122, Joes Pub, etc before La Streep and the Culture Project came calling. Yes, you do need a producer and the six figures but there are venues like APAP which does cost several hundreds of dollars to enter, but that’s where a lot of the presenting venues come to and see what’s all doing when they are booking for their upcoming seasons as you know so. There is also funding and grants and programs, residencies, fellowships (which pay thousands of greenbacks) just for people like you since you cover so many disciplines. There’s Meet the Composer, Van Lier Fellowship, NYFA grants, National Music Theater Network, programs for women (of color) as well as programs by the music licensing orgs etc where you can develop your work and get it seen by the muck muck and big wigs etc that you talk about.

AJ Muhammad said...

You said: “I know plenty of people who would jump at the chance to play and promote me and all that stuff…THOSE PEOPLE HAVE TO BE COMPENSATED, THOSE PEOPLE HAVE TO BE PAID. Seriously – when I’m barely making enough money to cover my rent and expenses, exactly what am I supposed to pay them with? Candy coated wishes and sugar la-las? Get real.”

You mean to tell me that if you asked them pretty please with sugar on top that that won’t do the trick! The devil is a liar!

But seriously… Of course it cost $$$$$$$ to record and pay the musicians etc and that shelter and food are priorities. Yes, yes, yes, yes. I know that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer and I was on the 6 year + plan to graduate from college, but my point about money was, if money was the only reason to keep indie artists (including musicians, filmmakers, actors, writers, dancers, choreographers, directors, designers, etc) from doing their art, nobody would do anything – even in NYC – and everybody would wait to win the lotto or for the money to fall outta the sky. (Or wait for bail outs from Warner/Sony/BMG/Universal etc.) And you have worked on plenty of projects that are labors of love to know about a financial dream deferred!!!! I am not suggesting that you should do the same thing too and that you try to ask musicians and engineers to work for you for free, but I’d like to believe that people can get creative in terms of producing their own work and that you can’t hold back people’s spirit and will to make it happen by any means necessary. Even Eisa Davis who self produced and distributed her wonderful debut CD Something Else (2007), said last summer when she was in Passing Strange, that she finally finished paying for the CD she did the year before. And Eisa had a slew of professional artists who collaborated with her including Marvin Sewell (remember him?), Manoel Felciano and others. I know that the universe is generous especially if you are generous, and God will make it happen and he has!!! I know that you will find a radio promoter and publicist—ask and you shall receive it! I believe it!!! You know that you can count on me and everybody else who knows you and loves you to help do what we can and we mean it!!!

I love your idea of releasing 3 CDs every year on my father’s birthday (3/24) for three years in a row. Now that is ambitious and I’m not superstitious but I think your father will be pulling strings from upstairs to make everything align for you to get it done!!!


queenesther said...


AJ, AJ, AJ. You're repeating yourself, you're all over the place with this and there's a lot of babbling about black girls that's going on. Perhaps we should have lunch so I can explain some things to you firsthand because there are a lot of gaps in what you're saying that a heavy dose of reality could easily fill.

in the meantime, I have three things to say to you.

1. I know that in your mind, I've arrived but the truth is, i haven't. I am not a working black actress in the sweet spot of my fifty-something years doing film and TV. i am flying beneath EVERYONE'S radar.

2. Yes, yes, yes - after a certain point in the growth and development of a work, it really is all about money. A LOT of indie artists abandon what they're doing for years on end because they don't have the money to see it through. Think about it.

I'm not the only one that isn't releasing material every year, or as often as everyone thinks i should. I don't know what deal Elsa Davis struck with everyone in her camp - and neither do you. I don't know if she gave up her publishing to a producer or a recording studio or what. I do know that she didn't hire a radio promoter or a publicist to promote that CD - that's a huge expense that i'm taking on, one that can't happen without payment in full. show me a publicist or a radio promoter that will work on payments delayed by a year or two and i'll show you a pig that can fly.

money doesn't guarantee anything - there are no guarantees, right? - except that you'll actually finish the product, promote it and give it a chance in the marketplace. and from where i'm sitting, that's everything.

frankly, i don't think you have any real idea what it takes to actually do this stuff AND pay your rent on time in new york city.

3. yes, of course hollywood is racist, but there are a lot of movies that are coming to the fore that are brilliant, that are strong, that are black and that are getting a lot of play. PUSH is a great example of this. and what happened? they were the talk of sundance and then oprah and her money came on board as executive producer and now instead of being a great indie that lived and died in utah, they're about to blow up. see what money can do?

pay attention to that little movie. it could sweep the Oscars.

let's talk later over coffee, if you'd like, or email me - i can tell you firsthand what's actually going on and you can stop talking to me like i'm sitting on my hands because my one person show isn't touring the college circuit.

AJ Muhammad said...

Why do you live in a such a binary world? This is the last thing I will say before we meet for a showdown at high noon. Just because Oprah (and Tyler Perry) have put their money into Push aka Precious, that doesn't mean anything. Remember Oprah's production of Beloved? It was a big time flop. I'm not going to even talk about the content because that's another post but Oprah did everything she could to push that movie and you could hear the sound of crickets chirping in the theaters because nobody went to see it.

We will see how Push does at the box office but I can promise you it's gonna be a tough sell. White people will probably see it because of the buzz and accolades but I promise you that Black people don't like to pay to see something that disturbing (or possibly transgressive) even if it does have a happy ending -- especially when it deals with subjects like incest/child abuse. You know that Black people don't want to deal with that subject. Push will polarize people.
It might sweep the Oscars baby (because you know the types of roles the academy likes to award Black people for playing), but you know that Oscar winners are not necessarily box office hits except for something like Slumdog. But as Dr. Mia Mask who teaches at Vassar and wrote the wonderful "Divas on Screen: Black women in American film," the Oscars are not about talent, but selling films.

Remember The Great Debaters? Oprah cosigned on that one too and it didn't do that well financially either.

So even Oprah isn't infallible when it comes to putting her money behind product. Who is?

queenesther said...

it's not about a $500 million dollar blockbuster every time you step up to the plate. it's about getting the work produced, getting it done, getting it out there into the world. THATS THE POINT - AND THAT TAKES MONEY.

i don't care who the audience is or what hollywood thinks. that any black work of quality sees the light of day in this day and age is nothing short of a miracle.

once upon a time, people made art and posterity decided whether it lived or died - not popularity. the audience for most art in any genre hasn't even been born yet. nick drake started the singer/songwriter of the 90s more than 20 years after his death. did he sell millions when he was alive? absolutely not. many movies were written off as failures and later became cult classics that influenced an entire generation of filmmakers and artists.

i'm in the middle of making a jazz cd right now. God only knows what could happen with it - hey, maybe no one will like it - but if i don't get money to properly finish it and promote it, NOTHING WILL HAPPEN WITH THIS MUSIC. and i do mean nothing.

what is so binary about that.

please surpress the urge to write back with some long winded response and save it for when we actually see each other. trust me. i'll have plenty to tell you.