Today on Alphabet City: Crisscrossing the country on book tour, Jon Paul gets real with his client. Guest star: Tyra Banks.
By the time Tyra and I arrived in Detroit—the last stop on the grueling month-long whistle-stop book Tour—I should have learned enough to know that something was not quite right with this downtown “luxury” hotel. It was well after midnight, we were both exhausted, and I didn’t realize how bad it was until Tyra called me from her Presidential Suite.
“My room looks like the set of a porn movie. There’s a switch that vibrates the bed, and a Jacuzzi right next to it. I can’t stay here,” she said.
“Okay, so it’s no Four Seasons. But let’s just stay put for now. I’ll look into options in the morning.”
It had taken a while for Tyra and I to develop such an easy rapport. Like any traveling couple thrust into stressful situations, we quickly learned each others’ quirks and requirements.
On our first flight together, I learned to appreciate Tyra’s natural beauty. I was supposed to meet the supermodel-turned-author on the plane. But it seemed like a woman was sitting in my seat 3A. The frumpy lady didn’t have on a stitch of make-up—a sure sign they just let anyone fly first-class these days. I spoke to her in my best pissy voice.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I believe that’s my seat.”
“Oh, do you mind? I do much better in the window. Would you take my aisle seat, just this once?”
The interloper stared at me through her gold-rimmed glasses while smoothing back her pony-tail. It took me a few seconds to realize the slightly ugly duckling pleading with me was Tyra.
“Um, sure. I mean I usually like the window. But whatever. I guess this time it’s fine.”
I decided it was best not to make an issue of it on our first trip together. Tyra smiled at me, put the hoodie up on her cashmere sweat jacket, turned to the window and fell immediately into a deep sleep.
After three glasses of bad cabernet sauvignon that was just good enough to calm my nerves, I stole Tyra’s copy of her book stuffed in the seatback pocket. I was suspicious of a tome about teen self-esteem written by a supermodel—what exactly did a glamazon like Tyra have to say to all the ugly kids out there to make them feel better?
The first few pages of photos did nothing to dissuade me of my disdain for the book’s concept—there was Tyra laying across a pool table all sexed up, there she was glammed up in African garb, another one of her stockinged feet staring amorously into the camera. This was going to be a tough sell, not only to me, but also to the world it seemed.
I continued flipping through the pages, rolling my eyes at her tips for using eyeliner and performing at-home pedicures. Tyra stirred at the window, and turned facing me, still asleep. She didn’t look so perfect. A little mole under her chin, dark circles under eyes, and was that a zit near her mouth? If only the public could see what I was seeing, that would give everyone a little self-esteem boost.
I continued paging through, and came upon an almost exact image of Tyra’s imperfection reproduced in the book. There on page 60 was a picture of pre-make up Tyra with handwritten annotations like a Sunday football play analysis. Circles and lines notated all the areas on Tyra’s face that would need some serious work in order to make her look like the glamorous “after” photo on page 61. She really was putting it all out there for everyone to see. I held up the page with the before picture to the sleeping beauty Tyra next to me—just to get a real-life comparison. I took another sip of wine, and settled in to read about all of Tyra’s other problem areas—legs, hips, forehead.
The demystifying of the beauty process fascinated me. As a young gay boy, I struggled mightily with the images of beauty forced upon me by my own community—chiseled chest, washboard abs, not an ounce of fat. No one was writing a book pointing out that it didn’t just take hard work in the gym; it took blessed genes and a mountain of steroids to achieve that pumped up look. I made a note to give Tyra a suggestion for a follow-up book that I could help co-author.
Once the plane landed, the tour was a blur of on-the-job training. In Atlanta, I learned the pre-dawn hours of hair and make-up were the last bit of calm before the onslaught of the day. In DC, I learned to always carry an extra copy of Tyra’s book along with a summary of key points and list of suggested questions because the host of the local “Wake Up” morning show will have lost hers. In Philly, I learned to set a rule at Barnes & Nobles appearances that Tyra wouldn’t autograph anything other than her book—not Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers, not Victoria Secrets bras. In Boston, I learned to have on hand extra fat black sharpies for book signings because regular size pens cause hand cramps. In Minneapolis, I learned that chips with the fat substitute Olestra cause Tyra to have intestinal distress. In Cincinnati, I learned that teddy bears are a sure sign of craziness—anyone who shows up at a book signing offering a stuffed animal probably needs a security escort. In Houston, I learned that the hotel concierge would helpfully pack up all the macramé sweaters and chocolates that fans give to Tyra along the way and send to a local homeless shelter or hospital. In Dallas, I learned that Tyra thinks white limos are tacky. In Chicago, I learned that Tyra had the skills to be a successful talk show host—on the way to O’Hare, I was caught in her confessional.
“Alright JP, let’s hear it. When was your first time?”
“First time what?”
“Having sex, silly. You told me you’ve been out since you were a teen. So who was the lucky guy?”
A question like that coming from anyone else would have been shocking, but Tyra had a hypnotic affect that lured subjects into letting down their guard.
“Oh, it’s kind of crazy actually. It was Halloween. I was 15 and dressed as a ladybug. He was a bumblebee.”
“See I knew you were a little devil. Tell me more.”
“The drama club had just put on a Halloween show for the little kids at our private school. We were still in our insect costumes, hanging out in the bucket seats of his Honda. One thing led to another. His bee stinger started growing. My ladybug wand came out swinging. And before I knew what was happening, I learned to drive stick shift.”
“Oh JP, talk about trick or treating! So he was he your first love?”
“Yeah, but it ended tragically. A few months later he left me for a girl who was part of The Yellow Brick Road in our school’s production of The Wiz.”
“Girl, your school did The Wiz?”
“It was a semi-Jewish production. I was the Tin Man.”
I curled up in a ball in the corner exhausted from the book tour and limo confessional. Had I really just revealed my first sexual encounter to my client? Tyra was busy changing her top. I acted like I was looking away.
“Can you reach in that bag and see if I have another bra in there?”
I handed her a new over-the-shoulder boulder holder, and she snapped on her extra-large Victoria’s (not so) Secret. Looking out the window, we were passing by a park with lots of cute guys on the street, walking their dogs. I missed Winnie and the rest of my co-stars back in New York. But I would be home soon enough. Just one more night on the road. And I felt like I was finally getting the hang of the job. Plus, I had never been to Detroit. Motor City was the last stop on the Tyra Expressway. How bad could it be?
Normally, 5-star properties escorted Tyra directly to her suite, and let me handle all the check-in paper work. But our Detroit hotel was so excited about Tyra’s arrival, that the front desk clerks, bellboys and assistant managers all wanted to have their pictures taken with her. While the flashbulbs popped, two burly gentlemen arrived in cheap suits—clearly inebriated with cocktails in hand. They begged and pleaded with Tyra to join them at their event in the hotel’s ballroom.
“Tyra, love of my life, where have you been all night?” one of them said.
“We’ve been waiting for you. Why don’t you come have a drink with us at our party in the ballroom?” the other joker slobbered on.
Stupidly, I had let our security guy go for the evening. Tyra looked at me exasperated. Now a practiced pro at saying “no,” this short gay boy steeled the courage to explain to the former linebackers that Tyra wouldn’t be attending their soiree. I puffed out my under-developed chest.
“Guys, it’s not going to happen for you tonight.”
They clenched their fists and started moving towards Tyra and me. I stood my ground, sure that I was about to get a playground pummeling from the bullies. I had lots of practice at this in grade school.
Tyra sensed an escalating situation, put a hand on my shoulder and pulled me aside so she was right up close to the drunken behemoths. She cocked her head and turned on the charm.
“Now ya’ll, I gotta go up to my room. I’ve been going all day. But I might see ya’ll later, okay? Be good.”
And with that she stepped into the 80s atrium elevator and ascended to her Presidential Suite which she informed me later looked like a porn set. After I brokered an agreement with Tyra about finding a new hotel in the morning, I drifted off to sleep for about ten minutes. Then the phone by my bed starting ringing, and the voice on the other end was screaming.
“Those fools are outside my room—you’ve got to get me out of here,” Tyra yelled.
The drunken salesmen downstairs had found out Tyra’s room number, and this time weren’t taking no for an answer. Now I was really in deep celebrity publicist shit, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Pacing around the room, I pulled out the Yellow Pages. These were the days before everyone carried laptops and hotel rooms came Internet equipped, so the phone book was my only resource. I flipped furiously through the hotel listings. Fuck! No Four Seasons. What else? What else? Ritz-Carlton Dearborn? I had no idea where that might be, but I dialed the number and asked to speak to the one person I had learned can get you out of tight situations—the hotel concierge.
“Hi, sorry to disturb you. I’m calling for Tyra Banks, we’re in a little bit of a situation.”
When I told him the name of the hotel, he cut me off.
“Say no more. It’s being handled, Sir.”
Within five minutes, he phoned me back, told me to take Tyra to the freight elevator at the end of the hall. He had a friend working there who would escort us down to the loading dock where a black SUV would be waiting to whisk her to the Ritz-Carlton. In the meantime, he was sending a white limo to the front as a distraction, with extra security to escort me and Tyra’s luggage out of the building. We executed the decoy plot so expertly, I thought for a second I might have a shot at being a gay action-star sidekick.
The next morning, after loading up on carbs at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, Tyra and I hustled through the final book tour appearances in Detroit, and both breathed a sigh of relief as we made one final connection in Chicago. We were parting ways as she headed back to Los Angeles, and I returned to New York. Our last trip together through O’Hare Hell was sure to be a special moment—it might be the last time I got to see my special angel American Airlines Special Services Representative Lee.
An airline’s special services staff member is the cousin of the hotel concierge saint—two people who can make a celebrity publicist’s life run much smoother. You keep their numbers on speed dial, alert them to impending arrivals, send them gifts on every major holiday, and sometimes develop crushes on them.
We crossed paths with Lee several times on our multitudes of layovers in Chicago’s unwieldy airport. His job was to meet us at our arriving gate in one of those fancy oversized golf carts with a candy-striped roof, whisk us to the Admirals Club, wait for us, and take us to our departing gate. Evidently, the idea is that a cart going two miles per hour discourages fans from accosting the famous faces inside. It’s important for airlines to keep the celebrities happy so that whoever is sponsoring their tour keeps paying the full first class fare for them and the entourage. As a rule of thumb, celebrities don’t pay for anything themselves if they can help it.
For our last meal together in the Windy City, Tyra had something special in mind. She directed our airport escort accordingly.
“Lee, honey, just drop us at McDonald’s.”
We were exhausted and hungry, and Tyra loved to eat. Lee looked over at me for approval. I winked—I loved a man in uniform.
“We’ll be fine. Tyra’s gate is just right over there,” I told him.
I waved goodbye to Lee, as Tyra marched up to the mini-golden arches and ordered us both fries and cheeseburgers.
A huddled mass of people gathered around us at McDonald’s, gawking at the site of a supermodel ordering America’s favorite Happy Meal. As we moved towards her gate, the group of fans followed, and like a snowball slowly picking up mass as it rolled, the crowd grew and grew until we were surrounded at the gate. Ignoring the mob scene, Tyra set up dinner shop on a couple of rickety gate side seats, chewing her fries, chomping the burger, and flipping through Vogue, not a care in the world. Just as I managed an exhausted bite of my sandwich, a woman stepped up.
“Tyra, can I take a picture with you eating fries?”
Tyra tuned her out. But I assumed my duties and spoke up.
“No, not right now, please. We’re eating.”
“Tyra will you sign my boarding pass?” shouted another.
Tyra ate another fry, flipped another page. I put down my burger.
“No, not at the moment, thank you.”
The crowd started closing in, and I had to once again become the No-Sayer when all I wanted to do was eat like a normal person. Suffering sleep deprivation and hunger pains, I was more celebrity P-O-W than Kevin Costner Bodyguard. I looked down at my Whitney, sitting there oblivious to it all, dunking her fries in ketchup, and began tearing up, convinced I was about to collapse—my media tour life flashing before my eyes.
In the distance, above the shouting fans, I heard a faint sound. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. The group parted like the Red Sea. And there, through the crowd, came my White Knight, Lee, galloping to my rescue in a souped-up golf cart. He smiled at me, and patted his hand on the seat next to him. I leapt into the cart by his side, and reached my hand out to Tyra, who was blissfully savoring French fashion and fries.
“Ya’ll go on. I’ll stay here. These folks don’t bother me. But girl, you need a break.”
“Are you sure? I might not see you again. My flight leaves soon,” I said.
“You’ve done a great job. Now get out of here and go spend time with your man. I have a feeling we’ll see each other again. And that’s the truth!”
With that, Lee threw the cart into reverse and motored out of there. He drove down the halls of O’Hare Hell and parked in a quiet corridor with a big window out to the tarmac. He smiled at his damsel in distress chowing down on dinner. I chewed and summoned up a smile, worried there might be a sesame seed stuck between my teeth. He leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek.
“Can I ask you a question? Are Tyra’s boobs real?”
It wasn’t the first time someone had asked me this question on the tour. I had rehearsed a pretty good answer.
“Well, I’ve had the privilege of seeing them up close and personal. All I can say is that Tyra’s bosom is something—and as far as I can tell, real.”
As I silently watched the planes make their way down the runway, packed with business travelers and families as exhausted and hungry as me, I wondered about the unexpected plot turn Alphabet City had taken over the past several months. I sort of missed my traveling companion already. Despite the exhausting and sometimes irritating nature of the book tour, my Tyra time was intoxicating. For a suburban Texas boy, the allure and glamour of it all was enticing—even if it wasn’t quite what I expected when I moved to New York City several months earlier. As crazy as the ride with Tyra had been, I was ready to get home and tackle my next challenge—finding love.
Next on Alphabet City:
Jon Paul makes a fool out of himself at VH1’s Divas Live. “I loved ‘Coming out of the Dark!”