Tag Archives: Ashley Judd

POPtalk: This Doesn’t Work For Me, Oprah

Oprah in the control room

Please join me at my new blog Poptimistic—the fresh, frank, fun outlook on life. Like Oprah, my life has grown from a single TV show into an entire network.  Thanks to the success of Alphabet City, my award-winning humorous book and blog about my sitcom life, I’m thrilled to launch a new online network called Poptimisitic.  With that charming gay Mary Tyler Moore spirit you know and love, Poptimistic has even more room to explore a fun, fresh, frank approach to life.  So check out my line-up of shows about relationships, food, travel and culture, and start living a Poptimisitic life!

As I make final preparations to launch my own online network known as Poptimistic.com (hopefully debuting end of this month), I’m playing close attention to Oprah and her new programming venture.  Confession: my latest guilty pleasure is OWN’s Season 25: Oprah Behind-the-Scenes.  Please tell me you are at least Tivo-ing this delicious staged morsel of Oprah goodness peppered occasionally with sideways snarky glances.

Jake at my birthday

When my friend Keith tipped me off to the show over my birthday brunch at ABC Kitchen where Jake Gyllenhaal was lurking nearby (gratuitous name dropping ala Oprah), I first thought, “I’ve lived in that world and couldn’t possibly find it particularly interesting.”  Boy howdy was I wrong.  I’m captivated by the fact that Oprah—a woman who espouses we should all live our best/balanced life—runs an empire surrounding herself with workaholics, dedicated to serving their master, many of whom seem unhappy and unhealthy.  The fact that none of the producers, or even Oprah, acknowledge that irony makes for great television.

Now I’m not one of those people who must have a daily Oprah fix—but I have loved her since I was 16 and found myself in snowy Chicago on Thanksgiving watching her local show and laughing at the gratuitous amount of fur she was wearing to anchor coverage of the parade.  At the time I thought, “This woman thinks she’s big.”  Little did I know.  On Season 25, Oprah makes frequent references in her individual interview featuring much better lighting than her underlings get, that she’s not just filming a TV show, she’s creating a “platform.”  I like that, a platform.  Hey, I don’t just write a blog—this is a platform.  Thanks, Oprah!

A producer huddles with The Judds sans Ashley

What really makes this series hum along is all the manufactured tension.  Will The Judd’s—Naomi and daughter Wynonna, without sister Ashley—in their 17th appearance on the show talk about anything interesting and answer the question, “How is Ashley doing?”  The producers breathe a sigh of relief when Naomi says Ashley is in the Congo as a Global Ambassador for YouthAIDS and just graduated from Harvard.  Wow, can anyone really blame Ashley for not taking a break from that “platform” to show up rehash old shit?

My favorite part of Judd episode is when the mother and daughter talk about the communication skills they’ve learned in therapy together.  Wynonna says that when she asks for something and someone says “no,” her response is, “This doesn’t work for me.”  Oprah nearly falls out of her chair.  Later, recapping the show with her producer team while for some reason her hair is being teased in rollers, she tells the team that she’s had an “A-ha moment.”  That at least three times a day Oprah is going to start saying, “This doesn’t work for me.”

My question:  Really?  How often is that phrase going to come in handy, Oprah?  As far as I can tell, no one’s saying “no” to Oprah.  I mean, can you imagine what would happen if you did?

Later, after Oprah weirdly insults Gayle’s house made untidy by children, one of the producers says that after all these years, what makes it all worth while, is moments like that—when they can still create a show that can give Oprah a revelation.  Indeed, that’s what the platform is about—Oprah.

Oh, believe me, I’ll keep watching, and trying to create my own pOptimistic revelations.

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These Boots Are Made for Savin’

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s charitable giving reminds him of a dramatic time in South Africa with Ashley Judd.

‘Tis the season—for charity, evidently.  Lest you think from yesterday’s post that I’m completely neurotic about the holiday season, I do often feel charitable in the last month of the year.  And I’m not alone.  According to a story by Stephanie Strom in the New York Times, the most lucrative day of the year for charities is Dec. 31 when donations surge because of the soon to lapse tax breaks.

Skeptics—or Scrooges depending on your perspective—often worry that their money isn’t actually going to the neediest.  They gleefully cite recent stories about the marketing techniques some groups use to raise dollars during the holiday.  Turns out, there’s a chance that the dollars you thought you donated for a specific heifer or water buffalo for a poor family in Cambodia or Liberia actually went into a general fund for the community (read the fine print).  Sure, that kinda sucks, but it’s not like you were really going to visit your donated dollars hard at work on your next trip to South Africa.

But I did.  Several years ago Condé Nast Traveler dispatched me to Cape Town to oversee a photo shoot with Ashley Judd.  We were honoring her as a global ambassador for YouthAIDS, part of the global non-profit health organization PSIYouthAIDS, founded by the visionary force-of-nature Kate Roberts, works around the world to end HIV transmission in young people—for as little as $10 per month you can protect one person from becoming HIV+.  I know how effective their programs are because I was privileged to see their work up close with a personal tour from Ashley Judd.

At the time, I had no idea what I was getting into, and how much the trip would change my worldview.  So I’d like to share with you a little sneak peek from a very important Alphabet City chapter about my time with Ashley and YouthAIDS.

I know, I told you earlier this week you’d get no more excerpts until the book came out.  But I was just in DC meeting with the folks at PSI and YouthAIDS, and one of my friends/readers Tracy Z. encouraged me to share this tale.  And so in the spirit of the holidays, here’s an extra little gift to you, along with my annual donation I just made to YouthAIDS.  Please consider doing the same at www.YouthAIDS.org.  You can save a life, and I know it’s money well-spent.

Very Short (Bonus) Excerpt from Alphabet City’s Episode 16: Boots

The next morning, a crowd of photographers followed Ashley and entourage through clinic tours, testing sites, peer education programs, and a lunch with female hairdressers who were using their salons as distribution centers for safe sex messages.  At every turn, Ashley was poised, and able to effortlessly answer any question about the epidemic.

Early afternoon, we piled into a caravan of black SUVs and traded the flashbulbs and admiring crowds of Cape Town for the filthy streets and dying orphans of AIDS ravaged Khayelitsha Township.  While I had seen much poverty around the world, I was ill prepared for the devastation from the epidemic I witnessed at Ashley’s side.  She took me by the hand, lead me into a hospital treating dying children, and taught me to sit at the bedside of a 15-year old who was so emaciated from AIDS that he looked ten.  She showed me how to run my fingertips lightly along his arm

“Stroke like this.  Everyone needs a human touch.”

We moved from bedside to bedside of these abandoned and dying children for over an hour.  Ashley looked up at me every so often and smiled, encouraging me to keep giving and touching despite the heart-breaking situation.  I’d never seen such a caring and committed celebrity.

At one point, a six-year old boy with AIDS sporting yellow rain boots sat in my lap and demanded I carry him with me around the ward.  We nicknamed him Boots, and as I was about to leave, he couldn’t control his bladder and peed all over me.  I just smiled and kissed his forehead as I laid him back down in his bed.

Later that day, I tried shaking off the horror I had witnessed earlier to focus on capturing an image that would sell magazines, but it all seemed so pointless.  I knocked on Ashley’s trailer.

“How do you not feel guilty about all this luxury?” I asked.

“Remember, it’s never a choice, JP.  Never feel guilty for what you have.  Not as long as you work so that others have access to what they need.  It’s never a choice.”

She’d thought a lot about this disparity.  Ashley was a woman on a mission who trained her laser-like attention on a problem and attacked it with vigor.  Opinionated, she rarely suffered fools gladly—something that I noticed sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, similar to other pop-culture crusaders like Madonna or Angelina.  But seeing her in both spheres—the glamorous and the destitute—I appreciated the veneer she used like a passport to travel between the first and third worlds.

When my plane touched down in New York, I entered a new era.  My boss had been promoted to creative director for the company.  That meant that Editor and I would no longer work side-by-side, traveling the globe.  And a call from the YouthAIDS team confirmed my worry—just after I left Cape Town, Boots had died.  I might have been the last person to hold him, touch him, and kiss him.

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