EJ Johnson Is ‘Not Just Some Other Rich Girl’

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EJ Johnson Is ‘Not Just Some Other Rich Girl’

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“Today we are talking about breaking boundaries,” EJ Johnson declared from the stage of Beautycon, a two-day cosmetics festival held in August at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The 25-year-old son of Magic Johnson was moderating a panel called “The Gender Revolution,” and he was dressed for the part: black silk pants, crop top, sleeveless duster.

“We are talking about people who are not afraid to live their truth,” he continued, in a white armchair flanked by neon palm trees. “That is what beauty is all about, because it is in the eye of the beholder, honey.”

He introduced the panelists: young beauty “influencers” who, like Mr. Johnson, belong to a generation whose vocabulary for gender and sexual identity has stretched to include every conceivable hue. One of them, a gender-fluid 17-year-old YouTube star named Brendan Jordan, said, “I get asked if I’m a boy or a girl a lot. I’m just like, ‘Yes.’”

Mr. Johnson nodded and added: “That’s just the way we’re moving in the world, where everyone’s just going to be one big gray area.”

Since he was outed as gay by TMZ in 2013, Mr. Johnson has seized his own place in the gender revolution (or at least its pop-culture incarnation), mostly as a fabulous dresser. His style is ostentatiously androgynous: fur shawls, ankle boots, diamond chokers, sheer tops, draped on a frame nearly as towering as that of his father, a former Los Angeles Lakers star.

Like his gender-diverse wardrobe, his brand of fame is quintessentially modern: celebrity scion turned reality TV star turned Instagram self-chronicler. (His 631,000 followers had a virtual seat on his family’s summer yacht trip through Europe.)

Though he is determined to escape his father’s 6-foot-9-inch shadow, he has not shied away from flaunting his hyper-privileged lifestyle, first on the reality series “#Rich Kids of Beverly Hills,” which ran for four seasons on E!, and then on his own short-lived spinoff, “EJNYC.”

While his show had many of the familiar tropes of reality TV (shopping sprees, contrived squabbles), Mr. Johnson was an unconventional protagonist.

“There wasn’t any show that profiled a young person of color with a different sexual orientation living their life,” he said at his apartment in Beverly Hills before the Beautycon panel. He was perched on a golden bar stool (the décor was what he called “modern princessy”) in a translucent leopard-print robe, as a makeup artist applied blush.

“I’m not just some other rich girl who’s trying to get a show.”

EJ’s public life began when he was still in the womb. On Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson made the stunning announcement that he was H.I.V. positive and was retiring from the Lakers. At the time, H.I.V./AIDS was still widely thought to be a “gay disease,” a fallacy that Mr. Johnson’s case helped dispel.

The announcement came as his wife, Cookie Johnson, was two months pregnant with their first child, Earvin Johnson III. Cookie feared that she and the fetus might be H.I.V. positive as well (to say nothing of the revelation that Mr. Johnson had gotten the virus from another sexual partner), but they tested negative.

EJ was born the following June, to parents grappling with a medical crisis, a marriage crisis and a publicity crisis. But he was unaware of his father’s health issue until elementary school, when he was assigned a book report and found a book about his father in the library.

“The school called my mom and was like, ‘We don’t know if you want him to do the book report, because it talks about the H.I.V.,’” he said. “I think it was at that point that they told me that he had been sick and he’s a lot better.”

EJ was already discovering his flair for high fashion. “I remember being, like, 4 and 5 and playing in my mom’s closet,” he said. “But also asking questions like ‘Who’s this?’ and ‘What’s that?,’ and my mom explaining to me, ‘This is a Chanel and this is a Versace.’”

Elisa Johnson, his 22-year-old sister, said, “The older he got, the bigger his personality got.” (Mr. Johnson also has an older half brother, Andre Johnson.) “We used to have these drawing sessions, and EJ’s stick figures always had, like, a Louis Vuitton bag.”

Through his father’s H.I.V. advocacy, he had an early window into gay culture. He recalled going to AIDS fund-raisers at Elizabeth Taylor’s house, where his mother explained that Ms. Taylor had lost gay friends to the epidemic.

When he was 15, his mother caught him staring at boys on a vacation in Hawaii and initiated a conversation, but Mr. Johnson was still figuring out his sexuality. It wasn’t until three years later, when he was about to leave for New York University, that he came out decisively to both parents.

Magic Johnson on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in April.

Video by TheEllenShow

His father, perhaps wary of the stigma faced by gay men because of his H.I.V. status, responded by warning how difficult life would be.

“As a parent, I wanted EJ to know that we loved him and would always love him,” Mr. Johnson said in an email. “My job as a father is to protect him. His family and those that know him would always love him, but there would be people that don’t know him and may not approve. Some people may not be nice, but it wasn’t about him. I wanted to prepare him and let him know that I would always support him.”

Cookie, a churchgoing Christian, was initially conflicted, later telling Oprah Winfrey, “I had to pray about it.” Nowadays, both parents are publicly supportive, but EJ has stopped attending the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, where his parents are star congregants, saying, “I remember sitting there in sermons and hearing some less than reputable things about homosexuals.”

The matter was thrust into the open in 2013, when EJ was leaving a club on the Sunset Strip holding hands with a male friend. A TMZ reporter ambushed him with a camera, assuming he was out with his boyfriend. Mr. Johnson, who was 20, shrugged the whole thing off, until the tabloid called his father for comment.

Back at N.Y.U., Mr. Johnson tried to ignore the online commotion. “Everybody was texting me,” he said. “And I’m just like, ‘Yo, what?’” Nevertheless, he welcomed the opportunity to enter the limelight, telling Howard Bragman, a public relations veteran who has a YouTube show on gay issues: “I’m reveling in it, and I’m making it work to my advantage.”

[Video: EJ Johnson speaks to Howard Bragman in 2013, shortly after being outed as gay by TMZ. Watch on YouTube.]

EJ Johnson speaks to Howard Bragman in 2013, shortly after being outed as gay by TMZ.

Video by Gwist

Within weeks, he had a manager and was shopping a reality show to MTV and Bravo. “I would watch the Kardashians and think, I could do that,” he said. Then his friend Dorothy Wang (daughter of the billionaire Roger Wang) invited him to a pool party being filmed for her own reality show.

Mr. Johnson agreed to be a recurring guest star, but when E! renamed the series “#Rich Kids of Beverly Hills,” he had misgivings. Though the show was practically designed to elicit class resentment, Mr. Johnson made a positive mark. In a review in The New York Times, Jon Caramanica wrote: “Mr. Johnson is the most likable character on the show, but isn’t even a full cast member.”

He was made a regular in the second season. Midseries, he underwent gastric-sleeve surgery and lost more than 100 pounds, showing off his transformed physique in slinky, flesh-revealing new outfits.

“EJNYC,” which followed Mr. Johnson’s chic adventures in Manhattan, spun off last summer and lasted six episodes. Elisa was a regular, and their parents also made appearances, with Magic calling in on FaceTime to tell EJ, “Love your hair.” EJ had ambitious ideas for the series, like visiting a vogue ball and exploring the challenges that “femme queens” face in the gay dating world.

But, in a foreseeable twist, he was dismayed at how the show portrayed him. “I don’t even recognize that person,” he said. “It was sad. It was, like, this is supposed to be my show and my moment, and it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I mean, I looked good, but that was just me doing me.”

Mr. Johnson clashed with the producers: “Everyone was just worried about me being ‘relatable,’ and even that word made me want to gag.”

As his profile grew and his wardrobe became more gender-neutral, tabloid reports circulated that Mr. Johnson may be transitioning. In one episode of “EJNYC,” he visited a therapist specializing in gender, revealing on camera that he had questioned his identity after Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender.

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“I thought about it, for sure,” he said on the show. “I was just like, ‘Well, do I want to transition? Is this something that I would do?’”

But now he says he identifies as male and has no plans to transition. It was the assumptions that irked him. “I’m pretty comfortable with myself,” he said. “That conversation was just about people trying to put me in a box.”

Mr. Johnson in a clip from “EJNYC.”

Video by E! Entertainment

Now that reality stardom is behind him (for the moment), he is taking acting lessons and contemplating starting a fashion collection. It would be well timed, since the fashion industry has lately embraced androgyny with gusto, though sometimes in ways that gay and transgender advocates find exploitative.

“I don’t think the fashion world has made any type of major huge strides, where we need to start commending anybody yet,” Mr. Johnson said. “They should probably start highlighting people who are doing it in the streets, as opposed to whatever celebrity they’re putting in a skirt for five seconds just for publicity.”

He may have been alluding to another celebrity offspring: Jaden Smith, the freethinking son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who appeared in women’s clothing in Louis Vuitton’s spring 2016 ad campaign. Asked about the campaign, Mr. Johnson said: “If you’re going to do it, I think you should go with somebody who’s actually doing it because they genuinely get it as opposed to somebody who just has a name and was doing it just to be out there.”

(A representative for Mr. Smith said he was not available for comment.)

After the Beautycon panel, a talent wrangler named Demetria approached Mr. Johnson backstage and asked him to record a video message for her teenage son, Dany-e.

“Hi, Dany-e!” Mr. Johnson cooed into her phone. “I met your mom. You’re so blessed to have her.”

As he walked away, Demetria was teary. “Watching his videos made him comfortable being himself,” she said of Mr. Johnson’s effect on her son. “He could relate to someone.”

Perhaps EJ Johnson is “relatable” after all.

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