Jody Watley: Pop’s Fashionista Godmother

Jody Watley: Pop’s Fashionista Godmother

The icon muses on her past, her comeback plans and why Rihanna owes her a debt of gratitude

by Miles Marshall Lewis, April 16, 2012

Jody Watley: Pop’s Fashionista Godmother

Jody Watley

Before Rihanna was even born, pop icon Jody Watley took a bow singing hits like “Take That to the Bank” and “The Second Time Around” with R&B trio, Shalamar. Decades before the Bajan beauty graced the cover of Vogue, Watley married music and haute couture in Harper’s Bazaar spreads, Gap campaigns and more with legendary fashion photographers Matthew Rolston, Steven Meisel and the late Herb Ritts. Not to take anything away from RiRi, but Jody Watley helped make the concept of so-called “crossing over” to mass White audiences obsolete (these days, it’s a given), with mainstream singles and award-winning, style-forward videos like “Real Love” and “Don’t You Want Me.” Schwarzenegger didn’t single-handedly mint the catchphrase “hasta la vista, baby” with 1991’s Terminator 2; Watley already made it ubiquitous in ’87 with her no.1 smash, “Looking for a New Love.” Now that’s pop dominance.

This silver anniversary of her self-titled solo debut, Jody Watley, marks a sweet moment to look back on the singer’s innovations. For one, the standard rap/R&B collaboration was officially born on “Friends,” Watley’s classic 1989 duet with Rakim (although Al B. Sure’s remix for “If I’m Not Your Lover”—with Slick Rick—in late ’88 stakes its own claim). As well, from her teenage days dancing on Soul Train, to Shalamar, to her “Still a Thrill” heyday, Jody Watley’s innovative personal style always turned heads. Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga, among others, strut the catwalk Watley erected in the ’80s and ’90s by mixing quirky thrift-store chic with supermodel glamour.

Recently, Watley spoke with EBONY from L.A., where she’s on the verge of polishing up her tenth studio album, Chameleon.

EBONY: Explain the origin of “Friends,” your groundbreaking collaboration with Rakim.

JW: Shalamar had a song called “Friends” [on 1982’s Friends]. Over decades, no one ever made the connection. I wanted to write a song called “Friends” that was the antithesis of the goody two-shoes song that we did, about backstabbers and people trying to hold you down. There was a duet at the time, Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, “On My Own.” It was huge. So when I went to MCA [Records], I said I want to do a duet. They said, “What do you mean a duet? He’s a rapper.” It’s just weird now because it’s so common, but I had to really sell them on what that was. They didn’t see how it was gonna go together.

Then it was, “Well, OK, we like the idea, but what about Will Smith?” And I was like, “No. I like Fresh Prince and all that, but it’s not what I want. I want it to be Rakim.” Rakim was real. I knew whatever he wrote was gonna be in your face. The first time we actually met was in the video, which we did in New York City.

EBONY: How do you feel about your influence on today’s crop of fashionista singers?

When I see Rihanna and the younger girls now, I feel proud. Because whether they know it or not, that was a door that I helped to open. No Black women were in fashion magazines. And the first time I did Harper’s Bazaar, the label didn’t want to send me to New York to do it because they didn’t see what being in a fashion magazine had to do with selling records. I flew myself to New York to do Harper’s Bazaar the first time I did it. Because I knew.

I met Patti LaBelle while I was on Soul Train. At the American Music Awards, she put it best: “Baby, a lot of people don’t get you, but I do. You are magazine, baby! Magazine!” (laughs) I loved that coming from her.

So everything was a struggle. And also being a Black woman, a Black artist, people have preconceived notions about what that’s supposed to mean and represent. If I was wearing quirky, funky clothes, I was still getting a lot of stuff from London and Paris. Today is, the quirkier the better. But then, I’d get people in the Black marketing department: “Well, she wears too many weird clothes.” And the pop department, they would go back and forth. “Well, she’s more our artist.” The politics of the music at that time was very different.

EBONY: How is it that soul pioneer Jackie Wilson is your godfather?

Jody Watley: He was a family friend. My father was a minister, but he was also a gospel music disc jockey in Chicago at the time on radio station WVEE. Ironically, my father actually knew Don Cornelius back then, but I didn’t know until after Soul Train. Because Don Cornelius had worked at the station too. But my parents had a lot of friends in show business. Jackie Wilson was one. One of the first memories I have going to a concert was Jackie Wilson. He was the first person to bring me onstage, and I’m telling you, it had such an impact. To this day I remember he was such a good-smelling man. (laughs)

We used to see him all the time when I was little. As time went on and our family moved around a lot, we didn’t see as much of him. We didn’t have a christening or anything like that where he was my godfather, but he’d say, “I’m your godfather.” I don’t have a lot of pictures from when I was little because some of our things were lost in storage, but I have a picture of Jackie Wilson and my father. It’s on my piano.

EBONY: Your father was a minister in Chicago?

JW: Church of God in Christ. Pentecostal. My father was very unique and he got a lot of flack. These are things that I learned later on. He was very flamboyant and he was a showman. I definitely got that from him and my mom. They were both fashionable and over-the-top. He tried to do things like Christmas in August, which got him in some trouble. It’s a religious holiday, but he wanted to do it in a way that the spirit of giving should be every day. Music was always in our home despite the sacreligious aspect of it. My parents were both big jazz lovers. So I grew up being surrounded by all of that. Nancy Wilson was also a friend of my parents. Aretha Franklin. I guess you could say my dad was very liberal. He definitely wasn’t a buttoned-up Pentecostal minister, by any means.

EBONY: I have a sensitive question that—

JW: Nothing about my family! (laughs)

EBONY: Are you serious?

JW: Nothing about ex-relatives, supposed relatives.

EBONY: Your sister, the adult film star Michele “Midori” Watley, has musical ambitions. She’s done tracks with Oran “Juice” Jones and Kid Rock. You won’t discuss any musical advice you’ve given her…?

JW: Mm-mm.

EBONY: How big is your family?

JW: I have an older brother who lives in Japan. And there’s probably others, maybe other siblings around, I don’t know. I don’t really talk about my family.

EBONY: In terms of tackling difficult questions, you posed for Playboy back in 1998. Do you have any thoughts to share about the experience?

JW: No. I really don’t want to discuss that. I was in the middle of a divorce [to producer André Cymone], and I was actually trying to… Let’s see, feeling really… How do I put it? That’s such a complex thing. It really was a by-product of how I was feeling about myself going through the middle of a difficult divorce. At that point I was in my 30s, so I was old enough. It wasn’t like, “oh, let me do some big marketing thing.” It was really more of what I was trying to work through with myself at that particular time, and that’s a completely different interview. So I’d rather not.

EBONY: How did you feel about TV One’s Unsung episode on Shalamar?

JW: I didn’t really care for it because they had a lot of inaccuracies. For instance, they said that I was in Shalamar for 10 years. I was in Shalamar for six years. And just the back story about what I wanted to be. I always wanted to sing and dance and everything since I was a little girl. They didn’t mention the thing about Jackie Wilson; that’s a pretty big deal. I did an Unfiltered on my YouTube channel, to fill in some of the blanks and perceptions created by Unsung.

I am very involved and present in new media and social networking. So many people had thoughts and questions, or had an impression of me somehow angry at the group. I never really understood that. “Oh, who does she think she is? She doesn’t appreciate…” I do! I totally do. At the same time, I never would have known the rest of what was meant for me if I hadn’t stepped out of that. I always say I represent being fearless and believing in yourself when no one else does. We’re all here to do our thing and you can’t be afraid to do that no matter what. As long as it’s something positive and you’re not hurting anyone, you should do that.

Most R&B groups don’t really last unless they were childhood friends or they have a different bond. On the business side, it was never going to last because the contract was bad.

EBONY: Shalamar in 2012 wouldn’t be “living in the Now,” so to speak.

JW: I’ll get the “all the groups do it.” I’ve never been one that does what everybody else does. What does that have to do with me? The last time I had a conversation with Howard Hewett or Jeffrey [Daniels] about a reunion was when we did reunite with Babyface [for 1996’s “This Is for the Lover in You”], which they left out of Unsung. And we got together on my album for Atlantic called Flower—which they left out—that no one really knew about. But it was somewhat of a chemistry disaster. So there are other things that have happened that reminded me that some people never change.

But with regard to that, I’m still friendly with Gerald Brown. He was the second lead singer from Shalamar, but sort of like the original, because the first lead singer didn’t really last that long. Gerald is actually singing on a new song from my forthcoming work-in-progress. There’s a song I have that is kind of inspired by my love of disco-funk, they call it “future disco” now. I was listening to it and said, you know what? I should take it back to the original Shalamar, “Take That to the Bank.” You’re the first person I’ve actually told, it kind of slipped out. (laughs) The song is called “Nightlife.” It will be the first single, so that will be one of the versions of it, featuring Gerald Brown of Shalamar.

Gerald is a cool guy, he’s always been supportive over the years. No underlying shade or anything. Gerald was left out of Unsung, and he had friended me on Facebook. I asked him, “How come you weren’t in Unsung?” It bothered me. Like, if they could have the later people that nobody really knows about, no offense to them, but well, what about Gerald Brown? And he said they didn’t ask him to do it because he was comin’ with the truth. (laughs)

EBONY: What’s your timetable for the new album, Chameleon?

JW: I’ve probably been done twice. (laughs) I just continue to write and step away from it and think about it and come back to it. I think from what my idea of what Chameleon was going to be initially, it’s evolved into something that I am even more happy with, because it brings elements of my journey; makes sense for Gerald Brown to be on “Nightlife.”

Musically, it really is the full circle. I’ve always done dance music, and for the past decade I’ve done dance and electronica. I’ve had the pop thing. So it’s like different elements and they all fit together. I’m trying to finish it up. I’m like D’Angelo, still working on it. (laughs) But no, soon. My goal is summer 2012. But don’t hold me to it.

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