14 Jan Breaking and Entering: VIBE
There’s always been something about VIBE.
If you’re an old head like me, you remember the first time you saw a copy. (I was at my boyfriend’s sister’s house. It was the issue with En Vogue on the cover, with a pregnant Cindy Herron showing off her belly).
It’s hard to understand what it was like to see a magazine like Vibe in the early ‘90s. In high school, I flipped through the occasional issue of The Source, thumbed through my mother’s copies of Essence and looked at the pictures in Ebony and Jet. But nothing was really written for me: a girl who lived for New Jack Swing and R&B.
When I saw En Vogue on the cover of this beautiful, oversized magazine, I couldn’t understand it. I kept turning it over, thinking it was a promotional poster. I turned the pages very carefully, afraid of creasing the pages. My mouth was gaping. There was a magazine with young Black people in it? With first class photography and glossy pages?
I just couldn’t fathom its existence. Seriously.
I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer but seeing a magazine like Vibe crystallized it. It gave me a place to fantasize about.
Fast-forward a few years and I was out of college and after teaching for a few years, I was working as an editorial assistant at Billboard magazine.
I subscribed to Vibe and poured over each issue every month. How on earth would I get a chance to write for this magazine? Was it possible? It honestly seemed like a pipe dream.
I scanned the front-of-the-book of Vibe for months and months. (This is the section where all the short, newsy items are. And it’s the best place for a new writer to break in.) I marinated on what I could pitch.
Sidebar: New writers do NOT spend enough time researching a magazine before pitching. And this is why so many pitches from new writers are not accepted. If you haven’t read a magazine and STUDIED it cover to cover, every issue, for at least six months, than you’re not ready. I can’t tell you how many times I have been sent a pitch for a story from a new writer that was…
A. covered in the magazine a few issues back. (which you would know if you read it thoroughly each month)
B. a topic that is covered by a columnist who is on staff (which you would also know if you matched the bylines with the names on the masthead).
C. not something the magazine would cover at all. (particularly local stories like a book fair or a concert in the park.)
My first clip in VIBE was sheer luck, timing and a bit of tenacity. And there was a slightly macabre twist to the whole thing that’s always left me unsettled:
When I was still teaching, I had a student named Iyana Wakefield in my US History II class. Good student. Amazing singing voice. She was always late to class. And she would always bring me a note, signed by her mom, who wrote out her name in a very flowery script: Mrs. Gwendolyn Wakefield.
I found out later in the school year that Iyana’s mother was also known as Gwen Guthrie, a club and disco legend who’d sung backup for Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Madonna. You may not know her name. But you definitely know this song:
Iyana used to joke about trying to get a rapper to sample this song so she could pay for college. I never met her mother. But I know the family lived a very low-key, modest existence after Ms. Guthrie’s music career cooled.
While I was working at Billboard and trying to get that clip in Vibe, I heard from a family friend that Iyana’s mom had passed away, from uterine cancer. My first thoughts were with Iyana. She had just graduated from high school. An awful time to lose your mom. Her mom was only 42 years old!
And then, the next day, I thought. Gwen Guthrie has passed away…this is a story. And I have a connection no one else has. The news of her death had not been sent out in a press release and it hadn’t hit the news cycle at all.
I emailed the news editor at Vibe. And I kept it simple and sweet:
Hi. This is Aliya. I’m the editorial assistant at Billboard. We’ve talked in the past about writing for VIBE. I just wanted you to know that I have access to a news story you might be interested in. Disco legend Gwen Guthrie recently passed away. I could cover this as a news story for you ASAP.
The news editor called me back within the hour and assigned me my very first story in Vibe.
I felt weird at first. How was I supposed to contact Iyana and her family while they were still grieving and ask them questions? The news editor told me that because it was a last minute story, I would need to get a photo from the family as well.
I put in a call to Iyana’s family. And luckily, they were cool with talking about Gwen Guthrie’s passing. They were actually happy to know that her death would be covered in the magazine. The family sent me a photo of Ms. Guthrie, which I hand-delivered to Vibe.
Sidebar: I walked off the elevator with the photos in my hand and I almost passed out. There were these huge neon-lit letters spelling out VIBE behind the receptionist’s desk. It was a real place! It really existed! And I was there. I wanted to get into the inner sanctum and meet someone—anyone! But the receptionist took my photos and told me to keep it moving. I got back on the elevator, looking back longingly, wondered if I’d ever actually go inside the offices.
I went home to Brooklyn and started writing my story. The news editor at Vibe told me to keep the story to 200 words. I handed in 600.
People. This is not what you do. Today, I use the 10% rule. You can go 10% over the word count. And maybe 10% under, if you must. But no more. You definitely do NOT triple the word count.
Bless my editor, (I think it was Dave Bry). He didn’t curse me out. Just kindly told me to cut it. And cut it again. And then cut it some more.
That’s one of the hardest things for a new writer to do, cut down their work. You’re married to every adorable sentence. And you can’t see the forest for the trees.
I finally got the story down to word count. I was even able to get some quotes (emailed from her publicist) from Foxy Brown, who had just released a song sampling Gwen Guthrie’s most famous tune. (Always wanted to ask Iyana if she got some college-cash from that…)
After I handed in the story, I couldn’t walk past any newsstand in New York City without looking for a new issue of VIBE. I’d heard that TLC would be on the cover. But every day, I looked and looked. Nothing.
One morning, I was running late for work. Jumped off the N train, dashed across the street to the heavy glass doors of 1515 Broadway. Just before I swung them open, I looked back at the newsstand on the corner of 44th and Broadway.
A new issue of Vibe. With TLC on the cover! I ran to the stand, grabbed it and flipped through the magazine furiously.
And there it was.
A tiny little thing. Less than a fourth of a page. My obit on Gwen Guthrie. Barely a hundred words, (I swear Dave Bry cut it in half even after I handed it in).
What bowled me over was the tiny little byline at the end of the story: Aliya S. King.
That was me. In the big-bad Vibe magazine. The oversized glossy joint that I’d watched from afar for years and years.
I would go on to write cover stories for Vibe, many years later. But I’m telling you, nothing matches the feeling I felt on that spring day in 1999, when I stood on the corner of 44th and Broadway, ogling my own name.
I bought five copies. It was all the money I had.
Dear readers, share with me your special moment. The one you’ve carried with you throughout your career. If you’re a writer, tell me about your first clip. If you want to be a writer, tell me about your dream publication. If you’re a lawyer, tell me about the first case you won. Whatever your profession, we all have that special moment. I’d love to hear about yours…
P.S. While looking for information on Gwen Guthrie today, I found this clip of Iyana online. She still has a beautiful voice. Just like her mother.