March 17, 2008 Print version
This month, in honor of Women's History Month, we've decided to feature a woman who not only entertains and inspires, but makes millions of people laugh through her work as a multi-faceted artist.
Recently, Brave Soul artist keithromell (who is also an associate editor for Positively Aware, an HIV treatment education magazine) spoke with comedian/actrist/humanitarian Mo'Nique about her involvement in helping to raise awareness and funds for HIV/AIDS related services. We are honored to share the following exclusive with the Brave Soul Family....Mo'Nique
Disclaimer: The following article appeared in the March/April edition of Positively Aware. (www.tpan.com)
After stalking her for weeks, when Mo'Nique's assistant told me that the best time she had available for an interview would be at 8 o'clock in the morning, I nearly backed out.
In my mind, for some reason, the combination of celebrity and self-admitted "phat girl" don't make for an easy morning. And I've seen her stand-up act. She's ruthless. I just knew I was preparing myself to be the butt of her next "skinny bitches are evil" series of jokes. Only it would be more along the lines of, "Those AIDS-reporting bitches should be shot!"
I was prepared for the worst.
When she called, however, I realized instantly that I couldn't have been more off base. She greeted me with the warmest "good morning" that I'd heard in weeks and, immediately, my anxiety subsided.
To be clear, she was still the same crazy and boisterous Mo'Nique that the world has come to know and love. She's funny as hell, without even really trying to be. And though her mouth is unapologetically foul, she's probably the most down to earth and sincere person that I've ever met. So before long, we were chatting it up like old college roommates---about life, love, and why she is committed to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
"I knew a lot of people who had died from AIDS," she tells me, sentimentally. "And then it struck home."
"I lost an uncle to AIDS. I lost a best girlfriend to AIDS. So, because I do have a platform, thank God, I asked myself, 'What can I do to help stop this disease from running so rampant in our communities.'"
The answer came when she met John Fleming at a comedy club in downtown Chicago. John is an entrepreneur and long-time HIV/AIDS services advocate. He approached her and asked if she would be willing to perform at a fundraiser that he was hosting to benefit African American HIV/AIDS service organizations throughout the Windy City. Without hesitation, she agreed.
"I think I got paid like $350 the first time, and if I'm wrong tell John please don't hurt me," she says, half jokingly.
"But every year after that I said, you know what, brother, don't pay me any money. Whatever you were going to pay me, give it to the cause, because we're in a situation where it is affecting our community and there is no help."
And so every year, for the past 7 years, that's what has happened. From a small, 150 seat venue to a massive theatre that seats over 800, John's annual Pride Comedy Showcase (which also includes spoken word artists as well now) has taken on a life of its own.
"We do very little promotion for it now," John says in a separate conversation. "Last year, through word-of-mouth alone, we were practically sold out from reservations before tickets actually even went on sale! And people started asking me about this coming years show before the dust could settle from the last one. We have to start looking for a bigger venue."
Mo'Nique's routine for this particular show is as inspirational as it is funny, and there is no subject that is off limits. She speaks out about everything from safe sex to homophobia to the "down low phenomenon."
"I understand it," she says about Black men who have sex with other men but opt out of telling their girlfriends and wives. "I can't judge it."
"We, as Black people still have a hard time with a Black, gay man. So you have some Black gay men who are boxers, football players, basketball players, singers, accountants, doctors...but they aren't free enough to say, 'this is who I am.'"
"We live in a society, especially our [African American] society where people are like, 'Oh my God, can you believe he's gay?' Well, bitch, can you believe you're not?! Like...so what! Who are we to turn anybody away? Black people know all too well what it feels like to be turned away from some shit! We should be ashamed of ourselves."
Her position on this topic is not a popular stance among other Black people, especially as women of color continue to become one of the fastest growing populations of people living with HIV. She's clear, though, that in order to turn things around, we have to start saying "the real shit."
"We have to start having real dialogue and real conversations," she says. "And we gotta stop sugar coating it."
"I admit that when my husband walks into a room, I still get butterflies," she tells me. "And keep in mind that we have been best friends since we were 14 years old." While she admits to willingly taking the submissive role in her marriage, she also has no problem with having such conversations with him. In fact, she admitted to The New York Times recently that they have an open relationship, and that they would never end up in divorce court for being unfaithful because they don't have to cheat.
"We have an agreement that we'll be honest, and if sex happens with another person, that's not a deal breaker for us." They are both knowledgeable about the risk that is associated with extra-marital activities, and have vowed to protect themselves and each other no matter what.
When asked why she believes that HIV is such an issue among people of color in particular, a side of Mo'Nique that most of the world does not get to experience evolves. The jokester who brought us to tears laughing at her pursuit of Professor Oglevee in the hit sitcom, The Parkers, transforms into a serious-minded intellectual, leaving all jokes aside..
"There are so many problems in our community," she sighs. "AIDS is just one of them."
"We have poverty. There is illiteracy. There are drugs. There is domestic...wait...not domestic violence. We fight. Because you not just gon' smack a bitch in her face and the fight be over. We're gonna be on the corner fighting." I laughed. She was serious.
"So, we fight. We are single parents. We have a lot of forces coming at us, and it's very easy to gravitate towards negativity. It's like you have to make a conscious effort to do right, which is sad!"
She's clear that these issues, combined with ignorance as it relates to the virus itself and a communal lack of self love (which may be the result of such issues), are at the root of the problem. More than anything, though, she recognizes that until people of color take the lead on such issues for themselves, things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get any better.
"When has the government ever said that 'we're gonna help Black people?'" she asks. "So now, because we have this disease, did we really think the cavalry was going to come in?" asking more for effect than in anticipation of an answer that she already knows.
"I'm at a place where it gets frustrating because I'll say to my brothers and sisters, 'Okay, we know the cavalry ain't coming. Why do we keep putting ourselves in that place?"
"I know he's fine. Gotdammit, I know he's fine! I know she's cute. But can you tell him to just cover up? Can you tell her that she's gotta cover it up? As simple as that sounds we are making it really difficult."
The solution she offers for turning things around is as unpretentious as she is. "We have to simply change our minds," she says.
"And you know how I know that works?" she asks. "Because I changed my mind, and I'm nothing special. When they told me that I had high blood pressure, I said, 'No no. I'm not going to take medication for the rest of my life.' So I get my fat ass out there everyday and I work out. I want to see my grandchildren; God-willing, my great, great-grandchildren. So I had to change my mind. If we are to turn this thing around, we simply have to change our minds."
Strong in her convictions about what must be done to curb the epidemic, Mo'Nique is by no means insensitive to how the laundry lists of issues facing Black people oftentimes makes changing one's mind a far more difficult task than it has to be.
"We have to think about the generations that will come behind us who will have to wear the same uniform that we are wearing right now; the uniform that our ancestors wore before us. I know it's hard, but every morning when you wake up you gotta say, 'I will not let anything steal my joy, nothing!" And you gotta mean it."
I couldn't help but question how she manages to stay so grounded, working in the cut-throat business of Hollywood.
"Hollywood cares about the numbers," she tells me. "Not integrity, not morals, and when did they ever give a damn about us. But the way I see it is that I am in a position to change peoples' minds and get paid for it."
And whether she's at the BET Awards showing R&B sensation Beyonce that big girls can move too (which actually prompted the superstar to incorporate big girls into her 2007 Beyonce Experience world tour), or encouraging the inmates at a women's prison in Ohio to keep their heads up in the special that she did with Showtime called I Coulda Been Your Cellmate, it is obvious that this Queen of Comedy takes her position very seriously.