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Getting into the spirit

Annual Essence Week recognizes success of black women in all aspects of their lives, from professional to personal, from music to fashion.

June 06, 2003|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

For Essence Week in Los Angeles, Angel Gaines needs her favorite jeans, her Diesels and a formal gown.

Tonight the venerable magazine for black women will take the stage built for the Oscars at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood for its glitzy annual awards program. But in the Essence tradition of blending style and substance, the black-tie gala caps a week of special events designed to entertain, inform and inspire.

The "Keeping It Clean" comedy competition on Sunday, the "Straight Talk With Phenomenal Women" work and wealth seminar on Tuesday, and the "Tea and Tranquillity" examination of sisterhood Thursday attract standing-room-only crowds of black women barely out of their teens and well into their 80s.

"The Essence reader is not an age," offers editor in chief Diane Weathers. "It's really a mind-set."

Whatever the attraction, they've come from across the country and from around the corner to honor a lifestyle magazine that has lost neither currency nor loyalty in the 33 years since the first issue proclaimed that black is beautiful.

"You see all shapes, shades, sizes, gaps, straight hair, kinky hair, full bodies, slender bodies, tall stately bodies, stacked bodies. This is where you see us in all our glory," explains Mikki Taylor, beauty director and cover editor of the magazine. "When Essence was born there was no other magazine that looked like us, talked like us ....I remember when my mother brought it home."

That was in 1970.

Today the magazine has a paid circulation of 1.1 million a month. Its parent company, a privately held joint venture formed in 2002 between Essence Communications Inc. and Time Inc., also publishes Latina, a glossy bilingual magazine aimed at Hispanic women, and besides the awards show puts on an annual music festival in New Orleans.

"I've been reading Essence about five years," says Margie Garcia, a 42-year-old secretary from Fontana. "I'm a black woman. I don't live in a black area. I read Essence in order to see what the black community is doing. It keeps up with the times, as times change."

Garcia, who attended Essence Week last year and already has her plane ticket for the annual July 4th Essence Music Festival, screams at the comedy showcase when she wins the drawing for two tickets to tonight's awards extravaganza.

Hers is not the only scream heard that evening in the Cinegrill at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

"I've never won anything," squeals Angel Gaines when the celebrity judges love her routine about teaching third grade in the Los Angeles public schools.

Gaines, who looks as if she's in her early 20s but has already learned that "in Hollywood, you don't tell your age," says after the show: "I love Essence. I have a subscription. Susan Taylor brings an element to the magazine that brings her readers to a different level.

"She touches on the spiritual, the emotional, the business, the practical and fashion. It's almost as if her goal is to make women of color well-rounded and well-versed."

Currently the editorial director, Taylor served as editor in chief for 20 years and as beauty and fashion editor for 10 before that. Today she enjoys cultlike status among readers who turn first to her column.

"The inspirational pieces are always uplifting for me," says Shirley Gordon, a vice president of operations with State Farm who is on the work and wealth panel. She keeps a copy of Taylor's first book -- which shares the same title as her column, "In the Spirit," and has sold more than 750,000 copies -- on a table in her family room at her home in Santa Rosa.

"I think about how powerful Susan's story is," Gordon adds.

Yes, Taylor's story -- that of a young woman from Harlem with only a high school education, a victim of domestic abuse, divorced when her daughter was 6 weeks old, who struggled with the challenges of a rebellious teenager, earning a college degree while putting out Essence, and agonizing over whether to remarry (she did, 14 years ago, to Khephra Burns, a producer and writer).

Chanin Page, 28, an accountant and the mother of a beautiful boy who turns 1 today, attends the panel on the advice of her mother -- who just happens to be in the May issue, the anniversary issue that is on every chair in this room at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Page shyly opens to the picture of her mother, Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X and a close friend of Taylor's.

"I love the way she interacts with people," Page says of Taylor. "I love watching her. She treats everyone the same. She makes sure she speaks to everyone. I'm from L.A., so I know about 'I'll speak to this one and not that one.' "

Taylor, her trademark braids cascading, is the magazine's most recognizable face. While in Los Angeles she has spoken at four churches; attended a brunch held for her by Shabazz; rehearsed for the awards show; squeezed in a moment of shoe-shopping and made the rounds of receptions thrown by the show's major sponsors and the magazine's largest advertisers.

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