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"He has a problem because white people are starting to hate him," Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs said last week, and although he was speaking about fellow crossover artist George W. Bush, he could just as accurately have been referring to his own public fortunes. Puffy's headline-grabbing trial this past winter on charges of gun possession and bribery stemming from a New York City nightclub shooting may have ended in an acquittal, but for many onetime fans the King of Hip-Hop has become the man they love to hate.
Reflecting this shift in the cultural winds, the same tabloids that once hyped the Gatsbyesque frolicking at his Hamptons manse, his twin baby-blue Bentleys, his $600,000 birthday party, his girlfriend, and his string of chart-topping hits now gleefully boldface every misstep Puffy makes. And there are quite a lot of them. His Bad Boy Entertainment has expanded far beyond the music world, encompassing the Sean John fashion line, Justin's restaurants in Atlanta and New York, as well as film and publishing ventures. All of it, however, is tied to the value of Puff Daddy's brand. As his career rises and falls, so will Bad Boy.
Consequently, as the promotional machinery shifted into high gear behind the July 10 release of The Saga Continues, Puffy's new album (recorded in Miami), there seemed to be much more at stake than simply record sales.
Miami has always welcomed stars -- no matter how plagued by scandal -- as long as they're willing to throw money around. Puffy is a case in point. He decamped here this past April for post-trial R&R that evolved into a full-fledged recording session at Circle House studio. So it seemed natural for him to have scheduled a press conference at Miami Beach's Bass Museum. The ostensible goal was to stir up buzz, particularly in the relatively untapped markets of Latin America.
But the Herald'sJoan Fleischman crashed the party. Just days before the press conference, she reported a June 9 incident outside downtown's Club Space. Asked by a police officer to move his Ferrari, which was blocking traffic, Puffy roared off through a red light, nearly hitting a pedestrian, and pulled up two blocks away in front of the Goldrush strip club. He then ran inside and apparently slipped out through a back door, leaving his passenger to answer to angry police -- and explain the marijuana joint in the car's ashtray.
"We're here to talk about Puffy's new album," warned a publicist as she gazed out on the sea of television cameras, photographers, and reporters inside the Bass Museum on July 19. "If you start asking inappropriate questions, we'llend this press conference."
She needn't have worried. The bulk of what passes for a Miami press corps was more than happy to join in a Puff Daddy lovefest. After easing into a thronelike leather chair positioned between flickering candles and bouquets of white roses, Puffy fielded an array of softball questions. Did he like Miami? How about his acting turn in the new satirical gangster flick Made? Finally Channel 6's Andrea Brody broke the ice and asked about Puffy's little police problem. "The police treat me great," he replied. "Certain things get blown out of proportion." Then it was back to the crucial deciphering of Puffy's new moniker, P. Diddy.
Another gentle attempt to steer matters to the rapper's criminal peccadilloes prompted Puffy to admonish: "Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers. In the past -- I'm not talking about June 9 -- I had certain situations I had to deal with. I'm looking forward to the future." And so came the hard-hitting query on Puffy's feelings about Latin music.
Channel 7's Derek Hayward gamely tried to dispel the reverie by politely but firmly asking for a direct comment on the June 9 driving incident. "The story is not 100 percent accurate," Puffy answered tersely. "I'm here, it's not a problem, everything's all right. There's really nothing to comment on."
And that was it. Following another round of gushing, the press conference drew to a close, and a mob of cameramen and reporters surged forward to pose with Puffy for keepsake snapshots. Next to Kulchur, Hayward fumed, "I've been in these sort of things before. It's the entertainment industry." He recalled traveling to London to interview actor Pierce Brosnan on the set of a new James Bond movie. "I innocently asked what I thought was a valid question and Brosnan's handlers were furious. My producer was frantically panicking because he's from Deco Drive. He said, 'Man, they'll blacklist you!' It didn't matter to me. I don't normally cover that kind of thing. But for the people who docover this for a living, you can't piss off the handlers or your access gets cut."
After most of the press dispersed, a small group patiently waited for brief prearranged one-on-one chats with Puffy. Deco Drive was the only Miami TV outfit to make this cut, which was unacceptable to Channel 10'sMarybel Rodriguez. She began throwing a fit, practically screaming at the injustice. "How can you give an interview toDeco Driveand not me?" she demanded. Signaling her cameraman, she headed for the room in which Puffy was sequestered. At that point the truly fearsome presence in Puff Daddy's life became clear. Anthony "Wolf" Jones, Puffy's hulking personal bodyguard who stood trial in New York alongside him, loomed nearby. But he merely raised an amused eyebrow.