"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.
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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's Joan 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'll end 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 do cover 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's Marybel Rodriguez. She began throwing a fit, practically screaming at the injustice. "How can you give an interview to Deco Drive and 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.
Instead Nathalie Moar, Puffy's senior publicist, charged forward. Within moments Moar and Rodriguez were in each other's faces, and while Rodriguez may have had a good twelve-inch height advantage, she proved little match for Moar's mouth. Later that afternoon, while Puffy signed autographs at the South Beach Spec's Music, Moar confronted a police officer she thought was taking a cavalier attitude toward Puffy's safety. Although the officer was literally triple her size, she stood on her tiptoes, rising to within an inch of his nose, and began upbraiding him.
Back at the museum Rodriguez temporarily retreated and Moar effortlessly switched to a more charming persona, ushering a succession of Latin-American TV crews into the spacious foyer and onto a couch next to Puffy. Every ten minutes a new interviewer would arrive, with Puffy offering up the same anecdotes, the same ingratiating jokes, the same amped-up plugs for The Saga Continues. Watching him perform was a reminder that whatever his label -- producer, cultural icon, violence-prone thug -- he remains a consummate businessman, the self-made CEO of a $300 million conglomerate. Puffy might insist on chalking up Bad Boy Entertainment's good fortune to God, but keen financial skills and sharp entrepreneurial instincts -- not just divine intervention -- have played some role in this story.
Nathalie Moar brought over an El Nuevo Herald reporter, who refused to sit down. "I don't work like this," he huffed, motioning to the nearby presence of several museum staffers, security men, Puffy's publicity team, and Kulchur. When Moar declined to provide a private room for an interview, he stormed off.
Puffy, ever the obliging host, good-naturedly asked the folks around him: "If you're not the person doing the interview, maybe you could look the other way or go for a walk?"
Kulchur sat down next to him, and he added with mock gravitas: "I'm just trying to respect everybody's journalistic integrity."
You must be used to dealing with the press by now.
"No, I'm definitely not used to this," he grimaced, spotting something troubling. It was Channel 10's Marybel Rodriguez lurking in the background. Anticipating a 60 Minutes-style ambush, Puffy called out: "What you wanna ask, girl? Don't be asking no silly questions. Get your question right!"
"Are you talking to me?" Rodriguez hollered back from 40 feet away.
"Yeah, I see you!"
Quickly realizing that Moar had left the area, Rodriguez and her cameraman trotted up. "I just want a tease," she begged, just a short spot with Puffy plugging her broadcast.
Puffy let out a groan under his breath. "All right, let me do this real quick," he said to Kulchur, and in an instant turned his sparkle back on, smiling and clowning for the camera. Then he collapsed back on the couch and lay there supine, as if he'd just tapped the dregs of his inner battery.
"You can get a vibe from people," he said wearily. "There's writers I know are assholes as soon as I see them." He sat up with a wry smile, leaning toward Kulchur conspiratorially. "I know you're not going to be an asshole."
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He regained his poise and continued: "I use the media when I want to promote stuff, just like any other celebrity. When I do great, groundbreaking things, the media applauds us. And then when we get our asses in trouble and we slip and fall, they gonna be there for that too." It's all part of the game, he shrugged. "If you're an entertainer, then you got to know there's papers that have to be sold, so there's going to be misinformation. You deal with it."
Some of that "misinformation" is chronicled by investigative reporter Gerald Posner in the current issue of Talk magazine, which reported that Puffy is the subject of an Internal Revenue Service probe into his charity for children, Daddy's House. A quick look at the Daddy's House tax return for 1997 (posted on thesmokinggun.com) reveals just what aroused the IRS's interest. Daddy's House pays Puffy a salary of $50,000, while celebrities such as Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito, and author Stephen King draw no compensation from their own charitable foundations. Those celebs also declare spending only a couple of hours per week managing their philanthropies; Puffy's tax return claims the jet-setting rap impresario puts in a full-time 40-hour grind heading up Daddy's House.
Um, Puffy, there's an article in Talk magazine-
But no sooner had the word Talk been uttered than a hand came down firmly on Kulchur's shoulder. Nathalie Moar was back on the scene: "We're here to talk about the album, right?"